He’s Too Young in King Henry VI, Part One

Henry VI

Joan of Arc at Charles VII coronation

Henry VI, Part One seems to me to be a treatise on power vacuums.

Henry V dies unexpectedly, leaving a young son to reign as Henry VI. The young Henry, not in control of his kingdom, is surrounded by adults who want power, manipulate him for that power, and whose squabbles for power and adult pride and tantrums result in the death of the play’s only heroes (Talbot, father and son) and territorial losses in France.

Even discounting that it was written in English, it would be hard to miss the fact that the plot and characters evidence this play was to be performed for English audiences. There’s nothing about it the French would have liked. Even at their conniving heights, the English are portrayed as strong, while the French are dull and hopeless.

The French as portrayed are insulted (“Done like a Frenchman,—turn, and turn again!”—and that’s from a French mouth) and shown as incompetent. I suspect that “proof of their weakness” for contemporary audiences would have been their dependence on schemes of women to save them. First it’s a woman who on her own plots to kidnap the heroic and greatly feared Talbot. The plot is the plan of a simpleton, easily foiled by wise and brave Talbot. Talbot is later defeated, but only because of dissension within the English.

Then comes French Joan of Arc. Shakespeare presents the heroine through distinctly English eyes. She seems OK at first—a virtuous young woman. Of course, the English are busy calling her nasty names—“that witch, that damned sorceress, hath wrought this hellish mischief unawares” and “foul fiend of France, and hag of all despite, encompass’d with thy lustful paramours!” The names foreshadow her “guilt.”

Without warning, Joan stoops to entertaining fiends of hell, and apparently, this isn’t her first interview with them. Then, when she’s captured, she denies her own father, suddenly claiming royal birth. Her father is appalled by her rejection and encourages the English, “O, burn her, burn her! Hanging is too good.”

But her evil is yet not completely revealed. When faced with burning, she tries to save her own life by admitting that she’s (or claims to be) pregnant by the King of Naples. The English are indignant at the “liberal and free” “strumpet.” She is just what they knew she was—a “foul fiend” surrounded by “paramours.”

Joan was Catholic, so perhaps Shakespeare writing with an Anglican audience in mind was thumbing his nose at the French and the Catholic Church. I suspect audiences of the day must have loved it.

Another work of fiction about Joan was Mark Twain’s account of her life. In its concluding lines, he includes, “I have finished my story of Joan of Arc, that wonderful child, that sublime personality, that spirit which in one regard has had no peer and will have none – this: its purity from all alloy of self-seeking, self-interest, personal ambition. In it no trace of these motives can be found, search as you may, and this cannot be said of any other person whose name appears in profane history.”

You wonder if Twain’s Joan had an evil sister also named Joan who was chronicled by Shakespeare. Or perhaps, both accounts are fictitious.

I worry that Shakespeare didn’t know he was writing a history and instead thought it was to be comedy. For after all these battles and lives lost, we’re heading for a happy ending. Even the Dauphin becomes reasonable and agrees to be an under-king to Henry VI.

Happy ending? Shakespeare wrote a cliff-hanger. The king has fallen in love with Margaret, the daughter of the King of Naples. (Although I can’t remember that he’s met her.) But the king is already inconveniently promised to another. Don’t worry, reassures peer and royal adviser Suffolk. You’re the king. Ignore your royal promise! Marry the girl of your dreams! After all, King, romantic love is what makes the world glorious. It’s looking like a “happily ever after.”

But who is this wise counselor Suffolk? He’s nothing but a married man who has a passion for young Margaret. His arguments sway the king. Young Henry will marry Margaret.

Then, when you think some semblance of love has prevailed, the play concludes with Suffolk’s words: “Margaret shall now be queen, and rule the king; but I will rule both her, the king, and realm.”

What will happen to fair, innocent Margaret? What will become of the young king now in harm’s path? And will conspiring Suffolk have his way? We’ll have to wait to find out.

The phrase that came to mind as I read the play was internal dissension weakens nations.

If King Henry VI, First Part were a comedy, I’d rate it higher. But since it’s history—and highly biased for the audience—I’ll award it a stingy two Bards:Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part One




Quotations I liked for various reasons:

Joan: Glory is like a circle in the water, which never ceaseth to enlarge itself till by broad spreading it disperse to naught.

Talbot: Kings and mightiest potentates must die, for that’s the end of human misery.

King Henry: What madness rules in brainsick men, when for so slight and frivolous a cause such factious emulations shall arise!

Exeter: When envy breeds unkind division; there comes the ruin, there begins confusion.

Talbot: You tempt the fury of my three attendants, lean famine, quartering steel, and climbing fire.

Lucy: Let not your private discord keep away the levied succours that should lend him aid.

Lucy: The fraud of England, not the force of France, hath now entrapp’d the noble-minded Talbot: Never to England shall he bear his life; but dies betray’d to fortune by your strife.

Lucy: His fame lives in the world, his shame in you.

Joan: Of all base passions fear is most accurs’d….

York: After the slaughter of so many peers, so many captains, gentlemen, and soldiers, that in this quarrel have been overthrown, and sold their bodies for their country’s benefit, shall we at last conclude effeminate peace? Have we not lost most part of all the towns, by treason, falsehood, and by treachery, our great progenitors had conquered?

Suffolk: That he should be so abject, base, and poor, to choose [a wife] for wealth, and not for perfect love.

Suffolk: Marriage is a matter of more worth than to be dealt in by attorneyship; not whom we will, but whom his grace affects, must be companion of his nuptial bed.

Suffolk: What is wedlock forced but a hell, an age of discord and continual strife? Whereas the contrary bringeth bliss, and is a pattern of celestial peace.

Next Up: Henry VI, Second Part

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2 Responses to “He’s Too Young in King Henry VI, Part One”

  1. Kerry Says:

    I really enjoyed reading this – and I agree that Henry VI is a lot funnier than people give it credit for! I’ve only seen it performed twice, but the one that played up the comic potential was the best.

    I think the comedy also highlights the issue you bring up about internal dissension – it’s pretty funny to watch Winchester and Gloucester bickering, but of course that’s what is weakening the country.

  2. admin Says:

    Thanks for your comments. (As our civility and ability to talk to one another seem in rapid decline, it’s good to be reminded that internal bickering and animosity-driven dissension weakens nations.) I just visited your website- planestrainsandplantagenets.com -and “liked” your Facebook page. They look fun.

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