Thursday, May 11, 2006

1 Henry VI - Conflicts


I must disagree with Thomas Nashe. Gil reminds us that Nashe, apparently making an argument for the virtue of theater (he'd take it back if he spent a week on Broadway), wrote of Talbot in 1 Henry VI:

"How it would have joyed brave Talbot (the terror of the French) to thinke that after he had lyne two hundred yeares in his Tombe, hee should triumphe againe on the Stage, and have his bones newe embalmed with the teares of ten thousand spectators at least (at severall times), who, in the Tragedian that represents his person, imagine they behold him fresh bleeding."

This is an odd definition of "triumphe," if Talbot must see himself in 1592 at the Rose night after night (and matinees on Sunday) brought low by such English cowardice and dishonorable in-fighting. His actual death scene suggests he's fine with his demise, as in these two passages:

"Triumphant death, smeared with captivity,
Young Talbot's valor makes me smile at thee." (4.7.3-4)

"Thou antic death, which laugh'st us here to scorn,
Anon, from thy insulting tyranny,
Coupled in bonds of perpetuity,
Two Talbots, winged through the lither sky,
In thy despite shall 'scape mortality." (4.7.18-22)

In the first, we find the proud father, whose life is complete when his son demonstrates the kind of character that Talbot values -- courageous, fearless, heroic. It does not matter that these qualities have cost young Talbot his life; it matters that he had the qualities. Nowhere in either of these passages is there sadness or regret, only defiance and fearlessness, the badges of a true knight facing proof of his mortality which Talbot says he will "'scape" as if it were a cage. I love the triumphant image of the two Talbots flying into the "lither sky." Lither than what? The earth? The sky's being more supple, more pliant, suggests a greater ease, away from the hard, unyielding demands of the terrestrial. Death has not defeated them; it has released them.
But, if Talbot's shade is sitting in the audience, out for a breather after two hundred years in his tomb, he's seeing more than his heroic death scene. He's seeing Somerset and York fail him. My guess is he wants to storm up on stage and rip the garters right off those guys. Nashe suggests it would have "joyed" him; I suggest it would not. The factions, as Gil calls them, are not chivalrous.

Shakespeare is serious about laying out a series of dichotomous pairs throughout the play. These pairs in conflict begin with individuals but also reflect larger conflicts in the body politic. On the individual level we have 1) the Duke of Gloucester vs. the Bishop of Winchester, the secular vs. the sacred. Shakespeare, though, presents this conflict as personal more than institutional. Gloucester claims that Winchester is a hypocrite ("ne'er throughout the year to church thou go'st except it be to pray against thy foes" is his tamest concern) while Winchester believes that Gloucester is power-hungry, then insults his wife. If their struggle were more than personal, a concern about the church's role in influencing the king perhaps, something to which Tudor England would have been attuned, the collapse of English power would seem less unseemly because it came about in a struggle between two titanic forces -- the church and the king.

Additionally, we have 2) the Duke of Somerset vs. the Duke of York. Their split begins with a simple argument, remarkable for its banality, over who is right about a point of law. We never learn what the actual concern is, only that they have disagreed. From there, it's off to the roses, and eventually Talbot's demise. And Talbot is the only person on whom England can rely. Hence, what begins in banality ends in catastrophe.

On a somewhat more significant level, we have 3) Talbot vs. Falstaff, the heroic vs. the cowardly. Later, though, when Talbot begs John to leave the field and live to fight another day, I thought one might see Falstaff in a different light -- a pragmatic one. John refuses, satisfying chivalric expectations, but Talbot's advice about "strategems of war" is sound: "Fly, to avenge my death, if I be slain" and "If we both stay we both are sure to die" and "Part of thy father may be saved in thee." This is the advice that Falstaff takes. Now, Falstaff is definitely a coward. The Third Messenger tells us so. Then Falstaff himself admits he leaves Talbot in the field "to save myself by flight." But he adds "we are like to have the overthrow again," suggesting that his choice is based on some profit/loss evaluation. Yes, he does go off and seem to betray England by colluding with the Duke of Burgundy, too, but Shakespeare's bringing these realities to light merely puts Talbot's shining heroism in more relief. The larger conflict here is, as I said in the previous post, the Medieval courtly world vs. the "modern" political world.

Next, 4) Henry VI vs. Joan, the leaders. Henry is weak, and seems to have his hands full trying to stop the "viperous worm" gnawing at the bowels of his commonwealth from wrecking the peace. Although a king, he is not successful (see nos. 1 and 2 above). Joan, on the other hand, is a poor, illiterate commoner who manages to lead the French people in successful battles against the English. Henry tells us four times (3.1.71; 3.4.17; 5.1.21; 5.5.81) how young he is, while impotently begging his court to play nice. Joan never mentions her youth (she's 17 at the Siege of Orleans). Etc. We'll leave more of Joan for later.

Finally, at the regional level we have 5) England vs. France. Considering Shakespeare's audience, we have to assume a certain amount of rooting for the home team, although they don't come off well. Being a groundling at 1 Henry VI might have been like being a Mets fan looking back on the 1962 season, only less lovable. I think the structure of the play, with all of these specific factions, explains why, on the larger scale, England fails to triumph in this particular conflict. For Shakespeare in 1 Henry VI, the sum cannot be greater than the parts. This is an extremely humanist argument. Forget providence. Forget divine right of kings and Salique law. After Henry V dies the English universe is out of joint, o' cursed spite, and it's up to Gloucester and Winchester and York and Somerset and Falstaff and Talbot to set it right. They fight each other instead, and the English control of France is ... history.

We've been quiet this week. Perhaps what we need is questions. Here are mine:
  • I'd like to hear Gil's thoughts on these "factions," as I'm sure that their careful structure and persistence suggest more than mere didacticism.
  • And I definitely would love to hear folks weigh in on La Pucelle (do the French REALLY have a single word that means both "virgin" and "whore"?); I seem to remember reading somewhere (Bevington?) that Shakespeare's depiction of Joan is yet another put down of the fractured English leadership, that they can be beaten by the French (horreurs!) led by a woman (mère-de!) who's not even old enough to attend a bear baiting. What does one make of Joan in this play? Can we separate her character from English anti-French bias? Can we put her into the same discussion as any of Shakespeare's other women?
  • And perhaps someone could take on this fledgling genre the history play and make some suggestions as to how we're going to get from Gil's "note-card drama" to Henry V. As we move through the first tetralogy, what contemporary influences can we see at work on this genre? And what is Shakespeare doing with them?
  • And I would never turn down some always prodigious close reading by the incomparable Mike Bazzett. Dad can keep firing off the complimentary adjectives -- I'm beginning to feel like young Talbot -- until my head gets really big, but in my opening essay I had exactly one sentence of good close reading. What, Mr. Bazzett, is your favorite line in the play? And why?
Gotta split,

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