BB: Henry VI Part 1, Act I

Welcome fellow Brawlers to our recording of the first act of Henry VI, part 1.

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

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

The French

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.

(Podcast recorded and edited by Daniel J. Rowe. Show notes by Eric Jean.)

BB: Taming of the Shrew, Act I

In this podcast, the Brawlers take on the first act of the confusing and controversial Taming of the Shrew.

Listen to the podcast –here

Download the podcast.

The Brawlers clockwise: Shaun Malley, Daniel J. Rowe, Virginie Tremblay, David Wheaton, Eric Jean, Andre Simoneau, and Stephanie E.M. Coleman.

The Taming of the Shrew opens with a prologue which takes place in front of an alehouse. It seems the drunk Christopher Sly’s been kicked out of the bar by the hostess after refusing to pay for his tab. The hostess threatens to call the watch but instead of leaving Sly falls asleep in front of the tavern. Soon, an unnamed lord and his huntsmen show up and, for some reason, the nobleman decides it would be fun to take Sly back to his estate, clean the drunkard up and make him think he’s an amnesiac lord whose just awoken from a long illness. Just then an acting troupe shows up and the lord hires them to help him with his prank.

By the start of scene 2, Sly has just woken up and he calls out for some more booze. He’s expecting Pabst Blue Ribbon but greeted by servants who offer him wine and want to know which of his many outfits he plans to wear today. Sly argues with them but the servants and the lord manage to convince him at last that he’s a rich lord and that the cross-dressing page is his wife. Sly wants to sleep with his wife, but the page instead convinces him to watch a play first, in case having sex might bring about a new bout of madness. Doctor’s orders. So instead they decide to watch a play.

The actual play itself begins in act I, scene 1 with the young bachelor Lucentio’s arrival in Padua where he hopes to pursue his studies. He’s accompanied by his servant Tranio who reminds him that while he’s here he may as well have a good time. While they talk, Baptista, his daughters Katharina and Bianca, as well as Bianca’s suitors Gremio and Hortensio, walk by them. The suitors are trying to plead their case with Bianca’s daughter but Baptista won’t budge: neither of them can marry Bianca unless his eldest daughter Katharina (Kate) is married off first. The problem? Katharina’s a shrew which no man in Padua wishes to marry. As soon as they leave, Lucentio admits that’s he’s smitten by Bianca and he and Tranio devise a plan to allow Lucentio to woo her freely: Tranio will pretend to be Lucentio and take care of his master’s affairs in the city while Lucentio will pretend to a scholar which Gremio will offer to Baptista as a tutor for his daughters. This will give him access to Bianca. When Biondello, one of Lucentio’s father’s servants, arrives, Lucentio convinces him to go along with their plan.

The start of act I, scene 2 is similar to the previous scene: a young bachelor, called Petruchio, arrives in Padua with his servant Grumio (not to be confused with the suitor Gremio). There’s a short slapstick scene where Grumio gets slapped around by Petruchio just outside Hortensio’s house. The two friends talk for a few moments and Hortensio learns that Petruchio is in the market for a rich wife. Seeing an opportunity to open the way to Bianca, he tells Petruchio about Katharina. Petruchio decides that he’s the one to take on Kate and the two head off to Baptista’s house. When they get there, they see Gremio, Bianca’s older suitor, and with his is Lucentio disguised as a tutor who promises to woo Bianca on the old man’s behalf. Hortensio and Gremio exchange words until Tranio – disguised as Lucentio – shows up and tells them he also intends to woo Bianca. While they’re not happy to see him, they realise that neither of them can get Bianca unless they first marry off Kate. They agree to collaborate to help Petruchio win Katharina.

If you’re already confused about who’s who in the play, you’re not alone. Taming of the Shrew is a tough play to read because the characters are constantly disguising themselves. Some invent entirely new names while others (to make it even more confusing) pretend to be other characters in the play. With that in mind, here’s a short list of some of the characters and the roles they take on in the play:


      A young bachelor and scholar. He pretends to be one of Katharina and Bianca’s tutors,


      , so he can woo Bianca.


      Lucentio’s servant. He pretends to be Lucentio so his master can woo Bianca without arousing suspicion.


      A servant of Lucientio’s father.

Baptista Minola:

      The father of Katharina and Bianca.

Katharina (Kate):

      Baptista’s eldest daughter, a shrew which Petruchio will marry for money.


      Baptista’s youngest daughter, who has three suitors: Gremio, Hortensio and Lucentio.


      An old man and friend of Baptista’s who wants to marry Bianca. He hires the tutor Cambio (Lucentio in disguise) to woo Bianca on his behalf.


      A younger suitor to Bianca and one of Petruchio’s friends. He disguises himself as a music teacher named




      Petruchio: a young impoverished bachelor looking to marry into money. Katharina’s suitor.


      Petruchio’s servant. He often gets slapped around by his master.


    Later on, this character will be recruited to play the part of Lucentio’s father.

I’d bookmark this page: I’m sure you’ll want to jump back here more than once over the next few weeks.

If you’ve ever seen this play staged, or watched an adaptation of it, you won’t remember the prologue. That’s because it’s almost always edited out. In fact, if anyone out there is aware of any production that does include the prologue, let us know.

Truth is, ignoring the prologue is the easy thing to do and removing it doesn’t affect the action of the play at all. So why is it there in the first place? This is a tough question to answer.

Let’s try to imagine how The Taming of the Shrew might have been stage back in 1592. For that, it might be helpful to know what the actual theatre might have looked like as well:

If we’re lucky, we can afford to by a spot in the covered balconies but most likely we’re just groundlings who paid a cheap rate to stand in the pit all around the stage.

Once the play starts, Sly, the hostess, the lord and his attendants come on stage. They play out the first scene of the prologue. Then, after they’ve dragged Sly off-stage, he reappears on the balcony at the back of the playhouse with the page disguised as Sly’s wife. There’s a good chance the lord and the household servants are up there as well. However, at the end of the scene, the players hired by the lord walk out onto the main stage and start performing a play. This is where act one of the actual play starts.

Sly has a few more lines after act I, scene 1 so we know he’s still around. And it’s likely that he’ll stay up on that balcony for the entire show. That means that we’re watching Sly and the page watch the Taming of the Shrew as we watch the Taming of the Shrew. It also means that the actors the lord has hired for his prank on Sly are the same ones acting out the Taming of the Shrew for us, the audience. Are we supposed to be the butt of a strange joke like Christopher Sly? I’m not sure. If so, I don’t really get it. What this weird half-frame does though is make us aware that we’re watching a play because it keeps the audience of the play – Sly – in view the whole time.

Shakespeare’s big on theatre metaphors in his plays. He’s constantly reminding us that we’re watching a play, and that everything else in our lives also involves a lot of acting and pretending too. However, Taming of the Shrew is an early play, one of Shakespeare’s first. Later in his career, Shakespeare will really become a master of using theatre to comment on theatre and life. He just hasn’t really figured it out yet and this experiment falls a little flat.

That about does it for this week. Be sure to read Jay Reid’s critique of Ralph Fiennes’ recent film adaptation of Coriolanus. If you don’t want to miss anything, subscribe to the blog as well as the podcast on iTunes.

(Podcast recorded and edited by Daniel J. Rowe, show notes by Eric Jean)

Artwork - Leigh Macrae
Artwork – Leigh Macrae

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