I mentioned that I'd been dreading Shakespeare's Henry the Sixth trilogy. I expected it to be a slogfest, full of interchangeable nobles and soporific speechifying. My apologies to Mr. Shakespeare: I'm two plays in and finding it engaging, moving, laugh-out-loud funny in spots, and reasonably easy to follow despite the York-Lancaster machinations.
Tonight, some quick thoughts on Part One. I loved Shakespeare's treatment of Joan of Arc in Act I. Particularly memorable: a nobleman named Talbot swaggers in, full of bombast and braggadocio. You almost expect him to burst into song -- "I'm especially good at expectorating!" -- and then he meets Joan. She leaves him quaking in his boots, saying, "They called us for our fierceness English dogs; / Now, like to whelps, we crying run away."
It was a bit of a shock, then, to see her in Act V. She summons demons (!) and offers them her blood, her body (!!), her soul (!!!). They reject her offers (!!!!); the tide turns against the French. I didn't realize until I read this play that Joan of Arc wasn't canonized until 1920. I thought at first that Shakespeare was giving precedence to jingoism over accurate biography, but I suppose I don't know how long it takes to have one's reputation rehabilitated after being executed for heresy.
Talbot reappears in Act IV with his son. The two of them are fighting a doomed battle -- doomed by infighting among two other nobles whom the naive king has instructed to stop fighting and get along already. The whole segment is well done, with the well-meaning king and the squabbling dukes, but I especially enjoyed the father-son dialogue in which each encourages the other to flee and live. In the end, though, they both die in the battle. Talbot says, "If thou wilt fight, fight by thy father's side, / And commendable proved, let's die in pride."
I launched into the trilogy thinking, "Three plays? Was that really necessary? Who would ever watch THREE PLAYS about HENRY THE SIXTH?" I was pleasantly surprised, again, by the end of Part One. The Earl of Suffolk (cue booing and hissing) persuades Henry that he should marry Margaret, breaking his more politically advantageous engagement. The pliant Henry acquiesces over the objections of his uncle, the Lord Protector. We can already smell the trouble brewing in Part Two -- about which more soon.