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THERE is only one text for Part I. of Henry VI., that of the first Folio, 1623. In this respect it stands on a different footing from Parts II. and III., and for this reason chiefly, it is best to consider it here as a play by itself and not as a portion of the trilogy: since Parts II. and III. are founded upon earlier plays whose texts we fortunately possess.
But it must be borne in mind that, structurally speaking, no such separation is legitimate. Of this we will become aware at the beginning of Part II., where the sequence of events from Part I. is clearly maintained, and purposely, if somewhat carelessly, adhered to by the same hand or hands.
Whether Part I. is, as we have it from the Folio, founded upon an older play is one of the first questions that occurs; whether in its remodelled state, supposing it to have been so founded, it is by Shakespeare, or how much of it is by Shakespeare is another question of long-standing difficulty. What other authorship is traceable and whose and where all those are admittedly amongst the most troublesome that a student can be confronted with; and their difficulty increases as we consider Parts II. and III.
Before entering into these discussions, let us string together our facts, touching on the appearance of Part I.
In Henslowe's Diary (folio 7, p. 13, Bullen's reprint) the following entry occurs: “Ne (New). Rd. at harey the vj. the 3 of Marche 1591 . . iijll xvjs 8d.” Between that date and the 22nd of April, 1592 (the following month) there are six (or seven) more entries of its appearance, and its popularity was greater than such favourites as even Jeronymo or the Jew of Malta. Its entries continue regularly down to 31st January, 1593 (the following year). Titus Andronicus is the only other
Shakespearian drama (for a different company) within this period; and later than “harey."
Is this Part I. of Henry VI.? There is only one piece of external evidence to assist us. It is from Nashe's Pierce Penilesse, which was published in the same year (Grosart's ed. ii. 88). After proving that plays "borrowed out of our English chronicles” are "a rare exercise of virtue,” he says: "How would it have ioyed brave Talbot (the terror of the French) to thinke that after he had lyen two hundred yeare in his Toomb, he should triumph againe on the stage, and haue his bones new 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." This refers to Act iv. Scenes v., vi., vii. either in the Folio play or its forecast. Talbot is “the terror of the French” in I. iv. 42.
It is hard to say how far "New" is to be regarded as a legitimate claim. I do not know that it can be stated that “ne” does not imply that this is the first appearance of the play in question in any shape, a natural assumption. But the meaning may also be taken that it is an old play so much altered as to rest on a new base of popularity. This latter view requires further proof, the former being the natural interpretation. “Further proof” is here found internally.
One other point should be mentioned here, and that is that the fact of the appearance of Part I, in the first Folio at all is direct proof that the play was regarded at that date (1623), as justly attributable to Shakespeare by the editors Heminge and Condell, the best authorities on the subject : authority, I think, of greater weight than Meres's negative evidence, to be mentioned presently.
It is perhaps a slight evidence in favour of the Henslowe Diary play being the same as the Folio play, that it was known always in the Diary as Henry VI. The subsequent parts in their earliest forms had distinct titles, and were not known as Henry VI. until they reached the final stage. We have no record of the acting of those earlier forms.
Shakespeare himself laid claim, apparently, to the whole three parts; in the epilogue to King Henry V. “Our bending author hath pursued the story," he says