ABOUT THE TETRALOGIES (and a little about SHAKESPEARE)

The "second tetraology" is made up of the plays
RICHARD II
1 HENRY IV
2 HENRY IV
HENRY V
The plays represent a continuous sequence--but each play stands alone (and is frequently performed alone). Prince Hal does not appear in RII, but Hotspur does. Bolingbroke (Henry IV) appears in the first three plays, not in the fourth. And each play--considered on its own--is a tragedy.

"Surely you don't mean that 1HIV and HV are tragedies?" Indeed I do, and if I get to those plays it will be my job to prove it.

I don't deal much with the "first tetralogy," which is composed of the three HENRY VI plays and RICHARD III (I have taught the last).

"Why not?"

Because I'm a terrible snob, and Shakespeare, while he was already better than everyone else, had not figured out how to create complex structures when he wrote the "first tetralogy," which is so called because he wrote it about 1590-93. The "second tetralogy," which deals with an earlier period in English history than the first tetralogy, was written when Shakespeare was in nearly full command of his powers as a dramatist, 1595-99. If I were to deal with the HENRY VI plays, I couldn't pull Shakespeare's rabbits out of hats, the way I imagine I can do with MACBETH and HAMLET and ALL'S WELL. And I can't blather about the beauty of the poetry. Shakespeare was writing plays, even if they happened to be in verse.

Shakespeare, when he wrote the first tetralogy, and the plays current with it, was trying desperately to fit into a society he didn't have much sympathy for. He considered himself a completely gay man, lioving in a mostly heterosexual world, but he had more respect and sympathy for women--even though he feared them--then his fellow males did. (I think Juliet is more interesting than Romeo, though you may not.)

He was not an anti-Semite (a statement which, made by me, nearly got me fired from NYU and nearly ruined a good friendship) at a time when anti-Semitism was more routinely accepted than it is as I write this, under the Trump Presidency. I mean, if you present THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, do you have Al Pacino play Shylock or Antonio? (You know the answer instinctively, even if you didn't see the production--and I assume you can see that Shylock is not at all like Michael Corleone.)

George Bernard Shaw is eloquent on the two contradictory pictures of Joan of Arc presented in 1 HENRY VI:
English readers would probably like to know how these idolizations and reactions have affected the books they are most familiar with about Joan [Joan of Arc in 1HVI]. There is the first part of the Shakespearean, or pseudo-Shakespearean trilogy of Henry VI, in which Joan is one of the leading characters. This portrait of Joan is not more authentic than the descriptions in the London papers of George Washington in 1780, of Napoleon in 1803, of the German Crown Prince in 1915 or of Lenin in 1917. It ends in mere scurrility. The impression left by it is that the playwright, having begun by an attempt to make Joan a beautiful and romantic figure, was told by his scandalized company that English patriotism would never stand a sympathetic representation of a French conqueror of English troops, and that unless he at once introduced all the old charges against Joan of being a sorceress and a harlot, and assumed her to be guilty of all of them, his play could not be produced. As likely as not, this is what actually happened: indeed there is only one other apparent way of accounting for the sympathetic representation of Joan as a heroine culminating in her eloquent appeal to the Duke of Burgundy, followed by the blackguardly scurrility of the concluding scenes. That other way is to assume that the original play was wholly scurrilous, and that Shakespear touched up the earlier scenes. As the work belongs to a period at which he was only beginning his practice as a tinker of old works, before his own style was fully formed and hardened, it is impossible to verify this guess. His finger is not unmistakeably evident in the play, which is poor and base in its moral tone; but he may have tried to redeem it from downright infamy by shedding a momentary glamor on the figure of The Maid.
          --Shaw, preface to SAINT JOAN, quoted in SHAW ON SHAKESPEARE, p. 103
No, the original play is by Shakespeare: it was an immediate bosst to his career which, with each new play, rose with as much new speed and power as a rocket when it discards the burnt-out stage and fires the fresh stage.

But Shaw is right that social pressure--of whatever kind--made him spoil the beautiful portrait of Joan which he had originally created. He kept trying to fit in, yet somehow he couldn't. For a long time he thought maybe it was his own homosexuality, or his belief in Catholicism. Shortly before HAMLET he began to understand that the problem was that he was smarter than anybody else in the theater, or in the government, and probably in the galaxy. And once he understood that, he began to write the plays he wanted to. He did take care to make sure that his Henry V comes across looking like the great hero Kenneth Branagh thinks he is, meanwhile having Henry commit a horrible mortal sin on every third page, but in such a cleverly disguised way that we are unlikely to notice it, or to pay it any attention if we do. Come to class in spring 2021 if you want to see all this made clear.

And you've been thoroughly warned about my being a snob.

Back to Acting Shakespeare's Verse.