Tuesday, 14 October 2014

King Henry VI by William Shakespeare

I seem to be making a habit of getting immensely excited about Shakespeare’s earlier plays that the rest of the world firmly regards as ”not very good” attempts by a man who was to become the Bard but was not yet at the height of his genius. Well, alright, Titus Andronicus was quite impossible for me to like because it violated the rules of drama even worse than its poor characters, but I have a very special place in my drama geek’s heart for The Comedy of Errors, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and Timon of Athens – all of which are usually placed at the beginning of Shakespeare’s career, way before the ”great ones”. Now the same thing has happened with the three parts of King Henry VI.  

Shakespeare wrote two tetralogies, or series of four plays, about five consecutive kings of Britain. Richard II, the two parts of Henry IV and Henry V are called the ”second tetralogy” because they were written later, at a period when Shakespeare was starting to write his ”better” plays according to scholarly opinion. The three parts of Henry VI and Richard III are therefore called the ”first tetralogy” even though they actually take place after the second one. And even though Richard III was an instant hit at the time it was first performed and is still one of the most frequently-staged and well-known plays in Shakespearean canon, the first tetralogy as a whole is considered to be of a less refined quality than the second.

Say what you will, Shakespeareans, but Henry VI was an absolute page-turner for me, all three parts of it. I’m guessing that my attraction for these plays comes mostly from the fact that I find everything related to the politics and machinations behind wars hugely interesting. Essentially, I’m a war nutter – though I don’t really care for the part when people are actually on the field going bang bang at each other (or whatever the sound effect is in the case of swordfighting). So I really shouldn’t have been surprised to find myself liking a series of plays that depicts the Wars of the Roses. Here’s what happens: When the great warrior king Henry V dies, the crown passes to his infant son. Henry VI grows up heavily influenced by numerous noblemen of the court, including the Duke of Gloucester who is Protector of the kingdom. Gloucester, though, is one of the few who are actually loyal to the king, while most of the noblemen are scheming for their own profit entirely. Richard Plantagenet harbours a grudge against the royal house – the House of Lancaster – because in his eyes, the first Lancastrian king was a usurper and the crown should have stayed in the Plantagenet family. Even after King Henry makes him Duke of York, his hatred for the Lancasters persists. He gets into an argument with the Duke of Somerset, and the feud between the two men gradually grows into a fully-fledged war where Somerset’s faction wants to keep the Lancaster king Henry on the throne, and the Duke of York gathers supporters in order to take the throne for himself and, as he sees it, right the original wrong that Henry VI’s grandfather did to Richard II. This is not the only political strife going on – as was predicted at Henry V’s death, Henry VI loses all the French territories that his father conquered as his lords quarrel with each other and he is persuaded to make a politically worthless match with Margaret, daughter of a French nobleman somewhat down on his luck. When Margaret is made Henry’s queen, she takes an immediate disliking to the Duke of Gloucester, who has too much power over the king in her opinion. She gathers some noblemen on her side to finish off Gloucester. The Duke of York dies in battle, but his sons keep up the Yorkist cause – these sons will later become King Edward IV and King Richard III.

King Henry VI, r. 1422-1461

Whew, that was a long plot summary – but hey, that’s three plays, and as you probably noticed, there is a lot of scheming and back-stabbing going on. George R.R. Martin actually named the Wars of the Roses as a source of inspiration for A Song of Ice and Fire, so it’s not surprising at all that while reading Henry VI I was constantly thinking ”This is like Game of Thrones accelerated, SO AWESOME!” while I kept turning the pages like a war nutter gone, um, more nuts. Shakespeare took some liberties with historical accuracy when writing the first part of Henry VI, which deals with the loss of the French territories (with a guest appearance from Joan of Arc, who is here made a lying bitch who gets supernatural help from fiends instead of angels). For instance, Henry VI is old enough to marry in the play, while in reality he was just a baby. However, parts two and three are much more accurate, and go right to the roots of the Wars of the Roses. In an iconic scene, the Dukes of Somerset and York have an argument in the Temple gardens, and Somerset picks a red rose as his emblem while York picks a white one. Henry VI, who really doesn’t have clue about how politics work, insists that all of his noblemen must be equal and that he is very upset to see them disagreeing – but still, takes Somerset’s side in the argument, which then swells into royal proportions because of him.
Edward IV, r. 1461-1470
Henry VI couldn’t really be more different than Henry V, his father. His insignificance to the governing of Britain and the influence of the noblemen over him is made very clear from the very beginning – unlike all the other kings that Shakespeare wrote about, Henry VI doesn’t even appear till Act III of the first play. From there, things just go downhill for him, but it takes him quite a long time to realize just what his position is. Throughout the first two plays, he often stands meekly by while the various noblemen and his queen take turns in having massive rows in his presence, and even when he finally points out in the end that he is the king and therefore entitled to have his voice heard, Margaret has already taken his place as the symbol of the Lancastrian cause.

