And here I prophesy: this brawl to-day,
Grown to this faction in the Temple-garden,
Shall send between the red rose and the white
A thousand souls to death and deadly night.
— Henry VI, Part I, Act 2, Scene 4
The previous four plays I’ve covered represents what’s known as the second tetralogy of cycle known as The Hollow Crown. Who says prequels are no good? With that, we move ahead to the first tetralogy in this cycle with the first of the three Henry VI plays. Henry VI, Part I was written after the second and third parts, but before his diabolical rendition of Richard III rounded out this tetralogy. So if you’re keeping score, this play is a prequel to his sequels, written before his sequel and other prequels. And you thought the historical Wars of the Roses was a complicated affair! The question, of course, becomes “why?” Why would he write them in this order?
I suspect it comes down to those most dogged of trials a playwright must face: money and dramatic understanding. A good playwright is always going to listen to the feedback of his peers and of the masses talking about his work. Where questions are raised about the plays already out in the wild, that’s the opportunity for another story. And another story, especially in regards to works already well-received, is coin in the purse. Shakespeare was nothing if not pragmatic. In the case of Henry VI, Part I, it serves to provide a foundation for Wars of the Roses, one of those, “how did we get to here?” explanations. And by way of that explanation, Shakespeare seizes for himself the opportunity of a lifetime in his attempt to finally undermine and destroy the reputation of a legendary nemesis to England. Would he prove successful? Let’s dive in and find out.
If you’ve been following this project, you’re probably more than aware by now of my belief that these plays represent proverbial shots fired at Queen Elizabeth I, whose Protestant reign and Tudor lineage represented everything in a nutshell that had gone wrong in England according to Shakespeare’s views. I did my best to summarize all of this in my discussion of Henry V. With the figure of Henry VI, we have a character who is in many ways not unlike King John. Like John, this Henry is sired by a powerful French princess, is considerably less competent on the throne than his predecessor, and is held in the highest of disregards by both his people and the Holy Roman Church. The parallels would not be lost among Shakespeare’s audience once King John debuted to the public a few years later. But for now, the Henry VI plays stand on their own, and as such represent the first gauntlets thrown to the feet of Shakespeare’s unsuspecting queen, history disguised as allegory and accusation.
The Wars of the Roses represents the fading days of the Medieval era and all of its feudalistic glory. That’s how it might be described by someone in the late Renaissance of Shakespeare’s time. So in a way, one can think of this play as “the beginning of the end.” Henry V’s reign was cut short by death, but he had succeeded on the promise of Edward III, stomping France into submission and claiming its loyalty to the English throne. With the rise of the infant Henry VI, the French were no longer cowed, and the English no longer had a strong leader. And then the French king Charles VI dies right after that, leaving the throne more or less up for grabs. The French Dauphin (heir to the throne) has a legitimate claim, if only he can be legitimately crowned as tradition says he must be. For this, the first thing he must do is get through the lines at English-controlled Orleans and make it to Reims. Shakespeare is short on time and heavy on drama, so he foregoes historical accuracy and cuts immediately to the chase.
Henry VI, Part I opens where Henry V ended, with the funeral of the king, remembering that the Bard hadn’t yet penned the other play. More than that, with the king, Shakespeare is entombing the glory of all England. Let the petty bickering commence! In this corner… Duke of Gloucester, uncle to the King, and Protector of England. And in this corner… Henry Beaufort, great-uncle to the King, Bishop of Winchester. Gloucester is protecting the reputation of Henry V through his son, and Winchester denies Henry’s greatness, saying the Church had a greater hand in the events of history. While they’re bickering, news rolls in. Right from the outset, the Bard stirs up the anti-French sympathies, both in his characters and in his audience, by stating that Charles VII has somehow made it to Reims to be crowned, and all of these great towns formerly under English control have since been lost due to lack of men and lack of money. It’s an easy thing to rile up an audience like that in Renaissance England, let’s be honest, and it’s completely in keeping with the zeitgeist of the day. The important thing here is that the rivalry between men is in place, and the fate of England lies in their ability to dominate the child king’s inheritance. But this is the beginning of the Wars of the Roses, my friends; it won’t be this simple. The Duke of Bedford, uncle to the King, and Regent of France, is ready to take the fight back to the French. Another messenger reports that England’s greatest warrior, Lord Talbot, has been taken prisoner due to the cowardly defection of Sir John Fastolfe (the historical and literary prototype for the popular Sir John Falstaff character who appears in the Henry IV and V plays). The English forces are weak on the verge of mutiny.
This brings us to Orleans, Charles, Reignier (Duke of Anjou), the character known as the Bastard of Orleans (historically named Jean de Dunois), and… Joan la Pucelle.
Joan of Arc.
