Shakespearing #2 by David Foley
Henry VI, Part 1
Let’s imagine that Shakespeare has been hanging around London theatre for a while, acting in productions but also using his “honey’d” way with words to tart up some old warhorses for this or that company, and finally someone persuades him to write, or he persuades them to let him write, his own play, something like the English history plays that have been such hits for other companies.
Or maybe he just arrives at the theatre one day with it already written. “Here, try this one out,” he says. “No, really.” Let’s assume, that is to say, that Shakespeare wrote Henry VI, Part 1 first, and all by himself. What can we notice? He begins by nodding to the stage itself. “Hung be the heavens with black,” which refers not only to the death of Henry V but, according to the note in Riverside, to the black bunting hung from the “heavens” or canopy of the stage to indicate a tragedy.
I don’t know how unique such meta-moments are to Shakespeare, but he does them a lot. There’s the “wooden O” speech at the top of Henry V, the “two-hours traffic of our stage” of Romeo and Juliet, the Christopher Sly framing device in Taming of the Shrew, and the various envois with which he ends plays, such as Puck’s at the end of Midsummer.
The line (Bedford’s) continues, “Comets, importing change of time and states,/Brandish your crystal tresses in the sky.” There’s that Shakespearean compression: the “crystal tresses” of the comet anneals metaphor to metaphor. There are also signs in the play of what Virginia Woolf called his tendency to “[follow] recklessly” “the trail of a chance word” so that “[f]rom the echo of one word is born another word.” Here is Joan of Arc: “Care is not cure but rather corrosive.” And William Lucy blames “[t]he fraud of England, not the force of France” for the defeat of Talbot. There are less felicitous lines, lines perhaps that an older Shakespeare might have blushed to re-read: “O, were my eyeballs into bullets turn’d,/That I in rage might shoot them at your faces!” says Lucy. All these lines give you a sense of the meter of the play: steady, unenjambed iambic pentameter. No prose.
As for staging, everything seems rather rambunctious, with people brawling and scaling walls and attacking and counter-attacking, and for all that the plot lacks a certain narrative momentum. But Shakespeare is already holding his plays together with iterations of the same pattern, in this case a series of squabbling rivalries that undermine the nation, leading, among other things, to the tragic deaths of the heroic Talbot and his son. Weirdly, in the scene in which the Talbots prepare to die together, the dialogue falls into thumping rhyming couplets and all verbal play drains from the language, perhaps a sign that these lines come from an earlier play or perhaps a sign that Shakespeare was uncomfortable with full-on heroics.
His oddest creation in 1 Henry VI is Joan of Arc or Joan de Pucelle, whom he portrays, according to the best English tradition of the time, as a crazy, conniving witch. But she’s also wily and funny and hence may be the first of Shakespeare’s double-edged women, women smarter and more powerful and fascinating than the men around them, whether they’re Rosalind or Juliet or Lady Macbeth or that most urbane of heroines, Beatrice, who can sling an epigram with the best of them, but can still cry, “O God, that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the market-place!”
David Foley is a playwright and fiction writer living in Brooklyn. His plays include Cressida Among the Greeks, Paradise, Nance O’Neil, The Murders at Argos, A Hole in the Fence, and Sad Hotel, among others. His novel The Traveler’s Companion is available on Amazon. He teaches at New York University.