The Plays We Overlook: Henry VI Part OneYear of Shakespeare

  • James Cappio
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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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