Nobody every talks about the Henry VI plays. Actually, none of my professors encouraged me to read them. In fact, most (if not all) of them told me to skip them, usually citing “too many characters” as the reason. And, you know what? There are too many characters. And there’s no use in trying to remember their names because, soon enough, you’ll find yourself drowning in a pool of Exeters, Gloucesters and Winchesters.
When I decided to embark on this whole ‘Complete the Canon in 2017’ thing, I figured I would be able to buy all the plays at my local used bookstore. Although I love Shakespeare more than words can describe, I wasn’t exactly prepared to break the bank for him…especially since I’m a broke graduate student. On a rainy day earlier this month, I took my umbrella and ventured downtown. At the used bookstore, I saw a million copies of Henry IV, Part 1 and Richard III. But no Henry VI. I headed over to the local Barnes and Noble. The histories were positioned on the shelf in ‘order’ of Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2, Henry V, and…I held my breath as I looked down the shelf, but my eyes were only met with copies of Richard III.
“Does this play even exist?” I wondered, before venturing out into the rain empty-handed. Back at my apartment, I went onto Amazon, found the Folger Shakespeare Library edition for around $6, and grumpily resigned to waiting two days for my play to show up. And when it did, I found myself filled with a little bit of dread as I remembered all the ominous warnings that had come from the mouths of teachers past.
But, hey, guess what! I really liked this play. I tend to have very strange taste in plays, and as you’ve probably noticed, I tend to obsess over the histories. They’re so interesting, and so rich that I just can’t imagine why people wouldn’t love them.
My professors, as I mentioned, weren’t wrong. I had to put a bookmark on the dramatis personae, because I kept having to refer back to it. But by act four, I had the hang of things. Kind of. Anyway, let’s move on to what really caught my attention in this boggy swamp of a play.
CHARLES, DAUPHIN OF FRANCE, AND JOAN OF ARC
In Women of Will by Tina Packer, it’s mentioned that the way Shakespeare wrote Joan was inconsistent. This isn’t necessarily false – I loved Joan when she first appeared, but by the time she was being tied to the stake, any interest I had in her had fizzled into mere annoyance. Like Packer says, it’s almost like Shakespeare suddenly had to remind himself that Joan was the enemy – and once that realization hit, she became less of an admirable character and more of a proper antagonist for the English.
I was so tickled by the scene between her and the Dauphin in 1.2:
Thou hast astonished me with thy high terms.
Only this proof I’ll of thy valor make:
In single combat thou shalt buckle with me,
And if thou vanquishest, thy words are true;
Otherwise I renounce all confidence.
I am prepared. Here is my keen-edged sword,
Decked with fine flower-de-luces on each side –
[Aside.] The which at Touraine, in Saint Katherine’s churchyard,
Out of a great deal of old iron I chose forth.
Then come, a’ God’s name! I fear no woman.
And while I live, I’ll ne’er fly from a man.
[Here they fight, and Joan la Pucelle overcomes.]
Stay, stay thy hands! Thou art an Amazon,
And fightest with the sword of Deborah.
Christ’s mother helps me; else I were too weak.
Who’er helps thee, ’tis thou that must help me.
Impatiently I burn with thy desire.
My heart and hands thou hast at once subdued.
Excellent Pucelle, if thy name be so,
Let me thy servant and not sovereign be.
‘Tis the French Dauphin sueth to thee thus.
As it turns out, the quickest way to a man’s heart is through hand-to-hand combat. Charles is now desperately in love with Joan, and she becomes a powerful player in this story as a result.
This play takes a strange, strange turn when Shakespeare reveals that Joan has been offering her blood and soul up to demons. It was an unexpected scene – a bit of the supernatural in a play that is very much grounded in reality. A creative way to nip all of her drama in the bud, I suppose. I’m not sure I felt sorry for Joan when she was being taken to her death. The way she rejects the poor Shepherd, her father, made me hurt a bit for him – although he was wrong to turn against her as well. And her desperate attempts to argue that she was with child would have elicited some pity…except she kept changing her mind as to who the father was. All I could think of by the end was, “Oh, Joan. Give it up.”
As a female character, Joan starts off on a strong note. But as Packer argues in Women of Will, Shakespeare wrote this play when he was quite young. His deep, full understanding of women comes later.
As for the Dauphin, I like him just as much as I like his brother Louis (the Dauphin of Henry V fame) – which is to say: a lot. Charles is a bit more mature than Louis is. I’m not sure Louis would have accepted the abrupt terms of peace that Charles did at the end of this play. Although Charles felt the need to spare his people of more slaughter, Louis may have been too hot-headed to think that critically.
TALBOT AND HIS SON
Ah, Talbot. Warrior extraordinaire! Every Frenchman’s greatest fear! It’s so difficult to connect to a character that is presented largely as an honorable soldier and nothing else. But honor was so important to men in Shakespeare’s time. And not just any kind of honor, but the kind you get from fighting the good fight. In later plays, we’ll see a shift in focus from men being war-obsessed to being lovers and poets. But, for now, soldiers are the bomb. And Talbot is the best there is.
Like I said, it was difficult connect to Talbot. But, oh, the scenes between him and his son John tugged at my poor heart. Here we have a father who is so invested in battle, who is soaked to the bone in honor – but we don’t focus on those traits when he is with John. Around his son, he is simply a father. His only wish is for his son to be happy, healthy – alive.
But John refuses. He is so utterly loyal to his father that he stubbornly refuses to abandon him. He knows he will die, but as long as he is with his brave, honorable father, it doesn’t matter.
