Thursday, January 20, 2011

January Reviews and Comments

After having read 1 Henry VI through twice, I still feel rather mixed about it. There were some beautiful passages of poetry, especially in the first scene with Henry V's funeral:

Hung be the heavens with black, yield day to night!
Comets, importing change of times and states,
Brandish your crystal tresses in the sky,
And with them scourge the bad revolting stars
That have consented unto Henry's death!

At the same time, the battle scenes were confusing, especially the siege of Orleans. I had to keep checking to see which side was supposed to be inside the town because sometimes it seemed like they switched places. Also, I was unsure as to why France settled with the English that Charles would merely be a viceroy when it seemed like they had been winning. Was Joan of Arc's capture really that crushing of a blow? I seem to remember that in "real" history they handed her over to the English.

I think the play would have been much tighter had Shakespeare written it later. There were several layers of plot and at least three sets of characters that were vying against each other throughout besides the French and English forces as represented by Talbot and Joan of Arc. This is not unusual for Shakespeare but it seemed like too many loose ends in this case and no central story. The jockeying between the Lord Protector and Cardinal Winchester for control over the young king was one interesting strand, as was the conflict between Somerset (red rose) and York (white rose). Both were resolved quite inefficiently by their sovereign demanding them to shake hands and make peace in his name. And the final twist of Suffolk arranging the marriage of Henry with Margaret of Anjou seemed to come out of left field--who was this random earl? I suppose that's why there are two more plays to come. Overall, I'm glad I read it and look forward to seeing how Shakespeare deals with all the confusion in the next play.

If you have anything you'd like to share about your January Shakespeare reading, please use Mr. Linky below to link to your blog post. Use the convention YourName(play read/discussed). If you don't have a blog, please feel free to write your review in the comments section.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The First Part of Henry VI: Background Notes

1 Henry VI begins Shakespeare’s first historical tetralogy, if you leave out Henry VIII and King John. Though chronologically out of order, he wrote the Henry VI plays and Richard III before Richard II, the Henry IV plays, and Henry V. I’ve never read these early works, probably because they are not highly regarded and for many years were disputed in terms of authorship by some. It seems quirky, if nothing else, that Shakespeare devoted three plays to the story of such an ineffectual, possibly mad king as Henry VI. Nevertheless, as Hershel Baker wrote in the Riverside intro, “if the Henry VI plays had served no other purpose, it would have been enough that they supplied him [Shakespeare] an apprenticeship and prepared him for that great event [writing Richard III].”

All three plays deal with England’s gradual loss of French territory, increased factions among nobles, and eventual civil war due to internal strife. This first part focuses on the loss of France--if one can call a compression of thirty years into five acts focusing--and encompasses Henry V’s funeral, Joan of Arc’s triumph and death, hints at the beginning of the War of the Roses, and ends with the betrothal of Margaret of Anjou to the king. The plays may be viewed as a justification for the Tudor rule after Richard III but also more broadly as Shakespeare’s attempt to dramatize the causes and patterns of a medieval past for the audience of the Elizabethan present. (See Tony Tanner’s Prefaces to Shakespeare for more if you’re interested--it’s great!)

I’m curious to see if the play will seem “less Shakespearean” since it was his earliest. I’d also be interested to find out whether there are any recent performances that have been recorded of it. I noticed in passing somewhere that the three plays have been combined and abridged in various performances but I’m not sure if 1 Henry VI has been performed on its own very often.

Brief challenge housekeeping notes: Please feel free to post comments or links to anything you all are posting about your reading here. I will create a January review page once I finish my own reading but if I’m too slow for you, please feel free to post your review links here as well. Also, if you’ve joined recently and your blog requires an invitation to view it, please invite me! And, welcome everyone--I’m so excited that so many of you joined me!