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Henry VI Part 1

William Shakespeare

Act IV, Scenes ii-iv

Act IV, Scene i

Act IV, Scenes v-vii

Summary

Talbot arrives outside the gates of Bordeaux. The French General appears on the city gates, and Talbot demands he open the city gates and accept Henry VI as his king; otherwise Talbot will let loose a violent attack on his city. The General replies that they are well fortified and strong enough to resist his attack. Moreover, he announces, Charles's armies now prepare to attack Talbot from behind, so he will be unable to retreat. Death faces Talbot from both sides, he declares, as thousands of Frenchmen have no other destination in mind for their arrows and swords than Talbot himself. This is Talbot's last moment of glory, says the General, for he will soon fall.

Talbot hears the sound of Charles's approach and sends some of his men to reconnoiter their forces. He speaks with disappointment of his forces, hemmed in like deer within a kennel surrounded by dogs. But the English never die without a fight, he says; they'll turn on the French forces that surround them. He prays that England may prosper in the coming fight.

York asks his messenger where Charles's troops are, and the messenger announces that they have gone to Bordeaux to fight with Talbot. The Dauphin's troops outnumber Talbot's, he says. York curses Somerset, who has delayed the promised supply of horsemen that he had expected to send to join Talbot. Talbot was relying on his aid, but he can do nothing alone.

Another messenger, Sir William Lucy, enters. He says that Talbot badly needs troops, for he is encircled by French troops. Lucy urges York to send troops or Talbot will be doomed. York wishes Somerset were in Talbot's place, so a coward could die in place of a valiant warrior. York says he can't do anything, sadly aware that if Talbot dies, then France will fall to Charles. Lucy says that Talbot's son John had just traveled to be with his father at Bordeaux, which means he will die with his father. York is even more upset, cursing the cause that stops him from helping Talbot. He exits, leaving Lucy alone to ruminate on the fact that dissention among the nobles will lead to the loss of France, the greatest conquest of their recently fallen king, Henry V.

Somerset enters with his army, commenting that it is too late to send them. He says he is sure that York has, in fact, planned the impending defeat, having sent a too-daring Talbot into battle in order to bring about his death so York might figure as the preeminent hero in coming battles. Lucy arrives at Somerset's camp. Somerset asks him who sent him, and Lucy says he was sent by the betrayed Talbot, who will now die while awaiting rescue from other English forces. Lucy urges him not to let his private disagreements keep aid from reaching Talbot in time.

But Somerset blames York for the whole situation. York sent Talbot to Bordeaux, and York should help him. Lucy says that York had said he was awaiting Somerset's horsemen before he could help Talbot. Somerset says that York is lying, and York could have sent the horsemen but simply didn't want to. And besides, says Somerset, he dislikes York and doesn't take well to the idea of sending him his horsemen. Lucy charges Somerset with causing the death of Talbot with his petty dispute. Somerset says he'll send his horsemen now, but Lucy says it's too late. Lucy declares that Talbot's fame lies in his deeds in the world, but his final shame and death are attributable to the warring lords.

Commentary

As we see the events that bring about the downfall of Talbot, it's hard not to take sides. York seems genuinely distraught that he can't do his duty as leader of the English troops and help Talbot; he has no troops to send. He curses Somerset for not having provided the cavalry that he promised, but then he ceases cursing Somerset and curses an unspecified "cause" of his inability to help Talbot. Is York, thus, no longer blaming everything blindly on Somerset but attributing it to some impersonal forces? Somerset, however, is not so genial. He accuses York of having sent Talbot to his death so he might take over the honor of the military leader. And he denies that York had asked him to send his cavalry, adding that he wouldn't have wanted to help York anyway. He shows little remorse that the death of Talbot and the fall of France may stem directly from his selfishly motivated delaying. He is merely concerned with blocking all help to York.

These scenes portray the struggle between York and Somerset in a different light. Whereas earlier both men appeared equally foolish and petty, York now seems the better man. He wants to help Talbot and is upset that he can't, while Somerset remains callous and thinks Talbot's death was merely engineered by his enemy York. The audience sympathizes with the honorable Talbot; now that York tries desperately to save him, we begin to side with him as well.

Did Shakespeare intend to make York look better than Somerset in order to compliment the descendants of York in his own time? Perhaps. But regardless of whether the playwright had ulterior motives, the new light he sheds on the lords' dispute also helps to develop and differentiate these men as dramatic characters.

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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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