Henry VI, Part One
By Dennis Abrams
Act Four: Henry’s triumphal coronation is cut short with news of Burgundy’s treason, and things go from bad to worse when he is called upon to mediate yet another quarrel between supporters of York and Lancaster and unwittingly ends up favoring the Lancastrians. Given all that, it’s hardly a surprise that the battle for Bordeaux goes so spectacularly wrong – Talbot’s forces are left stranded while York and Somerset blame the other while refusing to send additional forces – Talbot and his son are killed.
One great scene after another. Henry’s coronation in France and his rather inept attempt to smooth over the feud between York and Somerset, only leading go more discord:
Exeter: ‘Tis much when scepters are in children’s hands,
But more when envy breeds unkind division:
There comes the ruin, there begins confusion.
Talbot’s growing apprehension of his fate, his pleading with his son to escape, the sad failed attempt by Lucy to get either Somerset or York to send additional troops to come to Talbot’s rescue (both of whom have political points to score), and finally, the death of Talbot and his son and Lucy’s crossing of enemy lines to recover their bodies. Very impressive – and I can only imagine what it would look like onstage.
From Marjorie Garber, a very interesting and insightful (I think) look at Talbot:
“It is Talbot who has in this play both the central and the most ‘rounded’ role. His feeling of confusion when bested by Joan (‘My thoughts are whirled like a potter’s wheel./I know not where I am nor what to do’), his willingness to fight in single combat, his affection for his son, and his loyalty to the King and to England all set him apart. The scenes in which he tries to persuade his namesake son, young John, to flee the battle and his certain death, have great pathos, and they prefigure other loyal fighting pairs of fathers and sons in the later plays (for example, the briefly but powerfully sketched relationship between the old and the young Sirward in Macbeth, as well as the tragically confused and mistaken fathers and sons soon to appear in Part 2. ‘Come – dally not, be gone,’ urges the father. John answers:
Is my name Talbot? Am I your son,
And shall I fly? O, if you love my mother,
Dishonour not her honourable name
To make a bastard and a slave of me.
The world will say he is not Talbot’s blood,
That barely fled when noble Talbot stood.
This couplet, rhyming ‘blood’ and ‘stood,’ begins a longer passage, all in couplets, in which the son makes his case and the father first resists, and then, with mingled pride and sadness, accepts his son’s decision:
Talbot: If we both stay, we both are sure to die.
John: Then let me stay and, father, do you fly.
Talbot: Shall all thy mother’s hopes lie in one tomb?
John: Ay, rather than I’ll shame my mother’s womb.
Talbot: Upon my blessing I command thee go.
John: To fight I will, but not to fly the foe.
John: Stay, go, do what you will; the like do I,
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.
These extended quotations demonstrate the ways in which an earlier writing style, more rhymed and end-stopped than the familiar blank verse of Shakespeare’s later plays can carry its own considerable burden of expressive emotion. Indeed, the restraint and orderliness of the couplet form seem in a way to mirror the older man’s attempt to hold his own emotions in check – as well as the curious and quickly agonized joy with which he accepts his son’s profession of nobility and fatality. While there is no doubt that the later plays have a greater range, early works like this one have an extraordinarily fine sense of composition, theatricality, and – when they strive for it – emotional power.
Young John Talbot’s emphasis on his own legitimacy (‘if you love my mother,/Dishonour not her honourable name/To make a bastard…of me’) underscores a theme that is central to the construction of the play, where the ‘bastards’ (Joan, who disavows her parents, Joan’s fictive ‘child,’ which she claims, in desperation, to be carrying at the end of the play; the Bishop/Cardinal of Winchester, the illegitimate son of John of Gaunt, twitted by Gloucester as ‘(thou bastard of my grandfather’); and England’s enemy the Bastard of Orleans, who in this play introduces Joan to the Dauphin of France, are arrayed against the trueborn. Talbot himself will inveigh against
The ireful bastard Orleans, that drew blood
From thee, my boy, and had the maidenhood
Of thy first fight. I soon encountered,
And interchanging blows, I quickly shed
Some of his bastard blood…
That this emphasis is purposeful seems evident from the fact that the historical Sir John Talbot, too, had an illegitimate son, Henry Talbot, who also died in the same battle. Hall, the principal source here, calls him Talbot’s ‘bastard sonne Henry Talbot,’ and lists the two sons, together, as those who died ‘manfully’ alongside their father. By omitting the heroic bastard Henry, the play simplifies the opposition between ‘legitimate’ and ‘bastard,’ pointing directly toward the ensuing scenes in which Joan pretends to be pregnant (Richard, Duke of York: ‘Now heaven forfend – the holy maid with child?’) and claims in rapid succession the Dauphin, Alencon, and Rene, King of Naples, as the father of her supposititious child.
Incidentally, Talbot’s word ‘maidenhood,’ which was not uncommon as a term for being ‘untried’ in experience in general and in battle in particular, could be applied to men as well as to women (Romeo and Juliet will be described as possessing ‘a pair of stainless maidenhoods”). But the old soldier’s choice of this word further stresses the analogy and comparison between his young son and Joan, ‘the holy maid.’ Joan herself will later report her battlefield to him: ‘Thou maiden youth, be vanquished by a maid.’ Likewise John Talbot kneels to his father in homage, later Joan will ostentatiously refuse to kneel, as an obedient child should, to the shepherd she now repudiates as her father. The culmination of this comparison can be found in the stage picture at the close of the battle scene, when Talbot dies with his son in his arms: ‘Now my old arms are young John Talbot’s grave.’ ‘See where he lied inhearsed in the arms/Of the most bloody nurser of his harms,’ observes the Duke of Burgundy. The instruction to ‘see’ directs the eye, and what the audience sees when it follows this invitation is an all-male Pieta: instead of the Virgin Mary cradling her son, Talbot the ‘nurser’ cradling his.
To an early modern audience, as to a modern or postmodern one, this staging would present an unmistakable and powerful spectacle. In essence, it remakes a Catholic icon into a patriotic English one (we should bear in mind, though, that the historical Talbot, who lived long before the founding of the English Church, would have been as much a Catholic as his French rivals).”
And briefly, I’d like to make the point that what I think we’re seeing in the play is the male world in serious trouble. The play’s male characters, in particular Henry VI himself, seem to be steadily becoming…unstuck – haunted by the triumphs of their father’s generations, and struggling to prove themselves as worthy heirs. And although Henry is older in this play than his historic counterpart (who was just nine months old at the time of his father’s death), he is still depicted as dangerously young, naïve and seemingly ineffectual. If we look at his first words in the play, which attempt (and fail) to stop the growing argument between Gloucester and Winchester, it sounds as if his only knowledge of what conflict is was found in school textbooks:
O, what a scandal it is 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
That gnaws the bowels of the commonwealth.
And while those words are accurate they are also a sign – that Henry VI will fail to hold his father’s ‘commonwealth’ together. And it is that failing that will lead to the deaths of another father and child, Talbot and son, who perish due to the high-level power struggle and feud between Somerset and York. Their twinned death is in a way symbolic: it represents the fracturing of a world in which male certainties are rendered impotent. It is, I think, an irony framing the Henry plays that the Wars of the Roses are built around bloodlines, inheritance and family, while at the same time the pitilessly tear families apart and separate father from son.
My next post: Thursday evening/Friday morning
Our next reading: King Henry VI, Part One, Act Five