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.


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