The First Part of Henry the Sixth

As I make my way through the Henrys, I feel my lack of knowledge of the history of the British monarchy acutely. I’m not sure it’s a bad thing necessarily,  but it’s acute for sure.  I’d made a conscious decision not to do research prior to reading the plays for several reasons:  The first is unapologetic sloth.  Reading 38 Shakespeare plays and writing brief “papers” on each feels Herculean enough.  I didn’t want to add British History 101 to the task.  Secondly, I specifically wanted to read these plays “cold” – with a clean slate, as an Elizabethan theater-goer might, seeing them for the first time in absence of an intimate acquaintance with the backstory.  And finally, I didn’t want to know how closely Shakespeare followed “just the facts.”  While having memorized the British succession might have given me a leg up in some ways, overall I’m happy with my strategy because I have no preconceived notions about the characters or plots.  The main downside is frequent confusion.

The Riverside footnotes do assuage this, though, especially in pointing out where Shakespeare has taken certain creative liberties and poetic license.  While most of KHVI-1 is factually accurate, he does tamper with and condense chronology in the interest of moving things along, and alters characters a bit to add interest, especially for his English audience.  The latter struck me the most in this play; more on that later.

The triad of Henry VI plays are generally recognized as his first, although they may have been written/presented out of order (2,3,1).  I’m sad and reluctant to admit that KHVI-1, which kicks off gloomily with KHV’s funeral, proves to me that all of Shakespeare’s plays are neither created equal, nor are they all great.  Perhaps it’s just that after the magnificent KHV’s untimely death, his young, inexperienced son just leaves something to be desired as a monarch and a character.  He is uninspiring; a follower more than a leader.

To be fair, Shakespeare was just honing his writing skills, and KHVI’s father died shortly after he was born.  They were both in their infancy.  KHVI missed KHV as a parent and role model and relied instead on his bickering advisors.  Katherine, his French mother, who surely influenced him in some ways, is notable here in her complete absence.  He relies on and defers to the quarrelsome crew and rarely takes a firm stance himself. They, meanwhile, engage in self-interest motivated infighting throughout.  Aristocrats vie over land and title, and church challenges state.  It’s as annoying to read as it must have been to be a part as it happened or party to as an audience member.  It is neither inspirational nor compelling, especially in contrast to KHV.

At KHV’s death England finds itself once again fighting over and with France.  Burgundy eventually defects back to his rightful place with the wine-loving French, and the foppish and equally ineffectual Charles (Dauphin-turned-king) finds succor and strength in the form of Joan, The Maid of Orleans, of Arc.

It’s Shakespeare’s portrayal of said heroine that distresses me most about KHVI-1.  Those who have read my previous posts (thank you!) know that I have an issue with what I perceive as misogyny in Shakespeare.  My favorite Middlebury professor (John Bertolini, who will, much to my glee, be teaching my son The Histories this semester) recently pointed out to me that women in Shakespeare often serve to remind men of their mortality (thank you, Professor Bertolini for continuing to teach me to this day).  While this lightbulb illuminated some of the dark recesses of my mind, it’s not enough for me to explain what feels like an excess of woman-bashing. Remember, the monarch for whom he wrote was a formidable woman.

Here, he takes a canonized teen hero and portrays her as a witchy demon.  I quite understand that an English playwright could hardly glorify a French, Brit-bashing saint as saintly, but I feel he’s gone too far, particularly as she fights valiantly amidst a backdrop of backstabbing, self-centered, squabbling superegos and spineless so-called leaders.  She emerges from the meadows; self-motivated and patriotic, to fight for France.  Yet even Charles, who she supports and defends, only loves her when she’s winning.  She knows her gender puts her at a disadvantage, but assures him:  “Thou shalt find that I exceed my sex.” (I,ii,90)

The ineffective, emasculated English need to put her down and paint a distorted portrait of her to make their own ineptitude less prominent.  Even the name by which Shakespeare refers to her – “Pucelle,” – meaning “maid” in French, is strikingly similar to “putain,” or whore.  Talbot minimizes her successful campaign against them:  “A witch by fear, not force…/Drives back our troops.” (I,vi,21-2).  In the face of defeat Bedford admonishes France for enlisting female aid:  “Coward of France, how much he wrongs his fame,/ Despairing his own army’s fortitude,/To join with witches and the help of hell!” (I,ii,16-18)  So she’s a devil as well as a witch.  Even Burgundy, before he re-Francifies, refers to her as a “trull” (whore) (II,ii,28).

