Opinion is divided as to whether William Shakespeare's King Henry VI, Part 1 is the first-composed of a three part series or a prequel to a two-part play written earlier. There is also speculation that the play was written in part by other authors or not by Shakespeare at all (mostly because of its vicious treatment of Joan of Arc), but that kind of speculation is not limited to this particular play. Ratcheting up the feeling of patriotism after the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, William Shakespeare's King Henry VI, Part 1 is unabashed Tudor propaganda and a reflection of the Lancastrian point of view. As a propaganda tool, it is meant not only to unite England behind Queen Elizabeth against foreign threats but to remind the English that a house divided against itself cannot stand.
Covering English and civil affairs toward the end of the Hundred Years War, Part 1 covers events from the funeral of Henry V in 1422 to the death of Lord Talbot in France at the Battle of Castillon in 1453 and concludes with the marriage of the young King Henry VI to Margaret of Anjou. It has been pointed out that this play, as well as other history plays, present a muddled view of history, and most do not credit Shakespeare with using Holinshed and Hall's Chronicles as anything but a tool to further his dramatic imagination. In fact, Shakespeare may have rearranged the chronology of events so convincingly that today his versions of history are often mistaken for what actually occurred.
Marred by ludicrous casting decisions in the BBC Time-Life version from 1983 that put the 64-year-old Peter Benson as the 21-year-old King Henry VI and Brenda Blethyn, a 37-year old British actress with a pronounced Cockney accent as the 19-year-old French peasant warrior Joan of Arc, Jane Howell's film version of King Henry VI, Part 1 is true neither to accepted history nor to Shakespeare's vision. Since the King was a young man, the BBC moguls concluded that he must have been soft spoken, effete, and ineffectual and Peter Benson was chosen as the man for the job. Likewise, Ms. Blethyn portrays Joan of Arc as a prostitute and a witch, the way Shakespeare wrote her character.
When she is captured and brought to trial, she denies her common-born father saying she was conceived of richer blood, and then argues that she is a virgin, and then that she is pregnant, finally attempting to name three different fathers. Joan's dramatic entry into the war at Battle of Orleans is considered a turning point for the French and she was ripe fodder for English writers until the time she was canonized in 1920. Though in many respects this particular performance leaves much to be desired, there is some masterful writing, especially in the Temple Garden scene when York and Somerset declare war on each other, and, even in this much maligned production, there is much to be esteemed.
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