Henry VI, Part One
By Dennis Abrams
Act 1: Henry V, England’s greatest king, is dead. His funeral is interrupted by the news that his greatest legacy – the conquest of France – is under threat and territory is being regained by the French. The English nobles, in the absence of the young King, Henry VI, begin to squabble amongst themselves; Gloucester (Duke of) and Winchester (Bishop of) in particular jostle for political advantage and their hatred for each other spills over into brawling between their supporters. Meanwhile, in the battle for Orleans, the French are beaten back. BUT…the peasant Joan la Pucelle arrives, and presents herself to the Dauphin as France’s salvation, and when she bests him in single combat, it appears that she is truly gifted with superhuman powers. Under her direction, the French fire on English positions. Salisbury is mortally wounded and Talbot is disarmed. Orleans falls to the French.
So far so good. I’m much enjoying the way in which Shakespeare, even this early on the play, brings to life the two conflicts which dominate its action – actual war in France, and political war at home. I’ve read that this is one of his most action-packed plays – over twenty fights take place, many of which take play in hand-to-hand combat on stage – such as Joan la Pucelle’s thrilling defeat of the French Dauphin – and they help to provide some of the play’s most stunning dramatic effects.
What is interesting to note about the many stage fights is that, as many recent critics have pointed out, late sixteenth audiences (a large number of who were young men), would have not stood for the kind of dull stylized choreographed fights that passes for “fighting.” Real weapons would have used – and swordsmanship was something in which audiences still took a near-professional interest. Add in the fact that the play was first performed at the Rose, whose shallow stage and relatively intimate scale would have added additional thrills to the fight scenes, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, at least in part, Henry VI, Part One, was written to flaunt Shakespeare’s ability to create explosive, even dangerous drama. And while Nashe does defend the play’s elevated tragic and historical purposes, it seems likely that a large percentage of those tens of thousands of viewers were there to see the battle scenes.
One thing I think is evident even at this stage of the reading: 1 Henry VI (as I shall refer to it from hereon in), specializes in depicting grand set-piece occasion that are then violent disrupted. This becomes clear from the very beginning with Henry V’s funeral. England’s lords (or political elite in today’s terms) are grouped around the coffin to pay their last respects when an argument suddenly breaks out:
Winchester: He was a king blest of the King of Kings.
Under the French, the dreadful judgment day
So dreadful will not be as was his sight.
The battles of the Lord of Hosts he fought.
The Church’s prayers made him so prosperous.
Gloucester: The Church? Where is it? Had not churchmen prayed,
His thread of life had not soon decayed.
What is so brilliant here is the way in which Shakespeare transforms an innocent funeral eulogy into naked aggression. 1 Henry VI’s lords are full-time politicians: even the funeral of their erstwhile monarch tur5ns into an opportunity to score political points. Bedford makes an attempt to make peace:
Cease, case these jars, and rest your mind in peace.
Let’s to the alter. Heralds, wait on us.
Instead of gold, we’ll offer up our arms –
Since arms avail not, now that Henry’s dead.
Posterity, await for wretched years,
When, at their mothers’ moistened eyes, babes shall suck.
Our Isle be made a marish of salt tears,
And none but women left to wail the dead.
Henry the Fifth, thy ghost I invocate:
Prosper this realm; keep it from civil broils;
Combat with adverse planets in the heavens.
A far more glorious star thy soul will make
Than Julius Caesar or bright —
Enter a Messenger
Bedford’s attempt to conjure Henry V’s ‘ghost’ is abruptly brought to a halt, and his attempt to restore calm is, rather appropriately, left incomplete. In a neat linkage, the messenger interrupting him brings news that the conquest of France, the dead King’s greatest triumph, is already under threat, bringing together the two themes, international and domestic war, simultaneously. Henry’s funeral (and indeed Henry himself) is forgotten, and the play’s full-scale depiction of political fragmentation immediately begins – before too long, the servants of Gloucester and Winchester will be brawling openly on stage.
