I have finally gotten around to reading one of William Shakespeare’s Henry VI plays, and of course one starts with the first of the trilogy. For the record, I’ve now read 29 of the 37 authentically identified Shakespearian plays. A good portion of the unread plays happen to be Histories. If you are unaware, critics categorize the Bard’s play into Comedies, Tragedies, and Histories. I’ve read all the great history plays: Richard III, Richard II, the two Henry IV plays, and Henry V. What’s left are the three Henry VI plays, King John, and Henry VIII, all lesser plays in stature and reputation. Scratch one of the Henry VI off. Admittedly it’s hard to motivate to read the lesser plays given one has come to appreciate the wonder of the great plays, but still one has to complete them all. Some people have bucket lists of traveling across the world; my bucket list consists of reading all of Shakespeare.
Most people are more familiar with the great tragedies, since they are probably forced to read those in school. And it’s true, there is something beyond superlative in Shakespeare’s tragedies. They were absolutely groundbreaking in form and range. But Shakespeare’s great comedies and histories are also head-and-shoulders above what was written in his day, and perhaps outside of France’s Moliere, you cannot find another playwright until several hundred years later with Ibsen and Strindberg that has as many great dramas as Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s great comedies and histories also stand with greats of their respective genre.
The reason I decided to read Henry VI was mentioned back in the first post I wrote on Mark Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc and that is because the same historical events are part of both works. Indeed, the historical figures are in both, and since the historical events were fresh in my mind it would make sense. Plus I was curious how Shakespeare would portray Joan, and I’ll get to that eventually.
Now it’s quite possible that Henry VI, Part 1 was Shakespeare’s first complete drama, and as the Wikipedia entry states, he may have had some help by either Christopher Marlowe and/or Thomas Nashe, both dramatists in Shakespeare’s day. It’s quite possible. The Shakespeare-Online site – a very good resource and way better than some of the other Shakespeare sites on the web—suspects that someone other than the Bard crafted Joan of Arc’s speeches. There may be something to that. Most of the language in the play certainly rings of Shakespeare’s voice, except for Joan. I can’t put my finger on it, but Joan does not sound like a Shakespearean character. Again, more on Joan later.
Given it was Shakespeare’s first play, one sees some of the inexperience, but one sees some real great flourishes as well. That scene in Act II, Scene IV where the nobles of York and Lancaster pluck white and red roses off a bush, setting in motion the seeds of the War ofthe Roses, is brilliant. The poetic flourishes can rise with the greatest of Shakespeare’s. For instance, the play begins with the dead body of the heroic King Henry V, and the Dukes of Bedford and Gloucester eulogize in sweeping language to capture the greatness of the fallen man. From the plays very opening lines in Act I, Scene 1:
BEDFORD Hung be the heavens with black, yield day to night!
Comets, importing change of times and states,
Brandish your crystal tresses in the sky,
And with them scourge the bad revolting stars
That have consented unto Henry's death! 5
King Henry the Fifth, too famous to live long!
England ne'er lost a king of so much worth.
GLOUCESTER 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: 10
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: 15
He ne'er lift up his hand but conquered.
I’m using the online text at Shakespeare-Online for this and all subsequent quotes.
And so we have of the great King Henry V, model of leadership, soldiery, and virtue to be contrasted with the King VI and the governing aristocracy. Now Henry VI has somewhat of an excuse, he’s rather young. Shakespeare doesn’t quite follow the time scale; Henry VI was less than a year old when his father died, and the events of the drama would have occurred when Henry VI would have been about nine years old. He was a child king, under the Protectorate of the Duke of Gloucester. But in the play he sounds more like a teenager than a nine year old. I have never seen this acted out, so I don’t know how directors cast it.
It is a long play, with an exorbitant number of characters, thirty-five in all, not including attendants and messengers, and of course the armies of soldiers. Perhaps that is what speaks to Shakespeare’s inexperience the most. After a while I could not recall the distinction between the Earls of Warwick, Somerset, Suffolk, Salisbury, and so on. They became a sort of blur, and perhaps are under characterized, even though it’s a long play.
What makes it a long play are the divisions. First off there is the division between the French and the English fighting over the French territories. But what speaks to the play’s central theme are the divisions and hostilities within the English side. There is the division inside the English King’s court fighting over the influence on the child king. Then there is a secular verses ecclesiastical division. There is a subtle division between lords in England with the English fighting in France on how to fight the war. And of course there is the great division between the Houses of York and Lancaster that will blossom into the War of the Roses. That may be following the history of the events, but it does make it difficult to follow. But as it turns out, this was a popular play in its day, so perhaps the divisions were second nature to the contemporary audience, enough so that they could easily follow it.
This division on the English side is dramatized early on in what seems a rather unimportant little scene. Gloucester, the Lord Protector of the realm as overseer of the child king, comes to London Tower, which I believe was the royal palace, and is prevented from entering. Here’s the beginning of Act I Scene 3:
London. Before the Tower.
