Henry VI Part I opens on Henry V’s funeral, with those who knew and worked with him in various degrees of mourning. A series of messengers gives them ever more reasons to mourn as news comes of loss after loss of English control over various cities throughout France. In real life, these losses occurred over much longer periods of time and later than is depicted here. If you are looking for authoritative history of these events, look elsewhere. If you are looking for a situation frustratingly common within armies, cabinet war rooms, and among allies in every war I’ve ever studied, don’t shoot the first messenger in Henry VI, listen to him:
Exeter: How were they lost? What treachery was used?
First Messenger: No treachery, but want of men and money.
Amongst the soldiers this is mutter-ed:
That here you maintain several factions,
And whilst a field should be dispatched and fought,
You are disputing of your generals.
One would have lingering wars with little cost:
Another would fly swift, but wanteth wings:
A third thinks, without expense at all,
By guileful fair words peace may be obtained.
Awake, awake, English nobility!
Henry VI Part I, Act 1 Scene 1
Those in authority are warned and apprised within the first 100 lines of the play of what the majority of the men in their command have already surmised: factions within the government are leading to greater death and suffering among the common people. It would be different if those in authority were basing their arguments on what they believe is best and right, but it is clear from the beginning that vengeance and pride are driving the better part of their actions and decisions.
Not every man in the government is a villain, but the audience is quickly acquainted with a dangerously ambitious one as Act 1 Scene 1 ends. The Bishop of Winchester, uncle of the late king, is left onstage as all the men around him exit to attend to their various responsibilities. “But long I will not be Jack-out-of-office (an unscrupulous man dismissed from his position),” he informs us. “The king (Winchester’s great-nephew, young Henry VI) from Eltham (a palace) I intend to steal And sit at chiefest stern of public weal (take control of the government).”
Winchester’s actions nearly lead to bloodshed among Englishmen from the beginning of Scene III. Deaths are averted only by the direct intervention of the mayor of the Tower of London who calls two of Henry VI’s uncles out for their behavior and tells them to knock it off. Winchester leaves the scene with a warning and a threat to his half-nephew, the Duke of Gloucester: “Abominable Gloucester, guard thy head, For I intend to have it ere long.” The dude’s not kidding, and he doesn’t mean it in the rough-house headlock sense, but in the screaming Queen of Hearts “Off with your head!” one. (Shakespearically and historically, it’s pretty dangerous to be a royal.)
In other Act I news, you meet Joan of Arc and Lord Talbot in their Shakespearean form: both of them arrogant and both, by the end of Act I, with a reputation for evincing fear from the hearts of the people on the opposing side of them, making them cower and run.
This is one of the more violent of Shakespeare’s plays and he has no intention of sparing you from the horrors of warfare- it’s literally written into the lines that Talbot speaks as he strives to comfort his dying friend, the Earl of Salisbury. I am not especially fond of Lord Talbot, but several of his lines can be quite moving in their anguish. In the end of Scene 5 we see him in the depths of his misery. By now he has lost a dear friend, he has fought below his personal expectations while in combat with Joan of Arc, and he has seen his men flee and retreat. He feels what many of us would feel in his place, if not expressing those feelings exactly as we might:
“My thoughts are whirl-ed like a potter’s wheel: I know not where I am, nor what I do… retire into your trenches: You all consented unto Salisbury’s death, For none would strike a stroke in his revenge. Pucelle (Joan of Arc) is entered into Orleans, In spite of us or aught that we could do. O would I were to die with Salisbury!”
As Act I comes to a close, the French rejoice and the Dauphin Charles makes effusive promises to Joan for her service that he will not keep. (Personally I don’t consider that a spoiler, but if you are unfamiliar with the story of Joan of Arc- oops.) One thing the Dauphin says will be true- Joan does become France’s saint- with a better reputation than is afforded her in Henry VI Part I.