Tuesday, May 30, 2006

RE: 1 Henry VI - Gong?


Yes. I have been troubled by a bit of a disconnect between the well-put and thoroughly supported descriptions of the tragedy-like natures of both Titus and 1 Henry VI and the experience of reading or, in my case, of listening to the plays. As overall readings, these descriptions are as good as any alternatives I can think of, but they are also dissatisfying. I am not moved by the "tragic figures" in either play. I see little cathartic process -- either for them or for me, the beholder. Both seem to be comic-book figures (to overstate) and really "develop" little beyond their luminosity as comic-book figures, either. The question that teases me involves what is memorable about each play. It the case of Titus, it is the outlandish tortures, the hamming of various characters (Aaron, Titus, Tamara's sons), the instances of Shakespeare trying to better Marlowe (and perhaps Kyd) at their own games.

Similarly, it is the (arguably silly) anecdotal pieces in Henry that I think one remembers -- more than the tragedy of Talbot's destruction by the Renaissance Machiavellianism employed by the more "modern" characters surrounding him. Without the corny rose scene, the calling forth of demons by Joan, the affair of Talbot's son, the various battles and confrontations, the play crumbles dust-ward a fair bit.

I don't have any answers (I am putting off reading finals as I speak), but I do remember how I finally fixed for myself which family got the white rose and which the red. It came from comparing Chester and York Cathedrals. Chester, in the west, in Lancaster territory, is made of red sandstone. York, in the east, is built of brilliantly white limestone. That fixed it for me.

I am hoping to have my sister Juliet look in on these discussions after her teaching season ends around the end of June--with your permission, of course.


RE: 1 Henry VI - Going Twice...

Home stretchers,

Though we have not built much dialogue on 1 Henry VI, I have come a long way since I made my initial "note-card" remarks. As you can see I've refocused because of Randall's chivalry/ political split, and I thought his articulation of the dichotomous pairs extended my early "whole lotta bitchin' goin' on." And Ernst's "initial reactions" illuminated many matters, especially his commentary on Joan. I hope we can get "initial reactions" like this on other plays. I'd like to apologize for my pedestrian close reading of Talbot,absent the terminal scene with his son John, which Randall had covered. I just didn't get my mind loose enough to take on Joan.

I have not reread to extract Joan in the way I tried to close-read Talbot (you are all saying 'whew!'), but, as Ernst notes, she is sympathetic for much of the play. Joan has more of an internal life than Talbot, yet I wish I had systematically catalogued the descriptions: holy maid, fair maid, virgin ("they say"), peasant, "humble handmaid"; martial,"a woman clad in armor," "reverenc'd like a blessed saint"; then, magic, sorceress, witch, "foul fiend of France," "railing Hecate"; finally, "high-minded strumpet," the Dolphin's trull, "lustful Paramour," and, alas, a camp follower who pleads her belly to escape execution.

This catalogue is not in exact order and of course depends much on the speaker, but there really is an evolution from heroic to dealer in the black arts (as in the curious scene (V.iii) where Joan calls forth fiends, who then won't talk to her--in one of my favorite exchanges in 1 Henry IV, Owen Glendower boasts "I can call monsters from the vasty deep" to which Hotspur replies "Why, so can I and so can any man, but do they come when you do call for them") to scandalous woman.

I'm reminded of the first woman to write professionally in English, Aphra Behn, who because she was a woman succeeding in a male activity, got a scandalous reputation far beyond anything warranted by her works or life. Graham Holderness remarks that "chivalry and feudal militarism are masculine domains," so added to the dichotomies Randall discussed is gender (and, as I tried to develop last time, class). Joan-in-armor, though certainly romantic and heroic, is the end of chivalry. My sense is Shakespeare is sympathetic with this very complex figure, unwilling to simplify her into a mere historical artifact, and I appreciate Ernst's observation that the Act V Joan must be by another hand who had not read the rest of the play.

Also III.iii, Burgundy's "I am vanquished" reads like Dryden when his ear occasionally turned to tin -- see Anthony's maudlin melting before wife, children, friend in All for Love, when he similarly switches allegiance in a war. When Randall discusses conflict on the regional level, England vs. France, he assumes Shakespeare's audience is rooting for the home team. But here we do have a History Play. Henry V, militarily and mythically, won (or claimed or reclaimed) France, and the audience also knows it was "lost." Still Randall's conclusion that Shakespeare places the blame on factionalism is a powerful insight. The "home team" perspective does help account the shift in how Joan's character is abused by the end of the play.

Red rose/ white rose tempted me to remark on other savage internal rivalries -- red states/ blue states?

Mike, don't feel left out. We'll see you soon. Meanwhile, to your earlier commentary on the passages about the drop of water merged into the ocean (Comedy of Errors), glance at Joan's image at I.ii.133-139, that begins "Glory is like a circle in the water,/ Which never ceaseth to enlarge itself."

