Generally speaking, the characterization in Henry VI, Part One is weak and in some cases inconsistent, reinforcing some commentators’ views that the play was an early work and/or that it was a product of collaboration.
King Henry VI
King Henry VI (1421-1471) ruled England from 1422-1461. He succeeded to the English throne at the tender age of nine months, when his father, Henry V, died, but was not crowned until 1429. The English called him the King of France between 1422 and 1453, though he was not recognized as such by the French.
He was described by contemporary chroniclers as a pious and peace-loving man unsuited to the role of monarch in a turbulent time. Shakespeare follows this account of Henry’s character in his play, Henry VI, Part One. Henry’s chief preoccupation is his desire for peace between his warring nobles. He is perceptive enough to realize the destructive effect of dissent on the nation.
To the last scene, he is at the mercy of the whims of his nobles and goes along with whoever proves most persuasive at the time.
Henry does not make his first appearance until the beginning of Act 3. This underlines his insignificance and weakness, qualities reinforced by his youth. The audience gains the impression that England is in the control of the nobles, not the monarch.
Duke of Bedford
The English noble, the Duke of Bedford is John of Lancaster, Regent of France, Henry IV’s third son, and uncle to King Henry VI. In Henry VI, Part One, Shakespeare portrays him as a courageous warrior in the old English tradition who, even when old and sick, exposes himself to the dangers of battle because he wants to keep up the morale of the fighting English soldiers and witness the defeat of the French (Act 3, scene 2, lines 89-90).
Duke of Gloucester
The English noble, the Duke of Gloucester is Humphrey of Lancaster, Henry IV’s fourth son, and uncle to King Henry VI. He is the Lord Protector of England during Henry VI’s minority (the years in which a monarch is too young to rule in his own right). In Henry VI, Part One, he is constantly squabbling with his uncle the Bishop of Winchester, who later in the play becomes a Cardinal. Gloucester is shown as morally superior to Winchester in that he backs down from quarreling out of respect to the king (Act 3, scene 1, line 121).
Duke of Exeter
The Duke of Exeter is Thomas Beaufort, Henry IV’s brother, and an English noble. He is Henry VI’s great-uncle and his co-guardian with the Bishop of Winchester. In Henry VI, Part One and Henry V, Exeter fulfills the function of a chorus, a character or group of characters who, in ancient Greek drama, commented on the action. Exeter worries about the downward trajectory of England’s fortunes since the death of Henry V.
Duke of Burgundy
The Duke of Burgundy is a French-born but English-based noble who begins by fighting on the English side. Joan easily wins him over to join the French side, so he is (from the viewpoint of the English) a traitor.
Duke of Somerset
The English noble Somerset is a conflation of two historical personages: John Beaufort, First Duke of Somerset (1403-44) and his younger brother Edmund Beaufort, Second Duke of Somerset (1406-55). In Henry VI, Part One, he is portrayed as involved in a quarrel with Richard Plantagenet about the succession to the throne. This quarrel leads to the Wars of the Roses, a civil war in which Richard aligns himself with the Yorkist side by choosing a white rose, and Somerset with the Lancastrian side by choosing a red rose.
Somerset is portrayed as responsible for Talbot’s death, as he fails to send reinforcements to support Talbot via Richard Plantagenet because of his disagreement with Richard. He is unable to see past his own petty concerns to the greater matter of the national interest.
Bishop of Winchester (later Cardinal)
The Bishop of Winchester is Henry Beaufort, Exeter’s younger brother, and great-uncle to Henry VI. In Henry VI, Part One, he is portrayed as a ruthlessly ambitious and morally dubious Roman Catholic clergyman. In fact, at the time the play is set, the whole of England was Roman Catholic as the Protestant Reformation had not taken place. But as editor Michael Taylor points out in the Oxford World’s Classics edition of the play (general editor Stanley Wells, 2004, reprint, 2008, p. 91), this fact “did not prevent a later audience from identifying the Bishop and the French as Catholic and the rest of the English as somehow not.”
Winchester bribes the Pope to make him a Cardinal and reveals that he wants power for himself.
Richard Plantagenet (later Richard, Duke of York)
As the grandson of Edmund Langley, fifth son of King Edward III, Richard has a strong claim to the throne of England.
