Henry VI, Part 1
Abbreviations: Ado = Much Ado about Nothing; AYLI = As You Like It; Cym. = Cymbeline; 1H6 = Henry VI, Part 1; 2H6 = Henry VI, Part 2; 3H6 = Henry VI, Part 3; John = King John; JC = Julius Caesar; Mac. = Macbeth; MM = Measure for Measure; R2 = Richard II; R3 = Richard III; RSC = The Royal Shakespeare Company; TN = Twelfth Night
Berry, Edward I. “1 Henry VI: Chivalry and Ceremony.” In Patterns of Decay: Shakespeare’s Early Histories, pp. 1–28. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1975.
Berry argues that a central theme throughout the first tetralogy is a pattern of dissolution and decay. In 1H6, it takes the form of social disintegration as manifested in the breakdown of ceremony and ritual. The chapter focuses on the meeting between Talbot and the Countess of Auvergne (2.3), a scene that articulates through Talbot an ideal of chivalric community rooted in ritualism that is elsewhere parodied by Joan la Pucelle’s “colloquial vigor and irreverence.” For Berry, it is not simply “the motif of the interrupted ceremony” (Hereward T. Price’s phrase)—first seen in the aborted funeral rites of Henry V (1.1)—that unifies the play at its deepest level but “the idea of ceremony itself,” which serves as “both theme and mode of dramatic action.” As the structural rhythm alternates between indecisive battles abroad and social disorder at home, “each communal gathering becomes increasingly divisive” until broken ceremonies break Talbot, the man who embodies ceremony. In 1H6, the concept of ceremony “serves as a static ideal against which the process of social decay is measured.” In the remaining three plays, that decay is explored in terms of justice and law (2H6), the family (3H6), and finally the self (R3).
Bevington, David. “1 Henry VI.” In A Companion to Shakespeare’s Works, edited by Richard Dutton and Jean E. Howard, 2:308–24. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2003.
In his review of the play’s scholarship, Bevington notes how the pendulum on the vexed issues of authorship and chronology, which first began to swing from theories of disintegration in the nineteenth century to claims of unity and coherence in the twentieth, seems to be moving back to theories of multiple authorship (e.g., Nashe, Greene, and Peele) and a comparatively late date (i.e., one following the composition of Part 2 and 3). The survey begins with the topics of authorship and compositional date because of their relevance to “the central issue of the play’s unity and integrity.” Is 1H6 “a jumble of fragmented pieces, written in a distracting medley of styles,” or is it a cohesive whole? Bevington concludes that increasingly the critical tendency favors coherence, whether in terms of characters (chiefly Talbot and Joan), imagery (specifically patterns involving enclosure, birds in flight, and all sorts of predatory vs. weaker animals), or style (epic, ceremonial, emblematic). Critics have found a unified design in the play’s treatment of gender and family, in its reflection of contemporary attitudes toward witchcraft and the demoniacal, and in its rhetoric. Some have used staging to argue for a kind of theatrical coherence. Where E. M. W. Tillyard and his followers emphasize the “Tudor myth” and providential history, anti-Tillyardians point to the undercutting of order, justice, and moral equity in the plays, to pervasive bad luck, and to death as “wanton” rather than “divinely retributive.” David Scott Kastan brings a welcome balance to this particular debate with his observation that “providentialism” is present but “as a model of historical causation to be probed and challenged.” As a result of the anti-Tillyard corrective, critics opting for integrity of design seek it in themes of disorder, confusion, decay, and social disintegration. The ultimate verdict on the interrelated questions of authorship and aesthetic quality remains to be decided; but “[c]ertainly the debate adds materially to our interest in the play.”
Blanpied, John W. “Henry VI, Part One: ‘Defacing monuments of conquered France.’ ” In Time and the Artist in Shakespeare’s English Histories, pp. 26–41. Newark: University of Delaware Press; Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1983. (The chapter is a revision of the essay “Art and Baleful Sorcery: The Counterconsciousness of Henry VI, Part 1,” Studies in English Literature 15 : 213–27.)
