BOOK REVIEW: Henry VI, Part 1 by William Shakespeare

King Henry VI, Part 1King Henry VI, Part 1 by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Like some of the other histories, this one is not so much about the titular character (Henry VI) as it takes place during his reign, and, in this case, it’s the very beginning of young Henry VI’s rule. In fact, this play begins with Henry V’s funeral. Henry VI does play a role as the naïve, new ruler who has the childlike wisdom of one who can’t see why everybody is getting so upset about what seem like trifling matters (e.g. infighting) when more crucial problems are at hand (e.g. France in revolt.) This is best seen in the young King’s gentle rebuke of the aristocrats for the big deal they are making about the color of rose being worn – which includes Henry’s innocent wearing of a white rose to make a point. (The events leading up to the War of the Roses feature prominently in the story, i.e. the civil war between the House Plantagenet and the House York.)

All that being said, if one were to pick a protagonist for this play it would have to be the great military commander, Talbot (pitted against his French counterpart, Joan of Arc — referred to as Pucelle throughout the play.) Early in the play, Talbot is captured, and this throws the English into a panic because he’s considered the linchpin of their forces in France (and because England is in a fragile state with Henry VI being young and inexperienced.) Talbot’s release is negotiated (the French, perhaps, being dismissive of how crucial the English see Talbot as being.) This dismissiveness is later seen in an episode with the Countess of Auvergne. The Countess, surprised to find Talbot is not a giant – given his reputation, thinks she is about have him arrested. When asked how he obtained such an outsized reputation, Talbot calls for his men, who promptly make an overwhelming show of force, clarifying wherein his power lies and putting to rest the idea that her men can take him. Act IV sees the tragic end of Talbot and his son, who each try to get the other to leave a battlefield dominated by the French, but neither will do so and so they die together.

The reason the great Talbot gets outplayed is two-fold. First, Joan (Pucelle) convinces the Duke of Burgundy to change sides, which significantly changes the balance of forces. Second, the English infighting between Somerset and York plays out in Talbot being denied reinforcements. The tragedy of this being that Talbot is universally-beloved, and it’s through no fault of his own that he can’t get the backup he needs. He is lost due to the pissing contest of lesser men.

Act V shows us how a peace is brokered that hinges on an arranged marriage for the young Henry. This provides us a [kind of] story wrap-up, i.e. a moment of stability. However, it’s no surprise that there are more parts to come, because there is a tremendous amount of divisiveness yet to play out. There is the embryonic War of the Roses, and a related great deal of contention over the deal that was brokered to end the war in France. For one thing, at one point Henry was doubly betrothed, and there was dissention about which fiancé he should pursue. But even if there hadn’t been a second choice, there was still room for conflict over what was seen as a bad deal (no dowry to be paid from the Princess’s side and – in fact – the relinquishment of territories – a reverse dowry if you will.)

A lot of people consider this to be one of Shakespeare’s worst plays. (The insult is often not against Shakespeare as many also believe he only partially penned this play, as well as some of the other lesser-loved plays.) I must say, as Histories go, I found this one to be quite readable. (Of course, I didn’t despise “Titus Andronicus” either – though it is mega-bloody and perhaps not as nuanced a story as the later tragedies.) I think the Act IV tragedy and the political infighting made for some intense emotional resonance. In general, the histories are constrained by how interesting the events are rather than how creative the playwright can order them (though a number of the tragedies follow events – as they were known — fairly closely.)

Part of the complaint may have to do more with language than story, and from this perspective, I must say there are not a lot lines that leap out at one in the manner typical of Shakespeare.

At any rate, I wouldn’t necessarily dismiss this play based on its (relatively) diminished stature, lest one make the same mistake as the Countess.


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