Sunday, May 7, 2006

1 Henry VI - The Tragedy of Lord Talbot


My first thought after finishing 1 Henry VI is that is has the wrong title. Setting aside for the moment any extensive conversation about Shakespeare's innovation in fashioning the genre of history play from, as M. M. Reese suggests, various chronicles, the "Mirror for Magistrates," and the structure of Medieval morality plays, I find it intriguing that while this is Henry VI's history, it is Talbot's story.

I'm not sure I've ever come across a character in my Shakespeare reading like Talbot. (Antony? Hotspur?) He's all honor and chivalry and a bit stock. Talbot reminds me of Gilbert's frequent argument about Hamlet, that Hamlet's problem is that he is a man out of time, surrounded by people who hail from an earlier world, a different order, and so he struggles with both the burden of vengeance and the negotiation of a religious and political universe that have shifted their focus. I'm not doing that viewpoint justice (and Gil can flesh it out when we get to Hamlet), but Talbot is like Hamlet in reverse -- he is old school in a world that no longer respects or lives by his courtly rules and which suffers from more political complexity than his valor and heroism can overcome. And this is his tragic flaw.

With Henry VI too young to play any role (although a baby's wail -- ew-WAH, ew-WAH, ew-WAH, ew-WAH, ew-WAH -- is iambic pentameter) until Act III, Talbot assumes the role of play's hero early. In the very first scene messengers come scurrying in to give the news of Talbot's battles. One gushes:

"More than three hours the fight continued;
Where valiant Talbot, above human thought,
Enacted wonders with his sword and lance." (Signet edition, 1.1.121-122)

Above human thought? That would make him ... Superman! Faster than a speeding bolt from a crossbow! Able to leap French ramparts in a single bound! Talbot himself plays up his own superhero myth, explaining to Salisbury how he was treated after being wounded (a spear in the back -- cowardly!) and captured by the French.

"In iron walls they deemed me not secure;
So great fear of my name 'mongst them were spread
That they supposed I could rend bars of steel
And spurn in pieces posts of adamant." (1.4.49-52)

[A brief aside: In the Marvel Comics superhero group, the X-men, the most popular character is named Wolverine. As a mutant, which all the X-men are, he has a unique ability to heal any wound at a near-instantaneous rate. Because that's not enough to fight off bad guys, he also has, as a result of military industrial skullduggery, a skeleton "laced with the unbreakable metal alloy adamantium." We have either just found Wolverine's ancestor, which might explain Talbot's rapid recovery from his spear wound or, given Talbot's powers over adamantium, his nemesis. Look for the answer in the inevitable summer blockbuster X-Men 4.]

I am making fun here, comparing Talbot to comic books, to iterate both the stockness and mythic hero qualities of his character. It strikes me that those qualities are not out of keeping with Medieval heroes. I once read Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur back to back with Marion Zimmer Bradley's modern version The Mists of Avalon, and what struck me in the comparison was that Malory's characters have no internal life; it is all deeds and consequence. Bradley's fantasy retells the Arthurian myths from the point of view of four principal women, and it is all motivation, internal conflict, subtext and politics. While 1 Henry VI takes place from 1422 to 1444, Shakespeare creates a similar dichotomy, juxtaposing the courtly tradition with realpolitik. Compare the two following complaints, first Talbot against Falstaff (nee Fastolfe), whose retreat at the battle of Poictiers he sees as an act of cowardice:

"When first this order was ordained, my lords,
Knights of the Garter were of noble birth,
Valiant and virtuous, full of haughty courage,
Such as were grown to credit by the wars:
Not fearing death, nor shrinking for distress,
But always resolute in most extremes.
He then that is not furnished in this sort
Doth but usurp the sacred name of knight,
Profaning this most honorable order." (4.1.33-41)

According to Talbot, Falstaff's crime has little to do with failure to succeed in battle for England's sake; it is failure to uphold the honor of the Knights of the Garter. This seems a bit silly, although that may just be my post-modern mind. It just seems that Talbot would have a stronger argument, in front of Henry, if instead of asking the king to judge whether Falstaff should be allowed to wear a garter, he accused him of, say, treason?

Anyway, compare this to Plantagenet's complaint about Somerset, who has insulted him, calling into question his loyalty by referring to his beheaded father whose failed coup against Henry V sealed his doom:

"And for those wrongs, those bitter injuries,
Which Somerset hath offer'd to my house:
I doubt not but with honor to redress;
And therefore haste I to the parliament,
Either to be restored to my blood,
Or make my ill the advantage of my good." (2.5.124-129)

Like Talbot, Plantagenet is concerned with honor, but he has little concern for some chivalric code. Instead, he believes his family is rightfully in line for the throne, that the suppression of the Mortimers and the house of York came about as "nothing less than bloody tyranny," and that parliament may resolve his suit or else. While I enjoyed the Talbot scenes the same way I enjoyed the battle scenes in Braveheart, I think Act 2, scene 5 between Mortimer and Plantagenet is one of the most moving in the play. Given what's coming in Richard III, I began 1 Henry VI somewhat biased against Plantagenet. But after Mortimer's articulate explanation of his imprisonment and Plantagenet's heartfelt resolve, I felt my sympathies shift. This scene complicates my view of Henry V. It complicates our view of English moral legitimacy. It raises all those questions of providence. Even King Arthur would struggle with this one.

In the end, because this is Talbot's tragedy, Talbot dies. Ostensibly he's killed in battle with the French at Bordeaux, but in reality he is done in by the conflicting machinations of the English. York and Somerset fail to resupply him, each seeking to undermine and blame the other. Is Shakespeare, as he commits to page the front end of a tetralogy that will end with Richard III, eliminating the one character who stands for a code and a form of honor that will be noticeably absent for the next three plays (and even, perhaps, in the time of Elizabeth I)? As a hero, Talbot is unassailable. He's not just chivalrous, he is chivalry. (Responding to his son's refusal to leave the field of battle, Talbot tells him "Now thou art sealed the son of chivalry.") But the world has shifted, and England's political in-fighting leaves no room for Talbot's sense of moral righteousness and strict honor code. He does not recognize this.

In Talbot's death, the new world becomes plainly visible. The French do not respect the bodies of Talbot and his son ("to keep them here, they would but stink and putrefy the air," says Pucelle), and Sir William Lucy's promise that "from their ashes shall be reared a phoenix that shall make all France afeared" is empty, and the Elizabethan audience would have known it.

At the end of 1 Henry VI, chivalry, it would seem, is dead.

A vous,

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