[Enter GLOUCESTER, with his Serving-men in blue coats]
GLOUCESTER I am come to survey the Tower this day:
Since Henry's death, I fear, there is conveyance.
Where be these warders, that they wait not here?
Open the gates; 'tis Gloucester that calls.
First Warder [Within] Who's there that knocks so imperiously? 5
First Serving-Man It is the noble Duke of Gloucester.
Second Warder [Within] Whoe'er he be, you may not be let in.
First Serving-Man Villains, answer you so the lord protector?
First Warder [Within] The Lord protect him! so we answer him:
We do no otherwise than we are will'd. 10
GLOUCESTER Who willed you? or whose will stands but mine?
There's none protector of the realm but I.
Break up the gates, I'll be your warrantize.
Shall I be flouted thus by dunghill grooms?
[ Gloucester's men rush at the Tower Gates, and WOODVILE the Lieutenant speaks within ]
WOODVILE What noise is this? what traitors have we here? 15
GLOUCESTER Lieutenant, is it you whose voice I hear?
Open the gates; here's Gloucester that would enter.
WOODVILE Have patience, noble duke; I may not open;
The Cardinal of Winchester forbids:
From him I have express commandment 20
That thou nor none of thine shall be let in.
GLOUCESTER Faint-hearted Woodvile, prizest him 'fore me?
Arrogant Winchester, that haughty prelate,
Whom Henry, our late sovereign, ne'er could brook?
Thou art no friend to God or to the king: 25
Open the gates, or I'll shut thee out shortly.
Serving-Men Open the gates unto the lord protector,
Or we'll burst them open, if that you come not quickly.
And so after the scene eulogizing Henry V (scene 1), and a scene where the French resistance unifies in strategy around Joan (scene 2), we get a scene where the highest lord in England other than the child king is blocked by the Cardinal of Winchester from entering the seat of government. But notice the stage directions right after Gloucester’s words above: “[Enter to the Protector at the Tower Gates BISHOP OF WINCHESTER and his men in tawny coats].” So the Bishop’s men have tawny coats which contrast with the blue coats (see the stage directions at the beginning quoted above). Blue coats verses tawny coats, white rose verses red rose, English banners verses French banners, the divisions are visually laid out for the audience.
I’m not going to present details of the various divisions; I think you now have the key to the play. The divisions are made possible because the weakness of the king. That’s not to say that Henry VI doesn’t say the right things. He does, for instance here when once again Gloucester and Winchester are at each other’s throats:
KING HENRY VI Uncles of Gloucester and of Winchester,
The special watchmen of our English weal,
I would prevail, if prayers might prevail, 70
To join your hearts in love and amity.
O, what a scandal is it to our crown,
That two such noble peers as ye should jar!
Believe me, lords, my tender years can tell
Civil dissension is a viperous worm 75
That gnaws the bowels of the commonwealth.
Yes exactly, it “gnaws the bowels of the commonwealth.” And do they stop in that very scene? No. Gloucester, in Machiavellian mode, offers his hand of peace to Winchester, who at first refuses, but then in counter Machivellian mode, accepts it with an aside snark, “[Aside] So help me God, as I intend it not!” (III.1: 141). And the King in all his innocence is gleeful.
KING HENRY VI O, loving uncle, kind Duke of Gloucester,
How joyful am I made by this contract!
Away, my masters! trouble us no more;
But join in friendship, as your lords have done.
Join in what friendship? There is only friendship within the various factions, but the seeds of the realm’s chaos are sown.
And the fruits of these divisions are being born on the battlefields of France, where the English, despite heroic effort, are being defeated. The French through Joan take Orléans and Reims, and Charles VIII, the Dauphin, is crowned King of France. The heroism of the English fighting in France is dramatized through the fighting and death of John Talbot, the Earl of Shrewsbury, and his son, young John. Before the battle at Bourdeaux, with the English facing annihilation, old John tries to send young John away from the battle to avoid certain death. Young John refuses and wishes to die if he must fighting with his father. The exchange is delineated in rhyming couplets. Here’s a sample:
TALBOT Shall all thy mother's hopes lie in one tomb?
JOHN TALBOT Ay, rather than I'll shame my mother's womb. 35
TALBOT Upon my blessing, I command thee go.
JOHN TALBOT To fight I will, but not to fly the foe.
TALBOT Part of thy father may be saved in thee.
JOHN TALBOT No part of him but will be shame in me.
TALBOT Thou never hadst renown, nor canst not lose it. 40
JOHN TALBOT Yes, your renowned name: shall flight abuse it?
TALBOT Thy father's charge shall clear thee from that stain.
JOHN TALBOT You cannot witness for me, being slain.
If death be so apparent, then both fly.
TALBOT And leave my followers here to fight and die? 45
My age was never tainted with such shame.
