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Henry VI Part 1

William Shakespeare

Act III, Scene i

Act II, Scenes iv-v

Act III, Scenes ii-v

Summary

Young King Henry enters the Parliament house, along with many lords, including Exeter, Gloucester, Winchester, Somerset, Suffolk, Warwick, and Richard Plantagenet. Gloucester tries to post a bill, but Winchester seizes it and tears it up, accusing him of coming with prewritten remarks and of being unable to speak extemporaneously. Gloucester accuses Winchester of underhanded treachery--of having plotted to kill him at London Bridge as well as at the tower. Gloucester says Winchester is greedy, but Winchester asks how he can aim so high when he is still so poor. Winchester declares that his behavior cannot be so upsetting in itself; rather, Gloucester can't stand the idea that anyone else would have influence over the king. The two men insult each other, Gloucester declaring himself as superior in his position as Protector, and Winchester declaring his own superiority as head of the Church.

The other nobles step in and stop the argument. Henry asks the two men to try to make peace, saying: "O what a scandal it is to our crown / That two such noble peers as ye should jar! / Believe me, lords, my tender years can tell / Civil dissention is a viperous worm / That gnaws at the bowels of the commonwealth"(III.i.70-73).

The mayor of London enters to tell of how Winchester and Gloucester's men, forbidden to use weapons in their conflict, now chase each other around the city, hurling rocks at each other. The battling servants enter the court, where the king orders them to cease fighting, yet they continue. Gloucester orders them to stop, and yet they still do not desist. Henry asks Winchester to order his men to yield, but Winchester says he will never yield until Gloucester submits. Gloucester offers Winchester his hand in conciliation, and after some urging by the king, Winchester agrees. They shake hands, yet mutter to themselves that the argument is not yet over.

Warwick then presents a request from Plantagenet in a scroll: Plantagenet wants to be restored to his hereditary rights. The king says that he will not only restore him to the earldom of Cambridge (inherited from his father), but he will also give him the dukedom of York (inherited from his uncle Mortimer). Plantagenet thanks the king, then kneels down to be installed as the Duke of York. Everyone cheers for him, except Somerset, who curses him under his breath.

Gloucester urges the king to cross the sea to France and be crowned as king there; he hopes this will establish English control over France once and for all. The king thanks Gloucester for his friendly counsel, and he departs with the other lords.

Exeter remains to comment on the scene. He says the nobles will march to France blindly: they do not see that these disagreements between the lords, now reduced to a slow burn, will someday break into open flame (This could likely happen in France, where the English will need all the strength of unity). And just as parts of a dead body rot little by little, so this discord will slowly destroy the kingdom. He refers to a prophecy once widely circulated in the time of Henry V, that Henry V should win everything, while Henry VI would lose it all. Exeter wishes he might die before he sees such unhappy conclusions.

Commentary

Multiple disagreements between elements of the nobility emerge in this scene, each coming so close on the heels of the last that it appears as if Henry's court is filled exclusively with discontented lords. Gloucester and Winchester argue so fiercely that even their serving men become enraged and create disruptions throughout the city with their violence toward each other. The king must use all of his power to persuade them to desist in their conflict, but the conciliation seems momentary, and violence will likely flare up again later.

Plantagenet asks the king to have his inherited rights reinstated, and the king agrees immediately. Yet as soon as Plantagenet becomes the Duke of York, Somerset curses him, setting the stage for the argument that will dominate the second half of the play. What has Plantagenet done to Gloucester to cause such strife? Or, for that matter, what really caused Gloucester and Winchester to argue so fiercely? Is it true, as Winchester suggests, that Gloucester can't stand the thought of sharing his influence over the king? Or does Winchester actually want total power for himself? The audience will never know. Their unwillingness to work together certainly does not bode well for the nation, as they set off to try to right the troubles in France.

Exeter serves as a kind of commentator in this scene, as he will in future acts. He takes part in the Parliament scene, yet seems to be the only lord with enough insight to see that internal disagreements will weaken the English force in France, causing the eventual loss of English lands there. The king does seem to have some understanding of this danger when he speaks of dissention as a worm that gnaws at the strength of the nation. Yet no one can do anything to stop this threat. The king can barely get the serving men to stop fighting with each other in Parliament, let alone make Winchester and Gloucester actually cease to hate each other.

Thus, this scene presents history as an inevitable series of events unalterable by human agency. Yet other parts of the play emphasize human will as the decisive force behind all events: Talbot, for example, believes that any victory is obtainable if only one fights hard enough for it. These two theories of history sometimes clash directly with one another. For example, whenever conflict occurs between Joan--representing the powers of fate through her alleged connection to higher powers--and Talbot--a figure who makes his own path through action--we can practically see the collision of fate and free will. To some degree, neither force wins: both Joan and Talbot perish before the end of the play. Yet, overall, the forces of fate may prove the stronger: nothing can stop Henry VI's prophecy from coming true.

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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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