Study Guide

Henry VI Part 1 Memory and the Past

By William Shakespeare

Memory and the Past

GLOUCESTER
What should I say? His deeds exceed all speech.
He ne'er lift up his hand but conquerèd. (1.1.15-16)

Well the English sure have some awesome memories of the recent past—it sounds like Henry V was amazing. Is the past going to encourage the English to great deeds, though, or make them feel stuck, like they can never get anywhere?

EXETER
We mourn in black, why mourn we not in blood?
Henry is dead and never shall revive.
Upon a wooden coffin we attend,
And death's dishonorable victory
We with our stately presence glorify,
Like captives bound to a triumphant car. (1.1.17-22)

Memory may not be so great for the English after all. If all they've got is the memory of Henry V, they're kind of in trouble, like prisoners of war being hauled along by Death.

GLOUCESTER
Cardinal, I'll be no breaker of the law,
But we shall meet and break our minds at large.
WINCHESTER
Gloucester, we'll meet to thy cost, be sure.
Thy heart-blood I will have for this day's work. (1.3.80-83)

Long memories among the aristocracy are also a problem because they keep quarreling with each other. Forgive and forget does not seem to be a popular plan, and both Gloucester and Winchester predict this quarrel coming up again. If this were an idle threat, it would be fine, but it's all too real.

TALBOT
They called us, for our fierceness, English dogs;
Now like to whelps we crying run away.
Hark, countrymen, either renew the fight,
Or tear the lions out of England's coat. (1.5.25-28)

Talbot is remembering the past here, perhaps through rose-colored glasses. In Talbot's case, all the remembering is more useful than it is for some of the other English leaders, though, since he uses memory to encourage his men to fight harder.

CHARLES
In memory of her [Joan], when she is dead,
Her ashes, in an urn more precious
Than the rich-jewelled coffer of Darius,
Transported shall be at high festivals
Before the kings and queens of France. (1.6.23-27)

The hope of being remembered as victorious and strong matters in this play, as well as the actual memories that are conjured. Would Joan like to be remembered with the same kind of lofty language the play uses for Henry V? Seems likely. Though you've got to wonder if she's happy about the Dauphin mentioning her death right after one of her victories. Seems a little morbid.

RICHARD
I dare say
This quarrel will drink blood another day. (2.4.134-135)

Another unfortunate case of the aristocracy remembering more than it should. Richard expects that the quarrel between him and Somerset will continue because of their long memories. Unfortunately, this is totally true.

MORTIMER
Henry the Fourth, grandfather to this King,
Deposed his nephew Richard, Edward's son,
The first begotten and the lawful heir
Of Edward king, the third of that descent;
During whose reign the Percies of the north,
Finding his usurpation most unjust,
Endeavored my advancement to the throne. (2.5.63-69)

Mortimer has to go three kings back to tell his story, but he sure hasn't forgotten. In fairness, he's been in prison a long time for trying to become king, which would probably give anyone a long memory. But his story of the past clearly haunts the present. If the current king's family got the throne unlawfully, there are implications for his right to rule.

PLANTAGENET
Well, I will lock his counsel in my breast,
And what I do imagine, let that rest.— (2.5.118-119)

Richard also plans to remember what Mortimer has said about the crown. What is he imagining here, anyway? Is he already thinking he might want the kingdom for himself some day? Memory can be pretty dangerous.

GLOUCESTER
Think not, although in writing I preferred
The manner of thy vile outrageous crimes,
That therefore I have forged or am not able
Verbatim to rehearse the method of my pen. (3.1.11-14)

Apparently Gloucester remembers everything he has against Winchester, without having to write it down (though he did for Parliament's convenience). Winchester doesn't appear to have any trouble recalling the past either. These two just do not let things go.

SOMERSET
If he be dead, brave Talbot, then adieu.
LUCY
His fame lives in the world, his shame in you. (4.4.45-46)

Because York and Somerset can't forget their quarrel, they don't get aid to Talbot in time. This is no small thing: It leads to the death of Talbot and his son, both of whom might have made a major difference to the English military for years to come. Sir William Lucy points out the dark twist of the situation: Talbot's name will live on in positive memory, but Somerset will be remembered for failing Talbot. All because he couldn't forget a quarrel.

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