BB: Henry VI Part 1, the Speeches

Artwork – Stephanie E.M. Coleman

Welcome to the speeches of Henry VI, Part I.

Listen to the podcast – here

Download the podcast.

Unlike with our previous play, The Taming of the Shrew, we had no trouble finding speeches to fill an episode.

Really, as we’ve been saying all along with one, Henry VI, part 1 deserves a closer look. Hopefully some of these speeches can encourage you to go back and listen to the episodes you missed. (Not that you missed any, right?)

“How I am braved and must perforce endure it!” Act II, scene 4, lns 112-127
Speakers: Richard Plantagenet (and eventual Duke of York), Warwick
This excerpt is from the flower-picking scene in act II. Here we learn that Richard Plantagenet, whose father was accused of being a traitor and stripped of his titles, is likely to be restored to his family’s former status as Duke of York. Warwick seems certain of it. Warwick’s short speech also ends with a prophetic foreshadowing about the War of the Roses: “this brawl to-day, / Grown to this faction in the Temple-garden, / Shall send between the red rose and the white / A thousand souls to death and deadly night.” That does about sum it up. (Also, big plus on the use of the word “Brawl,’ Bard!)

“Thus the Mortimers, / In whom the tide rested, were suppress’d.” Act II, scene 5, lns 91-118
Speakers: Mortimer, Richard Plantagenet
Mortimer only appears in one scene on this play but it is a very crucial scene. We pick up on the end of their discussion but Mortimer provides the necessary history earlier. The current king Henry VI is the descendant of Henry IV who actually usurped the throne of Richard II. Mortimer himself, connected with the old regime, has spent most of his life imprisoned or banished. Now Mortimer informs Richard Duke of York that he is in fact descended from the previous line of kings. While Mortimer cannot see yet how to topple the house of Lancaster, he counsels York to bide his time until an opportunity should present itself.

“Look on thy country, look on fertile France…” Act III, scene 3, lns 44-85
Speaker: Pucelle, Burgundy
This is the scene where Joan la Pucelle convinces the Duke of Burgundy to ally himself with the French cause. What we found particularly interesting in this passage is Burgundy’s short response in the middle of Pucelle’s longer speech: “Either she hath bewitch’d me with her words, / Or nature makes me suddenly relent.” It’s a very good question. Which is it? Is Burgundy simply doing the natural thing in seeking to defend the ‘country’ of his birth? Is he in fact French, or is he English? It’s easy for us to say that Burgundy is French but the whole point here is that Burgundy easily could have remained an English territory. And Burgundy’s actions are largely the reason it went to the French. So, was any of this ‘natural?’

“Come hither, you that would be combatants” Act IV, scene 1, lns 133-173
Speaker: King Henry VI
King Henry doesn’t say much in the play and when he does speak, he generally just shows us how ineffectual a ruler he is. We picked this passage though because it showcases one of the few moments where King Henry actually gets it at least partially right. One the one hand, the first part of Henry’s speech is spot on; the English court is in france fighting the Dauphin’s forces. Showing a strong, united front is necessary in order to discourage any further rebellion from the French forces. However, he grossly misunderstands the nature of the division in his forces. We’ve seen the argument boiling and bubbling under the surface just waiting to erupt but Henry seems entirely oblivious to the extent of the division in his court. This scene really shows us Henry’s character as an idealist ill-suited to the throne.

“O, my dear lord, lo, where your son is borne!” Act IV, scene 7, ln 17-32
Speakers: Servant, Talbot
Talbot really is the central point of most of the play. He drives the war effort in France and he sends the French forces packing at the very mention of his name. Unfortunately, York and Suffolk’s squabbling leaves him unsupported and he and his son are overwhelmed and killed in battle. This is Talbot’s final speech. His dead son is brought in and he cradles him in his arms as he dies. I wrote about his passage when we did act IV. I mentioned that Talbot mentioned Daedalus and Icarus, flying towards the sun but what would that look like? Two angels floating up to Heaven. I think it’s a great little speech.

