King Henry VI, Part One
By Dennis Abrams
Act Two: Fortunes turn as the English assault Orleans and drive out the French. Meanwhile, back in England, the political infighting reaches new heights as rivals Richard Plantagenet and Somerset face each other in the Temple garden, plucking red and white roses to mark their opposing loyalties. The Wars of the Roses – the ongoing battle between the houses of York and Lancaster for control of the crown – have begun (at least symbolically), and when Plantagenet visits his uncle, the dying Edmund Mortimer, the basis for the upcoming war is laid out: Plantagenet’s claim to the English throne rests on the fact that Richard II (House of York) was deposed by Henry IV (Lancaster). And because of that, the hold of the present King Henry VI (Lancaster) is weak.
First off, I loved the scene between Talbot and the Countess of Auvergne, and her line “Alas, this is a child, a seedy dwarf. It cannot be this weak and writhled shrimp/Should struck such terror to his enemies.” “Writhled” might be my new favorite word.
Secondly – did it take you as long to figure out the family tree described by the dying Edmund Mortimer? As best I can describe it: Start with King Edward III. His grandson, Richard II, the legitimate king, son of Edward III’s oldest son, Edward the Black Prince, was deposed by Henry IV, the son of John of Gaunt, the fourth in line of Edward III’s heirs. The Mortimer line, descended from Edward III by his third son, Lionel, Duke of Clarence, which goes to Richard Plantagenet, has, they believe, a stronger claim to the throne then does the line from Henry IV to Henry VI.
And third. Does anyone else find it odd (or interesting) that two acts into the play, and we haven’t yet actually seen or met its title character, Henry VI?
From Mark Van Doren:
“The three parts of “Henry VI” taken together are a massive and masculine performance. They are built with blocks, as befits the youth of their author, Shakespeare…[who] must have learned invaluable lessons from the experience of writing so busy a work, with so many people in it, so many individual and group actions, so many documents from Holinshed to study and trim, so much sheer weight to move. One lesson he had already learned, for “Henry VI” is continuously interesting, not to say exciting. He was to know more, however, about the concealment of machinery and the manipulation of motives.
Here all is explicit. The spring of every action is exposed: each person tells the audience at the top of his voice what he privately intends and what he means publicly to be understood as intending. Enmities are confessed and clear. Conflicts are obvious, as of large bodies moved up to each other and palpably colliding on an open field. There is no mystery or ambiguity of purpose, there are no uninterpretable acts. The fifteenth century is for Shakespeare a time filled solidly with faction; parties split, feuds rage, and oversized heroes growl at one another’s tough throats. Hatred is elementary and theatrical, whether it is the hatred of Gloucester for Winchester, Talbot for Joan of Arc, Margaret for the Duchess of Gloucester and the house of York, Suffolk for Gloucester, York for Clifford, Somerset for York Warwick for Edward IV, Jack Cade for the nobility, Vernon for Basset, or Red for White. No sounder apprenticeship could have been served by a playwright whose destiny it was to be subtle. Subtlety counts most in one who is capable of plainness. Shakespeare was to have his plainness, as indeed he was to keep a necessary portion of it to the end. He could have traveled toward his later plays from no better direction than “Henry VI.” Toward, for example, “Othello,” where the theme of witchcraft taints a whole play from sources somehow hidden, and is not, as here in the persons of Joan and the Duchess of Gloucester, merely an aspect of intrigue or an excuse for calling names.”
Agreed. There is a solidity to this play that is rather striking. And again, except for perhaps some complications in tracing feuds and family lines, the action seems clear and direct as the language itself.
From Harold Goddard:
“…far more important than these plays themselves…is the fact that at or near the beginning of his dramatic career Shakespeare had his intimate attention drawn to the trouble fifteen century. That he did may have been a matter of pure theatrical chance. But if so, it was a fortunate chance and one that had a lasting influence on the young dramatist’s future, for in the rein of Henry VI he came face to face, probably for the first time, with a subject that continued to enthrall him to the end of his days. That subject was nothing more than chaos. In the political turmoil of the fifteen century he encountered chaos itself. Later, in his other Histories and in his Tragedies, he went on to inquire into its causes and effects. Each of the protagonists of his greatest plays, Brutus, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, King Lear, Antony, Cleopatra, Coriolanus, confronts chaos in one form or another. In the brawling factions of Henry VI and the Wars of the Roses there is already a clear forecast of the ‘universal wolf’ of Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida, and at least an intimation of the ominous words of Albany in King Lear:
Humanity must perforce prey on itself,
Like monsters of the deep.
The political chaos of Henry VI is the embryo of the cosmic chaos of King Lear. It would be folly to try to subsume Shakespeare’s works under one head, but, if we were forced to do, one of the least unsatisfactory ways would be to say that they are an attempt to answer the question: What is the cure for chaos?”
