RICHARD III

INTERLUDE – “SOME DUNGEON.” “YOUR BEDCHAMBER.”

Stained glass depiction of Richard III and Anne Neville in Cardiff Castle.

I know, I know – Richard III is not on my list. But I want to share with you my favorite Shakespeare story of all time. This is from a copy of Richard III published in 1995 by Penguin as a part of their New Penguin Shakespeare books. Here is a direct quote from the introduction of that very copy –

The popularity of Richard III dates back to Shakespeare’s own lifetime. Six editions of the play were published between 1597 and 1622 in Quarto, to be followed by a seventh in the Folio of 1623; and the exceptional number of early editions is matched by the exceptional number of copies of these editions still known to exist. Early allusions to the play confirm that it probably ranked with Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet as one of the outstanding favorites of the theatre; indeed, Richard III seems to have been once of the first plays to feature in the ‘Shakespeare mythos,’ as we learn from the Diary of John Manningham, a student at the Middle Temple, in the year 1602.

“Upon a time when Burbage played Richard III there was a [female] citizen grew so far in liking with him, that before she went from the play she appointed him come that night unto her by the name of Richard III. Shakespeare, overhearing their conclusion, went before, was entertained and at his game ere Burbage came. The message being brought that Richard III was at the door, Shakespeare caused return to be made that William the Conqueror was before Richard III.”

Whether or not this story is true – witty anecdotes readily attach themselves to the famous – it does at least establish that by 1602 the play had become part of popular mythology.

Any account of the glamour and power of Richard III must, of course, begin with Richard himself. […]

I love that little anecdote more than words can say. I tell it to anybody who is interested in Shakespeare – especially if they haven’t read Richard III. I find that it sparks their interest like nothing else.

How believable do you find this story? I’m convinced that it’s true – but only because it would be silly of me to deny that Richard has a wonderful charm and charisma to him that could manipulate even the most skeptical audience member. It’s why I say that Richard III is Shakespeare’s greatest work. With all his breaking of the fourth wall, you find yourself being twisted around Richard’s little finger, and perhaps even rooting for him despite how utterly evil he is.

Just thought I’d share that with you! Whether or not the story is true, it’s good for a laugh.

TITUS ANDRONICUS

THERE’S MEED FOR MEED, DEATH FOR A DEADLY DEED

One theatre-goer, who watched the show’s opening night, said there had been “quite a few droppers” in the audience
A still of Lavinia (Laura Rees) from a 2006 production of Titus Andronicus at Shakespeare’s Globe.

When I promised that I would read every single Shakespeare play known to man this year, I meant every single one. And that is how I came to possess a copy of Titus Andronicus, a play that is rarely discussed, and one that had never crossed my radar more than once before.

Last quarter, my Shakespeare professor asked us about our favorite plays. My answer was quick, because I’ve known for years: “Richard III.” A girl across from me couldn’t quite remember the title of her favorite play, so she began to describe it. It was very violent, she said, and someone loses their tongue. “Titus Andronicus is your favorite play?” the professor asked in disbelief. “Titus Andronicus? What is wrong with you?”

The exchange was a teasing one, as was very characteristic of my professor. That was the first time I had heard someone talk about Titus Andronicus.

So you may be wondering how I feel about the play. The answer to that is: I don’t know. All I know is that I spent two days filled with morbid curiosity and was unable to look away until I had gone through the entire thing. Titus Andronicus is like a train wreck – you really don’t want to look, but you can’t help it.

I want to talk about Lavinia, because although she is rendered silent, I love her. I felt her sweetness and purity of heart through the pages, and I could not stand to see her beg for Tamora’s pity.

LAVINIA
O, let me teach thee! For my father’s sake,
That gave thee life when well he might have slain thee,
Be not obdurate; open thy deaf ears.

TAMORA
Hadst thou in person ne’er offended me,
Even for his sake I am pitiless. –
Remember, boys, I poured forth tears in vain
To save your brother from the sacrifice,
But fierce Andronicus would not relent.
Therefore away with her, and use her as you will;
The worse to her; the better loved of me.

