Thursday, June 29, 2006

2 Henry VI - Deadbeat Host Arise!

My first response to 1 Henry VI was to classify it as a "note-card" play, Shakespeare using everything in his research notes from Hall and Hollinshed. Some commentator asserted that the play really was The Tragedy of Talbot, and I used that to pursue Randall's lead about the end of chivalric culture. Ernst objected, and I acknowledge that I wouldn't really want to attempt a case for tragedy either of Talbot or Joan. Similarly, my Signet edition of 2 Henry VI is titled The Second Part of Henry the Sixth, with the Death of the Good Duke Humphrey. (I see that Ernst has already noted this). This subtitle was apparently added after performances to acknowledge what the early audiences found most compelling.

Worse, the 1594 quarto is entitled The First part of the Contention betwixt the two famous Houses of Yorke and Lancaster, with the death of the good Duke Humphrey: and the banishment and death of the Duke of Suffolke, and the Tragicall end of the proud Cardinall of Winchester, with the notable Rebellion of Jacke Cade: and the Duke of Yorkes first claime unto the Crowne. Hell, if I'd just looked at this quarto title, I wouldn't have had to read the play at all, and you would have heard from me weeks ago.

1 Henry VI was hard for me to find a focus for, while 2 Henry VI is much more compelling. Many characters have more range and depth (I'm thinking of York, Suffolk, Margaret, Warwick, and Gloucester); Henry is "profoundly" shallow. Lord Say, Eleanor and Alexander Iden each has a memorable little moment on stage. And Jack Cade -- hoo boy! -- carnival buffoon, megalomaniac, class-warrior, il- and anti-literate, killer; where will we see fragments of Cade resurface in the next 34 plays? 2 Henry VI has dialogue, characters exchanging ideas and arguments in the 'he said-he listened and responded' pattern. Examples are the vicious insults between Warwick and Suffolk in III.ii (I even wrote 'yo' mamma' in my margin), the romantic love exchanges between Margaret and Suffolk, as promised by Suffolk's little soliloquy-promising-a-sequel at the very end of 1 Henry VI, but, alas, under-developed earlier in this play; the comic display of Cade's self-aggrandizing claims in IV.ii while Dick the butcher and Smith the weaver counterpoint with ridiculing asides.

While thinking of 2 Henry VI as a tighter play, I look again Dramatis Personae. 1 Henry VI has 37 speaking parts, not counting the Joan's fiends that refuse to talk, while 2 Henry VI has 44. You remember of course Vaux, Matthew Goffe (who actually is killed before he speaks, but I should add the poor soldier who is killed just for just saying "Jack Cade!" (, the brothers Stafford, and Margery Jordan, the witch. Personally, I like the recruits to Cade's rebellion, George Bevis and John Holland, not because of what they say, but because Bevis and Holland were players in London during the '90s and the prompt copy or whatever that was the basis for the quarto immortalized them along with the Duke of Somerset and Lord Scales. But the difference for me, apart from the practice I had with the earlier play trying to find a dramatic backbone through all the historical data, is the greater muscle in both the lines and the drama itself. Of style, in IV.viii, Buckingham addresses the rabble in verse, then Cade counters, but in prose. By 1 Henry IV, this verse/prose character contrast will be brilliant. York is complex in his reasons and rationalizations for claiming the throne, starting with the other line from 2 Henry VI I have "always known": "Edward the Third, my lords, had seven sons." (II.ii.10) [I hear my friend and mentor Roger Sale's voice declaiming this line.]

I want to explore some of the things Ernst noted: the class warfare, from Duchess Eleanor's "let them eat cake" attitude to Cade's Cultural Revolution against "all scholars, lawyers, courtiers, gentlemen [whom] they call false caterpillars (IV.iv.36) (and we scholars/caterpillars might contemplate Cade's vow to kill anyone who has founded a grammar school or even can read a book); the humor; the juxtaposition of scenes such as the York/Suffolk followed by the Cade/Dick and Smith. How about the ur-CSI of using forensic evidence to deduce if Gloucester has been murdered or died of a stroke? And what do we make of the prophesies of I.iv in which Suffolk is to die by water and Somerset should avoid castles, and we wait three acts for Walter Whitmore to chop off Suffolk's head (and footnotes in all three of the editions I have open insist Walter is pronounced "water"), and Somerset dies under a pub sign for the Castle Inn. Now we can keep straighter faces when we explain Macbeth cannot die by a man not "of woman born."


