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Henry VI, Part 1 | Themes

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The Boy King

The first two acts of Henry VI, Part 1 depict an England in general decline. The old king, a fabulously successful military leader, has died, to the great sorrow of his people. France, subdued but not conquered in Henry V's time, is now in a state of general revolt, with new cities being lost seemingly every day. To make matters worse, the noblemen who should be holding the country together are instead gradually pulling it apart, allowing personal grudges to deepen into political rifts. As the successor to Henry V, Henry VI has some big shoes to fill, a fact of which he is doubtless aware. If he is to stand a chance of solving England's problems at home and abroad, the young King Henry will need to grow up in a hurry.

Instead Henry VI vacillates—almost on a scene-by-scene basis—between acting like a king and acting like a child. In Act 3, Scene 1—his first appearance on stage—Henry asks his subjects to stop fighting and is ignored outright. This is a shockingly contemptuous way to treat a king; nobody would have dared to scorn Henry V in this way. But Henry VI, mild mannered and innocent as he is, either does not realize the insult or lets it slide. Act 3, Scene 4, in contrast, shows Henry fulfilling the ceremonial role of a king, where he has considerably more success. He makes an impressive and encouraging address to his courtiers at Paris, then gives Talbot the medieval equivalent of a battlefield promotion.

The image of Henry VI as a competent, grown-up ruler does not last long. In Act 4, Scene 1 Henry has once more lost control of his courtiers and needs the help of Gloucester and Exeter to rein them back in. In the course of trying to make peace between York and Somerset, he alienates one faction (the Yorkists) by donning the symbol of the other. It's possible to read this move as a deliberate provocation, but given the way Henry's character is presented in previous scenes a more likely explanation is mere thoughtlessness. Henry may be able to give a rousing speech on a scripted occasion, but his diplomatic skills are not yet ready for action.

Henry's behavior in the final act is even more childlike. He allows Gloucester (fortunately one of the good guys) to dictate England's diplomatic policy in Act 5, Scene 1. Then, when presented with the prospect of marriage, Henry responds with a blushing demurral, saying that he is too young to even think about "wanton dalliance with a paramour." This would make sense if Henry were a normal teenager, making his first forays into dating while still trying to do a good job on his schoolwork. As king of England, however, Henry is expected to put the good of the realm before his personal feelings, including bashfulness.

Henry, unsurprisingly, chafes against this constraint: if he cannot choose when to get married, he at least wants to choose who his bride will be. This creates an opening for Suffolk to swoop in and suggest Margaret of Anjou, captivating the young king with tales of the French maiden's beauty. In choosing Margaret, Henry likely believes he is following his heart: when Gloucester disapproves of the match in Act 5, Scene 5 Henry asks his uncle to "censure me by what you were/Not what you are." ("Don't judge me too harshly; you were young once too.") In actuality he is playing right into the hands of Suffolk, a political schemer who wants to seize control of the throne.

Ultimately Exeter is proven right in his assertion that "'tis much when scepters are in children's hands" (Act 4, Scene 1). In fact the scepter of kingship will eventually prove too much for Henry, who is deposed and murdered in later parts of the trilogy. At the close of Part 1 his realm is already in a shaky situation: the Treaty of Tours temporarily stops the bleeding in France, but the York/Somerset and Gloucester/Winchester disputes continue to escalate. In Part 2 matters only get worse as Henry continues to let his nobles rule the country in his stead; in Part 3 he is finally and decisively outmaneuvered by his foes. Henry's political immaturity—his inability or refusal to defend himself from enemies at court—is one of the "through lines" connecting the entire Henry VI trilogy.

Church versus State

The Church is an ambivalent force in Henry VI, Part 1, visible mainly in the conflict between the Duke of Gloucester and the Bishop of Winchester. One of Gloucester's salient traits is his disregard for the Church hierarchy, which he repeatedly scorns in his interactions with Winchester. In one exemplary scene (Act 1, Scene 3) he unleashes a contemptuous broadside against not only Winchester but also the entire Catholic Church:

Thou that contrived'st to murder our dead lord,
Thou that giv'st whores indulgences to sin!
I'll canvass thee in thy broad cardinal's hat
If thou proceed in this thy insolence.

Here as elsewhere, he levels an insult at Winchester's priestly regalia (the "broad cardinal's hat"); making fun of Winchester's hat and robes is a frequent Gloucester tactic. He also reiterates a claim, introduced in Act 1, Scene 1, that the prelates of the Church were praying for the death of Henry V ("our dead lord") so that he would be replaced by a more malleable young prince. The most specifically anti-Catholic element of his speech, however, is the claim that Winchester and his ilk are "giv[ing] whores indulgences to sin." This is a reference to the late medieval practice of selling indulgences, remissions of a soul's punishment in Purgatory in order to raise funds for Church projects (or in some cases for the personal enrichment of the seller). Indulgences were popularly construed as a sort of spiritual "get out of jail free" card that would shorten or lighten one's sentence in Purgatory. Theologically speaking, however, Gloucester's description of the indulgence system is not quite correct: indulgences are not a "license to sin" but apply only to past sins that have already been confessed and forgiven. Even so the abuse of indulgences was one of the main issues leading to the Protestant Reformation.

