Henry VI, Part 1 Essay - Shakespeare at Work: The Two Talbots

William Shakespeare

Shakespeare at Work: The Two Talbots

E. Pearlman, University of Colorado, Denver

The enactment of the deaths of Talbot and his young son John in The First Part of Henry the Sixth is by all odds Shakespeare's first great theatrical success and therefore an event of great importance in the dramatist's progress. The evidence for this proposition is to be found in Pierce Penilesse His Supplication to the Divell, written in late 1592, where Thomas Nashe allows himself this expressive fancy:

How would it have ioyed brave Talbot (the terror of the French) to think that after he had lyne two hundred yeares in his Tombe, hee should triumphe againe on the Stage, and haue his bones newe embalmed with the teares of ten thousand spectators at least (at several times), who, in the Tragedian that represents his person, imagine they behold him fresh bleeding.1

The words "fresh bleeding" specify that audiences shed their copious tears at the very moment that Talbot, the almost mythically heroic Earl of Shrewsbury, had retired, wounded, from the siege of Bordeaux and was about to breathe his last. It was a moment of high drama, says Nashe (perhaps hyperbolically), so true and at the same time so affecting that it drew tears from the eyes of ten thousand Londoners. How did Shakespeare achieve so powerful an effect, and why is it that the impact of this once famous scene is largely invisible to moderns, for even the play's admirers—and 1 Henry VI does not enjoy as celebratory a criticism as some—do not attribute to Talbot's ruin the extraordinary emotive power that Nashe describes? Indeed, why does the modern version of Shakespeare's text seem both pallid and confused when compared to Nashe's great encomium?

In our texts, the "Bordeaux sequence" in which Talbot meets his death is comprised of six consecutive scenes. In the first (4.2), Talbot attempts to relieve a French siege and finds himself hemmed in by enemy troops. In the next (4.3), York, leader of the faction that bears his name, denies responsibility for the danger into which Talbot has been led; this is followed by a mirror scene (4.4) in which Somerset, chief of the Lancastrians, puts the blame for the impending disaster on the Yorkists. In the first battle scene (4.5), Talbot urges his son to fly the field, and in the second (4.6), Talbot rescues his son from danger and, puzzlingly, yet again urges him to fly. Finally, old Talbot dies embracing his dead son (4.7).

In the course of the sequence that so affected Elizabethan audiences, a single event is dramatized two consecutive times—the repetitions a curious departure from Shakespeare's usual economy. In both act 4, scene 5 and scene 6, Talbot the father and John Talbot the son choose loyalty to each other—even at the cost of certain death in combat—to the safety of flight. The apparent blemish usually passes without comment, perhaps because editors and critics tacitly dismiss it as a mark of what they seem to regard as Shakespeare's still immature craftsmanship. But it is worth considering that the obvious redundancy may not be an error of artistry but a flaw of transmission. There are a number of well-known cases in Shakespeare's works in which scholars assert that both a preliminary and a later form of an action have been accidentally preserved—such as the successive reports of Portia's death in Julius Caesar and the erroneous printing of two versions of Berowne's great manifesto, "O, we have made a vow to study, lords" [4.3.313ff]2 in Love's Labour's Lost—and the duplicated scene of battle may very well be another such instance. The Folio text may in fact proffer both an initial draft (4.6) and a much improved revision (4.5) of the scene of the Talbots' deaths.3

So, at least, it has been proposed. In his 1952 Cambridge edition of 1 Henry VI, John Dover Wilson reacted very strongly to what he surmised to be an imperfection in the text: "these two scenes pursue the same course; 4.6 being virtually a repetition of 4.5. Not only is the action almost identical (the father urging the son to save himself by flight; the son refusing to desert his father: both going forward into battle resolved to die together), but the two speakers repeat the same arguments, even at times in nearly the same words."4 Yet this response has not been credited by scholarship, perhaps because it had the misfortune to be embedded in an extravagantly disintegrationist context in which Dover Wilson also hazarded that the less highly developed of these two scenes (4.6) was written "by Greene, though possibly by Peele or Nashe" (xlvi-xlvii). At almost the same time that Dover Wilson offered his theory, the very level-headed J. P. Brockbank proposed a similar but more elaborate interpretation of the textual anomaly: "Shakespeare seems to have read Hall's more dramatic account of the death of Talbot and his son (Holinshed omits Talbot's speech). In consequence, perhaps, he was dissatisfied with his own [first] version and rewrote it. Both scenes may have been accidentally left in the manuscript . . . and so printed in the folio, standing in modern texts as 4.6 (the old) and 4.5 (the new)."5 Whether or not Brockbank divined the actual order of events may be ultimately unknowable, but his proposition—that two successive versions of one scene are preserved in the Folio—makes perfect sense of an otherwise mysterious superfluity. Nevertheless, Brockbank's now forty-year-old intuition has been left unexamined.

Is there evidence in the Folio, not yet brought to light, to support the hypothesis that the one version of the scene revises and therefore supersedes the other? And if the Wilson-Brockbank thesis is tenable, does it then become possible to track the playwright as he made his progress from source through draft to revision?