LAVINIA
O, Tamora, be called a gentle queen,
And with thine own hands kill me in this place!
For ’tis not life that I have begged so long;
Poor I was slain when Bassianus died.

TAMORA
What, begg’st thou, then? Fond woman, let me go!

I cannot get over the image of Lavinia grasping at Tamora, begging her for mercy. I cannot accept that this conversation is happening between two women. Tamora knows what awaits Lavinia, but she has no pity. Her heart is stone, and all the begging in the world won’t move her. Poor Lavinia is sobbing her heart out, asking a fellow woman to help her, but it’s no use. She is raped and mutilated by Tamora’s despicable sons.

Are Tamora’s actions justified? She is a grieving mother, who had her son torn away from her. I understand why she is seeking revenge against Titus, but her refusal to protect Lavinia from the ultimate violation is just sickening.

And Titus – poor Titus! I was indifferent toward him at the beginning of the play, but every time Rome took something from him, I felt my heart soften. He cuts off his own hand in an effort to save Martius and Quintus from being wrongfully executed. And for what? For this?

Enter a Messenger with two heads and a hand.

MESSENGER
Worthy Andronicus, ill art thou repaid
For that good hand thou sent’st the Emperor:
Here are the heads of thy noble sons,
And here’s thy hand in scorn to thee sent back.
Thy grief their sports, thy resolution mocked,
That woe is me to think upon thy woes
More than remembrance of my father’s death.

[He exits.]

MARCUS
Now let hot Etna cool in Sicily,
And be my heart an everburning hell!
These miseries are more than may be borne.
To weep with them that weep doth ease some deal,
But sorrow flouted at is double death.

LUCIUS
Ah, that this sight should make so deep a wound
And yet detested life not shrink thereat!
That ever death should let life bear his name,
Where life hath no more interest but to breathe.

[Lavinia kisses Titus.]

MARCUS
Alas, poor heart, that kiss is comfortless
As frozen water to a starvèd snake.

TITUS
When will this fearful slumber have an end?

Lavinia kissing Titus was what really broke my already destroyed heart. She is silent, and yet her actions speak volumes.

Titus has spent his entire life fighting for Rome, and this is what he has to show for it? Twenty-five sons reduced to one, and his precious Lavinia torn to shreds.

Aaron is arguably the primary antagonist of this play, and I’m afraid that I’m not skilled enough to eloquently analyze him. But I’d like to try, so I would appreciate it if you’d bear with me. It is important to understand what exactly white people in Elizabethan England would have associated with blackness. Stereotypes such as lustful, illiterate, and violent were often applied to Africans, especially since there was an influx of African immigrants in Shakespeare’s time. So what stereotypes does Aaron fall into, and what barriers does he break?

It is difficult to understand where Shakespeare stood on these issues. On one hand, Aaron is constantly associated with sex (being Tamora’s lover), and he often uses euphemisms in his speech (for example, the repeated use of the word ‘mount’ when discussing his affair). On the other, he is clearly incredibly smart. He makes constant references to literature, and is very eloquent, despite being incredibly evil.

Aaron is a violent character, and he encourages violence. He helps guide Chiron and Demetrius in their plan to rape and mutilate Lavinia, and even by the end of the play, his only regret was that he could not have done more to ruin the others:

LUCIUS
Art thou not sorry for these heinous deeds?

AARON
Ay, that I had not done a thousand more.
Even now I curse the day – and yet, I think,
Few come within the compass of my curse –
Wherein I did not some notorious ill,
As kill a man, or else devise his death;
Ravish a maid or plot the way to do it;
Accuse some innocent and forswear myself;
Set deadly enmity between two friends;
Make poor men’s cattle break their necks;
Set fire on barns and haystalks in the night,
And bid the owners quench them with their tears.

And yet, Aaron is fiercely protective of his son. His violent nature does not really seem to leave space for paternal instincts, but they are there. Aaron is evil, but he is also incredibly complicated. He is a slave, oppressed by the Romans, looked down upon. He is also inherently evil, and yet extremely dedicated to his own. Perhaps his multi-faceted personality came as a shock to Elizabethan theatre-goers. Perhaps their perception of black men was slightly challenged – and I say slightly only because Aaron still falls into some stereotypes that were popularly believed at the time.

