The first scene of The First Part of Henry the Sixth has a “take notice” beginning: A funeral march for Henry V, with John, Duke of Bedford, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, the Duke of Exeter, the Earl of Warwick, the Bishop of Winchester and the Duke of Somerset. Now, I’m working on a family tree/genealogy, but suffice to say, these men are interrelated:
- John, Duke of Bedford and Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester are brothers to the late King. Humphrey, the younger, is the Lord Protector for the young King (more on that youth later).
- The Duke of Exeter is Thomas Beaufort, the Bishop of Winchester is his younger brother Henry Beaufort. The Duke of Somerset is their nephew Edmund Beaufort (son of their late brother John).
- The Earl of Warwick is Richard de Beauchamp, a distant cousin.
Shakespeare, even in his “factual” histories, will at times play fast and loose with characters, places, and times… however, if this scene takes place in 1422 (the year of Henry V’s death), then Bedford is 33 years old, Gloucester/Protector is 31, Exeter is 45, the Bishop of Winchester is 47, and Somerset is a mere 16. Warwick is 40 years old. Henry V was 35 at his death, and had he lived, he would have inherited the throne of France (won in his wars in France [One Hundred Years War], as depicted in Henry V… but we won’t get to that play a year [and a month] from now).
After the march, the scene begins with Bedford and Gloucester praising their late brother. Exeter insinuates that the French may have been responsible for Henry’s death though “Conjurers and sorcerers… By magic verses” (I.i.26-27). If French witchcraft was responsible for Henry’s death, the Bishop states that “The church’s prayers made him so prosperous” (I.i.32); not surprising coming from the bishop. Gloucester doesn’t buy this, hinting that it may have been the church who prayed for Henry’s death, so that the new King would be “a schoolboy (the church) may overawe” (I.i.36).
oh, yeah… now might be a good time to mention this: King Henry VI was only nine MONTHS old when he assumed the throne of England. You can see how the whole Lord Protector thing is important, as well as the ability to “overawe” the young King. And you can see where this is going, can’t you: familial squabbles that grow to civil war (and as we’ll see, the “squabbles” had their root in more-than-trivial things that happened a generation–or two–before)
Gloucester and the Bishop of Winchester continue to argue until Bedford shuts the quarrel down by invoking the late King’s spirit to “keep (England) from civil brawls” (I.i.53). Bedford’s prayer is interrupted by a messenger… and the message isn’t good. There’s been a revolt in many French cities, and the English have already lost a number of them. Exeter immediately suspects “treachery” but the real reason was more a lack of “men and money” (I.i.68 and 69, respectively). That and what many soldiers suspect: squabbling in “several factions” (I.i.71)… it is truly a wake-up call (“Awake, awake, English nobility!” [I.i.78]).
Bedford, as “Regent … of France” (I.i.84), is ready to go to France and retake the cities and beat down the uprising. His statement of force is interrupted by another messenger with worse news: not only are individual towns revolting, but the prince Dauphin Charles has named himself king and is pulling together the existing nobility of France for a national revolt.
The brothers trade urgings to war, then a third messenger comes… and bad news comes in threes: the badass British general Lord Talbot has been captured and is held prisoner. Bedford and Gloucester are ready for war, and even Exeter seemingly brings along the Beauforts; they will remember their promises to Henry V and join forces to defeat the common enemy, France.
Gloucester says he will head to the Tower of London (then an armory) to check on munitions, then crown the young Henry as King; Exeter says that he will then take the King to Eltham for safety. Everyone leaves the stage, leaving the Bishop of Winchester alone and he confides to the audience that he intends to steal the King from Eltham and become the main advisor to the boy.
The setting for Scenes Two and Three move to France (in some texts they are a single scene, but in our Pelican Shakespeare text, they’re separated). Remember, Shakespeare — when it comes to the French — is an Anglo-centric historian; so needless to say, the French do not come off well here. The Dauphin Charles and his comrades (including Rene, Duke of Anjou… file THAT name away in the memory banks for later) come off as preening and arrogant. They prepare to attack the English troops, and Charles states:
Sound, sound, alarum! We will rush on them.
Now for the honor of the forlorn French!
Him I forgive my death that killeth me
When he sees me go back one foot or fly.
That’s the end of Scene Two… Scene Three begins with an alarum, and the French lords returning to the stage having been “beaten back by the English with great loss” (I.iii.sd). It’s a French army joke. The lords then spend time lionizing the English forces and soldiers (Shakespeare knew who was buying the tickets). Into this pity party comes the Bastard of Orleans (and how would you like THAT to be YOUR moniker?), and he has brought good news, or at least help: “a holy maid” (I.iii.30).
And who would the maid be?
Joan la Pucelle. Joan of Arc. A French Saint (though not until the twentieth century).
And since she’s French, she doesn’t get the best treatment from Shakespeare. She knows things that she should not (Dauphin’s identity)… so she’s either a con artist or a witch (or both). In a weirdly sexualized job interview with the Dauphin (think last month’s Taming wooing scene, only not funny), she not only explains her history but also beats the Dauphin in single combat (this is a trifecta for Shakespeare: Joan is a whore [the sexualized speech], Joan is a witch [how else could she win in combat], Charles is a puss [see the last reason]).
The Dauphin gives her the defense of Orleans. He has nothing to lose. The city is besieged and is going down to defeat. If she wins, he’s got himself a force to be reckoned with… if not, he’s lost nothing.
Scene Four returns to England… but that will have to wait until tomorrow.