Wednesday, June 21, 2006

2 Henry VI - Thoughts After Listening to Acts 1-2

This comes without reading either Randall’s or Mike’s responses. I’ve got nothing terribly profound to say, I’m afraid.

This play is so much more tightly put together that I am altogether ready to side with those who claim that Shakespeare wrote the better part of all these plays and did so in the order in which we are reading them. I hear no particular echoes of other playwrights, although, I suppose, it’s remotely possible that Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus may have been an influence for the spirit-raising scene (1.4). [I would also note in passing that Marlowe’s and Kyd’s plays were played when they were first written and also re-staged from time to time. Both sorts of performances produced imitations and homages. It was probably such a re-staging that led to Pistol’s Marlovian outbursts or to Richard Burbage’s asking his friend Bill to consider writing a “Jew” play (that he asked is mere hypothesis on my part)]. In any case, the play is well built, and the plot is well pointed, nicely reinforced by parallel episodes and events, and moves right along. It reads easily, and there is no old-style poetry — at least in the first two acts.

I was delighted to find an early echo of Roethke’s “In a Dark Time” at 2.4.40: “…dark shall be my light and night my day” (Eleanor).

Obviously, the fall of Humphrey of Gloucester is much like the Talbot’s fall in the preceding play and, apparently, an audience-pleasing feature of early productions — to the extent that a 1594 printed version added “with the death of the good Duke Humphrey” to its title page, a fact I imagine you have all already read.

And, sure, the factionalizing and the duplicity of powerful men remains a strong theme, carrying forward what was established in Part 1. The best lack sufficient real power; the worst are full of passionate intensity, and the anti-herald of the GRB, the Devil himself, will appear before the usurpation of Richard II can be cleansed and the Tudors brought to the throne.

To me, the two most interesting aspects of the first two acts are (1) the many curse- or prophesy-like pronouncements, voices from the “other world,” and audience-engaging questions concerning the fate-like forces driving history (Indeed, fate and inevitability might be key components in any definition of a “History Play”), and (2) the parallelisms. A third theme is the relationship between the self-obsessed nobles and the common people. And a fourth element worthy of thought is the way humor is included in the larger picture.

1. Just a list of curses, predictions, etc.:

  • (A) 1.1.212ff: York’s Richard III-ish plan for the future — all of which will come true.
  • (B) 1.2.87ff: Hume’s plan for Eleanor—all of which will come true. [Hume is an instance of what I might call a “tool villain,’ and early example of which is Pedringano in The Spanish Tragedy.]
  • (C) 1.3.53-60: Eleanor’s setting up an opposition between Henry’s dependence on Christian traditions (vs. her own dependence on witches and diabolic interpreters).
  • (D) I.3.145-7: Eleanor’s prediction of Queen Margaret’s taking power—which is already happening as she speaks.
  • (E) 1.3.205-11: Gloucester’s apparent looking upon a duel as the proper way to settle the Horner-Peter Thump conflict.
  • (F) 1.4.24-41: The diabolical Spirit’s predictions of Henry’s, Suffolk’s and Somerset’s ends—all of which come true.
  • (G) 2.1.1-15: Henry, Suffolk, Gloucester, and the Cardinal commenting on the significances of the flight of Henry’s falcon [as managed by Margaret].
  • (H) 2.1.66-150: The phony Simcox’s efforts to con the nobles with his “miracle.”
  • (I) 2.2.69-82: York’s “prophesying” the future of his and Henry’s careers—not entirely true, for he will never become king himself, although his son will.
  • (J) 2.3.93-105: The battle between Peter and Horner reveals that Horner has lied about Peter, which Henry takes to be representative of God’s will. (Horner will have learned greater subtlety by the time Wycherley gets hold of him.)
  • (K) 3.4. 48-73: The shamed Eleanor predicts her husband’s downfall—all true—which Gloucester refuses to believe, although an unconsented-to summons to the Court suggests to us that he will be a believer soon.

