Henry VI (William Shakespeare)

51rKJu4sGELNow we know the adventures of “Harey the Vj” came pretty much at the start of Shakespeare’s career, and as such it’s probably difficult if not impossible to read these three plays accordingly. In any case, it was this series (along with Richard III, their successor) that seems to have established Shakespeare as a playwright, although, again, I found them somewhat plodding as reading experiences (but, again, will also concede they may work better on stage than on the page). That said, at least 2H6 and 3H6—both presented by the Oxford team under their apparent original titles, The First Part of the Contention and The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York—weren’t too bad, albeit possessed of certain oddities and problems… 2H6 struck me as having a certain shapelessness, and with it being only half a story I found it awfully hard to appraise in its own right (plus the demon-raising scene is a peculiar addition to an otherwise realist work), but more pleasurable to read than the previous two comedies in this edition. 3H6 seemed to show more of a sense of dramatic shaping of the historical material, though the scene where Henry encounters the two soldiers, one who’s killed his son and the other his father, is just weird, a really odd bit of melodrama.

But the main feeling I got from both plays was just how little Henry himself—a man who was clearly unsuited to be king and who clearly knew it, wherein lies his tragedy—has to actually do in his own plays, and that feeling was only amplified by 1H6, their prequel, in which he doesn’t even appear until the start of the third act and then, well, doesn’t do much. 1H6 is, of course, the problem play in the trilogy, being probably actually mostly the work of others (Oxford editor Gary Taylor ascribes all of Act I to Thomas Nashe and less than a fifth of the whole work to Big Bill himself). Or maybe it was all his work, as others think (the Wiki article enumerates various theories). Clearly we’ll never know for sure… and in any case I’m not sure it matters, cos either way it’s pretty unsatisfactory, reading very much like an afterthought and incomplete in itself. Anyway, I’m over the hump now with the really early stuff; my next Shakespeare read will be one I’ve had great fondness for over the years, even if many critics would say I shouldn’t…

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