Over the weekend I finally finished the final instalment of Shakespeare’s most unnecessary trilogy, Henry VI. Thus I can finally write this update on Shakespeare’s first five plays. Many famed writers’ first works are usually an embarrassment, showing an immature writer in their salad days. Shakespeare isn’t exempt from this, even if he is (to many) the greatest writer of all time. So let’s see what young Shakespeare was up to by looking at his first five plays.
It is widely regarded that Shakespeare’s first play was The Two Gentlemen of Verona (c. 1589 – 1593). The play is a comedy that employs many of the scenarios and conceits that become touchstones in many of Shakespeare’s later comedies – bumbling lovers, cross-dressing, and wholly farcical characters. However, all of these Shakespearean “standards” are in their most premature of forms. The lovers’ plot in the play is quickly wrapped up in the final act with all of speed and grace of a whippet while many of the secondary characters are but mere stand-ins for personalities. The only real saving grace of this aggressively mediocre play is Launce and his dog, Crab. Launce comes from the same school as the Melancholy Jacques or Duncan’s Porter – he is an overly comical character who serves as the main vehicle for belly-laughs in the play. However, even the comic relief is upstaged by his dog Crab who somehow has all the best lines even though he doesn’t speak. I feel being harsh toward The Two Gentlemen of Verona is unfair since it is (possibly) the play that started one of the most famed careers in English literature, but I will say that really won’t excite anyone who is looking for a “classic” Shakespearean comedy. The scaffolding is up but the church is far from complete.
Shakespeare follows up a comedy with… another comedy! The Taming of the Shrew (c. 1590-1590) is one of his most well-known comedies, thanks in part to two hugely successful film adaptations – Kiss Me Kate in 1953 and 10 Things I Hate About You in 1999. Here Shakespeare decides to play around with meta-theatre by having an “induction” or an extra scene at the very beginning of the text. Its main purpose is to try to convey that “The Taming of the Shrew” is actually a play being shown to a drunk who is tricked into thinking he’s a lord. It’s very messy and is ultimately pointless but it’s interesting to see how Shakespeare attempts to subvert classical conventions of theatre. When the actual play begins, we discover that there are two sisters (one who is much sought after and one who is stubborn – our titular shrew) who are the daughters of a lord. The main plot arc is – the non-shrew sister wants to get married but her dad says nope, you can’t get married unless your shrew sister does so let her be tamed and you can marry whoever you want. Kate Millett probably had several strokes when she first read this. Overall, I wasn’t a huge fan of this play. It took me a while to get through because it isn’t an overtly comic plot like Verona, even though it is categorised as a comedy. There are long bouts of non-comic action which I found quite tiring. Don’t even get me started on the ending. Lord, what a mess. Although, to be honest, Verona does end with a casual rape so I’m guessing Shakespeare was still developing his skill…
Henry VI is Shakespeare’s only trilogy. These early history plays are rarely ever performed and there is a chance that you mightn’t have even heard of them. There is reason for this. The story is overly long, boring, tedious, and they contain many unnecessary scenes. If each play is three hours (as most Shakespeare plays are) then to watch this entire trilogy would take nine hours. Nobody wants to sit through that.
Part 1 (c. 1591) concerns Henry VI’s rise to power and splits its time between both England and France. Like all of the plays in this trilogy it is saturated with battle scenes which I’m presuming are far more interesting to watch than read. One of the interesting things about Part 1 is the inclusion of Joan of Arc as a character. However, if you’re looking for the famed feminist warrior then look elsewhere because at the end of the play Joan gets the Katherina treatment and goes a bit mental.
Part 2 (c. 1591) is about Henry trying to actually rule his government but because this is the 1400s that doesn’t go to plan at all. In fact, near the end, a random Irish guy attempts to usurp the throne and in essence hijacks the play for an entire act. This is a play of bickering and quarrelling. Probably the most boring of the trilogy, Part 2 portrays Shakespeare as an immature writer, not yet able to construct a convincing narrative or employ riveting action.
Part 3 (c. 1591) is a play of battles. Seriously. There are four battles in this play. If you’ve been following the obvious narrative, this play is about Henry VI’s downfall and his ousting from the thr0ne. It actually finishes off the trilogy quite nicely even though it isn’t the strongest play (I’ve decided to give Part 1 that honour). There is a lot of crossover between this play and Richard III. In fact Richard III’s opening soliloquy appears in this play in an early draft form. As a trilogy, Henry VI is quite the behemoth and I’m kind of glad that they’re over with. However they do spark Shakespeare’s interest in the history play genre of which I thankfully am a fan.