2. I will leave parallelisms undiscussed, although there are several, including Henry/Margaret and Gloucester/Eleanor; the lying con-man Simpcox and, let us say, the truth-speaking Demon; and the duplicitous Horner and the conniving Suffolk (Is Horner his Suffolk’s creature?).

3. About this the relationship between the nobles and the commoners, I will only note that the commoners’ discontent makes its way into the first two acts at several points:

  • (A) 1.3.1-40: the Commoners’ complaints—ignored by Queen Margaret and Suffolk [in Cambises there is an allegorical character named “Commons Cry”].
  • (B) 1.3.177-223: The falling out between the [probably suborned] Horner and Peter, suggesting that duplicity among the nobles produces duplicity among commoners.
  • (C) 1.4—the witch Margery Jourdain, whose mere existence bespeaks an unsettled lower class in the realm.
  • (D) 2.1.57-150—The townspeople’s foolish enthusiasm for a miraculously healed con-man reminds one of the impoverished, close-to-the edge existence underlying Pompey Bum’s “I am a poor fellow that would live (Measure for Measure, 2.1.222).”
  • (E) The Sheriff’s being dragged (reluctantly, one would suspect) into York’s and Buckingham’s design to undo Eleanor.

4. Here I will only note that there is a good bit of humor in these two acts—in the obvious foolishness of some of the commoners, the undercutting of various pompous speeches, and the blatant excesses of some of the characters, most especially, York’s lone dissertation on his genealogy (2.2.9-62). Keeping this entirely serious would be a difficult task for an actor or a director, I would think.

Some time Later: I find myself wondering about Shakespeare’s religious attitudes in 2 Henry VI. He seems to hold little regard for Henry’s version of religious piety and believe in God’s ultimate justice. At the same time, here, as in so many plays, he seems to maintain a skeptical attitude about those who would judge others quickly without walking in (or imagining walking in) their shoes. I will mull on this.


Thursday, June 15, 2006

2 Henry VI (I.2) - Further Muddling


If Mike is going to throw out compelling connections like Troy and England, then I'm content to just sit back and let him lead me through the text. It was very satisfying to read Mike's thoughts, then go through Act 1, scene 1, where the various dukes and earls (and a cardinal in a pear tree) perform a series of disheartening political pirouettes. After 1 Henry VI, reading the first scene of Part 2 would have seemed like more of the same, although more efficiently laid out, "factions scheming and counter-scheming" as Mike put it. Been there; done that.

So it was more than pleasant to have Mike's examination of Suffolk's Paris simile and his take on the power of words to lend substance to my reading. A thought: If Suffolk is Paris, England Troy, and Gloucester Hector, then Margaret is Helen. Her rather devoted speech (1.1.24 - 31) reminds me a bit of Helen's performance in Book IV of Homer's Odyssey, where she is very careful to appear the dutiful wife of Menelaus rather than the passionate (revisionist Helen calls it "the madness Aphrodite sent me") woman who runs off with Paris. It seems to me that in 1 Henry VI (5.3) and 2 Henry VI (1.1), Margaret's temperament fits Henry's religiosity quite nicely. Even Suffolk's stolen kiss in the previous play doesn't seem to faze her, and she brushes it off as a "peevish token." So, amid the collapse of Henry's rule, what are we to make of Margaret?

