Crosswriting: King Henry VI, Part One

My quarter at the University of California: Riverside is well underway, and the reading/writing assignments are taking up a lot of my time. To ensure I don’t abandon the blog during this period, I am going to experiment with adapting what I write for homework assignments into blog posts. Such posts will be indicated with the title Crosswriting. If I write on something and you would like to see me expand upon it, by all means let me know.

When William Shakespeare began his career as a playwright, he didn’t start with the plays that are most famous today, such as Hamlet or Macbeth. Instead, he started with history plays: stage dramas that depicted the political turmoil of England a century or so earlier, particularly the famous War of the Roses. Some of the very first plays Shakespeare wrote were the three parts of Henry VI, though it appears he may have written Parts Two and Three before Part One- or, at least, that’s how their publishing dates are listed, not necessarily their performance dates. For my Shakespeare class this quarter, we started with King Henry VI, Part One.

Shakespeare spends the first two acts of Henry VI establishing the death of his father Henry V and the conflict that erupts shortly afterwards: the rivalry between the Duke of Gloucester and Bishop-soon-to-be-Cardinal Winchester, and the swinging tides of battle in France with Lord Talbot leading the English and Joan of Arc arriving out of nowhere to lead the French into sudden victory. Shakespeare uses the very last scene of Act 2 to establish the background of the War of the Roses, with Edmund Mortimer using his dying moments to explain to Richard Plantagenet the latter’s claim to the throne.

It is at this point, in Act 3, Scene 1, after all the important elements of the story have been established, that we finally meet the titular King Henry VI for the first time. Such a late introduction serves to demonstrate just how little control he has in the events that are unfolding around him. He has no ability to stop anything. All he can do is protest what is happening and make gestures towards peace that are ignored by his extended family and noblemen. This point is emphasized in Scene 1 itself, which, though being Henry VI’s introductory scene, completely focuses on the fight between his uncle the Duke of Gloucester and his great-uncle the Bishop of Winchester and their respective servants. He implores them to stop, saying, “What a scandal is it to our crown / That two such noble peers as ye should jar!” (3.1.69-70) and he even tries to guilt-trip them: “Oh, how this discord doth afflict my soul!” (3.1.108). This is all to no avail. The two noblemen make empty professions of peace in front of him but continue to secretly plot against each other.

Henry VI’s ineffectiveness at changing the tide of history is also seen in his treatment of Richard Plantagenet, particularly in his timing. He grants Richard the title Duke of York, which is a great honor, sure, but it happens right after Richard has learned of his potential claim to the throne, and is thus too little, too late. Why be a duke when you can be a king? This is driven home in a later scene (Act 4, Scene 1), when Henry unintentionally and unknowingly offends Richard by wearing a red rose when trying to demonstrate that flowers don’t indicate allegiance (4.1.134- 181).

Act 3, Scene 1, thus sets a potential theme for this history play: The king, despite being the absolute monarch, ultimately has no say, no power, and no effect on the fortune of his kingdom. His noblemen fight amongst themselves to become his counselor and Protector (and in effect, be king-by-proxy), and the war in France is won only through the skill of Talbot and lost when Talbot dies as a direct result of the nobles’ in-fighting. In the course of England’s history at this crucial time, the nobles have more influence than the king himself.

What do you think?

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