Welcome fellow Bardophiles to act IV of Henry VI, part 1!
This act is a prolonged, action-packed epic battle in which the fate of the English holdings in France will be decided forever. However, act IV starts in Henry VI’s palace in Paris. Gloucester, Winchester and the other nobles are present at a coronation intended to remind the French governor who is his rightful king. While they are gathered together, they learn of Burgundy’s defection to the French and Talbot swears that he will make him pay for his betrayal. After Talbot leaves to take the field, Vernon (white rose, Yorkist) and Basset (red rose, Lancastrian) show up asking to be allowed to duel for the honour of their respective lords. (Remember them from our last episode?) King Henry, completely missing the whole point, says that there’s no significance in wearing roses and then he puts on a red one (Lancastrian). He dismisses the whole thing and orders everyone to be friends. The Duke of York does not appreciate the king’s choice of rose.
In scene 2, Talbot comes on stage before the gates of Bourdeaux and demands the French general defending the city accept Henry VI as his sovereign. He refuses. As the general is letting Talbot have it, Charles the Dauphin’s forces are heard approaching and Talbot readies his forces for war.
Not far away in Gascony, the Duke of York is stationed with his men when scene 3 starts. He is waiting for Somerset to send the knights he has promised so they can ride to Talbot’s aid. Lord Lucy arrives to urge him to come to Talbot’s aid anyhow but York refuses, saying that it’s a lost cause. He blames everything on Somerset.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in Gascony, Lord Somerset faces a similar choice and decides not to send his men either. He blames York and Talbot for being too brash and attacking before he was ready. Lord Lucy blames them both, and their quarrel, for the immanent death of Talbot (oops).
But Talbot hasn’t breathed his last! He is reunited with his son, whom he hasn’t seen in several years, at the start of the next scene. Talbot senior sees that the situation is grim and he tries to plead with his son to flee the camp. Junior wants nothing to do with that and says that he will die with honour like the Talbot he is. Talbot senior is resigned (and probably secretly pleased) and father and son promise to live or die fighting together. (Sorry. It doesn’t look good, folks.)
They take to the field in scene 6 to what I have to assume was one of Shakespeare’s loudest alarums! Talbot junior is surrounded by the enemy and dad runs in a rescues him. Senior tries to convince his son to run away one more time but he refuses and they both rush back into the fray.
When Talbot next walks out on stage to start the last scene of the act, he is severely wounded and being led around by a servant. He asks about his son and some soldiers arrive carrying John Talbot junior’s body. Talbot gives a great speech comparing himself and his son to Daedalus and Icarus, before he also succumbs to his wounds. It’s a very powerful scene despite Talbot junior showing up just a few scenes earlier. (Listen for this one in the speeches podcast for sure!) Lord Lucy arrives a little too late and is met with the French and Joan of Arc who rub Talbot’s death in Lucy’s face. Nevertheless, they honour the codes of war and allow Lucy to collect the bodies of their dead.
The more time we spend with this play, the more interesting it gets! Who got to decide there was nothing valuable in this play? They clearly never read it!
This is, in my view, one of the best acts of the play. Talbot’s speeches are particularly good, I think, worthy of the near-mythic, superhero reputation he would have enjoyed.
Here’s part of the speech I mentioned just a few lines back:
Thou antic death, which laugh’st us here to scorn,
Anon, from thy insulting tyranny,
Coupled in bonds of perpetuity,
Two Talbots, winged through the lither sky,
In thy despite shall ‘scape mortality.
O, thou, whose wounds become hard-favour’d death,
Speak to thy father ere thou yield thy breath!
Brave death by speaking, whether he will or no;
Imagine him a Frenchman and thy foe.
Poor boy! he smiles, methinks, as who should say,
Had death been French, then death had died to-day.
He mentions that he and his son shall escape mortality despite their deaths. Certainly at the time Henry VI, part 1 was first staged, Talbot was a very popular and well-known historical figure. It’s too bad that this play has fallen to the wayside in the wake of the other set of Henry plays (Henry IV parts 1 and 2, and Henry V). Maybe a comic book is the solution?
Any brawlers out there want to volunteer to illustrate?
Also very interesting in this act: Lords Exeter and Lucy seem to have developed prophetic powers! At the end of scene 2, Exeter seems able to read the Duke of York’s mind and even goes so far as to commend him on not letting on about his secret ambition to take the throne. At the end of scene 3, Lucy moralizes about the fact that Henry V is only recently deceased and already the English have messed things up and lost most of what he conquered.
You’ll have to listen to act V to find out!
Sonnet 22 read by Maya Pankala