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Henry VI, Part 1 /

Reading Shakespeare’s Language: Henry VI, Part 1

For many people today, reading Shakespeare’s language can be a problem—but it is a problem that can be solved.1 Those who have studied Latin (or even French or German or Spanish) and those who are used to reading poetry will have little difficulty understanding the language of poetic drama. Others, however, need to develop the skills of untangling unusual sentence structures and of recognizing and understanding poetic compressions, omissions, and wordplay. And even those skilled in reading unusual sentence structures may have occasional trouble with Shakespeare’s words. More than four hundred years of “static”—caused by changes in language and in life—intervene between his speaking and our hearing. Most of his vocabulary is still in use, but a few of his words are no longer used, and many of his words now have meanings quite different from those they had in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In the theater, most of these difficulties are solved for us by actors who study the language and articulate it for us so that the essential meaning is heard—or, when combined with stage action, is at least felt. When we are reading on our own, we must do what each actor does: go over the lines (often with a dictionary close at hand) until the puzzles are solved and the lines yield up their poetry and the characters speak in words and phrases that are, suddenly, rewarding and wonderfully memorable.

Shakespeare’s Words

As you begin to read the opening scenes of a play from Shakespeare’s time, you may notice occasional unfamiliar words. Some are unfamiliar simply because we no longer use them. In the early scenes of Henry VI, Part 1, for example, one finds the words vaward (i.e., vanguard), otherwhiles (i.e., occasionally, sometimes), intermissive (i.e., intermittent), and agazed (i.e., terrified). Words of this kind will become familiar the more early plays you read.

In Henry VI, Part 1, as in all of Shakespeare’s writing, more problematic are the words that are still in use but that now have different meanings. In the opening scenes of Henry VI, Part 1, for example, the word brandish is used where we would say “scatter,” car where we would say “chariot,” jars where we would say “quarrels,” and porridge where we would say “soup.” Such words, too, will become familiar as you continue to read Shakespeare’s language.

Some words and phrases are strange not because of the “static” introduced by changes in language over the past centuries but because these are expressions that Shakespeare is using to build a dramatic world that has its own space, time, and history. In the opening scenes of Henry VI, Part 1, for example, the dramatist quickly establishes a sense of an English government suffering such a loss in the death of its king that the cosmos seems to have turned against it: Henry V’s “thread of life” has been cut because of “revolting stars” and “planets of mishap,” and England is under the threat of becoming “a nourish of salt tears.” Such language quickly constructs the overwhelming sense of disaster surrounding the death of Henry V and the succession of his young son, Henry VI; the words and the world they create will become increasingly familiar as you get further into the play.

Shakespeare’s Sentences

In an English sentence, meaning is quite dependent on the place given each word. “The dog bit the boy” and “The boy bit the dog” mean very different things, even though the individual words are the same. Because English places such importance on the positions of words in sentences, on the way words are arranged, unusual arrangements can puzzle a reader. Shakespeare frequently shifts his sentences away from “normal” English arrangements—often to create the rhythm he seeks, sometimes to use a line’s poetic rhythm to emphasize a particular word, sometimes to give a character his or her own speech patterns or to allow the character to speak in a special way. When we attend a good performance of the play, the actors will have worked out the sentence structures and will articulate the sentences so that the meaning is clear. When reading the play, we need to do as the actor does: that is, when puzzled by a character’s speech, check to see if words are being presented in an unusual sequence.

Often Shakespeare rearranges subjects and verbs (i.e., instead of “He goes” we find “Goes he”). In Henry VI, Part 1, when the Messenger announces “Cropped are the flower-de-luces,” he is using such a construction (1.1.82). So is the Third Messenger when he says “Enclosèd were they with their enemies” (1.1.138). The “normal” order would be “the flower-de-luces are cropped” and “they were enclosed.” Shakespeare also frequently places the object before the subject and verb (i.e., instead of “I hit him,” we might find “Him I hit”). Winchester provides an example of this inversion when he says “The battles of the Lord of Hosts he fought” (1.1.31) and Gloucester another example when he says “Virtue he had” (1.1.9). The “normal” order would be “he fought battles” and “he had virtue.” With remarkable frequency, this play rearranges normal word order so that object precedes verb, which precedes subject: “Sad tidings bring I to you” (1.1.59); “No leisure had he to enrank his men” (1.1.117); “Nor men nor money hath he to make war” (1.2.17). Such word order is far more common in Henry VI, Part 1 than in plays whose Shakespearean authorship is not disputed.