In his metatheatrical study of 1H6, Blanpied contends that the confusion and roughness intrinsic to the play reveal a record of the discoveries Shakespeare made about the instability of both the chronicle material he was dramatizing and drama itself, a form that is “fluid, active, temporal.” The author claims that the intentional design of Part 1, which deals with the decline and fall of England’s heroic past, can be found in a “counterconsciousness” and pervasive irony in the face of what spectators and readers experience as a “collapse of order and ceremony.” Throughout the play, the authoritative power of the “monumental past” is undermined by the playwright’s assertion of “those theatrical techniques [e.g., broad morality-type characters, a persistent declamatory style, and minimal narrative linkage] that seem designed to dignify it.” As a result of such theatrical subversion, “everything straightforward and sturdy turns doubtful and inconclusive.” Three scenes, 2.3, 2.4, and 2.5—none bound by chronicle matter and conventional styles—show where Shakespeare’s interest really lay and thus hold the seeds of his future development as a playwright. In them, we can glimpse the playwright’s desire “to show a reality elsewhere in the future—a future that is not merely to be suffered passively, but is to be actively created: made drama.” Subjected to the pressures of Shakespeare’s dramatizing imagination, the “ground” of the play’s monumental, heroic past dissolves and “melts into a kind of dream of the waking present. . . . Stability is always in the past, it seems; the present is always the awareness of falling through space.”
Burckhardt, Sigurd. “ ‘I Am But Shadow of Myself’: Ceremony and Design in Henry 6, Part 1.” Modern Language Quarterly 28 (1967): 139–58. Reprinted in Shakespearean Meanings, pp. 42–77. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968.
Burckhardt assumes that the Folio text of 1H6 represents Shakespeare’s deliberate effort to shape his source material into a coherent whole. He addresses the issue of dramatic integrity by examining 2.3, a scene that appears “irretrievably episodic” but that, through its depiction of the “real” Talbot, shows us the “real” play. In keeping with 1H6’s pattern of interrupted ceremonies, the Talbot-Countess encounter is “a ceremony [that of the taunt] . . . startlingly interrupted.” The Countess’s rhetoric, like the general mode of the play, is given to “ ‘high terms’ ceremonially put forward and ceremonially responded to,” to hyperbolic self-assertion, and to a style that is “impatient of indirection.” The surprise is that Talbot rejects “the verbal gauntlet” in favor of “ironic urbanity,” implicit counterplotting, and generous forgiveness, thereby refusing to play his expected “ceremonial” role in the exchange. For a brief moment, Talbot abandons his usual combative self-assertion as “hero” for gracious self-effacement (2.3.62–68) as “servant” in the larger cause of England, his substance lying in the “sinews, arms, and strength” of common, nameless Englishmen and “in the overall design [that begins with the turmoil in the reign of Richard II and ends with the restoration of order under Henry VII] in which they are made to act.” What the Auvergne episode proves is that the real hero of the play is not Talbot but the heroine England. Rather than finding the human analogue to God in an earthly king—the correspondence posited in the traditional Elizabethan world picture—Shakespeare, in writing this scene, discovers a new analogy: God as a dramatist who “planned, designed, plotted, employed stratagems, [who] . . . worked by indirection and implication[,] . . . [and who] . . . wrote histories which, though on the surface they might look like savage spectacles, moved in truth by careful plotting toward an ordered conclusion.” As the vehicle by which drama triumphs over ceremony, self-effacement over self-assertion, and the implicit over the explicit, Talbot becomes “the sovereign plotter” who has mastered the style and plotting of his divine counterpart.
Harris, Laurie Lanzen, and Mark W. Scott, eds. Shakespearean Criticism: Excerpts from the Criticism of William Shakespeare’s Plays and Poetry from the First Published Appraisals to Current Evaluations, 3:11–164. Detroit: Gale Research, 1986.