OK. I did read Jean Anouilh's L'Alouette (The Lark, Lillian Hellman adaptation) but I have not reread Shaw's Saint Joan. The structure is a bit like Pirandello's Six Characters, with the whole story already having taken place before the play begins. Warwick's opening speech says "Let the trial begin at once. The quicker the judgment and the burning, the better for all of us." I anticipated a French "home team," but instead the second act is solid exploration of church authority (pace DaVinci Code) and humanism. It is a really good play, and I'm surprised it seems to have disappeared from repertory. It does, of course, what Shakespeare cannot do, and that is recognize the whole existence of Joan of Arc in culture. If you have questions, let me know. I saw it twice in London in 1955, translated by Christopher Fry, directed by Peter Brook. Richard Johnson as Warwick, Dorothy Tutin as Joan, Leo McKern (Rumpole) as The Promoter, Donald Pleasence as Charles, The Dauphin. I saw it twice because I wanted to impress a girl I was dating, and I told her she looked like Dorothy Tutin.

And so to bed,

Monday, May 29, 2006

1 Henry VI - Going Once ...


I'll wrap up our conversation for 1 Henry VI tomorrow. Toss in any final comments if you've got 'em.


Thursday, May 25, 2006

RE2: 1 Henry VI - The Tragedy of Lord Talbot


I still have not looked at Joan. Who knows?

As I said in my first posting, my attention on first reading went into sorting out the historical characters and arranging them into factions. Then, Randall connected Talbot to the paradigm shift from feudal/chivalric/heroic to bourgeois/political/pragmatic. That crystallized the play for me, more than the prevailing theory that Shakespeare was creating a Tudor Myth or a national literature. 1 Henry VI is just too messy to parallel Virgil's Roman myth, The Aeneid (Randall -- how could I have forgotten Dryden's opening verse: "Arms and the man I sing"?), to what the Beowulf poet did for Anglo-Saxon culture, or, later, McPherson tried to do for Scotland with the Ossian forgeries.

Still, refocused on Talbot, I found him more a hero insisted upon than demonstrated. Comparing him to the comparable Hotspur in 1 Henry IV, Talbot seems to come with a prefabricated heroism, whereas Prince Hal's rival is introduced from several perspectives, first by the Earl of Westmoreland, who reports "the gallant Hotspur there, Young Harry Percy," won an overwhelming victory against the Scots, and captured several Scottish earls. "And is not this an honorable spoil? A gallant prize? A conquest for a prince to boast of." Then, King Henry wistfully wishes Northumberland's Harry (Hotspur), "a son who is the theme of honor's tongue...who is sweet fortune's minion and her pride" (I.i.51-2, 74-6, 80, 82), had been switched in the cradle with his own son (Prince Hal).

Next, we have insight into character by way of the marvelous rationalization by Hotspur himself on why he has not ceded the prisoners to the King, the long tale about the king's representative, "a certain lord, neat and trimly dressed,/ Fresh as a bridegroom, and his chin new reaped" -- a girly man, for sure -- asking the battle weary hero on the battlefield to give up the prisoners, all the while complaining about the "slovenly unhandsome corpses" carried by him and the smell of "villainous saltpeter." Note, however, that the heroic warrior, now celebrated for victory, still does not give up his prisoners. Finally, Hotspur articulates his own chivalric credo:

"By heaven, methinks it were an easy leap
To pluck bright honor from the pale-faced moon,
Or dive into the bottom of the deep,
Where fathom line could never touch the ground,
And pluck up drowned honor by the locks,
So he that doth redeem her thence might wear
Without corrival all her dignities." (1 Henry IV, I.iii.199-205)

Together, the heroic is mixed with the comic, and by the time of Prince Hal's victory in single combat over Hotspur at Shrewsbury, such chivalry is an anachronism.

How do we come to know Lord Talbot? Again, a messenger/exposition bearer brings news "of a dismal fight/ Betwixt the stout Lord Talbot and the French." "This dreadful lord" was round encompassed, undermanned and without sufficient armaments, yet "where valiant Talbot above human thought/ Enacted wonders with his sword and lance:/ Hundreds he sent to hell, and none durst stand him... The French exclaim'd, the devil was in arms;/ All the whole army stood agaz'd on him" and little pompon girls or somebody, shouted "A Talbot! A Talbot!" Yet, he was betrayed by Sir John Falstaff (no, not that Falstaff) who failed to cover his back, and "A base Wallon, to win the Dolphin's grace,/ Thrust Talbot with a spear into the back." (I.i.106, 110, 121-3, 125-6, 128, 137-38). Thus, "such a worthy leader" is betrayed and took prisoner. Not to make fun of this (though "Walloon" is a pretty funny adversary), but our Superman is brought down in a dark alley, stabbed in the back of his kryptonite-susceptible heel.

Next, Talbot is with the "mad-brain'd, desperate homicide" Salisbury (actually, another superannuated English hero) at Orleans. He has been ransomed and exchanged, but only for the brave Lord Ponton de Santrailles. They, the French, "with a baser man of arms by far/ Once in contempt they would have bart'd me;/ Which I, disdaining, scorn'd, and craved death/ Rather than I would be so pill'd [despoiled] esteemed:/ In fine, redeemed I was as I desir'd" (I.iv.30-4). While imprisoned, he had been ridiculed as "The scarecrow that affrights our children," but he rips cobblestones from the streets to hurl at the French until "In iron walls they deem'd me not secure;/ So great fear of my name 'mongst them were spread/ That they suppos'd I could rend bars of steel,/ And spurn in pieces post of adamant" (I.iv.43, 49-52).

