Henry VI Part 1: Act 1
On to the play, and post two of God knows how many in this project.
I wonder if I lowered my expectations too far …
To shrug and say it was fine, good, OK, would be to do the opening act of Henry VI part I a disservice. Sure, there were moments of clunkiness – not least when the French Master Gunner feels the need to declare – to himself, his son, and thereby the audience – his employment:
‘Chief master gunner am I of this town’. (I.iv.6)
But overall, it’s been an entertaining start.
On a side note, at some stage, I’ll probably research the ‘Five Act’ structure of the plays. All I know at the moment is this:
- my copy of Marlowe’s Edward II has 25 scenes that are not further divided
- Ben Crystal, in one of his ‘Springboard Shakespeare’ series, suggests that the protagonist is seldom on stage for Act IV, facilitating a break and costume change, and
- that I don’t much enjoy reading plays with too many scenes per act, although watching them is fine. Examples? Antony & Cleopatra, The Merchant of Venice. Whilst I am sure this is psychological, they feel too disjointed on the page
… and this is how I felt about the five scenes in Act I. If you know more about the ‘five act thing’ than I do, please get in touch!
It’s also taken a while to get past an odd disconnect: knowing on the one hand that this was written before Henry V, and yet applying the ending of Henry V to the beginning of this play. It’s been helpful, historically, and yet unhelpful too. Not quite deja vu, but not dissimilar, either.
That settled, I saw an immediate sense of discomfort, of trouble, in the erratic rhythm of the opening line:
BEDFORD Hung be the heavens with black. Yield day to night. (I.i.1)
Eleven syllables (unless you try to elide ‘heavens’); the trochees; it was all ‘out of joint’ and reinforced the idea that something was wrong, ‘rotten’ even. But what?
Triumvirate rule, that’ll do for starters. Intertextually, Lear and additionally Antony & Cleopatra show us that, in the words of Queen, ‘there can be only one’. Here we have Bedford, Exeter and the obnoxious Gloucester vying with each other like Regan and Goneril, this time in their embarrassing eulogising of Henry V – with Winchester trying to muscle in on the deal.
But they are fiddling as Rome burns. I was struck, later by Talbot’s reference (pricked by the grievous injuries to Salisbury and Gargrave) to:
TALBOT Plantagenet, I will [avenge Salisbury] ; and like thee, Nero,
Play on the lute, beholding the towns burn (I.iv.94-95)
and this ‘fiddling’ – too little, too late – is a consequence of previous fiddling, of a different kind: now we have what I have called ‘shameful complacency’ in my title. Several times, reading for the first time, I found hints of shame. The fairly audacious first messenger kicks this off:
MESSENGER No treachery, but want of men and money. (I.i.69)
I read this as a disruption to the iambic pentameter, and for me, ‘want’ was the word which broke it. Not much later, I spotted this:
MESSENGER 3 He wanted pikes to set before his archers (I.i.116)
Once again, I focussed on ‘want’ in terms of disrupting the I/P, and wondered if it was embarrassment that caused this. Bedford picks this up, declaring:
BEDFORD […] Then I will slay myself,
For living idly here in pomp and ease
Whilst such a worthy leader, wanting aid,
Unto his dastard foemen is betrayed. (I.i.141-144)
Again, with my emphasis, that word ‘wanting’ …
Permit me a small smug smile when I got close to the end of the Act and found Talbot lamenting:
TALBOT They called us, for our fierceness, English dogs;
Now like to whelps we crying run away (I.v.20-21)
Puzel is entered into Orleans
In spite of us or aught that we could do.
O would I were to die with Salisbury:
The shame hereof will make me hide my head. (I.v.36-40)
My emphasis, again. And I am almost blushing in embarrassment at the state of the country myself as I read these passages. ‘This sceptred isle … is now leased out, I die pronouncing it’, indeed! And suddenly, I’m also remembering the preponderance of the word ‘shame’ as used by the French in Henry V.
Let’s move on to my second epithet – the almost embarrassing horniness of the Dolphin and his nobles. With my Shakespearean hat on, I would say – of course: he’s French! Lots of the worst sexual excesses of men are often safely placed abroad in Shakespeare’s plays, it seems.
My students would say I am reading too much into things – as usual. But my Arden supports a reading of general French randiness. Charles (the Dolphin) seems worse than anyone. Bested by the maid, his thoughts, I think, turn to ‘l’amour’ – or at least the physical parts thereof.
‘Let me thy servant and not sovereign be’ (I.ii.111)?
This is the sort of thing that got Edward II in trouble:
And share the kingdom with thy dearest friend.’ (i.2-3)
Whilst Charles is enjoying an extended interlude ‘prostrate’ beneath Joan, the knowing, winking nobles drawn their own conclusions about what’s going on behind closed doors:
ALENÇON Doubtless he shrives this woman to her smock (I.ii.119)
Little do they know that Joan is more than a match for their prince. A temporary victory obtained at Orleans, Charles continues effusive:
DOLPHIN I will divide my crown with her (I.v.57)
and elaborates in a more suggestive vein:
DOLPHIN A statelier pyramis to her I’ll rear (I.v.60)
With all the phallic connotations that I almost-guiltily spotted – only to be supported by Arden (bless you for having just as dirty a mind as I have).
More goat, than Dolphin, then …
Quotations are referenced to: Henry VI part 1 (ed. Edward Burns), The Arden Shakespeare (3rd edition), (Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare: London, 2016); and Edward the Second (eds. Martin Wiggins and Robert Lindsey, 2nd edition), (A&C Black: London, 1997)