This play is incredibly bloody – the image of Lavinia with blood pouring out of her mouth and from the stumps where her hands used to be gave me literal nightmares – and I didn’t think it could get any worse, until this:

TAMORA
Why hast thou slain thine only daughter thus?

TITUS
Not I; ’twas Chiron and Demetrius.
They ravished her and cut away her tongue,
And they, ’twas they, that did her all this wrong.

SATURNINUS
Go fetch them hither to us presently.

TITUS
Why, they are there, both bakèd in this pie,
Whereof their mother daintily hath fed,
Eating the flesh that she herself hath bred.
‘Tis true, ’tis true! Witness my knife’s sharp point.

Because I’m an innocent fool, I did not anticipate cannibalism playing into this story. To avenge poor Lavinia, Titus uses the blood and ground up bones of Tamora’s sons to make a pie. He stabs Tamora, Emperor Saturninus stabs Titus, and Lucius stabs Saturninus. Meanwhile, I just sat there, absolutely stunned.

Before Titus stabbed Tamora, he turned his knife on Lavinia. I was shocked, but reasoned that if I were Lavinia, I would not want to be alive in such a state. Titus meant to free both him and Lavinia from their sorrow and shame, which I can understand. Poor Lavinia, though. With no tongue, we will never know how she truly felt, and whether or not she wanted to live.

Lucius, who I see as this play’s Henry V figure, becomes Emperor. He and Marcus are all that’s left of the Andronici – as for the rest of Rome, I’d like to use a line from the very first act: “no noise, but silence and eternal sleep.”

Titus Andronicus is incredibly disturbing. Disturbing enough that it caused five people to faint at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2014. I think I could stomach it, personally, but who knows? I may just be tempted to see it if I ever get the chance.

Next month, we start with something completely different from the gory Titus Andronicus. We’ll be talking about Romeo and Juliet! Grab your tissues, and I’ll see you in a few weeks.

HENRY VI

I MYSELF WILL HUNT THIS WOLF TO DEATH

A group of soldiers raising their swords
A group of soldiers raising their swords from a 2006 production of Henry VI, Part 3. Royal Shakespeare Company.

Alarum. Enter King Henry alone, wearing the red rose.

KING HENRY
This battle fares like to the morning’s war,
When dying clouds contend with growing light,
What time the shepherd, blowing of his nails,
Can neither call it perfect day nor night.
Now sways it this way, like a mighty sea
Forced by the tide to combat with the wind;
Now sways it that way, like the selfsame sea
Forced to retire by fury of the wind.
Sometime the flood prevails, and then the wind;
Now one the better; then another best,
Both tugging to be victors, breast-to-breast,
So is the equal poise of this fell war.
Here on this molehill will I sit me down.

[He sits on a small prominence.]

To whom God will, there be the victory;
For Margaret my queen and Clifford too
Have chid me from battle, swearing both
They prosper best of all when I am thence.
Would I were dead, if God’s good will weres o,
For what is in this world but grief and woe?
O God! Methinks it were a happy life
To be no better than a homely swain […]

In my last post, I said I wasn’t sure how I felt about Henry. Now, after finally finishing the trilogy, I know: I pity him. Poor Henry! All he craves is peace. He has no place in these wars, with his soft-heart and gentle demeanor. I read a critique about the Henry VI plays recently that called them emotionless because it’s almost impossible to root for a weak, unresolved character like Henry. But I don’t think I can agree with that. While I didn’t necessarily root for Henry, I did develop this desire to shield him from the court. It was easy to root for Henry V, who was always marching into battle like a shining God, but for Henry VI…perhaps just appreciating his gentle nature is all you can do.