“First, let me tell you whom you have condemn’d…” Act V, scene 4, lns 36-59
Speakers: Pucelle, York, Warwick
This is Joan la Pucelle’s execution scene. While her burning doesn’t actually happen on stage, this is the preamble leading up to it. Here she is trying to convince York not to burn her. She first starts by suggesting that she may be of noble birth and she insists that she is a virgin. When she sees that this is not working, she changes her tune and states instead the she is pregnant. This is a very strange scene. On the one had, we just saw Joan speaking with demon a few scenes ago so we now have a pretty good idea that she is a witch. On the other hand, this scene shows us a group of powerful, older men trying to burn a young (and potentially pregnant) woman alive. As Daniel has pointed out, this would be a tricky scene to stage for a contemporary audience. Come to think of it, it’s almost criminal to think that no one has written a play inspired by this scene which deals precisely with these gender and power issues.

And that’s it for Henry VI, part 1!

Stay tuned for the next play – you definitely won’t want to miss it.

Bonus sonnet 24 read by first time sonneteer Erin Byrnes.

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

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Artwork - Leigh McRae
Artwork – Leigh McRae

BB: Henry VI Part 1, Act V

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

Welcome to the final act of Henry VI, Part I.

Listen to the podcast – here

Download the podcast.

After the deadly siege of Bourdeau and the deaths of Talbot and his sons, at the start of act V the English nobility is gathered in London to hear a letter from the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor. (The War of the Roses takes place before England becomes protestant. Catholic is the only kind of Christian around.) They strongly suggest that England and France work out their differences. The French Duke of Armagnac, who also signs this letter, offers to have his daughter marry Henry to cement this peace. Henry’s not pleased at that thought but he agrees to do what’s best for his country. We also discover that the bishop of Winchester has since bought a cardinal’s office and that with his increased authority, he intends to undermine Gloucester‘s authority.

Back to France. At the start of scene 2, the French forces are gathered at Anjou and prepared to march to Paris to support the locals fighting there but a messenger arrives and informs them that the English army – routed earlier – has since regrouped and is ready to fight.

The next scene stars with Joan alone on stage. She is pleading, not with agents of God but rather with fiends from the “regions under earth.” She asks them for one last favour, which would drive the English from France but they abandon her.She leaves the stage and when she returns, she’s fighting with the Duke of York who manages to capture her. The French forces flee as soon as she is taken. She curses both York and Charles before she’s carried off to be burned at the stake for witchcraft. The stage is cleared and Suffolk comes on with his ‘prisoner,’ Margaret, daughter of Reignier. (You’ll remember, and this will be important in a bit, that while the King of Naples has an impressive title, it’s a title almost devoid of actual power.) The rather creepy Suffolk, who is in love with Margaret but who is also married, decides to woo her an Henry’s behalf. He convinces her to agree to marry the king (where he hopes he will be free to pursue an adulterous love affair with her). He then tells Reignier who is all too happy at the thought of his daughter marrying a king.

Scene 4 is the scene of Joan’s burning. She’s escorted in by a guard and is accompanied by a shepherd who claims to be her father. Joan denies this, claiming descent from aristocracy. he tries to get her to repent. She tells him off so he just says, the hell with it, burn her! She tries to convince York that she is noble born but he doesn’t seem either to belive her or care. Warrick asks them – because she’s a virgin – to make it a big fire so it will be over quickly. Seeing that this has had no effect, she tells them that she’s pregnant. York seems to have guessed she would say that, and suggests that she’s the furthest thing from virginal. She then names pretty much every member of the French court as potential fathers. York has heard enough and orders her to be carried off and burned (No, we don’t get to see it). Winchester then arrives from England and informs York and the others that there will be a peace treaty and the that wars in France are over. York is worried this means they’ll lose france, but Warrick is more optimistic. The French court join them in the camp. The cardinal delivers the terms: if the French swear fealty to henry, he’ll let Charles govern France as viceroy. He agrees.

