Posts Tagged ‘Henry V’

Shakespeare: Henry VI Part 1

September 30, 2021

I always feel a little outfaced whenever I tackle Shakespeare’s history plays, because so much background information is needed to follow them in any detail, and there are so many characters – and I’ve never been wildly interested in the historical periods he brought to life, and the squabbling, entitled upper classes. But I try and remind myself of context: the relatively recent end of decades of civil wars, as well as the chaos of the Reformation, and Shakespeare telling a national backstory which for him ends up with the relative peace and quiet of his present, and the ongoing emergence of England as a power on the international scene. It reminds me quite a bit of our own, current messy situation and the wish of so many people who ought to know better, to live on our past glories, empire days, and ‘winning’ the Second World War…

Here, in the first part of Henry VI, Shakespeare contrasts the divided and factious England, with its squabbling nobles and interfering bishops after the death of the great hero Henry V, with the French, united and rebellious and inspired by Joan of Arc, determined to throw off the English yoke. It’s pretty much a hotchpotch of random scenes and events with no real thread except the background of the Hundred Years’ War, and the only unity coming through the character of Talbot on the English side and Joan on the fRench. We can see the Wars of the Roses shaping up in the future.

It’s interesting that the English immediately picture Joan as a witch, a whore, in league with satanic powers; towards the end of the play Shakespeare confirms this in a bizarre scene where she calls upon various devilish powers for assistance as her campaign finally unravels.

Shakespeare’s inventiveness is restricted by the actualities of history, and his chronicle sources. I find the language fairly pedestrian, and the tone pretty monotonous, to be honest; there’s little sense of drama or suspense: it feels like a school history lesson. Necessarily it ends without a resolution: there is more chaos, more warfare ahead, and the audience can easily see that the leading characters’ fine words are just that. But the dramatist is just setting out on the road to his present, showing a real nation emerging from all this chaos at the end of Richard III

Shakespeare: Richard III

February 6, 2015

61b1SdGL+jL._AA160_I am really relieved not to be a year older than I am, as then I would have had to study this play for O Level and I cannot imagine my love of literature would have survived it at that age. Even  now I find it astonishingly complicated; the dramatis personae seems far longer than that of any other play…

The play works because it has a central character around whom all the action revolves, and from whom it all originates: all is drawn together into a coherent whole in the way this does not happen in the Henry VI plays; in the Henry IV plays Falstaff was the real focus, and Richard II and Henry V have their eponymous characters at the centre, too. But there are just too many minor characters to keep track of, even when reading the play, where you have the names in front of you. There is also a lot of standing around and speechifying, and a lot more punning and wordplay.

Richard is an astonishing creation, in some ways foreshadowing both Macbeth and Iago. His wooing of Lady Anne, who loathes him, is a masterpiece of hypocrisy. His evil plotting and gleeful gloating sometimes outdo Iago. There is no end to the factionalism and baronial infighting of the previous three plays, but Richard’s star is in the ascendant, as he becomes ever more successful at pulling the right strings.

England is truly in a sorry state by this point; a sense of great decadence and decay permeates the play; everything is sour and rotten, it seems: even the warring factions are composed of small and petty characters, who are nonetheless still able to wreak mayhem. The innocence of children and youth is no help. The sycophantic Buckingham helps Richard to the throne, and it seems he’s the only one who can’t see his own inevitable fall coming. The supreme hypocrite is ‘persuaded’ to reluctantly accept the throne in an amazing scene where we completely forget he’s there after murdering both his older brothers…

In the closing scenes as reluctantly loyal barons try to change sides, he recalls the (still unwritten!) Macbeth in his rages, madness and cruelty; there is a tiresome parade of all the ghosts he has created, in a pageant scene on the eve of the battle of Bosworth Field. In the end, I found it hard to avoid the feeling that Shakespeare is playing the Tudor apologist and propagandist here, as Richard descends into caricature; because they are underplayed (relatively), Iago and Macbeth in the end come across as much more sinister…

Shakespeare: Henry VI, Parts 1,2 & 3

February 4, 2015

After seeing the two parts of Shakespeare’s Henry the Fourth at Stratford last year, I promised myself I’d go back to the second tetralogy, which I’m not very familiar with, and I’ve finally got round to it. It seems curious that the later cycle time-wise was written first, but it certainly shows: these are plays of the bard’s formative years.

Although he presented Henry V as a successful king, everything falls to pieces after his death: his son & heir is very young, and has a regent and protector; the barons fall to squabbling with each other and we are on the downhill slope to civil war: the Wars of the Roses, as the houses of York and Lancaster slog it out.

Henry VI Part One is basically about things falling to pieces in the French part of the kingdom, helped by Joan of Arc, who gets a very unsympathetic portrayal here. The early nature of the play comes across in much posturing and overblown language (which does suit some of the characters), set-piece speeches and a heavy reliance on puns and wordplay in general.

The second play – originally The First Part of the Contention – gets us back to England and the factional baronial infighting: the French territories are pretty much lost. The stand-off between York and Lancaster becomes much more evident: everyone is plotting. Who has the best title to the crown, the descendants of Henry IV and V, whose claim is based on usurpation or not depending on who you believe, or the descendants whose claim was closer to the deposed Richard II? Shakespeare explores an incredibly complex issue, which lurked in the background in his own time as Elizabeth grew older without an available Tudor heir. It all makes me glad to be a republican.