Shakespeare seems to have designed the climactic moments of 1 Henry VI in order to make a moralistic point of Talbot's death. The scenes that preface Talbot's end are thick with ideological analysis; the insistent—perhaps even too insistent—moral is that the life of the heroic Talbot has been sacrificed to petty and shameful internecine squabble. Speaking for the party of the white rose, York indicts "that Villaine Somerset" for delaying the "supply / Of horsemen, that were leuied for this siege" (4.3.9-11; TLN 2118-20). On the Lancastrian side, Somerset complains that "This expedition was by Yorke and Talbot / Too rashly plotted" (4.4.2-3; TLN 2067-680); meanwhile, a choral voice (2 Mes.) adds that "while the Vulture of sedition, / Feedes in the bosome of such great Commanders, / Sleeping neglection doth betray to losse" (4.3.47-49; TLN 2057-59) the memorable conquests of the heroic King Harry. Sir William Lucy makes the point plainer still when he denounces both houses: "The fraud of England, not the force of France, / Hath now intrapt the Noble-minded Talbot" (4.4.36-37; TLN 2101-2). It would seem that Shakespeare planned to lay on the moral with a trowel: the noble Talbot falls prey to a "yelping kennell of French Curres" (4.2.47; TLN 1998) because he has been betrayed by English factionalism. Shakespeare seems to have embarked on a reasonable although perhaps excessively didactic course.

Certainly the glorious Talbot could sustain such a moral, for he had come to embody the idealized heart of English chivalry. Defending the "Sacred name of Knight" (4.1.40; TLN 1786), Talbot had stripped the garter from Falstaff s craven knee. When the Countess of Auvergne attempted to play Delilah to his Samson (or, in her formulation, Tomyris to his Cyrus), Talbot had revealed himself to be not only a soldier wedded to his trade and impervious to female assault, but in his own patriotic view the agent, or shadow, of the "substance, sinewes, armes and strength" (2.3.62; TLN 906) of his fellow soldiers. He had been a superb and fearless but one-dimensional warrior, the scourge and terror of the French, a "walking legend,"6 "an ideal of aristocratic conduct"7 whose very name struck fear in enemy hearts. With the death of Talbot, the play appears to proclaim, the quintessence of idealized English chivalry became a forfeit to English discord.

Nevertheless, Shakespeare turned away from the obvious and predictable and instead set out on a course that was both more adventurous and more challenging, and ultimately, as both Nashe and history affirm, more memorable. Rather than reinforce the public themes of misgovernment and sedition and patriotism, Shakespeare seized upon a brief anecdote that opened the possibility of exploring the hitherto unsearched private side of his exemplary knight. Holinshed had not only reported how Talbot had been shot, but also that he spoke with his son, Lord Lisle, shortly before the battle:

. . . after [Talbot] perceiued there was no remedie, but present losse of the battell, he counselled his sonne the Lord Lisle, to saue himselfe by flight, sith the same could not redound to anie great reproch in him, this being the first iournie in which he had beene present. Manie words he vsed to persuade him to have saued his life: but nature so wrought in the son, that neither desire of life, nor feare of death could either cause him to shrinke, or conueie himselfe out of the danger, and so there manfullie ended his life with his said father. (Holinshed 640b)

In these sentences Shakespeare found the kernel of the dialogues between the veteran soldier and his neophyte son to which Nashe would draw attention. Of course there was the difficulty that up until this moment in the play, Talbot had not been portrayed as a father nor had there been the even the slightest hint of a wife or family—let alone a beloved son. But Shakespeare was not to be deterred by the hobgoblin of consistency. If Talbot must acquire paternity in his last moments on earth, why then, so be it. Nor was Shakespeare reluctant to invent and then almost immediately discard an entirely new character—young John Talbot (Holinshed's Lord Lisle)—whose modest lustre was to glow for only the briefest moment.

Shakespeare also read the more circumstantial account of the siege of Castillon in his ancillary source, Edward Hall's Union of the Two Noble and Illustrate F amelles (1548). There he discovered that the industrious Hall had blazed a trail that already included a long and emotional oration in which Talbot urged his son to fly the field.

Oh sonne sonne [says Talbot in Hall's Union], I thy father, which onely hath bene the terror and scourge of the French people so many yeres, which hath subuerted so many townes, and profligate and discomfited so many of them in open battayle, and marcial conflict, neither can here dye, for the honor of my countrey, without great laude and perpetuali fame, nor flye or departe without perpetuall shame and continuane infamy. But because this is thy first iourney and enterprise, neither thi flyeng shall redounde to thy shame, nor thy death to thy glory: for as hardy a [sic] man wisely flieth, as a temerarious person folishely abidethe, therefore the fleying of me shalbe the dishonor, not only of me and my progenie, but also a discomfiture of all my company: thy departure shal saue thy lyfe, and make the[e] able another tyme, if I be slayn to reuenge my death and to do honor to thy Prince, and profyt to his Realme. (Hall fol. clxv verso-clxvi)

And Hall then concluded, in words that Holinshed would copy almost exactly, that young Talbot was too noble to heed his father's petition—for "nature so wrought in the sonne, that neither desire of lyfe, nor thought of securitie, could withdraw or pluck him from his natural father" (Hall fol. clxvi).

Taking advantage of the opportunity that the chroniclers had dropped in his lap, Shakespeare supplemented the play's public and didactic themes with private anecdote and emotion. From Hall's telling of the story, Shakespeare borrowed not only a number of useful ideas but also the specific design of the first version (4.6) of the encounter between Talbot and his son. The shape of the draft replicates Holinshed's template: the father entreats (of the fifty-seven lines in the draft, Talbot speaks forty-two lines—thirty-two in a single elongated oration); the son, shadowy and evanescent in his first incarnation, denies, and then the two soldiers exit to die nobly together. In both versions, the scene stresses family loyalty and emotion rather than the more abstract themes of feudalism and patriotism. It appears that at just the moment that Shakespeare came to the crucial scenes of the play, he was prompted by Hall's imaginative lecture to reassess the emphatic moralizing that prefaces Talbot's death.

