My Time of Shakespeare: The First Tetralogy – Henry VI First Part

07 Mar

King Henry VI. Part 1. Act II. Scene 5. From the Painting in the Boydell Gallery, J. Northcote, R.A.

I recently learned about what the scholars have called Shakespeare’s two tetralogies. The first quartet includes Henry VI Part 1, 2 and 3 and Richard III and the second includes Richard II, Henry IV Part 1 and 2 and Henry V. When I discovered these organizations, my eyes bulged and I may have vacuumed all oxygen from the room. I love order. As an example of my quirk, I found a collection of Hardy Boys books tucked away in the storage crevices of my parent’s basement and, after seeing numeric labels on their spines, I instinctively yeared for #1. Also, when I decide to tackle an author, I like to begin with their first work. When journeying through literature, with its monumental scope and canonical subjectivity, order helps the traveller gauge their progress while that gentle stretching feeling of a broadening perspective helps them endure the painful acknowledgment of the minimal mileage they’ve wandered. It also reminds them of the value in those few steps.

I had trouble deciding how I would read these two tetralogies. Should I read them in the order that Shakespeare wrote them, starting with Henry VI Part 1? Or should I follow history and begin with Richard II and the second tetralogy? Well, everyone loves a prequel.

In My Time of Shakespeare, I look forward to reading all of his histories. While reading this play, I suddenly basked in the idea that Shakespeare triumphed in the writer’s arena because he saw art in the real world. All the world’s a stage! Perhaps he does not advise us like a parent, but laughs in uncontrollabel joy at seeing art in life. It might mean that we have parts to play, destinies to fulfill in the writer’s plot, but it can also mean that art, beauty and truth can be gleaned from the very circumstances of reality in the same way as we see it in a staged story. The writer, or any artist, need not fully create their truth and beauty but simply replicate what they see in the real world. Therefore, these histories excite me!

Shakespeare ripens Henry VI Part 1 with suffocating division on all fronts of the world – Henry versus Charles, Richard Plantagenet versus Somerset, Gloster versus Winchester, etc. The play begins with the mourning of Henry V and the end of a unified time when all England rose behind their king in one cause. I imagine the audience must immediately look for characters with whom to allign themselves but, because of the great rhetoric surrounding Henry V’s passing, they must look for those characters who would labor for his legacy. Shakespeare does not hesitate to influence their allegiances either. During occasional lonely soliloquies, he reveals the deceiptful schemes of Winchester and Suffolk which contrast the noble minds of Gloster and others and, with Exeter’s words, he chastises those who would bring about the demise of Henry V’s England.

One of the main divisions, between Plantagenet and Somerset, the origins of the War of the Roses, carries a theme not uncommon to other Shakespeare plays. Plantagenet, stripped of his noble rights because previous kings convicted his forebears of treason, has something to prove. To those who would insult his family and threaten, what he understands as, his rightful inheritance, he gnashes his teeth quickly and with a hot head. Those opposed to him feel they defend the crown and the order of England but Shakespeare asks us to determine whether a man ought to suffer judgement for his individual merit or his noble blood. Two ideas, one traditional and one revolutionary, fester within the spirit of England. And, until a certain point, we entertain the idea that a noble heart and just merit might endure!

I admit I will continue on to Part 2 with an affection for Henry VI. Despite his age, he shows wisdom and a care for the well-being of his country, moreso than for his own pleasure and glory. Throughout his time in the play he implores his subjects, and finally France, for peace, speaks of the importance of schooling before marriage, cannot reason why two countries professing the same faith fight, and presents himself as a kind of Solomon on the throne of justice. However, with all the division within England, which Exeter prophesies as the root of its coming demise, I began to question the hypocrisy of Henry VI’s views on division and unity in his relationship with France. I promptly applauded his demand for peace amongst his English nobility. But knowing that he saw France as his rightful domain like he does English soil, why would he not immediately demand peace between the two countries in the same fasion? After all, in his view, France and England are one kingdom. Later in the play, he presents a peace accord and ultimately stops the fighting but it does not resemble the same moral fortitude which governed his treatment of Gloster and Winchester’s feud. I suppose we will forgive him politics.

Throughout the play, Shakespeare romances his audience back and forth between England and France. In France, the idyllic image strikes the audience in gross contrast to that of England. After meeting Joan of Arc, I imagined her as David (and perhaps Shakespeare did as well with her shepherding background) battling Goliath. She brings spirit and prophesy, pours confidence down the throats of the French government and armies. Of course, the English slander her as a witch and I rebuked their sore losing. But her under-dog status beams so brightly that it blinded me to the fact that she does little to help France on the field. She bolsters their spirits but loses cities as soon as she regains them. They suffer setbacks after their first battle. And the eventual outcome of the war looks little like what she promises. But Shakespeare perfectly plotted her role against her Goliath.

Talbot, who spends his time in France battling the French armies and compouding his monolithic legend and reputation, truly embodies the once-loved warring nobility and romantic bloodlust of Henry V. All of France fears him, all of England loves him and both nations revere him. Shakespeare cleverly reveals him as a man of average stature during a meeting with Lady Margaret, but his armies comprise his limbs and his spirit swells with conviction. Perhaps he resembles the real historic possibility of Goliath who Israel may have symbolized as a giant because of the same qualities embodied by Talbot.

Shakespeare pivots the story on Talbot’s death and also foreshadows England’s coming demise with it. His death may jerk more tears from the audience than any other scene in the play. Shakespeare couples him with his son in battle and they argue in lofty sentiments of a warrior’s honor and duty. Yet they would both sacrifice their lives and legacy so the other might live with honor. Ironically, Talbot’s warrior sentiments do not keep him on the field. His son does. And with words of simple rhyming poetry, father and son intertwine in speech and fate – all because of the bickering between Plantagenet and Somerset! Talbot’s death divides the under-dog sympathies for the noble heart in the earlier parts of the play with the vile stench of foreboding as the deceipt and cunning of noble birth begin to dominate the rest of the play. We see Winchester successfully purchase his position as Cardinal though we know him as a treacherous man lusting after power. We see the King break his word to a French woman because of Suffolk’s manipulation. We see the noble heart revealed as a farce as Joan conjures fiends like a witch and goes to her execution with a crumbling integrity. We see Charles cross his fingers while accepting a peace accord which places him as viceroy of France answering only to King Henry VI. Where noble sympathies once ruled, evil trickery amongst noble officials now reigns.

And this is Shakespeare’s twist. To tease the audience with victory for the noble heart – the conjurer of Talbot’s Goliath-like legend and imagined stature, the holder of the shepherd peasant Joan of Arc’s place at the head of the great table of French history, the key to Plantagenet’s seat in York – but give the play’s reward to sedition and the cunning of birthright.

Oh, how audiences must feel…and impatiently await Part 2!

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Posted by on March 7, 2013 in William Shakespeare


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