“In no other history play does Shakespeare so freely disrupt and alter the time sequence of Holingshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotlande and Irelande. He brings events together that were years apart; he inverts the order of their happening; he makes sudden what was slow; he makes simultaneous what was separate. He expands and contracts; he omits – and invents. As Andrew Cairncross well put it in his introduction to the Arden edition of the play, Shakespeare throws ‘the events of thirty years into the melting pot’ and, just because he makes so free with chronology, he has to ‘avoid precise indication of time’ (there are no dates) – ‘events must happen, as it were, in a great sea of time with no fixed points of reference but the death of Henry V behind and the Wars of the Roses before’. Just to give a few examples of the liberties Shakespeare took with his material: the episodes in the play cover more than thirty years, from the start of Henry’s reign (1422) to the death of the heroic Talbot (at Bordeaux in 1453); but, from the start, disparate events are yoked together – thus, the siege of Orleans (1428-9) is depicted as taking place during the funeral of Henry V (seven years earlier). Joan was burned in 1431, while Talbot was buried in 1453 – yet in the play, she lives to see him dead. Joan was captured in 1430, though not by York as in the play. In the play, this is immediately followed by the (completely fictitious) capture and wooing of Margaret by Suffolk. In fact, negotiations for Henry’s marriage did not take place until 1444. Burgundy’s defection from the English takes place over twenty years in Hall. In the play, it is effected on the instant as a result of a patriotic appeal by Joan (quite unhistorical – she had been burned some years previously). And so on. Shakespeare is tightening his pattern – pointing up the conflict between the once heroic English and the devious, effeminate French; the undermining of chivalric ideals, the decay of feudal loyalties, and loss of old values; the fading of the old, noble heroic ethos, and the rise of a generation driven by ruthlessness, expediency, and cunning [MY NOTE: One could, I suspect, make a comparison with America’s political system], and (this is not so commonly noted) the capitulation – on certain fronts – of the masculine to the feminine. Everywhere, ceremony is, if not drowned, then disrupted, spoiled, profaned. The sense of growing disaster and impending dissolution is relentless. Chaos is not quite come again; but is surely not far away.
We might start by considering interrupted ceremony, since this is how the play starts. A history play dealing with kingly matters is bound to contain a lot of pageantry – processions, flourishes, drums, flags. This is the very panoply of the feudal courtly world – its binding ritual: everyone in their place; hierarchy and degree visibly enacted; order celebrated and power and authority manifested. So this play opens with the great solemn Dead March at Henry V’s funeral. But the dignified exequies and formal lamentations are almost immediately disrupted by a most unseemly squabble between Gloucester and Winchester, signs of a bitter rivalry which will dominate the first part of the play. Bedford seeks to turn their attention away from private rancour and back to the public ritual – ‘cease these jars…Let’s to the alter” (‘Jars’ is a recurrent word in this long study of discord.) Bedford tries to invoke and prolong the spirit of the dead king:
Henry the Fifth, thy ghost I invocate:
Prosper this realm, keep it from civil broils,
Combat with adverse planets in the heavens!
A far more glorious star thy soul will make
Than Julius Caesar or bright –
But just there, with the name of Julius Caesar on his lips, he is interrupted by a messenger with tidings ‘Of loss, of slaughter, and discomfiture’ – more specifically, with news of the loss of seven towns in France. ‘What treachery was used?’ asks incredulous Essex. ‘No treachery, but want of men and money.’ This is important. Throughout, it is made clear that, for all the talk of the diabolical French and witchcraft, for every setback and loss, England has only itself to blame. ‘Through dissention at home, all lost abroad.’ A second messenger brings ‘letters full of bad mischance’ (the Dauphin has been crowned king). Then a third messenger brings the ‘dismal’ news of Talbot’s capture. I stress ‘three’ because the play is full of triads (observed by Lawrence V. Ryan and others). I will come back to this. The scene ends, interestingly, exactly as it began – that is, it starts with speeches from Bedford, Gloucester, Exeter, Winchester, and it ends with speeches from then min the same order, as they variously exit. The king being an infant, they are responsible for managing the realm. They leave to take up their duties – except for Winchester. He remains behind to give the first soliloquy in the history plays:
Each hath made his place and function to attend;
I am left out; for me nothing remains.
But long I will not be Jack out of office.
The king from Eltham I intend to send
And sit at chiefest stern of public weal.
The repetition witnessed in the entrances and exits suggests order, an ordering; things and people in their proper sequences. But the amoral candour, the revealed ambition of the voice alone, offers a violation and threat to that order. As disorder and disarray increase, so do the soliloquies and asides; while ritual, processional confidences and enactments wane.”
And finally, from Marjorie Garber:
“The works listed in the First Folio as The Second Part of Henry the Sixt, with the death of the Good Duke Humfrey, and The Second Part of Henry the Sixt, with the death of the Duke of Yorke – the plays familiarly known to modern theatergoers as Henry VI Part 2 and Part 3 – were written, performed, and published in quarto form as a two-part sequence before what was called The First Part of Henry the Sixt was written, making 1 Henry VI what would be called a ‘prequel.’ It has affinities with both the flashback and the movie ‘trailer’ since it fills in the blanks (why was the long civil war that was about to ensue called ‘the Wars of the Roses’?) and entices the audience with hints of things to come (the pride of Gloucester’s wife, mentioned in act 1, scene 1, although she does not appear until Part 2;…).
Parts 2 and 3 appeared in print in 1495 and 1595 as The First Part of the Convention of the Two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster and The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York and Good King Henry the Sixth. Two-part sequences of this sort were in vogue (Marlowe’s two Tamburlaine plays are an example); a three-part sequence would have been a surprising innovation. There is historical evidence, from the obligatory registering or licensing of plays with the Master of the Revels, that what we call Part 1 was licensed for the stage at a later date. So, despite the fact that modern productions and mid-twentieth-century critics have tended to regard it as the first in a ‘cycle’ or nationalist epic, 1 Henry VI was very likely written as a freestanding play, although its subject matter and its title in the Folio link it directly with Part 2 and Part 3.
