Henry VI, Part 1 | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Henry VI, Part 1 | Act 1, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

The play begins at Westminster Abbey, where the funeral of the late Henry V is being held. The dukes of Bedford, Gloucester, and Exeter lead a solemn procession (a "dead march") onto the stage, accompanied by the Bishop of Winchester. All four men are close relatives of the late king; they are also uncles or great-uncles to his son, the yet uncrowned Henry VI. The Earl of Warwick and the Duke of Somerset are also in attendance but do not have speaking roles.

Bedford, the first to speak, eulogizes Henry V as the best king England has ever had. The other lords concur in their own short speeches. Winchester, in his brief eulogy, claims the Church deserves credit for Henry V's successes. This provokes Gloucester, who counters that Henry was not popular with churchmen, who prefer "an effeminate prince/Whom like a schoolboy you may overawe." The argument between Winchester and Gloucester devolves into personal bickering, which is finally interrupted by Bedford.

As Bedford continues his funereal speech, a messenger arrives, announcing that the war in France has taken a drastic turn for the worse: eight cities have been lost, including the key strategic holdings of Paris and Roan (Rouen). Asked how this could happen, the messenger lays the blame on "want of men and money," along with constant quarreling among the noblemen. Bedford decides to leave for France immediately to try to turn things around.

Just then a second messenger appears and declares that "France is revolted from the English quite": several of its leading noblemen have rejoined the Dauphin (France's hereditary crown prince) and are now fighting the English on his behalf. As the lords are pondering this development, a third messenger comes in to inform them that Lord Talbot, a renowned English commander, has been captured. This mishap, he says, is the fault of Sir John Fastolf, a knight who "played the coward" by fleeing from the battle prematurely.

Struck by this succession of disastrous news, the lords leave off their mourning for Henry V and spring back into action. Bedford exits to prepare for his voyage to France. Gloucester decides to survey the "artillery and munition" at the Tower of London; then, as Lord Protector, it will be his duty to proclaim Henry VI the new king of England. Exeter leaves for Eltham to protect the young king. The Bishop of Winchester, last to speak, confesses in an aside that he plans to "steal" the king from Eltham, thereby gaining indirect control of the throne.

Analysis

For the three dukes presiding over this funeral scene, there is no mistaking what makes a good king: strong leadership in wartime and a good track record of military victories. Everything they say about Henry V circles back to the matter of his almost legendary success in battle: his mighty arm, his terrifying gaze, his bright sword. (Shakespeare's own later play, Henry V, exploits this legend to extraordinary effect.) Gloucester transforms the late Henry into a veritable god of war, and Exeter exhorts his fellow noblemen to mourn "in blood"; that is, by going to fight Henry's longtime enemies, the French. Even the Bishop of Winchester adorns his speech with warlike images from the Bible. Having lost such a leader, the English noblemen are understandably panicked about England's prospects in the ongoing Hundred Years' War. The Messenger's announcement—that Roan (Rouen) and Paris have been lost—only aggravates the anxieties to which they have already given voice.

In this scene it may initially seem that the bad news about the war is causing the English noblemen to turn on each other. Actually the messengers have it right: infighting among the English is causing them to lose ground in France since they cannot decide on a proper strategy and keep undercutting one another's plans. The first glimpse of such internal conflict, though hardly the last, is given in this scene, when Gloucester and Winchester start hurling insults at each other on the slightest pretext. As Winchester reveals in his aside at the scene's end, it is Gloucester who holds the moral high ground here. In defending it, however, Gloucester will spill a great deal of English blood—including, eventually, his own.

In his 1998 book Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human, critic Harold Bloom notes that the vastly popular Tamberlaine by Marlowe may have been lifted and paraphrased wholesale by a novice Shakespeare for this opening scene.

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