Which brings us to Act 1, scene 2. My essential question reading this scene was: how does it build on the first scene? Shakespeare frequently sets up parallel situations -- think Hal and Hotspur, or Hamlet and Laertes, or Lear and Gloucester -- and scenes 1 and 2 give us two wives, Henry's queen and Gloucester's duchess. Whereas Margaret's limited appearance suggests none of the subversive plotting of those around her, Dame Eleanor (Nell), Duchess of Gloucester, harbors an ambition on a par with York, Buckingham and Somerset. She hints at it to her husband, suggesting it is a vision she had in a dream:

"Methought I sat in seat of majesty
In the cathedral church of Westminster,
And in that chair where kings and queens were crowned;
Where Henry and Dame Margaret kneeled to me,
And on my head did set the diadem." (1.2.36-40)

How like York's soliloquy this is ("A day will come when York shall claim his own ... and, when I spy advantage, claim the crown" [1.1.239, 242].) Even after suffering some reproof from her virtuous husband, Nell continues to plot, assisted by some miscreant dabblers in the occult. So Act 1, scene 2 builds on scene 1 in that both present us with our "heroes," Henry and Gloucester, threatened by internal corruption. Henry will suffer from the poisonous machinations of his court, Gloucester from his family.

Nell is further interesting because she clearly anticipates Lady Macbeth. Frustrated by Gloucester's unwillingness to pursue the kingship, she says:

"Follow I must; I cannot go before,
While Gloucester bears this base and humble mind.
Were I a man, a duke, and next of blood,
I would remove these tedious stumbling blocks
And smooth my way upon their headless necks." (1.2.61-65)

Her "were I a man," sounds a lot like what Lady Macbeth might have thought moments before she demanded that the spirits "unsex me here, and fill me from the crown to the toe top-full of direst cruelty." In the same way that Lady Macbeth realizes that her ambition cannot be achieved unless she frees herself from the feminine, Nell understands that her position as wife and woman forces her to "follow." She wants to lead, but does not have Lady Macbeth's ability to transcend / deny her own gender.

What makes the comparison even more interesting to me is that both women turn to the occult to gain power. Lady Macbeth prefaces her demand with "Come you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts," while Nell has employed a conjurer and a witch to conduct a seance, sort of a medieval pyschic friends network. That Nell has not reached Lady Macbeth's level is evidenced by her goal: she has some questions she wants to ask the spirits. Lady Macbeth seeks support for the deed. Both women, however different in degree, are similar in their murderous intent. And that doesn't bode well for Gloucester any more than it did for Macbeth.

At this point, Gloucester is going to wish he were lord of himself, unencumbered of a wife (sly allusion to Dryden for Gil). Ask not, Gloucester, for whom the bell knells; it knells for thee.


2 Henry VI (I.1)

Well, here we go...

I've never read 2 Henry VI before (nor have I read any of the others we've read thus far), so I'm playing fair. I've not read a word past Act I, scene 1.

Not to be the overly eager student, as we "read aloud," but given that we start with Suffolk hauling Margaret up from France, I thought that we might return to the final speech of Part One:

Thus Suffolk hath prevailed, and thus he goes,
As did the youthful Paris once to Greece,
With hope to find the like event in love,
But prosper better than the Trojan did.
Margaret shall now be queen, and rule the king;
But I will rule both her, the king, and realm. (5.5.103-108)

So, by his own declaration, Suffolk is Paris. Ill-chosen metaphor, as far as England is concerned, and it gives Gloucester a touch of Hector when he declares in lines 98-103 of the opening scene of Part Two:

O peers of England, shameful is this league!
Fatal this marriage, canceling your fame,
Blotting your names from books of memory,
Razing the characters of your renown,
Defacing monuments of conquered France,
Undoing all, as all had never been.

Shades of Ilium... This list of verbs (canceling, blotting, razing, defacing, undoing) suggests an erasure on par with Troy, and places us in the midst of a mess utterly at odds with the classical virtues of proportion, balance, unity, etc. And didn't England trace their lineage back that way and rather consciously identify, via the Arthurian Legend, with Troy? (Since I'm just reading aloud in class, I'll throw stuff out like that...)

I find it interesting that we begin a place about History this way. Suffolk should know better than to throw out disastrous literary/historical allusions and assume that he can just insert his big "but" and rewrite the books: "BUT prosper better than the Trojan did"? There's too much order and continuity in Shakespeare's world view (at least concerning the monarchy) for him to get away with that.