We return to the palace in London for scene 5. Suffolk is hard at work convincing Henry to marry Margaret. The king – who seemed more interested in books before – now becomes obsessed with marrying this woman he has never seen. Henry asks Gloucester to give his consent. He refuses, reminding Henry how, in the interest of peace with France, he is supposed to marry the Duke of Armagnac’s daughter. Suffolk tries to play in Reignier’ title as King of Naples but Gloucester deflates him by mentioning that, despite his titles, the King of Naples is a broke nobody. Suffolk plies the king hard and he eventually convinces henry to marry Margret, regardless of what Gloucester says.

So much for peace.

I’ve been trying to make a case for what works in this play. But here are some of the problems.

One of the confusing aspects of this play is how many plot events appear to come out of nowhere. This whole business with the marriages in the final scene feels a little tacked on and, after the tragic deaths of Talbot and son, is a bit of a downer. Fact is though, this isn’t a problem of just this so-called “bad play.” Even some of our favourites suffer from some plot problems like this. In fact, we’ve said this about act V in Coriolanus which is a Bard Brawl favourite. I’m tempted to call this the “Act V Slump.”

Also, the Cardinal of Winchester-Gloucester subplot seems to go nowhere. The play opens with this power struggle between them, and their forces come to blows over the course of the play, but nothing seems to come of it. Even at the end of the play, after he’s been made cardinal by the Pope, Winchester is still talking about how he’ll show Gloucester. Except we’ve heard this about five acts ago and nothing has changed since. He said he would steal the king, that he would be a force of evil against England… but here he is in act V delivering the peace terms as ordered. The only sinister thing in the scene is how he tells the legate to take the cash he needs to pay the Pope for his office. Not exactly the “chiefest stern of public weal” he vowed to be back in act I! In fact, lust-sick Suffolk seems to do a much better job of screwing the kingdom and the Lord-Protector than Winchester ever even comes close to doing in this play.

And of course, there’s the Joan of Arc problem which comes up in this act. In act V, scene 3, Shakespeare pretty explicitly confirms the English’s interpretation of Joan of Arc as a sorceress when he has her speaking and pleading with demons. Up until this point, it was entirely possible to side with either the English or the French, to think of her as either a witch or a saint. This is probably one of the moments which are the least “Shakespearean” in the play and which – despite the many enjoyable part so the play – make it inferior to some of his later history plays.

As a rule, Shakespeare is much more interested in asking questions than in providing answers. His plays rarely seem to completely support one interpretation over another, especially when it comes to controversial figures. Like Joan of Arc. Remember how, when I wrote about act II of Coriolanus, part of the appeal was that the play asked us to decide what to make of Coriolanus: despot or war hero? Same thing with Shylock, or Antonio’s ‘mercy’ in The Merchant of Venice. the interpretation is up for grabs.

By writing in this scene the way he does in Henry Vi, part 1 he robs us of that decision. That weakens the tension and the drama of the play by breaking things up into clear categories of good and bad. If he had written this play later in his career, I’m pretty sure that this scene would have been changed or left out.

(In my opinion, this type of ‘talking to demons’ scene is much more typical of Marlowe. Very much Doctor Faustus stuff. Fun fact: Doctor Faustus would likely have been staged around the same time – within a year or so – as Henry VI, part 1. Could it be that demons were just the “in” thing that year?)

Next week, we’ll go over some of our favourite moments of this play.

Sonnet 12 read by Kayla Cross.

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

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BB: Henry VI Part 1, Act IV

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

Welcome fellow Bardophiles to act IV of Henry VI, part 1!

Listen or download the podcast.

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.

Dark tidings!

In the infamous words of Lord Wessex from Shakespeare in love: “How is this to end?” (Spoiler alert: not so good for Joan la Pucelle!)

You’ll have to listen to act V to find out!

Need to figure out how we got here? Listen to Act I, Act II, and Act III to get up to speed.

Those confused with the history can check out David Starkey‘s documentary series Monarchy. The end of the first series involves the War of the Roses.

