I have now finished the first play in my journey to read all of Shakespeare’s writings. Henry VI Part One was good, but it did feel like the first part in a trilogy. We got a lot of setup to what must be a more dramatic story than the one contained in these five acts. the ostensible hero Talbot died of heartbreak rather than in a blaze of glory. We now know that there are a great many forces aligned against Henry that he is unaware of. The War of the Roses between the houses of York and Lancaster is about to kick off, the treachery of Suffolk should wreak some havoc on the kingdom, and we best not forget that Charles the Dauphin is still kicking around France, presumably licking his wounds and biding his time to show England what-for.
I found myself enjoying the play as I was reading it, particularly certain turns of phrase that hit my ear just right. I’ve mentioned before how pleased I was to really see how good of a writer Billy Shakes was, particularly in a play that is not endlessly quoted throughout popular culture. This certainly is not the Bard’s greatest play, but this is a dynamite start, particularly for a guy only in his twenties. I am curious to see how the rest of the trilogy goes and if the story ramps up to something much bigger than we’ve seen so far.
Immediately upon finishing the play, I asked myself why Shakespeare chose this story. You never hear about Henry VI as one of the more interesting kings. Henry VIII, sure, or William the Conqueror, if you want to go way back. Henry’s not a particularly talented or strong character even in this play, so we can assume that Shakespeare is not in awe of him as an historical figure. Perhaps it isn’t the ruler himself who is so fascinating, but the events surrounding him. The War of the Roses was a monumental conflict in British history that even American teenagers heard about in their World History class as recently as the 1990’s, I think in large part because modern Americans have an easy analogy in our Civil War. There are still stories and movies written about that struggle from 150 years ago because we are still trying to culturally process it. I would be willing to bet, though I have no evidence to back it up, that Shakespeare’s audience would have had a similar feeling to the War of the Roses, a conflict that began about 140 years before the play was first produced. A play that touches on the cultural anxieties that surround such a dark period in the relatively recent past. A play that demonstrates the fragility of a monarchy supposedly ordained by god. It showed Elizabethan audiences how easily chaos can enter their lives and turn them upside down. That would have been terrifying and exhilarating in equal measure.
I’m excited to jump into Henry VI Part Two, but first, as a palate cleanser, I am going to have a poetry interlude. Next time: we dive into the Shakespearean sonnets.