Sunday, October 10, 2010

Discussion: Henry VI, Part I

The play: The First Part of Henry VI

The plot tweet: England loses French territories despite Talbot because nobles can't stop bickering; Joan of Arc steals the show, gets burned at the stake.

My favorite line:
Marriage, uncle! Alas, my years are young,
And fitter is my study and my books
Than wanton dalliance with a paramour.


Scholars put a lot of energy into dating Shakespeare's plays. Some say that Henry VI, Part I is the Bard's first play; others say it is merely his first history play. Others say this play was written as a prequel after what we know as the second and third parts had already been performed. Other scholars say that this play was a collaboration among many playwrights, so it's not even wholly Shakespeare's.

I think we can all agree that Henry VI, Part I is, at least, not Shakespeare's best work. It lacks the poetry of Julius Caesar and the characterization of Hamlet. The plot -- although it differs wildly from actual English history -- still feels a bit crowded and convoluted.

Nevertheless, I enjoy this play for its handful of memorable characters, especially the sassy Joan of Arc. She consorts with fiends of hell, makes up pregnancy stories to save her own skin and even snottily rejects her own father because he is a peasant. Shakespeare's portrayal of her is surely unfair, but it feels like a breath of fresh air. I keep picturing the virginal Leelee Sobieski and thinking, "You know, if you'd played it that way, your movie would have been much more interesting."

A key benefit of reading Shakespeare's early work is watching him experiment with themes, images and characters that will re-appear in perfected form later in his career. In real life, Joan of Arc was burned at the stake not because she consorted with devils but because she wore male clothing -- just as Shakespeare's greatest comedic heroines will do. The scene here in which Talbot dies with his son in his arms will appear again -- with much greater impact -- in King Lear. And the three fiends who visit Joan will appear again, with considerably more gusto, as the three witches of Macbeth.

In a way, we're watching Shakespeare grow up, both as a person and as a playwright, by reading our way through his career. We're getting to know him quite well, and yet he's as much of a mystery as ever.

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