The weakness of Henry VI, and the scheming of his treacherous queen Margaret are developed; the one decent man, the Duke of Gloucester, is done away with, and no holds are barred. The conspirators are constantly falling out, fearful of someone gaining a tiny advantage; soliloquies reveal truths, hidden plots and motives; the action becomes quite hectic. The play ends with the open challenge to Henry VI by Edward IV – once again the country has two kings at the same time, and we see the emergence of the dastardly Richard III-to be.

Chaos continues in the third part: as Shakespeare emphasises this chaos and the attendant slaughter on the battlefields we can almost hear his audience’s sighs of relief that the Tudors brought an end to all this. As usual he plays fast and loose with historical accuracy for the sake of a good play. Henry’s queen becomes ever more fiendish, and there is the battle of Towton (1462) which, apparently, given the population of the land at the time, was proportionally far more bloody than the battle of the Somme (1916)…

Interesting parallels begin to emerge between some of Shakespeare’s plays and characters: the weak and feeble Henry’s speeches increasingly resemble those of Richard II – chronologically long dead but still awaiting Shakespeare’s treatment – and the development of the cunning and plotting Richard reminds me strongly of Iago. The horrors of civil war – always the worst kind of war – are represented by two vignettes, of a son killing his father who fought on the opposite side and of a father killing his son, who fought for the enemy. No character emerges with any positive attribute; they are all turncoats, game players, time-servers and manipulators…

At the end, we are ready for Richard to begin murdering his way to the throne. To be continued…

Shakespeare: Henry V

June 5, 2014

I recently saw the RSC productions of  Henry IV Part One and Two in Stratford during a Shakespeare course I took part in; we also watched a film of Richard II, so I thought I should complete the tetralogy by re-reading Henry V.

Shakespeare starts with a useless king (Richard) and ends with an effective one (Henry V); in between is sandwiched the reign of the illicit and troubled usurper, Henry IV; and yet his actions are suggested to have been necessary for the sake of the realm. Prince Hal has been transformed into Henry V, although there are times when this didn’t seem convincing. Both the plays Richard II and Henry V are very formal, ritualistic even, with much discussion in council and lengthy speechifying, Richard’s being beautiful and ineffectual, Henry’s being crisp, logical and directed. Court life during the reign of Henry IV was just chaotic. So there is a tidy sense of structure to this tetralogy.

Henry V is unlike the others in the use of prologue and choruses; these help shape the effect Shakespeare wants to achieve, heightening the presence and power of the king, and creating description and atmosphere for the campaign in France, particularly by articulating the fears of those who are off to war. There are still lots against the king, but unlike those against his father, there are easily dealt with, and the traitors even repent in the face of Henry’s apparent rectitude and good sense. And the good king still ensures that traitors lose their heads.

A less pretty side to Henry is revealed in the man of war and his threats against the French, but coupled with the conversations of the common people, the overall effect is to suggest what a dreadful thing war is in general, and how foolish those are that seek it (ie the French).

Another interesting effect is that of the king wandering off in mufti and enjoying conversations with the footsoldiers and lower class members of his army; again we see their fears through their arguments with the king, and he is not always at his ease with the new role that has been thrust on him, though he sustains it and develops a sense of fair play and justice of which Shakespeare’s audience would surely have approved, when he reveals his true self to those men later on.

Shakespeare brings the cycle of plays to a successful end with Henry’s victory at Agincourt, though his wooing of Katherine is now either tiresome or toe-curling or both. But what Shakespeare has done most effectively of all is to raise so many questions for us to reflect on, about kings and rulers, about justice, about the rights and fears of ordinary people when faced by power, and about the evils of warfare. All sides are laid bare, no-one escapes lightly, no easy answers are offered…

Shakespeare: Henry IV (Parts 1 & 2)

April 24, 2014

I’ve been doing my homework for this year’s Shakespeare week – reading the plays, and thinking about them, before I get to see the RSC performances.

Shakespeare explored the problems created by a useless king in Richard II. The realm goes to rack and ruin, and he is deposed and murdered. You can’t have a spare (more legitimate) king around, so he had to die. And you need someone to run the kingdom properly. The trouble is, the king is also God’s anointed and no-one can change that. Christopher Marlowe also considered this issue in his play Edward II, another king who was deposed and murdered, but who in the end was succeeded by his legitimate heir Edward III.

So, although Henry IV does a better job as king, he has no legitimacy: he’s an usurper. Shakespeare shows England descending into a state of semi-anarchy as the nobles who supported Henry’s moves against Richard feel short-changed and rebel against him, whilst there are also problems with the Welsh and the French.

The heir to the throne – who will become Henry V – is a great disappointment, drinking and whoring around with his friend, and great favourite of Elizabethan audiences, Sir John Falstaff.

Chaos on all fronts, then: the scenes with Falstaff are great fun, and anyone could improve their knowledge of swearing and general abuse by watching. The rebels are incompetent, ready to double-cross each other, always with an eye to covering their backs.

Politics at their crudest, with the incompetent chasing the illegitimate, and vice-versa (no change there then, haha!); meanwhile there is a country – England – that deserves better. Shakespeare doesn’t let anyone off the hook.

As usual, Shakespeare is playing fast and loose with the details of English history, but it’s the broad sweep, and the ideas that he’s interested in. The only hope seems to be that Henry V is made of better stuff, and with have rather more of the legitimacy that his father lacked… and yet there is a sadness about his repudiation of his old mate Sir John as he assumes his new mantle at the end of the play.

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