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TOPIC: First notes, Henry VI, Part One

First notes, Henry VI, Part One 11 months 1 week ago #7370

  • Steve Minkin
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This was NOT Will's first play. The plays now known as Henry VI, Part Two and Three were performed and published in Quartos (1593-4) before the staging of Part One, which was staged as a Prequel.

Joan of Arc is the most interesting character in Henry VI, Part One. She is burned at the stake for the crime of cross-dressing, although of course all female characters on the Elizabethan stage were played by cross-dressed boys! (Forbidden in Deuteronomy 22:5, and a primary reason that the Puritans banned the theater). Joan defeats – in single combat! -- both the Dauphin of France and England's greatest (post-Henry V) hero, Lord John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury. In this play she is known as Joan la Pucelle. Shakespeare portrays her as an heroic but whorish sorceress, which was the prevailing historical view of Joan in Elizabethan England. ". . . Joan is a smudgy cartoon compared with the human magnificence of his Falstaff; and yet she anticipates some of Falstaff grand contempt for time and the state." (Bloom)

The play features an eventually disgraced, cowardly British knight named Fastolfe! The First Folio listed him as Falstaff, but that was changed in later editions to eliminate confusion with the later creation. Keep in mind that the character we now know as Falstaff (from the Prince Hal plays) was originally named John Oldcastle; but one of Oldcastle's descendents complained, so it was changed to Falstaff.

Henry VI, Part 1 opens with the death of Henry V (Prince Hal) and a series of funereal tributes to him (" . . . too famous to live long . . ." Bedford; "his deeds exceed all speech" Gloucester, I, i). These are punctuated with news of the loss of various French territories that HV had won and are now being retaken by the French. And the other crucial opening theme – which is extended throughout the whole tetralogy – is the internal squabbling among the titled English. The three Henry VI plays trace England's decline, the continuing failure of their rulers to rule, "the fraud of England," which eventually allows a tyrant like Richard III to win the throne.
Sir William Lucy: The fraud of England, not the force of France,
Hath now entrapp'd the noble-minded Talbot:
Never to England shall he bear his life;
But dies, betray'd to fortune by your strife.
IV, iv

When Henry VI, Part 1 opens, Henry is an infant, and he is a young man at the end. Although he is the title character of three plays, he is not the major player in any of them. He lacks the ruthlessness to wield power in his time, and lacks the political smarts to make good decisions. (Shakespeare plays fast and loose with history, as he will throughout his career, and ignores a period in the early 1450s when it is known that the historical Henry VI was too mentally ill to rule, that the kingdom was ruled during that period by York.)

The peace is secured in the end when the Earl of Suffolk, who is married but has fallen in love with Margaret of Anjou, daughter of Reignier (the impoverished king of Naples and Jerusalem), arranges for Margaret to marry Henry VI while continuing to be Suffolk's lover. In the play's closing soliloquy, Suffolk declares his intention to rule England through Margaret. "Margaret shall now be Queen, and rule the King;
But I will rule both her, the King, and realm." (V,v)

Art Young was a great late 19th/ early 20th century socialist cartoonist, wrote for The Masses:
This one uses part of one of my favorite lines from The Bard, from Hamlet, “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, Rough-hew them how we will,”

Hard left: Here's the great Amalia Rodrigues, the Queen of Fado, with Don Byas, one of the founders of be bop who went to Paris and never came home:
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First notes, Henry VI, Part One 10 months 4 days ago #7394

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We commonly say that the whole Lesser Tetralogy is about The Wars Of The Roses. But that name only came into common use 400 years later, after the publication in 1829 of 'Anne of Geierstein' by Sir Walter Scott. Scott based the term on Act II, Scene iv of this play, set in the gardens of the Temple Church, where a number of noblemen and a lawyer pick red or white roses to show their loyalty to the Lancastrian or Yorkist faction respectively. The actual histories of the roses as symbols for the various factions is considerably more complicated and less clear-cut.

JOAN'S NAME – The historical figure always called herself Jeanne la Pucelle. Shakespeare/ (Marlowe) has her in this play as Joan Puzel. Here is historian Marina Warner: "Pucelle means “virgin,” but in a special way, with distinct shades connoting youth, innocence and, paradoxically, nubility. It is the equivalent of the Hebrew ‘almah, used of both the Virgin Mary and the dancing girls in Solomon’s harem in the Bible. It denotes a time of passage, not a permanent condition. It is a word that looks forward to a change in state."

