Friday, September 8, 2017

Henry VI, Part 1 by William Shakespeare

The time has finally come to dig into Shakespeare's Lesser Tetralogy--four history plays comprising three parts of Henry VI and then Richard III. While Richard III is familiar to me through having seen a couple of films of the play, I'd never really heard of or been interested in Henry VI, so I didn't really know what to expect.

Henry VI Part 1 begins with Henry V's funeral, then skips forward in time to the last throes of the Hundred Years' War. While the young King's nobles clash over who will control the kingdom, the heroic Lord Talbot has his hands full dealing with an insurrection in France headed by the Dauphin (the same one that appears in Henry V, making him Henry VI's uncle, for those trying to keep track) together with the strange and magnetic personality of La Pucelle, Joan of Arc.

As usual, I began by watching a production of the play, this one a rather truncated stage performance which I found on Youtube. Shakespeare is always, always better performed, and I enjoyed the quick volley of battlefield scenes and the heavy, tragic irony that pervades this play, as Henry's nobles inevitably tear down the accomplishments of his father.

However, apart from a couple of scenes, the play seemed a little flat and dead, and I was astonished to crack open the source material, the play itself, and find that the faults were if anything magnified here. That's right: Henry VI, Part 1 is actually a bad play.

Opinion seems to be divided as to whether Henry VI, Part 1 was Shakespeare's very first play, or just a very early one written as a rather unnecessary prequel to Parts 2 and 3. From the play itself I would tend to lean toward the first theory, as it's clumsy on a purely verbal level. Within a disgustingly short time, Shakespeare would be writing things like Richard III, which is full of things like the opening speech or the courtship scene with Anne Neville--speeches that soar, scenes that glitter with wit. Very little of that is evident here. There are very few memorable lines. Long speeches plod and limp. Whole subplots fall flat on their faces (like the weird scene where the Countess of Auvergne makes a half-hearted attempt to seduce Talbot). Scenes and characters with marvellous potential, that almost come alive on the stage - like the capture of Margaret of Anjou by Suffolk, which touches off a relationship almost as skin-crawlingly wrong as Richard III and Anne's, or John Talbot's refusal to leave his father - seem, when read, to have been written by someone with ten thumbs, salvageable only through judicious editing and careful acting. But most of the play could have been terrific, and is merely forgettable, like the scene where the factions of York and Lancaster adopt the red and white roses as their emblems, which shows a neat piece of historical mythmaking--if only the dialogue had measured up to it.

It was actually a fascinating experience, reading this play. It's Shakespeare before he became Shakespeare. Later, he would learn how to deliver dense historical exposition without constantly having characters come on to do the dreaded As You Know. A typical scene begins, rather painfully:
MASTER-GUNNER: Sirrah, thou know'st how Orleans is besieg'd,
And how the English have the suburbs won.
SON: Father, I know; and of have shot at them,
Howe'er, unfortunate, I missed my aim.
Even on the rare occasions that Shakespeare does ascend into the flights of wordplay that will mark his great plays, something just seems a!
SIR WILLIAM LUCY: Is Talbot slain—the Frenchmen's only scourge,
Your kingdom's terror and black Nemesis?
O, were mine eye-balls into bullets turn'd,
That I in rage might shoot them at your faces!
The stage directions in this play are unusually detailed (for Shakespeare), and come with plenty of action, which when well-handled on stage actually give the plot a sense of momentum. There's even a duel between Joan of Arc and the Dauphin. She beats him, thereby proving either that she truly comes from God, or more likely that the French are major wimps. 

Actually, Joan of Arc is one of the most controversial things about this play, since Shakespeare paints her as a thorough villain about half the time--calling on fiends, deriding her father, lying desperately to save her life. But the other half of the time, she seems to believe her own claims to be sent by heaven, and even acts like it (especially as she confronts the Duke of Burgundy about his loyalties). I said in my review of Henry V that the word that continually comes to mind as I've been reading these history plays is ambiguity, but Henry VI's La Pucelle doesn't attain the wonderful paradoxical yet unified ambiguity of the title characters of Henry V or Richard II. I don't know if Shakespeare was hamfistedly attempting this kind of ambiguity (settling only for contradictoriness), or whether he was simply an inexperienced writer being dragged off course by a larger-than-life historical figure. Either way, all we can do is look at the subtleties Shakespeare would achieve as a mature author and imagine how terrific his Joan of Arc might have been, written later in his career.

Of course, not everything in this play is bad, and although the characters and writing are unconvincing, the plot and theme are actually quite good. Henry VI, Part 1 finds its thematic material in the contrast of Henry's selfish, ambitious nobles with the desperate heroism of Lord Talbot's attempts to keep hold of France. There's dramatic irony in buckets here. Self-interested cowards like Sir John Fastolfe (not to be confused with Henry IV's Falstaff!) save their lives by fleeing the battlefield at the drop of a hat. Self-interested nobles like Somerset, York, and dark-horse contender Suffolk either let their personal ambitions get in the way of assisting the war, or use it to achieve their own ulterior goals. And the immature King Henry is willing to trade his father's conquests based on a sight-unseen infatuation for Margaret of Anjou. All of them in different ways betray the heritage of Henry V, and the efforts of Talbot and his men to retain that honour and power. While York and Somerset exchange hissy emails, the heroic Talbot line is perishing on the battlefield.

This play only sets the scene for the upcoming Wars of the Roses. As England lurches closer to civil war, her best and brightest are thrown away in France. It's a sombre tale that could have been brilliant in the hands of a better dramatist--like Shakespeare himself would become just a couple of years later. 

Find Henry VI, Part 1 on Amazon, the Book Depository, Project Gutenberg or Librivox.

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