The First Part of Henry the Sixth (1983), Jane Howell (Director)

I have finally understood why, at least for the last 30 years, Henry VI, part 1 is not taught or read: Jane Howell’s BBC production of The First part of Henry the Sixth took it out back and shot it. Repeatedly.

Where to begin?

The First Part of Henry the Sixth (Tv 1983) is not, strictly speaking, a movie adaptation of Shakespeare’s play. While it does make use of some cinematic techniques, it is essentially a filmed staging of a stage play without any of the energy or tension which accompanies the live theatre experience.

That, I think, may be exactly where the problems start for Howell: she doesn’t seem to be able to decide whether this is a movie or a play. The result is a schizophrenic blend of kitsch costumes, tired stage conventions and amateurish camera work. It’s a distracting hot mess that seems especially designed only to confirm the popular opinion, that Henry VI part 1 is a bad play.

The sets and costumes look like they were produced for and by a high school drama class. One possible reason cited for this choice is to showcase the often petty and childish nature of the infighting which characterises the War of the Roses. However, I feel that it backfires in The First part of Henry the Sixth: instead of showing us the petty nature of the War of the Roses (which seems plain enough in Shakespeare’s language anyway), it turns Henry VI part 1 into a bit of a joke by cheapening what are also the very serious consequences of these wars. Very unfortunate.

Jane’s First Part of Henry the Sixth is part of a larger collection of made-for-TV movies produced by the BBC in the late seventies and early eighties. The BBC television Shakespeare was an ambitious project not entirely unlike the Bard Brawl’s in scope: to produce a filmed version of each one of Shakespeare’s plays. And to their credit, they did manage to complete the project – you can order the complete 38 DVD set from the BBC or on Amazon and then you will own this gem forever! Or you can buy something you’ll actually watch. Whatever.

Given that the purpose of the BBC’s project was to produce largely faithful to the text versions of these plays, Howell’s film works its way through Shakespeare’s play without any noticeable leaps, omissions or inventions on Howell’s part. The setting of the play is fifteenth century Europe and it opens with English nobility gathered for Henry V’s funeral. The language is Shakespeare’s and the movie ends where Shakespeare’s play ends.

One of the few differences: Howell chose to open the film with a dirge sung by Henry V’s son who was played by 40 year-old Peter Benson.

I guess they missed the part where Henry VI was nine months old when his father was killed, and about 12 years-old during the rest of the play.

I’ll spare you the plot synopsis seeing as we’ve already done one for each act and Howell’s film follows almost exactly Shakespeare’s Henry VI, part 1. (You can refer to our previous posts on Henry VI, part 1 if you need a quick plot reminder.)

After all of this, is The First Part of Henry VI a total wash? No. There are a few, precious – oh, so very rare and precious – pearls locked up within this clam.

Trevor Peacock manages to deliver a Talbot which is every bit the hardened, noble English warrior of Shakespeare’s Henry VI, part 1. Brenda Blethyn plays a very energetic and active Joan who has the entire French court wrapped around her fingers. Too bad the stage fighting, a large part of Shakespeare’s Henry VI, part 1, is so bad. It just turned Pucelle’s fight with Talbot – which is one of many great action scenes in this play – into a farce

As I watch this, I wonder why Howell insists on draining just about every one of the action sequences of its dramatic potential?

In my opinion, however, the strongest and most successful character is Richard Planatagent, Duke of York who is played by none other than the brilliant Bernard Hill. If that name doesn’t sound familiar, it should. But maybe you know him by his other name, King Théoden of Rohan.

While the BBC’s project to adapt every one of Shakespeare’s plays to film verbatim was an excellent initiative from an archival perspective, it really failed to produce something that brings Shakespeare to a new audience in a way which is both easily accessible and engaging. In the end, Howell’s choices in The First Part of Henry the Sixth results in a finished product which is alienating and off-putting.

The First Part of Henry the Sixth remains an excellent study… in how NOT to bring Shakespeare’s works to life.

