Alarum. Enter King Henry alone, wearing the red rose.
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:
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?
Subjects may challenge nothing of their sov’reigns.
But, if an humble prayer may prevail,
I then crave pardon of your Majesty.
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.
[…] 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!
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.
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:
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.
[…] 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.
[…] 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 –
I’ll hear no more. Die, prophet, in thy speech;
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.
[…] 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!