I wanted to reflect on the play as a whole, looking back to my ‘Expectations’ back at the end of January.
Good literature is like a magic trick. It makes you believe you are in a different time and place, and care for characters who are constructs, and react to their (also fictitious) actions as if you were a participant.
The most effective literature immerses you to the extent that you care: you struggle to leave that world, like a sleeper tossing and turning and making a conscious effort to exit an unpleasant dream (I have lots of experience of this, sadly). And for me, the astonishment and joy leads to curiosity. I want to know how the trick was done. I have no aspirations to be a magician myself, and like to think I’m well aware of my limitations in this direction. I simply get tremendous pleasure from understanding and being able to appreciate the skill involved. This blog is nothing more than an expression of that astonishment, joy, and pleasure, to the extent that Shakespeare achieves it. When something excites us, we want to gush about it to everyone we know, right?
I enjoyed HVI 1 far more than I thought I might. Perhaps it helped to be teaching Edward II at the moment. I like that play too, but I was expecting far lesser, maybe callow, writing from Shakespeare, given that Marlowe‘s play was written with the playwright firmly in his stride, whilst Shakespeare is by all accounts just learning his trade. I was mostly pleasantly surprised instead.
(A short aside: I recently lent a copy of the Marlowe to a sixth form student who was going into a lesson with another teacher and forgotten hers. It was returned to me via a roundabout route which involved a third teacher, whose pupils asked why ‘The Complete Works of Christopher Marlowe‘ had a picture of Shakespeare on the front. Tee-hee.)
Even as someone who doesn’t especially identify as English, rather than British, it was incredibly uncomfortable to be in England. Watching the court jockeying for position, I wondered about the factions in Elizabeth’s court, with it becoming increasingly clear that Elizabeth – in her late 50s -wasn’t going to have an heir. The self-serving nobles, and the spread of their quarrel like a cancer shooting tendrils out to colonise other organs in the body, began to disgust me. The climax of this disgust was the deaths of the Talbots. I also, actually, wondered about the extent I could ‘relate’ this to current politics, but I decided I couldn’t – our current US and UK governments seem too idealogically driven as opposed to operating for personal gain. I’ll certainly be thinking about people like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove when I get to Julius Caesar.
There did seem to be something cleaner, more honest, about being in France, despite the fact that this is where people were actually slaughtering each other with physical weapons. I wondered (aided by my Arden) the extent to which the play also commented on notions about the passing of chivalry, respect and fair play between enemies. I’m guessing this is all going to get thrown out of the window in parts II and III …
The writing? I ran out of words and time to talk about the fine speech by Mortimer in II.v on his ‘weak decaying age’. I’m slowly recovering from one of the most vicious stomach bugs I’ve had in years, and I can completely empathise with lines like:
‘Even like a man new haled from the rack,
So fare my limbs with long imprisonment;’ (II.v.3-4)
The scene, as a whole, increased my empathy towards Richard (York) – but then I’ve never fully taken to Lancaster’s (Bolingbroke) character in deposing Richard II. I may not completely subscribe to Tillyard’s theory that ALL eight history plays demonstrate divine punishment for Richard’s murder, but at this stage in the proceedings I do think the House of York was robbed.
Act IV was, for me, about the death of the Talbots, and I dealt with that at the appropriate time. If there was one part that felt like I was watching a trick poorly performed, it was Joan’s sudden capitulation in Act V, and her willingness to name anyone as the father of her purported child if it would commute her sentence. It simply rang false for the strong and driven character that the earlier scenes had created.
Expectations of Part 2, The Contention? LOTS of back-stabbing and very little in the way of virtue. Let’s get going!
Quotations are taken from the Arden Third Edition