Was Henry at this point too young to read? We’ll take a look a chronological time later in the month…
Act Five of The First Part of Henry the Sixth begins with Henry asking Gloucester if the Lord Protector has read the letters from the pope and the Earl of Armagnac. The letters request that Henry end his military excursion into France and to enter a time of peace. Henry agrees that this makes sense.
The Armagnac letter, however, has an additional part: the offer of the Earl’s daughter in marriage. As he is “near knit to Charles (the Dauphin)” (V.i.17), this would seem to make the peace between England and France a little more secure (not that it worked in this case; remember that Henry’s mother was Catherine, Princess of France). Henry is a little unsure, as his “years are young,” but he will “be well content with any choice // Tends to God’s glory and my country’s weal” (V.i.21 and 26-27). Gloucester thinks the offer is a good one, and so Henry agrees. Winchester arrives, now in a cardinal’s habit (rather than his old bishop’s), with a Papal Legate. Exeter is stunned, as he says in an aside:
What! is my Lord of Winchester install'd,
And call'd unto a cardinal's degree?
Then I perceive that will be verified
Henry the Fifth did sometime prophesy,
'If once he come to be a cardinal,
He'll make his cap co-equal with the crown.'
Remember Exeter is Winchester’s older brother. Even his own brother doesn’t trust him. And that mistrust is well-laid: when left alone on stage with the Legate, Winchester says,
Stay, my lord legate: you shall first receive
The sum of money which I promised
Should be deliver'd to his holiness
For clothing me in these grave ornaments.
If this is Act Five of The First Part…, can we see this as the creation of a villain for The Second Part…?
Winchester has bribed the pope for his new cardinalship. And if that wasn’t bad enough, when left alone, he informs the audience that he will make Gloucester “stoop and bend (his) knee, // Or sack this country with a mutiny” (V.i.61-62).
In Scene Two, the French nobles begin to celebrate the Parisians’ revolt, only to learn that the English army, once split in two, have regrouped and is heading for battle. The French can only hope that English, without Talbot, do not have the power to defeat them.
We see the repercussions of the French doubt in Scene Three (and here, again, the Penguin text divides into separate entities Scenes Three, Four and Five; other texts have them s a single scene), and this is the single most wacky scene in the entire play: Joan la Pucelle calls forth her “fiends” (V.iii.7 s.d.) to grant her the defeat of the English. If the play up to this point had been ambiguous in its hatred of Joan (only through dialogue of those who hate both her and the French), that ambiguity disappears with the appearance of her “speedy helpers” (V.iii.5). Of course, they don’t help Joan in this scene; but their mere appearance on stage shows that for the purpose of the play, Joan is a witch. This scene, wacky though it is, is completely necessary for the rest of the la Pucelle subplot in the play.
Immediately following in Scene Four is York’s capture of Joan, filled with his description of her as “witch,” “hag,” “enchantress,” and “miscreant” (V.iv.5,13,13, and 15). Anyone with a brain, or with just an inkling of knowledge about the end of the Hundred Years War, knows where this is going: “to the stake” (V.iv.15).
Scene Five is also set on the battlefield, with Suffolk leading a French prisoner, “Margaret.” At first, we don’t know who she is, but she tells Suffolk that she is the daughter of the “King of Naples” (V.v.8). And who is the King of Naples? Rene, Duke of Anjou. Remember that name, or at least remember our admonition earlier in the play to remember that name? Well, here that seed grows to fruition. And the fruit is comedy (at least for this scene): both characters spend much of the scene speaking in asides, as the other tries to communicate (unsuccessfully). Suffolk finds her beautiful and his “fancy” (V.v.47), but his ambition trumps his own desire; he will present her to Henry as a proper wife (after all, she’s the daughter of a KING!). It takes a little convincing by Suffolk, but Margaret agrees (as long as her father gives consent as well). And as luck would have it, Anjou arrives on the scene… and to create a peace in France, Anjou is more than willing to agree to the match. Suffolk will need to go to England to seal the deal, but he has difficulties saying goodbye to Margaret, calling her back time after time, until the scene reaches a surprising (if not completely salacious or shocking) climax:
But madam, I must trouble you again;
No loving token to his majesty?
Yes, my good lord, a pure unspotted heart,
Never yet taint with love, I send the king.
And this withal.
That for thyself
It would seem that Shakespeare here is once again on the attack against non-English women (witches and sluts, hags and whores). This does not bode well for Henry.
Scene Six transports us to York’s camp in France, where he interrogates Joan. He has brought a shepherd who claims to be Joan’s father, but Joan repeatedly denies this. When she does, the shepherd turns on her, telling York to “burn her! Hanging is too good” (V.vi.33).
As she is about to be taken away, she attempts to escape her execution by an entire menu of excuses:
- She’s the “progeny of kings” (V.vi.38)
- She’s been “chosen from above” (V.vi.39)
- She’s a “virgin… Chaste and immaculate” (V.vi.50-51)
[NOTE: at this point, Warwick wants her burned quickly, “so her torture may be shortened” (V.vi.58)… very kind.]
- She’s “with child” (V.vi.62) (though the father is assumed to be the Dauphin)
- And the father is Alencon (V.vi.73)
- No, wait, the father is Rene, King of Naples (V.vi.78)
- If she’s executed, “mischief and despair // Drive you to break your necks or hang yourselves” (V.vi.91)
And we, as an audience, have no problem with this, as we know–from Scene Three–that she’s a witch, and burning was the standard punishment.
And none of these arguments works, and off she goes… it’s going to be a hot time in the camp tonight.
Winchester arrives to let York (the new Regent of France) know that the king wants a peace with France (an “effeminate peace” [V.vi.107], York derides). Orders are orders, so when the French nobles arrive, the peace is agreed upon.
Scene Seven, the final scene of the play, returns us to the palace in London. Suffolk has delivered news of Margaret’s offer of marriage to Henry, and Henry is moved. Gloucester and Exeter both argue against it (for reasons of the prior arrangement with Armagnac, and Armagnac’s greater political connections). Henry overrules, for the first time, the Lord Protector, and agrees to the marriage with Margaret. The nobles leave, and the last person left onstage is Suffolk, who closes play with:
Margaret shall now be queen, and rule the king;
But I will rule both her, the king and realm.
Between the Cardinal of Winchester and Suffolk (not to mention the continuing conflict between York and Somerset), The Second Part of Henry the Sixth does not look to be a picnic for the young monarch.