JOHN TALBOT And shall my youth be guilty of such blame?
No more can I be sever'd from your side,
Than can yourself yourself in twain divide:
Stay, go, do what you will, the like do I; 50
For live I will not, if my father die.
TALBOT Then here I take my leave of thee, fair son,
Born to eclipse thy life this afternoon.
Come, side by side together live and die.
And soul with soul from France to heaven fly. 55
Why the couplets? I think it’s there to imply disagreement in love rather than division and discord. And then at the battle, old Talbot comes into the scene mortally wounded and asks for his son.
[Enter Soldiers, with the body of JOHN TALBOT]
TALBOT Thou antic death, which laugh'st us here to scorn,
Anon, from thy insulting tyranny,
Coupled in bonds of perpetuity, 20
Two Talbots, winged through the lither sky,
In thy despite shall 'scape mortality.
O, thou, whose wounds become hard-favour'd death,
Speak to thy father ere thou yield thy breath!
Brave death by speaking, whether he will or no; 25
Imagine him a Frenchman and thy foe.
Poor boy! he smiles, methinks, as who should say,
Had death been French, then death had died to-day.
Come, come and lay him in his father's arms:
My spirit can no longer bear these harms. 30
Soldiers, adieu! I have what I would have,
Now my old arms are young John Talbot's grave.
What a visually dramatic moment that is, father and son dead in each other’s arms.
As to Joan of Arc, or Joan La Pucelle as she is mostly referred to in the play, one has to be disappointed. “La Pucelle” translates into “the maid.” Shakespeare took the common English view as Joan as some sort of sorceress, but I guess what other view could he have taken? This is supposedly haw she is portrayed in Holinshed's Chronicles, Shakespeare’s source for English history. But she is more than a sorceress. At first she is an Amazon. She isn’t just a strategist and inspirational leader, she wields a sword and fights real duels. Here is the exchange between Joan and the Dauphin when they first meet and she convinces him of her supernatural abilities.
JOAN LA PUCELLE Dauphin, I am by birth a shepherd's daughter,
My wit untrain'd in any kind of art.
Heaven and our Lady gracious hath it pleased 75
To shine on my contemptible estate:
Lo, whilst I waited on my tender lambs,
And to sun's parching heat display'd my cheeks,
God's mother deigned to appear to me
And in a vision full of majesty 80
Will'd me to leave my base vocation
And free my country from calamity:
Her aid she promised and assured success:
In complete glory she reveal'd herself;
And, whereas I was black and swart before, 85
With those clear rays which she infused on me
That beauty am I bless'd with which you see.
Ask me what question thou canst possible,
And I will answer unpremeditated:
My courage try by combat, if thou darest, 90
And thou shalt find that I exceed my sex.
Resolve on this, thou shalt be fortunate,
If thou receive me for thy warlike mate.
CHARLES Thou hast astonish'd me with thy high terms:
Only this proof I'll of thy valour make, 95
In single combat thou shalt buckle with me,
And if thou vanquishest, thy words are true;
Otherwise I renounce all confidence.
JOAN LA PUCELLE I am prepared: here is my keen-edged sword,
Deck'd with five flower-de-luces on each side; 100
The which at Touraine, in Saint Katharine's
Out of a great deal of old iron I chose forth.
CHARLES Then come, o' God's name; I fear no woman.
JOAN LA PUCELLE And while I live, I'll ne'er fly from a man. 105
[Here they fight, and JOAN LA PUCELLE overcomes]
CHARLES Stay, stay thy hands! thou art an Amazon
And fightest with the sword of Deborah.
JOAN LA PUCELLE Christ's mother helps me, else I were too weak.
This isn’t the only place she overcomes men in a physical bout. It’s interesting that the Blessed Mother is invoked as the source of her strength. This might have raised eyebrows in Protestant, Elizabethan London, and probably would have been a signal to the audience to disdain her. Notice too there is a suggestion of future sexual liaison between the two (“warlike mate”) which gets expanded a little further in the scene. But the French do put faith in her as sent from Providence. Indeed the religious faith of the French contrast with secular/religious division of the English side, and may have been a reflection of Shakespeare’s contemporaries. For I’m convinced that Shakespeare was a closet “papist” as one neighbor of his in his home town of Stratford-upon-Avon famously said after Shakespeare had died.
Frankly I find the delineation of Joan’s character altogether baffling. One moment she is an Amazon, another a saint, another a witch, another a strumpet, another a liar as she tries to escape execution. Though she contrives victories for most of the play, her powers suddenly cease, and she is captured. As I said above, her character does not feel it came from Shakespeare’s hand.
With Joan’s capture and the hostilities between the English and French come to an end, the play concludes. The French/English division is resolved, but none of the other divisions get resolved. They are left hanging, but of course this is the first part of a trilogy. The next two parts of Henry VI will resolve those loose ends.