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Henry VI, Part One: A House Divided That Somehow Stands

“What madness rules in brainsick men/When for so slight and frivolous a cause/Such fractious emulations shall arise!” (4.1.112-113)

France should have defeated England in Henry VI, Part One. They certainly should have once Joan Pucelle (Joan of Arc) entered the scene. England’s disarray as a result of inner squabbling is troublesome from the start. It is because England “maintain several factions/And, whilst a field should be dispatched and fought,/[they] are disputing of [their] generals” (1.1.73-75) that they suffer “sad tidings […] out of France” (1.1.59) at the play’s open. Even as the English lords are called to unite against the common enemy France they fight each other.

Dissent prospers amongst the lords over succession and English rule in France as that very rule teeters on the verge of collapse. Houses begin declaring loyalties by wearing either a white or red rose. When King Henry VI comes upon Gloucester and Winchester bickering with each other he uses his authority to charge them to “on allegiance to ourself/ […] hold [their] slaught’ring hands and keep the peace (3.1.91-92). He demands that they and their servants “join in friendship” (3.1.153) because even his “tender years can tell/Civil dissension is a viperous worm that gnaws the bowels of the commonwealth” (3.1.75-77). He condemns their contention as a “scandal to the crown” (3.1.73) that will prove disastrous for England should it continue. Such constant strife is a weakness. His intuition is correct. Despite the king’s reproof, the “late dissension grown betwixt [Gloucester and Winchester]/Burns under feignèd ashes of forged love/And will at last break out into a flame” (3.1.198-200) so that “As festered members rot but by degree/Till bones and flesh and sinews fall away/So will this base and envious discord breed” (3.1.201-203). The peace Gloucester and Winchester agree to in King Henry’s presence is uneasy and hollow at best, each mistrusting the other in a fragile accord. It is difficult to imagine King Henry does not know this, but he does understand the importance of an alliance and of perception. He knows that “If [France] perceive dissension […their]/ grudging stomachs [will] be provoked/To willful disobedience and rebel” (4.1.140-143). King Henry wants to spare himself the embarrassment and the infamy of his peers and nobility destroying themselves and losing France (4.1.147-148). It would be all too easy for France to take advantage of disunion in English forces.

Once more the king tells his subjects to “continue peace and love” (4.1.162) and to “digest/[their] angry choler on [their] enemies” (4.1.168-169) rather than on each other when a French attack is imminent. With increasing divisiveness and discord present it becomes more obvious that the strife “presage[s] some ill event” (4.1.192). This it does when France convinces Burgundy to turn against England and attack Sir Talbot, who is left without aid. The Duke of York curses “that villain Somerset/That delays [his] promised supply/Of horsemen […] levied for this siege” (4.3.10-12), for he knows “Renownèd Talbot doth expect [his] aid” (4.3.13). It is “farewell Talbot, France, and England’s honor” (4.3.24) if Somerset’s aid does not come. That which King Henry feared might come to pass has; Somerset and York’s division reaps real consequences in the field of battle. “Whiles they each other cross,/Lives, honors, lands, and all hurry to loss” (4.3.53-54) around them. Even as York curses Somerset Somerset curses York and Talbot for too rash a plot (4.4.2-3), coldly insisting that since “York set [Talbot] on; York should have sent him aid” (4.4.29). Though Somerset eventually sends horsemen, it is because he could “not [his] private discord keep away” (4.4.22) that Talbot, England’s famed warrior, dies. As King Henry predicts, it is “The fraud of England, not the force of France” (4.4.36) that proves most injurious.

Charles the Dauphin, himself recognizes that “Had York and Somerset brought rescue in,/[France] should have found a bloody day” (4.7.34-35). It is not until “The English army that divided was/Into two parties [conjoins] in one” (5.2.11-12) that it becomes a threat. Quickly thereafter “The Regent conquers and the Frenchmen fly” (5.3.1), and the supposed warrior prophetess savior of France, Joan Pucelle, is burned to death (5.3.93). England is somehow poised to regain control. They threaten to “plague [Charles] with incessant wars” (5.4.155) should he not agree to their terms of peace. For the sake of his people Charles agrees. The infighting that has every potential to ruin England miraculously changes course and results in an English victory.

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