What Was William Shakespeare's First Play?

A Discussion of Henry VI

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"Henry VI" Part II was the first play written by Shakespeare. Although we cannot be certain when Shakespeare actually wrote the play, it is believed that this early history play was first performed in 1590–1591.

Surprisingly, it is difficult to know which play was Shakespeare's first because so little documentary evidence has survived. Scholars are forced to use historical events and contemporary diary entries to piece together a rough chronology, but the exact order of the plays has been in dispute—and perhaps always will be.

'Henry VI' Plot

The play's plot is driven by conflict—the conflict between Henry's forces and those of Dauphin Charles, and the argument between York and Somerset, mirroring the struggle between Winchester and Gloucester in Henry's court. The message is that this court struggles and their trivial rivalries and internal rifts among the nobility can be as dangerous to England as the French soldiers. Henry grasps this truth when he talks about dissension as the "worm" eating away at his kingdom—but he is not able to put an end to the crisis.

"Henry VI" reenacts England's struggle to retain military and political control over French territories won by Henry V. The play depicts some of the events that transpired in the early reign of Henry VI, including fighting among the English lords and subsequent loss of half the French lands.

Synopsis of Shakespeare's First Play

"Henry VI" begins with the marriage of King Henry VI to the young Margaret of Anjou. William de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, aims to influence the king through her. Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, the regent of the crown who is very popular with the people, presents a significant obstacle. Queen Margaret competes with his wife, Eleanor, for dominance in the court. Eleanor is lured by an agent of Suffolk into practicing black magic to communicate with the dead and then gets herself arrested. Gloucester is mortified, but the demon she calls upon delivers some accurate prophecies regarding the fates of characters in the play. Gloucester is then accused of treason and sent to prison, and then he's assassinated by agents of Suffolk and the Queen.

In the meantime, Richard, the Duke of York, who has a shaky claim to the throne, schemes to make himself king. The Earl of Suffolk is killed by Walter the pirate and Richard of York manages to become an army commander to suppress a revolt in Ireland. York has Jack Cade led a rebellion that threatens the entire kingdom, so that he can seize the throne he declares war on the king in conjunction with his sons, Edward (the future King Edward IV) and Richard (the future King Richard II).

The English nobility take sides, and the Battle of St Albans begins and The Duke of Somerset is killed by the future Richard III.

Shakespeare's Plays

Our list of Shakespeare plays brings together all 38 plays in the order in which they were first performed. You can also read our study guides for the Bard’s most popular plays.