Act Two of The First Part of Henry the Sixth begins on a siege wall, with French soldiers preparing for a late night vigil on the wall outside Orleans. Below, Talbot, Bedford and Burgundy (a loyal French noble) discuss the military situation in preparation for an attack on the wall. Again, the French victories are attributed to “sorcery” (II.i.15), “witches and the help of hell” (II.i.18). As for Joan, again, they insult her in terms both promiscuous and overly masculine. Talbot is still sure of his own power and loyalties; as he and his soldiers mount the wall, he says that he begins his attack for Salisbury and “for the right // Of English Henry” (II.i.35-36).
I guess the sentinels were sleeping or … ? Is this another Shakespearean attack on French masculinity?
Notice the English soldiers do not cry out for England or even King Henry, but for Saint George and for Talbot… if the rallying cry is for their local hero rather than their king, then the support for the king must not be very great. I think this hugely important.]
When he and his soldiers reach the top, the French sentinels are caught off-guard, and when the English soldiers cry, “Saint George? A Talbot!” (II.i.39), the French scatter “in their shirts” (II.i.39 s.d.), leaving their armor behind.
The English soldiers chase off the French, then the French nobles arrive to survey the area and bemoan their situation, whining that they had to “leave (their” beds” (II.i.42). While the Bastard of Orleans demonizes Talbot by calling him “a fiend from hell” (II.i.47), Rene of Anjou (remember that name? well, continue to do so) responds, “If not of hell, the heavens sure favor him” (II.i.48). Then the Dauphin and Joan arrive, and Charles is not happy, even accusing her of setting up the French with the victory at Orleans, so that this defeat would be “ten times so much” (II.i.54) more painful.
The French nobles then go through a round of finger-pointing and blame-gaming, until Joan plans for a new attack on the English. And while this sounds like a promising turnaround for the French, a single English soldier charges on stage, crying out “A Talbot! A Talbot!” (II.i.79), scattering the French nobles. The soldier then takes all the French armor, saying,
I'll be so bold to take what they have left.
The cry of Talbot serves me for a sword,
For I have loaden me with many spoils,
Using no other weapon but his name.
Thus, the scene ends with the French military response used only as a pro-England joke.
Scene Two begins with Orleans retaken by the English. After some discussion between Talbot, Bedford and Burgundy, providing military situational exposition (including Burgundy’s insulting remark equating Joan as the Dauphin’s “trull” (II.ii.28), or whore), a messenger arrives with an invitation to Talbot to visit the Countess of Auvergne, so that “she may boast that she hath beheld the man // Whose glory fills the world with loud report” (II.ii.42-43). Burgundy jokes that Talbot’s martial exploits are turning into a “peaceful comic sport // When ladies crave to be encountered with” (II.ii.45-46), with “encountered” here having a double meaning: “meeting” and participating in “an amatory interview,” or wooing (both Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition on CD-ROM [v. 4.0]). Talbot responds that he’ll grant her visit out of politeness, but neither Burgundy nor Bedford will accompany Talbot (Bedford out of politeness demurs because he wasn’t invited). But before Talbot leaves, he whispers something into an English captain’s ear.
Scene Three moves to Countess of Auvergne’s castle, where we learn that her invitation is a trap, one to make her “famous by this exploit” (II.iii.5). When Talbot arrives, she insults his stature:
Is this the Talbot, so much feared abroad
That with his name the mothers still their babes?
I see report is fabulous and false:
I thought I should have seen some Hercules,
A second Hector, for his grim aspect,
And large proportion of his strong-knit limbs.
Alas, this is a child, a seely dwarf!
It cannot be this weak and writhled shrimp
Should strike such terror to his enemies.
Is this a casting direction? Was Talbot truly small of stature? I need to check on that…
She tells him that she is now her prisoner, and he only laughs. She insults him more, and he responds by saying that she’s right, he is but a shadow of who he is. When she is confused by his answer, he clarifies matters by blowing a horn. His troops (presumably led by the English captain into whose ear Talbot whispered at the end of the previous scene) then charge into the room. She immediately changes tone and begs him to “pardon (her) abuse” (II.iii.67). Talbot is gracious, saying what she has done had “not offended” him (II.iii.76). He only wants “wine and … cates” (II.iii.79) for his men, and the scene ends with her “honored // To feast so great a warrior in (her) house” (II.iii.81-82).
For those following from last month’s Taming, remember those cates?