“Civil dissension is a viperous worm/That gnaws the bowels of the commonwealth.”

Henry VI, Part One

Act Three

By Dennis Abrams


Act Three:  The King makes his first appearance, struggling to smooth over relations between Gloucester and Winchester.  He also attempts to calm the York-Lancaster struggle by making Plantagenet Duke of York, which only serves to alienate his kinsman, Somerset.  Henry then heads to France to be crowned there, only to find more strife between supporters of York and Lancaster when he arrives.  Joan continues to use her wile and witchy ways – she leads the French in disguise to take Rouen, and then persuades the Duke of Burgundy (Henry’s uncle) to switch sides.


Loved this putdown from Gloucester to Winchester:

No, prelate, such is thy audacious wickedness,

Thy lewd, pestiferous, and dissentious pranks,

As very infants prattle of thy pride.

And my new favorite word is from this line:

Thou art a most pernicious usurer,

Froward by nature, enemy to peace,

Lascivious, wanton, more than well beseems

A man of they profession and degree.

Froward.  I can hardly wait to use it in a sentence in my real life.


If, as Harold Goddard pointed out in my last point, “chaos” is one of the major themes of this play (and most of Shakespeare); Maurice Charney adds to that the themes of bickering and dissension:

“The conflict between the houses of Lancaster and York and their adherents is deliberately exaggerated and made to resemble the feud between Capulets and Montagues in Romeo and Juliet, as is the conflict between Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, and Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester, and their servingmen in blue coats and tawny coats.  Shakespeare invents the Temple Garden Scene, in which the conflict of the Wars of the Roses breaks out in its literal form – Yorkists pluck white roses, Lancasterians red – but we never find out in this scene what the issues are, legal or personal, that are the basis of the conflict.  The scene is vivid but impenetrable.

…It is a theme of the play that France is lost through the bickering of the English nobles.  The first part of Henry VI makes striking use of a related set of key words:  dissension, jarring, discord, strife, broils, faction, sedition, and other forms of these words.  If we take the word dissension as our example, we note from Spevack’s Concordance that of the ten uses in Shakespeare, six are from this play, and dissentious provides another example.

Act 3, scene 1 (the quarrel between Gloucester and Winchester) has four occurrences of the word along with many other strife words.  As King Henry says conclusively:

Civil dissension is a viperous worm

That gnaws the bowels of the commonwealth.

At the beginning of the scene, Gloucester accuses Winchester of ‘lewd, pestiferous, and dissentious pranks,’ which Winchester denies with characteristic circumspection.  ‘And for dissention, who preferreth peace/More than I do? – except I may be provoked.’  As Exeter summarizes the action in his scene-ending soliloquy:

This late dissension grown betwixt the peers

Burns under feigned ashes of forged love

And will at last break out into a flame.

The ‘base and envious discord’ between Gloucester and Winchester will ‘breed.’  Exeter provides an ominous chorus to the scene.”

Charney goes on to discuss the role that strong women play in the play, and note that his take on the Countess of Auvergne scene is rather different from Tanner’s:

Henry VI, Part I, is notable for its presentation of strong and decisive women, which looks ahead to the powerful women of Shakespeare’s comedies of the 1590s.  Most remarkable is Joan of Arc, but we also have the Countess of Auvergne and Margaret of Anjou (who appears in all the other plays of this tetralogy).  Let me begin with the remarkable scene of the Countess of Auvergne, in which she tries to entrap Talbot and thereby destroy the English.  She lays her plot carefully before Talbot enters, and she covets fame like an Amazonian equivalent of a male warrior (like Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, in A Midnight Summer Night’s Dream and Two Noble Kinsmen).

I shall be as famous by this exploit

As Scythian Tomyris by Cyrus’ death.

Tomyris was a queen of Scythia who revenged herself against Cyrus’s slaughter with her son.  She cut his head off and threw it into a wineskin filled with human blood.  We also learn that the Countess, like Joan of Arc in this p lay and Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester in 2 Henry VI, has been practicing sorcery with Talbot’s portrait.  ‘Long time thy shadow hath been thrall to me,/For in my gallery thy picture hangs.’

What is remarkable about the Countess is her vivid and slangy contempt for Talbot, whom she has long revered as ‘some Hercules/A second Hector.’  Now when she confronts him in person, she finds him a disappointing, unheroic figure:

Alas, this is a child, a silly dwarf:

It cannot be this weak and writhled shrimp

Should strike such terror to his enemies.

As the principle male role of the play, Talbot the actor could hardly have been a ‘silly dwarf’ or a ‘weak and writhled [= wrinkled] shrimp.  Shrimp is the comic word that Holofernes uses for the page Moth, who represents Hercules in the Play of the Nine Worthies:

‘And when he was a babe, a child, a shrimp,

Thus did he strangle serpents in his manus.’

(Love’s Labor’s Lost, 5.2. 586-87)

Love’s Labor Lost is a comedy written around the same time as 1 Henry VI , and shrimp is obviously an amusing, affected word.

When Talbot laughs in her face, the Countess adopts a tragic, vaunting tone:  ‘Laughest thou, wretch?  Thy mirth shall turn to moan,’ but she is forced to put aside her heroic pose by the sudden appearance of Talbot’s soldiers.  Talbot is strikingly gallant in dealing with the Countess of Auvergne as a misguided lady, and asks only for wine and cates, or dainty food, to serve his ‘soldiers’ stomachs.  I think the Countess of Auvergne must be most disappointed by the fact that Talbot does not take her seriously as a woman warrior in the style of Tomyris.

