Rhyme and (the) Reason for Talbot’s Death

In the past, we’ve talked a little about rhyme and its various purposes

  • singling out an entire body or block of content
  • singling out a couplet of content (for emphasis, particularly at the end of a speech)
  • content from outside the play itself–poems, songs, even entire plays that are performed within the context of the scene
  • portrayal of other worldly-entities
  • rhetorical/argumentative answer

btw, in the September issue of English Journal (published by the National Council of Teachers of English), an issue devoted completely to Shakespeare(!), there is a fascinating article by Cheryl Hogue Smith entitled “No Reason without Rhyme: Rhetorical Negotiation in Shakespeare,” in which she makes some great points on further reasons for rhyme, not the least of which is to heighten “awareness of the action in the play.”  There are some very good ideas in the article; it almost makes me want to go back and re-read The Comedy of Errors and Titus Andronicus, two plays she references in depth

Today, we’re going to focus on Shakespeare’s use of rhyme in The First Part of Henry the Sixth, in particular its use in three consecutive scenes (Act Four, Scenes Five, Six and Seven)–for lack of a better term–the “Talbot and Son” scenes.  In these scenes, rhyme works to single out this section from the rest of the play, as well as adding a rhetorical answering motif during the argument between father and son in the first two of the three scenes.  I also think there’s something else, something larger and thematic, at work here, but I’ll get to that later.

First, the idea of singling out these scenes from the rest of the play:

  • The play a whole has only 9.79% rhyming couplets (262 rhyming lines in a play with 2677 total lines)
  • In Act Four, Scene Five, 72.7% of the lines are rhyming couplets (40 of 55 lines)
  • In Act Four, Scene Six, a whopping 98.2% of the lines are rhyming couplets (56 of 57 lines)
  • In Act Four, Scene Seven, 54.1% of the lines are rhyming couplets (52 of 96 lines) [NOTE: this is only IF you take the scene as a whole; as there is a clear dichotomy to the scene (pre- and post- the arrival of Sir William Lucy at line 50), if you take only the first section of the scene, then it contains 96% rhyme (48 of 50 lines)]
  • In these three scenes, rhyme makes up 71.1% of the lines (148 of 208 lines) [Again, this is if you take Scene Seven as a whole; if you take only the first section, then rhyme makes up 88.9% of the lines (144 of 162)]
  • If you pull those scenes out of the play, then the play only contains 4.8% rhyming lines (118 of 2423 lines) [Again, this is if you take Scene Seven as a whole; if you take only the first section, then rhyme drops to only 4.6% of the lines (114 of 2369)]

No matter how you slice these numbers, it’s clear that the existence and preponderance of rhyme in this section of the play sets it apart from the rest of the play.

Second, the concept of rhetorical answering:

The main rhyming section begins as Talbot is reunited with his son Young John Talbot after a seven-year separation.  After father greets son, he then directs the boy to flee the field:

Therefore, dear boy, mount on my swiftest horse;
And I'll direct thee how thou shalt escape
By sudden flight: come, dally not, be gone.

— IV.v.8-10

The concept is foreign to Talbot; note how even the meter supports this:

  \   ~     \    \     \   ~   ~   \  ~    \
Therefore, dear boy, mount on my swiftest horse;

~  \     \ ~     ~   \    ~    \   ~  \
And I'll direct thee how thou shalt escape

~  \  ~    \      ~     \  ~  \    ~  \
By sudden flight: come, dally not, be gone.

The lines move from a very jumbled trochee-spondee-trochee-iamb-iamb (as if he’s unable to even speak of these things) to a more rhythmic line (just one trochee, as he’s coming to grips with the situation) to perfect iambic pentameter (as the love for his son overcomes his discomfort with retreat).  His son cannot believe his ears; in his incredulity, he begs:

And shall I fly? O, if you love my mother,
Dishonor not her honorable name,
To make a bastard and a slave of me!

— IV.v.13-15

And before we get to the rhyme… I know you’re anxious, but I can’t pass this up… Check out that speech.  Sound reminiscent of any other Shakespearean speeches?  No?  How about this one… “Dishonor not your mothers; now attest // That those whom you call’d fathers did beget you.”  Pretty close, huh?  Well, that little bit comes from the “Once more unto the breach” speech from Henry the Fifth (III.i.22-23).   Could this be a little test run of the concept?  Maybe.  The notion is especially tantalizing given then later in THAT play, in the Saint Crispin’s day speech, Henry name-checks “Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester… (who will be) freshly remembered” (Henry V: IV.iii.55-56).  Of course, I’m not saying Shakespeare knew he was going to link the two plays this way when he wrote this play… but it’s pretty neat how it worked out, no?

Those lines, in which he asks his father to honor his mother, are the last non-rhyming lines in the scene.  Only three of the next ONE HUNDRED AND FORTY-SEVEN lines are NOT part of rhyming couplets.