And Gloucester's appeal has as much to do with how the story will be told as it does with the current political situation; he's concerned with "fame" and "names" in the "books of memory." The "characters" of the peers' renown could even function as a pun, moving beyond persona and elevating the very letters that define their deeds into an edifice (not marble, nor the gilded monuments...) vulnerable to being razed. The poetry doesn't sing the way it does later, but I do see the seeds of Shakespeare's fascination with the powers and limitations of language here, as well as his acute sense that author and authority stem from the same etymological root.

So, clearly we have a shitstorm brewing here. (That's the proper classical term, I believe.) And when all kneel and proclaim Margaret to be "England's Happiness" in line 37 or so, I'd imagine even the most addled groundling felt the irony resonate in his wee brain. My guess is scene one is going to be a microcosm of what's to come -- different factions scheming and counter-scheming, internicine squabbles, some acting for the "public good," some in naked personal interest, and York sitting back and letting it play out until he can act in the "public good" on his own behalf.

I mean, the king is immediately established as someone who has others act on his behalf; he can't even marry his own wife -- he's a cipher, a vessel, a role simply waiting to be inhabited. The "subtance" and the "shadow" have been reversed, Suffolks little speech notwithstanding. Politically, he's clearly not of this world, and while I think we might be able to read him as spending a lot of time in another one (the world of prayer, piety, and beyond), that basically transforms him into a very nice coat that everyone else in the kingdom yearns to try on for themselves, or at the very least see worn by a real king, someone who fills it out a bit more. His center is not located in this realm, and thus he is too willing to compromise to achieve the "peace" and "unity" he alludes to earlier.

And to top it off, he leaves his own play after only 70 lines. Richard the Third would never do that. Words equal power. And, after each prominent player exits and we then listen to the others talk behind their back (not a subtle dramatic technique, I'd say), York has the last word. I've few more wrinkles that I'll follow to see how they play out, but that's it for now.

Peace and Disunity,

Tuesday, June 6, 2006

RE3: 2 Henry VI - Muddle, Muddle, Toil ...

Me too. And, incidentally, I have sent out CDs of the three Henry VI plays to all of you (Randall and Mike sharing one), but it took longer than I intended, and they all went into today's mail.


RE2: 2 Henry VI - Muddle, Muddle, Toil ...

I'm game as well. With closure, graduation, etc. this week, I won't get to it until the weekend, but I'm delighted to kick things off.

Thus far, every play has been new to me. Given that I'd never read any of them, including this one, I'm intrigued by Gil's idea. I likes it.


Monday, June 5, 2006

RE: 2 Henry VI - Muddle, Muddle, Toil ...


I get it now. And I'm game. (Or gamey; it's 85 degrees and I've been gardening.) What's more, my schedule is clear so I can be pretty quick to sing my part, after Mike. If Mike's available, I'd recommend he jump in even earlier, if possible. Act I has four scenes, so Mike and I would toss the Act back and forth for a few days, then Ernst could jump in with his impressions of Act 1 and/or responding to our e-mails. If we got off the ball early next week, we'd still have time to read the rest of the play by the weekend, when Gil launches the big boat.

Intriguing approach. Mike? Ernst? Wanna try to make it work?

As for Herny, isn't that Hernia's brother? I hear that when she threw over Demetrius for Lysander her father wanted to cancel her truss fund.


2 Henry VI - Muddle, Muddle, Toil ...


Sorry, sorry, sorry. I just thought if none of us knew 2 Henry VI very well, we could find a way to go really gently. We are due to finish reading on June 16, and I am due to post first on June 17. My proposition, open to objections, modifications, or forgetaboutit's would be: somewhere about June 12 to 15 Mike would explore Act I, scene 1 (only), without reading any farther. When we get that, Randall would read that and explore Act I, scene 2. Ernst could go next, one more scene, though I proposed Act I, scene 3 go back to Mike, then Act I, scene 4 to Randall. If, possibly, Ernst has an audio tape, he could write an "initial impressions," I thought of the whole play, but it might be better on only Act I. Then, as per schedule, your host would come in with introductory responses to the whole play on June 17.