Salisbury is killed by a sniper, alarum! alarum!, and Joan de Pucelle (or puzzle or pizzle) appears, and Talbot exclaims "my strength, my valor, and my force," that is, his English troops, retire as "a woman clad in armor chaseth them" (let's leave comment on cross-dressing until later). Talbot, earlier thought by the French to be the devil in arms, now faces the devil or devil's dam, a witch, and though he vows "My breast I'll burst with straining of my courage," Joan beats him in single combat, only to leave off ("Talbot, farewell, thy hour is not yet come") in order to bring supplies to besieged Orleans. Sum? Stout, dreadful, valiant, our hero has been stabbed in the back by a base Walloon, refuses to be bartered for a prisoner of lesser value lest it debase his self-worth, and is now beaten by "a high-minded strumpet" (his term).

[Aside on the footnote at II.i.77: Shakespeare's most cherished footnote is in Winter's Tale": "Exit, pursued by a bear," but may we pause a moment on "Enter [an English] Soldier crying 'A Talbot! A Talbot!' They fly [the French, including, I think, Charles and Joan], leaving their clothes behind." Hum a few bars from the military march, if there is one, from Oh Calcutta!]

Talbot indeed retakes Orleans, so we have a demonstration of his heroic prowess, revenging the death of Salisbury, erecting a tomb for him in Orleans's chiefest temple, a victory not diminished by calling attention to the French being bare-assed and unresisting. A messenger seeks "warlike Talbot, for his acts/ So much applauded through the realm of France" and seeks his attendance on the Countess of Auvergne, seemingly a groupie. Though he and Bedford sort of giggle about wars which turn into "a peaceful comic sport," such a conquest does seem within the chivalric spoils of war. The Countess is quite a surprise. She greets the Talbot of reputation: "Is this the scourge of France?/ Is this the Talbot so much fear'd abroad/ That with his name the mothers still their babes?...? I thought I should have seen some Hercules,/ A second Hector, for his grim aspect/ And large proportion of his strong-knit limbs." (II.iii.15-21). So who, then, is "this weak and writhled shrimp?"

The Countess plots his capture, but Talbot has anticipated some scheme and calls his soldiers. Reputation -- the "scourge of France" -- confronts a challenge, and Talbot, unlike his vituperation against the warrior Joan, treats the Countess gallantly, declaring himself not offended, asking only that "we may taste of your wine and see what cates you have," to which the Countess replies "With all my heart, and think me honored/ To feast so great a warrior in my house." This seems a perfect outcome for our chivalrous hero, winning the admiration of the conquered lady, despite being called a shrimp. Here we see the chivalrous Talbot, more than just hear the adjectives heaped on him.

In the battle of Rouen (III.ii), again we see Talbot in military action. Joan takes the city; "warlike and martial" Talbot and Burgundy take it back--despite another retreat by Falstaff--in honor of the dying Duke of Bedford. Monuments are built. But there is an interesting echo of Talbot refusing to be ransomed unless in equal noble exchange. During the fight, Talbot eschews fighting with Joan and instead calls out Alanson (the Duke of Alencon): "Will ye, like soldiers, come and fight it out?" (III.ii.66). Alanson refuses, drawing Talbot's scorn: ""Base muleteers of France!/ Like peasant footboys do they keep the walls,/ And dare not rake up arms like gentlemen." (III.ii.68-70). So he drinks wine with the lady who plotted to kill him, then demands the battle for France be fought by gentlemen only according to the rules of the game. Lastly, as King Henry VI is crowned in Paris, Talbot strips Falstaff of his Order of the Garter, not for contributing to military defeats, but because he has besmirched the honor of The Order of the Garter. On first reading, I thought the Garter business was a curious digression, but now I see Talbot's explanation is more an epitaph for the passing of his ethic:

"When first this order was ordain'd, my lords,
Knights of the Garter were of noble birth,
Valiant and virtuous, full of haughty courage,
Such as were grown credit by the wars;
Not fearing death, nor shrinking for distress,
But always resolute in most extremes.
He then, that is not furnish'd in this sort
Doth but usurp the sacred name of knight,
Profaning this most honorable order,
And should (if I were worthy to be judge)
Be quite degraded, like a hedge-born swain
That doth presume to boast of gentle blood." (IV.i.33-44)

Like the base Walloon and Joan the Shepherd's daughter and the baser muleteers of France, what Talbot stands for is degraded to some hedge-born swain.

