Henry VI Part 1

by: William Shakespeare

Analysis and Themes

Summary Analysis and Themes

The English army suffers defeats in this play because of infighting and the soldiers' failure to live up to the ideal of Talbot, but also because of the strength of the charismatic Joan of Arc. Although Joan claims to enjoy the praise of the French as a virginal maid, the English call her a whore and attribute her powers to witchcraft. As a woman dressed in men's armor and playing a man's role on the battlefield, Joan violates the assigned place of a woman; fearful people often respond to such transgressive anomalies by labeling them "witches." Like many public figures of women, Joan's identity slips between the two polarities of "innocent virgin" and "immoral whore," as people assume a woman able to influence men must draw her power from some extreme of sexual existence. Queen Elizabeth, too, had the body of a woman yet the role of a man; so too did her situation provoke both reverence and demonization, both the title "The Virgin Queen" and malicious rumors of infertility or a sexual defect. Both Joan of Arc and Queen Elizabeth were unique figures who could be read as exceptional people or as horrible fiends.

Joan is interesting not just for the way she is received but also for her own personality: at first she is decisive and pragmatic, promising the end of the siege of Orléans and telling Talbot it is not his time to die in battle yet. She is uninterested in extended elegies over the dead bodies of nobles, seeing them merely as smelly corpses. Yet later in the play she is unable to communicate with the demons she summons, and by the fifth act she is reduced to a frightened figure who is so desperate to escape death that she first cites her virginity, then pregnancy, as reasons to be spared. She defeats Talbot and ends her life having lost all dignity.

All the other women in this play are dangerous to varying degrees. The Countess of Auvergne lures Talbot to her castle with the intention of entrapping him, and Margaret so enchants Suffolk that he convinces the king to marry her and, thus, gains undue influence over the throne. While all three women function as threats to English men, they are also more complicated than merely being the vessels for the birth of more warriors. We see Suffolk's uncontrollable desire to turn Margaret into something greater than a pawn for international settlements, and we see the French unable to win without the extraordinary aid of a woman. And we see that even strong kings like Henry V do not necessarily create strong successors in their sons. This play creates heroes of a masculine world, but it also acknowledges the potential weaknesses of men. Sometimes, in the case of Queen Elizabeth, a woman must step in, even becoming king.