I felt such a deep pang of sadness when I read the lines, “For Margaret my queen and Clifford too/Have chid me from battle, swearing both/They prosper best of all when I am thence.” Despite being the titular character, Henry is constantly shoved aside. But despite it all, he remains kind:

KING HENRY
Master lieutenant, now that God and friends
Have shaken Edward from the regal seat
And turned my captive state to liberty,
My fear to hope, my sorrows unto joys,
At our enlargement what are they due fees?

LIEUTENANT
Subjects may challenge nothing of their sov’reigns.
But, if an humble prayer may prevail,
I then crave pardon of your Majesty.

KING HENRY
For what, lieutenant? For well using me?

Ah, Henry! Nothing seems to shake him out of this perpetual state of goodness. But still – he is weak, and that is why he is constantly being pushed on and off the throne like a piece on a chessboard. I mentioned in my last post that Henry might have been different if he had had his father around, but how different would he have been if he hadn’t been born into royalty? I think he would have been genuinely happy, and probably would have been a priest. But his fate was to be crowned at nine months old, and to be ruined by politics.

Let’s talk about Margaret, shall we? I’ve been struggling with my feelings for Margaret – on one hand, she’s one of my favorite parts of Richard III. On the other, she’s so bloodthirsty! But then I remember that she was pushed in this direction. Henry’s weakness leaves her no choice but to act the way she does. I really enjoyed the infamous molehill scene between Margaret and York.

YORK
[…] O, tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide,
How couldst thou drain the lifeblood of the child
To bid the father wipe his eyes withal,
And yet be seen to bear a woman’s face?
Women are soft, mild, pitiful, and flexible;
Thou, stern, obdurate, flinty, rough, remorseless.
Bidd’st thou me rage? Why, now thou hast thy wish.
Wouldst have me weep? Why, now thou hast thy will;
For raging winds blows up incessant showers,
And when the rage allays, the rain begins.
These tears are my sweet Rutland’s obsequies,
And every drop cries vengeance for his death
‘Gainst thee, fell Clifford, and thee false Frenchwoman!

NORTHUMBERLAND [aside.]
Beshrew me, but his passions moves me so
That hardly can I check my eyes from tears.

I couldn’t care less about Northumberland, who is one of the most minor characters in the play, but he and I had the same reaction to York’s humiliating murder. But what of Margaret? They pushed her to do this, did they not? They preyed on her weak husband, and her son was disinherited. She is such a complex character, that it is difficult to fully know how she feels during this scene. Tina Packer, author of Women of Will, says that York’s weeping leaves her defenses crumbling when she plays Margaret. She feels she has to kill him, but only because she cannot bear what she has done. In Packer’s opinion, when York speaks from his very soul, Margaret suddenly sees him as a father, a lover, a brave man. She can feel York’s scorn toward her, and she sees how little he understands her own grief and betrayal. Margaret just cannot bear it, so she kills him.

I love this analysis. We would be selling Margaret short if all we saw her as was a heartless she-warrior. She is so much more: she’s a mother, and a queen. She and York are so similar in that they are both driven by their hopes for their children. Two sides of the same coin, each one unable to thrive unless the other is dead.

My heart broke into pieces when Margaret wept over Prince Edward’s body. Perhaps Edward IV should have let Richard kill her. It would have been an unintended act of mercy.

QUEEN MARGARET
O Ned, sweet Ned, speak to thy mother, boy.
Canst thou not speak? O traitors, murderers!
They that stabbed Caesar shed no blood at all,
Did not offend, nor were not worthy blame,
If this foul deed were by to equal it.
He was a man; this, in respect, a child,
And men ne’er spent their fury on a child.
What’s worse than murderer, that I may name it?
No, no, my heart will burst an if I speak,
And I will speak, that so my heart may burst.
Butchers and villains, bloody cannibals,
How sweet a plant have you untimely cropped!
You have no children, butchers. If you had,
The thought of them would have stirred up remorse.
But if you ever chance to have a child,
Look in his youth to have him so cut off
As, deathsmen, you have rid this sweet young prince.

