Welcome fellow Brawlers to our recording of the first act of Henry VI, part 1.
Listen to the podcast – here –
Now that we know a bit about what we’re diving into, here’s a quick run-down of the first act of the play.
The play begins in England, at Westminster abbey, with various lords in attendance at Henry V’s funeral. Already the Bishop of Winchester and the Duke of Gloucester: Winchester does not seem to approve of Gloucester being entrusted to rule the realm and Gloucester seems to think that Winchester is a priest far too concerned with secular matters. A messenger interrupts them and we learn that the French have made some headway in fighting off the English. It seems the troops on the continent were poorly supported. Another messenger announces that the French have crowned the Dauphin Charles VII and that he begins to gather a following. It seems also that Lord Talbot, the leader of the English forces in France, has been taken prisoner. Bedford, the English regent of France, promises to ransom him and commits himself to the war effort. Gloucester meanwhile intends to formalize the ascension of the infant Henry VI and ensure his safety. Lastly, Winchester announces that he will capture the king though to what specific end is not yet clear.
We are introduced to the French court for the first time in act I, scene 2. They are laying siege to the city of Orleans and we learn that the French have re-conquered most of the major cities of France. Despite their recent victories, the French are beaten back by the forces of the Earl of Salisbury. Moments after they are pushed back, the Bastard of Orleans describes a divinely inspired peasant girl – Joan la Pucelle (Joan of Arc) – who he has brought with him and who claims to have been sent by God to liberate the French from English rule. To test her, Reignier and the Dauphin swap places but Joan is not fooled. Charles then challenges her to fight and she beats him handily. His defeat only inflames his desire for her but she refuses him, saying that her holy mission requires her to remain chaste. Now that she leads the French army, she promises to lift the siege.
Gloucester heads for the Tower of London at the start of scene 3. When he arrives, however, he is denied access. The lieutenant of the guard inform him that the Bishop of Winchester has ordered that no one be allowed to enter the tower. When Gloucester offers to enter by force, he is met by Winchester and the two of them exchange threats. Winchester is eventually beaten back but the Mayor of London arrives. Gloucester accuses Winchester of treachery; Winchester accuses Gloucester of being an impious warmonger. They go their separate ways.
The last three scenes of act I take place around the siege at Orleans. The master-gunner sets his son as a watch to spy on the English in anticipation of their coming attack. We then see Talbot, whose ransom has been paid, reunited with he forces in the field. As they consider their plan of attack, Salisbury and Gargrave are shot from the walls and are killed. What’s worse, the English learn that the French army, with Joan la Pucelle at the head, is heading for their position to try to lift the siege.
Act I, scene 5 is a short action sequence where Talbot and Joan of Arc skirmish. In the end, she defeats but does not kill him. The French forces lift the siege and enter into Orleans. He is convinced that Joan is a witch who defeated his forces by conjuring up some supernatural fear.
Charles credits Joan and not his forces with the French victory at Orleans. The French colours are displayed above the walls and the city’s bells are rung in celebration in act I, scene 6. The Dauphin also suggests that she will one day replace Saint-Denis as the patron saint of France.
Now for the characters. If you thought the cast in The Taming of the Shrew was hard to follow, then prepare for a brand new type of challenge in Henry VI part 1.
There are a lot of characters in this play. Thankfully, as the story progresses, a lot of them die making the rest easier to keep track of. However, as some are killed off, others change titles over the course of the War of the Roses. Why is this a problem? Because Shakespeare has a habit of tagging dialogue with a character’s title rather than their name. So the Duke of York you just heard speaking a few acts ago is not always the same Duke of York you’re hearing a few acts later. (We’ll try to point those out as they come up.)
Here then is a list of some of the named characters and a few details to help you make sense of who’s who:
London and the English Court
Duke of Gloucester: Henry VI’s uncle and the Lord Protector of England until his nephew is old enough to take the throne.
Duke of Exeter: King Henry VI’s great-uncle and the one responsible for his safety.
Earl of Warwick: A friend of Richard Plantagenet and a Yorkist.
Bishop of Winchester: The crafty bishop plots to capture Henry VI. He is an enemy’s of the Duke of Gloucester.
John Beaufort, Duke of Somerset: A Lancastrian who despises Richard Plantagenet as a traitor.
Woodville: Lieutenant of the guard of the Tower of London.
Richard Plantagenet: He is the head of the Yorkist party who allows his personal ambition to cloud his judgement about his obligations to the English forces in France.
Duke (or Earl) of Suffolk, William de la Pole: A young nobleman of the Lancastrian camp who captures Margaret and falls in love with her. He tries to get her to marry Henry VI.
Vernon: A young nobleman who sides with the Yorkist party.
Edmund Mortimer: Chosen heir of Richard II who was deposed by Henry VI grandfather, Henry IV. He informs Richard Plantagenet that he has the better claim to the throne.
King Henry VI: At the start of the play, the nine-month old king of England.
Basset: A young nobleman who sides with the Lancastrian party.
The English Army in France
Duke of Bedford: The English regent of France, charged with keeping France under English rule.
Earl of Salisbury: An English general and friend of Talbot’s.
Sir John Talbot: Greatly feared by the French, he is the greatest and most successful English general in France. (Also called Lord Talbot)
Sir Thomas Gargrave and Sir WIlliam Glansdale: English knights who are part of the forces besieging Orleans.
Sir John Falstaff: A cowardly knight who twice abandons Talbot in the field. (Historically, this is not the same Falstaff which appears in Henry IV part 1)
Sir William Lucy: A lord who tries to gather support for the war in France from the warring factions in England.
John: Son of Lord Talbot
Charles, the Dauphin of France: Leader of the French forces who crowns himself Charles VII of France.
Duke of Alençon: He is one of Charles the Dauphin’s generals.
Reignier, Duke of Anjou: Another of Charles’ generals. He is also King of Naples and Jerusalem though these titles mean very little by this point in history.
Bastard of Orleans: a nobleman and knight in service to the Dauphin
Joan la Pucelle: This is Joan of Arc, a young peasant girl who claimed to have been sent by God to help the French defeat the English.
Duke of Burgundy: Initially a supporter of the English, Joan la Pucelle convinces him to switch sides and ally himself with the French.
Countess of Auvergne: A French noblewoman, she tries to trap Talbot but fails miserably.
Margaret: Reignier of Anjou’s daughter, by the end of the play she is betrothed to Henry VI.
With our introduction complete and our cast of characters laid out, we get ready for act two where roses picked from a bush lead to sedition and civil war!
For those who are interested – and if you’re listening to our podcasts that means you – this is the Brawler’s iPhone and iPad application of choice. Not only will you find all of Shakespeare’s plays but you’ll discover a slew of information about the characters, plots, themes, etc. Definitely worth a download!
Bonus sonnet 7 read long distance by Melissa Myers.