6. Henry VI: Part I
So, we’re 6 weeks into my challenge to read a Shakespeare play a week and we’re back to Henry VI! This time, rewinding time and going back to the very start of Henry VI’s reign with Part I.
To be brutally honest, I don’t think this is a very good play. There, I’ve said it! It is jumbled, confused and has no clear focus, intention or central problem. Neither does it have a clear protagonist. There are multiple story lines all fighting for the ascendency and none succeeding. In trying to cover all of the backstory to the Wars of the Roses in one hit, the play fails to land anything of any real significance.
One feels that the real story is the political games around Henry VI immediately following the death of his father, the great conquer of France, Henry V. Gloucester and Winchester form two factions that fight over the young king’s person, brawling in the streets of London. In the background, Richard Plantagenet is striving to inherit the Dukedom of York and the beginnings of his Yorkist, white-rose wearing, faction are formed.
Meanwhile, in order to keep things interesting, there’s a massive war happening in France. The heroic Talbot is valiantly fighting off the French in Orleans, where we witness siege after siege, battle after battle. The French have Joan of Arc on their side, who is a strange mix of warrior, witch and saint. These battles are all very dramatic but, frankly, aside from their spectacle they’re not very interesting! Things get a bit more emotional when Talbot’s son joins his father and they die in each other’s arms – a very moving scene in an otherwise fairly constant back and forth of inane fighting.
Tagged onto the end of the play we have the incongruous introduction of Margaret, later Queen of England, who is captured in battle by Somerset. Somerset gets all hot under the collar, falls in love with her immediately and seemingly in a panicked fluster ends up wooing her in the name of Henry VI, when he’d rather be doing it for himself. From a practical point of view, if you were the actor playing Margaret, you’d be hanging around a long time backstage for one scene, mainly consisting of asides!
This brings on another point, there are a lot of slightly bizarre asides in this play! Shakespeare usually uses asides and soliloquies very effectively to take us into the mind of the central protagonist. But because there is no protagonist as such in this play, various characters at various points just turn to the audience and share their thoughts. It creates a lack of clarity of narrative voice, we’ve got no sense of perspective or whose eyes we are seeing the action through.
Shakespeare’s great history plays (and indeed his great plays), tend to put one character at the heart of the story and that character is presented with a problem or dilemma. Henry V is torn between the honour of conquest and his moral obligation to the souls of his soldiers; Richard II believes in his divine right to rule but struggles with his own human frailty; Richard III strives for power and the crown but battles with his own sense of deficiency. With all of these plays we have a central drive and central character to follow through the piece. Here, we have none of that. It just feels like a pale recounting of history.
So, as you might imagine this isn’t a play that I’m desperate to direct! If anything, I think it lends itself much more to camera, where you can really delve into the grit and struggle of the battles, utilising fast cuts and putting the audience right into the thick of the action. You can then juxtapose this with the more subtle violence back in the English court, as the nobles fight for power in the new regime.