As longtime readers may already know, I majored in Literature but went to a university with only a token arts and humanities department. The professors I had were generally good, but to give an idea of what the school was like, there was no classicist on the faculty, and I managed to graduate without reading much of anything not originally in English or written prior to 1800 or so. The two best instructors were well aware of this, and though neither of them specialised in the period, they did make sure that one of them would offer a class on Shakespeare every semester – inadequate as the school was, it at least wouldn’t be so inadequate that graduates would entirely miss out on Shakespeare.
So, I do have some basic familiarity with the Bard – I’ve read most of his best-known works, and have seen Richard III and a couple of the comedies performed live. However, everyone who takes English literature seriously needs, at some point, to read all of Shakespeare. I’ve been wanting to do this for a while, and even mentioned it in December 2014 as a goal for 2015, but I’ve decided that this will be the year I do it. This will be a year-long project, rather than something I do all at once, and I may combine multiple plays into one post if I don’t have a lot to say about them, so don’t worry – you’re not going to get thirty-some consecutive weeks of Shakespeare posts.
Now, I started with Henry VI, Part 1, which I haven’t read before. It’s fine, but it’s not going to be a favourite. It’s set just after the coronation of King Henry VI during the Hundred Years War, though Henry himself doesn’t do a lot during the play. Even the resolution feels like it’s just setting up for the Part 2, since not much seems to have been resolved at the end. Like the handful of Shakespeare’s other histories I know, there’s a fairly large cast of characters, which can make it a bit difficult to follow early on as the reader sorts out who’s who, who’s important, and who’s just a side character. A little historical knowledge of the period helps, but isn’t really necessary. 1 Henry VI is relatively action-packed, though reading action scenes in print isn’t exactly thrilling; I suppose I can’t really fault the author for that since, to be fair, this is supposed to be performed, not just read.
1 Henry VI is a bit weak, at least by Shakespearean standards, but I did like the scene just before the climax where Lord Talbot, commander of much of England’s army in France, finds himself in a hopeless battle because his comrades were too busy with infighting to send him support, and he urges his son, John, to flee and save himself. John refuses, saying:
No more can I be sever’d from your side,
Than can yourself yourself in twain divide:
Stay, go, do what you will, the like do I;
For live I will not, if my father die.
Interestingly, St. Joan of Arc is a major character here, though since Shakespeare wrote from an English perspective, and long before her canonisation, he portrays her as a villain, and near the end it’s revealed that her visions are a result of sorcery, not divine revelations. This portrayal is only surprising now because she seems near-universally admired today; Yoshikazu Yasuhiko’s Joan, which I wrote about last year, seems closer to what I’m used to.
In any case, it’s rather mediocre start to the year, but there’s still a long way to go. Up next are the other two parts of Henry VI.