Monday, May 23, 2016

Henry VI Part 1 - Shakespeare

Henry VI, part 1 is much more episodic than the other history plays that I've read.  It features a very young (teenage?) King Henry VI, with many advisers jockeying for position around him.  Humphrey of Gloucester starts in the best position, as his legal protector.  The king has been promised by treaty to be king of France, as well as England but large portions of France are resisting him.  War rages.
The lead English warrior, Talbot, has something of a mythic Greek stature.  Battles are won by his arm.  The French fear him as a personal scourge of their country.  In opposition, a mystic French girl named Joan.  The French are rallying.
Back in England, the fighting in the court is intensifying.  The main fight is between Richard of York and the Duke of Somerset.  While in the garden, the two forces pluck a white and a red rose and they immediately become symbols of their two sides.  (Foreshadowing!)  Also, one of the main counter claimants to the throne, a man named Mortimer, is dying and he tells Richard that he is now the true heir.  Richard vows to pursue this claim.
Back in France, the city of Rouen switches back and forth between the French and English.  Joan (of Arc) persuades one of the English main allies, Burgundy, to back the French instead.  The heroic Talbot is trapped by the French army and petty bickering between English lords means that reinforcements won't arrive in time.  Talbot's son arrives and, though they both try to convince the other to flee, they both stay and die.
Joan is captured by the English and burned at the stake as a witch.  This happens after her character is thoroughly debased.  A fragile peace is made with the French, but the French immediately plan to violate it.  The Earl of Suffolk captures princess Margaret of Anjou.  He falls in love with her, but he is already married.  He instead, gets her to agree to marry king Henry VI, so he can be near her (and control the throne).

This is very early Shakespeare.  In fact, there is some argument over just how much of it is Shakespeare and how much of it is part of a collaboration.  The characters fit much more neatly into the heroic age of chivalry than the more complicated later ones.  Talbot, for instance, would not have existed like that in the later 'Henriad'.  Even Henry V, another heroic figure, is shown to be much more human and less of a cardboard prop.
In the same vein, plays like Richard II had a straight line story throughout them.  You could trace a character arc and feel genuine sympathy for people involved.  Not so much here.  Henry VI part 1 is more like an old comic strip of history. 
It's very disappointing in comparison to the later works, but that may be unfair.  From what I understand, this was in line with the works of the time and then Shakespeare himself moved the idea of what theater could and should be.  Which...doesn't mean that I won't judge it harshly.  But the idea of the time involved is important. 
Overall, it's interesting, but falls far short of greatness.

The treatment of Joan of Arc here is something else.  Shakespeare starts by showing her as receiving holy visions.  She convinces the leaders of the French to follow her and indeed, she is invincible in battle.  This ends when Joan has a falling out with her spirit familiars.  Basically, she has sold her soul to demons and has nothing left to give them. 
She is captured and sentenced to be burned at the stake.  She protests that she is a holy virgin and they still want to burn her.  She tells them that she is pregnant and she doesn't want the unborn baby to be harmed.  When they ask who is the father, she keeps changing the story, which suggests that she 'got around'.  Then she is taken off stage and executed.
This is rather shocking treatment of someone who was a national hero of France.  Maybe not so shocking considering relations between France and England, but still.  It feels like pure propaganda. 

Worth reading for completests, but not the best work in the bunch.

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