Henry the Sixth, Part One

Introduction by Toby Malone

Henry the Sixth, Part One is a play “oft neglected and rarely performed,” and when it is programmed, it is almost always severely foreshortened and selectively emended (see Quarmby). The status of this first part of Shakespeare’s first tetralogy, despite the presence of memorable characters like Joan la Pucelle and the valiant Talbot, seems to pale in comparison to the rollicking stage potential in Jack Cade’s rebellion of Part Two or the rise of the Plantagenet kings in Part Three. Add to this the wide-ranging suggestion that Part One is more a ‘prequel’ to parts two and three than the establishment point for a Henry VI series (see, for example, Burns 2000: 4) – a theory that positions Part One as at worst an afterthought and at best an attempt to capitalize on popular characters – and it is not difficult to see why Henry the Sixth, Part One is rarely seen in the modern theatre. When it is staged, it is most often compressed, elided, or cursorily front-loaded into a conflated approach that combines two (and often even three) plays into a single sitting.1 Such compression often leads to wholesale omission of characters, scenes, and dramatic arcs, which relegates Part One to the status of a conduit to the later plays, often at the expense of essential characters, plot points, and even antagonists: a conflated 1980 production at the Stratford Festival of Canada omitted all references to Talbot and the French, which reduced the play to twenty-two pages so as to foreground the action of parts Two and Three (Brighton). Michael Hattaway notes the appearance of a stand-alone Part One at Covent Garden in 1738 (1990: 43), but the fact that the play was not again seen on an English stage until 1906 (Halliday 1964: 216) suggests the Covent Garden production did not spark a new appreciation for the work amongst London’s actor-managers.

Kevin Quarmby sees the “traditional neglect, excessive editing, and/or foreshortening” of this play as symptomatic of the play’s “apparent lack of literary sophistication.” Unfortunately, it is difficult to gauge whether this lack of sophistication is attributable to its early composition date, given the fact that Part One is the only play in the first tetralogy to not exist in Quarto form, so all conclusions are based on the 1623 F text. The non-existence of a Q text means we cannot know whether the text presented in F resembles what had been performed since the play’s first appearance some thirty years earlier. We have, by way of Henslowe’s Diary, a potential date for the programming of a “Harey Vj” at the Rose (3 March 1592), and, from Thomas Nashe, a potential eyewitness account of its performance the same year (in his Pierce Peniless reference to ‘braue Talbot’). In contrast to Henry the Sixth parts Two and Three, however, both of which do feature significantly different Q texts (which in comparison to their F editions, demonstrate extensive variance, revision and perhaps a deepening of the playwright’s expertise over time), it is not possible to track Part One’s development through textual comparison. The textual variance between Q and F texts Part Two (and Part Three) might lead us to reasonably believe that the ‘polished’ version of Part One that appears in F may not feature exactly the same textual content as the 1592 play that Nashe and Henslowe refer to. This relative polish in relation to the Q texts of the remainder of the trilogy, however, is not to suggest that the F Part One is a perfect text: far from it. Quarmby notes that “the text appears corrupt, interpolated, and occasionally artistically naïve in composition,” and goes on to cite critics including Malone (1790, 6:3), Burns (2000: 73), and Vickers (2007: 311-312), who point to the potential of (or, at times, the unlikelihood of) a shared authorship (perhaps Nashe, Greene, Peele?) to explain the work’s perceived flaws.

The absence of a printed edition of what was reportedly a successful production (judging by Nashe’s description of the “teares of ten thousand spectators at least (at seuerall times)” and multiple performance references in Henslowe’s Diary) means that evidence to explain the play’s early success, whatever its later detractors may have felt, is also particularly piecemeal. Scholarly debate still questions the validity of the surviving evidence to confirm composition date, early performance venues, and even the identity of the company that first performed it (see Quarmby’s response to Taylor 1995: 186). Some of its so-called flaws offer some of the play’s more interesting casting opportunities, through cameo appearances by John Fastolfe, the Gunner of Orleans, and a lone English soldier who frightens the French leadership out of their clothes on the ramparts: brief glimpses into even the minor figures that populate this world. These company features accompany exciting staging opportunities – particularly the regular use of the ‘above/below’ stage directions to differentiate besiegers and besieged, the use of ordinance and storm effects, and the appearance of supernatural figures to (literally) demonize Joan. For insight into the University of Waterloo’s specific goals related to the performance opportunities in the play, please see the Contexts section of this website.


[1] Witness, for example, The Wars of the Roses (John Barton, Royal Shakespeare Company, 1963); The Plantagenets (Adrian Noble, Royal Shakespeare Company, 1989); Rose Rage (Edward Hall and Roger Warren, Propeller Theatre Company, 2000); Henry VI: Revenge in France (Leon Rubin, Stratford Festival of Canada, 2002); The War of the Roses (Tom Wright and Benedict Andrews, Sydney Theatre Company, 2009).

Works Cited

Burns, Edward. “Introduction.” King Henry VI Part 1. The Arden Shakespeare. London: Bloomsbury, 2000. 1-103.

Foakes, R.A. (ed.). Henslowe’s Diary: Second Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002.

Halliday, F.E. A Shakespeare Companion, 1564–1964. Baltimore: Penguin, 1964.

Hattaway, Michael. “Introduction.” The First Part of King Henry VI. New Cambridge Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990. 1-57.

Henry VI. Dir. and adapted by Pam Brighton. Perf. Stephen Russell et al. Third Stage, Stratford, ON. Stratford Festival of Canada, 1980.

Henry VI: Revenge in France. Dir. and adapted by Leon Rubin. Perf. Michelle Giroux et al. Festival Theatre, Stratford, ON. Stratford Festival of Canada, 2002.

Malone, Edmond. A Dissertation on the Three Parts of King Henry VI. Tending to Shew That Those Plays Were Not Written Originally by Shakspeare. Facsim. London: Gale Ecco Print Editions, 2010.

McMillin, Scott, and Sally-Beth MacLean. The Queen’s Men and their Plays. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006.

Nashe, Thomas. Pierce Penilesse his Supplication to the Diuell. London: 1592.

The Plantagenets. Dir. and adapted by Adrian Noble. Perf. Ralph Fiennes et al. Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon. Royal Shakespeare Company, 1988-89.

Quarmby, Kevin (ed.). “Editorial Commentary”, 1 Henry VI. Internet Shakespeare Editions. Forthcoming, 2015-16.

Rose Rage. Dir. Edward Hall. Adapted by Edward Hall and Roger Warren. Perf. Jonathan McGuiness et al. Touring. Propeller Theatre Company, 2000.

Taylor, Gary. “Shakespeare and Others: The Authorship of Henry the Sixth, Part One.” Medieval and Renaissance Drama. 7 (1995), 145–205.

Vickers, Brian. “Incomplete Shakespeare: Or, Denying Coauthorship in 1 Henry VI.” Shakespeare Quarterly. 58:3 (Fall 2007): 311-352.

The War of the Roses. Dir. Benedict Andrews; Adapted by Tom Wright and Benedict Andrews. Perf. Cate Blanchett et al. Touring. Sydney Theatre Company, 2009.

The Wars of the Roses. Dir. John Barton. Adapted by John Barton and Peter Hall. Perf. Donald Sinden et al. Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon. Royal Shakespeare Company, 1963.