If Shakespeare's first step was to complement public with private, his next—if in fact 4.5 revises 4.6—was to re-think the characters. For while the draft leans heavily on Hall and is consequently very much dominated by Talbot's rhetorical and physical authority, the revision,—a step removed from its chronicle source—presents a father who has aged and has resigned himself to his fate and a son who has now become proportionately more vigorous. If it may be posited that the revision (4.5) was a later insertion, then in the original design, Talbot would have appeared in the first scene (4.2) of the Bordeaux sequence leading his overmatched and doomed troops into combat and would not have returned to the stage until the beginning of 4.6 when the battle was in full force. In the first of these scenes (4.2), Talbot had been portrayed, as he had been throughout the play, as the inspirational soldier. In that initial appearance, he had climaxed his speech with an invocation: "God, and S. George, Talbot and Englands right, / Prosper our Colours in this dangerous fight" (4.2.55-56; TLN 2006-7). As if to affirm the continuity of character and action, the draft begins exactly where act 4, scene 2 had concluded: "Saint George, and Victory; fight Souldiers, fight" (4.6.1; TLN 2173). Similarly, Talbot had left the stage as a superhero still performing prodigious feats of derring-do; he continues his success with sword and lance in the draft—as the "authorial" stage directions that preface the scene make clear: Alarum: Excursions, wherein Talbots Sonne is hemm'd about, and Talbot rescues him (4.6 d; TLN 2169-71).

But the intervening scene, the revision, is of an entirely different character. It takes its cue not from the invocation to God and St. George with which act 4, scene 2 ends, but from the more elegiac note struck in act 4, scene 3. There York had mourned the inevitable disaster awaiting not only Talbot but also the son who has come so inopportunely to Gascony: "Alas," moans York, "what ioy shall noble Talbot haue, / To bid his yong sonne welcome to his Graue" (4.3.39-40; TLN 2049-50). While the draft was hyperbolic, the revision has become distinctly valedictory. Talbot is now portrayed as older and wearier, inclined rather to lay down the sword than to deliver his son from French treachery. "O yong John Talbot," he begins,

I did send for thee
To tutor thee in stratagems of Warre
That Talbots name might be in thee reuiu'd,
When saplesse Age, and weake vnable limbes
Should bring thy Father to his drooping Chaire.

(4.5.1-5; TLN 2114-18)

For the first time in the play, the Earl of Shrewsbury becomes reflective: "But O malignant and ill-boading Starres, / Now thou art come vnto a Feast of death, / A terrible and vnauoyded danger" (4.5.6-8; TLN 2119-21). Even more surprisingly, the soldier whom the playwright has kept singularly shielded from the softer emotions now reveals himself to be a loving father: "Therefore deere Boy," he says to his son, "mount on my swiftest horse, / And Ile direct thee how thou shalt escape / By sodaine flight. Come, dally not, be gone" (4.5.9-11; TLN 2122-24). Shakespeare has clearly made an effort to re-invent Talbot and to establish in the revision a more serene mood than either his preceding (4.2) or succeeding (4.6) scenes offer. The result is a striking discontinuity in tone; at the end of act 4, scene 2 and at the beginning of act 4, scene 6, Talbot is all strut and bellow and warmongering, but in the interpolated act 4, scene 5 he is much altered; there, weary age, beset by "malignant stars," embraces his "dear boy" while falling backward onto a "drooping chair." The scourge and terror of the French has become weak, affectionate, even stoical—and yet these same traits, acquired in the one scene—the revision—mysteriously evaporate in the next—the draft. Unless, of course, act 4, scene 6 was intended for the wastebasket and only accidentally preserved.

To return to the draft: the long speech (4.6.10-41; TLN 2181-2212) on which Talbot now embarks constitutes the heart of the scene as originally composed. It divides into three distinct sections: a discussion of soldiership, a discussion of virginity and bastardy, and finally, a passage of sententious couplets. Each of these sections is reprised in the revision, although the first of them offered very little worthy of preservation. In these initial lines, when Talbot expresses emotion for his son, he does not profess a father's love to a long-lost child but rather the loyalty of one soldier to another: Talbot rescues young John; John admires his father's "Warlike Sword"; Talbot explains that his veteran soldiership has been reinvigorated and that "Leaden Age, / Quicken'd with Youthfull Spleene, and Warlike Rage, / Beat down Alanson, Orleance, Burgundie" (12-14; TLN 2183-85). In the more highly developed revision, the Talbots are no longer soldered by soldiership but are linked by more private and personal affections. Only a single phrase from the draft survives in the 'revision': "Leaden Age" has been transmuted into "sapless Age."

In the second part of this long speech, Shakespeare grapples unsuccessfully with a metaphor that equates military and sexual initiation. Talbot reports that he condemned the "irefull Bastard Orleance' because he "drew blood" and therefore "had the Maidenhood" (15-16; TLN 2186-87) of his son. But answering innuendo with innuendo, Talbot asserts that he "encountred" Orleans with "blowes" and "quickly shed / Some of his Bastard blood" (16-18; TLN 2189-91). Shakespeare then shifts the argument to the closely related subject of legitimacy. To the Bastard of Orleans, Talbot had said

Contaminated, base,
And mis-begotten blood, I spill of thine,
Meane and right poore, for that pure blood of mine
Which thou didst force from Talbot, my braue Boy.

(21-24; TLN 2192-95)

Talbot asserts that the legitimate blood of his son is superior to the contaminated blood of the Bastard. The metaphor clearly signifies that the chivalry of the English is purer than that of the French; it also hints obliquely that the Bastard can symbolically or metaphysically both violate and infect young Talbot with his "sword" (although vague syntax makes it difficult to construe the lines with confidence).8 But then Shakespeare seems to lose interest in the signification of blood and abruptly breaks off the discussion: "Here purposing the Bastard to destroy, / Came in strong rescue" (25-26; TLN 2196-97). Maidenhead, wounds, blood, and bastardy are all brought to the fore in the draft (4.6) but the metaphor never quite bears fruit. In the comparable section of act 4, scene 5, Shakespeare severely prunes these excesses. The Bastard himself has disappeared, but bastardy remains the issue; now the threat to John Talbot's life is not the Bastard's sword but illegitimacy itself. Bastardy, the revision announces, is so fearful a bogey that young John Talbot must sacrifice his life to free himself from its taint. It is a cruel paradox:

O, if you loue my Mother,
Dishonor not her Honorable Name,
To make a Bastard, and a Slaue of me:
The World will say, he is not Talbots blood,
That basely fled, when Noble Talbot stood.

