*Orleans. City on the Loire River in north-central France. Historically the English laid siege to Orleans in 1428 but were repelled by the heroic Joan of Arc, marking the turning point in the Hundred Years’ Wars. In presenting Orleans onstage, William Shakespeare sacrifices historical accuracy to Elizabethan prejudice by having Lord John Talbot retake the city from Joan (known in the play as Joan de Pucelle). At Orleans, English valor wins over French duplicity, reminding the audience of past English glory and giving them a stirring battle scene that made this play popular with Elizabethan-era audiences.
*Temple Garden. Garden adjoining the Inns of Court in London. Gardens traditionally symbolize peace and harmony, serving as models for orderly governments. However, in this invented scene Shakespeare subverts that tradition by making the Temple Garden the starting point for the Wars of the Roses. In the heat of a quarrel, Richard Plantagenet (later the duke of York) plucks a white rose from a bush; his enemy, the duke of Somerset, then plucks a red rose. Their partisans do likewise to make the roses serve as emblems of their animosity. These personal signs, the white rose of York and the red rose of Lancaster, become the fighting symbols that define the Wars of the Roses.
*Bordeaux (Bor-DOH). Capital city of Gascony in France. In contrast to the English triumph at Orleans, Bordeaux is the scene of England’s defeat and disgrace. Talbot, his forces surrounded by a French army, sends for reinforcements. However, the feuding English commanders, Somerset and York, ignore his pleas in order to spite each other. Talbot and his son die at Bordeaux, and with them dies English dominion in France. Shakespeare suggests that discord among the English leaders, “the vulture of sedition,” is more to blame for Talbot’s death and England’s defeat than the French are.
Although Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part One was written over four hundred years ago and deals with events almost two hundred years before that, it speaks in so many ways to modern audiences. It talks about war, marriage, politics, religion, and family in very contemporary language.
In the last century and more, people have witnessed the extraordinary brutality of armed conflict. The Civil War, World Wars I and II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the war of Yugoslavian disintegration among others have become the stuff of shared cultural experience. So, when Salisbury is wounded at the siege of Orleance by a "piece of ord'nance" (I.iv.15), the reader understands, even expects, the result: one of his eyes and pan of his face is blown off. And so, when young Talbot dies in a "sea of blood" that "did drench / His overmounting spirit" (IV.vii.14, 15), readers can imagine what he would have looked like because they have seen the terrible effects of war first hand, or in photographs, on television, or on video.
With regard to marriage, Shakespeare raises the issue of its relation to love in terms that this age of palimony and prenuptial agreements can understand. When Suffolk tries to persuade the king to marry Margaret, daughter of the duke of Anjou, and prove faithless to his betrothed, the daughter of the earl of Arminack, he comments that money and legal agreements don't matter when it comes to love: ''Marriage is a matter of more worth / Than to be dealt in by attorneyship" (V.v.55-56), that arranged marriages spell disaster; marriages for love promise happiness:
For what is wedlock forced, but a hell,
An age of discord and continual strife?
Whereas the contrary bringeth bliss,
And is a pattern of celestial peace.
Some readers would probably agree with Suffolk's assertion, but there are many religions in which arranged marriages are the norm.
Henry VI, Part One is pre-eminently a play about politics. In the absence of a strong ruler (the king is very young and irresolute in this play), the Yorkists and Lancastrians vie for power. In the famous...
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