First I shall be clear as to why I put this book on the historical shelf rather than the history shelf. The main reason is because a book that goes on the history self is non-fiction where as an historical book is a story, based on fact or otherwise, that was written at a time after the actual events that are portrayed. For instance, Herodotus is history because it is a non-fiction account of the Persian Wars (as well as being an anthropological text), while a book called Spartan is historical because it was written recently and is a fictional account of a Spartan who participated in the Persian Wars.
Anyway, this play really surprised me. At best I was expecting something of average quality, particularly since Shakespeare's historical plays are not all that popular. However I have decided that I will try to read as many of them as possible simply because I am very interested in seeing how an historical period is seen by somebody closer to the events than otherwise. Further, Shakespeare's histories are very surprising in the events that they cover. For instance King John has nothing to do with the Magna Carta, despite that event being the event that everybody associates with King John. This particular play deals with the rise and fall of Joan of Arc, the beginning of the end of England's occupation of France, and the beginning of the War of the Roses.
I should also mention that this is the first in a trilogy and I will be looking at the trilogy as a whole once I have finished all three of the plays, and since this is in my read now bag, hopefully it won't be too long. Also, the version that I read, that is the Signet Shakespeare, has some interesting commentaries in it, though I do not necessarily agree with everything that they say. One of the things that comes across is that this play is the tragedy of John Talbot, however I did not get the impression that Talbot was a tragic hero, not in the sense of the tragic heroes in Shakespeare's later plays. I also considered that it could be considered a tragedy of Joan of Arc, but once again she does not actually play a major role in the play, and does not come across as a tragic hero.
I will admit that Joan did suffer, but she does not do so in the same way as Hamlet. First of all she is a major supporting character who has an important role to play, but the play does not necessarily revolve around her. It does revolve around King Henry, but not to the same extent as other plays. Joan, rather, is the standard barer that France rallies to in their darkest hour, and despite only fighting two major battles, her influence turns the tide of the war in France's favour. All you need to do to see the dire predicament that France was in at the time is look at a map of France during her life: you will discover that the entire northern region (including Paris) was under English rule. However this is also a misnomer simply because English rule arose from the Norman conquest. It is just that the English people were able to absorb the Normans into their nation so that it ceased being Normandy and became England.
I will not say much more about Joan because she is not hugely important in the play, and a number of the productions have actually dropped her. In a way they are more interested in Margaret, who becomes Henry's wife, and from reading the commentaries it appears that she is not a very nice person. However in this play we are only introduced to her, though the introduction did send chills up my spine, most likely because of what I suspect would become of her character in later plays.
Actually, I would like to say a bit more on Joan because what we see here is an opinion of Joan written much closer to her lifetime. These days Joan is seen as a hero, especially by the French, and to us being more than six hundred years away from her look at her with fascination and wonder. She was a warrior princess, and a beautiful one at that, who took a role that only males would take and executed it successfully. To us a warrior maiden is very attractive, especially to those of us who are geeks. However, to the people of Shakespeare's time the view of Joan of Arc was much different. From this play we are looking at events that occurred only one hundred and fifty years previously, and to our minds it would be like looking back on, say, Abraham Lincoln. France and England were still bitter enemies, and Joan of Arc is not a romanticised warrior woman, but a witch that deserved to be burnt at the stake.
We should be aware that Joan was captured by the Burgundians and handed over to the English were she was tried (in a show trial), found guilty of witchcraft and then executed. However as time passed, attitudes to her changed. Despite being dead, she was allowed another trial, and found to be innocent of the crimes that she was originally found guilty. Later she was deified, that is turned into a saint, though that did not happen until the beginning of the twentieth century. Now she is one of France's patron saints and the patron saint of martyrs. Bernard Shaw looks at this much deeper, and since I am rereading St Joan at this time, this is something I will return to shortly.
Further, this play chronicles the collapse of the English occupation of France. The period that the play covers is a lot longer in history, but has been truncated by Shakespeare to only include the important parts. It appears that when Henry was crowned in the play he was not as young as he was in real life. In reality Henry was only 9 months old when he became king, thus putting a child king on the throne. However, it did not work in the same way as it worked in Game of Thrones. Henry had nowhere near as much power as Jothrey had, and further the kingdom was protected against the immature rule of an infant through the use of regents. However, as is seen in Richard III, just because the child is a king does not stop the regent from usurping the throne and killing the child.