(4.5.12-15; TLN 2126-30)

Bastardy and legitimacy, inchoate in the draft, crystallize in the revision. Because John Talbot is unspotted, he can be subsumed in his father; consequently, it would appear, it is now no more possible that John Talbot can be "seuered" from Talbot than that Talbot can "[him] selfe in twaine diuide" (49; TLN 2162). Young Talbot's immaculate legitimacy, demonstrated by his eagerness to die in its defense, allows him in some mysterious way to assimilate his father's virtues. It is not a particularly difficult idea, but it is curious that Shakespeare came to it by such a long and winding road.

The third section of Talbot's long speech in the draft contains a miscellany of ideas that Shakespeare quarried for the revision. An instance: in the draft, Shakespeare plays with the notion that it is superfluous for both father and son to die. In the original, Talbot phrases it thus: "Oh, too much folly is it, well I wot, / To hazard all our Hues in one small Boat" (4.6.33-34; TLN 2204-5). It is a particularly flabby couplet: "well I wot" is empty syllables, and the rewriting of the proverb about venturing all one's goods in a single bottom introduces a bit of naval imagery but is hardly worth the detour. In the revision, the critique of supererogatory death is more economically rendered:

Talb. If we both stay, we both are sure to dye.
lohn. Then let me stay, and Father doe you flye.

(4.5.20-21; TLN 2133-34)

And again, in the draft, Talbot delivers himself of a crowded piece of zeugma in which one preceding and four succeeding nominatives compete to govern a single intransitive verb:

In thee thy Mother dyes, our Households Name,
My Deaths Reuenge, thy Youth, and Englands Fame.

(4.6.37-38; TLN 2209-10)

In the comparable section of the revision, the identical idea has been much simplified and refocussed:

Talb. Shall all thy Mothers hopes lye in one Tombe?
Iohn. I rather then Ile shame my Mothers Wombe.

(4.5. 35-36; TLN 2147-48)

In yet another case, Talbot says "Flye, to reuenge my death when I am dead, / The helpe of one stands me in little stead" (4.6.30-31; TLN 2201-2). Once again, this distich could hardly have satisfied the young poet. In the first line, the phrase "Reuenge my death when I am dead" is flabby and redundant; in the second, the grammatical subject "Helpe of one" is only obscurely linked to its verb "stand," while the phrase "in little stead" is woefully bland. The 'revision' is far more vivid and animated:

Talb. Flye, to reuenge my death, if I be slaine.
Iohn. He that flyes so, will ne're returne againe.

(4.5.18-19; TLN 2131-32)

In his particular instance, the draft and revised versions are strikingly close. Having decided to rewrite Talbot's speech, it would seem, Shakespeare inspected it to determine if there were lines worth preserving. He extracted "Flye, to reuenge my death when I am dead," discarded the limp subordination and supplied the more concrete "if I be slaine." He went on to delete the weak rhyming line and substitute the vigorous rejoinder that he put in the mouth of young John Talbot. The only alternative is that Shakespeare either forgot or was indifferent to the fact that he had already written the couplet shared by father and son and not only reproduced it in part but also allowed it to decline into the bloodless version found in the draft. This does not seem to be credible; such sloppiness is not generally Shakespeare's way.

In addition to plundering Talbot's long speech, Shakespeare also adapted at least one phrase from young Talbot's comparatively brief response. In the draft, young Talbot says "And if I flye, I am not Talbots Sonne" (4.6.51; TLN 2222). This line reappears in the revision as a series of staccato questions: "Is my name Talbot? and am I your Sonne? / And shall I flye?" (4.5.12-13; TLN 2125-26). Unless the one scene replaces the other, Shakespeare must have been extraordinarily lax to allow so near a repetition to stand.

There may also be a second echo of Talbot's reply in the revision. In the draft, John Talbot concludes, "Then talke no more of flight, it is no boot, / If Sonne to Talbot, dye at Talbots foot" (4.6.52-53; TLN 2223-24). In the comparable lines of his revised speech, the son does not threaten to die at Talbot's foot but instead kneels to him and solicits death: "Here on my knee I begge Mortalitie, / Rather then Life, preseru'd with Infamie" (4.5.32-33; TLN 2146-47). In both cases, the root idea is better dead than fled; bended knee now replaces boot and foot. But other pieces of John Talbot's speech were unsalvageable; what could possibly be done with the anticlimactic "Before young Talbot from old Talbot flye / The Coward Horse that beares me, fall and dye" (4.6.45-46; TLN 2217-18)? Better to let coward horses lie. To review; once Shakespeare decided to do away with 4.6, he looted whatever was useful—ideas, words, phrases, gestures, metaphors—and rewrote them in the newer version. In instance after instance, he replaced a confused or slack expression with one that was sharper and more certain.

Even so, in terms of the overall redesign of the scene, Shakespeare's salvaging of remnants is far less important than his embrace of an entirely new rhetorical strategy. In the draft he had been content with a speech of advocacy by the father and a shorter speech of denial by the son. In the more dynamic revision, Shakespeare raised the rhetorical level by distilling arguments for and against flight into a dazzling set of rhymed distichs in which old Talbot proposes and young Talbot disposes.

