Even outside of the Henry IV trilogy, the king cuts a tragic figure in English royal history. The son of the much loved Henry V, the boy became King of England before he was even a year old following the tragic death of his father. He not only inherited the throne of England but also the throne of France and even though the play might bear the king’s namesake Shakespeare devotes a significant amount of time to what would have plagued the kingdom at the time: who would have been Regent and taken the reigns of power until the boy came of age.
The Henry VI plays are all plays less well known that those about the king’s father or grandfather, but throughout the trilogy Shakespeare manages to use the unique monarchical situation to touch on the important topics of power and religion, as well as the struggle of war. The largest and most obvious front is that between the French and the English. Via this we see another famous character rise out of the woodworks: Joan of Arc. But she’s not the only woman potent with power that appears, as near the end of the play the infamous Margaret of Anjou also comes in, ready for her greater roles in the next play.
However, the first installment mainly sets up the seeds of discontent and confusion which eventually lead to the War of the Roses. In fitting with this, perhaps, Henry VI Part 1 is action-packed, quite literally. Often in Shakespeare plays we do not see much of the action: or if it appears it is only sparingly and with full effect by the Bard. Not so much in this play. Here we see the French and English charge at each other left right and centre, so much so that before we know it baby Henry VI has grown up.
What I personally enjoy most about the play is the depictions of tension within the power players, and how this sets up the inevitable bloodshed which comes along later. There’s a most famous scene where Richard, Duke of York gets gentlemen of the court to choose between red or white roses in order to subtly announce their allegiance is fraught with both trepidation but also sweet sadness. For all the land and honorable blood he has inherited, Henry’s inability to understand the meaning of the roses already places him a step behind the competition. If he cannot understand such subtly, we know he cannot survive holding the kingdom. In the play we see a complete 180 from Henry V, the noble king with so many clever gestures and means to ennoble himself and make him loved by his peers.
Where his father could unite, through no fault of his own Henry VI is overlord of a kingdom which is no longer his own. The burning of Joan of Arc is a cherry on top of all of this, if you like. As order is perverted she is a calling card representing how everything is wrong: a woman fighting like a man, burnt to death like a man, perhaps a noble virgin but nevertheless still going against what would have been considered natural order. The coming of Margaret of Anjou is but another sign that the chaos is not about to end.
In some ways I think of Henry VI as Shakespeare’s Lord of the Rings. It’s a power-focused trilogy with the second instalment the best (in my opinion), and we’re presented a broad cast of characters at least one of which we will end up rooting for. Just like Frodo sailing to the Undying Lands, we know the ending at the end won’t entirely be a happy one. I personally enjoy the trilogy and even more so after watching it in order from Richard II chronologically all the way to the bitter end. It’s a dramatic and beautiful beginning to the end of Shakespeare’s chronological history compendium. So if you’ve finally finished watching Season 3 of House of Cards, perhaps you’ll give another equally vicious political drama a shot with the Henry VI plays. I’ll be back in two weeks to review the second instalment – you’ve got plenty of time!