Joan of Arc is the most unforgettable character in Henry VI, Part I, but she is not the quizzical, saintly maiden of later drama, as in Shaw’s Saint Joan.  Rather, she is represented by Shakespeare as a clever, well-spoken imposter like Jack Cade in 2 Henry VI

Shakespeare plays on the doubleness of the word pucelle, meaning either a girl or maid (presumably a virgin) or a drab, a slut, a courtesan, as in Minsheu’s Dictionary:  a ‘trull, or stinking wench.’  Thus Joan La Pucelle is either ‘France’s saint’ (1.6.29), in the Dauphin’s words, or, in the words of Talbot, ‘Pucelle or pussel, Dolphin or dogfish.’  Later Talbot calls her ‘Pucelle, that witch, that damned sorceress,’ and throughout there is implied wordplay on pucelle (spelled and pronounced ‘pussel’ or ‘puzzel’) and pizzle, the penis of an animal, especially a pull, with punning reference to the character of Pistol (pronounced ‘pizzle’) in 2 Henry VI.

Talbot delights in addressing Joan of Arc as witch, as if this word were a kind of talisman to ward off the evils of France.  When she drives the English before her to retake Orleans, Talbot can think of her only as a fiend and not as a woman warrior:

Devil or devil’s damn, I’ll conjure thee

Blood will I draw on thee, thou art a witch,

And straightway give thy soul to him thou serv’st.

Presumably, whoever could draw blood from a witch was free from her power.  Again, Talbot cannot acknowledge Joan’s power as an Amazonian warrior, but must attribute her victory to the devil.  ‘A witch, by fear, not force, like Hannibal,/Drives back our troops and conquers as she lists.’  Talbot then continues with an Homeric-like simile characteristic of Shakespeare’s early, rhetorical style:  ‘So bees with smoke and doves with noisome stench/Are from their hives and houses driven away.’  Like Richard II, Talbot the military hero pauses a moment for apt poetic exclamation.  Again, at Joan’s victory at Rouen, Talbot offers the same explanation of her power:  ‘Pucelle, that witch, that damned sorceress,/Hath wrought this hellish mischief unawares.’


Marjorie Garber adds,

“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.

Joan, known as La Pucelle, the Virgin (or, as her name sometimes appears in the Folio, Joan Puzel), represented the paradox of purity/promiscuity, since ‘puzel’ and ‘pussel’ meant ‘slatterenly woman’ or ‘slut.’  (A later Shakespearean instance of this same erotic paradox can be found in Hamlet’s despairing command to Ophelia, ‘Get thee to a nunnery,’ where ‘nunnery’ in the period would connote both convent and brothel.  For Ophelia, as for Joan, the question of femininity is posed in terms later made famous by Freud:  the only two roles imagined for them were virgin or whore.)  The term ‘La Pucelle’ was sometimes taken, in the sixteenth century, as Joan’s surname.  Throughout the play, it is used as the occasion for often derogatory wordplay, like Talbot’s ‘Pucelle or pucelle, Dolphin or dog-fish,’ with glances at the modern word ‘puzzle’ (one of the alternative spellings for ‘pucelle’), and even as ‘pizzle,’ penis.  Joan is the pucelle (virgin) who is also a puzzel (slut), and who may have a pizzle (since she dresses and fights like a man.

In fact, Joan’s cross-dressing sets up an interesting interplay between the historical and the metatheatrical, since the behavior for which the historical Joan was burned at the stake (wearing the clothes of the ‘opposite sex’) was standard theatrical practice for boy actors playing women on the English stage.  Puritans and other critics of the early modern theater in England objected to stage plays because they defied the injunction in Deuteronomy that ‘the woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment.’  (Deuteronomy 22:5).  Nonetheless, since women were not permitted to perform upon the public stage, male-to-female cross-dressing was central, intrinsic, and normative in the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.  The scandal produced by Joan’s male costume in the play – and in the historical trial that condemned her – often revisits both the material facts of life on the stage and the particular resistance manifested by religious opposition.  In Joan’s case, of course, the transformation is from female to male costume rather than, as with the boy actor, from male to female.  Her particular violation of sensibilities had to do not only with a loss of supposed femininity, but also with her assumption of the rights and privileges of a man.”



And finally, I’d like to point out that Shakespeare’s portrait of Joan is one of the earliest in literature.  As best as I can tell, the only ones that were earlier was a poem, “Song in Honor of Joan of Arc,” composed during her lifetime by Christine de Pizan in 1429 (best known today for The Book of the City of Ladies), and a drama of the Siege of Orleans, written by Anonymous (possibly Jacques Millet) – the earliest surviving edition is from 1450, although it was originally performed in Orleans in 1435 – just four years after Joan’s death.


My next post:  Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning.

Our next reading:  King Henry VI, Part One, Act four


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2 Responses to “Civil dissension is a viperous worm/That gnaws the bowels of the commonwealth.”

  1. Eddie Chism says:

    I’m fascinated by the portrayal of Joan of Arc and how it contrasts so greatly with what we usually see of her (Shaw, Dreyer, etc.). Not only do the English characters describe her as a witch (something that is certainly just what we would expect them to do), but Shakespeare goes a step further in Act 5 in terms of discrediting her! (I’ll hold off on that until the next posting so I’m not posting on material people have not read.)

  2. Mahood says:

    Your right Dennis, ‘froward’ is a great word – it shows up a lot in the King James Bible too!

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