I don’t know how Shakespeare wrote this, how he managed to convey Margaret’s grief so clearly. Margaret has a lot of faults, but she was a loving mother to her boy. She’s strong, and even wears armor to push her enemies back. But it’s no use. No matter what she does, she cannot prevail.

As an aside, I was quite impressed with the way Prince Edward spoke to Edward IV. He clearly did not inherit his father’s unassuming nature – if he had been allowed to live, I have no doubts that he would have been the male embodiment of his mother: proud and fierce.

I want to talk about Edward for a moment. I don’t particularly care for him, but I wanted to say that, no matter the time period, men are all the same. When Elizabeth asks for her dead husband’s land back, Edward does this:

KING EDWARD
What service wilt thou do me if I give them?

This is the medieval version of a straight white boy saying, “What will you give me if I help you out? ;)” This belongs on a blog called Medieval Straight White Boys Texting. I cannot tell you how hard I rolled my eyes, but I’m pretty sure I saw the back of my skull.

Luckily, Elizabeth is unmoved by his desire to bed her. She ends up Queen of England, so…good for her, I guess? Bad for Edward though. His skirt-chasing habits infuriate Warwick to the point of changing sides. But, as it turns out, Edward doesn’t need the kingmaker as much as he thought he did.

I know what I want to write about next, but I’m putting off typing the words out. I’ve just heaved three huge sighs, switched to two different tabs, and I’m running out of things to do, so…let’s talk about Richard.

I am in no way a Richard apologist – or I try not to be, anyway. I know he’s just terrible, but I adore him. Richard brings life to every scene he’s in. He outshines both Edward and George. He practically takes over Henry VI, Part 3, despite it not being his own play. I love Richard.

His relationship with his family is quite interesting, and if you just read the play, it doesn’t seem that strained. He feels the need to avenge the deaths of Edmund and York, and maybe that’s because he actually had something of a familial bond with them. At the same time, however, he is isolated.

RICHARD
[…] What other pleasure can the world afford?
I’ll make my heaven in a lady’s lap
And deck my body in gay ornaments,
And ‘witch sweet ladies with my words and looks.
O, miserable thought, and more unlikely
Than to accomplish twenty golden crowns!
Why, Love forswore me in my mother’s womb,
And, for I should not deal in her soft laws,
She did corrupt frail Nature with some bribe
To shrink mine arm up like a withered shrub;
To make an envious mountain on my back,
Where sits Deformity to mock my body;
To shape my legs of an unequal size;
To disproportion me in every part,
Like to chaos, or an unlicked bear-whelp,
That carries no impression like the dam.
Am I then a man to be beloved?
O monstrous fault to harbour such a thought!
Then, since this earth affords no joy to me
But to command, to check, to o’erbear such
As are of better person than myself,
I’ll make my heaven to dream upon the crown […]

Too often, Richard is reduced to a crazy, cackling maniac. But I think a nuanced portrayal serves him best. We can speculate all day about what makes Richard tick and never arrive at a definitive answer. He is a character broken beyond repair, who has little love for himself. Oh, sure, he talks a big game, but that’s all it is: just talk. I’m crossing over into Richard III territory here, but something Packer said pierced my poor, Richard-loving heart:

Once [Richard and Anne] are married, he begins to poison her slowly. For fun? So he can marry someone else? Or just because she’s a woman and he hates women? Or because he loves her and can’t bear to love anyone?

Can Richard bear to love anyone? Does he feel like he doesn’t deserve to love and be loved because of what he is? How else was he supposed to turn out, what with people making snide comments about his body all his life? He could have turned out kind despite it all, of course. But that’s just not the way Richard learned to cope, I suppose.

Richard has a penchant for killing, and has no problem beheading, stabbing, and even offering to kill. I don’t know if this is because he is naturally bloodthirsty, or if killing someone finally allows him to feel powerful. I mentioned once before that I wouldn’t mind dedicating my life to analyzing Henry V, but that’s only because I don’t think I’m worthy of analyzing Richard III. That play is Shakespeare’s magnum opus, and it is what pulled me into this crazy Shakespearean stupor that I’ve been in for almost nine years now.

