The Shakespeare Project: Henry VI, Part I

Wikipedia tells me that Henry VI, Part I was one of Shakespeare’s earliest histories. It shows. It lacks the verbal fireworks and beauty of his later works and there is little, if any comedy. It’s workmanlike and bases a lot more on action and more direct drama than his later works.

Of particular note is the character assassination Shakespeare renders on Joan of Arc. She starts out reasonable enough but then tries to sell her soul to demons for help, begs for her life and tries to lie and deceive her way out of the stake. Given what we know of Joan of Arc — even after hefty English rewriting of the historical record — this is pretty far from the truth. By all accounts, Joan was a smart woman who met her accusers effectively and died bravely. Had the French listened to her and protected her, the Hundred Years War might actually have finished in a hundred years. This one of the rare times when the Tudor propaganda aspects of the histories really jumps out (and possibly a bit of misogyny as well). I’m told that in some performances, Joan is more of a comic character, as are most of the French. I didn’t find them particularly funny.

Still, the play has its good parts. The action is easy to follow and the conflicts well-described. Henry VI is effectively portrayed as a bit too innocent, inadvertently dooming his house when he chooses to wear a red rose. It’s a tiny moment that is one of the most important moments in the Henry VI tetralogy. Talbot is the most developed character and the scene where he and his son beg each other to leave the doomed field of battle is one of the highlights of the play. And the theme of the histories — that England is weak when divided — shows most strongly in this play when the rivalries between the English lords destroys England’s occupation of France.

So definitely a worthwhile read. Hopefully, I’ll finish part II on a time scale of less than six months.

Next Up: Um, Henry the VI, Part II, of course.

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