Henry VI, Part 1: Act 1, Scenes 4-6

Scene 4

“Father I know, I have oft shot at them,

            Howe’er unfortunate, I miss’d my aim”

We return to Orleans, where the master gunner is turning over control of his cannon to his son. That gun is trained on a specific gate because he “discovered Salisbury’s habitual use of that gate.” (Asimov, 536) He himself had stayed there for three days, but could not stay any longer. The boy laments his inability to shoot the English up until now because Shakespeare could not resist the urge to point out that the French were bad shots. It could also support the idea that the French could not beat the English without the support of witchcraft.

“For him was I exchanged and ransomed,

            But with a baser man-of-arms by far”

The scene jumps to just outside the gate where Talbot meets with Lord Salisbury recounting his imprisonment and release, with plenty of jabs at the French. Bedford exchanged Talbot for a French prisoner. This prisoner, of course, was nowhere near equal in value. While he was imprisoned, Talbot was paraded before the people of Orleans to display his weakness. However, he broke free and began throwing stones at his captors. All the French panicked and he was put under intense security.

Salisbury laments Talbot’s hardships, and turns their attention to the siege. Through the gate they can see the entire French force, and they fire on them. With a few shots from the young gunner, Salisbury and another general fall. This does reflect how Salisbury met his end at the siege of Orleans. In October of 1428, he was “shot in the face by a cannon from the city walls” and died a few days later. (Saccio, 97)

Talbot delivers a long remembrance to Salisbury, a great general. He swears to avenge his death by burning the French cities as Nero burned Rome, playing the fiddle. When a messenger explains that Joan has joined with the Dauphin, Talbot again swears to avenge his comrade’s death.

Scene 5

“A woman clad in armour chaseth them”

The start of this scene is comprised completely of action. Talbot drives back the Dauphin, but then Joan of Arc drives back the English. Upon seeing Joan, Talbot swears that she is a witch and they come to blows. “The rest of the play deals largely with the combat between Talbot, the plain, brave soldier fighting for England, and Joan of Arc, the wicked witch, fighting for France.” (Asimov, 537) Talbot struggles to defeat Joan and swears by all that he has in him that he will “chastise this high-minded strumpet.” They begin to fight again, neither is defeated, but Joan departs as the Dauphin’s army enters Orleans.

“Talbot, who single-handedly can kill droves of French soldiers, cannot kill one French girl.” (Asimov, 537) He is shocked that the English would give up so easily, but eventually, filled with shame, admits defeat and leaves.

The events of this scene are nearly completely reversed from the truth. Salisbury was killed the October before Joan arrived at Orleans to break the siege. Then, after the siege was lifted, Talbot was captured by the French. It is also important to note that Joan never actually fought. “It was her presence that counted and the belief the soldiers had in her, not any martial deeds she could perform.” (Asimov, 538)

Scene 6

“Thus Joan la Pucelle hath performed her word”

The entirety of this short, final scene is spent praising Joan on her victory. First, she is referred to as Astraea’s daughter. “Astraea was the goddess [of] justice and innocence who lingered upon Earth after the conclusion of the primeval Golden Age.” (Asimov, 538) Eventually, the wickedness of men drove her off and she became the constellation Virgo.

There is also a reference to Adonis’ garden, which “is used for anything that quickly fulfills its promise.” (Asimov, 538) During the feast of Adonis, celebrants planted flowers that were quick to bloom, but also quick to whither in his honor. Again, we see a reference to something that comes and fades quickly.

Regnier and Alençon want the Dauphin to require the people of Orleans to celebrate their victory because apparently the people weren’t excited enough. The Dauphin quickly attributes the success to Joan and promises to share his crown with her. He also swears to build her a pyramid that rivals Rhodopis’. “Rhodopis was an Egyptian prostitute who built the Pyramid of Menkure out of her earnings.” (Asimov, 538) This was an insulting comparison to Joan, who was highly regarded for her chastity.

“But Joan la Pucelle shall be France’s saint”

At the time that Henry VI, Part One was written, Joan had not yet been made a saint. That would not happen until 1920. However, she was highly revered by the Catholic Church with which England had broken ties during the reign of Henry VIII. England was still feeling the effects of this break during his daughter Elizabeth’s rule. “Undoubtedly, Shakespeare meant this as the crowning example of the effeminate prince’s exaggerated praise, but as it happens, it turned out to be a perfectly valid prediction.” (Asimov, 539)

We must look at these scenes as a fiercely patriotic, and therefore protestant, Englishman to best understand how history is being portrayed. The recent split with the Catholic church and the ongoing tension with a largely Catholic Europe would have colored the Elizabethan Englishman’s view of his country’s history.

Asimov, Issac. Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare. Avenel Books, 1978.

Saccio, Peter. Shakespeare’s English Kings. Oxford University Press, 1977.

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