I look at Shakespeare’s history plays as a great episodic television series. Richard II is season one – the slow moody deposition of the poet king which sets in motion the family battles to follow. The next trilogy (Henry IV part I & II, Henry V) is the artistic peak, the seasons that hook faithful viewers, the ones that really sell the DVD box sets. We get the ascension of Prince Hal to King Henry V, the greatest character arc in Shakespeare’s work. And we get the fan favorite side character Sir John Falstaff, the Paulie Walnuts/Omar of the series (minus the shotgun). But it’s like the network needed bigger ratings because this next season (Henry VI part I) is all action. We are thrust into multiple wars – England vs France, dukes vs clergy, Lancaster vs York, servant vs servant. We get action hero characters, battle scenes, deception and betrayal. Most the plot developments serve to set up the next few seasons, leading up to the finale Richard III.
Henry VI part I is actually the first play in the Shakespeare chronology, and some critics have claimed that it is a patchwork or collaboration with other authors. Fair enough, but I reject the criticisms that this is one of the weaker plays. Though only a few characters really shine, the play moves with a stylistic economy that makes it a swift read. For a lesser, placeholder season – that ain’t bad.
We open at King Henry V’s funeral, as the great king is laid to rest. As an author I’d have been tempted to focus on young King Henry VI – thrown into war, surrounded by a team of rivals, haunted by the shadow of his revered father. But he’s just a side character in this play. He’s basically a pawn for the various factions looking to control or seize power. This war for succession will become known as the War of the Roses, illustrated here by a scene in which sides are chosen by choosing colored roses. This will be explored more fully in the next two plays. We just need to know that King Henry VI is a young, weak king who basically represents a power vacuum.
For now – there’s a war going on outside. The big action hero for England is Lord Talbot, very much cut from the Schwarzenegger cloth. He talks with courageous bluster and backs it up by fighting valiantly, often outnumbered. As a character he’s a bit of a cliche, but he serves his purpose in this war narrative. At one point, he’s reunited with his son before a battle and they engage in a dialogue on sacrifice and valor. The son wishes to fight and let the father flee, knowing his father’s reputation will be intact regardless. Talbot, as we can guess, has no intention of ever running from a fight so off they go together. They’ll both end up dying, not without typical bravado and some anti-French lines that probably pleased English audiences. To me – no big loss.
The real star of King Henry VI part I is Joan la Pucelle aka Joan of Arc of France. She is a warrior more fierce and a strategist more clever than any of the men. She outclasses the dukes and lords in every way. She’s out for blood and gives no fucks. Charles – the dauphin and newly crowned king of France – recognizes her abilities and is smitten. They make a strange pair, Charles essentially employing her to run the war for him as he tags along. My favorite bit is a meeting with an English lord who runs through a litany of his lost combatants with typical loquacity (“The thrice-victorious Lord of Falconbridge; Knights of the noble order of Saint George, worthy Saint Michael…”) Her response: “Here is a silly-stately style indeed!…Him that thou magnifiest with all these titles, stinking and fly-blown, lies here at our feet.” She has no time for that lord bullshit – she’s only here to kick English ass.
Meanwhile the seeds are sown for the rise of Shakespeare’s greatest villain: Richard Plantagenet, later Richard III. He learns from his dying father of his place as rightful heir and potential claim on the throne. Richard remains in the background in this play, but these scenes are key to understanding his motives as he schemes his way to power in Richard III. For now, he’s content to let the war and bickering run its course and wait for his opportunity to strike.
The war ends with a bit of a stalemate, though not before Joan is put to death. Her parting shots point out the hypocrisy of her judges. They all assume this cunning woman must be a witch. How else could she have outfought and outsmarted the men? The portrayal wavers a bit as she makes a few last desperate claims – of virginity, then of pregnancy by a series of different fathers. Again, I suspect this is a capitulation to the English bias of Shakespeare’s audience and the requirement that the French be portrayed as villains in defeat. Still she is the most powerful character in the play, let down only by this undignified ending.
There are also some key observations on war and battle throughout – the unreasonable expectations, the costs of manpower and money. England is not a united front, with the dukes beginning to choose sides and even openly defying one another as when Somerset refuses to lend troops to what he sees as a losing battle. A church vs state war is brewing as well, with Bishop of Winchester and Duke of Gloster engaging in some truly epic shit talking that will erupt into all out war in the next play. King Henry VI part I may not be a must watch season, but it’s key to appreciating the dark finale Richard III (which is).