The order has direct and important consequences for an assessment of the play’s content and design. For if the play the Folio editors called The First Part was written after the other two plays had been put on, audiences would be especially attentive to details, hints, and foreshadowings that ‘predicted’ the events – involving many of the same characters – that they had already seen onstage. Suffolk’s portentous assertion in the play’s final lines, ‘I will rule both her, the King, and realm,’ would the promise what had already been performed, both in history and in the theater. And young King Henry’s sudden access of willful romantic feeling and sexual desire, after a play in which he largely appears as a child and a cipher, points toward the action of Part 2 and Part 3, and ultimately to the lurking figure of old queen Margaret in the fourth play in this historical sequence, Richard III. Richard III, we should note, begins with a funeral cortege, just as does 1 Henry VI; in Richard III the body is that of Margaret’s weak, pious, ineffectual husband, Henry VI, ‘poor key-cold figure of a holy king,’ offering the greatest possible contrast to his father and predecessor, the mythic martial hero Henry V, whose funeral and coffin dominate the stage in the opening moments of 1 Henry VI.
Yet however independently written these plays – and recent scholars have debated whether it is really appropriate to read them as a sequence, a trilogy (the three Henry VI plays), or tetralogy (with Richard III) [My vote!], or an effective national epic – they contain, both individually and taken together, patterns of symmetry, echo, inversion, and opposition that demonstrate their powerful effectiveness as dramatic vehicles, and as stage pictures. Indeed, for these early Shakespeare history plays, patterns of action are as important as patterns of language; repeated events, scenes that echo one another with a difference, elements of emblematic staging all carry a considerable weight of meaning.
As the funeral procession files across the stage at the beginning of 1 Henry VI, the Duke of Bedford’s opening lines, which gesture simultaneously at the stage and the world, set the scene:
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 –
King Henry the Fifth, too famous to live long,
England ne’er lost a king of so much worth.
‘Heavens’ here is a technical stage term, the Elizabethan word for the wooden roof, often decorated with stars and sun, that protected the actors from the open sky. Both the theater and the world should mourn, Bedford instructs, setting up a series of celestial oppositions (day versus night; crystal comets versus ‘bad, revolting stars’) that foreshadow the many sets of early rivals (England and France; male and female; Gloucester and Winchester; Lancaster and York; witchcraft and reason; bastard and legitimate) that will structure the play. As always in Shakespearean drama, key words of the opening scene will resound, thematically as well as verbally, throughout the rest of the dramatic action. [My italics]
The series of encomiums – spoken in turn by Bedford, Gloucester, Exeter, and Winchester – that praise the dead hero-king first seem to reinforce the double sense of pride and loss. (‘England ne’er had a king until his time,’ says Gloucester. ‘We mourn in black; why mourn we not in blood?’ responds Exeter. ‘Henry is dead, and never shall revive.’) But when the Bishop, later Cardinal of Winchester, invokes the Church, the fateful divisions among these rivals begin to reveal themselves. The fact that Bedford is a heroic old man, and that he mourns a heroic young one (‘too famous to live long’), is also striking, since this play, like many of Shakespeare’s history plays (and, indeed, comedies) of this period, will stress the difference between virile, impetuous youth and impotent, if sometimes wise, old age.
Gloucester claims that churchmen like Winchester prefer weak rulers to strong ones: ‘None do you like but an effeminate prince./Whom like a schoolboy you may overawe.’ ‘Effeminate’ in this context, as often in the period, means not ‘homosexual’ but ‘feeble, unmanly, enervated’ (and thus conventionally ‘like a woman.’) ‘Effeminate’ in other Shakespearean contexts also means ‘self-indulgent, voluptuous, and excessively devoted to women’; importantly, none of these seems at all appropriate for the boy-king Henry VI – until those telltale final lines…when in act 5, responding to Suffolk’s description of Margaret of Anjou, the King describes himself as sick, inflamed, and torn by the unaccustomed passions of sudden sexual desire, his own internal civil war. But this question of manliness and unmanliness, together with a parallel question about the proper role of women, will play a central role in the play. Bedford fears lest the death of Henry V leave England a place entirely populated by women:
Posterity, await for wretched years,
When, at their mothers’ moistened eyes, babies shall suck,
Our isle be made a marish of salt tears,
And one but women be left to wail the dead.
In the main action of the play, the threat posed by Joan la Pucelle, who defeats the French Dauphin in single combat in act 1, scene 3, and then as ‘a woman clad in armour’ does the same to the English hero Talbot in act 1, scene 7, is first juxtaposed to the weakness of both the French and the English rulers, the Dauphin and Henry VI, and then gives way to the power of a different kind of ‘manly’ woman, Margaret.”
My next post: Thursday evening/Friday morning.
Our next reading: 1 Henry VI, Act 2