In Henry VI, Part One, he is portrayed as involved in a quarrel with Somerset about the succession to the throne. This quarrel leads to the Wars of the Roses, a civil war in which Richard aligns himself with the Yorkist side by choosing a white rose, and Somerset with the Lancastrian side by choosing a red rose.
Richard’s father, the Earl of Cambridge, was executed for treason in the reign of Henry V, and the family lands and title were forfeited. Henry VI restores these to Richard and makes him Duke of York. Richard, however, is not grateful but only frets that the king chose a red rose to wear and therefore seems to favor the Lancastrian side.
Richard gains some moral superiority over his opponent, Somerset, when he becomes angry over Somerset’s delay in sending reinforcements to support Talbot in the war against the French. On this occasion, Richard genuinely seems to care about the fate of his nation, whereas Somerset appears motivated by petty self-interest.
Earl of Warwick
The Earl of Warwick, Richard de Beauchamp, is an English noble who sides with Richard Plantagenet in the Wars of the Roses. Warwick is called on to judge the merits of each side in the dispute between Somerset and Richard Plantagenet, but says he has no skill in legal matters.
Earl of Suffolk
The Earl of Suffolk, William de la Pole, is an English noble who sides with the Lancastrian cause in the Wars of the Roses by choosing a red rose. Suffolk’s disregard for the legal rectitude of either side in the dispute on the grounds that he intends to “frame the law unto my will” (Act 2, scene 4, line 9) is ominous as it implies that he considers himself above the law of the land.
Suffolk confirms himself as self-serving in his usage of Margaret of Anjou in Act 5. Ostensibly, he woos her for Henry VI, but he has fallen in love with her himself, even kissing the future wife of the king. In the play’s final scene, he reveals that he intends to use his power over her to gain power over the king and England. Of England’s self-serving nobles, he appears the most ambitious and ruthless.
Earl of Salisbury
The Earl of Salisbury is an English noble whose name is Thomas de Montague. He is a courageous military leader, devoted to Talbot, who is killed at the siege of Orléans. According to Talbot, he was victorious over the French in thirteen battles.
Lord Talbot is John Talbot, First Earl of Shrewsbury, a renowned military hero who fought in France for Henry V. If Henry VI, Part One can be said to have a hero, it is Talbot. He epitomizes the traditional ideal of the aristocracy as warriors who fought bravely for king and country, selflessly setting aside personal concerns to serve the greater good of the nation.
The aristocratic ideal combined military courage with graceful manners and the ability to talk charmingly and wittily in polite company, including that of ladies. Talbot has these qualities too, as is seen in his dealings with the Countess of Auvergne, but they never overwhelm his military judgment. He graciously accepts the Countess’s invitation to her castle, but never allows himself to overlook the possibility that it may be a trap. He takes his army with him, so that when the Countess does indeed betray him, he has only to call them in. He explains that his men have the same relationship to him as, in a human body, the body and limbs have to the head. In this speech, Talbot expresses a central theme of the play: the duty of the aristocracy to think and act as leaders of a unified nation, not out of petty self-interest. The Countess is not only defeated physically, but won over emotionally by Talbot’s wisdom and intelligence. The ideal of chivalry that Talbot represents is shown as transcending even national loyalties: even the French Countess of Auvergne ends up admiring his character.
In the play, the chivalric ideal personified in Talbot falls victim to the cowardice of Sir John Fastolf, who betrays Talbot by running away from battle, and to the petty politicking of Somerset, who denies Talbot reinforcements because of his own dispute with Richard, Duke of York. Somerset is shown as responsible for Talbot’s death. Fastolf the coward and Somerset the self-serving politician are seen as the natural heirs to the decayed state of England under Henry VI.
Talbot is the last surviving link to England’s heroic past, and his death, along with that of his young son John, is portrayed as the end of a glorious era for England.
Young John Talbot
Young John Talbot is Talbot’s son. The historical Young John Talbot, according to the chroniclers, died with his father at the battle of Castillon. Shakespeare portrays him as a military hero. He arrives at the battle of Bordeaux to learn the art of war from his father, but it soon becomes evident that he is likely to be killed. He chooses to die honorably in battle beside his father, rather than flee and save his life, as Talbot urges him to do. Young John Talbot’s death is shown as particularly tragic because, as Talbot’s son, he is his heir and is supposed to carry on his father’s great military reputation.