Talb. Shall all thy Mothers hopes lye in one Tombe?
Iohn. I, rather then Ile shame my Mothers Wombe.
Talb. Vpon my Blessing I command thee goe.
Iohn. To fight I will, but not to flye the Foe.
Talb. Part of thy Father may be sau'd in thee.
Iohn. No part of him, but will be shame in mee.
Talb. Thou neuer hadst Renowne, nor canst not lose it.
Iohn. Yes, your renowned Name: shall flight abuse it?
Talb. Thy Fathers charge shal cleare thee from yt staine.
Iohn. You cannot witnesse for me, being slaine.
If Death be so apparant, then both flye.
Talb. And leaue my followers here to fight and dye?
My Age was neuer tainted with such shame.

Iohn. And shall my Youth be guiltie of such blame?

(4.5.34-47; TLN 2147-60)

It is true that stichomythia is a stylized and non-mimetic form of conversation, and it is something of a paradox that Shakespeare employed an artificial and exaggerated rhetoric to breathe life into the play's most intimate concerns. Although Shakespeare lost interest in stichomythia as he developed as an artist, in the early part of his career he did not hesitate to employ it in such crucial and emotional moments as the wooing of Lady Elizabeth Grey by Edward IV in 3 Henry VI and of Anne by Richard of Gloucester. There is a later but still elaborate passage in Romeo and Juliet when Paris and Juliet meet outside Friar Lawrence's cell. But stichomythia is more than mere rhetorical exuberance: in its very essence it proclaims an equivalence between speakers. As they appear in the revision, father and son are equally intelligent, equally witty, equally succinct, equally moral. Inasmuch as young John Talbot is barely realized in the draft, his death could not deeply engage the passions of the audience. But in the revision, Shakespeare passed the rhetorical initiative to the young Talbot who now not only answers his father stroke for stichomythic stroke but ultimately overwhelms him with a flurry of sentences and sayings. Time after time, young Talbot asserts that his sacrifice is entirely voluntary. When Shakespeare recast the scene, he not only gave room for young Talbot to prosper as a maker of tropes, but at the same time demilitarized and humanized old Talbot himself. As young Talbot grew as a character, so Talbot's love for him became more credible to the audience, and as love became more believable, so too does the impact of his grief. By the end of the sequence, when, at last, Talbot's "old armes" become "yong Iohn Talbots graue" (4.7.32; TLN 2263)—as Lear's will be Cordelia's—Shakespeare had shouldered the guns and drums and flourishes of Bordeaux into the arena of tragedy.

One last example of Shakespeare refining the raw material of the draft: after young John offers to die at his father's foot, Talbot brings the scene to a close with a pair of allusive couplets:

Then follow thou, thy desp'rate Syre of Creet,
Thou Icarus, thy life to me is sweet:
If thou wilt fight, fight by thy Fathers side,
And commendable prou'd, let's dye in pride.

(4.6.54-57; TLN 2225-28)

Ovid's inexpressibly lovely tale of Daedalus and Icarus is pertinent for a number of reasons. In the Metamorphosis, father and son fly from Crete; in 1 Henry VI, the Talbots think to fly the field of battle. Daedalus teaches the "hurtfull art"9 of flying; Talbot teaches the art of war. Icarus is a type of the overreacher; instead of keeping to his pre-arranged flight plan, he conceives in mid-voyage a "fond desire to flie to heauen" (8.301), but "the neerenesse of the sunne" (302) causes his waxen wings to melt and, falling, "he drowned in the waue" (306). The "ouer-daring Talbot" (4.4.5; TLN 2069) is also, intermittently, an overreacher. And so for four lines in the draft, Talbot appears as Daedalus—the Cretan sire—and young John Talbot becomes Icarus. But in this first pass, Shakespeare reaped only a portion of what Ovid's tale could ultimately be made to yield.

In the very next scene of the Bordeaux sequence (4.7)—or the part that would follow directly after the revision if the draft had been properly discarded—Shakespeare introduced a far fuller allusion to Daedalus and Icarus. As it appears on the Folio page, it is separated from the analogous passage in act 4, scene 6 by just a dozen lines—an inconceivably maladroit repetition. It is not impossible that after writing his unsatisfactory first version, Shakespeare realized that Ovid's story of Daedalus and Icarus demonstrated strengths that his allusion to it did not capture. In the Metamorphosis, emotions are portrayed with little disguise or dissimulation. Old Daedalus feelingly expresses his love when he fixes the feathers on his son's back: "His aged cheekes were wet, his hands did quake, in fine he gaue / His sonne a kisse, the last that euer he aliue should haue" (284-85). Perhaps Shakespeare heard with new ears the sorrow in Daedalus' voice as Icarus plunged into the sea, when the "wretched father (but as then no father) cride in feare: / O Icarus, O Icarus, where art thou: tell me where, / That I may finde thee, Icarus" (308-10). Perhaps he did hear something wonderful—because both the emotion and the vocabulary of the ancient narrative are rejuvenated in the newly re-imagined Talbot, who, searching for his son, fearfully cries (at the beginning of 4.7), "Where is my other Life? mine owne is gone. / O, where's young Talbot? where is valiant Iohn?" And when Shakespeare relates at last the circumstances of John's death—and this is surely the particular speech that moistened the eyes of ten thousand spectators—he once again made use of Ovid's example to conduct his audience as far down the trail of tears as his early competence was so far capable. When, Talbot says, he had been rescued by his son (in the draft, with its alternate emphasis, it was the father who saved the son), young John could not rest content. Instead,

great rage of Heart,
Suddenly made him from my side to start
Into the clustring Battaile of the French:
And in that Sea of Blood, my Boy did drench
His ouer-mounting Spirit; and there di'de
My Icarus, my Blossome, in his pride.

