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)

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1 Response to August Books 37) Henry VI Part 1

  1. yea_mon says:


    a bit off-topic, but what do you make of Salmond’s claiming that beating the Conservatives, Labour, and Lib-Dems combined in the party vote entitles the SNP to be the sole arbiter of the referendum? Do people solely use the party vote to vote for the party that they wish to represent them, or is it used as a protest vote/second vote by some people?

    Reference for Salmond’s statement:

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