The plays that make up the first of Shakespeare's two tetralogies based on English history are among his very earliest dramatic works, and as such they have flaws. Speakers tend to sound alike, and their language is not often memorably poetic. Few characters have depth or offer any complication; virtually all their ideas and emotions are on the surface. The result is that at too many moments we are left to watch plot develop mechanically, and amidst exposition and recitation we sometimes lose drama.
Yet these works have points of considerable interest. First, the scope of the story is massive. Perhaps only an inexperienced playwright would have had the gall to attempt to cover the panorama of sixty years in a single series of four plays, and for that reason Shakespeare's comparative innocence and youthful exuberance may have been vital to the creative process. Second, the plays themselves have an undeniable theatricality. So much territory is covered, and so many characters roam the stage that the drama seems to progress as if by the playwright's energy alone. Third, even if some scenes and acts are awkwardly composed, certain moments loom powerfully, and flashes of the Shakespeare to come emerge.
Most important, these plays are essential to an appreciation of Shakespeare's view of history and politics. Here he dramatizes a loss of national unity to be redeemed only through the rise of the Tudors, and his perspective on this era has ramifications that extend throughout his entire career.
Opinion concerning the authorship of these plays is not unanimous, for some critics believe Shakespeare collaborated with other playwrights on various sections. But the unity of style and theme suggests that the tetralogy is the product of one creative mind, and that conclusion underlies the discussion that follows.
No single figure or group of figures dominates all four plays. Henry himself is too weak and ineffectual to hold sway. Thus we shall focus on a succession of characters, including Joan of Pucelle, Talbot, Gloucester, Margaret, Suffolk, Edward, and Richard III.