35. Joan Pucelle’s and Henry VI’s Ironic Allusions to North’s Disastrous Stories about Caesar

As we have seen, many characters in the Shakespeare canon like to cite various stories from North’s translations–often using them to highlight parallels to their own situation. This especially occurs in the early English histories, with various characters referencing North’s chapters on Julius Caesar in North’s Plutarch’s Lives. This includes Joan Purcelle and Henry VI, whose comparisons of themselves to Caesar are unintentionally ironic. In both situations, they are unwittingly evoking fateful situations that portend their doom.

In 1 Henry VI, Joan Pucelle boldly states: “Now am I like that proud insulting ship / Which Caesar and his fortune bear at once” (1 Henry VI 1.2.138-39).[i] Joan is quoting North’s Plutarch’s Lives, and specifically, Julius Caesar, who with similar pluck once told a ship captain to press forward into the storm: “Fear not, for thou hast Caesar and his fortune with thee.” Joan was trying to make the same claim: that she is divinely endowed with so much celestial and earthly significance that she and her followers may fearlessly venture forth as fate would protect them. The heavenly powers would never take down a vessel stored with so much value.

But, of course, she missed the point: the storm does stop Caesar’s proud ship, which takes on so much water it nearly founders. Caesar and his ship had to turn back. The story helps emphasize Caesar’s reckless hubris, which eventually gets him killed. On the Ides of March, Caesar ignores all warnings from soothsayers and pleas from his wife, and goes to the capitol anyway, where the conspirators are waiting. Likewise, Joan’s military campaign fails, and she is caught and executed.

Earlier in the history sequence, Henry VI also compares himself to the slain Roman Emperor—and, like other characters in the canon who compare themselves to Caesar (e.g., Joan Pucelle, Polonius, and young Edward, one of the “princes in the tower”), he would soon be murdered. Henry’s fateful comment comes in the form of a complaint about the loss of his kingdom: “No bending knee will call thee Caesar now,” says the recently dethroned Henry VI. “No humble suitors press to speak for right, / No, not a man comes for redress of thee” (3 Henry VI 3.1.18-20).

While Henry only means to use Caesar as a metaphor for his loss of power, the playwright made sure that the King inadvertently evokes the image of the Emperor’s assassination. For Henry VI’s words not only echo North’s vivid description of the murder of Julius Caesar in Plutarch’s Lives, when the conspirators surround their victim, pretending to petition him, they also mirror the staging of the assassination in Shakespeare’s tragedy. Specifically, in Julius Caesar, as Caesar walks toward the Senate House, one of the first conspirators to approach the Emperor does so supposedly on behalf of a friend who wants him to read “this his humble suit”(3.1.5). Then, as another conspirator, Metellus Cimber, beseeches Caesar, Brutus tells other plotters, “He is address‘d. Press near and second him” (3.1.30). The Emperor at first assumes these are all sincere requests. “What is now amiss / That Caesar and his Senate must redress?” (3.1.32-33), he asks. Then, as Brutus and Cassius bend and kneel before him, and the other conspirators surround him, Caesar becomes uneasy. Casca is the first to strike from behind: “Speak hands for me!” (3.1.77), he says as he stabs Caesar. The rest of the mob then joins in, with Brutus, Caesar’s favorite, applying the final blow into his groin—“the most unkindest cut of all” (3.2.184), as Mark Antony would later call it.

But the Roman play, of course, more closely follows North’s historical text, which is necessarily the true origin of this language:

[Caesar] would have been contented to have redressed them … Caesar received all the supplications that were offered him, and … his men that were about him pressed nearer to him… (787, 794)

When he [Caesar] was come thither, he [Brutus] made as though he had somewhat to say unto him, and pressed as near him as he could. …

Cimber, who made humble suit…They all made as though they were intercessors for him … Caesar at the first, simply refused their kindness and entreaties: but afterwards, perceiving they still pressed on him, he violently thrust them from him (1055, 1062)

From “The Life of Caesar” and “The Life of Brutus”, North’s Plutarch’s Lives

The scene is so famous it has become the subject of countless reenactments, both on stage and on canvas. See, for example, Karl Theodor von Piloty’s painting of the “Murder of Caesar” (1885) on the left. This painting depicts what, in essence, King Henry unwittingly yearns for when he complains that he will no longer have petitioners surrounding him and kneeling before him as did Caesar. A shown, he even uses the same language of the assassination: Caesar, humble suitors press, redress –as expressed in both the Roman tragedy and North’s translation. In other words, Henry VI is expressing a naïve hope to still be treated just like Julius Caesar and then gets his wish. 

According to conventional chronology, Shakespeare would not write Julius Caesar until 1599, seven years after the plays on Henry VI, which we know had to have been written by 1592. But the analysis here challenges this chronology. The playwright had clearly already focused on North’s chapter and the famous images of Julius Caesar’s assassination prior to his writing of the early English histories.

In reality, as discussed in Michael Blanding’s North by Shakespeare, North wrote the early English histories for Leicester in the late 1570s, as propaganda against Queen Elizabeth’s potential marriage to the Duke of Alencon. And he had written the Roman tragedy based on his own translations of Plutarch’s Lives just before. It was North’s own work on the Plutarchan tragedies that led to the English histories — not the other way around.

[i] Some editions, including Bevington, use the word bare here. But the word is likely supposed to be bear, i.e., to carry. The ship was carrying both “Caesar and his fortune.” Cf. “Can a weak empty vessel bear such a huge full hogs-head?” (2 Henry IV 2.4.61-62).

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