KING HENRY THE SIXTH, PART ONE

By William Shakespeare
Written in 1590-1592

Comments by Bob Corbett
November 2010

General Note: In January 2009 I decided that Iíd like to go back and read all the plays of William Shakespeare, perhaps one a month if that works out. I hadnít read a Shakespeare play since 1959, 50 years ago! But I had read nearly all of them in college. I wanted to go back, start with something not too serious or challenging, and work my way through the whole corpus. Thus I began with The Two Gentlemen of Verona. At this time I have no idea how the project will go, nor if it will actually lead me through the entire corpus of Shakespeareís plays. However, I will keep a separate page listing each play Iíve read with links to any comments I would make of that particular play. See: List of Shakespeareís playís Iíve read and commented on

COMMENTS ON
HENRY THE SIXTH, PART ONE

Just last month I read King Henry V and loved it, claiming it has been one of my favorites in my project to read all of Shakespeareís plays. Now I follow up with Henry VI, part 1, and while it is a rather strange play, trying to do too much at one time, I nevertheless enjoyed it a great deal, and one or two scenes were deeply moving.

This is, of course, a history play, though not the standard history I have previously read. The beloved Henry V has died and his young son, Henry VI has ascended to the throne. However, the real power is in the hands of his uncle, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. The English have gone to war with Charles and the French who are trying to reclaim their own rule for France.

One might well expect that would be the story Ė Englandís defense of their control over France and to bring Charles back into line. But, ah, this is an ambitious play and much more is going on.

A second plot line is the story of Joan of Arcís coming to the defense of France and her early power, fall from grace and burning at the stake. However, this is the strangest version of Joanís story Iíve yet read. She is portrayed as a sort of demonic nutcase, a vile deceiving woman who well deserved her fiery death. Shakespeare was writing in about 1590, some 160 years after Joanís death. It seems that his sources, major English historians of the time, were pushing that particular view of Joanís life that Shakespeare used.

There is even a third plot, that harks back to slightly earlier history. The War of Roses had been fought between 1455 and 1485 between the York and Lancaster factions of British nobility, and even in the period of this play, over 100 years after that war, the feud between the two families had not healed and the young Henry VI, obviously with his uncleís instructions, tries to soothe that sore point among the English nobility.

Finally, the whole play is cast in the remaining awe of Henry V, who was evidently still held in great esteem even in Shakespeareís time. The warring factions of the Plantagenets and Summersets are not willing to make trouble for young Henry VI at that time because of the great honor in which they hold his recently deceased father.

Thus the play has a lot going on and was for me a very fun read, even if it often seemed rather disjointed with its myriad plot lines.

Despite all of this, the complete highlight of the play for me had nothing really to do with any of those plot lines and situations. I was deeply moved by the relationship between one of Englandís great warriors, Talbot, and his son, John Talbot, a first time warrior. In the scene of their deaths they are under attack from a much superior French force and the father calls the son to him to tell him to flee, things are looking very badly, and that John must go and carry on the line of the Talbot family. John refuses to leave, suggesting, rather, that his father be the one to go since he is such a great warrior, he can return to the field another day to help England. In the end, neither leaves and they both die. The writing of that scene deeply touched me. Despite the considerable length of this passage, Iím going to record it here, much more for myself than anyone else. I hope to return to it now and again. As father of five sons, I can deeply relate to this magnificent scene.

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[Scene V. The English camp near Bordeaux.]
Enter Talbot and his son.

Talbot. O young John Talbot! I did send for thee
To tutor thee in stratagems of war,
That Talbot's name might be in thee revived
When sapless age and weak unable limbs
Should bring thy father to his drooping chair.
But, malignant and ill-boding stars!
Now thou art come unto a feast of death,
A terrible and unavoided danger:
Therefore, dear boy, mount on my swiftest horse,
And I'll direct thee how thou shalt escape
By sudden flight. Come, dally not, be gone.

John. Is my name Talbot? And am I your son?
And shall I fly? O, if you love my mother,
Dishonor not her honorable name,
To make a bastard and a slave of me.
The world will say, he is not Talbot's blood,
That basely fled when noble Talbot stood.

Talbot. Fly, to revenge my death, if I be slain.

John. He that flies so will ne'er return again.

Talbot. If we both stay, we both are sure to die.

John. Then let me stay, and, father, do you fly:
Your loss is great, so your regard should be;
My worth unknown, no loss is known in me.
Upon my death the French can little boast;
In yours they will, in you all hopes are lost.
Flight cannot stain the honor you have won,
But mine it will, that no exploit have done;
You fled for vantage, everyone will swear,
But, if I bow, they'll say it was for fear.
There is no hope that ever I will stay
If the first hour I shrink and run away.
Here on my knee I beg mortality,
Rather than life preserved with infamy.

Talbot. Shall all thy mother's hopes lie in one tomb?

John. Ay, rather than I'll shame my mother's womb.

Talbot. Upon my blessing, I command thee go.

John. To fight I will, but not to fly the foe.

