The History of the Play
The drama now known as 1 Henry VI is first heard of as 'Harry the Sixth' on March 3, 1592. Upon that afternoon it was acted at the Rose Theatre by Lord Strange's Men (Shakespeare's company), who had begun their temporary occupancy of the Rose about a fortnight before (February 19). Philip Henslowe's diary notes that the play was new on March 3, and that the first performance brought the manager the unusually large sum of £3 16s. 8d. It was then repeated with gradually diminishing frequency and returns: the diary records fourteen (possibly fifteen) productions up to June 19, 1592. Harry the Sixth appears to have been, as Fleay calls it, the most popular play of its season. Clear evidence of its effect upon the audiences at this time is given in Thomas Nashe's Pierce Penniless, written in the summer of 1592 and licensed for the press on August 8. Nashe uses the play to illustrate his argument that the drama may exert a valuable moral influence. 'How would it haue ioyed braue Talbot (the terror of the French),' he writes, 'to thinke that after he had lyne two hundred yeares in his Tombe, he should triumphe againe on the Stage, and haue his bones newe embalmed with the teares of ten thousand spectators at least (at seuerall times), who, in the Tragedian that represents his person, imagine they behold him fresh bleeding.' (McKerrow's ed. I. 212.)
There is no reason for doubting that the play referred to in both the documents of 1592 just cited is 1 Henry VI. There seems nothing, however, to justify the usual assumption that this play had already received Shakespeare's additions, and was therefore in 1592 a revised version of a still earlier drama. Henslowe directly and Nashe by implication testify that their play was new. The same conclusion is warranted by the evident sensation it created in 1592 and particularly by the absence of the smallest hint of its existence previously. The only fair inference, then, from the facts known is that the play of Harry the Sixth, dealing largely with Talbot's wars in France, was composed about the beginning of the year 1592, and that this was later remodelled by Shakespeare into 1 Henry VI.
It is not easy to say when the remodelling and the consequent revival of the play on the stage occurred. In the absence of positive records, critics have naturally inclined to the assumption that a work clearly not equal to Shakespeare's ordinary performances must have been produced very early in his career. Against this are to be weighed the following considerations: (1) The success of Henslowe's play was proved but not completely exploited in 1592. According to the usual methods of the time a revised version would not be called for till after the lapse of several years. Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, originally produced about 1589, still held the stage in no seriously altered form from September, 1594, till October, 1597. The first extensive adaptation recorded was paid for, November 22, 1602. The Jew of Malta, acted without change from February, 1592, till June, 1596, was revived in 1601. The old Hamlet, performed between 1589 and 1594, was rewritten by Shakespeare about 1601.
(2) 1 Henry VI, as we have it, is arranged to serve as a prologue to 2 and 3 Henry VI. Shakespeare clearly revised our play with these dramas in his mind, and probably not till after he had completed his revision of them.
(3) The earlier (pre-Shakespearean) versions of 2 and 3 Henry VI were printed in 1594 and 1595 respectively, these texts presumably becoming accessible to the publishers after the revised dramas supplanted them for stage purposes. The fact that no such text of the early 1 Henry VI was printed would suggest that that play was reserved either till it was too late to warrant publishers to trade upon its former popularity or till Shakespeare's company began to take more stringent measures to prevent the publication of any play-texts.
(4) A mutual connection exists between 1 Henry VI and Henry V (cf. note on IV. ii. 10, 11). Several passages in our play seem reminiscent of the other (written in 1599). It is a plausible hypothesis at least that 1 Henry VI was revised in order on the one hand to profit by the popular interest in Henry V and on the other to link that play with 2 Henry VI, thus completing the chain of history dramas from Richard II to Richard III.
(5) The most positive evidence of the date of the Shakespearean additions to 1 Henry VI is that discussed in the note on IV. vii. 63-71. Unless some earlier printed source than is now known can be found for Talbot's epitaph, it will be hard to establish a date prior to 1599 for the revised play.
