Thoughts on “King Henry the Sixth”

So, after finishing the complete collection of H.P. Lovecraft, I started working on the complete works of William Shakespeare.  And when I started doing that, I had an unwelcome surprise.  While reading Lovecraft, I was generally able to get through something like 90 pages or so in an hour and half time period, and so could usually finish a novella or a collection for short stories in a session, usually while I was doing laundry.  When I turned to Shakespeare, I figured that I could maintain that pace and since there were around 1000 pages in the collection that it would take me about two or three months to get through.  Each play is about 30 pages in the work and so I figured I could get through about two or three plays in a session, which would work out well.  However, when I sat down to read the first part of “King Henry the Sixth” I was surprised to note that it took me about an hour and a half to read that one play.  If I have a reading pace of 30 pages a session — and the sessions are once a week — that means it would take me eight or nine months to get through it.  Fortunately, that’s a time set aside to do that sort of reading and it’s not like I’m going to stop doing laundry any time soon and so lose that time slot, but I was probably not going to want to go for eight months without talking about how that one major project was going.

Hence, this post.  I decided that what I would do is instead of talking about my overall impressions of the works I’d talk about each individual play.  Now, I know that for ages people have been analyzing Shakespeare’s plays for themes and how it all fits together and, well, for pretty everything you can analyze them for wrt literary content.  I’m not going to do that, at least not to that detail.  Instead, I’m going to talk about my general impressions of the works, which may include some comments on the themes but will mostly focus on how it’s striking me as a work that I’m just sitting down and taking the time to read out.  Also, someone might object that since they were meant to be acted out simply reading them won’t have the same impact as watching them would.  Putting aside the fact that in my formal studies of the works we pretty much just read them, it’s also not possible to actually watch all of Shakespeare’s works anyway.  Not all of them are put on all the time, even if they were regularly staging his plays anywhere near to me.  This is the best I can do if I want to experience all of them in some way.

Anyway, “King Henry the Sixth” is presented in three parts, which basically means that it’s presented as three separate plays for the most part, with the length of each part aligning with the typical length of one of his plays.  It follows, well, the reign of King Henry the Sixth, touching on historical events like the battles in France with Joan of Arc and a number of rebellions and insurrections in England itself.

The first thing I noted about the plays is that I had a remarkably easy time reading them.  I was a bit worried that the language would be a bit of a struggle but even though some of the words were ones that I wasn’t familiar with — often deliberately so, to make the cadences and rhymes work better — I was able to follow the conversations and understand what was going on and what each character was trying to do.  So the language was more approachable than I expected it to be, at least in this place.

I did, however, notice a bit of English bias in this work, at least, mostly wrt France and especially wrt Joan of Arc.  It may be the case that most of us have become a bit biased towards Joan of Arc from the cultural works that reference her, but in general it seems reasonable that she had some military success which is why she gained fame in the first place and the fame that she fell from at the end of her life.  However, in this play she’s fairly unimpressive and dismissed by pretty much everyone, although Shakespeare does present her as being skilled in fighting, although he also has other women later fight as well so again that’s not all that impressive.  Since everything is told from the perspective of the English you could argue that it more reflects the feelings of the people at the time and not what Shakespeare himself wanted to get across, and since many of those people are rather poor tacticians a lot of the time that’s not unreasonable, but the dialogue does not suggest anything like that but even when she’s among people who wouldn’t be biased he still leaves that impression.  So that stood out to me, although it probably wouldn’t have to his original audience.