Sonnet 22 read by Maya Pankala

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

BB: Henry VI Part 1, Act II

Season’s greetings from snowed-in Montreal, and welcome Brawlers to this second episode of Henry VI, part 1!

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

Listen to the podcast – here

The action picks up where we left off at the end of our last show. As we start act II, the English army is gathered outside of Orleans, having just been driven off by Joan of Arc and the Dauphin’s forces. They accuse the French forces of consorting with witches and demons but believe that if they place their trust in God, their next attack will be successful. Talbot orders a coordinated attack from multiple fronts. His night attack catches the French forces unawares. They accuse Joan la Pucelle of delivering only temporary gains but she berates them for their lack of patience as they run off to gather their forces for battle.

Thanks to their surprise attack, the English rout the French by the start of scene 2. However, Talbot calls off the chase in order to secure his forces’ hold on the city. As the English commanders discuss preparation for Salisbury’s funeral, a messenger arrives with an invitation from the Countess of Auvergne. She wishes to set her eyes on the man who fills the French with such terror. While chivalry compels him to accept her invitation, he whispers something to one of his captains which suggests he suspects some sort of trap.

Sure enough, our suspicions our confirmed at the very start of scene 3 when the Countess speaks of a plot which will make her as famous as Tomryris: Tomyris had the Persian Emperor Cyrus beheaded (and then stuck it in a wineskin filled with blood). When Talbot arrives, the Countess of Auvergne is surprised to discover that he’s a dwarf of a man, not the awe-inspiring Hercules or Hector she imagined. insulted by his hostess, Talbot makes to leave but she informs him that he is now her prisoner. However, Talbot blows in his horn and a bunch of his soldiers show up, ready to fight. She apologizes and offers to treat them as honoured guests.

The play finally shifts back to England in act II, scene 4. This is possibly the most famous scene of this play and marks the ‘official’ start of the War of the Roses, where the two camps are formalized. Richard Plantagenet, the Earl of Somerset, and a few other lords are consulting with some lawyers at the Temple-Garden in London. (The Temple-Garden was the center for the study of law in London at that time.) Each – Plantagenet (Yorkist) and Somerset (Lancastrian) is essentially pleading their case to with the lawyers there as to which of them has the greater right to the throne. As the lawyers seem unable (or unwilling) pronounce a clear judgement, they take matters into their own hands. Plantagenet asks that any who believe his interpretation of the law (that he should be king) should show their allegiance by plucking a white rose out of one of the rose bushes in the garden. In response, Somerset asks that any who would support his claim to the throne should pick a red rose instead. Vernon, one of the lawyers, tries to prevent an escalation by having them swear that they two claimants will let the majority carry the day but their contest quickly devolves into threats of violence. In particular the grounds of their disagreement is this: Richard Plantagenet feels that he has the stronger case because his line is closer to the throne; however, Somerset points out that Plantagenet’s father, the Earl of Cambridge, was executed for treason and stripped of all of his titles. In the end, they both vow to gather their forces and fight it out.

We follow Richard Plantagenet as he makes his way to the Tower of London, in act II, scene 5, where he is to visit with his dying uncle. We are introduced to the character of Mortimer, who appears only in this scene. (For those of you who have read Henry VI part 1, this is the same Mortimer who betrays the Lancastrian King Henry IV and joins with the rebels.) Despite having only the one scene in the play, he is a very important character: it is through Mortimer’s death-bed confessions that Plantagenet learns exactly how closely related to the throne he is. As Richard II had no sons, Mortimer was next in line to inherit the throne at his death. However, Richard II was deposed by the man who would become Henry IV. Mortimer declares Richard Plantagenet his closest heir which makes him the next rightful heir. Mortimer then dies.

The rose plucking scene in this act is a true work of genius.

This is a history play. We expect a certain degree of fidelity to the history on which it’s based. The siege of Orleans, Joan of Arc, Winchester and Gloucester’s feud, Mortimer’s long imprisonment in the tower: these all happened. Sure, Shakespeare compresses the action in the play (they didn’t happen in the two hours or so which it takes to stage the two first acts of the play) but the basics and the timeline remain more or less intact. Shakespeare also goes to great lengths to show how the wars in France are connected to and undermined by the division at home. It’s a convincing if accelerated chronicle of the events which gave England the shape it has to this day.