O, my dear lord, lo where your son is borne!
Thou antic Death, which laugh’st us here to scorn,
Anon from thy insulting tyranny,
Coupled in bonds of perpetuity,
Two Talbots, wingèd through the lither sky,
In thy despite shall scape mortality. –
O, thou whose wounds become hard-favored Death,
Speak to thy father ere thou yield thy breath!
Brave Death by speaking, whither he will or no.
Imagine him a Frenchman and thy foe. –
Poor boy, he smiles, methinks, as who should say
“Had Death been French, then Death had died today.” –
Come, come, and lay him in his father’s arms;
My spirit can no longer bear these harms.
Soldiers, adieu! I have what I would have,
Now my old arms are young John Talbot’s grave.
And to think that this could have been avoided if Somerset and York had sent their men as promised. Poor Talbot suffers while they deal with their petty, unimportant problems. And he dies with his son in his arms.
I loved how Talbot and his son’s conversations kept to a sort of rhyming gait. They are reflections of one another – and with both their deaths, England becomes hard pressed for men of valor and chivalry.
MARGARET OF ANJOU AND SUFFOLK
We now move into familiar Richard III territory. Here, Margaret is not a batty old lady living on the edges of court, but rather a beautiful, clever maiden who has wandered onto the battlefield. Suffolk’s sudden obsession with her thrusts her down an unlikely path, given that her father the King of Naples is all but broke. But the language between Suffolk and Margaret during their first meeting on the field is so beautiful that I just had to point it out in this post.
Alarum. Enter Suffolk, with Margaret in his hand.
Be what thou wilt, thou art my prisoner.
Gazes on her.
O fairest beauty, do not fear nor fly,
For I will touch thee but with reverent hands.
I kiss these fingers for eternal peace
And lay them gently on thy tender side.
Who art thou? Say, that I may honor thee.
Margaret is my name, and daughter to a king,
The King of Naples, whosoe’er thou art.
An earl I am, and Suffolk I am called.
Be not offended, nature’s miracle;
Thou art allotted to be ta’en by me.
So doth the swan her downy cygnets save,
Keeping them prisoner underneath her wings.
Yet if this servile usage once offend,
Go and be free again as Suffolk’s friend.
She is going.
O, stay! [Aside.] I have no power to let her pass.
My hand would free her, but my heart says no.
As plays the sun upon the glassy streams,
Twinkling another counterfeited beam,
So seems this gorgeous beauty to mine eyes.
Fain would I woo her, yet I dare not speak.
I’ll call for pen and ink and write my mind.
Fie, de la Pole, disable not thyself!
Hast not a tongue? Is she not here?
Wilt thou be daunted at a woman’s sight?
Ay, Beauty’s princely majesty is such
Confounds the tongue and makes the senses rough.
Say, Earl of Suffolk, if thy name be so,
What random must I pay before I pass?
For I perceive I am thy prisoner.
How canst thou tell she will deny thy suit
Before thou make a trial of her love?
Why speak’st thou not? What random must I pay?
In the middle of a filthy, bloody field, we have this somewhat comedic exchange. It really is charming, and it changes the entire tone of the last act. Margaret and Suffolk change roles, and soon enough, Suffolk is speaking to a disengaged Margaret. It’s a well-written and lovely scene. And it leads us to a surprisingly interesting end…
Say, gentle princess, would you not suppose
Your bondage happy, to be made a queen?
To be a queen in bondage is more vile
Than is a slave in base servility.
For princes should be free.
And so shall you,
If happy England’s royal king be free.
Why, what concerns his freedom unto me?
I’ll undertake to make thee Henry’s queen,
To put a golden scepter in thy hand
And set a precious crown upon thy head,
If thou wilt condescend to be my –
Absolutely heart-wrenching. Suffolk quickly corrects himself, going from “my” to “his” in a split second. Margaret is as sharp as a tack, however. When he kisses her, she is not outraged, but rather leaves him with a witty remark. She’s truly a force, and I can’t wait to see more of her in Part 2.
Suffolk ends the play ominously, by telling us that he’ll use Margaret to control Henry VI. And speaking of Henry…I haven’t spoken of him at all, have I? He’s so young, so inexperienced, and comes off as so weak. It’s almost hysterical how quickly he decides to break off his marriage in order to get his hands on Margaret. A true testament to Suffolk’s hidden talents, I suppose. But Henry is nothing like his lion of a father – and I don’t say that because I love Henry V. I say that because it’s true. Henry VI is poised to become a pawn in many a political game, and I don’t think he has the strength to get out of it.
As for Henry V, it’s a bit sad to think that all his hard work was essentially for naught. His death did not come at the right time – and although he is gone, the men of the court bring him up often. They remember him fondly, and it seems like they’re missing the glory days that have gone by. But they are gone indeed, and the seeds of the Wars of the Roses are being planted…
Before I go, I would like to share one last thing:
What! is my Lord of Winchester install’d,
And call’d unto a cardinal’s degree?
Then I perceive that will be verified
Henry the Fifth did sometime prophesy,
‘If once he come to be a cardinal,
He’ll make his cap co-equal with the crown.’
Henry VI, Part 1 was written before Henry V was. And yet, here we have a quote (straight from Henry V’s mouth, allegedly), that is so Hal that it’s almost shocking that the plays weren’t written consecutively.
Trust me to make a post about Henry VI, Part 1 into one about Henry V! Till next time, friends! I’ll see you after I’ve read Henry VI, Part 2, which should happen sometime before this month ends.