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henry vi, part 1

16 november 2015

Henry VI, Part 1 is not exactly a great play, but it's got energy and directness going for it, and seems to have made an impression on the rare occasions when modern companies have tried performing it.

The Henry VI plays are the last of Shakespeare's that anybody reads, and I'd only read each of them once before. I'd forgotten most of what I read, except that one of them was about Joan of Arc and another was about Jack Cade (one of whose men says "First thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers," though I remembered it as Cade himself).

Henry VI, Part 1 is the Joan of Arc play. This is not George Bernard Shaw's Joan of Arc or your mass-card Joan of Arc or Ingrid Bergman or Amber Tamblyn, for that matter. Shakespeare's Joan is a horny wench led by a set of fiends akin to Doctor Faustus' impish collaborators. She sets her cap for the Dolphin of France, turns her back on her shepherding family, and kicks English butt till the English kick hers. You have to like this Joan of Arc unless you are deeply into the pure-maiden saintly version. She flashes the slangy cynicism that the Bastard displays in King John, and despite being an opportunist and something of a fraud, it's exciting to see the military, political, and satiric energy in a Shakespearean history play coming from a female character.

The play also features an overachieving superhero named Talbot, who is the bane of the French. It takes being surrounded by French troops and abandoned by his squabbling allies to finally bring Talbot down (and his young son with him). Cambridge editor Michael Hattaway talks about the comic-book quality of some notable productions of Henry VI, Part 1, and Talbot is a big part of that. He's likable despite being over the top, and one feels for his fate despite its stylized quality.

H6 Part 1 casts an interesting retrospective light on the King's famous catalog of "household words" in Henry V:

Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester (Act 4, Scene 3).
All these noblemen (except of course Harry, whose death opens the Henry VI plays) appear in Henry VI, Part 1, and several of them meet sticky ends. Talbot, as mentioned, is cut down along with his kid. He's already buried Salisbury, who dies onstage in a ghastly way, struck by a cannon shell, half his face blown away. "Bedford dies, and is carried in by two in his chair," the victim of "sickness … and crazy age." Warwick becomes a deep conspirator in what will soon break out as the Wars of the Roses; Gloucester spends the play feuding bitterly with the Bishop of Winchester. Only Exeter seems to get through in relatively neutral and loyal fashion. It doesn't matter at all to someone watching Henry V, of course, but it's interesting to think of Shakespeare writing those lines years later in the play set earlier, and thinking of the ironies that Henry V could not foresee in his famous speech.

For all its action and vigor, much of Henry VI, Part 1 makes dull reading. Nobody actually says "Lord Scroop of Masham, hie thee hither hence," but much of the time they might as well be. In Act 2, Scene 5, a certain Mortimer is brought in for the purposes of explaining the royal lineage of Britain to a certain Richard Plantagenet and then dying. On his deathbed, Mortimer has nothing much better to do than go on for pages in this vein:

young Richard thus removed,
Leaving no heir begotten of his body,
I was the next by birth and parentage,
For by my mother I derivèd am
From Lionel, Duke of Clarence, third son
To King Edward the Third; whereas he
From John of Gaunt doth bring his pedigree,
Being but fourth of that heroic line.
But mark: as in this haughty great attempt
They labourèd to plant the rightful heir,
I lost my liberty, and they their lives.
Long after this, when Henry the Fifth,
Succeeding his father Bolingbroke, did reign,
Thy father, Earl of Cambridge, then derived
From famous Edmund Langley, Duke of York,
Marrying my sister that thy mother was …
I don't know if the actor playing Plantagenet has ever made as if to fall asleep at this point, but it would be a nice relief.

Shakespeare, William. The First Part of King Henry VI. 1623. Edited by Michael Hattaway. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990. PR 2814 .A2H38