The Plays We Overlook: Henry VI Part One

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Falconetti and Antonin Artaud in Dreyer’s “Passion of Joan of Arc”

Can you guess who said the following about Henry VI Part One?

‘All critics, all readers, will probably agree or have agreed that it is one of the least poetical and also one of the dullest of all the plays in the Folio. It is redeemed by few passages of merit—its verse is unmusical, its situations are usually poorly developed—and were it not for the essential interest of the subject-matter, to any English reader it would be unreadable.’

The answer is H.C. Hart—the editor of the first Arden edition. When its editor calls it “one of the dullest of all the plays in the Folio,” you know you’re dealing with one of Shakespeare’s most neglected plays. To the extent it is Shakespeare’s: editors and scholars going all the way back to Edward Malone have suggested that it hasn’t got very much Shakespeare in it.

Yet this neglected play may have a stronger claim on our attention than ever before. Most recently, the National Theatre Belgrade’s performance at the World Shakespeare Festival showed how electrifying it can be in performance. Pete Orford’s review makes clear how Part One’s theatricality came through, even performed in another language.

Even if large swatches of Part One aren’t by Shakespeare, it has distinctively Shakespearian elements. Consider the treatment of Joan of Arc. The English saw Joan as a witch. But the French see her as a saint. She’s nothing if not multivalent; what could be more attractive to Shakespeare than a character who is at once soldier and mystic, virgin and whore, male and female, whose ambiguity extends even to her name? Her nemesis Lord Talbot calls her “Puzzel or Pucelle”; Edward Burns, editor of the Arden Third and a far more sympathetic reader than his predecessor, explains, “In English, ‘pucelle’ means virgin, ‘puzel’ means whore.” As Burns rather brilliantly puts it, “The woman in man’s clothes wielding a sword is a pucelle with a pizzle [an Elizabethan term for penis], and therefore a puzzle.” That sounds like echt Shakespeare to me.

One other core Shakespearian characteristic shows in the treatment of Joan—humour. Look at the way she taunts the English in Act 2 and tell me you can’t picture John Cleese and the English “kniiigggits” in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (I’m not alone here; the distinguished director and theatre critic Robert Brustein credits the other French characters–see, for example, Act 1 scene 2—but he agrees that Part One “no doubt” influenced the “French Taunter”).

Don’t look for Part One to replace Romeo and Juliet as the Shakespeare of choice in our schools any time soon. Do look to it if you’re seeking familiar Shakespearian pleasures from an unfamiliar source.

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Author:James Cappio

James Cappio has taught philosophy in the Ivy League, practiced law on Wall Street, and now works as an independent writer and editor. Inspired by P.G. Wodehouse’s example to read all of Shakespeare's works within one year (2009–2010), he has been blogging about his passion ever since at
  • Humphrey

    The only production I have ever seen is this ANCIENT black and white film version made for TV called ‘Wars of the Roses’… as far as I was aware it was classic Shakespeare and this is the first i have ever heard of it ‘not being as good as the others’. The old movie was great! Film noir to the bloody [monotone] death! I guess it just goes to show how crucial the actors & actresses playing the parts are to the overall qaulity of the show; if others say Henry VI p1 is a bore, then to them i say your actors and actresses are the bore and it is they who must conquer the script or else suffer the indignity of a poor review! Either that or just cut and cut and cut and don’t stop cutting till it’s so fast-paced nobody notices it get boring. Viva la Henry VI p1!!! (probably not the best choice of euphemism but you get the idea)

  • kerrypolka

    I know people have different taste but I’m always a bit shocked by the disdain towards the Henry VIs, which are my favourite Shakespeare plays. They’re energetic, fun and carry serious dramatic heft – particularly in Part Three but even Part One is a really excellent depiction of a headless body politic disintegrating into petty sniping and short-sighted power plays. Joan is a brilliant character; the scenes with the Dauphin are much funnier than the French comedy scenes in Henry V, and Joan’s rivalry with Talbot, as well as her reflections in the Countess of Auvergne and Margaret, are just dramaturgically delightful. I never miss a production of it when there’s one in London (which is unfortunately not very often!), and it’s always cracking fun.

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