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August Books 37) Henry VI Part 1

37) The First Part of King Henry the Sixth, by William Shakespeare

So, having finished Proust and the Who novelisations, I have identified another literary project to work on. I had the usual bits of Shakespeare inflicted on me at school, but suddenly got my interest in him engaged several years ago by being sucked into the authorship debates on the h.l.a.s usenet newsgroup. The striking thing there was just how inarticulate and irrational the anti-Stratfordian camp were, be they partisans of the Earl of Oxford, Sir Francis Bacon or Christopher Marlowe as the true author. Without knowing much about the issue I found it painfully easy to pick holes in their arguments.

But that was all years ago now. The availability of texts and other resources on the net, and of my own time while commuting, makes the 38 plays a reasonable target over the next x months, where x is between 4 and 9. I've got the whole text on the Palm Pilot, and ripped all the CDs of the Arkangel Complete Shakespeare to listen to. I'm listing this as bookblogging rather than audio plays basically because I'm working from the script with audio enhancement. I'm doing them in what is generally given as the chronological order, since that seems the most sensible approach. We therefore start with the late Plantagenet tetralogy, the three parts of Henry VI and then Richard III. The part of Henry VI on the Arkangel CDs is played by a young actor called David Tennant; I wonder what he is doing now?

The first play is really much more about Talbot, the English commander in France, and Joan La Pucelle, who inspires the French to treacherously resist their English rulers, than about King Henry, who doesn't even appear until the third act. The story is of increasingly united and successful French prevailing against the divided English, who come to identify their factions with red or white roses. King Henry is rather innocently being manipulated by the factions (including into a rather bizarre arranged marriage in the last act, organised by Suffolk who is deeply in love with the future queen himself).

Talbot gets the best two scenes, at the end of the fourth act, in rhyming couplets with his son as they go to their doom in combat. It's not surprising that the most explicit contemporary record of Henry VI Part 1 being performed is Nashe's note about a play about Talbot. The moral lesson of the play is that thanks to the power-hungry squabbles of the English leadership, Talbot's courage and leadership are lost disastrously (there is also a very peculiar scene with the Countess of Auvergne who attempts to capture him, but apparently ends up being seduced herself). The play runs out of steam and direction after his death.

The other fascinating character is Joan La Pucelle. The English (and some of the French) accuse her of being a whore and a witch, but there is nothing in the script of the first four acts to support this; I must say I was expecting her to be a misguided idealist à la Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan. So it actually came as rather a shock in the last act when she did, in fact, turn out to be consorting with demons and pleaded to be spared execution on the grounds of pregnancy, though she couldn't remember who the father was (the implication is surely that she is just making it up). Of course, there is a large element of simple anti-French propaganda operating here; but I was surprised that her transformation into panic-stricken witch in the last act seemed so sudden.

Anyway, it is generally a good read; the battles would require careful and diligent staging, to keep the different factions distinct and give clear outcomes to the various sieges and other engagements, and that's one thing that just doesn't come across on audio.

Fails the Bechdel test, as I imagine most of these will do.

Henry VI, Part I | Henry VI, Part II | Henry VI, Part III | Richard III | Comedy of Errors | Titus Andronicus | Taming of the Shrew | Two Gentlemen of Verona | Love's Labour's Lost | Romeo and Juliet | Richard II | A Midsummer Night's Dream | King John | The Merchant of Venice | Henry IV, Part I | Henry IV, Part II | Henry V | Julius Caesar | Much Ado About Nothing | As You Like It | Merry Wives of Windsor | Hamlet | Twelfth Night | Troilus and Cressida | All's Well That Ends Well | Measure for Measure | Othello | King Lear | Macbeth | Antony and Cleopatra | Coriolanus | Timon of Athens | Pericles | Cymbeline | The Winter's Tale | The Tempest | Henry VIII | The Two Noble Kinsmen | Edward III | Sir Thomas More (fragment)


( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 28th, 2008 08:30 pm (UTC)
I guess an awful lot of drama fails the Bechdel test. I remember being a little shocked (but less surprised) at Central to realise that, like most (all?) other accredited drama schools, the intake was well over 60% male, and the women accepted were nearly all slim-and-beautiful. The rationale, apparently, was that this reflected the level of demand for actors.
Aug. 28th, 2008 08:48 pm (UTC)
Good plan! I'm in the midst of reading the complete workd as well, but not in chronological order - I've read all the histories and am now deep into the comedies.

