Henry VI, Part 1 | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Henry VI, Part 1 | Act 5, Scene 3 | Summary

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Summary

Joan la Pucelle enters and declares that the Duke of York (alias Richard Plantagenet) has routed the last of the French resistance. She summons a group of spirits—the stage directions call them "fiends"—in a last-ditch effort to gain victory for France. The fiends, however, refuse to accept any more sacrifices—blood, body, or soul—and instead leave la Pucelle to be captured by York, who arrives moments later. York mocks Joan with the name of the Dauphin, her supposed lover, but Joan curses both York and the French prince. York leads her offstage as his prisoner.

Next, Suffolk comes onstage, escorting the young Margaret of Anjou. Although she, too, is a prisoner of the English, Suffolk is utterly captivated by her beauty and almost sets her free. He debates wooing her for himself, even though he is a married man, and at last resolves to court her as a prospective bride for King Henry. He realizes this is a "wooden" (i.e., stupid) idea but is evidently too lovesick to care.

Conveniently, this scene has been taking place just outside the castle of Reignier, who is Margaret's father. Suffolk dispatches a herald to summon Reignier, who appears on the balcony and agrees to parley (i.e., negotiate) with Suffolk. Reignier consents to his daughter's marriage to the king, but only if he is allowed to retain control of the French territories Maine and Anjou. Suffolk hastily agrees to this condition and leaves Margaret with Reignier.

Analysis

This scene neatly (perhaps a little too neatly) resolves the matter of Joan's mysterious victories. The language of Joan's incantations suggests she has been a witch all along; she not only knows how to summon demons but also is familiar with the price they demand for their services. By making Joan into an evil magician, Shakespeare goes a long way toward justifying the hatred and suspicion displayed by the English throughout the earlier acts. He also makes it clear that France has essentially been "cheating" in this war, relying on demonic help to fight off the English.

With Joan's capture, it momentarily seems that the troubles in France are over: a peace treaty is forthcoming (Act 5, Scene 1), France no longer has its sorceress, and the Parisian revolt has failed. The second half of this scene shows that all is not yet well: Suffolk has rather hastily contracted a marriage on behalf of King Henry, who (in Act 5, Scene 1) has already pledged to marry a different French noblewoman. Suffolk was not present in that scene, so he may not be aware of King Henry's engagement; even so he is not likely authorized to broker a marriage deal without consulting the king or the Lord Protector (Gloucester). He is acting on impulse here and hoping for the best.

Evidence of Suffolk's rashness comes when he agrees to Reignier's terms on the spot rather than attempting to negotiate—even though he has taken Reignier's daughter prisoner and is currently on the winning side of the war. Maine and Anjou are not especially large territories, but Suffolk cedes them without a moment's thought, granting France a continued territorial foothold outside of the broader peace agreement detailed in Act 5, Scene 4. This concession—later affirmed by King Henry—proved to be a highly contentious issue in the approaching Wars of the Roses. Commoners and noblemen alike were rankled by the idea that England, after a century of wars in France, would so easily give up its hard-fought territories.

Even though he is not acting in England's best interests, Suffolk is not yet the traitor he becomes in Part 2. His brief soliloquy at the end of the scene shows that he is still torn between loyalty to Henry and infatuation with Margaret: to think of Margaret as his paramour is to "wander in [a] labyrinth" where "Minotaurs and ugly treasons lurk." Nevertheless, there are some glimmers of rebellion in Suffolk's language and behavior. He may even be referring to King Henry (and not the marriage plan) as the "wooden thing." This insult, if indeed it is one, helps to prepare the audience for Suffolk's later, more openly treasonous, speeches in Act 5, Scene 5.

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