As I'm looking back on my Henry VI reading experience, I thought it might be helpful for anyone else who was about to embark on the same adventure if I were to go through the plays and give some general history background and some information about the important characters. As you may remember, I had some issues keeping all the characters straight - I'm working on a post on Henry VI character identification and organization that will hopefully be up later this week, but first I wanted to look at the whole issue of reading Shakespeare's histories.
With history plays like the Henry VIs, we're reading stories that Shakespeare based on real events that took place surrounding the nobles and monarchs of England. However, he took significant liberties with just about everything that really happened in order to make his story more dramatically compelling and exciting. Now, the Henry VIs just so happen to take place during The Wars of the Roses - an action filled, yet notoriously confusing, time in England's history.
My strongly held opinion is that one DOES NOT NEED to know much about the Wars of the Roses to enjoy the Henry VI plays! If you want to really dive into the history of 15th century England, you can certainly have a great time and learn a lot - some quick links about the Wars of the Roses are here and here. However, be warned - Shakespeare changes A LOT of the events, chronology, and motivations of the Wars of the Roses, so if you spend a lot of time memorizing things like dates of real battles, which important noble was involved with each event, etc., you may find yourself frustrated and confused.
A history book that I very enthusiastically recommend, however, is Peter Saccio's Shakespeare's English Kings: History, Chronicle, and Drama.
However, I think that anyone could basically get the gist of the H6 plays by understanding just a tiny little bit of the background, which I will now unfold to you in Shakespeare girl's patented "English History in One Paragraph!" Here we go!
England's kingship passes to the oldest son in the royal house in a hereditary manner - and the crown CAN be passed down through the female line. However, our title character's grandfather, Henry Bolingbroke, usurped the throne from the rightful king, Richard II. Henry Bolingbroke then became known as Henry IV. After his death, his son, Henry V, took the throne and proceeded to conquer France, which at the start of our play is ruled along with England by Henry's son, Henry VI. All these Henrys are identified by family as from the house of LANCASTER. Henry VI turns out to be a weak leader, which opens the door for one of his nobles, Richard Plantagenent, Duke of York, to assert a claim to the throne based on his the fact that his ancestors were, by birth order, in line for the throne before Henry VI's usurping ancestors. As the conflict escalates, the House of LANCASTER (the King's party) takes on the emblem of a RED ROSE. The House of YORK (Richard's party) is represented by a WHITE ROSE.
As for the action of the plays, the English fight in France; they fight among themselves in England; and finally we have a few knock-down drag-it-out battles over who gets to be king. And I think that's enough information to get anyone started!