Forgive me while I interject an entire blog within a blog because Joan is central to this era, to this play, and to Shakespeare’s shortsighted vengeance.
In the whole of Medieval history, there is no one who vexes historian or poet alike quite like the Maid of Orleans, or “La Pucelle” as she is known in this play. Nearly 600 years after she lived and died, she is still the most famous personality in the whole of the Middle Ages and one of the contenders for the top spot in all of human history. For the French, she’s the one who legitimized the reign of Charles VII, breaking through the English lines and seeing him crowned (contrary to Shakespeare’s sketchy history). For the pious, she is a Godsend, a miracle made flesh, often compared directly to Jesus Christ with her own life viewed in parallel regard to the Biblical accounts of her Savior. For the skeptical, she is a mentally-compromised savant. Her image has been co-opted across time, religions, and geographical boundaries to become an icon of feminism and national pride for modern nations that have no historical claim to her whatsoever. No matter how you look at her story, there are questions with no answers, and nothing lines up in a way that makes any kind of sense to a logical mind. Her story is well-documented in our modern era, and the transcripts of her trials are out there for any to read. Her legend is impossible, made moreso by the fact that it actually happened. How it happened and why are the typically the centers of debate as her story undermines the Church and its leadership, medical science, military science, legal precedent, and nearly every basis of credibility and authority from her time to the present. She is, in a word, fascinating when you truly come to understand her and all she represents. Believe me when I say I can blog up a blue streak about this one. And I’m going to do that here, from Shakespeare’s point of view, and from my own. Heaven help the Bard on this one.
I never thought I’d say something quite so negative of Shakespeare, let alone so quickly in an examination of his works. I won’t pretend that I don’t understand why he presents Joan as he does. I get it, and I’ll do my best to explain it. But for one who speaks so highly and eloquently of honor and nobility, he managed to destroy every shred of credibility with me on this front. You see, as a modern day American, I have very little vested interest in The Hundred Years War, so I cannot be swayed to England nor to France, just as I have no vested interest in Catholic nor Protestant as I’m not even Christian. But there is a more modern American writer who has about the same investment in this matter as I — Mark Twain. And like Twain, I have taken full account of the Maid of Orleans and find I have a great deal of respect and admiration for Joan. If the war between England and France plays between Shakespeare and Joan, and if I must pick a side based solely on these titans, then viva la France. Admittedly, that’s no way to judge the entirety of two nations at any given point, and one can make the argument that at least Shakespeare wasn’t fighting a war. But hopefully you get the point.
Where Shakespeare scholarship is concerned, Joan is, shall we say, yet again mistreated and given short shrift. Some scholars will say the character of Joan as presented here cannot possibly have been written by the Bard. They say she’s too bland, too flat. She’s hateful, egotistical, arrogant. She is completely two-dimensional and unsympathetic, everything that Shakespeare has proven he is not when it comes to the characterization of history’s greatest feminine personalities. Even in her final moments, she is presented as the polar opposite of everything on the historical record, lying to save herself right up to the end, claiming to bear a child and changing the identity of the father in an effort to find one noble enough to spare her life. Everything about her presentation is beneath the Bard’s talents, according to many who would try to pin this on some other writer. I’m probably going to step on some toes in my highly unenlightened state of newbie Bard appreciation, but I think the experts have missed the obvious, and they’re all full of crap. Shakespeare — that paragon of human understanding and dramatic characterization — was still very human, very English, and very much a product of his time. By that, I mean that he absolutely despised Joan of Arc, not least of which for the two most heinous crimes a proud Renaissance era Englishman could condemn her for: she was female, and she was French. Not only that, he carried a festering grudge for what she accomplished in her short life. Let’s examine this properly from the perspective of a man in Shakespeare’s position.
To the English mindset of that era, Joan represents absolutely everything that went wrong in the world. She’s the proverbial pebble that got kicked down the hill, became an avalanche, and destroyed everything on its way to the bottom. First, let’s look at Shakespeare himself. As previously discussed in the grudge-against-Elizabeth theory, he’s a closet Catholic. He believes the Wars of the Roses and the resulting Tudor reign to be God’s punishment for breaking faith with the people of England and ultimately with the Church. For decades during The Hundred Years War, England pretty much handed France her chivalry, her dignity, and her means to survive as a kingdom. Her people were cut off, starving, brutalized, and on the brink of collapse. For the English, this means that the long-hated rivalry between them and France is about to come to a close, and to the victors go the spoils. Henry V, Agincourt, St. George, and all that patriotic stuff, for God is righteous in giving England the win and letting France suffer a slow and painful defeat. Go, England! Rah, rah, rah!
And then Joan took the world stage.