Inversions are not the only unusual sentence structures in Shakespeare’s language. Often in his sentences words that would normally appear together are separated from each other, usually to create a particular rhythm or to stress a particular word, or else to draw attention to a needed piece of information. Take, for example, the Third Messenger’s “His soldiers, spying his undaunted spirit, / ‘À Talbot! À Talbot!’ cried out amain” (1.1.129–30). Here the subject (“His soldiers”) is separated from its verb (“cried”) by a participial phrase modifying the subject (“spying his undaunted spirit”) and by the object of the verb yet to come (“ ‘À Talbot! À Talbot!’ ”). As the Messenger’s purpose is to describe the devotion inspired by Talbot in the soldiers, the words that separate subject from verb have an importance that allows them to take precedence over the verb. Or take the Third Messenger’s introduction of Talbot’s plight on the battlefield:

                       this dreadful lord,

  Retiring from the siege of Orleance,

  Having full scarce six thousand in his troop,

  By three and twenty thousand of the French

  Was round encompassèd and set upon.


Here the subject and verb (“this dreadful lord . . . Was round encompassèd and set upon”) are separated by the two participial phrases “Retiring from the siege of Orleance” and “Having full scarce six thousand in his troop,” as well as by the adverbial phrase “By three and twenty thousand of the French.” By juxtaposing the slender troop strength of the English against the large body of the French, these interruptions emphasize that Talbot’s plight arises entirely from his being greatly outnumbered. In order to create sentences that seem more like the English of everyday speech, one can rearrange the words, putting together the word clusters (“Retiring from the siege of Orleance, having full scarce six thousand in his troop, this dreadful lord was round encompassed and set upon by three and twenty thousand of the French”). The result will usually be an increase in clarity but a loss of rhythm or a shift in emphasis.

Often in Henry VI, Part 1, rather than separating basic sentence elements, Shakespeare simply holds them back, delaying them until other material to which he wants to give greater emphasis has been presented. He puts this kind of construction in the mouth of the Third Messenger, who again is describing Talbot: “Here, there, and everywhere, enraged, he slew” (1.1.126). The basic sentence elements (“he slew”) are delayed until the Messenger presents the nearly superhuman ubiquity of Talbot and the quality of his disposition (“enraged”) that energizes his destructiveness. When Talbot himself speaks in 2.1, he is made to utter a sentence that also illustrates an even more extensive delay:

  Lord Regent, and redoubted Burgundy,

  By whose approach the regions of Artois,

  Walloon, and Picardy are friends to us,

  This happy night the Frenchmen are secure[.]


Talbot’s is a speech of welcome. Therefore it is appropriate for him to accentuate the importance of the newly arrived Burgundy by loading him with his titles (“Lord Regent, and redoubted Burgundy”) and celebrating his influence over “the regions of Artois, Walloon, and Picardy” before identifying by subject, verb, and predicate adjective the strategic advantage yielded the English and their allies by the dangerously overconfident French: “the Frenchmen are secure [i.e., overconfident, careless].”

Finally, in Shakespeare’s plays, sentences are sometimes complicated not because of unusual structures or interruptions but because the dramatist omits words that English sentences normally require. (In conversation, we, too, often omit words. We say, “Heard from him yet?” and our hearer supplies the missing “Have you.”) Shakespeare captures the same conversational tone in the play’s early exchange between Exeter and the Messenger. When Exeter asks how eight French towns and cities were lost, “How were they lost? What treachery was used?” the Messenger answers “No treachery, but want of men and money” (1.1.70–71). Had the Messenger answered in a full sentence, he might have said “No treachery [was used], but [they were lost through] want [i.e., lack] of men and money.” Ellipsis, or the omission of words not strictly necessary to the sense, appears again in the speech of Alanson after the French have been defeated by a much smaller English army: “One to ten!” Expanded to a full sentence, Alanson’s exclamation might read “[It is incredible that] one [Englishman could best] ten [Frenchmen].” So expanded, however, the speech would lose much of its dramatic force.

