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Henry VI Part 1

by: William Shakespeare

Act I, Scenes i-iii

Joan explains that she is just a shepherd's daughter, but one day when she was tending her sheep, a vision of God's mother appeared to her and told her to leave her sheep and help free her country. This figure showed itself in all its glory to Joan, the shine of the divine rays brought her her current beauty. She tells Charles to ask her whatever he wants, or even to challenge her to combat, if he dares; she is endowed with the power to succeed in any undertaking. Charles, astonished at her audacity, agrees to a trial of single combat, saying he fears no woman. Responding that she fears no man, she soundly beats him. He declares she is an Amazon (a member of a mythological race of women warriors) and that she fights with the sword of Deborah, an Old Testament prophet; he suggests she become his lover. But Joan declares she cannot yield to love, for her sacred task requires her to remain a virgin.

The other lords return and ask if they should abandon Orléans to the English or not. Joan replies that they will fight for Orléans, and Charles agrees. Joan announces that she will raise the siege that very day. Glory, she says, is like a circle in the water, expanding infinitely until something stops it. With the death of Henry V, the English circle has ceased to spread; the situation can only improve from here. Charles and his lords urge Joan to do what she can to end the siege.

Commentary

The play opens with the death of Henry V, considered one of England's most charismatic and successful leaders. During his brief reign, Henry conquered much of France, in a set of events depicted in Shakespeare's Henry V. However, it was prophesized that Henry's son would quickly lose the lands that so many had died to gain under his father's rule; and indeed, Henry V is barely in the ground before word comes from France announcing the first losses, with the French rising up against the English, and with England's great champion, Talbot, in French prison.

Shakespeare plays fast and loose with the actual historical facts throughout this play; it is of the "history play" genre, but it does not remain strictly faithful to real dates and events. For one thing, time is condensed; England's holdings in France didn't fall to the French until some years after Henry V's death. Other details, such as Henry VI's age and the timing of battles, receive similar jiggling by Shakespeare, presumably for the sake of a more compelling narrative.

However old Henry VI may be, he is not yet in command of the kingdom, so a network of noblemen must take control. Yet even in their first scene, they do not work well together. They are ambitious politicians, determined to pursue their own power, even when they claim every action is for the good of the nation. Each in turn is portrayed as inferior to Talbot, the original feudal knight, symbol of a dying breed of honorable and brave men devoted to the good of England. Internal dissention among these politicians poses as dangerous a threat to the kingdom as the assaults of the French soldiers.

These scenes also introduce the remarkable figure of Joan of Arc. When she first appears to challenge Charles to a duel, he calls her an Amazon and compares her to a prophet from the Old Testament; for the moment he seems to genuinely value her. And for now she seems deserving--seems indeed to possess at least some of the powers she claims to have been given: she is able to recognize Charles without ever having met him before, and she later is able effortlessly to reduce Talbot's armies to a disorganized chaos. Yet she is a complex figure; the English refer to her as a witch and a whore, suggesting a reluctance to accept a woman in a position of power, a woman playing a role (and wearing the clothes) of a man.