Henry VI, Part 1 | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Henry VI, Part 1 | Act 3, Scene 4 | Summary

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Summary

King Henry has arrived in France and is now holding court at Paris, with most of his high-ranking noblemen—Gloucester, Winchester, Exeter, York, Warwick, Somerset, and Suffolk—in attendance. Talbot arrives and informs Henry that he has conquered "fifty fortresses,/Twelve cities, and seven walled towns of strength" in the king's name; Henry, as thanks, gives Talbot the newly created title of Earl of Shrewsbury.

The king and his nobles exit the stage, leaving Vernon (the Yorkist from Act 2, Scene 4) and Basset. Vernon, because he supports the Duke of York, is wearing white roses; Basset, who favors the Duke of Somerset, wears red roses. Because of their partisan differences, the two men have evidently been arguing throughout the sea voyage from England to France.

Looking for a fight, Vernon now dares Basset to "maintain" his earlier words. Basset defiantly responds that Somerset is "as good a man as York," and Vernon strikes him in anger. In response Basset says he would cut Vernon down on the spot if it weren't a capital offense to draw one's sword on a fellow Englishman. The two decide to petition the king for permission to fight a duel.

Analysis

Henry VI, Part 1 dramatizes an overlapping network of political and military conflicts: Gloucester versus Winchester, Yorkists (White Team) versus Lancastrians (Red Team) ... and, of course, England versus France. This is a lot for an audience (or a reader) to keep track of, and Shakespeare seems to know it. Here, he uses the characters of Vernon and Basset to "pivot back" from the English/French warfare that has dominated the previous two scenes, and to remind audiences of the trouble on the home front. After the uncomplicated English victory in Act 3, Scene 2, it's easy to forget that England's nobility is being torn apart from within. This scene and the next one (Act 4, Scene 1) will bring that problem back into focus.

The earlier exchange between King Henry and Talbot sheds light on the personalities and motivations of both characters. After his rather disastrous attempt at governing in Act 3, Scene 1, Henry now gets a chance to look (and sound) truly regal: he accepts homage from one of his loyal subjects and repays him with an earldom. The speech in which Henry "reguerdon[s]" Talbot is rich, stately, and wholly appropriate to such a formal occasion. Henry even works in a short anecdote about his father, the illustrious Henry V, thereby positioning himself as the rightful successor to that famous and warlike king.

Talbot, for his part, is a career soldier who places a high value on honor but has little interest in titles or other trappings of nobility. He "ascribes the glory of his conquest" to Henry because he understands this act of submissiveness will do nothing to diminish his own honor as a warrior. Contrariwise, an earldom cannot really add to Talbot's achievements, which begin and end on the battlefield. Other characters seem to recognize this as well: unlike most other Shakespearean characters who are "promoted" to noble rank, Talbot continues to be known by his given name throughout the play.

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