I also noticed that in this play there are lots of plots in play to gain power, but pretty much all of them fail miserably in a remarkably short period of time, making it look like the plotters are utterly incompetent.  We don’t have someone in a strong position gained from plotting like Claudius in Hamlet, nor someone who executes a plot and has it all unravel like Macbeth, but instead we have characters spawn a plot against, for example, the Protector of the Realm to imprison and then kill him but as soon as he is killed another noble immediately accuses them of murder and they get imprisoned and probably executed.  We have characters trying to attack a much larger army in the field on the grounds that it worked against the French, who predictably lose badly.  But then the victors of that battle are soon overtaken by another force, and so on and so forth.  Someone spawns an insurrection as a distraction to weaken the realm and justify his using force that fizzles out right before he returns, but he manages to take over anyway.  Even the losses in France in the first part seem to follow from the English leaders being cowardly and incompetent, preferring to in-fight over dealing with their enemies.  This may well have been the point, but it doesn’t make for very impressive antagonists.

If there is any theme to this, I believe that it’s about over how Henry was weak and inconstant and so unprepared to rule, and that that indecisiveness is what ultimately cost him his throne.  He decries the charges against the Protector but allows him to be arrested anyway, which leads to the Protector’s death and the start of the serious infighting.  He asks to be heard but isn’t at all convincing, and can’t be because he doesn’t seem to understand what the actual issues are.  He decides to try to make peace by making the Duke of York his heir and so they would inherit the kingship after his death, but his ambitious wife — who was involved in the conspiracy against the Protector — won’t accept his disinheriting their son, which spawns the conflict that causes him to lose all in the end.  Ultimately, then, it seems that Henry’s weakness and being influenced by others ultimately led to his downfall, and he placed his trust in the wrong people.

Putting aside that most of the antagonists are either incompetent, nasty, or both, I found this three part work fairly good.  I didn’t like or sympathize with most of the characters, but the progression through what I presume are historical events works well enough, and things move quickly enough that I don’t really have the time to focus on which characters I do and don’t like.  I don’t think these are among the more famous Shakespeare plays, but the dialogue and scenes are done well enough that we can see why Shakespeare’s plays have stood the test of time.

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4 Responses to “Thoughts on “King Henry the Sixth””

  1. malcolmthecynic Says:

    Well, Shakespeare was English. The story of Joan as circulated to England was that she was a witch tried for heresy and eventually executed for it.

    I have read the condemnation trial transcripts and some of the rehabilitation trial transcripts, as well as three different biographies of Joan. My real impressions:

    – Joan is consistently described by all her allies as being a genius in warfare, particularly artillery. The fact they are able to give a specific detail like that is indicative they weren’t just blowing smoke

    – Joan is probably the main reason the French lifted the siege of Orleans, though one can argue whether or not it was pure dumb luck or divine intervention I suppose

    – Joan repeatedly prophecies things with remarkable accuracy, including once at her trial, when she is on the record as stating that the English will suffer a worse loss than any they suffered so far in less than 7 years. In about 6 years and five months the English lose Paris.

    – The main impression people seem to get of Joan on meeting her is purity. Joan sleeps with (as in literally just sleep) her army but all report that they had no desire at all to have sex with Joan, who constantly preached purity to the men.

    – Joan was always in the thick of the fighting with her sword and standard but did not actually kill anyone herself.

    A note – it is incredible how well-spoken and erudite Joan comes across in the trial. It’s quite remarkable.

    So in short – I think Joan was just about as remarkable as her reputation says she was, if not more so. But it is hardly surprising ol’ Shake-and-bake would portray her the way they did. That’s what the English were told about Joan.

    • malcolmthecynic Says:

      (Should be “the main reason the BRITISH lifted the Siege of Orleans”.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      Yeah, I was wondering if he was just reflecting what the English believed at the time, but it was something that stood out to me, at least, especially since he seemed pretty dismissive of her contributions at all which is a pretty big contrast to what modern audiences think of her. That being said, I have to give him credit because I do think he mentions the artillery part early on.

      Still, she only appears in the first part before it shifts to the internal strife of England.

  2. Thoughts on “King Richard the Third” | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] the collection is “King Richard the Third”.  This is actually a continuation/sequel to “King Henry the Sixth”, which I was wondering about when I finished reading that one, as it ends with Richard — who […]

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