(Eric Jean is co-creator of the Bard Brawl.)

Stay in touch, Brawlers!

Follow @TheBardBrawl on Twitter.

Like our Facebook page.

Email the Bard Brawl at

BB: Henry VI Part 1, Act III

Artwork - Stephanie E.M. Coleman
Artwork – Stephanie E.M. Coleman

Welcome Brawlers to our first podcast of 2013: the third act of Henry VI, part 1!

Listen to Act I, and Act II.

Listen to the podcast – here

Remember the Bishop of Winchester and the Duke of Gloucester all the way back in act 1? Well, act III, scene 1 drops us right back into the middle of their dispute. Gloucester is the current regent, so he is de facto king until Henry VI reaches the age of majority. The Bishop of Winchester feels he’s not getting a big enough piece of the pie and is plotting to undermine Gloucester’s rule. They exchange insults where Gloucester tells him he’s acting in a manner unfitting a priest and he even accuses him of having plotted to have Gloucester killed. Henry VI eventually speaks up and tells them all to just get along. Both agree to stop fighting but only Henry VI appears to think they’re being sincere. Also important in this act: Richard Plantagenet is restored to his ancestral lands and made Duke of York. The scene ends with Henry embarking on a trip to France. He and Gloucester hope that his presence there will deter some of the French from siding with Charles, le Dauphin.

The battle for Rouen is the setting for act III, scene 2. It seems that Joan has hit upon a plan to gain access to the city. She and a few French soldiers will disguise themselves as peasants. Once inside the city, they will assess the situation. If the city seems ripe for the taking, she will signal the French forces outside of the city to begin their attack. The initial attack catches the English forces off-guard and the French take the city. However, Talbot rouses his men and leads a successful counter-attack that sends the French forces fleeing from Rouen. Once the battle is over, they see to Bedford’s funeral and travel to Paris to visit with Henry VI and his court.

After they loss at Rouen, the French decide that a new tactic is in order. They decide, in act III, scene 3, to have Joan of Arc try and persuade the Duke of Burgundy to switch sides. Basically the argument is that he’s more French than English and so the larger betrayal is to team up with the usurper-invaders, the English. It actually takes very little time for her to make her argument and by the end of the scene Burgundy has sworn off Talbot and the English. Joan then makes a joke to herself about the turning and turning of Frenchmen. Not sure which stereotype this is referring to, but it sounds dirty to me.

The last scene of this act takes place in the court of Henry VI in Paris. Talbot knees to his king and offers both his prisoners of war and his service. As a reward, Henry makes him Earl of Shrewsbury. The party leaves the stages and only Vernon and Basset remain. It seems that during the crossing from England they had a disagreement about the roses they plucked for themselves and therefore about the two camps they have respectfully chosen to support. It seems that Basset (red rose, Lancastrian) made some insult regarding Richard Plantagenet the Duke of York which Vernon (white rose, Yorkist), one of his followers, did not appreciate. Of course, Basset accuses Vernon of having insulted his lord, the Duke of Somerset. Vernon strikes Basset but because of Gloucester’s edict, he cannot retaliate. He therefore determines to ask the king for the right to fight Vernon.

If you’ve been keeping up with the podcasts of Henry VI, part ! you’ll know by now that we don’t hold a very high opinion of the character of Henry VI. He’s basically (at least by this point in the play) a naive and idealistic boy who just wants everyone to get along. (Although that does make him really fun to read.) By the time we get to Henry VI, part II we might also say that he’s a randy little twerp who basically gives France away for the sake of a girl.

In this play, Henry has relatively few lines. This makes sense given his age: he’s probably somewhere between 10 and 13 or so at this point and his uncle is running the country for him. However, the lines that Shakespeare does give him are quite revealing.