My point, referring to Prof Matchett on King John, was for all of us to explore how the "puzzle" is put together. Some of the commentators assert 2 Henry VI was written first (before Part 1), so we could be in the presence of Shakespeare inventing the genre. " Explore" could mean exposition, plot, character, language, imagery, or Freudian discovery of deeply embedded phallic symbols.

If this seems awkward, conflicts with schedules, or is silly, then everybody sit tight, read, and wait to hear from me next on June 17.


RE2: 2 Herny VI - Host's Greetings

I'm glad someone is paying attention; I'm not. I do wonder about this Herny guy. A lot of heaving lifting if you're going to play the King.

(I'll tell you how I flunked out of the National Guard one of these days.)


RE: 2 Herny VI - Host's Greetings


This is one of those moments where I feel like the teacher caught me looking out the window at the audaciously fuschia crabapple blossoms framed against a swimming-pool-tile sky, and all of sudden I realize the class is waiting on me. So, with some embarrassment, I'm asking for clarification: Could you restate the assignment? Does Mike read the first scene, and comment, on June 12? Then I read scene 1 and 2 and comment on the 13th? Etc? Then, we, all of us, comment on the play in its entirety after June 16?

I promise to pay attention in class. [Repeat 500 times.]


2 Herny VI - Host's Greetings

Cry sometimes heard in the corridor outside Colorado State's English professors' offices: "READ IT??? HELL, I HAVEN'T EVEN TAUGHT IT YET!!!"

In truth, at CSU, there was a curmudgeonly, hard-drinking (don't take his classes that met after lunch) prof who was assigned the Contemporary American Novel class. When he announced the syllabus, he bragged he had not read some of the books, so he would engage in the critically revolutionary activity of reading, with no preconceptions, along with the students. In fact, he never did get around to reading them.

Howsomever, when I was an undergrad at the University of Washington, I took Shakespeare from Ernst's and my friend and mentor, William Matchett. We started with King John, which Bill correctly surmised none of us had ever read (or heard of). He read it aloud in class, pausing to inquire what we now knew, what we might infer about plot or character, what surprised us, what we anticipated might happen next, what we could infer from the language, or how the unfolding scenes fit together-that is, how we experienced a play. We were forbidden to read ahead, though we could reread what had already gone by in class (e.g., there really is a stage direction: "enter the Bastard"). As he accelerated through the later acts, we were at last assigned to read Shrew, I think, for the next week, and on Monday, Matchett asked what did we think as we read on our own. A punk kid piped up: "I kept hearing your damned voice." The next class, Bill gave him a neatly wrapped gift box that contained-earmuffs "to wear while reading Shakespeare."

We perhaps anticipated when the Will Shakespeare Experience decided to begin chronologically that some of the early plays would be a bit thick. (I agree with Ernst that neither Titus nor Talbot is tragic, by the way.) Full disclosure: I have never read any of the Henry VI's, Henry VIII, Coriolanus, Timon, or Two Noble Kinsmen, and I only read Cymbeline because I had been volunteered to mentor Odyssey of the Mind and three sixth (!) grade boys chose it for their project. My experience/ or memories of Merry Wives, All's Well, John, and Winter's Tale are all rusty. But that's why I am enthusiastic about doing all this with you folks. [Before you scoff at my ignorance, I have read Shakespeare's lost tragedy Vortigern, "discovered" about 1790, and I read every page of a godawful 300-page manuscript about it.]

