Henry VI, Parts I & II

Why this Play?:

Why yes, this is my first (only?) combo post!  Two for the price of one and all that.

The Hollow Crown: Wars of the Roses has finally come States-side!  PBS aired the first part just before Christmas, which was a mash-up of the first two Henry VI plays.  I’ve spent the past weeks reading both plays so I can jump into the mini-series head on.  Big hello and how-ya-doing to all my UK pals (and any North American friends with workarounds for streaming the BBC) who saw this over the summer and have practically forgotten all about it by now! 

I wasn’t taken with the themes of the Henry VI plays as much as the process of slimming them down for performance.  I wondered a lot about what makes history, about facts versus perspective and what parts we decide to remember rather than leave behind.  After a year that had the world reeling, it made me consider how I want to treat the history of my 2016.

So What Happens?:

I’m going to be a lot less thorough in my summary of the plays’ actions (heh, readers rejoice!) since there are two to get through.  There’s still a lot of cram in though…buckle up!

The great warrior-king Henry V has just died.  His brother, Duke of Gloucester, mourns his death with some other lords, and word is that the French territories are acting out – fighting back the English army, taking star soldier Talbot prisoner, even crowning the Dauphin despite being under English rule.  Gloucester is deemed royal Protector as he goes to declare tiny baby Henry VI is now king.  Over in France, a young bold woman named Joan la Pucelle comes before the Dauphin claiming that she’s a messenger from God who’s there to lead the French to victory.  She battles the Dauphin and wins, thus convincing him of her power.  He brings her on board to lead the French army.

The English and French battle to gain ground in France.  Army leader Talbot is seduced by the Countess of Auvergne – only to be captured!  His army gets him out of a tight spot.  In England, there’s some arguing over the royal ouster and succession that occurred back in RICHARD II.  Richard Plantagenet urges folks to support his family, the house of York, by wearing a white rose (Warwick & Vernon are on board), but Dukes of Somerset and Suffolk choose red roses to show support for house of Lancaster, Henry VI’s lineage.  Richard’s dying uncle Mortimer explains their ancestry and convinces Richard he’s the rightful claimant to the throne.

Lisa Simpson would also play an excellent York

Lisa Simpson would also play an excellent York

Meanwhile, Henry VI is now a young man, hesitant king.  He lamely cautions Gloucester (on whom he heavily relies) and Bishop of Winchester for their bickering.  He hears the argument of Richard Plantagenet’s royal lineage and dubs him Duck of York as a result. [Richard is now called York going forth.]   Henry heads over to France to be crowned their king, even though fighting is still going on and his own lords are at each other’s throats over the York/Lancaster loyalties.  The French surge into battle again, and Talbot sends for reinforcements from armies run by York and Somerset.  They don’t send help in time, and Talbot & his son (who only speak in wonky couplets with each other) as well as much of their army perishes under Joan’s army.

Gloucester engineers a strategic betrothal between Henry and one of the Dauphin’s relatives to usher in peace.  Elsewhere, Joan rallies to battle again and invokes spirits to aid her, but no go – the English seize her.  In the raid, Suffolk captures a lady named Margaret, daughter of the Duke of Anjou.  He is smitten and convinces her to be brought back to marry Henry.  Prisoner Joan begs for her life by claiming pregnancy…but York orders her burned at the stake as a witch.  She curses England as she dies.  Suffolk convinces swayable Henry to marry penniless Margaret, much to Gloucester’s chagrin.


Suffolk presents the new Queen Margaret to the English court.  In order to wed her, Henry ceded some French territories, leaving many of the nobles pretty unhappy about letting go of their hard-won land.  Everyone’s pissed at the Duke of Gloucester, who did nothing wrong.  York is still itching to seize the throne, watching for the right moment.  Over in the Gloucester home, wife Eleanor dreams of being queen.  Gloucester tries to shut that nonsense down – their high position is plenty good enough.  Meanwhile, Queen Margaret complains to her confidant/lover Suffolk that none of the nobles respect her and that Eleanor is the worst.  Suffolk reveals he’s got an way to mess things up for the Gloucesters: he’s maneuvering Eleanor to go visit a witch.  The witch predicts King Henry won’t last long & Suffolk will die by water.  York and company bust up the ordeal and arrest the tricked duchess.

Gloucester's enemies appropriately respond

Gloucester's enemies appropriately respond

The king, queen, Gloucester and company are out hunting with falcons when the news arrives of Eleanor’s arrest.  Ruh-roh.  York details his lineage to Warwick and Salisbury, who concur that he has a right to be king.  They’ve got some plotting to do!  Henry orders that the witch be put to death, but Eleanor is condemned to a public walk of shame for a few days before being banished (a slight concession for her high status).  Henry also makes Gloucester give up title as Protector – he’s gonna try to rule utterly on his own (much to Margaret’s delight).  Gloucester sees his wife parading the streets in ignominy, and she berates him for allowing this to happen.  They tearfully part, Gloucester pleading with her guards to be kind to her.

Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester

Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester

Margaret’s been whispering in Henry’s ear, trying to undermine Gloucester.  A messenger arrives at court with the heavy announcement that all the English territories/power in France are lost.  This should be huge news, but it’s undercut by Gloucester’s arrival and Suffolk arresting him for treason.  The old man is dragged away as he tries to warn Henry of the poisonous folks around him.  Henry is sad.  Margaret, Suffolk, and the Cardinal (formerly Bishop of Winchester) plot to off Gloucester.  York’s sent to Ireland on military business, and he decides to support a peasant uprising by man named Jack Cade to see how it tests the king’s powers.  Suffolk hires some bad dudes to suffocate Gloucester, and on the day of the old man’s trial he reports the death to Henry.  The king at first faints, then roars at Suffolk in an uncharacteristic fit of passion.  Margaret begs mercy for Suffolk and rails at Henry.  Warwick views the body and insists Gloucester was murdered – he points the finger to his known enemy Suffolk.  The people of the Commons cry out for vengeance, so Henry banishes Suffolk. Margaret is heartbroken as she says goodbye.  The Cardinal goes mad and dies from guilt.

Sums up the Lancasters & their supporters

Sums up the Lancasters & their supporters

Suffolk is out at sea en route to France when he and his men are captured by another crew (also English).  The captain has heard the rumors that Suffolk had the people’s hero, Gloucester, offed.  After some arguing with pretentious Suffolk, he has his crew behead the noble and sends one of the servants to deliver the head to the queen.  Back in England, Jack Cade has roused up the working men and overthrown local forces.  They charge into London violently, but are complete clowns in their procedure.  Margaret receives Suffolk’s head and keens before the royals have to hide from the rebellion.  Buckingham convinces the rebels to stop fighting, but Cade escapes.  As he’s hiding out in a local man’s garden, the man fights and kills him. 

York heads back from Ireland, brimming with hope for the throne.  But the Cade situation is caput. He diverts his hidden support of the rebellion by claiming he’s out for Somerset instead.  Turns out Somerset was already arrested – oops.  So York starts to change tactics again, but he learns Somerset is still walking around as if he’s a free man.  He chucks caution and full-out challenges the king.  He’s arrested and offers up his sons Edward and Richard to stand for him at the Tower.  Warwick and Salisbury come forward to back York’s claim to the throne.  There’s a skirmish between York, his sons and supporters versus the Clifford and other of Henry’s supporters, forever known as the Battle of St Albans.  Clifford and Somerset are killed, and York is ready to declare full war against the throne.


Check This Out:

Ok, the biggest thing to point out here is that the first two parts of Henry VI are used as the basis for the first part of miniseries The Hollow Crown: the Wars of the Roses.  In the US, it just aired December on PBS, but you can still catch it streaming (legally, for free!) on their Great Performances website.  Look for Part 1, or jump over to Part 2 or Richard III if you just want to see Cumberbatch!

The Cardinal, Henry VI, Margaret, Gloucester

The Cardinal, Henry VI, Margaret, Gloucester

The original title of Henry VI, Part II is The First Part of the Contention.  It was written and performed before Part I, which was later addressed as a prequel.

The hardest and most consistent problem with staging the Henry VI plays is deciding how to cut/condense/combine them into a single story (or to spread them out through multiple performances).  Shakespeare groups and theatre troupes have struggled with this for centuries.  My fave Shakespeare podcast, No Holds Bard, is run by the guys behind Seven Stages Shakespeare Company.  In 2016 they put on a 12 hour performance of ALL the history plays.  Episode 51, the talk about the trials and tribulations of making a performance-ready script from the Bard’s text.  They are funny and learned dudes that don't even know I advertise for them; give it a listen

Thoughts and Themes:

I’m going to piggy-back right on top of the podcast that I pointed out above.  I am fascinated with the process directors and actors have of paring down Shakespeare’s texts to make them palatable for their audience.  For these particular works, the modern-day parallel I found was more associated with my viewing of The Hollow Crown’s first part than the actual events of the plays themselves.  And really, the business of editing a play for performance is strikingly similar to the business of Shakespeare wrestling to bring English history into dramatic scope when he wrote these plays to begin with!  The man condenses roughly 32 years of warring into 4 plays.  My reading versus viewing for this post got me thinking – what is it to re-write history, to leave out bits and dramatize others?  It’s something we do with each memory we have.