The idea that Shakespeare could not about 1600 have done work as apparently immature as that which he contributed to 1 Henry VI, or have sanctioned the performance at that time of so poor a play, is not in consonance with facts. Shakespeare's company undoubtedly produced worse plays during this period when the public taste seemed to warrant them (e.g., A Yorkshire Tragedy in 1605), and the Shakespearean parts of 1 Henry VI are assuredly not as unworthy of the author of Henry V as is The Merry Wives of Windsor (ca. 1600) unworthy of the author of Twelfth Night and Much Ado About Nothing.
On November 8, 1623, the publishers of the Shakespeare Folio, Blount and Jaggard, entered our play for publication under the rather surprising title of 'The thirde parte of Henry ye Sixt.' The work now known as 1 Henry VI is certainly meant, for 2 and 3 Henry VI (in their early forms) had both been previously licensed, and the Blount—Jaggard license specifically refers only to such of Shakespeare's plays 'as are not formerly entred to other men.' It is probable that in thus listing as the third part the drama which by historical sequence became in the Folio the first part, the publishers meant more than simply that this was the last part remaining unlicensed. It seems fair to assume that they so thought of it because they remembered it as the latest of Shakespeare's Henry VI plays to be produced on the stage.
Since Shakespeare's death, 1 Henry VI has had only the scantiest stage history. Most subsequent adaptations of the Henry VI cycle ignore the first part. However, J. H. Merivale's compilation, Richard, Duke of York, acted by Edmund Kean, December 22, 1817, and published the same year, opens with three scenes closely following II. iv, II. v, III. i, and IV. i of our play.
An abridgment of the three Henry VI plays ('Henry VI. A Tragedy in Five Acts. Condensed from Shakespeare, and arranged for the Stage') was prepared by the eminent actor-manager, Charles Kemble (1775-1854), and first printed from the only known copy in volume ii of the Henry Irving Shakespeare. This work begins like Merivale's with the Temple Garden scene, and like it ignores the scenes in France. 1 Henry VI furnished Kemble with the material for Act I (approximately) of his adaptation, which seems never to have been acted.
On March 13, 1738, 'by desire of several Ladies of Quality' the play of 'Henry 6th, part 1st,' was performed for the benefit of the actor Dennis Delane (died, 1750), who acted Talbot to the Suffolk of Walker and the Joan of Arc of Mrs. Hallam. The notice 'not acted fifty years,' affixed to the announcement of this performance, appears to be a most conservative under-statement. The most remarkable recent production was that given by the F. R. Benson company at the Stratford Memorial Festival in May, 1906. Mr. Benson here 'made a triumphant Talbot, and the audience seemed never weary of recalling him.' (Athenæum, May 12, 1906.)
- It is often argued that the priority of 1 Henry VI to Henry V is proved by the closing lines of the epilogue to the latter play:
'Henry the Sixth, in infant bands crown'd King
Of France and England, did this king succeed;
Whose state so many had the managing,
That they lost France and made his England bleed:
Which oft our stage hath shown; and, for their sake,
In your fair minds let this acceptance take.'
Dogmatism on the point is not justifiable, but the performance of Harry the Sixth in 1592 (and afterward) by Shakespeare's company explains the allusion quite as well as the assumption that the revised 1 Henry VI had already been acted. I find it easier to read in the lines of the epilogue a modestly veiled hint that if Henry V proved a success, Shakespeare was thinking of following it up by a revised version of Harry the Sixth, than to believe that he really meant to imply that the Henry VI plays as now known were such excellent works as to make amends for any defects in Henry V. The epilogue to 2 Henry IV promised the audience Henry V, 'if you be not too much cloyed.' The epilogue to Henry V reminds them how they have in the past applauded Henry VI. Is it not the intention to suggest: 'Perhaps you may have those plays again' (with Harry the Sixth worked over so as to fill its place in the series)?
- When Millington assigned the early versions of 2 and 3 Henry VI to Pavier, April 19, 1602, he called them 'the first and second parte of Henry the VI.'