What makes this rose picking scene amazing, however, is that it never happened!

Before this play, the title The War of the Roses was applied to the prolonged and ongoing conflict which defined Henry VI’s reign because the two main houses involved sported roses in their family heraldry. Shakespeare’s stroke of brilliance was taking these iconic emblems and transforming them into literal markers of allegiance. That done, he can let his poetic imagination loose on all of the possibilities imagining these emblems as real roses makes available.

The play doesn’t provide us with any stage direction to this effect, but I can just imagine how striking it would have been to have these two factions take shape: Plantagenet picks a white rose and places it in one of his button holes. Somerset responds by taking a red rose and doing the same. From that point forward, there can be no undecided nobles, no neutral players. No one can remain indifferent and even the lawyers are forced to pick sides. (Vernon and the nameless lawyer, incidentally, pick white roses.) England and its aristocracy is split down the middle.

With the simple act of picking flowers the battle lines are drawn and the players and their loyalties displayed for everyone to see.

Shakespeare not only manages to dramatize what is essentially a legal dispute, he gives the audience all of the information it needs to understand the basic nature of the rift: one side claims their decent from the line of kings which was overthrown by Henry VI’s ancestor Henry Bolingbroke, the other disavows that claims based on the fact that the ancestor through which the other claims descent was hanged as a traitor. In about 130 lines Shakespeare shows us the teams, their reasons for fighting, how we’ll recognise them, and a taste of how bad things are likely to get.

Not to mention, the scene contains some absolute gems in the exchanges between Richard Plantagenet and Somerset, many of which revolve around the figure of these literal roses: thorns, cankers, white cheeks turning red, white roses stained red with the blood of the vanquished, the purity of white as absence of colour. Here’s just a short sample:

Here in my scabbard, meditating that / Shall dye your white rose [of York] in a bloody red.
Meantime your cheeks do counterfeit our roses; / For pale they look with fear, as witnessing / The truth on our side.
No, Plantagenet, ‘Tis not for fear but anger that thy cheeks / Blush for pure shame to counterfeit our [red Lancastrian] roses, / And yet thy tongue will not confess thy error.

Now that’s good stuff, even by Shakespearean standards.

Next week: Act III where we will be reunited with our old friends Winchester and Gloucester!

You won’t want to miss it!

Our bonus sonnet – sonnet 21 – is read this week by Sonneteer Esther Viragh.

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

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: Henry VI part 1, An Introduction

Welcome fellow Brawlers to the brawl’s first history play, Henry VI, part 1.

As this is our first history play, you’ll forgive me if I go on a little bit before we get to our first podcast. You’ll thank me later.

Trust me.

If the more popular plays of the second Henriad (or tetralogy) – Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 and 2, and Henry V – are Shakespeare’s Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, then you can think of three parts of Henry VI (generally referenced as 1 Henry VI, 2 Henry VI and 3 Henry VI) as his New Hope, Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Richard III is whatever Star Wars movie Disney will make soon enough. Let’s hope George Lucas isn’t allowed anywhere near it. Han shot first!!

Like the ‘older’ set of Star Wars movies, Shakespeare’s first Henriad was written first, but describe events which take place at the end of the War of the Roses, with the Houses of York (the White Rose) and Lancaster (the Red Rose) vying for the British throne until the two roses are united with the ascension of Henry VII, the first Tudor king.

There is some disagreement as to which of the plays of the first Henriad (Henry VI parts 1, 2 and 3, and Richard III) were written first. Based on the little evidence which exists for dating the plays, most scholars agree that Richard III was the first history play that Shakespeare wrote or staged. That play, though, is chronologically the last in the series of Shakespeare’s War of the Roses sequels.

Confusing, we know.

