“Henry VI: Part One,” From The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works, by W. Shakespeare

My Copy: 9780199267170

Heavens, this is a tricky one to read, and my love of history is clashing with The Bard’s words as he takes liberties with British history and the timing of battles and characters. This play features very little of Henry VI again, but features plenty of others who will create the chaos and events of parts II and III.

For those who are prone to getting things mixed up–like me–this is the play that has Joan of Arc in it and her legend (which because of English hatred has painted her as a clever witch and a whore). This is where the most liberties were taken, because another great hero of England, Lord Talbot, wins and loses territory, and Shakespeare has him losing a crucial battle 20 years after Joan was burned at the stake (and yet she fights him at one point!)

Henry VI, Part 1 is full of battle scenes and the beginnings of that “contention” between the nobles. It starts with Henry V’s funeral. These lords bemoan the loss of their great king who won so much for their country, and as messengers come in saying that territories have been lost and the French prince has crowned himself king, all hell breaks loose.

Sheesh, the man’s not even cold in the ground yet and they’re fighting each other. This is a theme that’s going to carry over through the play, and through the other two as well.

This play also introduces the “War of the Roses” concept, where Suffolk and Richard Plantagenet (Richard Duke of York later on) pick red and white roses respectively while other nobles pick roses that line up with their allegiances. Apparently, the argument is a small one between them that escalates out of control, probably a disagreement about the actions of their forebears.

Kinda has a feel of Dune to it, with the “noble houses” and all…or maybe the other way around is more accurate. Anyhoo–

However, this will spiral into the clash that will lead the English into civil war after Henry VI’s reign ends. It’s all about succession and who was promised what generations ago, and who has a far better claim to it than Henry VI because of all those complicated relationships..

I’ll let “King Yakko” summarize his own version of this complication in song:

Henry VI is a good person, very young and a very new king who is officially crowned partway through the play. He’s kind of a peacemaker here, and is dismayed at how easily the nobles go for each other’s throats. He knows that there is so much that his father won for England, and knows that the French will take advantage of any hint of dissension in the English ranks.

Sadly, the scheming behind his back to arrange a marriage that would benefit Charles more ends up with Henry agreeing to have Margaret…a move that will heighten events to an incredible level in Henry VI, Part II.

It’s a complicated setup, and I found it a little bit of a letdown with so much going on. It’s almost a mishmash–and interesting mishmash, but the tone and action changes so often. I lost count how often a place was taken or given back, and had to stop a couple of times to try and get my bearings. And then it really seemed to slow down when it got to the bargaining for lands vs. Margaret’s hand.

I know I missed something there because it seemed to take a while…so I’ll re-read it with a fresh mind (felt a migraine creeping in, so I’ll have to leave off).

Otherwise, I did get a better sense of Henry VI, and sadly, he’s not an impressive king. But I’m sure Shakespeare’s version of the man would make an interesting human being…just get him away from his troublesome kin first!

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