(4.7.11-16; TLN 2241-46)

The last prepositional phrase—"in his pride"—supplants the very similar conclusion of the original—"let's dye in pride" (4.6.57; TLN 2228). One more time, the father steps aside to let the son take center stage. The compound adjective "ouer-mounting" ties young Talbot to young Icarus; "Sea of Blood"—a prosy anticipation of the incarnadine seas fifteen years into the future—binds the field of battle to Ovid's Mediterranean. Allusions that merely ornament the draft inhabit the revision. "My Boy . . . My Icarus, my Blossome" marks out territory that will some day be Shakespeare's alone. The word "Blossome" cajoles a last reluctant sob from the audience. Acting to expand the emotional range of his play, Shakespeare courageously places near-sentimentality in the mouth of the character who just seconds ago had threatened the French with "Leane Famine, quartering Steele, and climbing Fire" (4.2.11; TLN 1961). Blossom, we may say, speed thee well!

Nor was Shakespeare quite finished with Daedalus and Icarus:

Enter with Iohn Talbot, borne.
O my deare Lord, loe where your Sonne is borne.
Tal. Thou antique Death, which laugh'st vs here to scorn,
Anon from thy insulting Tyrannie,
Coupled in bonds of perpetuitie,
Two Talbots winged through the lither Skie,
In thy despight shall scape Mortalitie.

(4.7.17-22; TLN 2247-53)

"Lither Skie"? In Golding's Ovid, the wax that glued the feathers to Icarus's body was "lyth" (303); appropriating a device of Latin poetry, Shakespeare transfers the epithet from wings to sky.10 Two Talbots "winged"? The participle functions as an adjective to fuse the English soldiers to their ancient precedents. In these very promising lines, classical and Christian images have been wondrously syncretized to permit the Talbot souls to soar heavenward on pagan wings. Just as Shakespeare had earlier made use of Hall's long invented speech to free himself from excessive didacticism, so now he employed Ovid's more passionate art to loosen the grip of chronicle history itself.

To sum up: there are a number of reasons to believe that act 4, scene 6 is a first, less mature version of act 4, scene 5. One: prima facie; as Dover Wilson and Brockbank noticed, the repetition of scenes is an uneconomical and absurd reduplication. Two scenes where one might suffice is a careless and inexplicable lapse. Two: act 4, scene 6 is close to Hall in format (a long speech followed by a brief reply), while act 4, scene 5 invents a new and more complex design; that the first scene would depart from a source to which the second adheres is inherently improbable. Three: in act 4, scene 5, Talbot is weary and thoughtful and emotional; in act 4, scene 6 he reverts to the warrior mode of act 4, scene 2 and is unaffected by intervening changes in character and tone. Four: act 4, scene 5 continually ransacks the draft for ideas and phrases, a procedure that makes sense only if Shakespeare had already given up on his first version. Five: in case after case, expressions in the revision are more succinct and pertinent than the corresponding expression in the draft. Six: the character of young Talbot is far more fully realized in the revision than in the draft—the alternative is that Shakespeare enhanced the character in one scene and diminished it in the next. Seven: the emotional appeal of a highly figured rhetoric, so prominent in act 4, scene 5, inexplicably disappears in act 4, scene 6. Eight: Shakespeare pushes his chronicle play toward tragedy in the revision; there is no such impulse in the draft. Nine: having decided to abandon act 4, scene 6, Shakespeare gleaned its Ovidian material and re-used it in act 4, scene 7 with a verve and intensity undetectable in the "draft."

It is now possible to recover a possible chronology of the composition of the Bordeaux sequence. Shakespeare first set out in a didactic spirit but his imagination was fired by Holinshed's and more particularly by Hall's attention to young Lord Lisle, Talbot's son. He drafted a first unsatisfactory version of the scene in imitation of the chronicles. Then he rewrote the scene using the first version as a source for a greatly improved performance that adds dimension to the characters and flamboyance to the language. Still not satisfied, Shakespeare turned to Ovid and under his influence composed the ambitious introduction to act 4, scene 7. It is impossible to say exactly when all this was done, but a good guess is that it took place before the early performances to which Nashe refers and that it was certainly completed by the middle 1590s when Shakespeare lost interest in stichomythia.

What can be learned from this exercise? At this late date, it is superfluous to kick the corpse of "warbling his native woodnotes wild." It has long been clear that Shakespeare was not only analytical and persevering, but was also an opportunistic craftsman ready to leap in a new direction when an occasion presented itself. Considering the dramatic traditions from which he emerged, Shakespeare needed to be constantly vigilant in order to prevent his play from lapsing into allegory. At some point in the making of 1 Henry VI, it is possible to surmise, he may have become aware that the Bordeaux sequence contained far too much heavy-handed ideological machinery. Hall's anecdote presented a wonderful opportunity to correct his course and steer the play from abstractions to emotions.

In comparison to Shakespeare's later efforts, the death of the Talbots is hardly a distinguished piece of writing. The characters impress rather than deceive, and although the language is energetic and rapidly paced, the paradoxes and figures in which the Talbots speak are nevertheless stiff and archaic. Yet Nashe testifies that Londoners found these scenes both moving and realistic: audiences were so dazzled by the play that "in the Tragedian that represents his person, [they] imagine they behold [Talbot] fresh bleeding." It is paradoxical that although Shakespeare abandoned his source to invent the witty stichomythic exchanges, and then departed once again to incorporate Ovidian emotion, it was when he was most free and most adventuresome that he won praise for his accurate representation of the past. The play's first audiences seem to have construed stylized artificiality as augmented realism. Such a lesson would not have been lost on the playwright.