But that’s not really important here anyhow. What is important is understanding the historical order of the action in the plays. The timeline should look something like this:

While each play is a stand-alone work (ie: you don’t need to read Henry VI part 1 to get part 2), the action and characters of the plays that come in the later plays pick up from events in the earlier plays. Again, kind of like the Star Wars trilogy.

Unlike the Star Wars franchise however, Shakespeare’s ‘prequels’ today tend to be seen as the better series of plays. The ‘Henry VI’ plays enjoy a bit of a bad rap with contemporary Bardophiles. They’re not often staged today despite being immensely popular when first staged in England in the early 1590’s. And while today the general wisdom prefers the plays which Shakespeare wrote later in his career, this doesn’t mean that there’s nothing interesting or enjoyable for us in these early Shakespeare plays.

Much like The Taming of the Shrew, which we just finished reading, Henry VI part 1 has a lot of action in it: there are whole acts devoted to fight scenes and enough duels and combats to make a Hollywood blockbuster many times over. With a play like this, contemporary audiences would have also been treated to a whole range of cool special effects: simulated thunder, lightning, explosions and gunshots. It made for an intense theatre experience. It really was a lot like going to see a blockbuster action movie. As if that wasnt enough, one of the main characters is the peasant girl turned warrior-maiden, Joan of Arc!

How cool is that?!

The other day Daniel said something which I think gives us a useful way of wrapping our heads around the War of the Roses: the War of the Roses was Tudor England’s WWII. It’s a good analogy. The characters and the events in Henry VI part 1 would have been familiar to Shakespeare’s audience in the same way that the major figures of WWII are familiar to us. We don’t need to be told about Churchill, Hitler, Mussolini, Hirohito, Roosevelt and Stalin to understand a what’s going on in a WWII movie. We know who these people are. For theatre goers in 1592, it would have been the same for Talbot, the duke of Gloucester, Joan of Arc, Richard Plantagenet, the bishop of Winchester and the Dauphin of France.

Don’t worry, we’ll get to the characters and the play by play of the first act in the next post. In the meantime though, here’s the short version of what happens in the War of the Roses . This should help give you a good sense of just how important and relevant this story would have been to Shakespeare’s audiences.

The Houses of York and Lancaster each claim that they should be the rightful rulers of England. After Henry V dies, his nine month old son Henry VI becomes the next King of England. Obviously, he can’t rule yet so the Duke of Gloucester is appointed to rule as regent until Henry VI is old enough to take on his rightful title. Henry VI is a Lancastrian king but because he’s in no position to do anything about it, the Yorkists see an opportunity to reclaim the throne. People pick sides and what follows is a decades long struggle for power. The Yorkists do manage to get the monarchy back when Edward IV – who had been hiding out in France for a while – kills Henry VI. However, Edward`s younger brother Richard wants the throne for himself and manages to eliminate his elder brothers and take the crown. He’s killed by Henry Tudor, who becomes Henry VII, and not only becomes King of England but marries together the two warring houses and brings an end to the War of the Roses. (The symbol of the Tudors dynasty, the Tudor Rose, contains both a white and a red rose.)

At the start of the War of the Roses, England rules over France but the French decide they’ve had enough and they go to war with England’s occupying armies. They eventually name the Dauphin of France King Charles VII and they get busy trying to kick the English out. Because of their infighting, the English fail to properly support their forces in the field and are eventually beaten home.

For Shakespeare original audience, this wasn’t ancient history but not-so-distant family and national history. Consider also an important genealogical fact: Henry VII – the big winner of the War of the Roses – was Queen Elizabeth‘s grandfather and Henry VI was his uncle. This might give you some idea of why this play was so popular: everybody else’s grandfathers and great-grandfathers were reincarnated on the stage too, fighting out the same war that severed England from France and that (eventually) lead to Queen Elizabeth’s reign. So it was kind of a big deal in making the English, English and the French, French.

Now, with those preliminaries out of the way, stay tuned for the first act of Henry VI part 1!

If you’re still confused about the basic history, maybe this “third person action game set in 15th century England” might help.

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