Henry VI, Part 1 | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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

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Summary

King Henry is crowned at Paris in the presence of a large retinue of English noblemen: Gloucester, Talbot, Exeter, York, Warwick, Suffolk, and Somerset are all in attendance. Winchester performs the actual coronation, and the Governor of Paris, also present, kneels to swears an oath of allegiance to Henry. As the governor rises to his feet, Sir John Fastolf arrives, bringing a letter from the Duke of Burgundy. Talbot denounces Fastolf as unworthy of knighthood after his cowardly performance at the Battle of Patay. Henry agrees and banishes Fastolf "on pain of death."

With Fastolf gone, Gloucester opens the letter and reads aloud of Burgundy's treachery. Henry orders Talbot to go forth immediately, raise an army, and punish Burgundy for his betrayal. He leaves at once to carry out the king's orders. At that moment Vernon and Basset (the Yorkist and Lancastrian who quarreled in Act 3, Scene 4) come into the king's presence and beg him to let them settle their disagreement by combat. As they rehearse the details of their dispute, York and Somerset begin to argue as well.

Henry tries to stop his noblemen from fighting, but York throws down his gage (a glove or gauntlet), ceremonially challenging Somerset to a duel. Gloucester and Henry intervene to break it up, and Henry gives a long speech imploring his noblemen to fight the French—not each other. During this oration Henry puts on a red rose, claiming that there is no reason such symbols should be a cause of strife in his kingdom. Finally he announces his intention to return to England via Callice (Calais), bringing the royal audience to an end. He and most of the others leave.

The Duke of Exeter remains onstage, as do York and his supporters Vernon and Warwick. York muses that Henry's choice of a red rose (the Lancastrian team symbol) could spell trouble down the road, but Warwick tells him not to read too much into it. Exeter, the last to leave the stage, prophesies that the king's youth and the noblemen's infighting will bring England to "ruin" and "confusion."

Analysis

This scene, like Act 3, Scene 1 before it, underscores King Henry's weakness as a leader compared to the strong-willed, battle-hardened noblemen who make up his court. In principle Henry is their ruler, but the dukes and earls in Part 1 are much older and more politically experienced than Henry; moreover, many of them are his uncles. For much of this play and well into Part 2, Henry is sheltered from the consequences of his nobles' quarreling by Gloucester, who does an excellent job of living up to his title of Lord Protector.

Henry is essentially right when he claims that infighting among the English nobility will lead to the loss of France, though it takes several more years for his prophecy to come true. He makes a few critical mistakes, however, in delivering his conciliatory speech. For one, he assumes his subjects "love [his] favor" enough (i.e., care enough about his opinion) to do as he says. This quickly proves not to be the case. The more insidious problem is Henry's wearing of the red rose: whether or not Henry means to take sides, this gesture marks him publicly as a part of Somerset's team.

Exeter, too, is right on the money when he predicts that the inexperienced King Henry will not be able to patch up the "unkind division" among his lords. In fact, this ongoing "White versus Red" animosity will only worsen over the course of Act 4, with York and Somerset peevishly refusing to cooperate on the battlefield. By the end of this act their feuding will have resulted in the loss of many soldiers and the death of the heroic warrior Talbot.

Readers of the Henry IV plays may wonder if the "Sir John Fastolf" presented here is the same as the "Sir John Falstaff" who plays such a large role in Shakespeare's other English histories. The short answer is "no." It is true that Shakespeare presents both men as disgraced knights who flee from battles at inopportune times. Fastolf, however, was a real knight, famous for his exploits in the Hundred Years' War; he did, in fact, retreat from the battle of Patay, but historians seldom see this as sufficient grounds to call him a coward. In any case, neither the real nor the fictional Fastolf has all that much in common with Falstaff, a comic buffoon who spends most of his time in taverns.

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