When Shakespeare gave exemplary and superhuman Talbot ordinary and familiar human feelings, he not only pleased his audience but also began to redraw the boundaries of the history play. By the end of the century, Shakespeare had mastered the technique toward which this play struggles—the interpenetration of public and private themes—and had discovered that there was far more to historical drama than the vauntings and flytings, the sennets and excursions, and the beardto-beard challenges that fill so much of the first Henriad. To see where his path would lead, it is only necessary to recall the first scene of 1 Henry IV when Shakespeare, having revealed in the king's opening address that England was threatened within and without, toggles economically from state to family with the single line, "It is a conquest for a prince to boast of (1.1.77). Shakespeare's struggle with the writing and rewriting of the Talbot scenes taught him how to collapse the genres, how to slip the noose of the chronicles, and how to subordinate the facts of history to the idea of history.

One final thought: the Talbot deaths introduce a theme that would reverberate throughout Shakespeare's plays. Father and son join in battle not only here but in a number of places along the route. At Crecy (in Edward III—for those who believe the play to be Shakespeare's), the king rather cold-heartedly refuses to aid his son, the beleaguered Black Prince, and insists that youth prove its worth in the field. Shakespeare inverts the anti-Oedipal Talbot formula in 3 Henry VI in the scene of the Son who has killed his Father and the Father who has killed his Son. There is an interesting variant at Shrewsbury where Hal rescues his downed father from the Douglas. The event in all of Shakespeare's plays that is most similar to the Talbot deaths occurs in Henry V when Exeter narrates the affecting story of the cousins Suffolk and York who died in each other's arms at Agincourt. York (as reported by Exeter) distinctly echoes Talbot:

'Tarry, my cousin Suffolk,
My soul shall thine keep company in heaven.
Tarry, sweet soul, for mine, then fly abreast,
As in his glorious and well-foughten field
We kept together in our chivalry.'


Once again Shakespeare integrates sacrifice, family, chivalry, and heavenly flight in order to solicit shamelessly the tears of the spectators:

The pretty and sweet manner of it forced
Those waters from me which I would have stopped,
But I had not so much of man in me,
And all my mother came into mine eyes,
And gave me up to tears.


Talbot is also echoed in King Lear when Gloucester and Edgar and a bastard son are all present at Dover. And finally, a most intriguing reprise of the pattern appears in Macbeth. At Dunsinane, Macduff is a father who has lost his son and "the boy Malcolm" (5.3.3) a son who has lost a father. As surrogate father and surrogate son, they join to overthrow the tyrant. In the same play there is still another pair of father-son soldiers—the Seywards. Old Seyward, "[A]n older and a better soldier none / That Christendom gives out" (4.3.191-2) and young Seyward, one of "many unrough youths that even now / Protest their first of manhood" (5.2.10-11), fight England's battle in a foreign land. Once again, youth dies without protest and age embraces the sacrifice. These many iterations leave open the possibility that when Shakespeare dramatized the Talbot deaths, both his choice to do so as well as the great leap forward in the intensity of his presentation may have been governed not only by a daring and discriminating analysis of character, rhetoric, and audience, but also by social forces and subterranean motives of which even the playwright himself was unaware.11


1The Works of Thomas Nashe, ed. R. B. McKerrow. 4 vols. (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1910), 1:212.

2 Quotations to plays other than 1 Henry VI are drawn from William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, ed. Alfred Harbage (Baltimore: Penguin, 1969).

3 The play's most recent investigator concludes that "the text was set up from holographic fair copy" (The First Part of King Henry VI, ed. Michael Hattaway (Cambridge U. Press, 1990), 195. I have accepted his analysis. I have also made the following assumptions (not all of which are essential to my argument): a) that Shakespeare wrote 1 Henry VI in its entirety; b) that I Henry VI precedes 2 and 3 Henry; c) that 1 Henry VI is either the first or among the very earliest of Shakespeare's surviving writings; d) that Nashe's description of Talbot refers to Shakespeare's I Henry VI and not to any other Henry play; e) that 1 Henry VI is recorded in Henslowe's Diary under the name harey the vi.

4The First Part of King Henry VI, ed. John Dover Wilson (Cambridge U. Press, 1952), xlvii.

5 Cited from Brockbank's unpublished 1953 Cambridge dissertation in The First Part of King Henry VI, ed. Hattaway, headnote to 4.6.

6 So wittily denominated by Emrys Jones in The Origins of Shakespeare (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), 155.

7 David Riggs, Shakespeare's Heroical Histories (Harvard U. Press, 1971), 25.

8 The adjectives "mean" and "poore" follow and have been divorced from the noun they modify; in the intervening phrase—"I spill of thine"—a genitive floats unmoored to a substantive. Syntactic clarity has been sacrificed to the "thine / mine" chime.

9 See The XV Bookes of P. Ouidius Naso Entituled Metamorphosis (trans. Arthur Golding), London: Robert Waldegrave, 1587 (STC 18959), where the story appears on pages 105-6. Line numbers are drawn from Shakespeare's Ovid: Being Arthur Golding's Translation of the Metamorphosis, ed. W. H. D. Rouse (London: Centaur Press, 1961). The phrase "hurtfull art" appears on line 291.

10 Unless, as Hattaway (4.7.21n) hints, Shakespeare recalled the insatiable Erisicthon, who "instead of food devours the lither ayre" (Metamorphosis 8.1027).

