O, that it could be proved
That some night-tripping fair had exchanged
In cradle-clothes our children where they lay,
(KING HENRY IV: Henry IV 1, I.i.85-87)
Henry VI 1: Act IV
Talk about someone having ‘greatness thrust upon them’!
O, Henry, Henry, Henry …
If we needed proof that Henry’s unreadiness for kingship is going to cause huge collateral damage, it’s all here in Act IV. Most of us of a certain age will know the scenario well – working for an over-promoted (but often very well qualified!) boss who simply hasn’t got a clue: whose interventions, in fact, cause more harm than good, whilst they exit stage left congratulating themselves on a Job Well Done …
Henry IS that boss. The most charitable thing I can say is that he’s articulate in reckoning what the French will make of all this unseemly behaviour, but he’s too young to know the havoc he’s causing.
Too young to realise that when you are trying to neutralise a spat between warring sides, you don’t arbitrarily pick one side, one rose, assuming that’s the end of that and we’re all friends again. Hardly the wisdom of Solomon. As Exeter wisely says:
’Tis much when sceptres are in children’s hands’ (EXETER: IV.i.192)
And yet, I don’t think ALL children would have acted this way. Not a Talbot, for instance. Not John Talbot, who Arden glosses as being 14 at this stage – not much that older than Henry. I said in Act III that we needed more Talbots – we actually could have done with one on the throne.
But what we get is less Talbots. In fact, NO Talbots at all by the end of this act …
A bit like Harry Hotspur, Shakespeare has created a Talbot who is simply too powerful, too good, to live. He skilfully uses his sources like a historical smörgåsbord, taking episodes which weren’t actually connected and fusing them into something as full of pathos as pretty much anything in his works: Talbot’s death, and that of his son John, in his arms (prefiguring Lear?)
Another naive, but probably well meaning, decision by Henry divides his troops amongst opposing factions and enables this disgraceful episode. Second-guessing the motivations of Shakespeare’s nobles, it’s politically expedient for each of them to get rid of the burgeoning hero – and to blame it on the other. Hence they refuse to assist whilst remonstrating with the despairing Lucy that the fault lies with the other.
These are some of the most affecting scenes in Shakespeare for me: from Talbot’s realisation that he’s doomed without help to his death. They have been cinematically flashing through my mind for about a week now, as I play and replay them in various ways in my mind, editing to chop from Lucy to the battle and back. As Lucy bitterly sums up:
The fraud of England, not the force of France,
Hath now entrapped the noble-minded Talbot. (LUCY: IV.iii.89-90)
Finally, let’s return to John Talbot, his father’s ‘Icarus’, who I suggested earlier might have been favourably swapped with Henry. Clearly a noble lad and a chip off the old block, despite them not having seen each other for several years. Reading the conversations between the Talbots has been an interesting experience – the poetry elevates their dedication to each other and offers of self-sacrifice. I hesitate to bandy about the term ‘tragic’ in the context of writing about Shakespeare, but this IS a tragedy, in the more modern sense. We might say, pragmatically, that John Talbot was ultimately no more effective than Henry, but I reject that nihilistic view and continue to wonder: ‘What IF they had swapped places?’
Touching as the final sections are, it is harder to read couplets and retain their meaning than it is to hear them. My inner voice strayed too often into the sing-song, and I ended up reading passages aloud, to the punctuation, to get through the rhyme and into the words and emotions.
Two Talbots, winged, through the lither sky
In thy despite shall scape mortality. (TALBOT: IV.iv.21-22)
Good job I live alone, striding round my flat in full declamatory mode, alternating between the voices of doomed father and son, whose ghosts continue to haunt me … the Talbots HAVE escaped mortality on the wings of Daedalus and Icarus.
All line references are to Arden third editions.