Part I of Henry the Sixth

Part I of Henry the Sixth is apparently the first play Shakespeare ever wrote, and shortly after he fleshed the story out into a full trilogy with Henry VI Part II and Henry VI Part III.  However, later on, he would write another trilogy of sorts in Henry IV parts I and II, and Henry V, which cover the events preceding Henry 666.  So, basically, a better version of Star Wars.

I suppose that makes this the shitty George Lucas version of Falstaff?

But I don’t want to get ahead of myself here.  It’s been a while since I read Episodes I-III of Rose Wars, and this is my first time reading the original Henry 666 (I love calling it that).  So I’m going to try to limit my scope to just this play for a bit.

Part I of Henry the Sixth opens with Henry V’s funeral, and all the English Lords are gathered around mourning his greatness.  They are also mourning how utterly screwed their war in France is.  In the middle of the funeral procession, they are brought news that everything the deceased King won in France is now lost.  At this news, they pretty immediately start bickering amongst each other and making backdoor deals for pretty much the rest of the play.  With all the double-crossing and petty wordplay about whose rose is a cooler color, it’s hard to know (at least, as a modern American reader with no real knowledge of the War of the Roses) whose side you are supposed to be on.  And it certainly doesn’t help that Henry VI, the titular character, doesn’t show up until the THIRD ACT.

Also, he looks like this unassuming fellow

Not only is the King a kid, but he continuously refers to his young age and inexperience.  As his uncles are yelling and infighting during his first scene, he exclaims “Believe me, lords, my tender years can tell Civil dissension is a viperous worm That gnaws the bowels of the commonwealth.”

Naïve, yes. But also fucking right about EVERYTHING.

He is then interrupted by the sound of street fighting just outside the Houses of Parliament.  The Mayor comes in and explains that the battling factions have been forbidden to use weapons, and so have resorted to stoning each other.  Two men then enter, and proceed to fight at the King’s feet.  Admonished for this show of disrespect, and commanded to stop throwing rocks at each other, they retort “Nay, if we be forbidden stones, we’ll fall to it with our teeth.” So, basically, Henry VI is too nice for his own good, and can’t keep the useless bickering of his lords under control.  That’s the  main conflict of the play.  Yeah, sure, there’s the whole war with France. But that’s only important because the infighting is making England lose.

There is a tragic scene where Talbot – Shakespeare’s first badass – is left to die along side his son because the Duke of York and the Earl of Somerset are sitting on opposite ends of the field, blaming each other for not giving Talbot reinforcements.  hey are all serving the King of England, but the only valiant warrior between them is left to die because of petty political maneuvering.  Oh well, if Talbot has to die, it will have to be by choking on the disemboweled remains of his enemies.

So: like that fight scene with Tony Jaa in The Protector, but with rhyming couplets…

Seriously.  The last three scenes of Act IV are literally Talbot and his son speaking in rhyme for a few hundred lines as they try to convince the other to save himself, but also murdering countless Frenchmen.  Or, as Shakespeare phrases it: “Had death been French, then death had died today.” The son dies first, and the corpse is brought over to the gore-encrusted Lord Talbot whose last words are “I have what I would have, Now my arms are young John Talbot’s grave.” But the awesomeness does not quite end there.  The heroes of the French army come over to survey the remains of the knight that was once their scourge.  One crazy bastard (specifically, the “Bastard of Orleans”) suggests that they “Hew them to pieces, hack their bones asunder.” But King Charles (no longer the Dauphin by this point in the play) is apparently a reasonable man, and lets the English give the Talbots a proper burial.  However, Sir William Lucy – the man charged with retrieving Talbot’s body – wins the most awesome line of the play:

"O were mine eyeballs into bullets turn'd That I, in rage, might shoot them at your face" - Act IV, scene vii

I can’t think of a better way to commemorate the death of Talbot than by that awesome line.  And while Talbot’s death is satisfyingly awesome, it’s a tragedy to lose him as a character.  With all the bullshit tossing about the English court, he’s the character I wound up rooting for the most.  Someone who is alternately described as a “Peacock” and “Owl of death” (both by French characters), Talbot does not necessarily look like an imposing figure.  Even King Henry, upon finally meeting the dread knight, is confused by the dissonance between the man and the myth.  But early in the play, Talbot makes a very scathing retort to a French Countess:

“No, no, I am but a shadow of myself; You are decieved, my substance is not here; For what you see is but the smallest part And least proportion of humanity: I tell you, madam, were the whole frame here, It is of such a spacious lofty pitch Your roof were not sufficient to contain’t “

Act II, scene III is one of those scenes that could easily be cut from the play without influencing the plot, but it serves to wonderfully characterize the most valiant character in the play.  It also heightens the major theme of appearances in contrast to reality.  Knights often behave worse than how common men ought to, friends are often foes, and heroes are seldom impressive specimens of Aryan perfection… which I suppose bodes well for King Henry VI.