So, Hollow Crown: the Wars of the Roses, Part 1 (what a mouthful!).  There are a lot of plot cuts and multiple characters compiled into one.  That’s understandable as there’s a lot of action to get through in a 2 hour period.  The best use of this in any film of Shakespeare is when a director cuts the text’s dialogue that explains off-stage events, opting instead to show events acted out on film – this happens often with battle or sex scenes and deaths.  But unlike those efficient cuts, there are edits on this version that don’t make much sense, such as drawing out the boring Henry VI, Part I set-up events (all prologue to actual civil war) and eliminating entire swaths of the far more entertaining Henry VI, Part II.  Two key parts of the plays are entirely cut from this film: the Jack Cade-led rebellion and Suffolk’s death. 

Basically, Act 4 of the second play no longer exists, and they took a tiny snippet of Act 5 (but not the battle of St Albans!) and tacked it on to Act 3 to end the episode.  I can almost see the justification for cutting Cade – those class differences aren’t as stark to a modern audience and the jokes don’t play as well (although I believe it’s a great showcase of the monarchy’s ineptitude…it helps you almost root for York to overthrow Henry!).  But keeping Suffolk alive??  All I can hope is that his comeuppance is simply delayed into the second episode of the series.  The ending felt so rushed, because any build-up of York’s stifled glory and desire for the throne was mostly cut (those juicy soliloquies and asides in Part II, all his methods of testing the crown’s power).  More time was spent on the French battles of Part I than the more interesting English in-fighting of Part II.  The resulting declaration of civil war at the end doesn’t feel earned or warranted.

That’s sort of my tangential beef with the first episode of the mini-series.  But overall, I really enjoyed it.  It left me wanting more, so I’m excited to see if any leftover bits (like Suffolk’s head) get set aside into the next episode.  [Side note: the casting is excellent, but I’m really hoping that the glorious Anton Lesser gets more to do than brood silently in the next episode.]  The show left me wondering why some of the cut parts weren’t there – the parts that I personally found compelling or entertaining when I read the plays.  For instance, I loved the scene in Part I when Joan de la Pucelle defeats the Dauphin in combat, thus proving her worth and earning a place at the head of the army.  But it wasn’t included here; Joan’s treated more as a curious historical reference than Shakespeare’s full-blooded character.  And it all comes down to point of view.  What story is it that I want to watch, versus the story that the director wants to tell?  We’re both obviously remembering and interpreting the plays very differently.  As in art (or in this case, the process of relaying art), so in life. 

I chewed on all these thoughts as the new year dawned and seemingly everyone in the world declared 2016 as the Worst Year Ever.  As so many people in my life or on my social media feeds jumped on this bandwagon, I started to get into the same mindset.  It even started to affect the last weeks of my year, as I blamed anything bad on the fact that it was 2016’s evil last hurrah.  There were the public events that startled, upset, and confused so many of us: the nightmarish US election, mass killings, deaths of beloved public figures, horrific wars and killings of civilians, to name a few.  My personal life has seen its share of upsets too. I witnessed an extreme targeted bullying in (what I thought was) a caring community.  We had some family health scares this year, the final one being an intense stomach flu that hit my kids, husband, and me on the New Year holiday.  A close friend (yup, that one) wrote me a Dear John email (sent on Christmas no less, for maximum grinchiness), terminating our 13-year friendship, stating several untrue and intentionally cruel things in the process. It’s all too easy to remember 2016 as the year I yelled at my kids too much, the year I didn’t accomplish goals I had set for myself, the year I made so many mistakes.

The Hollow Crown made me wonder: what version of history are we dramatizing here?  Somewhere along the way, fact is divided by perspective, and the tellers of the story get to relay only the bits that were most important to them or the narrative they desire.  Why am I (why are any of us?) so intent on dismissing 2016 as a horror show?  Terrible things happened, both publicly and personally.  Those are facts.  But they are not the whole story, not the full history.  I get to be the editor and decide which bits are included in the story.  I will remember the details of each bad point (mostly because I keep a regular journal).  But I also choose to include the good things, both small and grand.  In 2016, my little family went to Disneyland for the first time.  I completed a creative writing course and (for the first time) got feedback on my work from others.  I made new friends and became closer with older ones.  I climbed an entire mountain (literally!!) by myself.  I succeeded in getting the perfect birthday gift for my impossible-to-shop-for father!  I wrote about 12 plays and all the sonnets, and I mustered up the courage to audition (the first time in 12 years!) for a play.  I helped my kids blossom and learn, and I supported and loved my husband.  I hosted Thanksgiving for 13 people and didn't screw anything up.  I developed a regular yoga practice.  I learned a lot about friendship, patience, empathy, the limits to my sanity, and striving for forgiveness.

I prefer the full, unabridged version of my personal history of 2016.  When I look at all of it, I mostly see it was a year of important lessons.  Let’s embrace all of 2017 as it comes, the good and the bad.  No need to direct the narrative before we see how the script’s events unfold. 


Up next is Henry VI, Part III and the second episode of The Hollow Crown!