The fact that Shakespeare wrote so few female characters into his plays is an endless subject of woe for female enthusiasts – but I’d say that when the man did create a female character, they usually turned out damn fierce. Think about Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra, Portia, Rosalind, Paulina, Emilia – and Queen Margaret. My main motivation for reading through Henry VI was so I could get properly, well-informedly excited about the superstar-cast second series of The Hollow Crown. Now, just the prospect of seeing Sophie Okonedo play Margaret through this most interesting character arc is enough to reel my mind. She makes her first entrance to the Henry VI series when the English are fighting in France and the Earl of Suffolk, one of the many devious noblemen, decides to make a match between Margaret and Henry (he can’t marry Margaret himself because he already has a wife). His grand plan is to become the power behind the throne through Margaret. However, Margaret appears to possess quite a strong mind of her own. She plays an important part in bringing down Henry’s last loyal advisor, the Duke of Gloucester. She then feeds the flame of the Wars of the Roses by putting up a vehement opposition for the Yorkists, even when Henry starts to give in. When the two factions are lined up on the battle field, Margaret is also there, wearing armour, no matter how unnatural the men in the Yorkist side find it. She is furiously disappointed in her powerless husband and doesn’t keep quiet about it, and she is also a mother protecting a son whose inheritance of the throne is in danger. 

As action-packed and intriguing as the Henry VI series is, it does have its slow moments and a couple of plot-holes. Especially the first part wouldn't suffer at all for having a couple of scenes snapped off entirely, and sometimes it seems that the same characters have more or less the same argument twice, as if these quarrelsome characters didn't engage in enough verbal sparring already. The reason for Somerset and York's disagreement is some vague stuff about some law thing; seeing as this unspecified legal dispute leads to all that rose-picking, several murders and a great big civil war, it would have been very considerate to let the audience properly in on the background. A couple of characters suddenly pop up during the last scenes of the second part and as late as the third part, which in itself is completely fine, but then these late-comers suddenly become vitally important to the machinations of the civil war. Compared against some of the other characters, whose personalities and motivations have been developed from the very beginning, these newbies feel a bit plastered-on. Also, you shouldn't expect Henry VI to be an objective account of the Wars of the Roses; Shakespeare is quite clearly taking the Yorkist side. Seeing as he was writing at the time of Queen Elizabeth, whose dynasty had been founded by Henry VII marrying Elizabeth of York (daughter of Edward IV), it would probably have been unwise to favour the Lancasters. Then again, once the war between the factions was done he didn't have any qualms about writing Richard III as the most evil king ever in his next history play...

Still, even with those flaws present, the Henry VI plays are a lot better than what their status as "early plays" gives to understand. Shakespeare's earlier works are most commonly criticized for having less refined dialogue and more violence, which in some cases is a fair judgement (Titus Andronicus, that means you). I have to say though, I really enjoyed the language in all the Henry VI plays. Even if it's not as elevated in style as, say, Hamlet, there are many places where Shakespeare conveys an idea with heart-clenching precision. Whenever Queen Margaret opens her mouth for a monologue, you can expect an absolutely chilling delivery, and various characters, including Henry in one of his very few longer speeches near the end, say some pretty thoughtful stuff about why exactly the crown is so much coveted, with all the trouble it brings. Lots of characters die – in battle or in the hands of political enemies – but I wouldn't say there's any gore just for the sake of goriness. Each death happens for a reason, even if those reasons are all connected to the devastating premise of a country fighting within itself.

Who's with me in hugely anticipating the second series of The Hollow Crown? I'll be reading and reviewing Richard III very soon, and then I'll have to do a post about the cast that has been revealed so far, because boy are there some wonderful actors included!

1 comment:

  1. I never read all of them, but maybe I should :D
    But I know what you mean about the Two Gentlemen from Verona - I don't know why people complain about it, it's wonderful! It was the first Shakespeare play I read and I will always have a soft spot in my heart for their discussion on sheep.