This volume presents significant passages from published criticism on the three parts of H6. The set of passages is introduced by a brief discussion of the “date,” “text,” and “sources,” followed by a longer discussion of the “critical history” of the plays. Each entry, beginning with Robert Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit (1592) and ending with Marilyn French’s Shakespeare’s Division of Experience (1981), is prefaced with a brief historical overview that places the excerpted document in the context of responses to the play. Of the almost sixty entries, early commentary derives from Thomas Nashe (1592), John Crowne (1681), Gerard Langbaine (1691), and such eighteenth-century editors as Nicholas Rowe, Lewis Theobald, Edward Capell, Samuel Johnson, and Edmond Malone; nineteenth-century critics are represented by such figures as William Hazlitt, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Hermann Ulrici, and Georg Gottfried Gervinus; entries from the twentieth century include excerpts from the writings of Carolyn Spurgeon, E. M. W. Tillyard, Hereward Price, Wolfgang Clemen, Muriel C. Bradbrook, Harold Goddard, David Bevington, Irving Ribner, Robert Ornstein, Michael Manheim, John Cox, and Larry Champion. A briefly annotated bibliography of fifty-five additional items concludes the section. A subsequent volume, edited by Michele Lee (2002), updates the criticism through the 1990s under such headings as “Character Study,” “Henry VI as Comedy,” “Playing with History,” and “Unity and Design” (63:113–218).
Hodgdon, Barbara. “Enclosing Contention: 1, 2, and 3 Henry VI.” In The End Crowns All: Closure and Contradiction in Shakespeare’s History, pp. 44–99. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.
Combining performance criticism (mostly of RSC productions) with study of the play-texts, Hodgdon explores “closural strategies” in the three parts of H6. In the commentary specifically devoted to 1H6 (pp. 54–59), she draws heavily on Leah Marcus’s discussion (referred to below) of the provocative nexus (i.e., the composite sexual identity of the manly woman) linking Joan la Pucelle and Queen Elizabeth I to demonstrate how, contrary to critical tradition dating back to Thomas Nashe, 1H6 is “less the ‘Talbot play’ . . . than a ‘Joan versus Talbot play,’ ” an opposition central to the text’s narrative dynamic, to its displacement of early modern anxieties concerning female dominance, and to its “troubling, less than triumphant, and formally problematic close.” On the level of history, the war pits one nation against another in an international conflict. But because Joan functions “as a spectacular . . . site of gender display,” and thus condenses contemporary skepticism concerning the queen’s “claims to anomalous gender identity,” at the level of dramatic representation the international war becomes “a battle for the ownership of masculine gender.” The play’s most “authoritatively conclusive scene”—Winchester’s mandating the terms of the peace treaty whereby the French promise allegiance to the English crown (5.4)—seems to underscore male dominance. But three features demonstrate its “contaminat[ion] by gender”: (1) the deflection of attention away from the ritual of the negotiations to the imagined offstage burning of Joan, (2) York’s phrase “effeminate peace” (5.4.108), and (3) Lucy’s earlier prophecy (4.7.95–96) of a phoenix rising from the ashes to threaten France (a mystically regenerative image associated with Elizabeth). The final scene may suggest a “fugitive” gloss in the reference to Henry’s future queen (5.5.70–71), who recalls the unruly Joan and, for some audience members, the “misrule” of Elizabeth herself. That gloss is ultimately suspended, however, as the play ends with a decidedly male fantasy and a reassertion of male dominance in Suffolk’s prediction of his future rule over the new Queen Margaret, the king, and the realm itself (5.5.107–8). Later in the chapter, Hodgdon discusses the play’s stage life, especially its closing scenes, as performed in John Barton and Peter Hall’s The Wars of the Roses (RSC, 1963), Terry Hands’s “(relatively) uncut and unadapted” revival of the complete H6 trilogy (RSC, 1977), Michael Bogdonov’s The Wars of the Roses (English Shakespeare Company, 1988), and Adrian Noble’s The Plantagenets (RSC, 1988).
Howard, Jean. “Stage Masculinities, National History, and the Making of London Theatrical Culture.” In Center or Margin: Revisions of the English Renaissance in Honor of Leeds Barroll, edited by Lena Cowen Orlin, pp. 199–214. Selingsgrove, Pa.: Susquehanna University Press; London: Associated University Presses, 2006.
