Female Spectators and "Henry VI"

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The discrepancy between modern critical minimizing of the feminine roles in Henry VI and their high stage impact confirms the danger of ignoring performance in evaluating Shakespeare scripts. The desire to show how badly women were treated in earlier times can deflect awareness away from the stage dominance in Henry VI effected by roles such as Joan la Pucelle, the Duchess of Gloucester, and Queen Margaret of Anjou. The latter overshadows her pathetic husband Henry VI, and later, in Richard III, she provides an effective balance to the emotional dominance of Richard of Gloucester. That these women's roles are not presented as narrowly virtuous adds to their authenticity and fascination for modern interpreters, so that we can rely on the testimony about their stage power by an experienced actress such as Peggy Ashcroft, rather than accept programmatic feminist misrepresentations arguing their feebleness, in contrast to audience's vivid theatrical experiences of these roles. The latter have made the women in Henry VI as compelling as the male figures whom they effectively challenge, such as the English general, Talbot, who may outwit the Countess of Auvergne, but falls before the compelling figure of Joan. I can personally confirm the claims of Ashcroft that the Royal Shakespeare Company's fourth centennial performance of the first tetralogy in 1963-4 was a revelation of the tremendous creation of a powerful queen by the youthful Shakespeare, a figure far superior to Lady Macbeth in charisma and capacity, and worthy of comparison to his mature creation of an even more virtuoso female politician in Cleopatra. When the UCB Shakespeare Program created its first video epitome of female roles in the first tetralogy, under the title of Plantagenet Women, students were delighted to find such rewarding female roles, and we received a grant from a feminist group as a result, which allowed us to achieve the same effect for female roles in a version of the second tetralogy, under the title of Politic Women. This video epitome ended with the accession of the French princess in Henry V. In addition to giving birth to Henry VI, later she was to marry Owen Tudor after Henry V's premature death, and thus she gave birth to the family line leading to the Tudor accession: another significant Frenchwoman!

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Except where otherwise specified, all written commentary is © 2016, Hugh Macrae Richmond