The fact that Young John Talbot dies with his father lends an air of pessimism to the play, suggesting that England’s age of military glory and dominance over France has indeed gone, sacrificed to the self-seeking ambition of the modern nobility.
Mortimer is a conflation of more than one historical character. He is the uncle to Richard Plantagenet, who visits him in prison in the Tower of London. Mortimer was next in line to the throne after Richard II. When Henry IV deposed Richard II, Richard Plantagenet’s father, the Earl of Cambridge, pressed Mortimer’s claim to the throne. Cambridge was executed for treason and Mortimer was imprisoned in the Tower.
Mortimer’s story of why he was imprisoned and of the Earl of Cambridge’s execution for treason provide the rational argument supporting Richard Plantagenet’s desire for redress. The emotional argument is provided by the sight of Mortimer, old, sick, and confined to his chair. He is a graphic representation of the wrongs done to the rightful heir to the throne by Henry IV and his Lancastrian line of monarchs.
Sir John Fastolf
Sir John Fastolf is an English military officer. Shakespeare follows the chroniclers in making him a coward. The historical figure, however, appears to have had a mostly distinguished military reputation, marred by accusations of occasional cowardice from some chroniclers. In the play, Fastolf’s cowardice leads to the capture of Talbot by the French. Thus Fastolf is a foil (contrasting character) to the brave and heroic older generation of warriors, such as Talbot and Salisbury.
The first known published version of Henry VI, Part One in the First Folio edition of Shakespeare’s plays (printed in 1623) gives Fastolf’s surname as Falstaff or Falstaffe. Many modern editions, including the Oxford World’s Classics edition (2004, reprint, 2008) used in this study guide, call him Fastolf. In this, they follow Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles (published 1587), Shakespeare’s chief source for Henry VI, Part One. Modern editors’ choice of Fastolf serves to distinguish him from Shakespeare’s character of Sir John Falstaff, with whom this character has nothing in common.
Sir William Glasdale
Glasdale is an English solider who fights at the siege of Orléans.
Sir Thomas Gargrave
Gargrave is an English soldier who is killed at the siege of Orléans.
Sir William Lucy
Lucy is a messenger who begs Richard, Duke of York to hurry with his forces to help Talbot. Lucy acts as a chorus or commentator, remarking on how dissension between the nobles will lose Henry V’s conquests in France.
Woodville is Lieutenant of the Tower of London: in effect, he is the prison warder who presides over Mortimer’s captivity.
Mayor of London
The Mayor intervenes to break up a fight between Gloucester and Winchester, rebuking them for breaching the peace, and marvels at how nobles can argue over trifles. As the representative of the citizens of London, the Mayor shows how the nobles’ behavior causes public disorder, disrupts the social fabric, and sets a bad example to the people.
Vernon is one of Somerset’s men. He chooses a red rose in the dispute in the garden, thus following his master’s Lancastrian allegiance in the Wars of the Roses. He wants to fight with Basset, one of Richard, Duke of York’s men, because Basset chose a white rose in line with his master’s allegiance. The episode shows how the disagreement between the nobles filters down to affect the wider society.
Basset is one of Richard, Duke of York’s men. He chooses a white rose in the dispute in the garden, thus following his master’s Yorkist allegiance in the Wars of the Roses. He wants to fight with Vernon, one of Somerset’s men, because Vernon chose a red rose. The episode shows how the disagreement between the nobles filters down to affect the wider society.
The Lawyer is only present in the scene in the Temple Garden that formally begins the War of the Roses (Act 2, scene 4). He plucks a white rose, as he feels that Plantagenet’s case in the dispute (presumably about the succession to the English throne) is stronger in law than Somerset’s. This is certainly Shakespeare’s view, who consistently suggests that the Yorkists have the better claim than the Lancastrians. Here, Shakespeare is effectively nominating the Yorkist position as the more lawful one.
The Papal Legate is an ambassador to the Pope whose sole function is to accept Winchester’s bribe to the Pope in payment for making him a Cardinal. The episode shows what Shakespeare wanted to paint as the corruption of the Catholic Church.
