Date: Probably 1591.
First read: 2005-ish.
Productions seen: No full productions, just scenes at drama school.
Productions worked on: As above.
Edition I’m using: Signet Classics. I don’t think I’ve ever had a Signet before.
- There are people who believe that this is Shakespeare’s very first play. While it’s clearly an early work, I find it hard to believe that it could be the first. The language and characterisation are much better developed than Comedy of Errors or Two Gents.
- It was suggested to me when I started this project that the Henry VIs should be read in story order, but in light of the argument mentioned above I preferred to go 2-3-1. I’ve tried to put Part 1 out of my mind for the purposes of the Re-read.
- Back when I first started reading Shakespeare I assumed that as I grew more familiar with his work I would be able to keep track of which geographically-titled nobleman was which without any problems. Twelve years later and much more familiar with his works, I still get mixed up and have to go back and remind myself which Poles and post-Plantagenets are which. I am seriously considering pressing all my ornaments into service for Part 3.
- Bloody hell Shakespeare, we’re not hanging about, are we? By the end of Act 1, Scene 1 we’ve got the meeting of the royal spouses, Suffolk going from marquess to duke, strops thrown about the king’s marriage and the loss of Anjou and Maine, the Cardinal throwing shade at Gloucester, Somerset throwing shade at the Cardinal, Buckingham and Somerset plotting for one of them to be Protector, Warwick plotting to get Maine back, and York soliloquising at great length about how he’s going to be king. That’s one scene.
- This pattern of characters bitching about each other and plotting everyone else’s downfall continues for the rest of the play (with an odd diversion in Act 4, of which more in a moment). Some absolutely beautiful smack is talked, which was a breath of fresh air after Comedy of Errors. But it’s somewhat hard going, with very little breathing space between events and length speeches. Shakespeare still isn’t on top of his pacing at this point.
- Speaking of which, can we talk about Act 4? Imagine if Game of Thrones had decided to show nothing but the Faith Militant causing trouble in King’s Landing for a season, with only a couple of brief appearances from the characters in whom you’ve already become interested. It’s not without merit, it’s still entertaining stuff and piqued my interest in historical terms, it’s just… couldn’t we have built up to this? Structurally, I feel the lack of an introductory scene for Cade. We’re told in Act 3, Scene 1 that York has Cade on his side, and I find myself wishing that this had been shown.
- Characterisation is starting to get interesting. Not universally so, but to a greater extent than in the last two plays. I found myself quite attached to Gloucester, and the scene where he parts with his wife was surprisingly touching, especially in view of their proto-Macbeth first scene together. I also thought that the writing of Henry struck a delicate balance between capturing his weakness as a monarch and his strength as a man of faith. I’m fond of characters who may be hopeless cases within their worlds but who clearly could have thrived in a different environment.
- I tried hard to forget having read Part 1 before. I’m convinced that if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have picked up on the relationship between Margaret and Suffolk until quite late on. Their affair has always appealed to the teen-goth-in-search-of-heartache in me, and I think I’d mentally filled in more romantic/lustful intrigue than they actually have. Nevertheless, the scene where they part gave me a little pang of sadness, even though they’re both pretty terrible people. (I don’t care how terrible she is. I will love Queen Margaret in all her incarnations until I die. But I will save my remarks on her until we’re done with the Henry VIs and I’m free to comment on her entire arc.)
- While I knew that there was witchcraft/necromancy in this play, I’d never really taken note of the date before – if it was first performed in 1591, that puts it smack in the middle of the North Berwick witch trials. I don’t know how aware a London audience would have been of the trials, but since Newes from Scotland, the contemporary account of the “witches”, was printed in London it doesn’t seem terribly unlikely that they were. I wonder whether it might have added a certain immediacy, more than a century after the real Margery Jourdemayne’s death.
- Lots of differences between the editions on this one – I had the Signet, Mark had the Arden, and we found quite a few inverted lines, different attributions and a couple of characters with slightly altered names.
- To sum up, this is far from a perfect play but I’m certainly happy to have moved on to the sometimes unnecessarily loquacious and unambiguously stabby. Since next week is Part 3 and we’ve got Titus Andronicus coming up after that, I should be kept happy for a little while.