Monday, June 5, 2006

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.

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