Keep in mind, Shakespeare comes from humble beginnings, and much of his time is spent advancing his station and his fortunes. He’s a male in a male-dominated society, being ruled not only by a woman, but by a woman whose claim to the throne is, to his mind, heretical and traitorous. Joan of Arc is the anti-Shakespeare in many respects, her own boldly righteous faith being a slap in the face to his own closeted cowardice, I mean, shrewdness. Her very existence means that God isn’t on England’s side anymore, and every explanation of her can’t possibly overstate that claim, save one. That remaining explanation is the one that Shakespeare will use in his attempt to defame her: she’s a demon. God turned his back and let the demons run roughshod over England’s pride. It makes for a good story, and he may have convinced many of his countrymen. There are some to this day who claim such things. But I think the Bard knew better, and it ate at him and his national pride. Add to that, her fame is made in an instant, she has royal favor and patronage (at least in the beginning), and she leaves a legacy that outlives everyone… pretty much Shakespeare’s entire to-do list, accomplished by a girl half his age. So consider, in the wake of all that wonderful English pride back there that would have Shakespeare and all of his buddies celebrating had history gone according to every plan in the book, we instead get what can only be called a kick to the Bard’s English manhood. This uneducated whelp of a French peasant girl from a tiny little backwater village that no Englishman has ever heard of suddenly comes out of nowhere, claiming to be sent by God to put a French king back on the throne. Worse still, after decades of literal English beatdown that leaves all of France whimpering like a tormented puppy, Joan rallies French forces to her personal banner and takes the lead on the field of battle, demonstrates impossible levels of military superiority in spite of having zero training, and unleashes a campaign that pushes back against the English in a way that no one has seen since this long war started. She’s on the field only about a year before she’s captured and put in the hands of the Ecclesiastical courts — not the English nobility — to dismantle her reputation… which ultimately they couldn’t do, before or after putting her to the torch. To someone like Shakespeare, the entire situation is untenable, the kind of thing that’s so incredible it can’t happen in fiction because no self-respecting author would ever make up something this bizarre. It is unthinkable to consider that the successor to Henry V, himself an outwardly pious king like his father who should be in God’s most high of graces, would be such an incompetent. It is unthinkable to consider that such a girl as Joan could be on the field of battle in the first place at all, especially in that era, let alone leading trained and hardened troops against other trained and hardened troops, using advanced military tactics and state of the art artillery. In short, what the English kings did to France at Crécy, Poitiers, and Agincourt, Joan returned in kind to the English. It is beyond unthinkable to consider that France could make a comeback, rallied by this little girl and her death just a couple of years later. In the wake of Joan and her martyrdom, France rallied, England lost all of the ground it had taken since Edward III — in a third of the time that it took to claim it in the first place — and the consequence of it led to the instability of civil war as English lords vied for power to seize their throne from such an imbecile.
England would fall to ruin then, not by the sword of France in a blaze of glory, but by a snub from God Almighty. Any Catholic can tell you that when God denies His grace, that’s called Hell. Ergo, the only rational explanation to a God-fearing man like Shakespeare is that Joan was not actually sent by God as she claimed. Those angelic voices she hears? Demons. To the mind of an English Catholic, that’s scary beyond all reason. And it’s still less scary than the idea Joan might actually be right about her claims. Whatever the truth may or may not be, those claims cannot ever be acknowledged by Shakespeare.
That’s a perfectly rational explanation for the late Renaissance that sets up England as slowly roasting in its own juices. The Wars of the Roses led to the Tudors, which opened the way for the Reformation to take hold, for the Counter-Reformation to ultimately fail (for God was not with them, and demons were likely running both sides of that war to make it look good), and the “Golden Age” of Elizabeth unfolded so as force everyone into compliance of their Hell. To a Catholic of that time, England was doomed. The proof was on the throne in the form of the traitorous, heretical she-demon with the flaming red hair. And as I say, that Joan was French and a woman was just rubbing salt into the wound. It’d be hilarious if it weren’t so pathetic. Make no mistake, my friends, Shakespeare’s hated Joan of Arc with purpose. The entire point of having her appear in this play is so the Bard could light the flames himself that would consume her illustrious reputation, and through his words, he could stoke that fire again and again into time immemorial, long after his own bones turned to dust. After all, to the eyes of a playwright, the pen is mightier than the sword. He may not be able to save England, but he’d take Joan and her legend down with him if at all possible. And that brings us back to critiques of her characterization. Of course he’s not going to expend his literary talents putting his best verse in her mouth. He’s going to vilify her, undermining her glorified reputation and painting her simply as a spiteful little girl with delusions of grandeur in collusion with demonic forces, unworthy of anything resembling humanity, sympathy, or godliness. She gets just enough of his skill to be believable, but not enough to be truly, epically heroic. Not only does it play into Shakespeare’s personal vendetta, it plays to those of his bloodthirsty audience as well. In sacrificing France’s national hero in a time when national identity was on the rise, Shakespeare nominates himself to Joan’s equal position in the name of England while kicking her down a few rungs in the process. Give yourself a spirited English atta-boy, Will.