Richard constantly reminds the audience of how disgusting he is to look at. But, it seems that only he is allowed to say so.

KING HENRY
[…] The owl shrieked at thy birth, an evil sign;
The night-crow cried, aboding luckless time;
Dogs howled, and hideous tempest shook down trees;
The raven rooked her on the chimney’s top;
And chatt’ring pies in dismal discords sung;
Thy mother felt more than a mother’s pain,
And yet brought forth less than a mother’s hope:
To wit, an indigested and deformèd lump,
Not like the fruit of such a goodly tree.
Teeth hadst thou in thy head when thou wast born
To signify thou cam’st to bite the world.
And if the rest be true which I have heard,
Thou cam’st –

RICHARD
I’ll hear no more. Die, prophet, in thy speech;

[Stabs him.]

For this amongst the rest was I ordained.

Now, don’t get me wrong – Richard was going to kill Henry in the Tower no matter what. But you can feel his rage bubbling under the surface, how he prickles at Henry’s words. He knows everything he’s being told. Knows it, and hates to hear it.

Richard sees no chances for happiness in his future. But perhaps getting his hands on the crown will finally give him a chance to be in the light.

RICHARD
[…] Then, since heavens have shaped my body so,
Let hell make crook’d my mind to answer it.
I have no brother, I am like no brother;
And this word “love,” which greybeards call divine,
Be resident in men like one another
And not in me. I am myself alone.

Richard does awful things. But a part of me can’t help but pity him. Either he’s evil because he is who he is, or something made him this way. What was it?

After finishing this play, I finally decided to watch the second set of The Hollow Crown films. Henry VI was split into two parts, which was a bit disappointing. They told the story of Joan of Arc so quickly! I only saw her in four scenes, and the Dauphin spoke once. What a waste of a play. Characters like Talbot dropped dead before giving the audience the chance to know and understand them. But I knew what they were doing. They were rushing to get to the third part.

They were rushing to get to Richard.

Now, Part 3 is my favorite of the Henry VI plays. It’s easier to keep track of all the characters, and the plot is as interesting as it gets. But that doesn’t mean Parts 1 and 2 should be ignored or snubbed like they were! Also, it doesn’t mean that Suffolk should be replaced by Somerset. I mean, what was that? I had to pause the movie and go to my bookshelf to make sure I wasn’t losing my mind. The play in my hand was opened to a scene between Suffolk and Margaret (the scene where they first meet, arguably my favorite one). The scene on my laptop screen was the same one – but it was between Margaret and Somerset. This bugged me beyond belief, and I still have no idea why they decided to do it.

I also watched Richard III, which I (shockingly, because I’m such a Richard III snob) enjoyed. I said earlier that it’s really easy to reduce Richard into a cackling maniac, but this was avoided for the most part. Sometimes I felt like we were dangerously close, but The Hollow Crown managed to save itself every time. I don’t think anything could top the time I saw Mark Rylance as Richard at the Globe in 2012. So many factors played into that experience, so The Hollow Crown’s adaptation could never take its place. But still – it was pretty good, and it was lovely to look at. I’d recommend giving it a shot if you’re interested in Shakespeare’s histories! I also highly recommend the first set of films – they cover the Henriad, and the BBC didn’t cut and change things as much as they did with Henry VI.

This will be my last history play until April, which is when I’m supposed to read Richard II. I’m moving on to Titus Andronicus – but, believe me, I’ll be silently thinking about my beloved politically charged plays all the way through.

See you soon!

HENRY VI

AND FLY HOW THOU CANST, THEY’LL TANGLE THEE

Katy Stephens and Chukwudi Iwuji
Still from Henry VI, Part 2 – possibly a scene between Henry VI and Queen Margaret. Royal Shakespeare Company, 2006.

Through sheer force of will, I managed to meet my January deadline! I’ve already ordered a copy of Henry VI, Part 3, so hopefully I won’t have to rush myself next month.

I am going to apologize in advance for the quality of this post. Not only have I been slaving away in my lab non-stop, but I’m also an Iraqi Muslim who is now constantly surrounded by more bigotry than usual. But I’ll try my best to be coherent and thoughtful.