This seems to me to be a very valid way of approaching Shakespeare. (Of course there are many road and paths that can take on there.) And, perhaps, one of the reasons that some of the darker plays have seemed entirely too appropriate all throughout the second half of the twentieth century and on into today.
“1 Henry VI opens, with a note of high irony, on the funeral of Henry V. Scarcely is the body of the conqueror of France cold in death when the leaders of church and state begin hurling defiance at each other across his coffin – as their tawny-coated and blue-coated retainers do a little later in the streets of London – and right in the middle of a sentence in which the victor of Agincourt is being compared with Julius Caesar a messenger enters, followed by another, and then another, announcing the crumbling of his newly won empire in France. Well may Joan of Arc cry, in what are perhaps the finest lines and dominating image of the play:
Glory is like a circle in the water,
Which never ceaseth to enlarge itself,
Till by broad spreading it disperse to naught.
Under another aspect, the story is just an interlude between the death of one ‘strong’ king, Henry V, and the emergence of another, Richard III – a long succession of ambitions, rivalries, jealousies, treacheries, brawls, battles, crime and treason, of which the superbly done scenes dedicated to Jack Cade’s Rebellion [Coming up in Part 2!] are somehow both a symbol and a reduction to the absurd. Throughout, with rare exceptions, there is nothing but the subjection of the public welfare to private ambition and greed. [MY NOTE: Nothing we’d know anything about that kind of thing today. Thank GOD we’ve progressed.] Even a mind less alert than Shakespeare’s would have felt bound to investigate the causes and to trace the results of such a spectacle.
Here, in the death of Henry V and the sudden loss of France, was an extreme example of nemesis, of ‘the fall of princes,’ or at any rate of the sudden and utter collapse of all that a mighty monarch’s life had stood for, the debacle of an imperialistic dream.
Here, writ large, was the truth that chaos in the state is part and parcel of chaos in the minds and soul of individuals, that the political problem is, once and for all, a function of the psychological function. It is an old truth that he who ruleth himself is better than he who taketh a city. Shakespeare seems to have sensed very early – what the world at large has still to learn – that he who cannot rule himself is not entitled to rule a city, still less a nation.
Here was a demonstration that tyranny and anarchy, force and the lawless resistance to force, are extremes that meet, each so terrible that its opposite seems a relief – until it comes. And here, therefore, was the inevitable question: Is history doomed to be nothing but a perpetual oscillation between the two?
Already, even in this play, there is a hint of another way out, a possible escape from the fatal circle. It is found in various little touches, but chiefly in the figure of Henry VI himself.”
And finally, Tony Tanner’s examination of the scene between Talbot and the Countess of Auvergne. (This is part of his look at the use of “three” throughout the play – three heroic English generals, three interrupted ceremonies, three French women – including the Countess of Auvergne.)
“Very different is the strange little incident involving the Countess of Auvergne and her attempt to trap Talbot in her castle. This scene is completely Shakespeare’s invention. Tillyard dismissed it as an ‘irrelevant anecdote,” introduced as fun for the audience. It is rather more interesting than that. The countess has asked to entertain Talbot, who has graciously, he is a knight – accepted. Upon seeing him, the countess evinces surprise that he is so small and un-heroic looking – ‘What! Is this the man?’
I see report is fabulous and false,
I thought I should have seen some Hercules…
Alas, this is a child, a silly dwarf!
After this piece of opening politeness, the countess announces that he is her prisoner (such is her plot). She adds that, in a way, he has been her ‘prisoner’ for a long time.
Long time thy shadow hath been thrall to me,
For in my gallery thy picture hangs.
But now the substance shall endure the like,
And I will chain these legs and arms of thine…
Talbot simply laughs, as well he might since half his army is waiting outside the door. But he goes on to say that she never had more than his shadow anyway.
Countess: Why, art thou the man?
Talbot: I am indeed.
Countess: Then have I substance too.
Talbot: No, no, I am but shadow of myself:
You are deceived, my substance is not here,
For what you see is but the smallest part
And least proportion of humanity.
And the countess finds this a riddle:
He will be here, and yet he is not here.
The countess’s mistake is to identify bodily presence – which in this case is relatively puny – with true ‘substance.’ But Talbot’s real – male – ‘substance’ is in his name, his fame, and the power at his disposal. Just as he is, there alone in the countess’s room, temporarily reduced to his body, he is effectively, like his painted image, a ‘shadow’ (Doubly so, since ‘shadow’ was also a word for an actor – Shakespeare is already beginning to exploit the available ironic analogies between history and theater.) The countess recognizes her mistake:
Victorious Talbot, pardon my abuse;
I find thou art no less than fame hath bruited
And more than may be gathered by thy shape.
This episode represents a complete defeat of the feminine. The virile old English knight is immune to the effeminizations of France. But he is a dying breed.”
The Weekend’s Reading:
King Henry VI, Part One, Act 3
My next posting: Sunday evening/Monday morning
Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.