Talbot and his son will die heroically, yet they are victims to what Randall called real politic, the foolish political division of power between York (infantry) and Somerset (cavalry) who are not talking to each other, so they fail to support the English in the battle of Bordeaux. During this battle, Talbot lyrically articulates the epitaph of his own chivalric order:

"How are we park'd and bounded in a pale,
A little herd of England's timorous deer,
Maz'd with a yelping kennel of French curs!
If we be English deer, be then in blood,
Not rascal-like to fall down with a pinch,
But rather, moody-mad; and desperate stags,
Turn on the bloody hounds with heads of steel,
And make the cowards stand aloof at bay.
Sell every man his life as dear as mine,
And they shall find dear deer of us, my friends.
God and Saint George, Talbot and England's right,
Prosper our colors in this dangerous fight!" (IV.ii.45-56)

There is still Joan, the saint, the witch, the whore, to be burned and the sequel with the beauteous Margaret of Anjou and the duplicitous Suffolk still to set up, but The Tragedy of Lord Talbot, who challenged the pure laws of the universe, a nostalgic struggle for honor and valor against the baseborn political factions, is at an end.


Thursday, May 18, 2006

1 Henry VI - Ernst's Initial Comments

I listened to my recording of this play to get a better feel for it. I found this helpful—especially in its treatment of Joan.

This is an uneven play, to say the least. The first two acts consist largely of dramatized anecdotes, containing little character development or sense of consistent theme—except, perhaps, for a rather wonderful suggestion of the diverse interests, stories, and locations coming down upon a seriously fractured England—done with a kind of cross-cutting D.W. Griffith might appreciate. We meet Talbot and Joan. The former begins with a fair bit of narration, but lets us know he is a stolid fighter. The latter, Joan, interests me more in that, until the end of the play, she seems to be treated rather sympathetically—even though Charles, sounding like Tamburlaine praising Zenocrate (I.iv.17ff.), apparently has a "thing" for her.

Joan’s focused approach certainly shows the French as indecisive, decadent, womanish, vacillating—by comparison to her. This, I think, raises her in our estimation—so that when Burgundy, whose own weaknesses will eventually be revealed, calls her a witch, she continues to look pretty integrity-filled—especially when compared to the English, who, by the end of Act 2, will be squabbling as foolishly as the French. One clear theme of the play is that squabbling, divisiveness and an excess of verbal confrontations between so-called allies (this play must
contain more such than any other) come to no good.

2.4, the rose-choosing scene, is, again, so "cute" that it, too, is more a set-piece than anything particularly involving. It is only in 2.5, where the dying Mortimer’s long consideration of historical forces coming down upon the present time (and his showing favor to Richard-soon-to-be Duke of York) that the play gains some historical "gravitas."

In my recording, Henry, who first appears in 3.1, sounds young and speaks with a certain hesitancy suggesting how carefully he is trying to frame his boy’s words for a realpolitik world. Exeter becomes a bit of a trustworthy (I would say) narrator at this point. Again, Joan (La Pucelle) comes off as moderately respectable—especially by comparison to the First Soldier, who, like Falstaff, a few lines later (Ah, what a falling off was there!), is really more interested in sack (bad pun) than French Nationalism (which, according to Shaw, is what Joan of Arc, was all about).

By this point, the destructiveness of war and the petty arguments of nobles still seem to me the dominant themes. And Joan’s speech to Burgundy (3.2.44ff.) is, again, very audience-appealing and reminds one of John of Gaunt’s famous apostrophe in Richard II. She is not a witch yet, and, indeed, her exasperated remark about Burgundy ("Done like a Frenchman—turn and turn again") allies her—briefly—with Talbot in our minds.

In 4.1, the squabbling continues, Henry—dangerously—takes sides with the Lancastrians, and Exeter—again—summarizes and moralizes at the scene’s end.The dangers of divisiveness and the tragedies of war continue in the next several scenes as both Talbots die and England’s hold on France begins to break. 4.5, with its "cute," almost comedy-appropriate rhymed verse and stichomythia, hurts the play as a whole. Joan may not be all that wrong, when she says (4.7.72-4): "Here is a silly stately style indeed!/The Turk, that two and fifty kingdoms hath,/Writes not so tedious a style as this." The play has gotten a bit that way itself.

At the same time, Joan’s referring to the dead Talbots’ bodies as good for nothing but "stink[ing] and putrify[ing] the air" could possibly be prelude to the harridan she becomes in the last act—or it could be an early instance of one of Shakespeare’s ongoing and favorite themes, the foolishness of puffed-up courtiers and the language they speak (M. LeBeau, Osrick, etc.).

The job of Act 5 is to get Henry married, Joan burned at the stake, and the devious Suffolk’s relationship with Margaret relationship set up. These all happen, but, as far as I am concerned, the interesting characters are all gone. Except for Joan, but I am left with the feeling that whoever wrote Scene 3 had not really read the rest of the play. The consort-with-fiends woman who calls her father "Decrepit miser, base ignoble wretch" seems to me a far cry from the sensible, if occasionally impatient, heroine of the earlier acts. Although she is nconsistently treated, I still find her the most interesting character in the play.


Friday, May 12, 2006

RE: 1 Henry VI - Conflicts

Mr. Findlay has actually called me out in class. Wow. Now I know what it feels like to go to SPA.

I'd better get my shovel... To dig in, that is.


