Sunday, 7 August 2022

Henry VI, Part 1

This is one of the candidates for the title of Shakespeare’s Worst Play. What do I think? Let’s see. I don’t have a lot to say, but I’m going to poke at it from different directions. 

1/ Generally speaking, when you’re spoilt by Shakespeare, the language here is not very good. But once in a while, I come across something interesting. 

“BEDFORD […] Our isle be made a nourish of salt tears, 

And none but women left to wail the dead…” 

(Act 1 scene 1) 

The king, my lord, is dead. 

“PUCELLE […] Glory is like a circle in the water, 

Which never ceaseth to enlarge itself 

Till by broad spreading it disperse to nought…” 

(Act 1 scene 2) 

The Christopher Marlowe chapter in Jonathan Bate’s The Genius of Shakespeare is good to (re)read whilst reading this play: we know Marlowe tends to write 2 kinds of characters—the overreacher and the Machiavellian schemer—and Bate says Shakespeare created “a figure who was both Faustus-like conjuror and cunning schemer: Joan la Pucelle”.

Bate then says, by dramatising the war between Talbot and Joan, Shakespeare doesn’t let a single character dominate the play, as Marlowe generally does. 

“TALBOT My thoughts are whirlèd like a porter’s wheel; 

I know not where I am, nor what I do. 

A witch, by fear, not force, like Hannibal, 

Drives back our troops and conquers as she lists; 

So bees with smoke and doves with noisome stench 

Are from their hives and houses driven away. 

They called us for our fierceness English dogs; 

Now, like to whelps, we crying run away…” 

(Act 1 scene 5) 

On a side note, this is silly:  

“TALBOT […] Pucelle or pussel, Dolphin or dogfish, 

Yours hearts I’ll stamp out with my horse’s heels, 

And make a quagmire of your mingled brains…” 


2/ Look at this passage: 

“TALBOT I laugh to see your ladyship so fond

To think that you have aught but Talbot’s shadow 

Wherein to practice your severity.

COUNTESS Why, art not thou the man?

TALBOT I am indeed.

COUNTESS Then have I substance too.

TALBOT No, no, I am but shadow of myself: 

You are deceived, my substance is not here, 

For what you see is but the smallest part

And least proportion of humanity […] 

COUNTESS This is a riddling merchant for the nonce; 

He will be here; and yet he is not here. 

How can these contrarieties agree?” 

(Act 2 scene 3) 

Perhaps I’m talking rubbish, but I can’t help thinking that even though this exchange is not very well phrased, this kind of doublespeak is very Shakespearean: like “so foul and fair a day I have not seen” in Macbeth, or “brown and not brown”, “true and not true” in Troilus and Cressida

3/ Almost all of a sudden, I came across something that sounded more like Shakespeare: 

“MORTIMER Kind keepers of my weak decaying age, 

Let dying Mortimer here rest himself. 

Even like a man new halèd from the rack, 

So fare my limbs with long imprisonment, 

And these gray locks, the pursuivants of death, 

Nestor-like agèd in an age of care, 

Argue the end of Edmund Mortimer.

These eyes, like lamps, whose wasting oil is spent, 

Wax dim, as drawing to their exigent; 

Weak shoulders, overborne with burthening grief,

And pithless arms, like to a withered vine

That droops his sapless branches to the ground. 

Yet are these feet, whose strengthless stay is numb,

Unable to support this lump of clay, 

Swift-wingèd with desire to get a grave, 

As witting I no other comfort have…” 

(Act 2 scene 5) 

The whole scene between Mortimer and his nephew Richard Plantagenet (later Duke of York) is very good, but I’m pasting here this passage because, even though it’s not on the level of, say, Richard II or Henry IV, it sounds more like Shakespeare than many other passages, especially in the early part of the play: “wasting oil”, “wax dim”, “burthening grief”, “pithless arms”, “withered vine”, “sapless branches”, etc.

In Act 4, the language becomes more interesting and the play is full of energy, as there are two things going on: the English court is deeply divided into two factions (York vs Somerset), and the Duke of Burgundy has joined France. The scenes between Talbot and his son John especially are good. 

4/ The Earl of Suffolk meets Margaret and wants her, even though he is married. He later makes the match for her and King Henry VI, with the intention of keeping her near him and controlling both her and the King. In the scene of their first meeting, one thing caught my attention: 

“SUFFOLK [Aside] She’s beautiful and therefore to be wooed; 

She is a woman, therefore to be won.” 

(Act 5 scene 3) 

This is similar to a few lines in Titus Andronicus, another of Shakespeare’s weakest plays:  

“DEMETRIUS Why makes thou it so strange? 

She is a woman, therefore may be wooed; 

She is a woman, therefore may be won; 

She is Lavinia, therefore must be loved…” 

(Act 2 scene 1) 

5/ It is helpful to read Tony Tanner’s essay, as he explains both the historical context and the context of theatre development (with the influence of morality plays). He also, as usual, tells us what Shakespeare does with his sources. 

“In no other history play does Shakespeare so freely disrupt and alter the time sequence of his Chronicle material. He brings events together that were years apart, he inverts the order of their happening; he makes sudden what was slow; he makes simultaneous what was separate. He expands and contracts; he omits—and invents. […] Shakespeare is tightening his pattern—pointing up the conflict between the once heroic English and the devious, effeminate French; the undermining of chivalric ideals, the decay of feudal loyalties, and loss of old values; the fading of the old, noble heroic ethos, and the rise of a generation driven by ruthlessness, expediency, and cunning; and (this is not so commonly noted) the capitulation—on certain fronts—of the masculine to the feminine.” (Introduction)  

Tony Tanner also mentions the pattern of 3 throughout the play, which I didn’t notice. You have to read the essay for yourself. Even for a weak, imbalanced play such as Henry VI, Part 1, Tanner has a lot of interesting things to say. 

6/ One final comment: Tony Tanner mentions the 3 French women in the play—Joan la Pucelle, the Countess of Auvergne, and Margaret of Naples.

The Countess only appears in one scene and I shouldn’t comment on Margaret, whom I expect to become more interesting in the rest of the tetralogy, but I don’t think Joan is good. I’m not comparing her to Lady Macbeth or Cleopatra or Rosalind; in an early play such as The Comedy of Errors, Adriana and Luciana are rather complex and full of life; even in Titus Andronicus, the villainess Tamora is humanised by her love, pain, and anger for her son at the beginning of the play, and she seems to love Aaron. Joan la Pucelle lacks something in comparison. 

I suppose Shakespeare does add something interesting, when Joan sees her father before her execution and denies knowing him—we can see her shame and, in a way, her vulnerability. But I still don’t think Joan is particularly good as a character. 


  1. I always enjoyed this play, notwithstanding its undeniable weaknesses -- probably mostly because of the wonderful Jane Howell productions of this play, and the rest of the series (Henry VI, 2, 3, and Richard III) for the BBC in the early 1980s. But I do think the strong moments (and its connections with the much stronger later plays in the series) make it worthwhile.

    The scene in the garden, when the warring factions of the red rose and the white are born (pure invention, of course) is wonderful. What a great origin story. What a nice birthing of the heady mix of ambition, resentment, and aggression that is (or becomes) Richard Duke of York.

    1. Yes, the garden scene is truly inspired. It works very well on stage, too.

  2. Elizabethan audiences loved any sort of punning, any kind of double meaning. There's a lot of it in "King John" as well, some of it pretty complex and even dazzling, especially from Constance.

  3. Yeah the garden scene is fun. Some of the later jokes/ puns about the roses too.
    I won't watch the BBC productions yet, they have to wait.


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