I think one of the first scene which reveals to us the character of the king takes place in parliament where we learn that Gloucester and Winchester’ quarrel has gotten out of hand and threatens to destroy London. Henry orders both sides to stop and to shake hands and make up. Of course, both Gloucester and Winchester agree to the handshake and publicly promise to have their supporters lay down their arms. Only Henry VI, who doesn’t appear to give the issue another moment’s though, is fooled. He’ll be fooled again when Vernon and Basset bring their ‘rose’ disagreement to him and ask for the right to duel. The king will fail to see the repercussions of the burgeoning ‘War of the Roses’ and will naively assume that wearing a rose says nothing about one’s political affiliations.

In this respect I think that Henry VI is a singular character, at least in Shakespeare’s history plays: he’s a weak king who would seem to prefer being anything else but king. This becomes even more pronounced over the course of the next two Henry VI plays. While not all of Shakespeare’s king’s are created equal, Henry VI seems only to serve as a model of everything the Renaissance monarch should avoid. It almost begs the question: is this really a king worth serving?

Join us next time for more fighting, speeches and death (in that order)!

Sonnet 17 read by Hannah Dorozio

BB: Henry VI Part 1, Act II

Season’s greetings from snowed-in Montreal, and welcome Brawlers to this second episode of Henry VI, part 1!

Artwork - Stephanie E.M. Coleman
Artwork – Stephanie E.M. Coleman

Listen to the podcast – here

The action picks up where we left off at the end of our last show. As we start act II, the English army is gathered outside of Orleans, having just been driven off by Joan of Arc and the Dauphin’s forces. They accuse the French forces of consorting with witches and demons but believe that if they place their trust in God, their next attack will be successful. Talbot orders a coordinated attack from multiple fronts. His night attack catches the French forces unawares. They accuse Joan la Pucelle of delivering only temporary gains but she berates them for their lack of patience as they run off to gather their forces for battle.

Thanks to their surprise attack, the English rout the French by the start of scene 2. However, Talbot calls off the chase in order to secure his forces’ hold on the city. As the English commanders discuss preparation for Salisbury’s funeral, a messenger arrives with an invitation from the Countess of Auvergne. She wishes to set her eyes on the man who fills the French with such terror. While chivalry compels him to accept her invitation, he whispers something to one of his captains which suggests he suspects some sort of trap.

Sure enough, our suspicions our confirmed at the very start of scene 3 when the Countess speaks of a plot which will make her as famous as Tomryris: Tomyris had the Persian Emperor Cyrus beheaded (and then stuck it in a wineskin filled with blood). When Talbot arrives, the Countess of Auvergne is surprised to discover that he’s a dwarf of a man, not the awe-inspiring Hercules or Hector she imagined. insulted by his hostess, Talbot makes to leave but she informs him that he is now her prisoner. However, Talbot blows in his horn and a bunch of his soldiers show up, ready to fight. She apologizes and offers to treat them as honoured guests.

The play finally shifts back to England in act II, scene 4. This is possibly the most famous scene of this play and marks the ‘official’ start of the War of the Roses, where the two camps are formalized. Richard Plantagenet, the Earl of Somerset, and a few other lords are consulting with some lawyers at the Temple-Garden in London. (The Temple-Garden was the center for the study of law in London at that time.) Each – Plantagenet (Yorkist) and Somerset (Lancastrian) is essentially pleading their case to with the lawyers there as to which of them has the greater right to the throne. As the lawyers seem unable (or unwilling) pronounce a clear judgement, they take matters into their own hands. Plantagenet asks that any who believe his interpretation of the law (that he should be king) should show their allegiance by plucking a white rose out of one of the rose bushes in the garden. In response, Somerset asks that any who would support his claim to the throne should pick a red rose instead. Vernon, one of the lawyers, tries to prevent an escalation by having them swear that they two claimants will let the majority carry the day but their contest quickly devolves into threats of violence. In particular the grounds of their disagreement is this: Richard Plantagenet feels that he has the stronger case because his line is closer to the throne; however, Somerset points out that Plantagenet’s father, the Earl of Cambridge, was executed for treason and stripped of all of his titles. In the end, they both vow to gather their forces and fight it out.