Shakespeare’s Wordplay

Shakespeare plays with language so often and so variously that entire books are written on the topic. Here we will mention only three kinds of wordplay: similes, allusions, and puns. These figures of speech outnumber metaphors in the opening scenes of Henry VI, Part 1 to the same extent that metaphors often outnumber similes, allusions, and puns in plays of Shakespeare’s uncontested authorship. A simile is a play on words in which one object or idea is expressed as if it were something else, something with which it is said to share common features. This is also a definition of metaphor, but in a simile the comparison is made explicit through the use of “like” or “as.” For instance, when Charles the Dauphin says “the famished English, like pale ghosts, / Faintly besiege us one hour in a month” (1.2.7–8), he uses a simile that compares the starving English soldiers to “pale ghosts” in order to call attention to their pallid complexions and to the flimsiness of their bodies. Exeter uses a more complicated simile to comment on the funeral procession for Henry V:

  Upon a wooden coffin we attend,

  And Death’s dishonorable victory

  We with our stately presence glorify,

  Like captives bound to a triumphant car.


According to Exeter, the nobles accompanying their king’s coffin are “like captives” who, in a Roman triumphal procession, would be tied to the chariot (“car”) of the victorious warrior. For Exeter, the victor in this case is Death, and his chariot is the coffin.

An allusion presents itself when a text or a character in it refers to another text, thereby prompting readers or listeners to reflect on the multiple ways in which the two texts may parallel each other. Alanson, describing the English soldiers as “none but Samsons and Goliases” (1.2.33), refers to the text of the Bible, specifically the books known as Judges and 1 Samuel. In those texts Samson and Goliath are mighty warriors, and thus Alanson pays his adversaries a great compliment. Yet as we read and reflect on the texts of Judges and 1 Samuel, we may also realize that Shakespeare has also cleverly smuggled into this play a suggestion of the ultimate destruction of the English army in France, because Samson was brought down by Delilah and Goliath suffered death at the hands of the boy David.

Sometimes allusions come thick and fast in this play. Charles the Dauphin is given four different allusions in just four lines, all of them characterizing Joan la Pucelle, the newly arrived woman warrior whom he has come immediately to admire:

  Was Mahomet inspirèd with a dove?

  Thou with an eagle art inspirèd then.

  Helen, the mother of great Constantine,

  Nor yet Saint Philip’s daughters were like thee.


First Charles alludes to a then-popular slanderous story of the Prophet Muhammad in which he was accused of training a dove to eat grain from his ear and of then claiming that the dove was the Holy Spirit come to inspire him. Next, Charles contrasts this dove to the eagle, a bird that is featured in the texts of Roman history because it was the standard held in highest honor by the Roman legions. This martial bird functions in Charles’s speech as a figure of Pucelle, who, Charles hopes, will conquer as the Romans did. Then Charles goes further in idealizing Pucelle by alluding to St. Helena and thereby to the legend in which she finds in Jerusalem the cross on which Jesus was crucified. According to Charles, Pucelle is greater than St. Helena and also greater than St. Philip’s daughters, who are characters, like Samson and Goliath, from the text of the Bible—this time from the Acts of the Apostles, where they are said to be virgins and prophets. Pucelle has also claimed to be a virgin and has prophesied French victory. As we reflect on these multiple allusions, we may wonder if the play will ultimately vilify Pucelle the way that Christian Europe did Muhammad or celebrate her the way Europe did its saints.

A pun is a play on words that sound at least somewhat the same but that have different meanings (or on a single word that has more than one meaning). The first kind of pun is prominent in Henry VI, Part 1. It occurs when Winchester insults his rival Gloucester: “thou most usurping proditor— / And not Protector” (1.3.31–32). “Proditor” and “Protector” sound very much alike, but the first means “traitor” and the second “regent,” the official who governs a kingdom while the monarch is a minor. Though the terms have almost opposite meanings, they sound enough alike that Winchester can use wordplay to accuse the Protector Gloucester of treason. Another pun—on the name of Joan la Pucelle—occupies a large place in Henry VI, Part 1. In French pucelle means “virgin,” but pucelle also sounds like the English word puzel, which means “whore.” The opposition between the meanings of these two similar-sounding words captures the antithetical ways in which the French and English respond to Pucelle.

