Henry VI Part I, Act 4: Infighting, Losses, and Tolstoy

The battles, characters, and chronology of the Hundred Years’ War as represented in the seven scenes of Henry VI Part I, Act 4 scramble the real story almost beyond recognition, but if you ignore names and dates and instead focus on the interactions and situations of the leaders and the court during war, you’ll find a surprisingly large number of commonalities with a famous work researched like crazy and written by a man who had served in the Crimean War- War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy.

The envyings and infighting of the top brass that lead to longer wars with greater casualties, aristocratic birth impacting how you were treated and advanced in the military, bravery, cowardice, fool-hardiness, the burial of the young by the old… these human situations and qualities are present in both Henry VI Part I and War and Peace with a similar tone and treatment in several passages. I find this particularly interesting because Tolstoy wrote openly of his dislike of Shakespeare, having read and studied the plays several times- including this one.

“I remember the astonishment I felt when I first read Shakespeare. I expected to receive a powerful esthetic pleasure, but having read, one after the other, works regarded as his best: “King Lear,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “Hamlet” and “Macbeth,” not only did I feel no delight, but I felt an irresistible repulsion and tedium, and doubted as to whether I was senseless in feeling works regarded as the summit of perfection by the whole of the civilized world to be trivial and positively bad, or whether the significance which this civilized world attributes to the works of Shakespeare was itself senseless. My consternation was increased by the fact that I always keenly felt the beauties of poetry in every form; then why should artistic works recognized by the whole world as those of a genius,—the works of Shakespeare,—not only fail to please me, but be disagreeable to me? For a long time I could not believe in myself, and during fifty years, in order to test myself, I several times recommenced reading Shakespeare in every possible form, in Russian, in English, in German and in Schlegel’s translation, as I was advised. Several times I read the dramas and the comedies and historical plays, and I invariably underwent the same feelings: repulsion, weariness, and bewilderment. At the present time, before writing this preface, being desirous once more to test myself, I have, as an old man of seventy-five, again read the whole of Shakespeare, including the historical plays, the “Henrys,” “Troilus and Cressida,” the “Tempest,” “Cymbeline,” and I have felt, with even greater force, the same feelings,—this time, however, not of bewilderment, but of firm, indubitable conviction that the unquestionable glory of a great genius which Shakespeare enjoys, and which compels writers of our time to imitate him and readers and spectators to discover in him non-existent merits,—thereby distorting their esthetic and ethical understanding,—is a great evil, as is every untruth.” Leo Tolstoy

Doubtless many students of Shakespeare would agree with him, but this makes me smile because while nearing the end of War and Peace I had come to the conclusion that reading the Shakespeare canon would be a wiser use of time and effort for most people than reading War and Peace. Both writers are willing to show men and women as they are and as they seem to be- distasteful as that may be sometimes- but they can also write with incredible passion and compassion (though Tolstoy does this much better in Anna Karenina than War and Peace in my opinion). That said, I feel like Shakespeare tended to like people as a whole more than Tolstoy did, which makes his writing easier for me to relate to and enjoy. Certainly he was less pedantic in his writing.

Back to Henry VI Part I. Many of Henry’s thoughts on what was going on around him in Act 4, Scene 1 mirror my own feelings in regards to Congress: “…what madness rules in brainsick men, When for so slight and frivolous a cause Such factious emulations shall arise?….what infamy will there arise, When foreign princes shall be certified, that for a toy, a thing of no regard, King Henry’s peers and chief nobility Destroyed themselves, and lost the realm of France!”

Many generals and admirals have fought in wars with their sons. Lord Talbot’s final words of the play in Scene 7 are for his:

“Where is my other life? Mine own is gone. O, where’s young Talbot? Where is valiant John?”

I believe most parents who have lost a child to war have at some point longed for an end similar to Talbot’s. As soldiers bring Talbot the body of his son he cries:

“Come, come, and lay him in his father’s arms: My spirit can no longer bear these harms. Soldiers adieu: I have what I would have, Now my old arms are young John Talbot’s grave.”


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Filed under Plays, Shakespeare's Histories

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