The campaign in France is faltering. Who will lead England after the death of Henry V? That's the problem to be faced in Henry VI Part 1. I suspect that the answer won't come until the end of Part 3, but the question is posed in the very first scene of Part 1, when the late king's brothers and uncles compete to mourn him, in very different registers: his brother Bedford hysterical, his brother Gloucester furious, his uncle Exeter excessively rational, and his uncle Winchester cunning. Cunning may not sound like a style of mourning, but it is a natural one. When a person dies who has been significant to many, his significance is a property suddenly without an owner. Because the property isn't tangible, the bereaved sometimes quarrel over the dead person's material possessions in its stead, and the fight can turn strangely bitter, because it is doomed to be a losing one for all concerned. However valuable the material legacy may be, the spiritual one—the one that really matters—is beginning to vanish, to be lost forever, as the memory of the departed person begins to fade. The squabble for the material legacy can therefore take on a character of grievance—of taking revenge for a mysterious wound.
When the departed is a king, the material things in need of a new owner amount to a kingdom, and the unpossessed spiritual property is kingship. A kingdom is well worth a little cunning, even if, like Winchester, you are cynical about kingship. In the special case of a departed king, however, it may be that the worldly can only be inherited by someone capable of investiture with the spiritual. Not everyone can draw the sword from the stone. As act 1 gives way to act 2, the question is whether anyone can—whether spiritual kingship still exists, now that Henry V is no more. Maybe all that's left is pretending.
"His deeds exceed all speech," Gloucester laments of Henry's passing (1.1.15). The unhappy corollary is that if Henry V can do no more, then speech no longer has a master. Speaking is free to run ahead of doing, and to seem to control it. This is what the French hope they see in Joan of Arc, and what the English fear to. Joan promises to raise the English siege of Orleans, and inspired by her, the French succeed in raising it. Does her prophesy in fact cause the victory?
What the audience sees on stage is not miraculous. A French gunner has figured out which window the English leaders look out of, when they want to spy on the French defenses, and the audience overhears the gunner point the window out to his son (1.4.1-22). Just before the earl of Salisbury, the highest-ranking member of the English military forces, invites his colleagues to look out the same window, the audience sees the boy run across the stage, presumably to alert his father. Salisbury and another are then fatally shot by a cannonade that intercepts the gaze (1.4.70). This isn't magic; it's marksmanship.
Indeed Talbot, left in charge by Salisbury's death, is not persuaded by Joan's claims on the supernatural. After exchanging a few blows with her in battle, he says in a soliloquy that her leadership reminds him of a trick that Hannibal once played on the Romans, frightening them into retreat by driving toward them two thousand oxen with torches tied to their horns:
A witch, by fear, not force, like Hannibal,
Drives back our troops and conquers as she lists:
So bees with smoke and doves with noisome stench
Are from their hives and houses driv'n away. (1.5.21–24)
By his vivid words, Talbot shows that there is poetry in him, too. It's fitting that Talbot should see through Joan, because his power to daunt the French is similar to hers over the English. While he was their prisoner, the French tried to disillusion themselves about him, by exposing him in a marketplace. Reports Talbot:
Here, said they, is the terror of the French,
The scarecrow that affrights our children so. (1.4.42–43)
But even at their mercy, he remained fearful to them. He boasts that
So great fear of my name 'mongst them was spread
That they supposed I could rend bars of steel
And spurn in pieces posts of adamant. (1.4.50–52)
Later we will see an unarmed English soldier scare the French off stage just by shouting Talbot's name, pausing to explain to the audience that "The cry of Talbot serves me for a sword" (2.1.79).
Joan takes credit for raising the siege of Orleans, and Charles, the future king of France, promises to reward her by erecting a pyramid in her honor and carrying her ashes in yearly processionals (1.6.17–31). The compliment is awfully ambiguous. Charles is all but saying that Joan will have to die in order for him to achieve his kingship—in order for him to inherit her aura, which amounts to kingship outside of a royal person. But almost immediately, the audience has cause to wonder about the potency of the urn that Charles is looking forward to. Observing the French celebration of their victory, Talbot decides to retake Orleans by surprise in the middle of the night, and Charles, Joan, and other French leaders have to hop out of the city in their bedclothes. Joan is not very convincing about the failure of her allegedly divine power.
Wherefore is Charles impatient with his friend?
At all times will you have my power alike?
Sleeping or waking must I still prevail,
Or will you blame and lay the fault on me? (2.1.54–57)
The magic has leached from her speech, so much so that the words "and lay the fault on" sound egregiously like metrical filler.
Having turned the tables on the French, Talbot looks forward to creating a shrine for the late-fallen Salisbury similar to the one that Charles hopes to make of Joan (2.2.13–17). In triumph, Talbot's colleague Burgundy dismisses Joan herself as the dauphin's "trull" (2.2.28). The French and English seem to hunting one another in a hall of mirrors, and Burgundy's insult is followed by a sexual solicitation of Talbot from the countess of Auvergne. It is in Talbot's encounter with Auvergne that the nature of kingship begins to come clear.
Talbot seems at first to swallow the countess's lure. Once she has him in her castle, she insults him. She was expecting a Hercules, she says,
Alas, this is a child, a silly dwarf!
It cannot be this weak and writhled shrimp
Should strike such terror to his enemies. (2.3.22–24)
The countess has the doors locked. If she defeats Talbot, he will be shown to have been as much a fake as Joan, fleeing Orleans in her night gown. Talbot keeps his poise, however, and the countess wonders if she has the right man. He answers, riddlingly, that in the most important way she doesn't:
No, no, I am but shadow of myself:
You are deceived, my substance is not here;
For what you see is but the smallest part
And least proportion of humanity. (2.3.50–53)
At her failure to solve the riddle, he sounds a horn, and his soldiers storm in to rescue him. "These are his substance, sinews, arms and strength," Talbot explains of himself, in the third person (2.3.63). Kingship is not in a person, he is saying; it is a relationship to people—to an army, especially. The magic is false and real at once. Words spoken in prophesy or inscribed on tombs have power not in themselves but only as commands or promises do, as a means of mustering the support of others.