Wednesday, May 28, 2008

General thoughts on the Henry VI plays

Well, I am done with the Henry VI plays. What to say?

A good place to start is with the fact that they are considered to be among Shakespeare's earliest works, if not indeed his earliest works. This perhaps leads a reader to low expectations regarding their quality. While there are certainly great artists who have burst onto the scene with their greatest works, anyone with a passing familiarity with Shakespeare knows that is not the case, since his best-known and his best-loved works often tend to be those somewhere in the middle of the canon chronologically. Since Shakespeare does not fall into the category of artists whose early works are their best, it is reasonable to assume that he falls into the other category, those artists who more or less steadily matured in ideas and craft over the course of their careers.

I admit that reasoning led to rather humble expectations myself regarding the three parts of Henry VI. In fact, such a preconception was increased by the fact that I have never, ever, seen any of these three plays performed, or even had the opportunity to see them performed. It's hard to think of a more obscure group of Shakespearean plays than these.

Now, of course, my expectations weren't THAT low in the grand scheme of things: I knew I was reading Shakespeare, so I wasn't about to expect the Da Vinci Code or anything. (Caveat: I don't remember the Da Vinci Code well enough to really remember if it was bad. I have a vague sense of enjoying it while I read it, but now I can't even remember any of the characters names, or really anything about the plot, so I suppose that says something about my perception of its quality. But I digress...) But I was not expecting Hamlet, certainly.

In the end, I'd say the plays basically lived up to my expectations, and perhaps slightly exceeded them. First of all, they were good, and had many moments which hinted at the brilliance Shakespeare later achieved. Along the way, I've mentioned some of my favorite moments; many of those stand with the great scenes he would later write with some regularity. In addition, having the story stretched over three plays, although I would venture to say that it was a bad idea (two would've been enough), it did lend a certain epic scope which I have never quite found in other Shakespearean plays. The fact that the ending of 3 Henry VI so clearly is a prelude to Richard III only enhances this grand, saga-like feel.

What I can't say, however, is that these plays are my favorites of Shakespeare's. In fact, they are probably the least favorite of his works that I've read so far. Now, just for the record, as I said before, Shakespeare was such a genius that even what I consider to be his lesser works are still good. However, however much I may like the Henry VI plays, I'm not at all reluctant to say that his abilities as an artist grew over time.

The basic problems I have with the Henry VI plays are these. First, the characters speak in monologues. There is little of the rapid-fire, back-and-forth dialogue which Shakespeare would use more and more often, and to great effect, later in his career. Later, a monologue always signified Something Important. In the Henry VI, characters will go into a monologue about virtually anything. Shakespeare obviously very quickly realized that this didn't work out so well, since I've never been bothered by it in any other of his plays.

The second issue I have is sort of wrapped up with the first. While I appreciate the epic scope of the plays, I don't think that condensing them into two parts like Henry IV would've been a bad idea. It's not that it doesn't work as a trilogy; it does. However, if the plays were condensed to two plays worth of material, I think they would be much tighter. There felt like there was a lot more unnecessary material in these plays than in his later ones (while many productions cut Hamlet, it's not because that material is unnecessary, it's just because a comprehensible play can be fashioned without it: it merely isn't as good a play. With Henry VI, I'm not sure the cuts really would hurt the play much). I read somewhere that a lot of theatres when producing these plays do actually condense them into two parts. I'd be curious to hear from anyone who has actually seen one of those productions as to whether it worked, or whether I'm wrong on this one and there need to be three parts for the story to hold together.

