Henry VI 1: Act V
[subtitled: “It’s always the quiet ones you need to watch out for.”]
As I finished the play, it occurred to me that women play a much larger role than I might have guessed back in the heady days of January, when I started seriously thinking about this project. Perhaps I might refine that to say that French women.
What was/is it about the allure of French women to English men?
We’ve seen two French women so far. Joan ‘has overthrown more than just the Dauphin’, to paraphrase Rosalind in As You Like It (I.ii.243-4) – her innuendo-laden speech and the assumptions of the French nobles help to titillate us, poor sex-starved English that we are. We tend here, to classify our woman as either untouchable chaste goddesses or harlots. Think Dracula, or for the Tennyson fans amongst you, Maud. Joan is a fatal combination of both – maybe that oddly-sexy Mina Harker towards the end of the novel: turning into a vampire and smouldering at Van Helsing.
Then we have the temptress embodied in the Countess of Auvergne. Of the Englishmen in the play, only Talbot could have resisted her snares, I think. He operates, demonstrably in the play, on a higher plane. For the most part, every French woman is, to us, a Brigitte Bardot, a Marion Cotillard, a Fanny Valette … utterly devastating.
Of course, it’s not simply about lust – or indeed love. I speak to my classes about differences between kinship and companionate marriages, and what better way to cement an alliance (and hopefully enforce some peace) between warring neighbours? But it’s always more than that, isn’t it? Just look at Henry V’s utterly embarrassing courtship of Katherine. It’s not just inept, or borderline bullying – it’s utterly needless, because she has as much choice in the matter as a pig can tell us whether it would prefer to be bacon, sausages or pork chops.
And whilst not being an advocate of kinship marriage at all, I can see the wisdom of it for Henry, in that time, in that place. Gloucester is indeed fulfilling his role as Protector in championing one:
The Earl of Armagnac – near knit to Charles,
A man of great authority in France –
Proffers his only daughter to your grace
In marriage, with a large and sumptuous dowry. (V.i.17-20)
And let’s not forget that dowry, which appears to break the rhythm of the iambic pentameter. The marriage is contracted – I use that word deliberately, given later events – with the gift of a ring by Henry.
So, back to Joan. Possibly the worst part of the play for me, Act V, in terms of her story (ahem) arc. It’s all so unsatisfactory, the rejection by the entities that have been supporting her hitherto. To say nothing of her death – this is NOT the character Shakespeare has created until now. Of course, ‘we each owe a death’, to quote Stephen King, and who can say how we will face it? But Joan, this Joan, is not Act 1 Joan. She exits with a whimper, not a bang. Instead of lambasting her enemies with smoke pouring from her lungs, she confirms our worst suspicions by claiming to be pregnant and reeling off a list of lovers’ names in a cowardly attempt to have her sentence commuted. York summarises the way she’s lost any allure for the nobles, or indeed the audience:
Why, here’s a girl! I think she knows not well –
There were so many – whom she may accuse. (V.iii.80-81)
Strumpet, thy words condemn thy brat and thee. (V.iii.84)
Which leaves us with the quiet one I alluded to at the beginning, Margaret. Just follow these simple instructions:
- notch the thermostat up to about 28 Celsius
- dim the lights
- put on a bit of Barry White
- enter the Duke of Suffolk
She’s beautiful, and therefore to be wooed:
She is a woman, therefore to be won. (V.ii.102-103)
Game over …
Side note: I hoped to find links between this play and later ones – how about Richard’s jubilation at his encounter with Anne?
Was ever woman in this humour wooed?
Was ever woman in this humour won? (Richard III I.ii.230-231)
Suffolk sort of, half, remembers he is married. He tries to persuade himself that Margaret, less-well connected and most importantly, impoverished, will make a suitable match for Henry, but let’s face it, it’s all a ruse:
‘so my fancy may be satisfied’ (V.ii.112)
Margaret seems firmly in control from the start, mocking his muttered asides and, I think, raising the stakes to drive a hard bargain, well aware of his ‘enthralment’ (although she is the one that uses the word to describe her captivity):
‘To be a queen in bondage is more vile,
Than is a slave in base servility;
For princes should be free’ (V.ii.112-113)
An ominous sign of things to come, I think …
Back in England, Henry ditches his contracted bride almost as quickly and completely as Suffolk (at least mentally) did his wife, despite Gloucester’s dismay. Like earlier picking one rose, assuming his choice was unimportant, he doesn’t really distinguish – if he is to marry, then one woman is probably about equal to the other.
We leave with more prophetic visions of events in the next three plays. Gloucester nails it:
‘Ay, grief, I fear me, both at first and last.’ (V.iv.101)
Suffolk is accurate enough:
‘Margaret shall now be queen, and rule the King’ (V.iv.107)
but he’s just too smitten by his French Fancy to realise the trouble he’s about to cause …
All quotations and line references are taken from the respective Arden Third Editions