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:

SOMERSET:
Here in my scabbard, meditating that / Shall dye your white rose [of York] in a bloody red.
RICHARD PLANTAGENET:
Meantime your cheeks do counterfeit our roses; / For pale they look with fear, as witnessing / The truth on our side.
SOMERSET
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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