I am assuming that 2 Henry VI is quite new ground for all of us. So, after Ernst has sent each of us a quarter of his finals to grade, and Randall and Mike will have asked me to write witty end of year comments on each of their students) let's do a little modified Matchett. About June 12-15, given that only I will have read all the play, Mike take Act I, scene 1 (only), then right away, Randall Act I, scene 2; back to Mike for I.3; then, Randall on I.4. Then, Ernst, if he has a Caedmon or Arkangel cassette, could do an "initial reaction" of the sort he did with Part 1. Then June 17, as host, I will roll the ball about the whole play, which, cheers!, I will have read to the end, and we will be on the announced schedule, and see where it goes from there. One ground rule: no one is allowed to say "Part Deux." That way we will still be free later to refer to Dick the Tooth, the play which precedes 1 Henry IV (which, of course, comes before Hank the Cinque). Sound OK?

2 Henry VI is quite alien ground for most. I looked in 124 monographs or essay collections (admittedly many on comedy), and only five listed more than a page of commentary. CWRD Mosley, Shakespeare's History Plays, gives it only four (4) sentences. Seven others had sections on the Henry VI trilogy as a whole. On the other hand, 2 Henry VI is Shakespeare's shortest play -- there's really only one line, which we already know by heart. All together now: "The first thing we do, let's kill..."


P.S. I am trying to recruit two more contributors, brilliant actor John Gilbert and my ex-Shakespeare TA, Cindy Calder, a public high-school department head in Denver, but don't count on it.

Sunday, June 4, 2006

1 Henry VI - Closing Remarks


Leave it to Ernst to plant in our midst a few provocative questions at the eleventh hour. (And to me to bring a response and closure after the midnight bell has tolled.) What is memorable about 1 Henry VI? How do we account for, or perhaps cope with, the disconnect between its "tragedy-like nature" and the "experience of reading" the play? I think what is memorable for me is something rather abstract, a "present at the creation" sense. Where Ernst, arguably, sees a number of "cute" set-pieces and dramatized anecdotes, I see Shakespeare transforming before our eyes the drier genre of chronicle into drama.

Is it good drama? In some ways it certainly lacks the narrative shaping that we see later in history plays like Henry V. And we have the difficulty of a lengthy time frame -- 1 Henry VI takes place over 22 years. Shakespeare doesn't give this play that tight transition that makes Romeo and Juliet seem like it takes place in two-and-a-half days. One kind of expects stage hands to run out between scenes with little placards reading: "Two years later, outside the Tower of London." Additionally, the presentation of many of the sub-plots is uneven. Characters surface, do a little political two-step, then fade to the sidelines for long stretches like awkward schoolboys at a Sadie Hawkins dance.

I think this inconsistency is the reason for Ernst's sense of the "set-piece." Take, for example, Richard Plantagenet. His character is firmly established, and deserving of sympathy, in the Mortimer scene (Act 2, scene 2). Almost immediately, Henry restores him "to his blood" and he is York. At this point York has been given enough lines and backstory to encourage us to follow his progress, his plot, through the rest of the play, parallel to whatever other plotlines establish themselves. Yet, in his subsequent appearances York does a fine impression of "the third lord on the left" until we find him in the middle of Act IV cursing Somerset and failing to resupply Talbot, reduced to less than an antagonist, a plot device for Talbot's story. In Act V, York is something else again -- a foaming inquistor hurling invective at Joan ("Fell banning hag, enchantress, hold thy tongue!" "Break thou in pieces and consume to ashes, thou foul accursed minister of hell."). History may dictate these diverse parts for a single man; in other plays, though, it seems Shakespeare brings more focus and consistency.

But there is drama. There is the drama of Joan. I think Gil's linking Joan into the theme of chivalry and heroism is compelling. Spenser's Britomarte would have something to say about a woman in armor being the end of chivalry, but I didn't see Joan as that chivalrous. I did see her as heroic (until her final scene -- I agree with Ernst about its incongruity). She gets powerful lines. She gets powerful action, that puts the English to shame. I do, as Gil mentioned, make the assumption that Shakespeare is motivated by a certain amount of nationalism. I wonder if, having written a powerful and eloquent Joan, Shakespeare found himself in a pickle because she's a) French and b) historically burned at the stake, and so he couldn't give her a noble hero's send off? I wonder if the Joan of Act 5 is different because someone else wrote the scene or because the young Shakespeare knuckled under to an audience-pleasing ending in which Joan becomes a (French) possessed harpie? I don't know. But Joan, in this play, is certainly memorable, and while her passion is not quite so well-wrought as Hotspur's nor her villainy as finely tuned as Richard III's nor her nobility as pathetic as Brutus's, I think she is the second most dramatic piece of 1 Henry VI.