My favourite bit in Henry VI part 1 in Act 5 Scene 3, where Suffolk is wooing Margaret on Henry's behalf: when Suffolk gives the usual Shakespearian asides, Margaret is baffled and asks him who he's talking to - then she does it, and when he wonders why she's speaking in this funny way she's all "you started it, mate". Fantastic.
Aug. 29th, 2008 07:01 am (UTC)
It's a nice line, but I found the scene as a whole rather creepy!
Aug. 29th, 2008 12:25 am (UTC)
I have a vague memory that Part I was the last of that trilogy to be written, although it's all conjecture as I suspect in some cases he was working with existing texts, others just dramatising Holinshed (or Plutarch or ...). Not to mention we're dealing with a mixture of cues and copy books and transcriptions from original productions or revivals rather than direct from the author.

The authorship debate ends up being tedious and often tedious - as in Marlowe is a better writer than Shakespeare and Marlowe actually wrote Shakespeare's plays.... Imitation and parody and group writing makes it all very muddy.

(Personally I find Marlowe easier to deal with but that's partly because he isn't as good)
Aug. 29th, 2008 07:08 am (UTC)
As far as I know the jury is out on whether Part 1 is a prequel or not. I may have a view after I've read the others, but I felt that if was going to start on four linked plays written within a short time of each other I might as well go by internal chronology.

I've wasted far too much time on the authorship debate; it seemed to me that a lot of the anti-Shakespeare sentiment was based on class prejudice - he comes from too poor and unglamorous a background to be a Great Writer. (In the more extreme versions of Oxfordian fantasy, the unglamorous earl is the product of a calculated breeding programme to produce genius.)
Aug. 29th, 2008 11:03 am (UTC)
Spoliers for Henry the V
I think I (last) read them in the monarch order - summat like Richard II to Richard III. I maybe did King John for good measure. (I may have skipped Henry VIII - think I was focusing on Elizabethan stuff.) Given the two trilogies and Henry V being late for a history play I have visions of the manager of the theatre coming up to Shakespeare and saying, "Bill, baby, a little word. I reckon you should fill in that gap there. Think of the possibilities. We could devoted whole weekends to it. Do all the plays in order. It'll marvellous, darling."

Shakespeare mutters to himself and says, in his thick, Brummie accent, "But I'd have to Agincourt like. And that's ten thousand archers. We've only got twelve in the cast at the moment and Kit's not looking well, his varicose veins have been playing up."

"Bill - sweetie, love - dahling - you can do it."

"We'll just have to tell the audience to imagine it," says the Bard. "Great muse of fire!"
Aug. 29th, 2008 04:55 am (UTC)
"A young actor called David Tennant; I wonder what he is doing now?"
Hamlet, I believe <grin>
Aug. 29th, 2008 11:51 am (UTC)
I lost some respect for Mark Rylance when I found he was an Oxfordian, and one whose argument was explicitly "A trademan's son from the provinces couldn't have written like that".
Sep. 2nd, 2008 05:28 pm (UTC)
I'm of the 'thank goodness he was a glover's son' branch
I can't wait to read your thoughts on Coriolanus. Mostly due to seeing it done live, he's become my favourite Shakespearean lead role.

Re: Joan, I do wonder if he was under some kind of pressure to make sure that damned Frenchwoman did look villanous by the end of it.

Re: Bechdel test - depending on how you read Juliet and the Nurse's first scene and Katherine learning French in Henry V, those might pass. Hamlet and MacBeth definitely don't, and I've expunged most of the Merchant of Venice but I think that doesn't. At a guess, As You Like it might, as might Much Ado About Nothing, but I'm reasonably sure Richard II, A Midsummer Night's Dream and the Tempest don't.
Sep. 8th, 2008 09:22 pm (UTC)
I'm kind of against people reading through Shakespeare's plays like they were novels - they are plays, and they really ought to be seen performed. I wish the history plays would get more of an outing, as they are a bag of fun.
Sep. 8th, 2008 09:28 pm (UTC)
having said that, listening to audio versions may be acceptable.
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )

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