Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Reader's Diary #278- William Shakespeare: The First Part of King Henry The Sixth (FINISHED)

I've been intermittently working on The Complete Works of William Shakespeare for some time now and each time I go back to the table of contents I'm unsure of what to read next. Perhaps the most daunting are all the King plays. King Henry The Sixth has a three parter that comprises the first three selections in the entire collection, King Henry The Fourth has a two parter, and plenty more have at least one play to their name: King John, King Richard III, King Richard II, King Henry V, King Henry VIII, and of course, King Lear.

Up until now I've only read King Lear and since I don't want to save all that royalty for the end, I thought it was time to work through some of them. I picked the First Part of King Henry the Sixth because it was his very first play as far as experts can ascertain (though interestingly many people say Shakespeare was only one of a handful of playwrights that worked on it).

As Shakespeare's first, it obviously gets more than its fair share of scrutiny but it's hard not to compare it to his later greats. Personally, it wasn't my favourite (i.e., Othello) but it wasn't my least favourite either (i.e., King Lear). What's your favourite? Least favourite?

My biggest disappointment was the lack of a central character. The title suggests that it would be King Henry VI, but he really doesn't play a major role in this part at all. I found the most interesting character of all to be Joan La Pucelle (i.e., Joan of Arc). She's presented of course with English eyes (this is a very patriotic piece with no apologies to the French at all) and it's interesting to see her as a conniving witch whore. Especially wickedly funny is the scene of her at the stake. After forsaking her shepherd father and claiming to have come from nobler lineage than that, she schemes for her life by suggesting she's bearing a child, altering her story to suggest various fathers- none of which help her case. Unfortunately she's just not in enough scenes. (And lest it sound like I'm cruel for laughing at the death of a very real historical person, I'm laughing more at the written treatment of her. Plus, with all the animosity between the English and the French, I doubt the truth about her character will ever be known.)

The play feels like one-third of a play actually. If it wasn't for the book's layout clearly dividing the three parts (and the fact that each part can be purchased separately), I'd probably have read all three parts together. Actually, I'm making excuses: I'm just not in the mood to read the rest right now and I'm just using the separation of parts as an excuse. Perhaps King Henry will play a more crucial, interesting role in the parts to come. Perhaps the War of the Roses will play out more. I'll just have to wait and see.


Stephanie said...

Yeah....Othello ranks really high on my list as well. Along with Taming of the Shrew, and A Midsummer Night's Dream. Wasn't too crazy about Julius Ceasar. Macbeth wasn't bad either!

Thanks for a great review!

Barbara Bruederlin said...

I'm so blatantly obvious - MacBeth is my favourite. All that blood and witches, oh yeah!

Imani said...

King Richard III is probably my most constant favourite, with occasionally flip flopping to Hamlet. He is definitely at the centre of his play and one of the best, most entertaining villains in literature, IMO.

Can't stand the comedies. I had to read As You Like It and umm...another one for school and...I was indifferent to the point of bored with them. I like Shakespeare when he's all blood, passion and despair, not cross-dressing in the forest with fairies.

John Mutford said...

Stephanie: Another good one, often overlooked, is Coriolanus.

Barbara: You can blame my high school teacher for my lack of enthusiasm for Macbeth. I should read it again sometime.

Imani: I haven't read King Richard III yet. I didn't like As You Like It either, but I didn't mind A Midsummer's Night Dream actually.

Imani said...

Heh, I didn't even finish A Midsummer Night's Dream. Someone needs to write a book about psychopathic fairies. Or at least depressed ones bent on vengeance or something.

Anonymous said...

MacBeth is my favorite. I like the film version of Much Ado About Nothing, I've got the DVD and play it all the time, but it might have more to do with the actors than the plot.

Rob Hardy said...

One of the highlights of my year in England was seeing most of the History Cycle at the Royal Shakespeare Company, all performed by the same group of actors. 34 actors in nearly 250 roles. The three parts of Henry VI were breathtakingly brilliant (I saw them all in a 24-hour period), but for me, the climax is Richard II. It has some of the greatest speeches in Shakespeare: John of Gaunt's "this other Eden" speech and Richard's "hollow crown" speech. "For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings..." It gives me shivers every time. Next March, in Stratford-upon-Avon, you can see all eight history plays performed by the RSC company over a 48-hour period. I might have to fly back for it.

Another highlight of the past year was King Lear with Ian McKellen in the title role. I think his performance would have made you reconsider Lear.

John Mutford said...

Imani: There is that book about pressed fairies.

Carrie: There's a few popular movie versions of Shakespeare that I haven't seen. The two you mentioned, Hamlet, and probably plenty more.

Rob: I've never seen any Shakespeare performed live. I'm more than a little envious! And yes, undoubtedly seeing King Lear performed well would change my mind.

Oh, and in the immortal words of John Sebastian, "Welcome back!"

Rob Hardy said...

John, Come on down to Minnesota for A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Guthrie Theater (April-June 2008). You won't be sorry. It's a revival of a production from 1996 that knocked my socks off. You can camp out at my house while you're here!

John Mutford said...

Rob: If only coming on down to Minnesota were that easy! But unless a large windfall of money comes my way soon, I'm to remain in the great white North. Sounds like a great time though.