I’ve now read three of Shakespeare’s tragedies, three of his comedies, and three of his later plays sometimes described as tragicomedies. It’s about time I try the histories, don’t you think?
I’ve decided on Henry V. Mostly, I just want a first taste of the genre for now, so the long multi-part sagas aren’t really what I’m looking for. Henry V is not the first chronologically, and could be seen as a sequel to Richard II and Henry IV; however, from what I’ve read, it also stands well on its own.
Anyway, I’ve read through the end of Act I, and here are my thoughts so far:
The prologue is beautiful, and speaks to something very real about theater: the way that a simple set and a group of actors can become almost anything, if the acting is good and the audience willing to fill in the blanks with their imagination. However, the long scenes of Act I, with different noblemen and religious authorities debating things, are a bit hard to follow. They’re certainly not as compelling as the straight-into-the-action openings typical of both the tragedies and comedies. Things do start to pick up at the end of Act I, when King Henry has gotten permission from the church to go to war with France. He uses the French ambassador’s patronizing gift – a box of tennis balls – as an excuse, but he’s already made up his mind by that point.
Neither as lighthearted as the comedies, nor as dark and contemplative as the tragedies, Henry V feels political in nature. All the debating over who the new king will support, the church vs. the aristocracy, whether it’s justified to go to war, what country an old rule about women not inheriting might apply to, and then the king using an ambassador’s insult as an excuse for something he’s already determined to do … the play is focused on kingship and the decisions kings have to make, to a much greater extent than, say, King Lear, which touches on similar themes but focuses more on the familial conflict.
To be honest, I’m not sure I’ll like the history plays as much as the comedies and tragedies. That’s why I’m starting out small, with a single-part play that’s generally seen as one of the best. However, it’s certainly an interesting experience reading something so different from the Shakespeare I’m used to, and I’m trying to go into it with an open mind.