How does the “Vacuum of Authority” affect the gender themes in I Henry VI?
How do the themes we’ve been dealing with in class assert themselves in the play?
I’m not entirely sure what is meant by the “Vacuum of Authority”, but it sounds like the ‘absence of a clear leadership’ which definitely plagues the characters in I Henry VI because throughout the play, and because there is a struggle for authority among the men of France and within England, it allows for a woman to rise up and have a role that otherwise would never have happened. By tradition, men are higher on the Traditional Gender Hierarchy—God, then Nature, the Man, and then Woman—and so the responsibility and privilege of power is often reserved for men.
Upon the death of the great King Henry V, his son is still too young to take responsibility for the kingdom and there are many people who attempt to take over as a result: Gloucester of the State, Winchester of the Church, Somerset and his Red Rose followers, and Richard Plantagenet—later named Duke of York and Regent of the throne—and his White Rose followers. The death of Henry V also lends an opportunity for the French to reclaim their land: Charles the Dauphin wants his title as King of France, and among this directionless struggle of power among men, it is a woman who gets things moving towards resolution.
The “Vacuum of Authority” allows for Joan la Pucelle to place herself amongst men, and she proves herself worthy, besting both Charles and the powerful Talbot in battle. Although her influence is great—she is able to convince many to believe her, even changing the mind of Burgundy to support the French side of things—she is not the equal of men and her validity is often questioned (her virginity is played with ambiguously to imply that she is a whore). She claims herself to be the “scourge of England”, and it’s true, as she is actually the one responsible for the favorable status of France by the end of the play.
The “Vacuum” ultimately leads to an unclear direction for the future of France and England, and new players bring themselves in, in hopes of gaining some power at the cost of old traditions. Joan, as well as a few others like Suffolk, are revolutionary thinkers because they are able to take advantage of and exploit tradition. No longer does authority and victory lie with the powerful and brute force of men, but rather the cunning strategizing, like Joan charming men and Suffolk infiltrating Henry VI’s marriage. A symbol of this new way of things is when the traditional and chivalric Talbot dies in battle, not by being overcome by the opposing side, but because of the internal struggle in his own country that delays him aid, who have decided not to act in straightforward and mighty justice, but who play and strategize and deceive. Talbot is a victim of a new way of fighting: this is Chess, not Checkers.
Gender themes are present in this play, whenever dealing with Joan la Pucelle. Among the men of the play, Joan is the most strong-willed and the boldest. Whatever her source of insight, be it demons or God, she plays her cards well as long as she can. But there is a downside to a woman claiming so much power so fast and subverting the authority of men, just like there are consequences for Kate in Taming of the Shrew. These consequences for Joan are that she is seen, not as a woman, but as a sorceress, a male impersonator, and as a whore. Joan is also aware of her actions and identity, knowing that she is pursuing the actions of men and usurping their role. An interesting point is that, upon the death of Talbot, when Lucy comes to claim the bodies and talks with the same authority as men, Joan refers to Lucy as a “He”. This shows that it is a male trait to have such qualities as authoritativeness, and Joan definitely is aware her and others’ actions.