Shakespeare Saturday: Henry VI, Part 1

Fight till the last gasp.

After the end, the beginning. There seems to be little dispute over the fact that 1 Henry VI was written last of the Contention. It is in that sense like one of those Hollywood prequels, chronicling the events that led to the War of the Roses – the death of Henry V when his son is still a baby, the loss of England’s French territories, the rivalries and squabbles in the court as all the characters we already met in Part 2 are scrambling to gain power. It is the play where the battlelines are drawn and the events that will bring down the whole Plantagenet dynasty set in motion. 1 Henry VI is thought to be Shakespeare’s weakest play, and the one most often suspected to not to actually have been written by him – the underlying argument being that it is simply not worthy of the general genius of Shakespeare, and anything contrary to the contemporary sensibilities should be removed from the canon. In Shakespeare’s case, during the 18th and 19th centuries the axe fell on both 1 Henry VI and Titus Andronicus – on Henry, because it was considered textually poor and inconsistent in its writing, but also because of his treatment of Joan La Pucelle, the saintly heroine of France.

Those pre-Raphaelites sure loved Joan. Millais (left) and Rossetti, with some Lepage (middle) thrown in for good measure.

Later scholars agree however that the play’s obvious, intentional place in the Contention and the tetralogue, and its structure and style all prove that this is indeed work of Shakespeare himself, and inconsistencies in spelling, certain stage directions and historical details in the only known version (the First Folio) can be attributed to any number of factors from clerical errors to differences in the (unknown) source copies from which the First Folio version of the play was put together from.

The play begins with the funeral of Henry V, lauded as the greatest king the nation ever had; he has died at the age of 36 in France, an indirect victim of the Hundred Years War, and his heir apparent, Henry, is only 9 months old.

England ne’er had a king until his time.
Virtue he had, deserving to command:
His brandish’d sword did blind men with his beams:
His arms spread wider than a dragon’s wings;
His sparking eyes, replete with wrathful fire,
More dazzled and drove back his enemies
Than mid-day sun fierce bent against their faces.
What should I say? his deeds exceed all speech:
He ne’er lift up his hand but conquered.

The funeral is overshadowed by news from France:

Guienne, Champagne, Rheims, Orleans,
Paris, Guysors, Poictiers, are all quite lost.

The war that brought the King’s death is been going on for a long time, and essentially both sides are losing; the infighting and rivalry in the court has created a shortage of money and resources badly needed to continue the campaign, and the English have started to lose ground. One John Talbot has been in France for many years, and has been able to keep the French at bay until now. On the French side, the Dauphin and the Bastard of Orleans are approached by Joan La Pucelle, a charismatic young woman who has inspiring visions bordering on clairvoyance, and who convinces them that she will lead them to victory over the English. Desperate, they accept Joan as their leader.

Back in England, what starts seemingly as a playful squabble escalates into a feud between the supporters of Richard Plantagenet and Somerset. In a scene in the Temple Garden, Plantagenet picks a white rose and asks his supporters to do the same; Somerset responds by choosing a red one – so beginneth the War of the Roses. White for York, red for Lancaster, one branch of same family against the other.

Plucking the roseIn the Tower of London, Richard Plantagenet’s uncle is dying; before he draws his last breath, he tells Richard that he is the true heir of Henry IV. Some more petty infighting between the various peers happens, before Henry VI finally makes his appearance in Act 3; the quarrel between Gloucester and Beaufort, the Bishop of Winchester, has reached such scale that the king is forced to mediate between them. He then goes to France, where he is officially crowned.

Talbot, who has been made Earl of Shrewsbury, meets at the gate of Bordeaux a general who predicts his defeat, and this time he knows that his time – and England’s time in France – is running out. York, who has joined the war in France, blames Somerset for withholding resources, and angry at the continuing feuding between the peers, Sir William Lucy predicts that this is what will cause England to lose the war.

The fraud of England, not the force of France,
Hath now entrapp’d the noble-minded Talbot:
Never to England shall he bear his life;
But dies, betray’d to fortune by your strife.