111 Bibliographical tangles in the lines surrounding these scenes have aroused the suspicions of textual editors right from the start; these tangles may be explained by the notion that 4.5 revises 4.6. The scene (4.3) that precedes the battle begins with the stage direction, Enter a Messenger that meets Yorke. York and this first messenger converse; then, Enter another Messenger (4.3.16 sd; TLN 2026). It is the second messenger who provokes editorial anxiety. The first time he speaks, he is called 2 Mes, and the second, third and fourth times, he is merely Mes. But to this same messenger, York, as he leaves the stage, unaccountably says "Lucie farewell" (43; TLN 2053). And why "Lucie"? Until York uttered his farewell, there had been no Lucy; in fact, according to the sources, there was no one of that name in the English expeditionary force in France. How does it happen that York suddenly decided to call the Second Messenger "Lucie." Moreover, what explanation can be offered for the fact that, having brought the character onto the stage, the Folio then brings the scene to a close without a providing Mes./2 Mes./Lucie with an Exit (the required stage direction was correctly added in F2)?

The provocative "Lucie" then becomes even more mysterious. Just ten lines into the scene that follows (4.4), an unnamed Captain who has accompanied Somerset and his armies onto the stage makes the announcement that "Heere is Sir William Lucie, who with me / Set from our orematched forces forth for ayde" (4.4.10-11; TLN 2075-76). The Captain's lines make it absolutely clear that both he and the character named Sir William Lucy whom he introduces have just come from the camp of Talbot. Sir William Lucy explains that "L. Talbot, / . . . ring'd about with bold aduersitie, / Cries out for noble Yorke and Somerset" (13-15; TLN 2277-79). But once again there is illogicality: how can Sir William Lucy possibly be imagined to have come from Talbot in 4.4 when the "Lucie" of 4.3 has just seconds ago been seen in the company of York? Clearly, there is a dropped stitch, for no audience can be expected to believe that the same character has been present in two very different places in two consecutive moments. (The matter becomes not only puzzling but absurd if the F1 stage directions are taken seriously, for, inasmuch as there is no Exit for Mes/ 2 Mes./Lucie at the end of 4.3 and no Entrance for Sir William Lucy at 4.4, the character could not have gone anywhere or come from anywhere, but must have remained on stage for the duration.) It is quite a labyrinth. It seems as though there should be two separate characters, Mes./ 2 Mes. in 4.3. and Sir William Lucy in 4.4, and that the first of these was latterly labelled "Lucie" in error.

In addition to the confusion just before the two fatherson (4.5 and 4.6) scenes, there is a second and related textual anomaly in 4.7 that also involves the same enigmatic messenger. While this time Sir William Lucy is accorded the decency of a proper entrance (Enter Lucie [4.7.50sd; TLN 2284]), his first words have arrested the attention of editors since Pope. The Folio reads:

Lu. Herald, conduct me to the Dolphins Tent,
To know who hath obtain'd the glory of the day.

(51-52; TLN 2285-86)

The disturbing hexameter suggests that Lu. was designed to amend an original speech heading Herald and that the manuscript must once have read:

Herald. Conduct me to the Dolphins Tent to know
Who hath obtain'd the glory of the day.

Shakespeare, it is presumed, meant to change the speaker's name from a generic herald to specific Lucy but somehow the extra syllables survived to spoil the Folio pentameter. Once again "Lucie" appears to be a troublesome afterthought. A reasonable inference from these snags in the text is that there were originally two very minor unnamed characters—a messenger and a herald—whose lines were at some point grafted onto the character named Sir William Lucy who first came into being in 4.4. Shakespeare therefore allowed York to call the character "Lucie" in 4.3 and he substituted Lu. for Herald in 4.7. It would seem then, that Shakespeare's concentration of attention on the father-son scenes represents a departure from his original plan. How belated a departure? After, it would seem, an early version of the conversation between York and the messenger in 4.3 was first drafted. By the time Shakespeare had worked and re-worked the scenes of the Talbots' battlefield encounter, young Talbot had materialized and then developed into a significant character; he could not simply appear on stage until the audience had been prepared for his arrival. Shakespeare was therefore compelled to return to 4.3 and to add the foreboding exchange (2044-57) between York and Messenger. So 2 Mes./Mes./Lucie says: "This seuen yeeres did not Talbot see his sonne, / And now they meete where both their Hues are done" (4.3.37-38; TLN 2047-48). And then York responds, in the sad and subdued mood of the 'revision,'

Alas, what ioy shall noble Talbot haue,
To bid his yong sonne welcome to his Graue:
Away, vexation almost stoppes my breath,
That sundred friends greete in the houre of death.
Lucie farewell. . . .

(39-43; TLN 2049-53)

Surely it can be no coincidence that the lines that introduce the audience to John Talbot are the exact same lines that transform Second Messenger into "Lucie." Having invented Sir William Lucy in 4.4, Shakespeare may have forgotten, when he came to insert the lines that prepare for young Talbot's appearance, that the character in 4.3 was merely an unspecified Mes. (or 2 Mes.) and he inadvertently allowed York to call Mes./2 Mes by a name to which he was not entitled. Moreover, to pile speculation upon speculation, it would appear that Shakespeare intended to excise a short section of the scene when he made the addition. It is not unlikely that the lines that introduce young Talbot and "Lucie" replace TLN 2040-43, so that York's concluding phrase—"Long all of Somerset, and his delay" (4.3.46; TLN 2057) would supersede rather than awkwardly replicate its too approximate anticipation—"All long of this vile Traitor Somerset" (33; TLN 2043).

Since this essay was completed, Gary Taylor's "Shakespeare and Others: The Authorship of Henry the Sixth, Part One/' described as "forthcoming" in Wells and Taylor's William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion (Oxford: Clarendon, 1987) has at long last seen the light of day (in Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England 1 [1995], 145-205). Taylor attributes portions of 1 Henry 6 to Nashe and to two other unidentified authors; he does not question Shakespeare's authorship of the Bordeaux sequence.

Source: "Shakespeare at Work: The Two Talbots," in Philological Quarterly, Vol. 75, No. 1, Winter, 1996, pp. 1-22.