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18 February 2006

Henry VI, Part One (2003)

A Fully Dramatized Reading of William Shakespeare's The First Part of King Henry VI (1590)

Vol. I of The Complete Ark- angel Shakespeare by Audio Partners; David Tennant (Henry VI), John Bowe (Talbot), Norman Rodway (Gloucester), Amanda Root (Joan de Pucelle)

The Wikipedia plot summary can be found here.

Review

Wikipedia suggests that this play may be comprised of as little as 20% Shakespearian text, with the remaining portion written by a team of co-authors. This inconsistency can be most keenly observed in Act IV, scenes v-vii, throughout which every character speaks in rhyming couplets. Nowhere else in the play does this occur to such a regular extent. Characters might rhyme occasionally, for effect, but those three scenes of grating, singsong couplets were either written by a very young Shakespeare, demonstrating rough, early examples of his dramatic potential, or by some lesser- known playwright. Luckily, in either case, Shakespeare's later plays contain no such inconsistencies, nor rhymes that distract so thoroughly from the drama.

Chronologically, this was the first play with which Shakespeare is credited, although it was not published until some eight years later. Tricky turns of phrase and clever puns are all but missing from this text, and the thrust of the play is primarily in the action. This is, as Keven suggested, a Jerry Bruckheimer film from Elizabethan times. Wars, assaults, hand-to-hand fighting, and general mayhem are at center stage, while the characterization and intense personal insights that eventually become Shakespeare's most timeless contributions to literature are notably absent.

The character of Joan of Arc, referred to as Joan "La Pucelle" (the maid), was a stand out example of psychosis, ego, and snide arrogance - a fitting interpretation, perhaps, of a French heroine by an English playwright. She is strong, feared, and ultimately ridiculed as a sham and a hussy as she is dragged to the stake. Today, Joan of Arc is seen as a hero for the ages, in both legend and Hollywood, but this negative, nationalistic interpretation was as surprising as it was entertaining. But were I French, I would be terribly offended!

Talbot, the neutral, valiant solider fighting Charles the Dauphin in France, is admirably straight-forward. He is a leader and a fighter who is a victim of the Lancaster/York infighting, not a deceitful participant in those family schemes. But I look forward to seeing the development of the War of the Roses plot-line, which was given the short shrift here in favor or the multiple scenes of fighting and more fighting.

This play is notable, as well, because it is the only work credited to Shakespeare that has a cliff-hanger ending. No happy marriage or moral lesson - just the promise of calculations and deceit yet to come. I am actually looking forward to part two...

Quotes

Charles: "Him I forgive my death that killeth me / When he sees me go back one foot to flee!" (Made funnier by the very next line: "Who ever saw the like? what men have I! / Dogs! cowards! dastard! I would ne'er have fled / But that they left me midst my enemies.")

Talbot: "Your hearts I'll stamp out with my horse's heels, / And make a quagmire of your mingled brains."

Exeter: "'Tis much when sceptres are in children's hands; / But more when envy breeds unkind division; / There comes the ruin, there begins confusion."

Talbot: "But if you frown upon this proffer'd peace / You tempt the fury of my three attendants, / Lean famine, quartering steel, and climbing fire; / Who, in a moment, even with the earth / Shall lay your stately and air-braving towers..."

A French General: "For ere the glass that now begins to run / Finish the process of this sandy hour, / These eyes, that see thee now well coloured, / Shall see thee wither'd, bloody, pale, and dead."

Charles: "On what submissive message art thou sent?" Sir William Lucy: "Submission, Dauphin! 'tis a mere French word..."

Vocab & References

marish, intermissive, amain, vaward, Walloon, bull-beeves, Oliver & Rowland, gimmer, nine sibyls, swart, sword of Deborah, recompense, shrives, recreants, Mahomet, Saint Philip's daughters, proditor, beard ("I beard thee to thy face"), contumeliously, espials, adamant ("posts of adamant"), Astraea, Rhodope of Memphis, Darius, quittance, trull, Tomyris & Cyrus, cates, quillets, daw, purblind, pursuivants, perforce, obloquy, diadem, pestiferous, weal, inkhorn, reguerdon, darnel, Hecate, gleeks, extirped, mickle, lither, giglot, periapts, banning ("fell, banning hag"), collop, avaunt, enow, lenity, and lucre

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