Henry VI Part 1 may be Shakespeare’s first play, but it opens, dizzyingly enough, with the death of one of his great heroes, Henry V. “England ne’er had a king until his time,” one of the dead king’s brothers laments in the opening scene (1.1.8). It’s hard to recognize the fellow in the coffin as the charismatic Prince Hal, however, because he is eulogized with the bald, flat exaggeration appropriate to a superhero. “We mourn in black: why mourn we not in blood?” asks one of the dead man’s uncles. The trouble, I think, is that Shakespeare hasn’t yet mastered the trick of writing well the voices of people who speak poorly—of writing in such a way that his authorial talent is distinct from the characterological faults he is trying to reveal. It’s not obvious enough, that is, that Shakespeare knows that the Duke of Bedford, one of the late king’s brothers, is bombastic and ridiculous. He must have known it, though. The rhetoric of Bedford’s mourning is implausible and grandiose: Bedford claims that England’s future babies will be doomed to suck “at their mothers’ moist’ned eyes” (1.1.50), and he calls for the late Henry calls be memorialized as a constellation—the fifteenth-century equivalent, I suppose, of naming an airport after a president. Bedford overreacts to some bad news by exclaiming,
Is Talbot slain? then I will slay myself,
For living idly here in pomp and ease,
Whilst such a worthy leader, wanting aid,
Unto his dastard foemen is betrayed. (1.1.41–45)
“O no, he lives,” a messenger contradicts him, and I suspect the audience is supposed to enjoy the check placed on the hysteria.
The bishop of Winchester’s poetry is bad in a different way. An unctuous and disingenuous person, his mourning sounds both hyperbolic and calculated, marked by vacuous repetition and stagey chiasmos:
He was a king blessed of the King of kings.
Unto the French the dreadful judgement-day
So dreadful will not be as was his sight. (1.1.28–30)
The only enjoyable lines are those of the duke of Gloucester, who compares the late king to a dragon, in words that Wilson points out derive from Spenser, and who, like a dragon himself, breathes fire at the bishop for insinuating that the church was responsible for the late king’s triumphs.
The church! . . .
None do you like but an effeminate prince,
Whom, like a school-boy, you may over-awe. (1.1.34–37)
Gloucester is a good hater, and one likes him at once for it. On the French side, the duke of Alençon speaks with a similar forthrightness. Mocking the English for seeming faint with hunger, Alençon says that
They want their porridge and their fat bull-beeves:
Either they must be dieted liked mules
And have their provender tied to their mouths,
Or piteous they will look, like drownéd mice. (1.2.9–12)
With some characters, then, the young Shakespeare is able to show his mettle.
With others, it remains hidden. Almost as unrecognizable as the future Henry V is a near-throwaway reference to his future sometime drinking companion, Sir John Falstaff, who appears here as an offstage villain, guilty through cowardice of having lost a battle that Talbot might otherwise have won (1.1.131–32). After being ransomed from French prison, Talbot (like Gloucester, a likable and martial person) exclaims,
O! the treacherous Falstaff wounds my heart,
Whom with my bare fists I would execute,
If I now had him brought into my power. (1.4.35–37)
Falstaff seems to mean nothing to Shakespeare at this point. He’s a vessel for blame, and at the moment, that seems like an uncomplicated thing, or at any rate not the sort of thing to which one devotes attention.
He already knows, however, that he needs to pay attention to Joan of Arc, the witch, who appears in scene two, though one knows that Shakespeare will make much more of her type later. She is the one whose saying makes it so—a precursor to Prospero, and a figure of the poet. She is also—and the two roles seem linked—the first double cross-dresser in his plays, and it is startling to meet her so early. Hers is the first voice that Shakespeare wrote for a man playing a woman dressed as a man. That makes it all the stranger that a scholar like Wilson doesn’t think that Shakespeare introduced her to the play or even wrote her lines. Did Shakespeare simply find her, ready made? Maybe sometimes, when a writer first finds a character, it feels like an accident yet is not one. Whether Shakespeare wrote Joan of Arc somehow doesn’t matter; she became his. The character returns throughout his life. She changes, because his understanding of her changes as he grows older. That is why she has different names in different plays.