Act V of Henry VI Part I could be subtitled “How Henry Gets a Wife”. It isn’t pretty, but it is in keeping with how women of the nobility found their fortunes altered by the forging of political alliances and the machinations of men. In this play, Henry and Margaret have more of pawn than king and future queen of England about them. In fact, the play ends ominously with the Earl of Suffolk declaring: “Margaret shall now be Queen, and rule the King; But I will rule both her, the King, and realm.”
The Earl of Suffolk is not the only one in Henry’s court ready to seize power from those who currently hold it. Henry Beaufort (the Bishop of Winchester) in his newly acquired position of Cardinal vows in Act 5 Scene 1 to “sack this country with a mutiny” if the Duke of Gloucester does not bend to him. The stage is now set for Henry VI Part II.
But Act V is not yet complete with just these treacheries. Joan la Pucelle (Joan of Arc) still lives. She will die, but not before rapidly committing a succession of lies, manoeuvres, and treacheries. Recalling that it was the English who tried and executed her in real life, in a trial orchestrated to destroy her and her reputation, it should come as no surprise that even a century and a half later, she would be grossly slandered and misrepresented here.
Politics and prejudice of the time surely played a part in how Joan of Arc is depicted in Henry VI Part I, but I can’t read Act V without a passage from Jane Austen’s Persuasion coming to mind:
“Well, Miss Elliot” (lowering his voice), “as I was saying, we shall never agree, I suppose, upon this point. No man and woman would, probably. But let me observe that all histories are against you — all stories, prose and verse. If I had such a memory as Benwick, I could bring you fifty quotations in a moment on my side the argument, and I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps, you will say, these were all written by men.”
“Perhaps I shall. Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.”
Chapter 23, Persuasion
Joan of Arc is slandered roundly throughout Henry VI Part I, but never as ferociously as she is in Act 5, Scene 4. It is my least favorite part of the play, but if you are an actress desiring to play a villainess who is vile, cowardly, and over-the-top depraved, Joan of Arc, as she is portrayed here, is your role.
According to Peter Alexander in The Heritage Shakespeare: Histories, if Henry VI Part I is the play documented in Philip Henslowe’s diaries as Harry the VI that played on March 3rd of 1592 at the Rose theatre, it played to a full house. In fact, according to Alexander, the play was, during its 1592 run, “exceptionally popular”. That level of success for this particular play may be difficult for modern readers and audiences to fathom now.
Timothy Mooney suggests in his book Shakespeare’s Histories that perhaps modern audiences struggle with Shakespeare’s historical plays in particular because they cover events 480-610 (+) years removed from us. For those who watched them in Shakespeare’s day, the events depicted were roughly equivalent to what World War II and the American Revolutionary War are in time to us- different, but not incomprehensible or unimaginably foreign. Most Americans are familiar with the leaders and reasons behind those wars.
Henry VI Part I doesn’t stand particularly well on its own, but it does help the next two plays in the Henry VI trilogy make more sense, and they’re up next!