Normally, I don't want this blog to be about judging the relative quality of Shakespeare's plays (except for the fun polls and the like), because it's all so high that arguing about whether Othello is better than Macbeth is not a very interesting exercise after a while. However, I wanted to make an exception here, since these are, or are at least close to being, his earliest works, and therefore it is interesting to note how Shakespeare improved over time. (I also did some Titus-judging earlier, but that's because it is so often considered his worst play). Plus, this blog is for my reactions to reading the canon, so I can talk about anything I want! *cue evil laugh*

Now that I've gotten these general reactions and assessments of the Henry VI plays out of the way, I hope to follow up in the next couple of days with some analysis of their contents, or at least pose some questions. I'll probably talk primarily 3 Henry VI since I have blogged about that one the least while reading it. I'll either intersperse Richard III reactions along the way (I have started it and am enjoying it immensely), or just wait for that until I feel like I've gotten all of my Henry VI reactions down. Onward, then!

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Wow! May is almost over...

...and I have posted almost not at all. This is disturbing.

However, the good news is that I have definitely finished 3 Henry VI by now, so I should have thoughts on that up very soon. I've just been too distracted by Life stuff to post anything. Ah well. As I said, I'm all done with that play, and I'll follow up those thoughts with my thoughts on Richard III, which I just started reading and am enjoying very much (how I never read that play before now is beyond me).

All right, expect to hear from me a little later today or perhaps tomorrow, when I find a good block of time to sit down and post. To my rather limited number of readers, I hope that spring is treating you well (at least for those of you who are in the US).

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Still figuring out this whole blogging thing...

...but one thing I've learned is never say that you're going to post at a specific time, because then Real Life will interfere and you won't be able to.

I'm surprised, but happily so, to see that this blog is being read by more than just the friends I initially told about it. I'm also glad that I'm going to have some more time available in the near future to read Shakespeare and talk about it here. However, I'm not sure whether I'm going to be able to keep up a regular posting schedule or not. I'm going to try, if possible, to read some Shakespeare daily, and shoot for a blog entry at least two times a week. We'll see how this works.

In other news, I've not managed to block out the time to finish 3 Henry VI yet, but I did manage to sneak in the third act, and I must say that I'm liking these early plays more than I thought I would. I will admit that I was on a certain level thinking that "3 acts + obscure play = tedium", and I do in fact think that Shakespeare grew as a writer from the time of these plays, but really, there's something very satisfying about having the story come together now after having two full plays leading up to this point. It lends a certain epic quality which is very difficult to achieve in theatre. All in all, I'm really liking the experience, and especially looking forward to reading Richard III after having all of this buildup.

More thoughts later...

Thursday, May 8, 2008

2/5ths through

Ok, I managed to get to the end of Act II today of 3 Henry VI. My thoughts? Well, I found it very interesting. King Henry is rather pathetic, but sympathetic at the same time. I do root for him against those Yorkists.

All the double-crossing is definitely cool. That is a benefit of the three-play structure; Shakespeare can begin Part 3 with a bang, forgetting all the exposition which tends to drag down most opening acts of any form of storytelling.

Finally, I like how the horrors of civil war are being portrayed. Seeing the father who killed his son and the son who killed his father was moving. Having Henry in the middle of the scene only added to its poignancy.

More thoughts tomorrow when I get to read more (and finish it, time permitting).

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Asimov disses Shakespeare

I was reading Isaac Asimov's essay "Revisions" today. In it, he mentioned a Ben Jonson quote concerning Shakespeare, which goes like this:

I remember the players have often mentioned it as an honor to Shakespeare, that in his writing, whatsoever he penned, he never blotted out a line. My answer hath been, “Would he had blotted a thousand,” which they thought a malevolent speech.

Asimov goes on to say "...there are indeed places where Will might have been--shh!--improved on."

Fair? Well, despite the fact that I call myself the Bardolator, I think it's perfectly fair. Just because Shakespeare was arguably the greatest writer in our language doesn't mean he was a perfect writer. I'd argue that the main flaw in Shakespeare's writing was that he had a tendency to ramble. The fact that most modern productions cut significant chunks out of Shakespeare's plays and no one who hasn't read them notices means that surely some of that stuff was just filler. Of course, Shakespeare's plays are better seen uncut, but still, it's something to think about.

I will post something about 3 Henry VI tomorrow, by the way. If I don't... feel free to spam me with obnoxious comments about weather balloons. Promise? Done.