Thursday, May 11, 2006

1 Henry VI - Conflicts


I must disagree with Thomas Nashe. Gil reminds us that Nashe, apparently making an argument for the virtue of theater (he'd take it back if he spent a week on Broadway), wrote of Talbot in 1 Henry VI:

"How it would have joyed brave Talbot (the terror of the French) to thinke that after he had lyne two hundred yeares in his Tombe, hee should triumphe againe on the Stage, and have his bones newe embalmed with the teares of ten thousand spectators at least (at severall times), who, in the Tragedian that represents his person, imagine they behold him fresh bleeding."

This is an odd definition of "triumphe," if Talbot must see himself in 1592 at the Rose night after night (and matinees on Sunday) brought low by such English cowardice and dishonorable in-fighting. His actual death scene suggests he's fine with his demise, as in these two passages:

"Triumphant death, smeared with captivity,
Young Talbot's valor makes me smile at thee." (4.7.3-4)

"Thou antic death, which laugh'st us here to scorn,
Anon, from thy insulting tyranny,
Coupled in bonds of perpetuity,
Two Talbots, winged through the lither sky,
In thy despite shall 'scape mortality." (4.7.18-22)

In the first, we find the proud father, whose life is complete when his son demonstrates the kind of character that Talbot values -- courageous, fearless, heroic. It does not matter that these qualities have cost young Talbot his life; it matters that he had the qualities. Nowhere in either of these passages is there sadness or regret, only defiance and fearlessness, the badges of a true knight facing proof of his mortality which Talbot says he will "'scape" as if it were a cage. I love the triumphant image of the two Talbots flying into the "lither sky." Lither than what? The earth? The sky's being more supple, more pliant, suggests a greater ease, away from the hard, unyielding demands of the terrestrial. Death has not defeated them; it has released them.
But, if Talbot's shade is sitting in the audience, out for a breather after two hundred years in his tomb, he's seeing more than his heroic death scene. He's seeing Somerset and York fail him. My guess is he wants to storm up on stage and rip the garters right off those guys. Nashe suggests it would have "joyed" him; I suggest it would not. The factions, as Gil calls them, are not chivalrous.

Shakespeare is serious about laying out a series of dichotomous pairs throughout the play. These pairs in conflict begin with individuals but also reflect larger conflicts in the body politic. On the individual level we have 1) the Duke of Gloucester vs. the Bishop of Winchester, the secular vs. the sacred. Shakespeare, though, presents this conflict as personal more than institutional. Gloucester claims that Winchester is a hypocrite ("ne'er throughout the year to church thou go'st except it be to pray against thy foes" is his tamest concern) while Winchester believes that Gloucester is power-hungry, then insults his wife. If their struggle were more than personal, a concern about the church's role in influencing the king perhaps, something to which Tudor England would have been attuned, the collapse of English power would seem less unseemly because it came about in a struggle between two titanic forces -- the church and the king.

Additionally, we have 2) the Duke of Somerset vs. the Duke of York. Their split begins with a simple argument, remarkable for its banality, over who is right about a point of law. We never learn what the actual concern is, only that they have disagreed. From there, it's off to the roses, and eventually Talbot's demise. And Talbot is the only person on whom England can rely. Hence, what begins in banality ends in catastrophe.

On a somewhat more significant level, we have 3) Talbot vs. Falstaff, the heroic vs. the cowardly. Later, though, when Talbot begs John to leave the field and live to fight another day, I thought one might see Falstaff in a different light -- a pragmatic one. John refuses, satisfying chivalric expectations, but Talbot's advice about "strategems of war" is sound: "Fly, to avenge my death, if I be slain" and "If we both stay we both are sure to die" and "Part of thy father may be saved in thee." This is the advice that Falstaff takes. Now, Falstaff is definitely a coward. The Third Messenger tells us so. Then Falstaff himself admits he leaves Talbot in the field "to save myself by flight." But he adds "we are like to have the overthrow again," suggesting that his choice is based on some profit/loss evaluation. Yes, he does go off and seem to betray England by colluding with the Duke of Burgundy, too, but Shakespeare's bringing these realities to light merely puts Talbot's shining heroism in more relief. The larger conflict here is, as I said in the previous post, the Medieval courtly world vs. the "modern" political world.

Next, 4) Henry VI vs. Joan, the leaders. Henry is weak, and seems to have his hands full trying to stop the "viperous worm" gnawing at the bowels of his commonwealth from wrecking the peace. Although a king, he is not successful (see nos. 1 and 2 above). Joan, on the other hand, is a poor, illiterate commoner who manages to lead the French people in successful battles against the English. Henry tells us four times (3.1.71; 3.4.17; 5.1.21; 5.5.81) how young he is, while impotently begging his court to play nice. Joan never mentions her youth (she's 17 at the Siege of Orleans). Etc. We'll leave more of Joan for later.

Finally, at the regional level we have 5) England vs. France. Considering Shakespeare's audience, we have to assume a certain amount of rooting for the home team, although they don't come off well. Being a groundling at 1 Henry VI might have been like being a Mets fan looking back on the 1962 season, only less lovable. I think the structure of the play, with all of these specific factions, explains why, on the larger scale, England fails to triumph in this particular conflict. For Shakespeare in 1 Henry VI, the sum cannot be greater than the parts. This is an extremely humanist argument. Forget providence. Forget divine right of kings and Salique law. After Henry V dies the English universe is out of joint, o' cursed spite, and it's up to Gloucester and Winchester and York and Somerset and Falstaff and Talbot to set it right. They fight each other instead, and the English control of France is ... history.