Howard relates the performance of early modern gender roles to the role of theater in early modern culture to argue that in writing the first tetralogy, Shakespeare not only was exploring “the dynamics of civil war and the chaos occasioned by a weak king” but was also “experimenting with stagecraft, with the business of making good plays.” Howard’s particular focus concerns strategies the dramatist devised for delineating different “styles of stageable masculinity” as he wrote for a particular acting company composed only of male actors, whose physical attributes would be well known to him; at a time when the theatrical practice of doubling was a necessity; and in a genre—the history play—wherein male characters “wildly outnumber” women characters. One of the chief tasks the dramatist faced in differentiating one man from another was how to “create interesting fits” between the male role and the male actor called on to impersonate the character. In 1H6, the king’s “feckless masculinity” contrasts with the “chivalric masculinity” of Talbot and with the “masculinity of modernity” projected by the self-serving courtier Suffolk.
Howard, Jean, and Phyllis Rackin. “Henry VI, Part 1.” In Engendering a Nation: A Feminist Account of Shakespeare’s English Histories, pp. 43–64. London: Routledge, 1997.
The chapter appears as part of a section dealing with “weak kings, warrior women, and the assault on dynastic authority.” The women in the histories play many roles but never that of protagonist, probably because in the aristocratic world of this genre “patriarchal domination is assumed and female characters marginalized.” Even when women enter the battlefield—“the privileged scene of heroic history”—as Joan and Margaret do in the H6 plays and Eleanor does in John, their usurpation of masculine prerogatives “always [runs] the risk of stigmatization.” This is especially true of Joan, the most powerful of the three female warriors, who is also depicted as “the most demonic.” Howard and Rackin relate the “alien” nature of women in the English histories to residual and emergent versions of national identity. The older model—feudal and dynastic—is privileged in 1H6, where “hereditary entitlement authorizes English claims to France, while the newer discourse of the nation [as defined geographically rather than dynastically] is associated with French resistance and a form of subversion that is gendered feminine.” When Joan, for example, persuades Burgundy to join her troops, she appeals to his loyalty to the French land (3.3.44–57); the English nobles, however, are appalled by his disloyalty to his nephew, the English king (4.1.50–54, 62–66). The authors also connect the marginalized status of women in English historiography to English antitheatrical invective, which condemned the “disreputable feminized world of the playhouse,” where boys wore female costumes and women were a “contaminating presence” in the audience. In 1H6, the leader of the French forces is not only female but also “insistently theatrical” as both an energetic, memorable stage presence and the embodiment of vices that polemicists associated with the theater. Idealized in heroic terms, the past in 1H6 becomes “the repository of English honor, and its loss is defined as a process of effeminization. . . . The entire play can be seen as a series of attempts on the part of the English to preserve [Henry V’s] fame, along with the fame of English martial heroes, and with them the manhood of the English nation.”
Jackson, Gabriele Bernard. “Topical Ideology: Witches, Amazons, and Shakespeare’s Joan of Arc.” ELR 18 (1988): 40–65. Reprinted in Shakespeare and Gender: A History, edited by Deborah E. Barker and Ivo Kamps, pp. 142–67. London: Verso, 1995.