Or am I completely off base here? I’ll let the learned among the Shakespearean scholars tell me how naïve my little pet theory is. Having said that, it could still be argued that Shakespeare’s caricature of Joan is still Shakespeare, which is to say even at his worst, he is still far and away a better writer than pretty much everyone else. It’s a lot like if Leonardo da Vinci had produced stick figures in one of his paintings. They’d be the very best stick figures you’d ever see. Funny how genius can’t help but be genius, even in trying not to be. I don’t have to like what he did to Joan, but I can respect how he did it. Had this been any other stock villain, I’d have been sold completely. Joan’s legend transcends Shakespeare’s cheap muckraking. I trust if they ever met in an afterlife, she settled the score in some manner befitting her legend.
So that gives you the basics of Joan’s stake in this tale (no pun intended). Anything else in this story more or less slides into that petty bickering I talked about up front wherein English loyalties become divided into what will ultimately become the Wars of the Roses, so named in historical retrospect because Shakespeare wrote this play. Time to break out those scorecards, ladies and gents.
Now then… where were we? Orleans. Joan and her troops lift the siege and take the city. Talbot and his English troops sneak in and retake the city while the French are celebrating. The situation is repeated later at Rouen, wherein Joan retakes and summarily loses the city in the same day.
In England, a quarrel breaks out between Richard Plantagenet and King Henry’s cousin, the Duke of Somerset. If you’ve followed on this blog, or if you just know your English history, you’ll know well the name of Plantagenet. They were the dynasty that forged England in the High Middle Ages. Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard the Lionheart, King John… these are the names you’ll have heard. Richard II, whose reign was usurped by Henry IV, was the last of House Plantagenet to sit the throne. When Richard was deposed, this is where God turned his back on England, according to Shakespeare, and thus everything went wrong. Henry V got back in the good graces as he continued the line, but he set that example and died young, leaving Henry VI. Henry VI was more or less as Shakespeare depicts him here: a good, honest, and pious man, but rather a simpleton and far too innocent to be an effective king. Which brings us back to Richard Plantagenet and the Duke of Somerset. Plantagenet, named Duke of York in this play, declares a white rose as the badge that will symbolize his house and allies. Somerset declares the red for his side, the House of Lancaster. The English nobility is divided up the center in their loyalties, each picking sides and plotting against one another as their king demonstrates one weakness after the next. The final straw comes when the king tries to settle the dispute in peace, claiming that the wearing of one badge does not mean he loves the other side less, and that both sides should go forth as brothers in arms to take back France. And then he picks up that red badge and puts it on just to the point, turning the simmering anger of York into a slow rolling boil.
Remember Talbot? He’s pretty much the only loyal and chivalrous knight in the whole of England at this point, and he’s besieged. He calls to York and Somerset for aid to take his French opposition, and each fails him in turn claiming the other should do it. Talbot dies with his son in his arms, and English chivalry dies with him.
Joan is captured by York at the Battle of Bordeaux, wherein she is revealed to be in league with demons and is burned at the stake as a witch after, as I previously mentioned, trying to save herself by claiming to be with child. The Pope pressures England and France into a peace treaty, and Charles becomes a viceroy of France under the English crown. It seems all is well, more or less…
But then the Earl of Suffolk plays his card and persuades Henry to marry Margaret, a French noblewoman with ties to Suffolk. Suffolk declares for House Lancaster, and through Margaret (of Anjou), he’ll control the throne. Thus begins the Wars of the Roses.
As one might expect, I was too angry and distracted at Shakespeare’s portrayal of Joan to properly give this play its due, and it took multiple readings and taking it in context with the next two plays in this line before I could stop seeing red. Once I was able to step back, the red and white roses line up, drawing the lines for civil war. The idea of internal strife leading to national crisis, the threat of invasion from within rather than from a foreign power, is one that rears its ugly head all too often in the headlines throughout history and especially today.
Joan, Margaret, and the countess of Auvergne (whom I didn’t discuss) are the only three women in this play, and all of them represent a very real threat to England. Joan is the military problem, Margaret is the internal viper who will feature prominently in the later two plays, and the countess tries to undermine Talbot’s chivalrous virtue. Methinks the Bard doth protest too much.
The big takeaway from this is that the age of chivalry ends not in a giant fireball of glory, but in stupid arguments and backbiting. I don’t know what’s worse, that Shakespeare clearly sees it, or that he’s unable to deviate from that course in his character assassination of Joan. Irony, it seems, knows no bounds.