Thursday, January 19, 2023

reading Henry VI Part 1

Our Shakespeare reading group has gotten on to Henry VI, Part 1. Despite its bad reputation (there's a scene in Neil Gaiman's Sandman where Marlowe is critiquing the bad writing in this play, and Shakespeare sheepishly says, "It's my first play," to which Marlowe replies, "And it should be your last!") and oceans of historical inaccuracy, we're finding what I've found when I've seen it staged: it's a terrifically engrossing piece of drama.

It's also long, and full of minor and one-scene characters, so I divided it up into three sections instead of two, so that it might be more easily digested. Here's my historical notes on the first two sections.

Act 1 - Act 2 Scene 3

After the English beat the pants off the French in the wars in the previous historical segment (written by Shakespeare much later), Henry V, in this one the French turned the tables. Shakespeare mucked with history quite a bit, but he couldn't hide this disgrace, so he had to come up with an explanation. Actually, French generalship had improved and English had declined, but Shakespeare couldn't say that, so his explanation is right out of Monty Python and the Holy Grail: Joan of Arc was a witch! Sorry about that, Joan of Arc fans.

Though King Henry VI is the namesake of this play, he doesn't appear in the first third, because he was only a small child at the time. You'll recall that the play of Henry V ended with Henry conclusively defeating the French, being declared the French king's heir and marrying his daughter. But before Henry would have inherited the French crown, he caught a fever and died, leaving a nine month old son who was declared King Henry VI of England.

In Henry V's will, he named his two surviving brothers - whom you'll remember from the last play - as regents. The Duke of Bedford, who was primarily a soldier, was regent for the English claims in France and commander of the army. His local ally was the Duke of Burgundy, and his principal general was Lord Talbot, who is a leading character in this play. The Duke of Gloucester was regent in England, which put him in conflict with his powerful uncle, the Bishop of Winchester.

Meanwhile the French were not taking young Henry as king, even after the old French king died. They declared his son the Dauphin king as Charles VII (though he couldn't be crowned yet because the English still controlled Reims where the coronations took place). He is not the arrogant Dauphin with the tennis balls from the last play. That guy had died in the interim, and Charles is his younger brother. Of his court, one character to watch is Reignier Duke of Anjou, because later, when peace is declared, a treaty will be signed to have his daughter marry Henry VI.

There is a passing reference in the first scene to a cowardly soldier who ran away, named Sir John Fastolfe. (An unfair charge: it was a tactical retreat.) It was his cowardly reputation, endorsed in this play, that led Shakespeare to adapt the name as Sir John Falstaff, the fictional cowardly knight of the later-written, earlier-set plays.

Act 2 Scene 4 - Act 4 Scene 1

Act 2 Scene 4, with which we begin, introduces entirely new characters, of whom the most important is Richard Plantagenet. We need to know who he is, because this scene is where the issue of the royal succession re-enters the plot.

You may recall that when Bolingbroke deposed his cousin Richard II and became Henry IV, the question came up of whether he was the legitimate next in line to the throne. Richard's father, the Black Prince, had been the eldest son of Edward III, while Bolingbroke's father, John of Gaunt, had been the fourth son. But the third son, Lionel Duke of Clarence, also left descendants, and by the strict rules of primogeniture, it is they who should have been Richard's heirs.

Lionel's daughter had married into the noble family of Mortimer. Shakespeare, simplifying the family tree considerably, makes the heir the single figure of Edmund Mortimer. The rebels against Henry IV, the Percys and Owen Glendower, had allied with Edmund Mortimer, planning to split up the kingdom with him. Then Henry V executed for treason the Earl of Cambridge, younger son of Edmund Duke of York, a younger son of Edward III. Cambridge had been plotting to put on the throne Edmund Mortimer, who was his brother-in-law.

Now Edmund Mortimer is old and dying, and in Act 2 Scene 5 he passes along his claim to his heir, his sister's son. This is Richard Plantagenet. Not only is he the Mortimer heir through his mother, but his father was that same Earl of Cambridge. Because his father was executed as a traitor, Richard hasn't inherited any titles, but he would be the heir to his grandfather's and uncle's title of Duke of York. He is out to have the title reinstated, which happens in Act 3 Scene 1. Thus he unites the Mortimer and York lines in one person. While he's of the House of York, the Kings Henry are the House of Lancaster, because that was John of Gaunt's ducal title.

Plantagenet, by the way, was originally a personal epithet of Henry II's father. Richard has adopted it as a family surname, a new custom of his time, to emphasize his pure father-to-son descent through the intervening 300 years of kings. Calling the whole run Plantagenets, as we do today, is thus purely retroactive.

It's in Act 2 Scene 4 that Richard picks a white rose to signify the House of York, and his antagonist the Earl of Somerset, who is a younger grandson of John of Gaunt and thus a Lancastrian, picks a red rose to signify the House of Lancaster, and they each pester the other nobles to join their side - a risky business, for to pick one side means the other side will label them as traitors.

In Act 3 Scene 1 we finally meet the young titular King Henry VI, whom we find is gentle, merciful, and peace-loving, admirable qualities which nevertheless make him a weak king by medieval standards. So it's unsurprising that the tougher York begins to think of at least accumulating power and even of supplanting Henry as king. Thus civil war is in the brewing, what will eventually be dubbed (by Sir Walter Scott, no less) the Wars of the Roses.

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