30 May 2011

Henry VI.

So, the reason I haven't posted anything in a few days is because I have been devouring Shakespeare's three-part epic, Henry VI. I am not kidding when I say "epic," here:  The plays have an incredibly high verse content -- such that I found myself unwittingly composing the next thing I would say in iambic pentameters -- and are each very long.

Of course, in the interests of honesty, I have to make a confession:  I read them because I couldn't -- and, for a few more days, at least, can't -- afford the fourth installment of A Song of Ice and Fire. I have school to save for, you know? But this is pretty standard practice, for me. I read a pile of Shakespeare (six plays, as I recall) because I couldn't get my hands on The Sandman series. I read my classics for the wrong reasons, but still.

Henry VI -- all three of them -- forms the story of the profoundly troubled reign of the titular monarch, as one might expect. However, said monarch isn't in any of the plays all that much, and when he is, you wish he wasn't. He's regularly dismissed as being far too religiously inclined to be a king, and mostly is very bad at the job. (Incidentally, he comes off as far more concerned about the niceties of religious practice and doctrine than the Cardinal of Winchester, who has a private army and knows how to use it.) He's dull, and not very bright, and manages to escalate the War of the Roses by essentially saying, "Why do I care about your little symbols? I'm king." So... Rather a crap king.

However, he is surrounded by much more interesting characters, all scheming, though not all ill-intentioned:  In the first two plays, the Duke of Gloster (father of the better-known, more interesting one) is an excellent adviser; when he is shamed by his wife's ambition and witch-craft-dabbling, Henry's reign falls further down the tubes. On the other hand, he's got Somerset, who manages to arrange an utterly disastrous marriage with Margaret of Anjou, who, having cost Henry two crucial regions of France, proceeds to make up for it (kind of) by wearing the pants in the relationship. In spite of Somerset's hopes of controlling her, however, she soon gets shot of him, and she and Prince Edward, her son, kick some serious ass in the third part (witness, for example, this speech given by Margaret after her return from France with an army).

Of course, that is made more difficult by the arrival of my new favorite snarker, Richard, the future king. He appears in part two, and, by the end of the third part, the reader is thoroughly in his corner, as far as future kingship goes. Considering that -- in-universe, anyway -- he is described as having a withered hand, a hunched back, and legs that are two different lengths, the fact that he led a number of attacks in his father's name in the third part just makes him awesome. More awesome.

I could go on about the awesome characters (and I will take a minute to add that Joan of Arc is here portrayed as a demon-conjuring slut, which made me laugh out loud on more than one occasion). However, one of the most striking things about the Henry VI cycle is how very, very plot heavy it is. The edition in which I read the plays (one of a six-volume set of the Complete Shakespeare from the '30s, and mostly undistinguished) featured brief introductions to each of the plays, but these were mostly uncomplementary, and, in fact, complained about the plot-centric nature of the plays, calling the various kidnappings(!), imprisonments(!), intrigues(!) and battles(!!!) "tedious."

Needless to say, I thoroughly disagree. The quick pace and dense plot made the plays, for me, intensely readable, not to mention lots of fun. I couldn't have picked a better fix for court intrigue and armies of badasses, and, indeed, a certain element of fantasy -- demons are conjured, and duly appear, twice in the three plays, by Joan and by the Duchess of Gloster.

I'm not quite sure why the introductions to the plays were so thoroughly down on them. Sure, there aren't so many soliloquies as Hamlet, nor are the characters as closely-observed as in, say, Macbeth, but all three parts of Henry VI are very distinct from those two. Henry VI is, indeed, the work of a young man, and although it hints at similar themes -- compare the Duchess of Gloster's punishment with the madness of Lady Macbeth, and you'll find more than a little similarity -- it tells a different kind of story. For all the excellent characterization found in these plays, for all the excellent writing, this is storytelling at its finest.

Dense, complex plotting, rendered in language like monochrome brocade -- rich, but unobtrusive in its richness -- make all three parts of Henry VI well worth reading. (Also, I found Richard III really hard to follow, not having read these first.) If you, like me, are constantly broke, I highly recommend some Shakespeare to ease your pain.

Also, the always-awesome Micah Martin (for proof, see here) has begun posting what will, presumably, be a novel entitled Godhead of the Immortal Moth King. So far, he's got a great setting and some characters who look like they'll grow to be as fascinating as basilisks. Check it out, please.

No comments:

Post a Comment