Thursday Reviews: Henry VI, Part I by William Shakespeare

Henry VI, Part 1

William Shakespeare

I’m about to commit literary blasphemy and give the Bard a bad review. Mind you, I doubt Shakespeare’s reputation will suffer. After all, this is the same man who wrote Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet.

But I decided I’d start going through Shakespeare’s works in as close to chronological order written as possible. Mind you, this is a crap shoot. The same source that told me the Henry VI trilogy came first later told me that, no, Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Taming of the Shrew came first. Oh, well. I can always go back and read them later.

Of Henry VI, however, Part 1 is not exactly what one would expect from the same man who wrote the epic about Henry’s father, Henry V. The story foreshadows the climax of the War of the Roses (its origins explained here in the first act) in Richard III. Let’s be blunt here. Henry VI, Part 1 is a mess of a story. Shakespeare had two comedies under his belt before writing this trilogy (with a collaborator, according to some scholars). Taming and Gentlemen are some of the most frequently performed and copied plays in Shakespeare’s body of work. However, Henry VI is his first historical play. Unfortunately, unlike the transformation of the shallow Prince Harry into noble King Henry V, Henry VI is barely present in this story, a young king easily manipulated and deceived by the Archbishop of Winchester and by Lord Somerset. Give Will credit, though. One plotline involves Joan of Arc’s campaign against England on behalf of King Charles of France. (It also reveals her to be a witch.) During that particular war between France and England, Henry VI was actually an infant, ascending the throne before he could even speak. But hey, history never gets in the way of a good story. Just ask Rowan Atkinson, who insists Richard III was really a good guy, accidentally killed by his nephew, Edmund Blackadder, the story later erased from history by the dastardly Henry Tudor, Henry VII.

But Blackadder our young king is not. Are you kidding? Making an ancestor of the Tudors the original Blackadder would have gotten Will’s head chopped off. The problem here is that too much is going on. Any English literature or drama scholar will tell you that Shakespeare was a master at handling multiple plotlines. His comedy depends on it, and part of the attraction of his later plays, such as Julius Caesar, is this handling of multiple plot threads, sometimes using it as misdirection. After all, Shakespeare also invented the modern action movie, the modern political thriller, and even the modern romantic comedy. So while this first entry in the Henry VI trilogy is weaker than the Bard’s later work, it’s a fascinating look at THE giant of English language writers learning how to became William Shakespeare.

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