Henry VI, Part 1 | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Henry VI, Part 1 | Act 1, Scene 2 | Summary

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Summary

The scene shifts to a field in France, outside the city of Orléans (which Shakespeare generally spells "Orleance"). Charles the Dauphin marches onto the stage, along with the Duke of Alanson; Reignier, king of Naples; and a retinue of soldiers. The French leaders observe that the Englishmen besieging Orléans have grown weak due to lack of supply. They decide to raise the siege and rush offstage to confront the English, but "are beaten back ... with great loss." Returning to the stage, they catch their breath and grudgingly praise the English for their fighting prowess.

The Bastard of Orleance, another French commander, joins Charles and his generals. He announces that he has found a "holy maid" whose miraculous abilities will help to ensure a French victory. Doubting the Bastard's claims, Charles asks Reignier to pretend to be the Dauphin in order to test the girl's prophetic powers. Joan la Pucelle, the "maid" in question, is brought onstage and immediately sees through the trick. She asks to speak to Charles alone, and the other French lords leave the stage.

Joan tells Charles she has seen a vision of the Blessed Virgin, who has instructed her to "free [France] from calamity." She further claims that the Mother of God has blessed her with great beauty and skill in combat. He challenges her to a sword fight, and she overcomes him almost instantly. Charles, now smitten in multiple senses of the word, confesses his love for Joan, who replies that her sacred duty leaves her with no time for courtship.

Reignier and Alanson return to stage and exchange a few saucy jokes about Charles and his new friend. Joan tells the three lords she will raise the siege of Orléans that very night, ushering in a new era of easy French victories against the English. Charles, Alanson, and Reignier all agree to place their trust in Joan, then exit to prepare for the assault on Orléans.

Analysis

To a modern ear "Bastard of Orleance" does not sound like much of a title, since it emphasizes only that its bearer was born out of wedlock. The key here is the Bastard's parentage: his father was Louis I, Duke of Orléans, brother to King Charles VI and uncle to Charles VII (this play's Charles the Dauphin). When Louis died in 1407, the title passed to his eldest son, also named Charles; under ordinary circumstances the new Duke would have been among the most powerful men in France, rivaling even the Dauphin. Duke Charles, however, was captured by the English in 1415 and imprisoned overseas for a quarter-century. Thus, his half-brother Jean, the so-called Bastard of Orléans, became the house's de facto leader in the ongoing war against the English.

During the real Hundred Years' War, Charles the Dauphin often took a backseat to the Bastard of Orléans; Shakespeare reverses this situation and gives the Dauphin more stage time, along with much grander-sounding lines. The real star of the French team, however, is Joan la Pucelle. Venerated by Roman Catholics as Saint Joan of Arc, Joan is a French national heroine, though she occupies a more ambivalent place in English lore. The English, after all, were directly responsible for her painful and ignominious death (though the historical Joan was burned for heresy, not witchcraft).

Shakespeare, for his part, walks a fine line in his early depictions of Joan. On the one hand she is the public face of England's longtime political and military foe; as such she is reviled by almost every Englishman who meets her—or even hears of her—in Henry VI, Part 1. On the other hand Joan's behavior in the first half of the play does nothing to justify English accusations that she is a witch, a devil, or a harlot. She may seem overeager in her desire to thwart the English, but her speeches in this scene are no more shrill or excessive than those of her archenemy Talbot in Act 1, Scene 5. At this point in the play the jury is still out on Joan.

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