In this influential topical analysis of 1H6, Jackson neither condemns Shakespeare’s misogyny nor defends him against that charge but rather argues that “the play’s presentation of Joan la Pucelle, like its dominant ideology, is not clear-cut.” The initial portrait as suggested by allusions connecting her to biblical, classical, and mythological figures (e.g., Deborah [1.2.107], Astraea’s daughter [1.6.4], and Amazons [1.2.106]) is positive. But because her victory over the English must inevitably be seen in a negative light, the representation worsens in Act 5, where she becomes associated with witchcraft and sexual promiscuity. In the late sixteenth century, fascination with the virago type coexisted with the need to neutralize her power by feminizing her, something seen in Joan’s terrified attempts to thwart death and in her claims of pregnancy. The contradictory presentation of Joan in 1H6—“one man’s Sibyl is another man’s Hecate”—draws on several topically relevant and interrelated roles: the Amazon, the warrior woman, the cross-dressing woman, and the witch. Such contextual variety permits her “to perform in one play inconsistent ideological functions that go much beyond discrediting the French cause or setting off by contrast the glories of English chivalry in its dying moments.” Like Leah Marcus, Jackson calls attention to similarities between Joan and Queen Elizabeth I, which can be read in a variety of ways that make it unclear whether topical criticism is intended. As another example of topical linkage fraught with ambiguity, Jackson cites Talbot and the Earl of Essex, who in 1591–92 had embarked on a controversial French campaign to besiege Rouen. “The coexistence of ideologically opposed elements is typical of the play’s dramatic nature, and foreshadows the mature Shakespeare.”
Leggatt, Alexander. “The Death of John Talbot.” In Shakespeare’s English Histories: A Quest for Form and Genre, edited by John W. Velz, pp. 11–30. Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1996.
The scene depicting the death of Lord Talbot (4.7) reveals a critical moment in Shakespeare’s artistic development that “reverberates” not only through Part 2 and 3 of the H6 trilogy but also through the dramatist’s later tragedies. What is often overlooked, and what is most significant about the scene, is that “it involves the death of not one hero but two,” Talbot and his son John. Like young Cato in JC and young Siward in Mac., John Talbot is the son of a famous father and seemingly “born only to die”; but unlike those sons, John mirrors his father in being “held up for contemplation.” The result of fusing the individual tragedies of two heroes—Shakespeare seems determined to show death as a rite of passage suffered both alone and together—is a sequence that reveals a conception of tragedy as deriving from “the most intimate relations, the most normal passages of life: the need for love, the demands of loyalty and piety, the turmoil of sexual awakening, the need to prove oneself at any cost.” As Shakespeare’s “first exploration of that kind of tragedy,” the Talbot death scene prefigures such later images as the dead Romeo and Juliet lying together and the hanged Cordelia cradled by Lear.
Levine, Nina S. “The Politics of Chivalry in 1 Henry VI.” In Women’s Matters: Politics, Gender, and Nation in Shakespeare’s Early History Plays, pp. 26–46. Newark: University of Delaware Press; London: Associated University Presses, 1998.
While Shakespeare’s early histories (1, 2, and 3H6; R3; and John) rewrite the Tudor chronicle record so as to acknowledge the importance of women in ensuring patrilineal succession, Levine contends that they also “generate a critique of patrilineal inheritance and legitimacy” that speaks to the Elizabethan present in which the plays are “situated.” The author is especially interested in how the H6 trilogy uses political contexts—“both on- and offstage”—to frame and qualify negative stereotypes of women. The chapter on 1H6 examines the confrontations between Joan la Pucelle and England’s heroic warriors “in relation to both Hall’s chronicle and to the chivalric fictions of the Elizabethan court . . . to argue that the play points out the limitations of a national identity grounded in gendered oppositions.” Levine uses the Accession Day tilting ceremonies, in particular, to better understand Shakespeare’s representation of the nation-state in the play. Like these yearly rituals, which allowed the queen and nobility to come together to negotiate long-standing conflicts of power and privilege, 1H6 “rewrites medieval myths of chivalry for the Elizabethan present.” But instead of refurbishing the past in an attempt to accommodate chivalric fictions, the play presents a story of loss and division that underscores the very tensions the court sought to control. Levine notes how at the time Shakespeare was writing the H6 plays, decorous chivalry at the annual tilts was giving way to more militaristic, aggressive displays of masculine courtier power. “Qualifying the authority of both aristocratic males and the ruling female, [1H6] endorses no alternative to the double bind of contemporary gender politics. . . . In the absence of a positive, and clearly defined, model of authority, we must locate the play’s politics in its double critique of ruling women and self-interested aristocratic warriors.”
