Henry VI Summary

William Shakespeare

Henry VI

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Henry VI Summary

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Henry VI is a historical play by William Shakespeare. It was written around 1591, rather early in Shakespeare’s career. It dramatizes events in English history immediately following the death of Henry V, including the start of the War of the Roses and British losses in France. The play was followed by two sequels: Henry VI, Part 2 and Henry VI, Part 3. However, some sources say that these two plays were actually written first and later adapted into a trilogy.

The play begins with Henry V’s funeral. Many noblemen attend to grieve the death of a great king. Several messengers arrive in quick succession with news from France. Several towns that are part of English territory claimed by Henry V have been taken back by French troops. Dauphin Charles has been crowned king of France and a famous English soldier, Talbot has been imprisoned. The noblemen spring into action, preparing Henry V’s son, Henry VI, for his new role as king.

Meanwhile, in France, troops that were formerly under the command of Talbot attack Orleans. Charles and his lords try to fight them, but they are beaten by the English. Joan of Arc comes to meet Charles, assuring him that she will break the siege. The French release Talbot in exchange for a French prisoner. The French then attack the English, killing several important officers. Joan beats Talbot in combat but spares his life. The French are defeated, but Talbot organizes a sneak attack, retaking the city long enough to bury the English dead still inside.

In London, many noblemen gather outside Parliament to debate a point of law. Somerset and Richard Plantagenet lead different sides. They pick red and white roses to symbolize their difference of opinion; the rest of the noblemen do the same, choosing sides in the conflict. Warwick predicts that the dispute will soon spiral out of control, ending in the deaths of many people.

Plantagenet meets his uncle Mortimer in the Tower of London where he is imprisoned. Mortimer tells Plantagenet that his father was once in line to be king but he was executed as a traitor. Mortimer and the rest of the Plantagenets were imprisoned. Mortimer dies soon after, and Plantagenet is anxious to reclaim his birthright.

Hearing about the fight between Plantagenet and Somerset, the members of Parliament urge the pair to stop fighting to present a unified front against France. Plantagenet and Somerset agree to make peace for the moment; the king grants Plantagenet’s request to have his father’s title passed on to him, making him the Duke of York. The regent Glouchester urges Henry VI to go to France to deal with the fighting, but Exeter remembers a prophecy that Henry VI is destined to lose all of his father’s territories in France.

Back in France, Talbot prepares to attack the city of Rouen. He urges the French to meet them on the field of battle rather than hiding in their walled city. The French do not come out, but the English beat them anyway. Joan reassures Charles that she has a plan to weaken Talbot. She convinces the French leader Burgundy, who is fighting on the side of the English, to defect back to the French side.

Talbot goes to meet the newly arrived Henry. Learning that Burgundy has defected, he goes to talk to him. Upon learning that York and Somerset are still fighting, Henry urges them again to put aside their differences. However, when he is pressured, he sides with Somerset, upsetting York. The king assigns York to lead the infantry in France and Somerset to lead the cavalry.

As the English prepare to attack Bordeaux, they are trapped by Charles’s forces. Talbot requests reinforcements from York, but York has no troops to send him. York and Somerset blame each other for Talbot’s impending death. Talbot’s son John arrives on the battlefield. He is killed in battle, and Talbot dies soon after. The English army is officially defeated.

The Pope sends a letter urging France and England to make peace. Charles agrees to make an offer, but he cannot get to the front line in time. Joan is captured by York in battle, and Suffolk captures Rene, the daughter of a French nobleman. He convinces Rene to marry the English king. Joan tries several methods to escape execution by the English, but she is convicted by York and sentenced to death.

Winchester negotiates peace between the French and English. Charles agrees, intending to break the truce later. Suffolk takes Rene to England and convinces the king to marry her. Rene will be Suffolk’s agent in the castle and through her influence, Suffolk plans to control the king.