The Arden edition of the play notes: "The French verbal ambiguity . . . coarsens in English into a sexual joke. In English, 'pucelle' means virgin, 'puzel' means whore." And there is the easy pun on 'pizzle,' a popular term for penis in Elizabethan times which survives in the Pet Treats sections of our markets. (Our dog is especially fond of bull pizzle.)

Shakespeare's two main historical sources differ widely in their descriptions of Joan, with Hollingshead reporting "of favour she was counted likesome," while Hall writes of her "foul face, that no man would desire." Joan herself incorporates both views of her into her description of her vision of the Virgin Mary in a 'moment of rhetorical self-creation.'

Lo, whilest I waited on my tender lambs,
And to sun’s parching heat display’d my cheeks,
God’s Mother deigned to appear to me,
And in a vision full of majesty
Will’d me to leave my base vocation
And free my country from calamity.
Her aid she promis’d, and assur’d success;
In complete glory she reveal’d herself;
And whereas I was black and swart before,
With those clear rays which she infus’d on me
That beauty am I blest with which you may see.
I, ii
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First notes, Henry VI, Part One 9 months 3 weeks ago #7397

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Burns in the Arden edition notes a parallel between the army under the child King Henry VI and the army in Shakespeare's time under Queen Elizabeth: "Normally, the general was the head of the nation's forces, and was usually the monarch . . . As a child, Henry is in the same position as Elizabeth was as a woman, and the chain of command becomes confused and open to dispute." (One might ask if we are now in similar circumstances.)

Phillip, Duke of Burgundy, is a pivotal character in this play who also plays an important role at the end of Henry V. In HV (set earlier but written later), Burgundy makes a speech for peace early in the final scene (V, ii), citing the horrors of war and encouraging Henry and the King of France to come to terms. In this play (1 HVI) he is allied with English early in the play, but Joan makes an impassioned speech about the suffering of the French and he changes sides (III, iii). Historically, Burgundy did in fact switch sides back to the French, but it happened four years after Joan was burned at the stake and had to do with his difficulties with Gloucester.

When the HVI trilogy is presented as a whole, the King is almost always played by a single adult actor. But the historical correspondences to the events in The Hundred Years War (England vs France) would have Henry as four years old when he first appears in Act III, ten years old at Act IV, and (time now for the adult actor) twenty-two at by the events of Act V.

Military note: the longbow archers of HV carried the day for the British at Agincourt. But by these later battles, the French had begun to use guns and cannons. And the British could not always prepare the battlefield for the archers. In I, i it is noted that Talbot did not have time to drive stakes into the ground, creating a field full of spikes to impede the French horsemen; so the British archers were defenseless against charges of the French calvary.

I mentioned in the last notes that The Wars of The Roses comes from Scott referencing the Temple Garden scene in this play. Here's an illustration of the scene from John Boydell, who amassed a large number of artists (including West and Fuseli) to create a gallery of Shakespeare illustrations in the late 1790s:
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First notes, Henry VI, Part One 9 months 6 days ago #7407

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This is the call for readers for our reading of Henry VI, Part 1, on Wednesday, March 8, at 6:30.

So far it looks like a record 16 yeses at this point! . . .

If you are on the list but can't come or aren't on the list and would like to come, please let me know!

Congratulations to charter member Linda . . ., whose son just won another Grammy, this one for . . . his work on Adele's '25.'

During the battles of Act IV we meet the character of William Lucy. There is no historical reference to such a character, but the surname Lucy is interesting because of one of Will's contemporaries, Thomas Lucy, a wealthy, militantly Protestant gentleman in Charlecote (near Stratford) who was the vigilantly anti-Catholic Sheriff of Warwickshire. One of the more popular 'tales' about Shakespeare (dating from the late 1600s) is that he left Stratford and his family in the mid-1580s because he kept getting caught poaching game on Lucy's land. Lively material for speculation, and Greenblatt gives it an entertaining waltz around the block in Will In The World.

Pronounciation tips:
Alencon - [uh-LEN-son]
Reignier - [REN-yay sometimes RAY-neer] (like Princess Grace!)
Talbot – [TALL-but]

The BBC's second Hollow Crown series (The War of The Roses) opens with Judith Dench reading a radically shortened version of Ulysses' speech on degree from Troilus and Cressida, concluding with "Take but degree away, untune that string,/ And, hark, what discord follows!"

