1 Henry VI is a "note-card" play. We've all had students who have been doing research for a project, diligently filling up 3x5 cards with data, information, and quotation. Then, when it comes time to write the paper, they are damned well going to use all the note cards that they have invested so much time on. (Jean Auel's Clan of the Cave Bear is the most overwhelming note card novel I have ever seen. Ms. Auel includes every single smidgen of information she copied down in her four months in the Portland State library, every plant, every fossil, every bit of weather information, every rock. Don't ask why I read it.)
In this first excursion into history, Shakespeare writes HISTORY, even though he does rearrange some chronologies, invent dialogue, of course, and shift a little geography. Here is Woodville, Lieutenant of the Tower, there Sir Thomas Gargrave, and of course we need to get the Bastard of Orleance in. My guess is the only purely invented character is the son of the Master Gunner of Orleance, who fires the shot that kills the Earl of Salisbury. The effect on me is keeping my "dramatis personae" and a couple of genealogical tables at hand.
Let's see: there is Somerset (that's John Beauford, John of Gaunt's third son by his third wife, thus great-uncle to the King) and Salisbury (called "mad brain'd" and "a desperate homicide," so it's a pity we see so little of him before half his face is blown off) and Suffolk and then Shrewsbury. Henry Beauford, John's elder brother, is Bishop of Winchester, afterwards Cardinal, who has bought his high office from the Pope. This is not a condemnation, but looking ahead to Richard III, 1 Henry IV, or Henry V, one can see how such material will coalesce into breathtaking drama, character and thematic meaning. For instance, the Bastard's father, Louis, Duke of Orleans, will appear in a relatively minor role in Henry V, but there he will be a witty portrait of effete arrogance, a parody of the braggart soldier, to contrast with the heroic virtue of the English King.
However, the play opens with melodrama. The Duke of Bedford laments, "Hung be the heavens with black, yield day to night!" (I.i.1) for "King Henry the Fift, too famous to live long!" has died. (Bedford is John of Lancaster, Henry V's jealous little brother.) Bedford raises the same hope that opens 1 Henry IV: despite Henry V's death, "prosper this realm, keep it from civil broils" (I.i.53). But, again as in 1 Henry IV, cometh messengers with news of war, here in the French territories Henry V has captured. Is this treachery, asks Exeter (another Beauford brother). "Not treachery, but want of men and money" because here, in England,
".....you maintain several factions;
You are disputing of your generals.
One would have ling'ring wars with little cost;
Another would fly swift, but wanteth wings;
A third thinks, without expense at all,
By guileful fair words peace may be obtain'd." (Riverside, 2nd, I.i.71-77)
[I'm not even going to pause for a comment on the "management" of the war in Iraq.]. Thus, from the beginning, the theme of 1 Henry VI is introduced: civil broils and factions. Remember that the northern provinces of France are considered English-see the 300-line rationale at the beginning of Henry V, and Henry VI is to be crowned in Paris. Thus the French insurgency is civil war. To England against France (except Burgundy, for a while), add the church (Winchester) against the State (Gloucester), York (Richard Plantagenet) and Lancaster (Somerset), and in the last act, Suffolk (Pole) seeking to overthrow Henry through his intended influence over Margaret of Anjou (stay tuned for the sequel). Thus, here at the beginning we have a play that articulates the danger of factionalism. Youthful Shakespeare's England was-well, sort of-relatively calm, yet all the plays will address disorder far beyond merely establishing dramatic tension.
The most egregious example of this is IV.ii-iv. Lord John Talbot appears before the walls of Burdeaux and summons their embattled general. He demands the general "open your city-gates" or the English will obliterate the city (much as Henry V overcomes Harfleur). But the French army approaches, and Talbot is trapped, vowing heroically to fight to the death. Meanwhile, Sir William Lucy goes first to York (ground forces) and then to Somerset (cavalry) for reinforcements to succor Talbot, but each refuses, blaming his Yorkist or Lancastrian rival for military misconduct. (In Cecil Woodham Smith's The Reason Why, the historian shows that the Charge of the Light Brigade and the outcome of the Crimean war came about because the two English generals, Cardigan and Lucan (Raglan?), were not on speaking terms so they refused to read each other's dispatches). Lucy bitterly tells Somerset that "The fraud of England, not the force of France,/ Hath now entrapp'd the noble-minded Talbot." (IV.iv. 36-37). I'm really just repeating Randall's conclusions about a world in which there is no room for moral righteousness and a strict honor code.
Which underscores Randall's superlative explication of the "Tragedy of Lord Talbot." Pure Aristotelian tragedy finds a too-human hero crushed by challenging the "pure laws of the universe" (forgive the simplification; they never should have let me read Oedipus Rex). But here Talbot, as Randall notes, is destroyed by realpolitik, personal and political infighting between government apparatchiks, which is more ironic because King Henry, after the reconquest of Paris, has divided military power between the two as a peace-inducing compromise. Dryden's heroic/chivalric/romantic hero Anthony dies, and his epitaph is "a world well lost."
I agree with the idea of the tragedy of Lord Talbot, but he dies because some botanist has bred two different colors of roses. And if the scene about Falstaff's failure to uphold the honor of the Garter "seems a bit silly," what shall we make of II.iv and III.iv in which the War of the Roses metaphor is made literal?
Talbot is heroic because everyone in the play insists on his superpowers. Again, I quote Randall on Mallory's characters who "have no internal life; it is all deeds and consequences." So might we turn our attention to Joan de Pucelle. She is described as a miraculous force, a witch, and a whore, but we see little of her internal life. I think it is hard for me to see her in this play because we have so much extra-Shakespeare Joan in our inherited culture. Does someone else want to come into this puzzle [sic]? If I can find the time in the next fortnight, I'll try to read Shaw's St. Joan and Anouilh's The Lark.
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