To be clear, Gloucester is not a Protestant, for the simple reason that none existed in his time. (The Reformation would not begin in earnest until 70 years after his death.) To Shakespeare's audience, however, there was obvious political value in seeing heroic figures as precursors of Protestantism and in making representatives of the Roman Catholic Church seem like villains. Gloucester, in his contempt for both the ceremonial trappings and the practices of Catholicism, might be described as a "proto-Protestant."

Winchester, in contrast, has an obvious vested interest in the Church holding power over England. He is not, however, the sort of spokesperson one would want for one's religion. In Henry VI, Part 1 Winchester is second only to Suffolk in his attempts to undermine Henry's rule; in Part 2 he will show that he is willing to have his enemies killed in order to consolidate his power. Apart from Winchester, the only English character who champions the Church is Henry VI, who is admired for his piety but rightly judged by his uncles to be naive and idealistic. When Gloucester claims (in Act 1, Scene 1) that Winchester wants a "prince/Whom like a schoolboy [he] may overawe," he is describing a character very similar to his nephew King Henry.

Simony, the buying and selling of church offices, is another contemporary ecclesiastical issue mentioned in Henry VI, Part 1. Winchester quietly admits to this crime in Act 5, Scene 1, thereby weakening not only his own moral credibility but also that of the pope and the entire Church by extension. Elizabethan Englishmen were concerned with simony both as a force corrupting the nascent Church of England and as a "foreign" and specifically Roman Catholic problem. The outcry against simony at home took the form of sermons, pamphlets, and treatises. Comic plays, too, occasionally mounted a criticism of the practice: George Peele, in his Old Wives' Tale (early 1590s), personified the vice as "Simon," a churchwarden who refuses to bury the parish dead unless a hefty fine is paid. Some authors, in contrast, persisted in seeing simony as a Catholic practice that threatened to "invade" and corrupt Anglicanism: playwright Robert Wilson included his own personified Simony in Three Ladies of London (1580s), but this one was of Roman birth and counted monks and friars among his friends. Other Catholic practices, such as religious celibacy, are made ridiculous through their mere association with the French characters in the play.

Might Makes Right

From the first scene onward, characters on both sides of the Hundred Years' War insist that victory in war is a sign of divine favor and moral superiority. According to this line of reasoning, Henry V was a "good" king because he won battles, especially against the French. Gloucester goes so far as to say that Henry "ne'er lift up his hand but conquerèd"—a hyperbolic way of saying the late king never started a fight without winning it.

Gloucester's funeral oration for Henry V is worth quoting at length, since its images of war and violence offer a great illustration of what kingship means to the Englishmen in this play:

His brandished sword did blind men with his beams;
His arms spread wider than a dragon's wings;
His sparkling eyes, replete with wrathful fire,
More dazzled and drove back his enemies
Than midday sun fierce bent against their faces.

Bedford and Exeter, the other noblemen present at the funeral, contribute their own warlike metaphors to this verbal monument. Exeter describes the king's passing as "Death's dishonorable victory," as though Death itself was the one enemy Henry could not vanquish—and even then Death had to cheat somehow. Even the Bishop of Winchester, who might be expected to take a more peaceable tack, uses theological imagery to burnish Henry V's reputation as a warrior, comparing the king's exploits to "the dreadful Judgment Day." Henry, he says, fought "the battles of the Lord of Hosts," implicitly connecting the late king to a long line of biblical victors.

The French, too, see their military successes as a validation of their divine right to rule. Joan la Pucelle claims inspiration from the Blessed Virgin Mary, who, she says, has blessed her both with prophetic skill and with fighting prowess. Her later consorting with demons suggests that this is a lie, but until that point the French noblemen are ready to believe her. Charles regards Joan as a literal saint on earth, and Reignier does not hesitate to declare that the victory at Orléans was a gift from God.

The partisans in the York/Lancaster quarrel apply a similar principle to their own—as yet smaller—conflict. In the Temple Garden scene, whoever has the most supporters is presumed to be right; thus with his three supporters to Somerset's one, Richard Plantagenet might seem to have won the argument. In Part 2 however, Somerset will appeal the decision to the court of open warfare. This, as Mortimer warns his nephew in Act 2, Scene 5, is the ultimate test of a claim to a title, a crown, or a realm: the ability to defend it by force.

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