Thursday, May 25, 2006

RE2: 1 Henry VI - The Tragedy of Lord Talbot


I still have not looked at Joan. Who knows?

As I said in my first posting, my attention on first reading went into sorting out the historical characters and arranging them into factions. Then, Randall connected Talbot to the paradigm shift from feudal/chivalric/heroic to bourgeois/political/pragmatic. That crystallized the play for me, more than the prevailing theory that Shakespeare was creating a Tudor Myth or a national literature. 1 Henry VI is just too messy to parallel Virgil's Roman myth, The Aeneid (Randall -- how could I have forgotten Dryden's opening verse: "Arms and the man I sing"?), to what the Beowulf poet did for Anglo-Saxon culture, or, later, McPherson tried to do for Scotland with the Ossian forgeries.

Still, refocused on Talbot, I found him more a hero insisted upon than demonstrated. Comparing him to the comparable Hotspur in 1 Henry IV, Talbot seems to come with a prefabricated heroism, whereas Prince Hal's rival is introduced from several perspectives, first by the Earl of Westmoreland, who reports "the gallant Hotspur there, Young Harry Percy," won an overwhelming victory against the Scots, and captured several Scottish earls. "And is not this an honorable spoil? A gallant prize? A conquest for a prince to boast of." Then, King Henry wistfully wishes Northumberland's Harry (Hotspur), "a son who is the theme of honor's tongue...who is sweet fortune's minion and her pride" (I.i.51-2, 74-6, 80, 82), had been switched in the cradle with his own son (Prince Hal).

Next, we have insight into character by way of the marvelous rationalization by Hotspur himself on why he has not ceded the prisoners to the King, the long tale about the king's representative, "a certain lord, neat and trimly dressed,/ Fresh as a bridegroom, and his chin new reaped" -- a girly man, for sure -- asking the battle weary hero on the battlefield to give up the prisoners, all the while complaining about the "slovenly unhandsome corpses" carried by him and the smell of "villainous saltpeter." Note, however, that the heroic warrior, now celebrated for victory, still does not give up his prisoners. Finally, Hotspur articulates his own chivalric credo:

"By heaven, methinks it were an easy leap
To pluck bright honor from the pale-faced moon,
Or dive into the bottom of the deep,
Where fathom line could never touch the ground,
And pluck up drowned honor by the locks,
So he that doth redeem her thence might wear
Without corrival all her dignities." (1 Henry IV, I.iii.199-205)

Together, the heroic is mixed with the comic, and by the time of Prince Hal's victory in single combat over Hotspur at Shrewsbury, such chivalry is an anachronism.

How do we come to know Lord Talbot? Again, a messenger/exposition bearer brings news "of a dismal fight/ Betwixt the stout Lord Talbot and the French." "This dreadful lord" was round encompassed, undermanned and without sufficient armaments, yet "where valiant Talbot above human thought/ Enacted wonders with his sword and lance:/ Hundreds he sent to hell, and none durst stand him... The French exclaim'd, the devil was in arms;/ All the whole army stood agaz'd on him" and little pompon girls or somebody, shouted "A Talbot! A Talbot!" Yet, he was betrayed by Sir John Falstaff (no, not that Falstaff) who failed to cover his back, and "A base Wallon, to win the Dolphin's grace,/ Thrust Talbot with a spear into the back." (I.i.106, 110, 121-3, 125-6, 128, 137-38). Thus, "such a worthy leader" is betrayed and took prisoner. Not to make fun of this (though "Walloon" is a pretty funny adversary), but our Superman is brought down in a dark alley, stabbed in the back of his kryptonite-susceptible heel.

Next, Talbot is with the "mad-brain'd, desperate homicide" Salisbury (actually, another superannuated English hero) at Orleans. He has been ransomed and exchanged, but only for the brave Lord Ponton de Santrailles. They, the French, "with a baser man of arms by far/ Once in contempt they would have bart'd me;/ Which I, disdaining, scorn'd, and craved death/ Rather than I would be so pill'd [despoiled] esteemed:/ In fine, redeemed I was as I desir'd" (I.iv.30-4). While imprisoned, he had been ridiculed as "The scarecrow that affrights our children," but he rips cobblestones from the streets to hurl at the French until "In iron walls they deem'd me not secure;/ So great fear of my name 'mongst them were spread/ That they suppos'd I could rend bars of steel,/ And spurn in pieces post of adamant" (I.iv.43, 49-52).

Salisbury is killed by a sniper, alarum! alarum!, and Joan de Pucelle (or puzzle or pizzle) appears, and Talbot exclaims "my strength, my valor, and my force," that is, his English troops, retire as "a woman clad in armor chaseth them" (let's leave comment on cross-dressing until later). Talbot, earlier thought by the French to be the devil in arms, now faces the devil or devil's dam, a witch, and though he vows "My breast I'll burst with straining of my courage," Joan beats him in single combat, only to leave off ("Talbot, farewell, thy hour is not yet come") in order to bring supplies to besieged Orleans. Sum? Stout, dreadful, valiant, our hero has been stabbed in the back by a base Walloon, refuses to be bartered for a prisoner of lesser value lest it debase his self-worth, and is now beaten by "a high-minded strumpet" (his term).