Marcus, Leah. “Elizabeth.” In Puzzling Shakespeare: Local Reading and Its Discontents, pp. 51–105. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
In this frequently cited “local” (i.e., topical) reading of Shakespeare through the “lens of sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century events, gossip, [and] personalities,” Marcus provides chapter-length studies of 1H6, Cym., and MM. The chapter on 1H6, titled “Elizabeth,” deals with the play under the subheadings “The Queen’s Two Bodies,” “Astraea’s Daughter,” “Ritual Burning,” and “Speculations and Ramifications: Relocating ‘monstrous regiment.’ ” Marcus contends that the play’s many parallels between the character Joan la Pucelle and the historical Queen Elizabeth I are presented so insistently as to argue a “deliberate strategy”; the result is a subversive meaning that counters the traditionally privileged patriarchal patriotism associated with Talbot. The most important parallel—the “composite identity” of a woman who “acts like a man” and who, consequently, “arouses male anxieties about female dominance”—is evidenced in Joan’s male attire and martial bearing and in Elizabeth’s use of armor and manly rhetoric in her famous Armada speech before the troops at Tilbury in 1588. Throughout her reign, the queen appropriated the term “prince” to construct a manly identity in her vocabulary and sanctioned portraits: like all kings she had two bodies, but in her case the public one was male, the private female. The airing and displacing of “suppressed cultural anxieties about the Virgin Queen” onto the character of the enemy Joan transforms a post-Armada play into a potentially subversive triumph of English warriors over the ultimate “unruly woman.” In 1H6, “[i]t is as though despising female dominance is a necessary part of being male, English, and ‘Protestant.’ ” But, as Marcus emphasizes, since the parallels are “half-formed . . . [and] equivocal,” Shakespeare’s intention is ultimately “unreadable because it can be read in too many different ways,” a point she illustrates by examining the idol/witch burning ordered by the queen herself while visiting the home of a Catholic aristocrat in Norwich—an event that resembles the ritual burning of Joan in 1H6. In light of such events, the “potential for subversion is at least partially defused.”
Pendleton, Thomas A., ed. Henry VI: Critical Essays. Shakespeare Criticism Series. New York: Routledge, 2001.
The volume’s fourteen original essays include two that focus solely on 1H6: James J. Paxson’s “Shakespeare’s Medieval Devils and Joan la Pucelle in 1 HVI: Semiotics, Iconography, and Feminist Criticism” (pp. 127–55), and J. J. M. Tobin’s “A Touch of Greene, Much Nashe, and All Shakespeare” (pp. 39–56). Several essays deal in part with the play: Harry Keyishian’s “The Progress of Revenge in the First Henriad” (pp. 67–77), Naomi C. Liebler and Lisa Scancella Shea’s “Shakespeare’s Queen Margaret: Unruly or Unruled?” (pp. 79–96), Nina da Vinci Nichols’s “The Paper Trail to the Throne” (pp. 97–112), Frances K. Barasch’s “Folk Magic in HVI, Parts 1 and 2: Two Scenes of Embedding” (pp. 113–25), Yoshio Arai’s essay on the H6 trilogy in Japan (pp. 57–66), and Irene Dash’s “Henry VI and the Art of Illustration” (pp. 253–71). The volume also contains several essays on performance: Thomas A. Pendleton’s “Talking with York: A Conversation with Steven Skybell” (Duke of York in Karin Coonrod’s production) (pp. 219–34), H. R. Coursen’s “Theme and Design in Recent Productions of Henry VI” (with the emphasis on Michael Kahn’s and Karin Coonrod’s revivals in 1996) (pp. 205–18), and Patricia Lennox’s “Henry VI: A Television History in Four Parts” (Peter Dews’s An Age of Kings in 1960, Peter Hall and John Barton’s Wars of the Roses in 1965, Jane Howell’s BBC revival in 1983, and Michael Bogdanov and Michael Pennington’s Wars of the Roses in 1988) (pp. 235–52). Pendleton’s introduction provides an overview of the scholarship, especially as it relates to issues of text, authorship, date, sequence, relationship of the plays as parts of a tetralogy, and critical assessment. Much attention is paid to the providentialist views of Tillyard (Shakespeare’s History Plays, 1944), who has served “both as stimulant and irritant” and thus “has had an enormous effect” on the criticism of the H6 trilogy. The past fifty years have seen scholarly interest move beyond questions of text and authorship; as a result, the three parts of H6 are now discussed and appreciated more than at any time since they were first performed.
Rackin, Phyllis. “Patriarchal History and Female Subversion.” In Stages of History: Shakespeare’s English Chronicles, pp. 146–200. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990. (The chapter incorporates portions of “Anti-Historians: Women’s Roles in Shakespeare’s Histories,” Theatre Journal 37 : 329–44.)
Rackin describes Renaissance historiography as a male enterprise, written by men to glorify masculine heroism; the goal was to preserve the names of past heroes and record their patriarchal genealogies. Within such a record, “women had no voice.” In Shakespeare’s histories, women “can threaten or validate the men’s historical projects, but they can never take the center of history’s stage or become the subjects of its stories.” However, Shakespeare does give them a voice to “challenge . . . the logocentric, masculine historical record.” Rackin begins her examination of women as “anti-historians” in the patriarchal world of the histories by looking closely at 1H6 (discussed on pp. 148–57, 197–200), where the “pattern of masculine history-writing and feminine subversion can be seen in its simplest terms.” By emphasizing the antagonism between Talbot, the English champion, and Joan, his French female adversary, Shakespeare defines the conflict between England and France in terms of masculine and feminine values: “chivalric virtue versus pragmatic craft, historical fame versus physical reality, patriarchal age versus subversive youth, high social rank versus low, self versus other.” The scenes involving Talbot and his son (4.5, 6, and 7) and Joan’s final exit (5.4), along with Lucy’s litany of Talbot’s many titles (4.7.61–73) and Joan’s debunking of them (4.7.74–78), illustrate Rackin’s (male) historian versus (female) anti-historian thesis. Two other women in the play—the Countess of Auvergne and Margaret of Anjou—also threaten the values of English patriarchal history. Like Joan, the Countess is a nominalist, who, in her desire to confront Talbot, values physical evidence over historical report. The link between Joan and Margaret has to do with sexual transgression: Joan’s promiscuity and Margaret’s future adultery, which is foreshadowed in Act 5. Although her adulterous relationship with Suffolk has no real impact on the action of the H6 plays, it does underscore the fact that legitimacy of the bloodline, so essential to patriarchal authority, depended on the woman’s word concerning paternity: an adulterous woman makes a mockery of patriarchal succession and thus threatens the masculine historical project. Shakespeare will develop this type of female subversion more fully in John. In 1H6, “the subversive female voice . . . prevail[s] for only a moment,” ultimately being contained by the values and impulses of patriarchal ideology.
Riggs, David. “The Hero in History: A Reading of Henry VI.” In Shakespeare’s Heroical Histories: Henry VI and Its Literary Tradition, pp. 93–139. London: Oxford University Press, 1971.
Riggs’s analysis of the three parts of H6 within the context of exemplary history and heroic drama (as defined by Marlowe’s Tamburlaine) leads him to conclude that the trilogy is crucial to Shakespeare’s developing conception of the history play as a dialectic between heroic ideals and ethical and political realities. In his anti-Tillyardian reading, the H6 plays become “an extended meditation on the decline of heroic idealism between the Hundred Years War and the Yorkist accession.” 1 Henry VI (discussed on pp. 100–113) recasts the latter part of that war as “an exercise in ‘parallel lives’ ”—specifically Talbot’s and Joan’s, the latter an “extended parody” of the chivalric ideal epitomized by Talbot. The chief contrast of legitimacy versus bastardy plays out in a rhetorical structure conducive to a comparison of the two characters in ethical terms. Both the elder and younger Talbot construe the doctrine of the family name as a timeless dynastic possession to be transmitted from father to son “so literally that valor becomes . . . a test of legitimacy” (see 4.6.50–51). If one of the privileges accompanying “gentle birth” (in both the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries) is the right to bear arms, then “the stain of illegitimacy is presumptive evidence of someone’s unworthiness” to do so. This ethical failing is underscored in Joan, whose “shameful” military tactics reveal “the baseness of her origins” and whose final scene before being led off to execution (5.4) “brings to light the fact that she lacks any family name to augment and transmit,” thus providing an “ironic counterstatement” to the deaths of the chivalric father and son. In the subplot dealing with domestic factions, “the epic warrior gives way to the fashionable courtier” illustrated by Somerset and York, examples of natural nobility “diverted to trivial ends.” “The crowning irony” of 1H6 is that Somerset’s and York’s trivial sense of honor (as evidenced by the hollow ring of their appeals to family heritage) is more disastrous to Talbot and his ideals than all of the base policy devised by the enemy abroad.
Saccio, Peter. “Henry VI: The Loss of Empire.” Chapter 5 in Shakespeare’s English Kings: History, Chronicle and Drama, pp. 91–113. 2nd ed. London: Oxford University Press, 2000.
The chapter on 1H6 is divided into three parts. The first provides a brief introduction to the trilogy as a whole; the second addresses the end of the Hundred Years War between England and France; and the third discusses Shakespeare’s “radical simplification of the narrative” found in Hall and Holinshed. 1H6, which covers the years 1422–44, deals with the loss of England’s French territory; its chief antagonists are the English hero Lord Talbot and the French heroine Joan la Pucelle. “Instead of merely selecting and shaping [the historical narrative, as he does in R2], Shakespeare chops the whole story into little pieces, eliminates a large number of them, and rebuilds the remainder into a structure bearing very little resemblance to the original historical sequence. . . . [T]he [resulting] dramatic narrative is analytic rather than historical.” The changes made in chronology and episodes, and the unhistorical causal linkage of disparate events, show “how France was lost . . . [through] English internal divisiveness and the extraordinary influence of scheming Frenchwomen.” Examples of Shakespeare’s dramatic license include the following: the telescoping of disasters reported in 1.1; the mingling of events in Act 5 with the capture and execution of Joan (which occurred a decade earlier); an emphasis on Talbot’s heroism at the expense of Salisbury’s and Bedford’s; the decision to make John Talbot younger than he actually was and the only child of his father; the depiction of English civil dissension as the cause of Talbot’s defeat and death; and the turning of Suffolk’s motivation for arranging the betrothal between Henry and Margaret into “a full-blown Shakespearean elaboration of a mere hint in Hall.” Despite the unwieldy material and the “negative or untraceable character” of Henry VI, the plays themselves, though lacking the poetic and psychological complexity of the later histories, are “sinewy and vigorous” and continue to prove compelling when staged.
Walsh, Brian. “ ‘Unkind division’: The Double Absence of Performing History in 1 Henry VI.” Shakespeare Quarterly 55 (2004): 119–47.
Walsh contends that 1H6 deserves attention as “a vehicle for exploring the provocative play of pastness on the late Elizabethan stage.” An early reflection on the history genre, Part 1 characterizes history and performance “as fraught, mutually destabilizing concepts,” similar in their shared “reliance on referring.” The referent in each case is “dubious and unstable,” since neither historiography nor performance can ever objectively render the past “as it really was.” This “joint destabilization” is most apparent in the rhetoric of succession as it engages biological, political, and cultural issues. Throughout 1H6, where the idea of loss is central, we find a breakdown in both lineal succession (as a way of structuring historical narrative) and performance (as a form of presenting the past) that frustrates notions of continuity between the present and the past. The play “proposes that to perform history in the Elizabethan popular theater is not to render the past more accessible but to stage a confrontation with the past’s elusiveness that is both troubling and teeming with possibility.” The essay pays special attention to Talbot, who is “particularly equivocal about issues of presence and public display”; to factionalism, which not only signals and causes England’s ruin but is also “a dramatic method of introducing contested histories”; and to the ending, with its “precarious” victory over the French.