Shakespeare in a Year: February

In February I have read the following Shakespeare works:

  • Henry VI, Part 1
  • Henry VI, Part 2
  • Henry VI, Part 3
  • Sonnets 1 – 2

I’m going to hold off on discussing the sonnets for now, as their publication comes toward the end of Shakespeare’s career. But since the sonnets were probably written over a long period of time, I’m going to sprinkle them in with my reading of longer works.

Some context

Since these are not among Shakespeare’s most popular plays, I think adding a bit of context, both historical and literary, might help here.

Historical context

The Henry VI plays concern the events leading up to the Wars of the Roses and the wars themselves. Even if you aren’t into medieval English history, you might recognize this period as the one that inspired George R. R. Martin in his A Song of Ice and Fire series, also known as Game of Thrones.

The stories are centered around the Houses of York and Lancaster, two branches of the Plantagenet dynasty, and their struggles for the English (and French) crown. There’s court intrigue, epic battles, beheadings, people uttering their dying words in Latin, questionable religious interference, and more. We even get an appearance from Joan of Arc in Part 1.

Literary context

Most scholars believe that Parts 2 and 3 of this series were written first, with Part 1 appearing later as a prequel. Part 3 sets up Richard III, which I’ll discuss in March, as it comes right after Part 1 in the Chambers chronology.

All of these plays fall under the history category, but what does that mean? The First Folio, the first publication of Shakespeare’s plays after his death and the most authoritative source for the texts of many of his plays, divides the plays into 3 genres: comedies, histories, and tragedies.

Shakespeare’s tragedies feature a protagonist, usually of high status, who is brought down by a character flaw or a bad choice, ultimately leading to their death by the end of the play. Comedies, by contrast, typically start with a misunderstanding or unusual situation but ultimately end happily. History plays, as the name suggests, dramatize historical events and might not fit into the genres of comedy or tragedy.

These classifications are not universally agreed upon but make a good starting point. And of course, many of the plays contain elements of different genres. For instance, Richard III has enough markers of a tragedy that some scholars classify it as such. But more on that in March.

My observations

In this section I’ll talk about the story, the characters, and the language of these plays, including what did or didn’t work for me.

The story

These plays are among Shakespeare’s least performed, and it’s not difficult to see why. They have kind of an inside baseball vibe, and if you’re not already interested in this part of English history, I don’t know if these plays will help much. George R. R. Martin had the sense to sprinkle in dragons and magic. And since his work is fiction, he didn’t have to stick to real events.

That said, I can see why these plays would have been popular to audiences in Shakespeare’s day. The events shown would have been relatively recent history, not so different from Hamilton or 1776 in the US. And while the plays seem a little “rah-rah English patriotism” now, they were considered pretty nuanced for their time.

The characters

Previous tellings of these stories tended to have all the subtlety of a Bible camp skit (if you know, you know) and heavily favored one side over the other, a tendency Shakespeare avoids. Nobody is completely virtuous or completely terrible, which is a strength of Shakespeare in general with his characters. It’s nice to see that come through in the earliest plays. Even characters who Shakespeare clearly intended to portray as villains often have their highlight moments, at least from a dramatic perspective.

In fact, for these particular plays, the villains tend to be the most interesting characters. Henry VI is kind of a passenger in the story. True, the plays are to some degree about how he isn’t capable of standing on his own and how others manipulate him. But that leaves a bit of a hole in the center, and not a tasty donut hole.

The language

I also want to note a couple of things about the language. First, it’s surprisingly clunky in places, especially in Part 1. In Act 1, Scene 4, Line 39 of Part 1, we get “In open market-place produced they me” (i.e., “they brought me to an open marketplace”), which I have to imagine raised even a few Elizabethan eyebrows.

In fact, some scholars cite the differences in linguistic style between Part 1 and other plays to argue that Shakespeare did not write Part 1 by himself but in collaboration. We’ll probably never know for sure.

The second thing I want to note about the language is there are more Chaucerian-sounding bits (words like yclad and malapert) than I remember seeing in any of the Shakespeare plays I’ve previously studied. This isn’t a bad thing—just something that surprised me. I’m curious to see if things sound less Chaucerian over time or if I’m misremembering my earlier reading experiences.

March preview

The list for March will be more eclectic. I am confident that I can get through at least the following works:

Richard III might get its own in-depth writeup, while Venus and Adonis might be unfamiliar even to many readers who have consumed their fair share of Shakespeare’s work. It’s a narrative poem, one of two that Shakespeare wrote for a wealthy patron while the theaters in London were temporarily closed due to a plague outbreak. Even Shakespeare had to find different ways to pay the bills during a pandemic.

Have you read any of these plays or seen them performed? Let’s talk about it in the comments!





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