BB: Henry VI Part 1, Act III

Artwork - Stephanie E.M. Coleman
Artwork – Stephanie E.M. Coleman

Welcome Brawlers to our first podcast of 2013: the third act of Henry VI, part 1!

Listen to Act I, and Act II.

Listen to the podcast – here

Remember the Bishop of Winchester and the Duke of Gloucester all the way back in act 1? Well, act III, scene 1 drops us right back into the middle of their dispute. Gloucester is the current regent, so he is de facto king until Henry VI reaches the age of majority. The Bishop of Winchester feels he’s not getting a big enough piece of the pie and is plotting to undermine Gloucester’s rule. They exchange insults where Gloucester tells him he’s acting in a manner unfitting a priest and he even accuses him of having plotted to have Gloucester killed. Henry VI eventually speaks up and tells them all to just get along. Both agree to stop fighting but only Henry VI appears to think they’re being sincere. Also important in this act: Richard Plantagenet is restored to his ancestral lands and made Duke of York. The scene ends with Henry embarking on a trip to France. He and Gloucester hope that his presence there will deter some of the French from siding with Charles, le Dauphin.

The battle for Rouen is the setting for act III, scene 2. It seems that Joan has hit upon a plan to gain access to the city. She and a few French soldiers will disguise themselves as peasants. Once inside the city, they will assess the situation. If the city seems ripe for the taking, she will signal the French forces outside of the city to begin their attack. The initial attack catches the English forces off-guard and the French take the city. However, Talbot rouses his men and leads a successful counter-attack that sends the French forces fleeing from Rouen. Once the battle is over, they see to Bedford’s funeral and travel to Paris to visit with Henry VI and his court.

After they loss at Rouen, the French decide that a new tactic is in order. They decide, in act III, scene 3, to have Joan of Arc try and persuade the Duke of Burgundy to switch sides. Basically the argument is that he’s more French than English and so the larger betrayal is to team up with the usurper-invaders, the English. It actually takes very little time for her to make her argument and by the end of the scene Burgundy has sworn off Talbot and the English. Joan then makes a joke to herself about the turning and turning of Frenchmen. Not sure which stereotype this is referring to, but it sounds dirty to me.

The last scene of this act takes place in the court of Henry VI in Paris. Talbot knees to his king and offers both his prisoners of war and his service. As a reward, Henry makes him Earl of Shrewsbury. The party leaves the stages and only Vernon and Basset remain. It seems that during the crossing from England they had a disagreement about the roses they plucked for themselves and therefore about the two camps they have respectfully chosen to support. It seems that Basset (red rose, Lancastrian) made some insult regarding Richard Plantagenet the Duke of York which Vernon (white rose, Yorkist), one of his followers, did not appreciate. Of course, Basset accuses Vernon of having insulted his lord, the Duke of Somerset. Vernon strikes Basset but because of Gloucester’s edict, he cannot retaliate. He therefore determines to ask the king for the right to fight Vernon.

If you’ve been keeping up with the podcasts of Henry VI, part ! you’ll know by now that we don’t hold a very high opinion of the character of Henry VI. He’s basically (at least by this point in the play) a naive and idealistic boy who just wants everyone to get along. (Although that does make him really fun to read.) By the time we get to Henry VI, part II we might also say that he’s a randy little twerp who basically gives France away for the sake of a girl.

In this play, Henry has relatively few lines. This makes sense given his age: he’s probably somewhere between 10 and 13 or so at this point and his uncle is running the country for him. However, the lines that Shakespeare does give him are quite revealing.

I think one of the first scene which reveals to us the character of the king takes place in parliament where we learn that Gloucester and Winchester’ quarrel has gotten out of hand and threatens to destroy London. Henry orders both sides to stop and to shake hands and make up. Of course, both Gloucester and Winchester agree to the handshake and publicly promise to have their supporters lay down their arms. Only Henry VI, who doesn’t appear to give the issue another moment’s though, is fooled. He’ll be fooled again when Vernon and Basset bring their ‘rose’ disagreement to him and ask for the right to duel. The king will fail to see the repercussions of the burgeoning ‘War of the Roses’ and will naively assume that wearing a rose says nothing about one’s political affiliations.

In this respect I think that Henry VI is a singular character, at least in Shakespeare’s history plays: he’s a weak king who would seem to prefer being anything else but king. This becomes even more pronounced over the course of the next two Henry VI plays. While not all of Shakespeare’s king’s are created equal, Henry VI seems only to serve as a model of everything the Renaissance monarch should avoid. It almost begs the question: is this really a king worth serving?

Join us next time for more fighting, speeches and death (in that order)!

Sonnet 17 read by Hannah Dorozio

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