So far, the Henry VI plays have been an absolute pleasure to read. I love them very much, but I will admit that I agree with all of the scholars who have taught me: too much happens, and there are too many characters. But still! I’m so annoyed that I didn’t delve into this trilogy sooner. Anyway, let’s talk about Henry –

I’m not quite sure how I feel about Henry. His constant piety and weakness frustrates me to no end. He very clearly loves Gloucester, and sees him as both his uncle and mentor. And yet, when he has the chance to fight for him, he does this:

KING HENRY
My lords, what to your wisdoms seemeth best
Do or undo, as if ourself were here.

QUEEN MARGARET
What, will your Highness leave the Parliament?

KING HENRY
Ah, Margaret. My heart is drowned with grief,
Whose flood begins to flow within mine eyes,
My body round engirt with misery;
For what’s more miserable than discontent?
Ah, uncle Humphrey, in thy face I see
The map of honor, truth, and loyalty;
And yet, good Humphrey, is the house to come
That e’er I proved thee false or feared thy faith.
What louring star now envies thy estate
That these great lords and Margaret our queen
Do seek subversion of thy harmless life?
Thou never didst them wrong nor no man wrong.
And as the butcher takes away the calf
And binds the wretch and beats it when it strains,
Bearing it to the bloody slaughterhouse,
Even so remorseless have they borne him hence,
And as the damn runs lowing up and down,
Looking the way her harmless young one went,
And can do naught but wail her darling’s loss,
Even so myself bewails good Gloucester’s case
With sad unhelpful tears, and with dimmed eyes
Look after him and cannot do him good.
So mighty are his vowèd enemies.
His fortunes I will weep and, ‘twixt each groan,
Say “Who’s a traitor, Gloucester he is none.”

[He exits.]

And so he leaves poor Gloucester to the mercy of Suffolk and the other nobles who are out for blood. For shame, Henry! What is the point of having a crown on your head if you do not intend to take charge? What is even more frustrating is that he knows he’s failed. He knows his inability to make decisions and rule properly could very well lead to Gloucester’s death.

And yet…there is something soft and kind about Henry that I couldn’t help but notice. When the townspeople that had been following Cade show up to beg for his mercy with halters around their necks, Henry doesn’t even express anger toward them:

KING HENRY
Soldiers, this day have you redeemed your lives
And showed how well you love your prince and country.
Continue still in this so good a mind,
And Henry, though he be infortunate,
Assure yourselves, will never be unkind.
And so with thanks and pardon to you all,
I do dismiss you to your several countries.

There is nothing wrong with Henry’s forgiving nature. But placing a crown on the head of a weak person can only lead to ruin. Kindness will not prevent the nobles from tearing England to pieces.

I think it’s worth wondering how Henry would have turned out if his father had been alive. In 3.9, he mentions:

KING HENRY
No sooner was I crept out of my cradle
But I was made a king at nine months old.
Was never subject longed to be a king
As I do long and wish to be a subject!

You can’t help but feel a bit sorry for him. I mean, nine months old?! He spent absolutely no time with his father and was unable to learn how to be a good king. Because, as I’ve already established, although Henry V wasn’t a good Christian king, he was still a good king. He walked the line between forgiving and firm – people loved him, but they also feared him. That was a successful recipe for him, one that Henry VI is unable to replicate. If dysentery hadn’t reared its ugly head, I’m quite sure that Hal would have tried his absolute best to be a good father and guide to his son – if only to avoid recreating the relationship he had with Henry IV.

Being weak, Henry can’t control the bickering aristocrats that litter his court. What’s worse, however, is that he doesn’t inspire much confidence in the people. When Cade has rounded up a crowd of commoners (an ingenious plot put in motion by York), Buckingham  and Clifford appear to try to bring the people to their senses. They are swayed by the words about Henry VI, but quickly return to Cade’s side after listening to him speak. Clifford is only successful when he brings up Henry V:

CLIFFORD
Is Cade the son of Henry the Fifth,
That thus you do exclaim you’ll go with him?
Will he conduct you through the heart of France
And make the meanest of you earls and dukes?

