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Henry VI Part 1

William Shakespeare

Act 1, Scenes iv-viii

Act I, Scenes i-iii

Act II, Scenes i-iii

Summary

Gloucester arrives at the Tower of London with his blue-clad servants. One of his men knocks on the gates of the tower, but the warders inside refuse to let him in. Gloucester, angered that he, the Protector of the realm, would be barred entrance, orders his men to storm the gates. Woodville, inside the tower, demands to know what is going on. Sighting Gloucester, he explains that Winchester has ordered him to forbid entrance to this nobleman.

Then, Winchester and his men enter, distinguished by their tawny-colored coats. Gloucester demands to know if Woodville speaks the truth, and Winchester confirms his earlier order: he declares he refuses to submit to Gloucester in his role of Protector. The two men curse each other, then all their men draw their swords, and the blue coats fight with the tawny coats. Gloucester's men beat Winchester's men, then the Mayor of London and his officers enter the scene.

The mayor demands that they stop fighting and explain themselves. Gloucester says Winchester has shut everyone out of the tower, but Winchester accuses Gloucester of wanting to gain access to the artillery housed there in order to overthrow the young king and usurp the throne. The two groups start fighting again, and the mayor stops them again, commanding them to cease using weapons or face execution. Winchester and Gloucester agree to obey the law and to voice their disagreement in another venue. The mayor expresses amazement at the lords' appetite for conflict and violence.

In Orléans, the Master Gunner orders his boy to watch a nearby tower, which he has heard the English lords use as a lookout over Orléans to plan their assault. The Gunner has aimed a piece of artillery at the tower should the lords reappear there, and he leaves his son to watch.

Salisbury, Talbot, Gargrave, and Glasdale stand on turrets overlooking Orléans. Salisbury asks how Talbot escaped the French jail, and Talbot explains how Bedford ransomed him by exchanging him for a French nobleman prisoner. Talbot narrates his time with the French, who were so frightened of him that they had a guard of marksmen aim their arrows at him even while he slept.

The soldiers look out over the roofs of Orléans and plan their attack. Just then the tower convulses in explosions, and Salisbury and Gargrave fall. Talbot rushes to Salisbury, cursing fate. Salisbury, he exclaims in grief, won 13 battles in a row, was trained by Henry V, and was always a terror in the field. Then, Talbot hears great thundering, and a messenger enters to tell of a French attack, led by Joan la Pucelle. Salisbury groans, so Talbot orders him conveyed to his tent while he deals with the French.

Talbot attacks the French and drives them back, then Joan's forces drive back Talbot's army. Talbot cannot understand how a woman could be defeating his troops. Joan enters the scene, and he challenges her to a fight, accusing her of being a witch. Joan and Talbot fight, and her strength amazes him. Joan tells Talbot that his time to die has not yet come. She says she must return to Orléans, and he should go cheer on his troops.

Talbot has difficulty comprehending the power of Joan, who drives his forces before her as easily as bees are driven by smoke. Talbot urges his men onto another skirmish but orders their retreat when it becomes obvious that they cannot win. He accuses his soldiers of consenting willingly to Salisbury's death, since none managed to effect a revenge. Talbot exits in shame.

Joan calls for French flags to be flown from Orléans' towers, for she has freed the city from the English siege as promised. Charles wants to honor Joan for her remarkable leadership. Alençon and René suggest they should celebrate the successes of all the warriors, including themselves, but Charles says it was Joan, not they, who won the day. He offers to divide the crown with her, to order all the religious men in his realm to sing her praises, and to honor her ashes highly when she dies. He declares Joan la Pucelle is France's new saint and leads them off to a banquet.

Commentary

The street brawl between Gloucester and Winchester is represented by the contrast of two colors, the blue and the tawny shades of the men's uniforms. This foreshadows the imminent turn of events when all the nobles in the royal court come to divide themselves up by color; the discord between those who support the white rose--the symbol of the house of York--and those who support the red rose--symbolizing the house of Lancaster (Somerset)--will mark the beginning of the War of the Roses. The disagreements in this scene seem to stem almost exclusively from the political schemes of both men to gain personal power. Both worry that the other plots against him, yet neither has much of a case against the other.

Joan's attack on the English forces begins with the death of Salisbury, second only to Talbot in his battlefield prowess. Joan (whom the French call "la Pucelle," meaning "the maid," or "the virgin") keeps her promise to free Orléans that day, as she launches her assault.

Talbot's return to the battle seems the result of bad planning on the part of the French; having once captured the most dangerous man in the English army, why do they free him, particularly in exchange for what Talbot claims is a lesser lord? It seems that old codes of warfare, involving honorable pacts to fight fairly, etc., still hold sway in some portions of this war; the men in charge have not yet become entirely bloodthirsty and mercenary, though Talbot's release is followed by a violent surprise attack on the English lookout tower. Joan's arrival, however, serves to increase the war's viciousness; the gentlemanly ways of past wars are quickly being abandoned.

The battle between Joan's forces and Talbot's troops is described in stage directions. While much of Talbot's troops' defeat takes place offstage, the fight between Joan and Talbot remains onstage. The actions of hundreds of men and horses, thus, receive mention but not physical manifestation; the audience, like the reader, must imagine them.

After Joan wins Orléans, Charles's nobles seem hesitant to celebrate her efforts and hint that they should honor all the warriors. But Charles attributes the victory to her alone. He declares her to be France's newest saint--thus exhibiting a positive attitude indeed toward this woman warrior.

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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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