We follow Richard Plantagenet as he makes his way to the Tower of London, in act II, scene 5, where he is to visit with his dying uncle. We are introduced to the character of Mortimer, who appears only in this scene. (For those of you who have read Henry VI part 1, this is the same Mortimer who betrays the Lancastrian King Henry IV and joins with the rebels.) Despite having only the one scene in the play, he is a very important character: it is through Mortimer’s death-bed confessions that Plantagenet learns exactly how closely related to the throne he is. As Richard II had no sons, Mortimer was next in line to inherit the throne at his death. However, Richard II was deposed by the man who would become Henry IV. Mortimer declares Richard Plantagenet his closest heir which makes him the next rightful heir. Mortimer then dies.

The rose plucking scene in this act is a true work of genius.

This is a history play. We expect a certain degree of fidelity to the history on which it’s based. The siege of Orleans, Joan of Arc, Winchester and Gloucester’s feud, Mortimer’s long imprisonment in the tower: these all happened. Sure, Shakespeare compresses the action in the play (they didn’t happen in the two hours or so which it takes to stage the two first acts of the play) but the basics and the timeline remain more or less intact. Shakespeare also goes to great lengths to show how the wars in France are connected to and undermined by the division at home. It’s a convincing if accelerated chronicle of the events which gave England the shape it has to this day.

What makes this rose picking scene amazing, however, is that it never happened!

Before this play, the title The War of the Roses was applied to the prolonged and ongoing conflict which defined Henry VI’s reign because the two main houses involved sported roses in their family heraldry. Shakespeare’s stroke of brilliance was taking these iconic emblems and transforming them into literal markers of allegiance. That done, he can let his poetic imagination loose on all of the possibilities imagining these emblems as real roses makes available.

The play doesn’t provide us with any stage direction to this effect, but I can just imagine how striking it would have been to have these two factions take shape: Plantagenet picks a white rose and places it in one of his button holes. Somerset responds by taking a red rose and doing the same. From that point forward, there can be no undecided nobles, no neutral players. No one can remain indifferent and even the lawyers are forced to pick sides. (Vernon and the nameless lawyer, incidentally, pick white roses.) England and its aristocracy is split down the middle.

With the simple act of picking flowers the battle lines are drawn and the players and their loyalties displayed for everyone to see.

Shakespeare not only manages to dramatize what is essentially a legal dispute, he gives the audience all of the information it needs to understand the basic nature of the rift: one side claims their decent from the line of kings which was overthrown by Henry VI’s ancestor Henry Bolingbroke, the other disavows that claims based on the fact that the ancestor through which the other claims descent was hanged as a traitor. In about 130 lines Shakespeare shows us the teams, their reasons for fighting, how we’ll recognise them, and a taste of how bad things are likely to get.

Not to mention, the scene contains some absolute gems in the exchanges between Richard Plantagenet and Somerset, many of which revolve around the figure of these literal roses: thorns, cankers, white cheeks turning red, white roses stained red with the blood of the vanquished, the purity of white as absence of colour. Here’s just a short sample:

Here in my scabbard, meditating that / Shall dye your white rose [of York] in a bloody red.
Meantime your cheeks do counterfeit our roses; / For pale they look with fear, as witnessing / The truth on our side.
No, Plantagenet, ‘Tis not for fear but anger that thy cheeks / Blush for pure shame to counterfeit our [red Lancastrian] roses, / And yet thy tongue will not confess thy error.

Now that’s good stuff, even by Shakespearean standards.

Next week: Act III where we will be reunited with our old friends Winchester and Gloucester!

You won’t want to miss it!

Our bonus sonnet – sonnet 21 – is read this week by Sonneteer Esther Viragh.

(Podcast recorded and edited by Daniel J. Rowe. Show notes by Eric Jean.)

Up ↑