Act Four, Scene One of The First Part of Henry the Sixth begins with Henry’s coronation on French soil. Before Gloucester can secure an oath of loyalty from the Governor of Paris, however, Sir John Fastolf (not Falstaff) arrives with a letter from Burgundy. The mere presence of Fastolf (a man widely regarded–within the play–as a coward) enrages Talbot so that he tears the badge of the Order of Garter off Fastolf. After both Talbot and Gloucester berate Fastolf, King Henry banishes him from England “on pain of death” (IV.i.47).
Gloucester then reads the message from Burgundy, a kind of “Dear John” letter of national proportions. Henry responds quickly with “Why then, Lord Talbot there shall talk with him // And give him chastisement for this abuse” (IV.i.68-69). What? Talk? Chastisement? Pretty weak. After Talbot leaves on his mission, Vernon and Basset (servants of Plantagenet/York and Somerset, respectively) ask for Henry’s permission to fight a duel. The cause? You guessed it: they had talked smack about each other’s mothers, er ROSES. When Henry balks at letting them get ready to rumble, both York and Somerset request that the servants be allowed to fight it out, and if not the servants then the men themselves (as Somerset says, “The quarrel toucheth none but us alone; // Betwixt ourselves let us decide it then” [IV.i.118-119]). Both Gloucester and Exeter try to get the two to settle the quarrel and “be friends” (IV.i.133). Henry then goes on to tell them that as long as they are in France, they must work together, else the French will see the dissention and it will provoke them to greater rebellion. Smart. Not so smart is when he begins to address the whole rose issue:
Let me be umpire in this doubtful strife.
I see no reason, if I wear this rose,
[He takes a red rose]
That anyone should therefore be suspicious
I more incline to Somerset than York:
Both are my kinsmen, and I love them both
After Henry and his followers leave York, Warwick, Vernon and Exeter on stage, York states, “I like it not // In that he wears the badge of Somerset” (IV.i.176-177). Warwick tries to convince York that it was just young Henry’s “fancy” and that “he thought no harm” (IV.i.178 and 179), but York is dubious. Once York and his followers leave the stage to Exeter, we can see that HE can see where all of this is going: “More rancorous spite, more furious raging broils, // Than yet can be imagined or supposed” (IV.i.185-186).
Scene Two has Talbot seeking the surrender of the town of Bordeaux. The French general refuses, saying that the Dauphin’s army is coming. Talbot realizes that with the approaching army, the odds are very much against him and his men.
Elsewhere in France (we’ll talk about the military history later this month), as Scene Three begins, York is waiting for horses so that he can ride to Talbot’s aid. York blames the lack of horses on–guess who?–Somerset. William Lucy, who has delivered word of Talbot’s situation, also informs York (and us) that Talbot has been joined by his son, “young John” (IV.iii.35). They had been separated for seven years, and now they’re together and facing certain death. And to hear York tell it, the fault lies with Somerset.
Scene Four takes us to Somerset. He blames Talbot’s situation on both Talbot himself and York, whose battle plan was “too rashly plotted” (IV.iv.3). When Lucy arrives to tell Somerset that without his help sent to York, “Talbot perisheth by (Somerset’s) default” (IV.iv.28). The two then continue to play the blame game:
York set him on; York should have sent him aid.
And York as fast upon your grace exclaims;
Swearing that you withhold his levied host,
Collected for this expedition.
York lies; he might have sent and had the horse;
As that game plays out, we see in Scene Five the reunion of father and son. Talbot attempts to convince his son to flee the battle, and live to revenge his death. The son will have none of it, stating that if anyone should flee, it should be his father. His rationale? Talbot’s heroic exploits have purchased for him freedom from any stained honor, while fleeing by the as yet un-battle-tested young Talbot would be seen as sheer cowardice. When neither can convince the other to flee, they go off “side by side, together (to) live and die” (IV.v.54).
Scene Six opens with a battle in which Talbot saves his son from slaughter, and then they and the English drive off the French. And while father has rescued son, the son has sparked admiration from the father:
When from the Dauphin’s crest thy sword struck fire,
It warm'd thy father's heart with proud desire
Of bold-faced victory.
He’s proud of what his son has accomplished on the field of battle; now he begs, again, for him to flee. When young Talbot refuses again to flee and live, his father can only offer a dark alternative: “If thou wilt fight, fight by thy father’s side, // And commendable proved, let’s die in pride” (IV.vi.56-57).
And in Scene Seven, we see the result. Talbot is helped on stage by a servant, and the old warrior recounts what has happened. Talbot had fallen on the field of battle, but his son stood over him, and rescued him, committing “rough deeds of rage” (IV.vii.8). He is proud of his son, but devastated. After young Talbot had saved his father, he charged into another skirmish and was killed.
His son’s body is brought on stage, and Talbot holds him in his arms. The grief is overbearing, and the old man dies, holding his late son. The French enter, and the English flee, leaving the bodies behind for the Dauphin and his nobles to find. Mostly they praise both father and son (only “mostly” because the Bastard [of Orleans] wants to “hew them… hack their bones” [IV.vii.47]… what a bastard). William Lucy comes to find the fate of Talbot and is allowed to take the bodies back to the English, and that is the last image in Act Four.