Shakespeare’s sources – Henry VI part 1

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Henry VI of England

Henry VI is Shakespeare’s longest play in that it runs to 3 parts. As with nearly all of Shakespeare’s History plays he relies heavily on Holinshed’s Chronicles sometimes borrowing descriptions almost directly from his source text. But always adding his own unique touches, the study of which makes looking at his use of source texts so fascinating.

Consider the similarity between Holinshed’s description of Joan of Arc and Shakespeare’s. This is Holinshed’s version

“In time of this siege at Orleance…was carried a yoong wench of an eighteene years old, called Ione Are, by name of hir father ( a sorie sheepheard) Iames of Are, and Isabell hir mother; brought up poorlie in their trade of keeping cattell … Of favour she was counted likesome, of person stronglie made and manlie, of courage great, hardie, and stout withall: an vnderstander of counsels though she were not at them; great semblance of chastitie both of bodie and behauiour.”

And here is Joan in her own words from Henry VI part I


Dauphin, I am by birth a shepherd’s daughter,
My wit untrain’d in any kind of art.
Heaven and our Lady gracious hath it pleased
To shine on my contemptible estate:
Lo, whilst I waited on my tender lambs,
And to sun’s parching heat display’d my cheeks,
God’s mother deigned to appear to me
And in a vision full of majesty
Will’d me to leave my base vocation
And free my country from calamity:
Her aid she promised and assured success:
In complete glory she reveal’d herself;
And, whereas I was black and swart before,
With those clear rays which she infused on me
That beauty am I bless’d with which you see.
Ask me what question thou canst possible,
And I will answer unpremeditated:
My courage try by combat, if thou darest,
And thou shalt find that I exceed my sex.

As you can see the details are certainly all the same, the beauty and the courage and the prowess in battle, the humble beginnings and the untrained wit. Yet Shakespeare’s portrait seems to glow. The story told in the first person without the narrative distance of a historian lives and breathes with the young woman’s passion and self belief. In his borrowing Shakespeare also brings to life.

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Author:Liz Dollimore

Someone who loves listening to people talk about Shakespeare Liz tweets at @shakespeareBT

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