Henry VI Part 1: Metaphor Analysis

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The body politic

In Act 3, scene 1, lines 195-6, Exeter describes the dissent-riven nation of England as a human body that is rotting. This is the idea of the body politic, an ancient metaphor of classical origin in which the head of state or king is portrayed as the head of the body politic (the nation) and his subjects are seen as the body and limbs. The military hero Talbot and his army are an example of the perfect operation of such a metaphorical body, with Talbot as the head and his loyal men as the body (Act 2, scene 3, lines 49-65).
Thus Talbot, who has a strong link to the glorious reign of Henry V, embodies the head of the successful and unified body politic. Henry VI, in contrast, embodies the weak head of a decayed body politic. Henry is aware that the cause of the sickness of the body politic is civil dissent. He says, “Civil dissention is a viperous worm / That gnaws at the bowels of the commonwealth” (Act 3, scene 1, lines 72-73). However, he is too weak and too young to put an end to this dissent.
Heroic imagery
In contrast with the weak king Henry VI, his father, Henry V, is portrayed as a hero of legendary, almost supernatural, power. In Act 1, scene 1, Gloucester says of Henry V, “His arms spread wider than a dragon’s wings” (line 11), invoking his chivalric emblem of a dragon. Gloucester adds, “He ne’er lift up his hand but conquered” (line 16), suggesting that Henry was so great that his victories required little or no effort.
Similar heroic imagery is used to describe Talbot – sometimes voiced by the man himself. Talbot describes his fearsome reputation among the French by describing the superhuman feats with which he is credited:
“So great fear of my name ‘mongst them were spread
That they supposed I could rend bars of steel
And spurn in pieces posts of adamant.”
Act 1, scene 5, lines 28-30
Steel and adamant are famously hard and strong substances, so the suggestion that Talbot is capable of bending and breaking them emphasises his great strength. Such exaggeration in literature is called hyperbole. It is commonly used in descriptions of legendary heroes in epic literature.
Religious, animal, and sexual imagery
Shakespeare’s assassination of Joan’s character is achieved through the use of imagery.
At the play’s beginning, Joan speaks of herself in terms of sacred and religious imagery, invoking the Virgin Mary. After her first entrance, she tells Charles: “Heaven and Our Lady gracious hath it pleased / To shine on my contemptible estate” (Act 1, scene 2, lines 74-75) and “God’s mother deigned to appear to me” (Act 1, scene 2, line 78).
However, Shakespeare undermines any temptation for the audience to accept Joan’s claims of a God-given mission by surrounding her with suggestive sexual imagery, having Alençon comment about Charles’ long and intimate conversation with Joan: “Doubtless he shrives this woman to her smock, / Else ne’er could he so long protract his speech.” (Act 1, scene 2, lines 119-120).
By Act 3, scene 3, Shakespeare is suggesting that Joan is a witch whose persuasive power derives not from God but from the devil. When she persuades Burgundy to turn traitor to England, he says of her, “Either she hath bewitched me with her words, / Or nature makes me suddenly relent” (lines 58-59).
By Act 5, scene 3, the evil spirits that, it has been suggested, assist Joan actually enter in person and refuse to help her. Here, Joan talks of the “blood-sacrifice” she has made to them in return for their support.
In Act 5, scene 5, Joan repudiates her father, who addresses her in imagery that strips her of any spiritual identity. The Shepherd curses his daughter as a whore, a “drab” (line 32), an idea reprised by Richard, Duke of York in the same scene when he calls her a “Strumpet” (line 84). Joan herself confirms this interpretation of her character when she repeatedly changes her story about the identity of her supposed baby.
The Shepherd also uses animal imagery to address Joan, wishing in line 29 that her mother’s milk were “ratsbane” rat poison or that “some ravenous wolf had eaten thee” (line 31). In contrast with Jesus Christ, whose nativity is seen by Christians as a holy event, the Shepherd curses “the time / Of thy nativity” (lines 26-27).

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