Friday, February 18, 2011

Shakespeare's Henry VI Part 1 - Hurlyburly, Indeed!




Even though it is his first play, (by many scholarly accounts,) Shakespeare's Henry VI Part 1 hints at great thematic mastery amidst its showy and, quite frankly, sentimental set pieces.

From the very first, the English, having suffered the death of Henry V, are cursing the stars and wondering about the effectiveness of prayer:

Duke of Bedford: Comets, importing change of times and states,
Brandish your crystal tresses in the sky,
And with them scourge the bad revolting stars
That have consented unto Henry's death...


In the very next scene, the French, led by Charles (Dolphin) enter ecstatic from their fortunes in battle and also turn thoughts to the heavens:

Charles: Mars his true moving, even as in the heavens,
So in the earth, to this day is not known.
Late did he shine upon the English side;
Now we are victors, upon us he smiles.


In the larger thematic structure, this is quite ironic, for as the play unfolds it is the squabbling, fickleness and mistakes of men that seem to influence the fortunes on the field. Both the French forces, (led by Joan of Arc,) and the English, (led by John Talbot,) capture, retreat from and then recapture objectives. Allies turn allegiances 180 degrees, and the brewing dispute between Somerset and York finally does in the brave Talbot.

One of Talbot's men, Sir William Lucy, comes to plead with Somerset to finally send the needed armies into battle - for Talbot cannot last much longer. However, he finds a less than sympathetic ear. Lucy tries shaming Somerset:

Lucy: The fraud of England, not the force of France,
Hath now entrapp'd the noble-minded Talbot:
Ne'er to England shall he bear his life,
but dies, betrayed to fortune by your strife.


And in the end, Joan of Arc herself is abandoned by the fiends that she conjures through spells (the painting above is William Hamilton's famous rendering of this scene.):

Joan: Oh hold me not with silence over-long!
Where I was wont to feed your with my blood,
I'll lop a member off and give it you
In earnest of a further benefit,
So you do condescend to help me now.

(The fiends hang their heads.)

No hope to have redress? My body shall
Pay recompense, if you will grant my suit.

(They shake their heads.)

Cannot my body nor blood sacrifice
Entreat you to your wonted furtherance?
Then take my soul - my body, soulod and all,
Before that Enladn give the French the foil.

(They depart.)

See, they forsake me!


Online, you can watch the English Shakespeare Company's production of the Henry VI cycle of plays. The clip below is the legendary meeting of Charles and Joan

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