He continues on after this, but the gist is that the commoners only properly paused once they looked at Henry VI through the lens of Henry V. Cade notices their reaction to Henry V’s name:

CADE
Was ever feather so lightly blown to and fro as this multitude? The name of Henry the Fifth hales them to an hundred mischiefs and makes them leave me desolate.

Frankly, this is all a bit embarrassing for Henry VI. He’s such an ineffective ruler that it’s sometimes painful to think about.

If Henry VI is soft, then Margaret is as hard as stone. I wanted to badly to like her, but I couldn’t. I turned to Tina Packer, author of Women of Will, who appears to be very passionate about Margaret. But perhaps I am being too quick in my judgement – I have one part left after all. But something Packer said did speak to me:

The farewell between Margaret and Suffolk contains the most beautiful poetry in the canon up to this point. The bookends of the scene are a little clunky, but then there are twenty lines that are sublime, not only tender and erotic but viscerally alive, so that the physical expression of Margaret and Suffolk’s connection is transmitted to every audience member: the idea of the breath of the lover entering the body of the beloved, there to live in bliss.

Truth be told, I enjoyed Margaret and Suffolk’s exchange when they met for the first time in Part 1 more than I enjoyed the farewell between them. But I can’t deny that Shakespeare’s words are beautiful. However, as I felt no emotional connection to either character, I could not for the life of me react as emotionally as Packer does.

Henry and Margaret have something of an odd relationship. Well, maybe odd isn’t the right word. One-sided might be a better descriptor. We all know that Margaret is in love with Suffolk, and that they are likely having an intimate affair behind Henry’s back. Henry, meanwhile, seems to be trying to play husband as best he can, while remaining completely oblivious. After Suffolk’s death, Margaret is in mourning.

KING HENRY
How now, madam?
Still lamenting and mourning for Suffolk’s death?
I fear me, love, if that I had been dead,
Thou wouldst not have mourned so much for me.

Margaret claims she would die for him, but I’m not sure I believe it. I honestly can’t tell you long I spent lying on my bed and staring at the ceiling after reading Henry’s lines. There’s no way a person could be that oblivious…right?

In any case, we see Margaret often become frustrated at Henry’s lack of resolve. And in a way, who can blame her? Writing this post now makes me realize that Margaret’s personality may have simply been a result of her situation. She’s married to a man she doesn’t love, which I can imagine is tough. But I cannot forgive her role in Gloucester’s death.

As I reached the end of the play, I began to find myself treading familiar water. Having read Richard III too many times, I no longer had to double check the character list when familiar faces began to appear. Of course, Henry VI was silly to think that York wouldn’t lose his mind after discovering that Somerset was never imprisoned in the Tower. But, here we are, I suppose. I enjoyed this little insult:

RICHARD
Oft have I seen a hot o’erweening cur
Run back and bite because he was withheld,
Who, being suffered with the bear’s fell paw,
Hath clapped his tail between his legs and cried;
And such a piece of service will you do
If you oppose yourselves to match Lord Warwick.

CLIFFORD
Hence, heap of wrath, foul indigested lump,
As crooked in thy manners as thy shape!

I am, of course, absolutely delighted to see Richard. The insults weren’t far behind – those delight me too, in a strange way. My love for Richard is well-known – perhaps not on this blog, but certainly in real life. I can’t tell you how many texts I got the day they unearthed his bones! But that’s neither here nor there.

I’ve never considered Shakespeare to be a cliffhanger master. This is because every play I’ve read has had its beginning and end in the same book. But I’ve come to realize that he is actually quite good at cliffhangers. From Suffolk’s ominous promise in Part 1, to the bubbling over of tensions in Part 2, I find myself very excited to see what happens next! And after Part 3, we’ll move on to Titus Andronicus which will be brand new territory for me.

I hope you all had a good January! It wasn’t the best start to the year, but seeing people all over stand up in solidarity has been a wonderful thing. See you next month!