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Henry VI Part 1

William Shakespeare

Act IV, Scenes v-vii

Act IV, Scenes ii-iv

Act V, Scenes i-iv

Summary

Talbot and his son John stand on the battlefield near Bordeaux. Talbot says he had sent for his son to teach him the strategies of war so that the name of Talbot might be carried on into future wars. But John has arrived in a situation of too much danger, and Talbot tells his son to escape. John refuses, however, explaining that to flee now would be to disgrace the name of Talbot. Talbot tells John to flee so that he may avenge his father's death, but John says anyone who flees will never again be taken seriously in a fight.

Talbot says they can't both stay, as they will both die. So John tells Talbot to flee, offering to stay himself. The death of Talbot would be a great loss, but the death of his son, not yet a famous figure, would mean nothing. For Talbot to flee now would not stain the permanent honor he has already won, but it would ruin John's career to flee his first fight. Talbot asks him if he wants his mother's heart to be broken when her only son and husband both die, but John says he prefers that his mother suffer this sadness than suffer the terrible shame of knowing her son to be a coward. Talbot repeats that if John flees the Talbot legacy will live on, but John insists that that legacy will be worthless if he sullies it by fleeing. Finally, Talbot relents and sadly welcomes his son to fight--and probably die--with him.

In the ensuing battle, John becomes surrounded by French soldiers, and Talbot rescues him. Talbot sees that his son has received his first wound in battle, struck by the Bastard of Orléans. This first penetration by a sword has deflowered this young soldier, Talbot says. He asks if John is tired, urging him again to leave the battlefield. Hasn't he achieved enough glory now to escape with honor and live on to avenge his father's death? Why endanger both their lives on the same bloody field? If he himself dies, he merely cuts off the few short years he has remaining, but if John dies, then the family name dies, along with the revenge of his death, and the connection between English leadership and the Talbot name.

John understands all that his father says, yet he insists that if he flees then he will no longer deserve the name of Talbot's son. If he does possess the name Talbot, his duty is to die at his father's side. Talbot returns with his son to battle, comparing him to Icarus. (In Greek myth, Icarus and his father Daedalus are trapped in a labyrinth; Daedalus constructs wings for them from feathers and wax so that both may escape; however, Icarus flies too near the sun, his wings melt, and he drowns in the sea.)

Some time has elapsed, and Talbot now reappears, led by a servant. He mourns his son, who he says repeatedly saved him on the battlefield, fighting valiantly. Yet, like Icarus, he, too, fell because of his high-flying spirit, and he was brought down by the French. John's body is borne in and Talbot weeps over it. He says his spirit cannot survive this blow, and he dies. Soldiers depart with the bodies.

Charles and his men, including Alençon, Burgundy, the Bastard of Orléans, and Joan, enter. Charles expresses gladness that York and Somerset's troops never arrived, for the French would not have won had they come as planned. The lords discuss John and how powerful a warrior he proved before he fell. Joan says that she encountered him in the field but he refused to fight with her, believing a woman to be an unworthy opponent. Burgundy says he would have made a noble knight.

Lucy enters, asking to know the names of prisoners and to view the bodies of the English dead. He recites a long eloquent list of men lost in the battle, wondering where they are now. Joan makes fun of Lucy's style, saying, "Him that thou magnifi'st with all these titles / Stinking and flyblown lies here at our feet"(IV.vii.75-6). Lucy asks if Talbot is slain, and she asks to take the bodies of the dead to be buried in fitting honor. Joan, clearly bored with Lucy's elevated speech, urges Charles to give him the bodies and send Lucy on his way.

Commentary

The bulk of the scenes between Talbot and John involve their argument about whether or not John should flee the battle. Talbot had previously viciously upbraided Fastolf for having fled a battle, but he gladly encourages his son to do the same, if it means surviving to fight another day, to carry on the Talbot name, or to avenge his father's death. Yet his son is obstinate. He has clearly learned something from Talbot about the nature of chivalry and valor: he refuses to leave the scene of the battle because such a cowardly act will render him unworthy of the Talbot name--and that will be worse than dying, than leaving his father's death unavenged, and bringing about the end of the Talbot line. And finally he dies before his father, who himself apparently dies of grief.

And, thus, dies the most consistent figure of the chivalry, valor, and honor of an older order. John's display of similar honor offers momentary hope for the survival of this order, but his quick death brings his possible influence to an end also. So, too, dies the world of a paternally bequeathed chivalry, when both father and son die in the same battle. And now England passes exclusively into the hands of politicians who fight not for king and country, as the knights of feudal times did, but for their own personal gain.

Yet again we see the contrast between Joan's new tactics of war and the old school of warfare. After the battle ends, Lucy arrives to formally mourn for the bodies of the troops, but Joan's disinterest grows with the laundry list of names Lucy recites. To her, the bodies merely smell bad and attract flies, and they have no meaning anymore. In the context of a more modern world, her viewpoint will prove the predominant one, but the world has not changed so much since Talbot's death that the bodies will not receive a fitting burial.

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A Young King and the Dangers of a Power Vacuum

by ReadingShakespearefor450th, April 30, 2013

I finished reading and blogged on Henry VI, Part One in effort to read all Shakespeare by April 2014. If it's of interest, my blog link follows:

http://ow.ly/kA2g5

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