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.


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