We've been quiet this week. Perhaps what we need is questions. Here are mine:
  • I'd like to hear Gil's thoughts on these "factions," as I'm sure that their careful structure and persistence suggest more than mere didacticism.
  • And I definitely would love to hear folks weigh in on La Pucelle (do the French REALLY have a single word that means both "virgin" and "whore"?); I seem to remember reading somewhere (Bevington?) that Shakespeare's depiction of Joan is yet another put down of the fractured English leadership, that they can be beaten by the French (horreurs!) led by a woman (mère-de!) who's not even old enough to attend a bear baiting. What does one make of Joan in this play? Can we separate her character from English anti-French bias? Can we put her into the same discussion as any of Shakespeare's other women?
  • And perhaps someone could take on this fledgling genre the history play and make some suggestions as to how we're going to get from Gil's "note-card drama" to Henry V. As we move through the first tetralogy, what contemporary influences can we see at work on this genre? And what is Shakespeare doing with them?
  • And I would never turn down some always prodigious close reading by the incomparable Mike Bazzett. Dad can keep firing off the complimentary adjectives -- I'm beginning to feel like young Talbot -- until my head gets really big, but in my opening essay I had exactly one sentence of good close reading. What, Mr. Bazzett, is your favorite line in the play? And why?
Gotta split,

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

RE: 1 Henry VI - The Tragedy of Lord Talbot

I had thought my first thoughts on 1 Henry VI would be on factionalism, and perhaps questions of whether the historical personages are used only to fill the board with pieces arrayed in conflict. Also, I had thought to look at Joan as a collection of extreme observations or prejudices -- why, for instance, all the sexual slanders when Shakespeare's versions are almost always more chaste than his sources. I had not much focused on Talbot. Then came Randall's opening "essay" on "The Tragedy of Lord Talbot" which I found illuminating and convincing, and I find what I sent yesterday really only restates some of his observations without much advancing the discussion. Oh, well. But now I'm thinking of Talbot I found Alfred Harbage regretting that the Henry VI plays are so monotonously titled, especially since Henry himself is never the dominant figure in them. "1 Henry VI might well be called 'Lord Talbot and Joan of Arc'." Randall's title is more provocative.

And Germaine Greer quotes Thomas Nashe, Pierce Pennilesse His Supplication to the Divell (1592):

How would it have joyed brave Talbot (the terror of the French) to think after he had lain two hundred years in his tomb, he should triumph again on the stage, and have his bones new embalmed with the tears of ten thousand spectators at least (at several times) who, in the tragedian that represents his person, imagine they behold him fresh bleeding! (Germaine Greer, Shakespeare, 69).


Tuesday, May 9, 2006

1 Henry VI - Variations on Randall


1 Henry VI is a "note-card" play. We've all had students who have been doing research for a project, diligently filling up 3x5 cards with data, information, and quotation. Then, when it comes time to write the paper, they are damned well going to use all the note cards that they have invested so much time on. (Jean Auel's Clan of the Cave Bear is the most overwhelming note card novel I have ever seen. Ms. Auel includes every single smidgen of information she copied down in her four months in the Portland State library, every plant, every fossil, every bit of weather information, every rock. Don't ask why I read it.)

In this first excursion into history, Shakespeare writes HISTORY, even though he does rearrange some chronologies, invent dialogue, of course, and shift a little geography. Here is Woodville, Lieutenant of the Tower, there Sir Thomas Gargrave, and of course we need to get the Bastard of Orleance in. My guess is the only purely invented character is the son of the Master Gunner of Orleance, who fires the shot that kills the Earl of Salisbury. The effect on me is keeping my "dramatis personae" and a couple of genealogical tables at hand.

Let's see: there is Somerset (that's John Beauford, John of Gaunt's third son by his third wife, thus great-uncle to the King) and Salisbury (called "mad brain'd" and "a desperate homicide," so it's a pity we see so little of him before half his face is blown off) and Suffolk and then Shrewsbury. Henry Beauford, John's elder brother, is Bishop of Winchester, afterwards Cardinal, who has bought his high office from the Pope. This is not a condemnation, but looking ahead to Richard III, 1 Henry IV, or Henry V, one can see how such material will coalesce into breathtaking drama, character and thematic meaning. For instance, the Bastard's father, Louis, Duke of Orleans, will appear in a relatively minor role in Henry V, but there he will be a witty portrait of effete arrogance, a parody of the braggart soldier, to contrast with the heroic virtue of the English King.

