Friends, this week we plunge into Henry VI Part 1. I swear, after this tetralogy we’re done with the history plays for a bit. But just think! We’ll be nearly ¼ of the way through Shakespeare’s corpus when we finish AND we will have worked through eight meaty plays.
So, onward and off-ward! And pay attention, because situations are set up here that come to a head in the next two plays…
The play opens with the funeral of Henry V. Hal (to differentiate him from Henry VI, and because I feel like I’m on an informal-name basis with the bloke by now) was, as you know from Henry V, a well-loved king in England and considered a conqueror of France. Hal’s brothers, the Duke of Bedford and the Duke of Gloucester, along with their uncle, the Duke of Exeter, and the Earl of Warwick and the Bishop of Winchester lament Hal’s passing and worry about whether the prince (Henry VI) is ready to be king.
At this moment, almost as if the French knew Hal would die, messengers come with word of rebellion in France, led by the Dauphin Charles. They also tell that Lord Talbot, the Constable of France, was taken prisoner after one of the battles. Bedford states that he’ll go to France to take control of the army, Gloucester says that he’ll be reagent in England for the time, Exeter decides that he’ll prepare young Henry for his coronation, and Winchester seems to be plotting. (Warwick doesn’t say a thing; at least, not in the version of the play that I have.)
Meanwhile in Orléans, the Dauphin’s army is being attacked by the English. The Bastard of Orléans informs the Dauphin that there’s a young woman who claims to be a prophetess and who can help them defeat the English. To test her, the Dauphin and Reignier trade places but the girl, Joan la Pucelle (better known as Joan of Arc) sees through the ploy easily. To further test her, she and the Dauphin spar. When Joan wins the match the Dauphin puts her in command of his army and when Bedford arrives to ransom Talbot Joan launches an attack. The French win but that night Bedford and Talbot manage to sneak into the city and take it, making the French flee.
Meanwhile in England, Richard Plantagenet (later the Duke of York) and the Duke of Somerset have a quarrel that explodes across the court, with everyone taking sides with either the White or the Red Rose (mark this; it will be really important in the next two plays).
Richard then visits his uncle Edmund Mortimer, who’s imprisoned in the Tower of London. (Shakespeare takes a little poetic license here, making Mortimer an amalgamation of two separate people, one of whom appeared in the Henry IV plays.) Mortimer tells Richard their family history: how their family helped Henry IV gain the throne only to be ignored after; how Henry V executed Richard’s father, Richard of Conisburgh, and stripped the family of their lands and money; that he, Mortimer, is the rightful heir to the throne (based on lineage from Richard II) and that Richard is next in line. Richard vows to regain his family title and then Mortimer dies. Henry agrees to Richard’s request and he takes on the title of Duke of York. Then Henry, Gloucester, Exeter, Winchester, Richard, and Somerset leave for France.
In France, there’s more fighting. The French gain and lose the city of Rouen in less than a day. Bedford dies and Talbot takes command of the army. The Dauphin is outraged at losing Rouen but Joan calms him. She then convinces the Duke of Burgundy to fight for the French rather than the English.
Henry, having arrived in France and hearing of Burgundy’s betrayal, sends Talbot to win him back to the English side. Talbot goes and Henry proceeds to attempt to heal the rift between Richard and Somerset. Thinking “red vs. white rose” a trivial argument, Henry tries to prove that he could wear one’s rose but still love the other. However, by picking the red rose to wear Henry unwittingly shows support for Somerset and insults Richard. Henry then puts Richard in command of the infantry and Somerset in command of the cavalry, forcing the two to work together, and heads back to England.
Talbot, meanwhile, is outside Bordeaux to win Burgundy back to the English cause. He’s surprised by the Dauphin’s army and sends for reinforcements. When word arrives to both Somerset and Richard that Talbot needs backup neither sends help, instead second-guessing and blaming each other for the delay. The English forces are destroyed and both Talbot and his son are killed.
In the aftermath of the battle, both sides of the English army join forces and overtake the French. Joan is captured by Richard after her visions abandon her and she is subsequently burned at the stake. Henry barters a peace with the French with the urging of the Pope and makes the Dauphin viceroy of France. The French grudgingly agree to the terms but fully intend to break their oaths.
Suffolk, who’s married, captures Reignier’s daughter, Margaret, and desires her. Instead of pursuing her himself (which he can’t do as a married man with a woman of her station) he decides to have her marry Henry, and thus control the king through her. He travels back to England and convinces Henry to agree to the match even though he’s already promised to someone else. Gloucester tries to convince Henry that it’s not a good match, that Margaret doesn’t bring any money or advantage to his position as king, but Henry is too moved by the description of Margaret’s beauty.
And thus we’re set up for next week and Henry VI Part 2. The discord between Richard and Somerset, Richard’s ambitions, and (I assume) Suffolk’s influence over Henry’s future queen will no doubt become bigger problems for our poor King.
Talbot’s death was more than just the death of a lord; it’s symbolic of the death of chivalry. The play takes place during a rather liminal time; feudalism is in decline and the Middle Ages are waning into the Renaissance. (“Renaissance” isn’t a term I like for the period following the Late Middle Ages, but I’ll spare you that rant now.)
Mind you, “chivalry” as we, or even the Elizabethan’s, think of it didn’t actually exist in the Middle Ages. Rather, here it’s an idealized concept of honor and selfless devotion to the good of one’s country filled with courtesy and tied to feudalism. This makes Talbot a nostalgic character and his death is a statement, especially since it’s caused by political discord. Henry V is also a nostalgic chivalric figure and his death can also be seen as the end of an era; throughout the play whenever Hal is mentioned it’s for his exploits and what he accomplished rather than as a person, even from his own brothers and son; here he acts as a function, not as an individual. (Keep in mind as well that Shakespeare wrote Henry VI before the Richard II – Henry V plays so Hal as we know him now didn’t yet exist.)
But what does the end of chivalry signify? When one social institution falls another rises in its place. Here, where chivalry falls we get an influx of rule not by honor but by cunning and fraud. We see social factions easily and quickly dividing the court, we see machinations for gain not by one character but by many. This is the rise of Machiavellianism.
Joan is Machiavellian, winning battles by cunning rather than by chivalric, honorable means; it’s one of the reasons Talbot loses to her. Talbot is unable to adapt, meaning his chivalry is also his downfall and not necessarily a positive trait.
So what’s the purpose of this play? To one extent, it’s meant to lift national pride. People are a bit despondent; at this point, Queen Elizabeth is still unmarried, there’s a possibility that Catholicism will rise against Protestantism, and there are fears of problems on the continent and in Ireland. The last victory England had was against the Spanish Armada in 1588 so people need a bit of a pick-up.
So here comes a play where the English are most always outnumbered and either win the battles against all odds or, if they do lose, are defeated by underhanded means. The English in the play never give up and never surrender while the French are shown to be fearful of them to the point of respect.
Also note that pretty much everything Catholic is negative while everything Protestant is positive. Talbot speaks of Protestant values (though not by name, since at the time England was decisively Catholic); Wincester, a bishop, is self-serving, and Joan is somehow simultaneously saintly and a witch. We saw the same in Henry V in the beginning, where two members of the clergy were plotting to have England go to war in France for their own gain. Ah, the social implications of Shakespeare.