Charles is the Dauphin (the French word for “Dolphin,” the term used for the eldest son and heir to the throne of France) of France. Historically, he was King Charles VII of France. In Shakespeare’s play, his aim is to recapture his country and his throne from the English. When he first meets Joan he fights her in single combat but loses to her. He subsequently allies himself to her to fight the English. Charles is sexually attracted to, and enthralled by, Joan. His deference to a woman in military matters would have made him seem effeminate to an anti-French Elizabethan audience.
Led by Joan, Charles and his army succeed in recapturing half of France from the English. In the end, he makes peace with the English in order to avoid more French losses, accepting the title of viceroy of France, under Henry VI of England.
Charles, in common with many of the French characters, is portrayed as unreliable and lacking in solidity. In Act 5, scene 5, he at first refuses to accept the English terms but then is persuaded by Reignier and Alençon to accept the terms in name but break them when it suits him.
Joan la Pucelle (also known as Joan of Arc)
The historical Joan of Arc (1412-31) is viewed in France as a national heroine and a great military leader, and by Catholics as a saint for her role in reversing France’s fortunes during the Hundred Years’ War with England. In Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part One, Joan is a young French girl who presents herself to Charles with the claim that she has been given a sacred mission by the Virgin Mary to rid France of the English. She tells him that she will lead the French troops to defeat the English at the siege of Orléans, and her words prove correct. As befits the anti-French propaganda of the play, Shakespeare undermines her claims of a God-given mission. He presents her variously as a whore, a witch who draws upon evil spirits for her power, a liar, and an ungrateful and snobbish daughter to her father.
At odds with the suggestion of witchcraft is her strongly pragmatic nature and undoubted leadership skills. She manages to unite a hitherto weak collection of French nobles into a highly effective army.
Joan has no patience with the pomp and ceremony that goes along with the old chivalric ideas of warfare. In Act 4, scene 7, she cuts short Lucy’s encomium of Talbot by pointing out that now he is just a corpse that “Stinking and flyblown lies here at our feet” (line 76), and readily agrees to its removal. This incident allies her with the rising new meritocracy that is replacing the chivalrous ideals of the old aristocracy, embodied in characters like Talbot and Salisbury.
Reignier (called in some editions René) is a French noble who fights alongside Charles. He is Duke of Anjou and titular King of Naples and Jerusalem. He is also the father of Margaret, trading her hand in marriage to Henry VI in return for England’s acknowledgement of him as ruler of Maine and Anjou.
Duke of Alençon
The Duke of Alençon is a French noble who fights alongside Charles.
Countess of Auvergne
The Countess of Auvergne is an invented character with no historical counterpart. She is a French noblewoman who invites Talbot to her castle, ostensibly because she admires him. In reality, she is luring him into a trap because she intends to take him prisoner in order to gain fame for herself as the captor of the great warrior. Thus she exemplifies the duplicity and treachery of many of the French characters in this anti-French play.
Margaret, known historically as Margaret of Anjou, is the daughter of Reignier. Suffolk falls in love with her and woos her for Henry VI, even though she has a smaller dowry and a less politically powerful father than the daughter of the Earl of Armagnac, to whom Henry is already betrothed.
Suffolk later reveals that he intends to gain power over the king and the nation through his influence over Margaret. She is therefore a pawn in a power game.
Bastard of Orléans The Bastard of Orléans is a French noble who introduces Joan to Charles. The character is based on the historical figure of Jean, Bastard of Orléans (1402-1468), the illegitimate son of Louis, Duke of Orléans.
Master Gunner The Master Gunner is a French soldier who fights at the siege of Orléans.
Boy The Boy is the Master Gunner’s son. At the siege of Orléans he fires the cannon that may have been responsible for the death of Salisbury.
The Shepherd appears at the play’s end. He claims to be Joan’s father and there is no reason to doubt his word. Joan repudiates him, saying he cannot be her father as she is of noble birth, revealing herself to be a snob as well as a liar. The Shepherd curses her and begs the English to burn her, as hanging is too good for her. Thus the character has pro-English propaganda value, the implication being that if even Joan’s father thinks she deserves to be burnt, then the English authorities’ execution of Joan by burning was justified.