That provoked this lively response by a Nottingham blogger:
>>With a slight pause before them, the words “Take but degree away, and mark what discord follows”’ hang over this new trilogy as an epigraph. I find it hard not to read this, in the context of English civil wars, as a message to ‘respect your betters’ or ‘Say what you like about structural inequality and inherited privilege, but it keeps people in line’. If those pesky commoners don’t challenge anything, we’ll all get along happily, and fortunately for the BBC, the Jack Cade rebellion is being cut from this Henry VI trilogy (in an unfathomable decision – why cut the best scenes of the whole sequence, unless the BBC’s legal team really can’t stand to hear ‘Let’s kill all the lawyers’?), so there’s no real challenge to monarchy in this adaptation, just a question over which monarch should wear the crown.<<

The Hollow Crown a is much more engaging and more cinematic rendition than the BBC canon films. It is also severely cut and less faithful to the originals. Part 1 of HVI is covered in the first half of the first disc – a mere hour! -- leaving out most of Joan's sections, the charming scene between Talbot and the Countess of Auvergne (II, iii), and much of the rest of the play. On the plus side, the visuals are beautiful, featuring some truly magnificent old churches and castles, and the acting is strong.

Here's Joan deflating Lucy in IV, vii

But where’s the great Alcides of the field,
Valiant Lord Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury,
Created, for his rare success in arms,
Great Earl of Washford, Waterford, and Valence,
Lord Talbot of Goodrig and Urchinfield,
Lord Strange of Blackmere, Lord Verdon of Alton,
Lord Cromwell of Wingfield, Lord Furnival of Sheffield,
The thrice-victorious Lord of Falconbridge,
Knight of the noble Order of Saint George,
Worthy Saint Michael, and the Golden Fleece,
Great marshal to Henry the Sixth
Of all his wars within the realm of France?

Here’s a silly stately style indeed!
The Turk, that two and fifty kingdoms hath,
Writes not so tedious a style as this.
Him that thou magnifi’st with all these titles
Stinking and fly-blown lies here at our feet.
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First notes, Henry VI, Part One 8 months 2 weeks ago #7418

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'The fraud of England, not the force of France,
Hath now entrapp’d the noble-minded Talbot:
Never to England shall he bear his life,
But dies, betray’d to fortune by your strife.'

We had a group record high 15 readers for Henry VI, Part 1 tonight.

We were struck by how Marlovian so much of the language sounded. And the welter of characters required more than the usual amount of shuffling parts and explaining relationships. Our hope is that by doing all four of the plays of the tetralogy in sequence we will become increasingly familiar with the characters, their developments and relationships.

Comments were made on the seemingly large number of rhymed lines (rather than blank verse or prose). And there are, relatively – it's the sixth most rhymed play, which are (starting with the most rhyming): The Dream, Love's Labours Lost (with all those sonnets!), Comedy of Errors, Richard II, Romeo and Juliet, and then a virtual tie between tonight's play and Macbeth.

Lots of political infighting, military moves, self-interested scheming and European history; but considerably less poetry and wit than we're used to from our readings of The Bard. Still, I think most of us had set a low bar for this one, and the reading exceeded our expectations. There was, however, a noticeably higher and pervasive level of WTF?, or as the noble Talbot says following his early battle with Joan, "My thoughts are whirled like a potter's wheel." Some of this is attributable to the play lacking a central character. And, compared with Will's more mature works, his characters lack character, as a whole. Talbot is conventionally heroic; Winchester, Somerset, York, and a number of other nobles are conventionally weaselly. Perhaps only Joan shows a spark of that vitality and unpredictability that Shakespeare's best characters display. And yet, several readers expressed disappointment at Joan's seeming descent into caricature when she conjures up the demons in Act V (the English view of her as French/ irrational/ demonic/ lewd).

Next up, HVI Part 2, late May or sometime in June. And since Parts 2 & 3 were written (1590-1) before the Prequel we read tonight (1591-2), these are thought to be Will's first plays.

A reminder that these plays are contained in the BBC's series The Hollow Crown: The Wars of The Roses:
The play we just did is covered (radically cut!) in the first 50 minutes of the first the three discs. The remainder of the first disc and the second disc covers Parts 2&3, and the third features Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III, the tyrannical payoff to the generations of vicious infighting.

And David, here's that flamenco film I was telling you about:

Bright moments,
Last Edit: 8 months 2 weeks ago by Steve Minkin.
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