Joan keeps coming on strong in defense of her country, and all the Brits can do is cower and call her names.  Burgundy warns: “Scoff on, vile fiend and shameless courtesan!” (III,ii,45), while Talbot exclaims:  “Pucelle, that witch, that damned sorceress.” (III,ii,38) and refuses to talk to her:  “I speak not to that railing Hecate.” (III,ii,64).  To her face, he asserts, “Young Talbot was not born/To be the pillage of a giglot (wanton) wench.” (IV,vi, 40-1).  Stick and stones (which she will very much have to worry about later) may break her bones but words will never harm her, and only make her adversaries look like cowardly sissies.

Maybe the contentious, egocentric men surrounding her simply cannot accept the fact that a woman, even one divinely inspired and imbued, could be smarter, stronger, and more effective than they.  So they, like juvenile schoolyard bullies, resort to hurling belittling insults.  They are sticking their otherwise useless tongues out at her.

She, meanwhile, vanquishes them all, both physically and intellectually.  Joan not only defends, but schools them:  “Care is no cure, but rather corrosive,/For things that are not remedied.” (III,iii,3-4)  In trying to convince her to woo Burgundy back to France, they appeal to the angelic side of the angel/devil dichotomy, which is really no less flattering:   “we will make thee famous through the world./We’ll set thy statue in some holy place,/And have thee reverenced like a blessed saint./Employee thee then, sweet virgin, for our good.” (III,iii,13-16).  Of course we’re not going to specify which holy place, but don’t worry, Joan, we’ll find a good one…  They’ve gone from one extreme to the other – or should I say Shakespeare has – in portraying women as either saint or sinner, virgin or whore, angel or devil.

Even she, in some ways, acquiesces to her own press in the end (of course Shakespeare did write her lines).  She summons “spells and peripats,” and “spirits,: (V,iii,2-3) and offers to sell her soul for a French victory.  “Then take my soul – my body, soul, and all,” (V,iii,22) and indeed they do.  At a loss for how to deal with a strong, sensible, valiant woman, they insist “Fell banning hag, enchantress, hold thy tongue!” (V,iii,42); “Curse, miscreant, when thou com’st to the stake.” (V,iii,44) and condemn her to burn at the stake (remember the sticks and stones?).  “O, burn her, burn her! hanging is too good.” (V,iv,33), as if they need to erase all evidence of her.

Shakespeare has her play right into this dichotomy until the very end when, in her own defense, she pleads for mercy claiming to be both “A virgin from her tender infancy,/Chaste and immaculate in every thought.” (V,iv,50-1), and, practically in the same breath, pregnant: “I am with child, ye bloody homicides!/Murther not then the fruit within my womb,” (V,iv,62-3).  He portrays her, then, as a liar, too.

In Katherine’s absence, and with Joan heading to the bonfire, we are left with a world dominated by newly-crowned, inexperienced, ineffectual male monarchs and their male minions battling over land, power, position, and the separation of church and state.  One nurturing woman never made it to the party, and the strong female valiant voice of reason who did is about to be French-fried.

Maybe the Shakespearean women do remind their men too much of their own impeding demise, or maybe Shakespeare and his male characters simply couldn’t find a happy medium in which the ladies could dwell somewhere between the Chicken Ranch and church.

None of this bodes well for either side; I guess that’s why he wrote parts 2 and 3 – so we know how this mess, if it indeed does, resolves itself.    Eleven plays down.   Twenty-seven to go.


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