However, the play opens with melodrama. The Duke of Bedford laments, "Hung be the heavens with black, yield day to night!" (I.i.1) for "King Henry the Fift, too famous to live long!" has died. (Bedford is John of Lancaster, Henry V's jealous little brother.) Bedford raises the same hope that opens 1 Henry IV: despite Henry V's death, "prosper this realm, keep it from civil broils" (I.i.53). But, again as in 1 Henry IV, cometh messengers with news of war, here in the French territories Henry V has captured. Is this treachery, asks Exeter (another Beauford brother). "Not treachery, but want of men and money" because here, in England,

".....you maintain several factions;
You are disputing of your generals.
One would have ling'ring wars with little cost;
Another would fly swift, but wanteth wings;
A third thinks, without expense at all,
By guileful fair words peace may be obtain'd." (Riverside, 2nd, I.i.71-77)

[I'm not even going to pause for a comment on the "management" of the war in Iraq.]. Thus, from the beginning, the theme of 1 Henry VI is introduced: civil broils and factions. Remember that the northern provinces of France are considered English-see the 300-line rationale at the beginning of Henry V, and Henry VI is to be crowned in Paris. Thus the French insurgency is civil war. To England against France (except Burgundy, for a while), add the church (Winchester) against the State (Gloucester), York (Richard Plantagenet) and Lancaster (Somerset), and in the last act, Suffolk (Pole) seeking to overthrow Henry through his intended influence over Margaret of Anjou (stay tuned for the sequel). Thus, here at the beginning we have a play that articulates the danger of factionalism. Youthful Shakespeare's England was-well, sort of-relatively calm, yet all the plays will address disorder far beyond merely establishing dramatic tension.

The most egregious example of this is IV.ii-iv. Lord John Talbot appears before the walls of Burdeaux and summons their embattled general. He demands the general "open your city-gates" or the English will obliterate the city (much as Henry V overcomes Harfleur). But the French army approaches, and Talbot is trapped, vowing heroically to fight to the death. Meanwhile, Sir William Lucy goes first to York (ground forces) and then to Somerset (cavalry) for reinforcements to succor Talbot, but each refuses, blaming his Yorkist or Lancastrian rival for military misconduct. (In Cecil Woodham Smith's The Reason Why, the historian shows that the Charge of the Light Brigade and the outcome of the Crimean war came about because the two English generals, Cardigan and Lucan (Raglan?), were not on speaking terms so they refused to read each other's dispatches). Lucy bitterly tells Somerset that "The fraud of England, not the force of France,/ Hath now entrapp'd the noble-minded Talbot." (IV.iv. 36-37). I'm really just repeating Randall's conclusions about a world in which there is no room for moral righteousness and a strict honor code.

Which underscores Randall's superlative explication of the "Tragedy of Lord Talbot." Pure Aristotelian tragedy finds a too-human hero crushed by challenging the "pure laws of the universe" (forgive the simplification; they never should have let me read Oedipus Rex). But here Talbot, as Randall notes, is destroyed by realpolitik, personal and political infighting between government apparatchiks, which is more ironic because King Henry, after the reconquest of Paris, has divided military power between the two as a peace-inducing compromise. Dryden's heroic/chivalric/romantic hero Anthony dies, and his epitaph is "a world well lost."

I agree with the idea of the tragedy of Lord Talbot, but he dies because some botanist has bred two different colors of roses. And if the scene about Falstaff's failure to uphold the honor of the Garter "seems a bit silly," what shall we make of II.iv and III.iv in which the War of the Roses metaphor is made literal?

Talbot is heroic because everyone in the play insists on his superpowers. Again, I quote Randall on Mallory's characters who "have no internal life; it is all deeds and consequences." So might we turn our attention to Joan de Pucelle. She is described as a miraculous force, a witch, and a whore, but we see little of her internal life. I think it is hard for me to see her in this play because we have so much extra-Shakespeare Joan in our inherited culture. Does someone else want to come into this puzzle [sic]? If I can find the time in the next fortnight, I'll try to read Shaw's St. Joan and Anouilh's The Lark.


Sunday, May 7, 2006

1 Henry VI - The Tragedy of Lord Talbot


My first thought after finishing 1 Henry VI is that is has the wrong title. Setting aside for the moment any extensive conversation about Shakespeare's innovation in fashioning the genre of history play from, as M. M. Reese suggests, various chronicles, the "Mirror for Magistrates," and the structure of Medieval morality plays, I find it intriguing that while this is Henry VI's history, it is Talbot's story.

I'm not sure I've ever come across a character in my Shakespeare reading like Talbot. (Antony? Hotspur?) He's all honor and chivalry and a bit stock. Talbot reminds me of Gilbert's frequent argument about Hamlet, that Hamlet's problem is that he is a man out of time, surrounded by people who hail from an earlier world, a different order, and so he struggles with both the burden of vengeance and the negotiation of a religious and political universe that have shifted their focus. I'm not doing that viewpoint justice (and Gil can flesh it out when we get to Hamlet), but Talbot is like Hamlet in reverse -- he is old school in a world that no longer respects or lives by his courtly rules and which suffers from more political complexity than his valor and heroism can overcome. And this is his tragic flaw.

