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30 Days of Shakespeare, Day 10

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This is me catching up. Two in one day! But, of course, this one was easy. ;)

Day #10: Your favourite history - The Henry VI trilogy

Again, I am blatantly cheating since, based on my Day 1 answer, this entry ought to be about Richard III. But these plays never get enough love, so there.

One of the more surreal moments from my three years in Oxford was when I was at one of our termly play readings and I accidentally found myself seated next to the general editor of Arden Shakespeare, Richard Proudfoot. He was exactly what one might have expected -- an ancient gentleman in tweed. And the second question out of his mouth (the first being, 'What do you work on?') was 'So, who do you think wrote the Henry VI plays?' To which I babbled out something about how I thought the second two were almost fully Shakespeare and that I was certain he'd had a hand in Part I, though I couldn't say for certain which bits were his and which weren't.

Which is, of course, one of the problems with liking the Henry VI plays. You inevitably get that question. If you're me, you get it at least once every few months -- more often if I'm around academics on a regular basis. I personally subscribe to the viewpoint that Shakespeare, like everyone else, was young and inexperienced and maybe still working out that whole iambic pentameter thing. Because, if you set aside the clunky verse and look at the character development, these plays have Shakespeare written all over them (no pun intended).

What do I love about them? I love how utterly ambiguous they are. Anyone who claims Shakespeare was a Tudor hack clearly hasn't read these plays, because nobody comes out well. Not Yorkists, not Lancastrians, and definitely not the French. And Henry of Richmond is such a complete nonentity that he barely matters. These are plays about chaos, about anarchy, and the dismantling of sacral kingship; about unscrupulous politicians who run roughshod over the one person in the entire trilogy who is genuinely interested in the welfare of the realm as a whole, namely the title character, King Henry VI.

They are also -- at least as far as I'm concerned -- about the uses to which history and myth can be put. Considering the sources on which they're based -- well, mostly Hall's
Vnion of the two Noble and Illustre Houses of Yorke & Lancastre
-- they often serve as a critique of the very myth they are purported to support. There's nothing even remotely uniform about the message of the Henry VIs, unless it's simply that Civil War Is Bad.

And, of course, there are the characters. Shakespeare isn't afraid to show otherwise horrible people in legitimately functional relationships -- York and his sons, for instance, will kill you as soon as look at you, but nobody would ever doubt that they love one another. Well, at least until York dies at the beginning of Part III and everything falls to pieces. Humphrey of Gloucester and his wife Eleanor genuinely care for one another. Even Henry VI and Margaret have their moments, and her final speech over their son's body at the end of Part III is just wrenching. Even if she is guilty of any number of atrocities beforehand.

Because these aren't plays about good and evil. Even Part I, arguably the most straightforward of the three in terms of morality, muddies the waters by placing the noble Lord Talbot at the mercy of the quarrelling aristocracy. And regardless of which side you as an audience member might choose in Parts II and III, you'll find yourself wondering about them at one point or another.

Lastly, the women in these plays are nothing short of AWESOME. I love the Second Tet -- I really, truly do -- but if you want strong female characters who persist, the First is the way to go. There are wonderful women in the Second (Queen Isabel, Kate Percy, Mistress Quickly), but I just can't resist Joan la Pucelle's audacity, Eleanor's doomed pride, Margaret's UTTER BRILLIANCE, and the slow unveiling of Elizabeth Grey's intelligence and strength.

I hate that they aren't performed very often, though I obviously understand why -- you can't just do one, they're unwieldy and require an enormous cast, and the vast majority of US-based audiences just won't get them (I remember baffling my tenth grade history teacher by writing an enormous paper on the Wars of the Roses, which we didn't even cover in class). The American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, VA, are trying it out, doing one of them each year as part of their Renaissance Season, but these are plays that really do belong together. Seeing all three in one day as part of the RSC Histories Cycle was easily THE transcendental theatrical experience of my life. Hands-down. And I am so incredibly thrilled that I got to see them twice (even if I only managed Richard III once).

It also makes me sad that I probably won't be able to teach them unless I get tenure. Because nobody ever teaches them. That being said, I am making my students read excerpts for my Women in Shakespeare class (as part of our unit on Richard III) because there was absolutely no way I wasn't introducing them to the brilliant women in these plays.

But I suspect I have rambled long enough. I'll shut up now. :)

Day #1: Your favourite play - Othello and Richard III
Day #2: Your favourite character - Lady Elizabeth Grey in 3 Henry VI and Richard III
Day #3: Your favourite hero - Othello
Day #4: Your favourite heroine - Juliet from Romeo and Juliet and Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing
Day #5: Your favorite villain - Richard of Gloucester
Day #6: Your favourite villainess female villain - Joan la Pucelle
Day #7: Your favourite clown - Feste from Twelfth Night
Day #8: Your favourite comedy - Much Ado About Nothing
Day #9: Your favourite tragedy - King Lear
Day #10: Your favourite history - The Henry VI trilogy
Day #11: Your least favourite play
Day #12: Your favourite scene
Day #13: Your favourite romantic scene
Day #14: Your favourite fight scene
Day #15: The first play you read
Day #16: Your first play you saw
Day #17: Your favourite speech
Day #18: Your favourite dialogue
Day #19: Your favourite movie version of a play
Day #20: Your favourite movie adaptation of a play
Day #21: An overrated play
Day #22: An underrated play
Day #23: A role you've never played but would love to play
Day #24: An actor or actress you would love to see in a particular role
Day #25: Sooner or later, everyone has to choose: Hal or Falstaff?
Day #26: Your favourite couple
Day #27: Your favourite couplet
Day #28: Your favourite joke
Day #29: Your favourite sonnet
Day #30: Your favourite single line
Current Location:
Current Mood:
calm calm
Current Music:
Massive Attack - Paradise Circus
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[User Picture]
On 29th July 2010 23:38 (UTC), fuunsaiki commented:
When Katie Mitchell was at the RSC, the artistic director of the time went up to her and said "Katie, you may direct any Shakespeare play you choose!". And she, in her infinite wisdom, said "thank you very much! I shall do 3H6 all on its own!". So they do occasionally crop up individually, but you need a Katie Mitchell for that, and luckily there's only one of her.

I shall be talking more about 3H6 later in the meme. I hope I don't let you down when I do. XD
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— On 30th July 2010 21:50 (UTC), cisic posted a reply · Expand
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On 30th July 2010 22:28 (UTC), fuunsaiki replied:
Ooh! Hello there! I have seen you around the LiveJournal a bit and I would be VERY interested in reading your answers to this meme. May I friend you for the duration?
— On 31st July 2010 02:25 (UTC), cisic posted a reply · Expand
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