Henry VI, Part 1 | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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

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Summary

The French have posted a guard on the walls of Orléans, but Talbot has a plan to circumvent their watch. Using a ladder, he scales the wall under cover of night, accompanied by Bedford and Burgundy. The gambit works: Alanson, Reignier, and the Bastard of Orleance are terrified by the surprise attack and flee from their quarters half-dressed. Charles and Joan la Pucelle soon join them.

Once it's clear everyone is all right, the French commanders fall to bickering among themselves. Charles blames Joan for not preventing the English attack; Joan blames the night watch, of which Alanson is the captain. Alanson responds that his quarters were secure, so it must have been someone else's fault—perhaps the Bastard's, or Reignier's. As the French continue to argue, an English soldier runs onstage, crying "À Talbot!" (i.e., "[rally] to Talbot!"). The French run away so quickly that they drop their clothes, which the soldier proceeds to take as spoils of war.

Analysis

The English, as this scene shows, do not have a monopoly on infighting. In times of victory, the French act like one big happy family, but when they meet with a setback, they are quick—like the English—to point fingers and deflect blame. Charles's harsh words to Joan are particularly striking: in Act 1, Scene 6 he was ready to proclaim a National Joan la Pucelle Day, complete with parades and processions. Now however, he calls her a "deceitful dame" and asks whether the French defeat was part of her plan all along. The Dauphin, if it isn't clear yet, is a volatile man who makes snap judgments only to reverse them soon thereafter. This is not a great trait to have as a military commander.

Coming soon after the rout of Act 1, this scene is also a patriotic reaffirmation of English courage against French cowardice. To an early English audience, the spectacle of the French lords running away in their nightgowns likely relieved the sting of Act 1, Scene 5, where English soldiers fled the city like a flock of panicked sheep. Shakespeare is willing, from time to time, to show the English acting disgracefully; in fact, to write a trilogy about the Wars of the Roses, he has to portray the English as ignoble on occasion. Scenes like this one help to soften the blow.

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