With Henry VI too young to play any role (although a baby's wail -- ew-WAH, ew-WAH, ew-WAH, ew-WAH, ew-WAH -- is iambic pentameter) until Act III, Talbot assumes the role of play's hero early. In the very first scene messengers come scurrying in to give the news of Talbot's battles. One gushes:

"More than three hours the fight continued;
Where valiant Talbot, above human thought,
Enacted wonders with his sword and lance." (Signet edition, 1.1.121-122)

Above human thought? That would make him ... Superman! Faster than a speeding bolt from a crossbow! Able to leap French ramparts in a single bound! Talbot himself plays up his own superhero myth, explaining to Salisbury how he was treated after being wounded (a spear in the back -- cowardly!) and captured by the French.

"In iron walls they deemed me not secure;
So great fear of my name 'mongst them were spread
That they supposed I could rend bars of steel
And spurn in pieces posts of adamant." (1.4.49-52)

[A brief aside: In the Marvel Comics superhero group, the X-men, the most popular character is named Wolverine. As a mutant, which all the X-men are, he has a unique ability to heal any wound at a near-instantaneous rate. Because that's not enough to fight off bad guys, he also has, as a result of military industrial skullduggery, a skeleton "laced with the unbreakable metal alloy adamantium." We have either just found Wolverine's ancestor, which might explain Talbot's rapid recovery from his spear wound or, given Talbot's powers over adamantium, his nemesis. Look for the answer in the inevitable summer blockbuster X-Men 4.]

I am making fun here, comparing Talbot to comic books, to iterate both the stockness and mythic hero qualities of his character. It strikes me that those qualities are not out of keeping with Medieval heroes. I once read Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur back to back with Marion Zimmer Bradley's modern version The Mists of Avalon, and what struck me in the comparison was that Malory's characters have no internal life; it is all deeds and consequence. Bradley's fantasy retells the Arthurian myths from the point of view of four principal women, and it is all motivation, internal conflict, subtext and politics. While 1 Henry VI takes place from 1422 to 1444, Shakespeare creates a similar dichotomy, juxtaposing the courtly tradition with realpolitik. Compare the two following complaints, first Talbot against Falstaff (nee Fastolfe), whose retreat at the battle of Poictiers he sees as an act of cowardice:

"When first this order was ordained, my lords,
Knights of the Garter were of noble birth,
Valiant and virtuous, full of haughty courage,
Such as were grown to credit by the wars:
Not fearing death, nor shrinking for distress,
But always resolute in most extremes.
He then that is not furnished in this sort
Doth but usurp the sacred name of knight,
Profaning this most honorable order." (4.1.33-41)

According to Talbot, Falstaff's crime has little to do with failure to succeed in battle for England's sake; it is failure to uphold the honor of the Knights of the Garter. This seems a bit silly, although that may just be my post-modern mind. It just seems that Talbot would have a stronger argument, in front of Henry, if instead of asking the king to judge whether Falstaff should be allowed to wear a garter, he accused him of, say, treason?

Anyway, compare this to Plantagenet's complaint about Somerset, who has insulted him, calling into question his loyalty by referring to his beheaded father whose failed coup against Henry V sealed his doom:

"And for those wrongs, those bitter injuries,
Which Somerset hath offer'd to my house:
I doubt not but with honor to redress;
And therefore haste I to the parliament,
Either to be restored to my blood,
Or make my ill the advantage of my good." (2.5.124-129)

Like Talbot, Plantagenet is concerned with honor, but he has little concern for some chivalric code. Instead, he believes his family is rightfully in line for the throne, that the suppression of the Mortimers and the house of York came about as "nothing less than bloody tyranny," and that parliament may resolve his suit or else. While I enjoyed the Talbot scenes the same way I enjoyed the battle scenes in Braveheart, I think Act 2, scene 5 between Mortimer and Plantagenet is one of the most moving in the play. Given what's coming in Richard III, I began 1 Henry VI somewhat biased against Plantagenet. But after Mortimer's articulate explanation of his imprisonment and Plantagenet's heartfelt resolve, I felt my sympathies shift. This scene complicates my view of Henry V. It complicates our view of English moral legitimacy. It raises all those questions of providence. Even King Arthur would struggle with this one.

In the end, because this is Talbot's tragedy, Talbot dies. Ostensibly he's killed in battle with the French at Bordeaux, but in reality he is done in by the conflicting machinations of the English. York and Somerset fail to resupply him, each seeking to undermine and blame the other. Is Shakespeare, as he commits to page the front end of a tetralogy that will end with Richard III, eliminating the one character who stands for a code and a form of honor that will be noticeably absent for the next three plays (and even, perhaps, in the time of Elizabeth I)? As a hero, Talbot is unassailable. He's not just chivalrous, he is chivalry. (Responding to his son's refusal to leave the field of battle, Talbot tells him "Now thou art sealed the son of chivalry.") But the world has shifted, and England's political in-fighting leaves no room for Talbot's sense of moral righteousness and strict honor code. He does not recognize this.

In Talbot's death, the new world becomes plainly visible. The French do not respect the bodies of Talbot and his son ("to keep them here, they would but stink and putrefy the air," says Pucelle), and Sir William Lucy's promise that "from their ashes shall be reared a phoenix that shall make all France afeared" is empty, and the Elizabethan audience would have known it.

At the end of 1 Henry VI, chivalry, it would seem, is dead.

A vous,