Eng­land bleeds again

BBC History Magazine - - Shakespeare’s Plays - The mil­i­tary re­ver­sals drama­tised in would have been all too fa­mil­iar to Shake­speare’s au­di­ence

In the early 1590s an ex­cit­ing young play­wright called Wil­liam Shake­speare burst onto the El­iz­a­bethan theatre scene with three pop­u­lar plays about the Lan­cas­trian king Henry VI (1421–71) and the civil dis­cord that even­tu­ally cul­mi­nated in the ac­ces­sion of the York­ist Richard III in 1483. The cy­cle catalogues the young king’s weak­ness and how, as Shake­speare wrote later in Henry V, “so many had the manag­ing” of his state that “they lost France and made his Eng­land bleed”.

The ac­tion in Henry VI, Part 1 is driven by the wars in France and the con­trast between the heroic Lord John Tal­bot (c1387–1453) and the French war­rior Jeanne la Pu­celle, known in Bri­tain as Joan of Arc (1412– 31). They fight over var­i­ous French cities, in­clud­ing Rouen, which changed hands in 1418–19.

In the play, the English soldiers “sit be­fore the walls of Rouen”. That his­tor­i­cal siege dis­played di­rect par­al­lels with events that were tak­ing place as Shake­speare wrote his play. In 1589 El­iz­a­beth sent an army to France to op­pose the Catholic League and sup­port the Huguenot king Henry IV. Dur­ing the win­ter of 1591– 92 the English forces be­sieged Rouen, but po­lit­i­cal con­fu­sion, mil­i­tary mis­man­age­ment and dis­ease led to the aban­don­ment of the siege, with huge loss of English life and dis­il­lu­sion­ment with the whole cam­paign. No won­der the three parts of Henry VI were so suc­cess­ful: they were ef­fec­tively mil­i­tary and po­lit­i­cal re­portage of cur­rent events, as well as broader re­flec­tions on pre-Tu­dor English his­tory.

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