297. King Henry VI, Part I by William Shakespeare (and others?), c. 1591

King Henry V of England, the victor of Agincourt is dead, and the French waste no time in rising up to take back their cities and lands. Charles, Dauphin of France, has the the advice and assistance of Joan Pucelle (Joan of Arc) who turns the beat around, raising the siege of Orleans, and generally driving the poorly resourced English armies all before her. Where is the English support for their troops? Well, the nobles and Earls are too busy squabbling amongst themselves and jockeying for political position at home to send aid to their field commanders Lords Salisbury and Talbot, and England repeatedly pays the price.

1 Henry VI is regarded by some as Shakespeare’s weakest play, and maybe only partially written by him, with other contemporaries such as Greene, Marlowe, Peele and Nashe all suggested as potential collaborators. However I found it quite entertaining once I got stuck in, and again I think the writing is streets ahead of anything else of the time.

There are a lot of themes to follow in this play, the first of a trilogy. We have the battles between the English and the French, as England loses much of what it had gained, due to

  • the bickering between the English nobles, notably York and Somerset,
  • the daring and skill of Joan Pucelle, the French champion, and the late shift of loyalty of the Duke of Burgundy from the English to the French, and
  • the youth and naivety of young King Henry VI.

There is also the emergence of the power struggle between the Houses of York and Lancaster which will eventually become the War of the Roses. Shakespeare makes up a lot of the dramatic scenes in this play, including the scene in the garden where the two parties start lopping off red and white roses to display their loyalties on their lapels.

Joan steals every scene she’s in, and is harshly portrayed by Shakespeare as a combination of witch, liar, seductress, politician and warrior; far from the saintly vision we imagine today. The English would like to think of her as a sorceress to explain away her martial successes, and there is a scene before her capture where Shakespeare has her demon henchmen appear, only to shun and desert her. While the Bard’s vision of Joan is certainly not flattering, he does portray her as a strong woman, more than capable of facing down the French nobility and battle the English commanders in hand to hand combat. Such strength in female characters hasn’t been seen regularly on stage since the Ancient Greeks.

The play ends with Henry rather disinterestedly agreeing to marry the daughter of the Earl of Armagnac, an arrangement brokered by Cardinal Winchester, simply as a means of ending the war; before being beguiled by Lord Sussex’s description and praise of Margaret of Anjou. Sussex, like Winchester, has his own political interests at heart, relying on being the power behind the Queen (and perhaps enjoying her favours elsewhere)

The play is believed to have been performed between March and June 1592, at which time the London playhouses were closed due to plague. They opened again in December 1592 only to close again on 1st February 1593 as a second wave of the plague struck.

My edition was the New Cambridge Shakespeare edition edited by Michael Hattaway. These versions are my favourite as they give footnotes on the same page as the text, making usage so much easier, and the introductions include production histories and illustrations which help me picture the staging, costumes etc.

Favourite quotes/scenes:

Lots of great moments, such as the rose-plucking scene which escalates from legal argument to vicious dispute, which Warwick sums up nicely:

And here I prophesy : this brawl today grown to this faction in the Temple garden, shall send, between the red rose and the white, a thousand souls to death and deadly night.”

Act 2, scene 5, l. 124-127

and the vitriol between York and Joan as she is dragged off to the stake to be burnt, (Act 5, scene 4) as first she tries to appeal her sentence due to her supposed noble heritage, then by claiming she is with child, although her argument is weakened as she changes her claims of the father’s identity when she sees each suggestion cuts no ice with the English, and finally cursing them with eternal dark and sunless days until they are driven to suicide (now we know who to blame for England’s notoriously bad weather!)

Other good lines include Talbot, defeated in battle by Joan, crying out in disgust on his retreating forces:

“They called us, for our fierceness, English dogs; now like to whelps we crying run away”

Act 1, scene 5, l. 25-26

and even minor players get some good lines. Here’s the French General defending the walls of Bordeaux to Talbot:

“For ere the glass that now begins to run, finish the process of his sandy hour,

These eyes that see thee now well coloured, shall see thee withered, bloody, pale and dead.”

Act 4, scene 2, l. 34-37.

Personal rating:  I’ll give this one 8/10 and I’m looking forward to Part II next week.

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