The first? As we've discussed throughout, there is the drama of Talbot. Gil's fine close reading of his character sent me back to reexamine him a bit, and I remain a supporter of both his heroism and his tragic fall. I poked around in Traversi's An Approach to Shakespeare a bit, and found that he limned the whole Talbot as chivalric icon far more succinctly than I did (not that I resent that), writing:

"[W]e may note that Lord Talbot, who is undoubtedly on any account the 'hero' of this first chronicle, is celebrated indeed in his heroism ... but also, and at the same time, that the culminating emotional moments of the action are habitually associated with death, so as to constitute a lament for the older generation of English chivalry in the moment of its passing." (Traversi 2)

When Gil writes "I found (Talbot) more a hero insisted upon than demonstrated," I think that's exactly right (up to Act IV). And in the context of the chivalrous hero, the boast, whether it comes from oneself or from others, is acceptable if in the end one succeeds or fails honorably. Reputation is a substantive quality. So two qualities here impress me -- first, Talbot's story, consistent, well-told, and second, Shakespeare's vision and adeptness at personifying a historical end of chivalry. One might compare this to an event like Sept. 11, which was touted as both the end of irony (it wasn't) and the end of American innocence (pertaining to our own sense of security), which, given other periods of American paranoia like our fear of communist infiltrators, is also debatable. It is easy to look to events as signifiers of paradigm shifts, but it's harder and takes greater art to make them human.

So when Ernst feels a disconnect between his experience of the play and its tragic pretensions, I understand. (After all, I introduced the suggestion of tragedy initially, and one might argue that it is a history play.) But I felt, when Talbot falls, not so much the catharsis one expects when Achilles goes down or Hamlet, but the poignancy of his obsolescence. And what an insidious tragic flaw that is -- to be good, to be true, to be a hero, to live up to all expectations, and have time move on without you.

There is an early Star Trek episode, "Who Mourns for Adonais," in which Captain Kirk and crew members are held captive on a distant planet by a being who turns out to be the god Apollo. Seems all the other gods have faded away as humanity gave up polytheism, but Apollo, seeking the fulfillment and joy of being worshipped and having humans to tend, attempts to recreate a pastoral Greek society with himself as deity. The crew of the Enterprise, of course, resist with phasers, subterfuge, and over-acting. In the end, Apollo is betrayed by a crew woman who decides that following Kirk's orders trumps being in love with a god, and he sees, clearly, that his time is over. It is one of the truly poignant moments in any of the original Star Trek episodes: Apollo standing in front of the smoking ruins of his temple (and power source), realizing that there is no room in the universe for gods, and begging Zeus and Hera to take to him wherever they've gone. He fades out.

The tragedy of Lord Talbot gave me a similar feeling. Except for Talbot's little tirade about garters, chivalric conduct isn't really being made to look foolish in 1 Henry VI, so its passing must be mourned and Shakespeare's play can be seen as an elegy for it. Which brings us back to Thomas Nashe. Nashe's comment reminds us that in 1592 "ten thousand spectators" would see Talbot's story as a "triumphe." And he refers to the actor playing him as a "Tragedian." It sounds to me like Nashe experienced the catharsis ("teares"), and that the Renaissance groundling believed in Talbot's heroism.

When the dust has settled, and we are eight plays and a year further into our Shakespearian adventure, I think my "experience of reading" 1 Henry VI may be reduced from my current perceptions. But all my future readings of Shakespeare's history plays will be influenced by the idea of Shakespeare's innovation turning history into drama and by his ability to have characters carry the weight of both their own humanity and their historical context. That will be 1 Henry VI's legacy for me.