By Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine
Editors of the Folger Shakespeare Library Editions
Henry VI, Part 1 is an uncompromising celebration of early English nationalism and imperialism. It defines the English against the French, whom it degrades as scheming, effeminate, and willing to consort with the devil. The play idealizes the English king Henry V for his successful conquest of much of France during the Hundred Years War. But Henry V has died just as the play begins, and leadership of the English cause in France has passed to Talbot, an indomitable, fierce, almost perpetually enraged, and therefore altogether masculine warrior hero. Yet Talbot is not as fortunate as Henry V. While all of France, we are told, shakes in terror at the name of Talbot, the French still refuse to yield.
Opposed to the idealized Talbot are a number of other characters who fail to match him. One is the official leader of the French, Charles the Dauphin, whose status as a military hero suffers a blow very early in the play when he must yield in single combat to Joan la Pucelle, or Joan of Arc. She then becomes the captain of the French, showing admirable cunning and resourcefulness in devising strategy and remarkable boldness in carrying it out. She fulfills for the French her claims to have been chosen by the Virgin Mary as the chaste instrument of France’s liberation from the hated English invaders. However, for the English, her shrewdness and power issue from the practice of filthy witchcraft, and her pretensions to chastity mask a characteristically French sensuality.
Also opposed to Talbot are many of the English, especially those who remain for the most part in England. They include Gloucester and Winchester, two bitter rivals more intent on defeating each other than the French. Gloucester, the Protector of the boy king Henry VI and therefore ruler of England, and Winchester, a bishop and cardinal, urge their servants on to brawl openly in the streets of London. Before their quarrel can be silenced, another breaks out between the Duke of Somerset and Richard Plantagenet, soon to be powerful as Duke of York. Once in France, they and their followers seek royal permission to fight each other, rather than the French. The play demonstrates, especially from this point on, that the French owe their victory to the English defeat of themselves. Talbot and his son, despite their glorious self-sacrifice in the English military cause (presented to inspire imitation among all Englishmen), cannot prevail against the French, because the rest of the English nobility are intent on preying on each other in the service of their own ambitions.