This was my first time reading this play. Honestly, I shied away from the histories in the past, and tended to focus on the comedies and tragedies. I guess some part of me felt they might not be as enjoyable. But the truth is, this is a very enjoyable play and much more interesting than I expected.
The play is steeped in politics. It is set during the English battles with the French, where Joan la Pucelle (Joan of Arc) demonstrated her force on the field. It also explores the political strife that led to the War of the Roses. So there is a lot going on, but in spite of that, it is pretty easy to follow.
There is speculation that Shakespeare may have collaborated with Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Nashe on the writing of this play.
Some regard Henry VI, Part 1 as the weakest of Shakespeare’s plays, and along with Titus Andronicus, it is generally considered one of the strongest candidates for evidence that Shakespeare collaborated with other dramatists early in his career.
Personally, I feel this play is way better that Titus Andronicus, but that’s just my opinion. That said, there are a few passages of interest that I want to share.
Charles: Then come, o’ God’s name; I fear no woman.
Joan la Pucelle: And while I live, I’ll ne’er fly from a man.
(Act I, scene ii)
What I love about these two lines is that they succinctly sum up the patriarchy mentality, and the rejection of that paradigm. As king of France, Charles embodies the idea of male dominance. But Joan is the feminist archetype. She rejects this male-dominance idea completely, and asserts that she will never allow herself to be subservient to someone strictly based upon gender. Not surprising, men of power view strong women as a threat, labeling them as witches and servants of evil.
Here, here she comes. I’ll have a bout with thee;
Devil or devil’s dam, I’ll conjure thee:
Blood will I draw on thee, thou art a witch,
And straightway give thy soul to him thou servest.
(Act I, scene v)
While factionalism in politics seems extremely pronounced these days, Shakespeare reminds us that politics have always been contentious and factional.
Good Lord, what madness rules in brainsick men,
When for so slight and frivolous a cause
Such factious emulations shall arise!
Good cousins both, of York and Somerset,
Quiet yourselves, I pray, and be at peace.
(Act IV, scene i)
As I look around me, I notice that we are living in a fear culture. The news media provides a steady stream of “what if” scenarios and opinions intended to increase your fear and keep you coming back to the channel or website. This is having a terrible effect on society, as well as on individuals. And as Shakespeare points out in this play, fear is one of the worst of human emotions.
Of all base passions, fear is the most accursed.
(Act V, scene ii)
And the last quote I want to share concerns marriage.
A dower, my lords! disgrace not so your king,
That he should be so abject, base and poor,
To choose for wealth and not for perfect love.
Henry is able to enrich his queen
And not seek a queen to make him rich:
So worthless peasants bargain for their wives,
As market-men for oxen, sheep, or horse.
Marriage is a matter of more worth
Than to be dealt in by attorneyship;
Not whom we will, but whom his grace affects,
Must be companion of his nuptial bed:
And therefore, lords, since he affects her most,
It most of all these reasons bindeth us,
In our opinions she should be preferr’d.
For what is wedlock forced but a hell,
An age of discord and continual strife?
(Act V, scene v)
I love this quote because it extols the importance of love when it comes to matrimony. It is clearly a romantic view that puts the focus on the compatibility between two people, as opposed to the financial or political advantages that might be gained from an arranged marriage.
While I agree that this is not Shakespeare’s greatest play, it is still good and worth reading. If for nothing else, it provides a glimpse into the writing of a young Shakespeare, as he was developing his skills as a wordsmith.