When Talbot speaks next, it is with a single line, “Fly to revenge my death if I be slain” (IV.v.18).  His son retorts, “He that flies so will ne’er return again” (IV.v.19), completing the rhyme and countering the argument with the position that if one flees from this fight, he’ll ever have enough courage to return for vengeance.  And thus begin an entire series of point/counterpoint rhyming pairs (broken by a single longer speech by Young Talbot–all in couplets–in which he explains to his father that if Talbot retreated, people would think nothing of it [his past exploits have earned him that right]; Young Talbot, on the other hand, untested in battle, will not be given that benefit of the doubt).  Not only does Young Talbot answer each of his father’s statements, but some of the rhymes themselves are antithetically opposed in meaning (die/fly, tomb/womb, thee/me).  Later in the scene, Young Talbot answers his father, and before his father can put forth a new argument, then tells his father, “If death be so apparent, then both fly” (IV.v.43-44).  He tells his father that if death is certain, both of them should retreat to fight another day.  It’s a logical argument.  And–as son knows father all too well–it’s a rhetorical trap.  Talbot responds, “And leave my followers here to fight and die?” (IV.v.45), saying that as a leader, he cannot leave his men behind; he goes on to say, “My age was never tainted with such shame” (IV.v.46).  And with this statement linking retreat with shame, the bait is taken and the trap is sprung.  “And shall my youth be guilty of such blame” (IV.v.47), the son says, not allowing for the possibility that he have the same shame.

Two more short speeches (still in couplets) ensue, and father and son go off to fight.  The battle goes on (in which Talbot saves his son), and as the English drives off the French, Talbot cries out the only non-rhyming line for the next 88 lines: “Saint George and victory! Fight, soldiers, fight!” (IV.vi.1), showing the (non-rhyming) chaos of war.  We then hear of the battle, the rescue, and Talbot’s pride in watching his son fight:

When from the Dauphin's crest thy sword struck fire,
It warm'd thy father's heart with proud desire
Of bold-faced victory.

— IV.vi.10-13

Pride spoken in beautiful rhymed iambic pentameter. Father praises son, and says that since he has now shown his valor, there’s now no shame in his retreat.  Son refuses and says that he will fight by his father’s son.  Father relents, and the two go off, back into battle.  And all of it in rhyming couplets.  So ends the scene.

After battle rages on stage, Talbot is carried back on stage, old and beaten.  In–still–rhyming couplets, he recounts how in the latest skirmish young John rescued his father, then rushed into the French horde, “and there died” (IV.vii.16).  His son’s body is then brought onstage, and Talbot gives his final speech (still rhyming), wistfully noting that his son’s wounds are rightfully fitting for “hard-favored death” (IV.vii.23), and fantasizing his son’s revival, so he can defeat death as if death were the French.  He calls for his son to be put into his arms, and the old man passes.

Enter the French, and Charles the Dauphin (of course) breaks the string of rhymed couplets.  At this point, the lack of rhyme is obvious, and grinds the scene to a stop, showing how Charles is not of this nature, not of this warrior philosophy.  His nobles, however, are: the Bastard of Orleans, Joan la Pucelle, and Burgundy, all praise the fallen soldiers, father and son, in rhyming couplets.  Only after the Bastard (a moniker especially fitting here) uses his next couplet to express his desire to mutilate and desecrate the corpses does Charles finally respond in rhyme, “O no, forbear; for that which we have fled // During the life, let us not wrong it dead” (IV.vii.49-50), pleading that if they were not able to wound the Talbots in life, they should not do so in death.  And with that, Sir William Lucy arrives to survey the dead, and with his arrival we have the departure of the rhyming couplets.

Now, where does all this lead us?

Why is this section set off?  Why is it important?

Well, what makes his section different?  It’s about the Talbots, father and son.  But they are NOT the play’s only father and son duo.  Remember back in Act One, Scene Five?  The Master Gunner and his son, the Boy.

The Gunner is relieved at his post by his son; he finishes his speech with these final directions:  “If thou spy’st any, run and bring me word, // And thou shalt find me at the governor’s” (I.v.18-19).  If the boy sees the English, his orders are to send word to his father (and he’ll take care of it), but after his father leaves, he says, “Father, I warrant you, take you no care– // I’ll never trouble you, if I may spy them” (I.v.20-21).  The boy, seemingly in desire to earn his reputation in battle (or to make up for an earlier missed shot), decides that he’ll take action, rather than tell his father.  And the result?  The boy does his duty, and his shot kills Gargrave and Salisbury (yep, the same Salisbury referenced in that Henry V quote above).

The boy does not deliver “word” (I.v.18), he takes action; and the result is victory.

The Talbots talk, and rhyme, and argue, and rhyme some more (and then take action); but the result is death and defeat.

Is this the point?  Words don’t win wars; actions do.  Remember, the first messenger states that the French towns were not lost by treachery, but because the English nobles

maintain several factions,
And whilst a field should be dispatch'd and fought,
You are disputing of your generals

— I.i.71-73

To put it another way, because the nobles were too busy talking (“disputing”), they have lost French cities.

Talbot had been a great soldier; the opening of the play is filled with descriptions of his military exploits (from both the English and French perspectives), but we see no clear-cut victories on our stage itself.  By this point in his military career, he is ready to “die with mickle age” (IV.vi.35); he is an old man.  By now, he is greater in reputation than he is in reality; in fact, on two occasions we see the French flee before the mere cry of “A Talbot!” (II.i.39 and 79), with one English soldier stating,

The cry of Talbot serves me for a sword;
For I have loaden me with many spoils,
Using no other weapon but his name.

— II.i.81-83

Is this why young King Henry punishes the newly treasonous Burgundy by sending Talbot to “talk with him // And give him chastisement” (IV.i.68-69)?

His name is a greater weapon than Talbot himself because he has become too much of a talker and not enough of a doer.

Yes, actions do speak louder than words.

And how do we know this?  Rhyme is the reason.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *