Henry VI 1: Act III
Writing about this act has been an almost painful task.
It would have been too too easy to continue with the ‘Carry On Up the Dolphin’ theme I’d adopted for Act II, but I didn’t feel up to it, aside from referencing the incorrigible overfamiliarity of Charles:
Ay marry, sweeting, if we could do that,
France were no place for Henry’s warriors. (III.iii.21-2)
despite the fact that she is discussing using her feminine wiles to (successfully) convert Burgundy. That must, somewhere, prick a little jealousy in Shakespeare’s Dolphin, who won’t be up to the job himself. But it’s certainly not that which has caused my pain. Talbot has already shown us how to deal with that sort of behaviour in Act II … and with my English hat on, Joan herself seems to ridicule the ease with which Burgundy is repatriated by a pretty face:
‘Done like a Frenchman: turn and turn again. (III.iii.85)
Which leads me to Talbot. Act III sees him introduced to the young King before Henry’s famous coronation in Paris. Despite being a bit overblown in style, I’ve come to admire and respect Talbot’s nobility, loyalty and – in this scene – sense of decorum. Decorum’s a word I find myself using more and more at school: that sense of etiquette and propriety which increasingly seems to be missing from our children. I wonder at the futures of pupils who don’t even have the sense to straighten up and look busy when a ‘boss’ comes around – let alone the ones who simply cannot understand why it’s really NOT OK to put your feet up on the tables in my classroom (let alone the fact that I am always, always going to challenge it, because it is never OK). You know who you are. Stop it!
Back to our hero. Talbot is practically the only person on the English side with any sense of decorum – he reminds me of the better qualities of Henry V (who, let’s not forget, was able to shrug off the bloody cheeky insult of those tennis balls and still appear statesmanlike). Look at the way in which Talbot (without the greasy obsequiousness of Richmond/Henry VII) credits God for his fortune and dedicates his victories to the young king. My marginalia says: ‘we need more Talbots and fewer of the other bastards’. I enjoy the fact that his respect for the king and peers, and his notion of duty to them is tempered by the reluctance to quit the front:
‘I have awhile given truce unto my wars’ (III.iv.3)
Where I read the break in the iambic pattern as being the inherent discomfort of ‘awhile’ and the promise – to his enemies, to us all, of returning to the action as soon as possible. Bravo! A Talbot! A Talbot!
We do need more Talbots, back at court – albeit that he would chafe at the bit there. But what have we got? I don’t particularly identify as English, but pressed to identify my pain at writing this section, it is my shock and, yes, shame at the behaviour of those surrounding the king. Remember that bit at the end of Lord of The Flies, where the naval officer expresses disappointment that British schoolchildren haven’t put up a better show? Having been teaching Edward II at school for a few weeks now, I had to set aside my ‘He bloody well needs to chop someone’s, anyone’s head off’ castigation of a weak king to take into account that Henry is so, so young and vulnerable. And this is where my pain arrived.
The act is bookmarked by the most unseemly behaviour – utterly lacking any sense of decorum. Imagine two divorcing parents, arguing nastily in front of their child and you have your finger on the ugliness I am emotionally responding to. Note Gloucester’s opening salvo, littered with alliterative, venomous plosives:
‘Presumptuous priest, the place commands my patience.’ (III.i.8)
and my emphasis on the location rather than the company which tempers his response. If not for his tender years, I would have laughed at Henry’s plaintive attempts to settle things – in fact, they’re so weak I actually typed Richard and had to go back and put the correct name in, so much does he remind me of Richard II:
‘Wrath kindled-gentlemen, be ruled by me’ (RII: I.i.152)
‘We were not born to sue but to command;
Which since we cannot do to make you friends’ (RII: I.i.196-197)
Compare this to Henry:
‘I would prevail – if prayers might prevail –
To join your hearts in love and amity.’ (III.i.67-68)
At some stage I’ll talk about the idea that kings speaking in the first person always betray weakness. But right now, just look at this passage:
KING: We charge you, on allegiance to ourself,
To hold your slaughtering hands and keep the peace. (III.i.86-87)
1 SERVINGMAN: Nay, if we be forbidden stones, we’ll fall to it with our teeth.
A servingman, defying a king (child or not) …
Cut to the other bookend. Vernon and Basset – like uncles fighting at a christening – call up the ghosts of Gregory and Samson in Romeo and Juliet – idiots who don’t need to know why they are arguing with the Montagues, simply that the feud exists:
GREGORY The quarrel is between our masters and us their men.
SAMSON ’Tis all one. (R&J: I.i.18-20)
’Tis all one indeed.
Put out the call – England needs more Talbots, and fewer of the other bastards …
All references to texts of plays are to Arden Third Editions.