Henry VI: Part I – a reader’s review

If I didn’t know this was a Shakespeare play, I would think it was a teenager’s attempt to write like Shakespeare. I found it pretty surprising how sort of not great this play is. Have you read it? I’m going to assume that most people reading my blog (and that’s about 80 or so people – I’ve been looking at the stats over the last couple of days) haven’t read Henry VI: Part I. According to the version of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare that I am reading, this is Shakespeare’s earliest play. Knowing this probably has coloured my reading of it, but I’ll pretend it hasn’t and that I’m just an excellent judge of quality drama. (Spoiler alert: I’m not.)

The narrative of the play goes a little like this: King Henry V has died, he leaves behind a young son who is being ‘protected’ by his uncle, Duke of Gloster. Gloster is fighting with Bishop Winchester (which incidentally reminds me a lot of the niggling between Cromwell and Gardiner in Wolf Hall) because both of them want to have control of the new king. Winchester seems like the dodgy one though, and it feels like this conflict will be part of the next play too. England is at war with France – the English troops are in France still, I suppose they’ve been there since Henry V took them there? Not sure. Basically Shakespeare represents King Charles of France as a bit of an idiot and quite weak. The play jumps between battlefield action in France and the court of England in the early scenes, so it’s a bit confusing. I’ve become so accustomed to Shakespeare being this master of time and place that reading a play of his that jumps all over the shop like a primary school narrative is quite amusing.

In France we are introduced to Joan of Arc, which is super cool. She’s absolutely characterised as a witch, which again is amusing. Shakespeare does represent her as super feisty and brave though – she isn’t interested in taking shit from Charles (even though at some point they do seem to get rather intimate and he asks her to be his queen??) and she goes into physical combat with all the confidence you would expect or Joan of Arc. It just sucks that ultimately she is reduced to a sorceress of some form, talking to spirits and such. Anyway, before that happens we see some very quick battles between the English and French armies – how that would even be staged back in Shakespeare’s time I have no clue – with them alternating in success.

Back in England (I think) we are introduced to Richard Plantagenet and Duke of Suffolk. They are not friends but to be honest I couldn’t work out why not – some ancient grudge I suppose – and basically they decide to show their factions by plucking a white rose (York) or red rose (Suffolk) from a bush. It is very cool that Shakespeare includes this scene in his play, and I’m sure it would have been a popular one back in the day. We learn that Richard has had his title of Duke of York taken from him because his father was a traitor against Henry V (something to do with Mortimer – oh, that’s right, Mortimer is in prison and Richard visits him, gets an apology from Mortimer who then dies). In the quickest scene you’ve ever read, Richard appeals to young Henry VI and gets reinstated as Duke of York. We then head back to France where the hero of the battles, a guy called Lord Talbot, meets Joan of Arc and they bang on about who is the most courageous. Then there is a lot of choppy short scenes, alternating between the French with Joan and Charles, and the English with Talbot and some other Lords whose names don’t seem that important. Basically what happens that does matter is that Talbot is caught in the field in a massive battle when his young son arrives, and then they do this really long bizarre rhyming dialogue about bravery – just weird because Shakespeare’s verse rarely rhymes and this scene just rhymes in couplets the whole time. It’s actually super off putting, and undermines the supposed heroism of these two men. Anyway, they need extra supplies and they’re meant to come from either York or Suffolk but both of them stuff up, each trying to make the other look bad, but what happens is Talbot and his son are killed and as Talbot dies he blames both Dukes. I think that moment must be important later but in this play it all just seems so bitsy and lacking cohesion.

Somehow York ends up confronting Joan of Arc, capturing her and essentially condemning her to burn – not before she gets to curse him though. Again, I don’t know this history well so I can’t comment on how accurate it might be. If York is the future Richard III as I first thought, this is a really interesting pairing! I sort of don’t want to Google it though because getting the history from Shakespeare like this makes me feel like a real Elizabethan, haha. Whilst York is battling Joan, Suffolk has got his eyes on a French woman, Margaret, who is supposedly the daughter of the King of Jerusalem (I know right? What?!) but Suffolk is already married so he decides to match her up with King Henry VI. Never mind the fact that a scene or two earlier Henry had agreed to marry someone else! The play ends with France conceding defeat as part of a peace treaty demanded by Henry, and then Henry agreeing to marry Margaret based on Suffolk’s description of her. The last line belongs to Suffolk who claims he’s going to have Margaret for himself as well as controlling Henry and the crown. It all sounds very familiar for someone who has just finished reading the Wolf Hall trilogy!

As a whole, the play was super easy to read and there were a few nice lines in there but mostly it was a lot of ‘telling’ which is unlike the Shakespeare plays I’m familiar with. There isn’t much in the way of imagery or conceptual depth, it really is just like an action film with heaps of characters and jumping from scene to scene. It didn’t take long to read and wasn’t hard to understand. Oh, I almost forgot to say that Sir John Fastolfe is a character in this play and I’m pretty sure it’s meant to be Sir John Falstaff who latter becomes one of Shakespeare’s greatest inventions. Fastolfe is a cowardly knight who abandons his post and men to save himself. He ends up having his knighthood stripped off him by Henry VI. Same guy as our old mate Falstaff? I reckon it is but a quick Wikipedia entry skim read doesn’t help with an answer.

I’ll try to pick a favourite line from each of the plays I read and review. For Henry VI: Part I, it’s this line: ‘O, were mine eyeballs into bullets turn’d,/That I, in rage, might shoot them at your faces!’

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