This is not the hero of the play.

However, the title of most INTERESTING character goes to the maid, Joan la Pucelle, perhaps more famously known as Joan of Arc.  Now, I grew up with a fairly positive pop culture perception of Joan – a badass protofeminist milkmaid-turned-soldier who was directed by God to lead France to victory.  She is wise beyond her years, and clever, and holds her own in battle better than any of the men.  However in spite of (or, let’s face it – BECAUSE of) that last part, she was accused of witchcraft and burned at the stake.  At some point the Church admitted wrong in that passive-aggressive way they do by making her a Saint, and Shakespeare makes note of that future sainthood in the play.

However, this is an English play.  So instead of this:

Shakespeare infers that she may have been doing this:

And by infer, I mean that in Act V scene III he has her summon Fiends. The whole play, the English characters have been calling her nasty things like “witch” and “hag”, but it’s not until this point that we actually see it.  And Shakespeare definitely doesn’t sell her short on cunning or skill; pretty much anything the French accomplish in the play is thanks to her.  He includes the famous episode where the Charles designates an impostor Dauphin to test her, but adds a sword fight between the two to further illustrate her skill.  So she seems like she very well may be fighting for God until she talks about cutting herself to feed demons with her blood. But the demons abandon her at a critical moment in the battle, and she is captured.

Shakespeare illustrates how she uses her cunning and manipulation against enemies throughout the play, but her desperate attempts to manipulate her captors are the most fascinating: she renounces her own father and claims that she is of noble blood that cannot be executed, and when that doesn’t work she claims to be pregnant and pleads “Murder not, then, the fruit of my womb, Although ye hale me to a violent death.” But when they ask who the father is, she fails to name someone they like, and therefore they have no interest in saving the unborn child.  She keeps offering different names, hoping to strike on someone they will pity, but they decide “It’s a sign she hath been liberal and free” in her sexuality.

And then they burn her offstage.

Not to worry, though, we have Queen Margaret coming up in the next play, and she carries a pretty hardcore badass reputation.  She shows up in the final act, initially a beautiful prisoner of war to the Earl of Suffolk.  Suffolk really wants to bone her, but remembers that he is already married and so can’t take her home for himself. So he bargains with her father – the King of Naples, who also happens to hold titles in France and has his daughter wandering the battlefield for some reason – that in exchange for his fealty to King Henry, his daughter Margaret will be made Queen.  Everyone but Margaret seems to be on board with this, so the deal is struck.

The play ends with a nominal peace, but promises of treachery on both sides.  Charles of France is only using the peace as an opportunity to rebuild his forces, and Suffolk intends to do dirty things with the future Queen.  The mood, I think, can be summed up by Joan’s final words:

“May never glorious sun reflex his beams Upon the country where you make your abode; But darkness and the gloomy shade of death Environ you, till mischief and despair Drive you to break your necks or hang yourselves.”

So, yeah.  Rough times for England ahead.

9 Responses to “Part I of Henry the Sixth”
  1. Pat says:

    Cool site Bohrs, you’re off to a good start! Have you considered posting what you might be reading now or next? If you do I (or others) might just read along with you.

  2. sophia says:

    Yes! if you post what you will be reading, i MAY follow along. Or watch the corresponding movies on Netflicks. Great blog so far !

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  2. […] no shadow of the gallows on him. He advances gaily to the Archbishop.”  In Shakespeare’s “Henry VI Part I,” where Joan is immortalized as a Ba’alist blood-sorcerer, Gilles is removed from the plot […]

  3. […] timelines, invent characters like Falstaff in the heart of historical drama, and at one point Joan of Arc even summons demons.  So don’t defend Shakespeare by invoking history, it makes you seem illiterate.  The only […]

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