[Aside on the footnote at II.i.77: Shakespeare's most cherished footnote is in Winter's Tale": "Exit, pursued by a bear," but may we pause a moment on "Enter [an English] Soldier crying 'A Talbot! A Talbot!' They fly [the French, including, I think, Charles and Joan], leaving their clothes behind." Hum a few bars from the military march, if there is one, from Oh Calcutta!]

Talbot indeed retakes Orleans, so we have a demonstration of his heroic prowess, revenging the death of Salisbury, erecting a tomb for him in Orleans's chiefest temple, a victory not diminished by calling attention to the French being bare-assed and unresisting. A messenger seeks "warlike Talbot, for his acts/ So much applauded through the realm of France" and seeks his attendance on the Countess of Auvergne, seemingly a groupie. Though he and Bedford sort of giggle about wars which turn into "a peaceful comic sport," such a conquest does seem within the chivalric spoils of war. The Countess is quite a surprise. She greets the Talbot of reputation: "Is this the scourge of France?/ Is this the Talbot so much fear'd abroad/ That with his name the mothers still their babes?...? I thought I should have seen some Hercules,/ A second Hector, for his grim aspect/ And large proportion of his strong-knit limbs." (II.iii.15-21). So who, then, is "this weak and writhled shrimp?"

The Countess plots his capture, but Talbot has anticipated some scheme and calls his soldiers. Reputation -- the "scourge of France" -- confronts a challenge, and Talbot, unlike his vituperation against the warrior Joan, treats the Countess gallantly, declaring himself not offended, asking only that "we may taste of your wine and see what cates you have," to which the Countess replies "With all my heart, and think me honored/ To feast so great a warrior in my house." This seems a perfect outcome for our chivalrous hero, winning the admiration of the conquered lady, despite being called a shrimp. Here we see the chivalrous Talbot, more than just hear the adjectives heaped on him.

In the battle of Rouen (III.ii), again we see Talbot in military action. Joan takes the city; "warlike and martial" Talbot and Burgundy take it back--despite another retreat by Falstaff--in honor of the dying Duke of Bedford. Monuments are built. But there is an interesting echo of Talbot refusing to be ransomed unless in equal noble exchange. During the fight, Talbot eschews fighting with Joan and instead calls out Alanson (the Duke of Alencon): "Will ye, like soldiers, come and fight it out?" (III.ii.66). Alanson refuses, drawing Talbot's scorn: ""Base muleteers of France!/ Like peasant footboys do they keep the walls,/ And dare not rake up arms like gentlemen." (III.ii.68-70). So he drinks wine with the lady who plotted to kill him, then demands the battle for France be fought by gentlemen only according to the rules of the game. Lastly, as King Henry VI is crowned in Paris, Talbot strips Falstaff of his Order of the Garter, not for contributing to military defeats, but because he has besmirched the honor of The Order of the Garter. On first reading, I thought the Garter business was a curious digression, but now I see Talbot's explanation is more an epitaph for the passing of his ethic:

"When first this order was ordain'd, my lords,
Knights of the Garter were of noble birth,
Valiant and virtuous, full of haughty courage,
Such as were grown credit by the wars;
Not fearing death, nor shrinking for distress,
But always resolute in most extremes.
He then, that is not furnish'd in this sort
Doth but usurp the sacred name of knight,
Profaning this most honorable order,
And should (if I were worthy to be judge)
Be quite degraded, like a hedge-born swain
That doth presume to boast of gentle blood." (IV.i.33-44)

Like the base Walloon and Joan the Shepherd's daughter and the baser muleteers of France, what Talbot stands for is degraded to some hedge-born swain.

Talbot and his son will die heroically, yet they are victims to what Randall called real politic, the foolish political division of power between York (infantry) and Somerset (cavalry) who are not talking to each other, so they fail to support the English in the battle of Bordeaux. During this battle, Talbot lyrically articulates the epitaph of his own chivalric order:

"How are we park'd and bounded in a pale,
A little herd of England's timorous deer,
Maz'd with a yelping kennel of French curs!
If we be English deer, be then in blood,
Not rascal-like to fall down with a pinch,
But rather, moody-mad; and desperate stags,
Turn on the bloody hounds with heads of steel,
And make the cowards stand aloof at bay.
Sell every man his life as dear as mine,
And they shall find dear deer of us, my friends.
God and Saint George, Talbot and England's right,
Prosper our colors in this dangerous fight!" (IV.ii.45-56)

There is still Joan, the saint, the witch, the whore, to be burned and the sequel with the beauteous Margaret of Anjou and the duplicitous Suffolk still to set up, but The Tragedy of Lord Talbot, who challenged the pure laws of the universe, a nostalgic struggle for honor and valor against the baseborn political factions, is at an end.


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