Talbot. Part of thy father may be saved in thee.

John. No part of him but will be shame in me.

Talbot. Thou never hadst renown, nor canst not lose

John. Yes, your renowned name: shall flight abuse it?

Talbot. Thy father's charge shall clear thee from that stain.

John. You cannot witness for me, being slain.
If death be so apparent, then both fly.

Talbot. And leave my followers here to fight and die?
My age was never tainted with such shame.

John. And shall my youth be guilty of such blame?
No more can I be severed from your side
Than can yourself in twain divide.
Stay, go, do what you will, the like do I;
For live I will not, if my father die.

Talbot. Then here I take my leave of thee, fair son,
Born to eclipse? thy life this afternoon.
Come, side by side together live and die;
And soul with soul from France to heaven fly.

Exit [with Son]

[Scene VI. A field of battle.]

Alarum: excursions, wherein Talbotís Son is hemmed about, and Talbot rescues him.

Talbot. Saint George and victory! fight, soldiers, fight
The Regent hath with Talbot broke his word
And left us to the rage of France his sword.
Where is John Talbot? Pause, and take thy breath;
I gave thee life and rescued thee from death.

John. O, twice my father, twice am I thy son!
The life thou gav'st me first was lost and done,
Till with thy warlike sword, despite of fate,
To my determined? time thou gav'st new date.

Talbot. When from the Dolphin's crest thy sword struck fire,
It warmed thy father's heart with proud desire
Of bold-faced victory. Then leaden age,
Quickened with youthful spleen and warlike rage
Beat down Aleneon, Orleans, Burgundy,
And from the pride of Gallia rescued thee.
The ireful bastard Orleans, that drew blood
From thee, my boy, and had the maidenhood
Of thy first fight, I soon encountered,
And interchanging blows I quickly shed
Some of his bastard blood; and in disgrace
Bespoke him thus: "Contaminated, base,
And misbegotten blood I spill of thine,
Mean and right poor, for that pure blood of mine
Which thou didst force from Talbot, my brave boy."
Here, purposing the Bastard to destroy,
Came in strong rescue. Speak, thy father's care,
Art thou not weary, John? How dost thou fare?
Wilt thou yet leave the battIe, boy, and fly,
Now thou art sealed the son of chivalry?
Fly, to revenge my death when I am dead;
The help of one stands me in little stead.
O, too much folly is it, well I wot,
To hazard all our lives in one small boat!
If I today die not with Frenchmen's rage,
Tomorrow I shall die with mickle age.
By me they nothing gain and if I stay;
'Tis but the short'ning of my life one day.
In thee thy mother dies, our household's name,
My death's revenge, thy youth, and England's fame:
All these and more we hazard by thy stay;
All these are saved if thou wilt flyaway.

John. The sword of Orleans hath not made me smart;
These words of yours draw life-blood from my heart
On that advantage, bought with such a shame,
To save a paltry life and slay bright fame,
Before young Talbot from old Talbot fly,
The coward horse that bears me fall and die!
And like me to the peasant boys of France,
To be shame's scorn and subject of mischance!
Surely, by all the glory you have won,
And if I fly, I am not Talbot's son.
Then talk no more of flight, it is no boot;
If son to Talbot, die at Talbot's foot.

Talbot. Then follow thou thy desperate sire of Crere.
Thou Icarus; thy life to me is sweet;
If thou wilt fight, fight by thy father's side;
And, commendable proved, let's die in pride.

Exit [with Son]

[Scene VII. Another part of the field]

Alarum: excursions, Enter old Talbot, lead [by the Servant]

Talbot. Where is my other life? Mine own is gone.
O, where's young Talbot? Where is valiant John?
Triumphant death, smeared with captivity,
Young Talbot's valor makes me smile at thee.
When he perceived me shrink and on my knee,
His bloody sword he brandished over me,
And like a hungry lion did commence
Rough deeds of rage and stem impatience,
But when my angry guardant stood alone,
Tend'ring my ruin and assailed of none,
Dizzy-eyed fury and great rage of heart
Suddenly made him from my side to start
Into the clust'ring battle of the French,
And in that sea of blood my boy did drench
His over-mounting spirit and there died,
My Icarus, my blossom, in his pride.

Enter [Soldiers,] with John Talbot, borne.

Servant. O my dear lord, lo, where your son is borne.

Talbot. Thou antic death, which laugh'st us here to scorn,
Anon, from thy insulting tyranny,
Coupled in bonds of perpetuity,
Two Talbots, winged through the lither sky,
In thy despite shall 'scape mortality.
O thou, whose wounds become hard-favored death,
Speak to thy father ere thou yield thy breath!
Brave Death by speaking, whether he will or no;
Imagine him a Frenchman and thy foe.
Poor boy! he smiles, methinks, as who should say,
"Had Death been French, then Death had died today."
Come, come and lay him in his father's arms;
My spirit can no longer bear these harms.
Soldiers, adieu! I have what I would have,
Now my old arms are young John Talbot's grave.
Dies.

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu

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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu