I, together with my Shakespeare 2020 Facebook Group, spent the three final weeks of January reading the three parts of Shakespeare’s Henry the VI trilogy. I have to say that had it not been for this group, and how early along we were on our quest to read the entire canon, I may not have made it through this slog… especially Part 1! Loving The Bard as much as I do, you have to understand how much it hurts me to call any of his works a slog, but… there it is.
The slog description though, turned out to be ironic in light of the video I watched after reading all three parts. Again, as I did with Twelfth Night, I rented a Globe Player version of Henry VI which happened to be a performance staged outdoors on one of the actual battlefields of the War of the Roses. All three plays, on a simple 16th-century-style stage, were performed in one sitting, with the first installment starting around midday, and the last, ending at dusk. On the day that they filmed – it rained – all day long. So the players were soaked and actually slogging across the stage, which I have to say (being that I was warm and dry while watching it) added to my enjoyment! There was a relatively small cast who played multiple parts (adding to and not alleviating my confusion) but the star, by far, was Beatriz Romilly who energetically, and Peter Pan-like, portrayed Joan of Arc, The Duchess of Glouster, and Lady Gray. Once again, reconfirming that Shakespeare’s plays must be seen as well as read.
Part 1, which is pretty much an introduction to the cast of characters, all thirty of ’em – give or take a porter or a guard here and there! What I got out of it was that Henry V who is dead as the play opens, was the greatest king ever, and there is no way his son 9 months old at the time will ever fill his shoes. Turns out Henry VI is a pretty weak character. Sensitive at best, unable to lead, losing the French territory his father had won, and inadvertently starting the War of the Roses, at worst. The most interesting part I found was the character Joan Pucelle, (or Joan of Arc as she is better known) and the way she is portrayed, which is counter-culture to the way we think of her today. Shakespeare, along with his co-writers of the first part (who could be anyone from Thomas Nashe, Robert Greene, George Peele, Christopher Marlowe, or Thomas Kyd) had to first and foremost please the royalty for whom the play was presented. The play is bumpy, and, at least to me, blatantly slanted against anything French or Catholic. Poor Joan, who is given center stage in her rise to fame and power, and a great line – “And while I live, I’ll never fly from a man” is summarily dismissed as being an insane conjurer who talks to spirits, just before her execution.
Part 2, gets a little better, or should I say more interesting, as Henry grows up, gets married and tries to step out from behind his “protectors.” There are pirates, beheadings, heads on pikes, and a peasant uprising which gives birth to my favorite quote from the play, spoken by Dick the Butcher, “…the first thing we do, lets kill all the lawyers.” [Personal aside: with a son about to graduate from law school, I should point out that this line is grossly misinterpreted. Dick the Butcher was a follower of the rebel Jack Cade, who, leading the uprising, thought that if they disturbed law and order enough, he could become king. Shakespeare meant this line as a compliment to attorneys and judges who, similarly today, are really the only thing that stands between justice in society and anarchy.] The whole 2nd part is fighting among the working-class, the English fighting the French, and a civil war of sorts that divides the leadership, with supporters of either red, or white roses vowing death to the other. Eerily prescient, considering our political situation today.
Part 3, spoiler alert, everybody dies, well almost everybody. Surprisingly to me, given that I have a pretty strong feminist bent, I was appalled, and disgusted with Margaret’s lust for power, and cold blooded ability to murder in order to achieve that power. I think that explains my favorite quote from the third part, which is “Oh tiger’s heart wrapt in a woman’s hide.” It reminds me so much of Adrienne Rich’s poem “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers.” In the poem a woman had to endure a long suffering marriage, oppressed by her domineering husband. Times being what they were, Margaret was oppressed by her less-than-domineering husband, so she lashes out. It is good for a woman to be tiger-like and defend what is hers, but Margaret just went overboard. When reading this part, I was reminded a lot of Alice in Wonderland, with Queen Margaret yelling ‘off with his head,’ and the whole red and white roses thing. Someone posted this article, positing that Alice was a satirization of H6P3 – I think its interesting, but also goes a bit too far. As do most of the characters in this play – killing children, killing brothers, a father who unknowingly kills his son in battle, and a son who does likewise in the same battle. The lust for power is disgusting, and should be (emphasis on the should) a cautionary tale for US politicians at this awful time in our history. This series ends with a speech by the character who will become Richard the III, who has just killed Henry to secure his place on the throne. King Edward and his wife, commoner Lady Gray welcome a new son and look forward to a just and peaceful reign…what could go wrong? Oh wait, what about Richard?!