Implied Stage Action

Finally, in reading Shakespeare’s plays we should always remember that what we are reading is a performance script. The dialogue is written to be spoken by actors who, at the same time, are moving, gesturing, picking up objects, weeping, shaking their fists. Some stage action is described in what are called “stage directions”; some is signaled within the dialogue itself. We must learn to be alert to such signals as we stage the play in our imaginations.

Often the dialogue offers an immediately clear indication of the action that is to accompany it. For example, at 3.1.133, when Gloucester says “Here, Winchester, I offer thee my hand,” the next character to speak is not Winchester but King Henry, who says to Winchester, “Fie, Uncle Beaufort!” (134). The king’s rebuke of Winchester signals that Gloucester’s offer to shake hands has been rebuffed. Thus we feel confident adding the stage direction “Winchester refuses Gloucester’s hand,” putting it in half–square brackets to signal that it is our interpolation, rather than words appearing in the earliest printed text. Again when Warwick addresses King Henry with the words “Accept this scroll,” the dialogue, we judge, allows us to add to the early printed text “presenting a scroll” (3.1.158). Occasionally, in Henry VI, Part 1, signals to the reader are not in the least clear. There is a disturbing lack of clarity very early in the play. The opening stage direction calls for the coffin of Henry V to be brought on accompanied by a large retinue. When the second scene opens, the coffin and its retinue are no longer onstage. Yet as the first scene proceeds, it is very difficult to determine when the coffin leaves the stage. At 1.1.45, Bedford, the late king’s brother, orders “Let’s to the altar.—Heralds, wait on us.” This line appears to call for the procession, in which the nobles will be accompanied by heralds, to proceed toward an altar that may be onstage or off. Perhaps the procession begins to move again and, as some editors think, the coffin now leaves the stage. But, as the ensuing dialogue indicates, Bedford and the nobles who would form the funeral procession must remain onstage, for Bedford’s speech ordering the procession to move onward is interrupted by the entrance of the first of a series of three messengers. And Bedford’s later question, “What say’st thou, man, before dead Henry’s corse?” (1.1.63), suggests that the coffin, too, may remain onstage. Between Bedford’s line “Let’s to the altar” (line 45) and the end of the scene, there is no place in the dialogue for the coffin to be removed. Our choice, then, is to have the coffin borne off only when the scene ends, although we have much less confidence in adding a stage direction to that effect than we do in many other cases where we have put in directions. Because our added direction is in half–square brackets, readers know this is our suggestion and can do with it as they will.

Practice in reading the language of stage action repays one many times over when one reaches scenes heavily dependent on stage business—for example, 3.2. This scene opens with Pucelle disguised as a peasant carrying grain; the scene moves on to her appearance on an upper level, thrusting out a lantern. On the main stage there are skirmishes and attacks, followed by the entrance of the English army with the dying Bedford carried on in a sick-chair. Pucelle throws grain down on the English nobles; they “whisper together in council,” in what Pucelle calls a “Parliament” (SD 59, 60); the English and the French exit to fight, leaving Bedford and his attendants to observe Fastolf’s exhibition of cowardice. When the English then chase the French across the stage, Bedford dies and is carried offstage by his attendants. The scene ends with the entrance and exultation of the English. In a scene like this, the reader’s understanding of what is happening in the story is as dependent on an imaginative re-creation of stage action as it is on the scene’s dialogue.

It is immensely rewarding to work carefully with Shakespeare’s language—with the words, the sentences, the wordplay, and the implied stage action—as readers for the past four centuries have discovered. It may be more pleasurable to attend a good performance of a play—though not everyone has thought so. But the joy of being able to stage a Shakespeare play in one’s imagination, to return to passages that continue to yield further meanings (or further questions) the more one reads them—these are pleasures that, for many, rival (or at least augment) those of the performed text, and certainly make it worth considerable effort to “break the code” of Elizabethan poetic drama and let free the remarkable language that makes up a Shakespeare text.

  1.  For our use of the name Shakespeare in this essay, see our appendix “Authorship of Henry VI, Part 1.”