Elsewhere Talbot meets on the battlefield his son he hasn’t seen for years, and tries to persuade him to flee from what is now a certain death. Young Talbot refuses, and both father and son are killed. Joan’s divine inspiration has abandoned her, and she is captured by York, who brings her to his camp, where she pleads for her life, and is at first mocked, and then executed by burning. Winchester arrives then to bring news of peace treaty between England and France; the war is over and England has effectively lost – though the French don’t exactly consider themselves the victors either. Rather randomly, Suffolk appears out of nowhere (seriously, where does he come from?) with Margaret d’Anjou he has found and captured; he immediately falls in lust with her, and after remembering that he’s married, decides to marry her to King Henry (as you do), so as to have a legitimate reason to bring her to England with him. Gloucester has arranged a marriage between the king and the daughter of the Earl of Armagnac, but the king changes his mind when hearing Suffolk’s enticing tales about the beauty of Margaret, deciding he’s going to marry her instead. Left alone on the stage, Suffolk reveals his true designs:

Margaret shall now be queen, and rule the king;
But I will rule both her, the king and realm.

1 Henry VI is a clumsy, meandering, fairly unattractive play without a clear plot or sense of direction for most of the time. It does its job forming the background to the conflict ahead, but isn’t necessary for the understanding of Part 2, beyond perhaps the Temple Garden scene and the old Mortimer’s death. What this play is about depends on which character you look at – focusing on Talbot, this is a play about the death of the chivalry; Talbot’s modesty and bravery, his loyalty to the crown and the cause, is contrasted with his disgust for Fastolf’s cowardice, and underlined with his son’s similar devotion. Focus on Joan, the most remarkable of the French characters, and it becomes a play about patriotism and sort of national cosmic justice, even if Shakespeare’s treatment of her character (he makes her into someone easily portrayed as abrasive and frivolous) makes it clear that she’s not a character we are meant to side with. Focus on Plantagenet, Gloucester, Winchester and the rest of the courtiers, and this is a play showing the foundations of the rivalries, infighting and petty backstabbing that have saturated the English government during the years following Henry V’s death. The peers have been on their own for so long that the king, now at the cusp of adulthood, has really no space left for him – his character will grow, but the circumstances in which he became king doomed him from the start.

Is it any good?

Not really, to be honest. There are one or two decent moments, but the rest is unremarkable.

Fun fact:

Unlike in the play, the real-life Joan of Arc was captured by the French, and sold to the English by Jean de Ligny for 10,000 livres, which according to this website, would amount to 1.4 million euros (or 1.1 million pounds).

What say thou?

This play is curiously devoid any good quotes or speeches. My favourite bits are probably the first part of Joan’s patriotic speech to Burgundy, and young Talbot’s response to his father, when he urges him to flee and save himself:

Young Talbot:
The sword of Orleans hath not made me smart;
These words of yours draw life-blood from my heart:
On that advantage, bought with such a shame,
To save a paltry life and slay bright fame,
Before young Talbot from old Talbot fly,
The coward horse that bears me fail and die!
And like me to the peasant boys of France,
To be shame’s scorn and subject of mischance!
Surely, by all the glory you have won,
An if I fly, I am not Talbot’s son:
Then talk no more of flight, it is no boot;
If son to Talbot, die at Talbot’s foot.

Then follow thou thy desperate sire of Crete,
Thou Icarus; thy life to me is sweet:
If thou wilt fight, fight by thy father’s side;
And, commendable proved, let’s die in pride.

Best character?

I’d really like to love Joan here, but Shakespeare makes it pretty darn hard, so I’ll go with Talbot.


The first in the BBC Television Shakespeare collection. This is the weakest of the three, largely because the source material just isn’t that great; also, it stands alone less well than the other two. The set is garishly bright at this point, the costumes colourful and lavish and rather obviously made of materials popular in the 1980s (remember that metallic polyester fabric they used to make evening gowns of?); all the extra points for the hobby horses. Most of the cast from the future installments is there, playing either same or different roles. Young Brenda Blethyn is Joan La Pucelle – she’s gorgeous, but with her thick accent more like a cheeky Geordie barmaid than a French virgin, which is of course exactly what the director was after.

The Hollow Crown condenses Part 1 into few key scenes – death of Henry V and the news of defeats in France, the Temple Garden, old Mortimer’s death, Talbot’s death, Somerset’s meeting with Margaret (no idea why they would change that), and just couple of scenes with Joan. It was a pity to lose pretty much all of Joan’s scenes (and to see them really make a meal out of her burning), but otherwise the most essential parts for the play were there.

joan-of-arc-hollow-crownLaura Morgan as Joan of Arc in Hollow Crown.

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