Part III of Henry the Sixth

Holy shit, I tore through that last one pretty quickly.

While the other two Sixes built up pretty slowly for two acts with political intrigue before diving into warfare, this one starts right off the bat with York and his soldiers kicking in the doors of Parliament.  Warwick is still at his side, and his sons Edward and Richard brag to daddy about their bloody deeds.  In the case of Richard, he actually throws a severed head on the ground.  First scene.

Now, in Part Two, I have to admit that I wrote these two brats off as inconsequential cannon fodder, and didn’t suspect them to turn into anything.  Serves me right for not studying British history.  No, Edward will seize the crown by the end of the play as Edward IV.  And Richard?

"That valiant crooked-back prodigy, Dicky your boy"

I’ll be reading his play next.

But then, what of Henry VI?  He’s not dead yet.  Just a relatively spineless nice guy, standing up in the peanut gallery of Parliament with his small force of lords guarding him.  He makes a deal with York to end the bloodshed, to yield his crown willingly over at his deathbed.  Content to let the pious pushover live out his reign in peace, York obliges and both withdraw their armies from London.  So, I find that my repeated comparisons of Henry to American President Jimmy Carter have become inaccurate, at least for this Part of the story.

He's more of a Gerald "I Just Want To Be Nice" Ford

Obviously, this does not sit well with everyone.  Richard, abhorring the idea of peace, soon convinces his father to go back on the deal.  But before that plan comes to fruition, Queen Margaret has already shown up with an army of her own.  Yes, her own.  The instant she heard that King Henry named York as successor, she basically told the King to fuck off: “I here divorce myself Both from thy table, Henry, and thy bed Until that act of Parliament be repeal’d Whereby my son is disinherited.” Funny, they didn’t mention that Henry had a son by Margaret.  And you’ll notice she said “my son.” But I’ll get back to that.  First, we get to find out what sort of Queen she really is.

The sort of Queen that will rape your face and impregnate you with phallic monsters that devour your insides.

Aligned with the vengeful Young Clifford, the Queen wastes no time destroying her enemies and capturing the Duke of York.  Margaret is simply outraged that York might steal the crown from her son, but Clifford has vowed to destroy York’s entire family.  “No, if I digg’d up thy forefathers’ graves And hung their rotten coffins up in chains It could not slake mine ire nor ease my heart.” So far, he has only been able to kill the Earl of Rutland, York’s youngest son.  Margaret dips a napkin in Rutland’s blood and rubs it in the captured York’s face, places a paper crown on the Duke’s head, and mocks him.  “I prithee, grieve, to make me merry, York; Stamp, rave, and fret, that I may sing and dance,” she rants, until York erupts in rage and tears.  And then they stab him to death, leaving Edward as the next in line for King at the end of Act ONE.

From there, the tide of battle switches back and forth numerous times, Henry and Edward both wind up as prisoners to the other at some point, and most of the characters wind up defecting to the other side at least once for various reasons.  Henry describes the course of the endless war towards the end of Act II: “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 the fury of the wind: Sometime the flood prevails, but then the wind; Now one the better, then another best; Both tugging to be victors, breast to breast, Yet neither conqueror nor conquered.” Technically speaking, this play leaves a director with more opportunities to creatively destroy the human body than a zombie film.

My pick for Act V, scene vi

In the middle of all this, Henry VI is not even a major player anymore.  He simply wanders the battlefield, muttering kind phrases and lamenting the horrors of war.  In that same scene where he uses Shakespeare’s increasingly popular analogy of the sea to describe politics, he witnesses the tragic opera of violence incurred by any civil war.  On one end of the stage, a son removes the helmet of his victim to discover his father; on the other end of the stage, a father similarly discovers his son.  The scene has the potential to fall on it’s face if staged wrong.  But we have to realize that Shakespeare is not writing for realism.  He’s writing in a heightened reality where characters speak consistently in poetry more than prose, and pretending that this “History” play exists in reality is preposterous.  It’s not even the “magic realism” that has become so popular in recent years.

"Yo soy el fauna. Me llamo no es Pan. Que es Pan?"

This is a dramatic, theatrical world where rhymes heighten emotion, three suns can emerge in the sky at once, and complex human beings interact with caricatures of good and evil on the battlefield.  Occasionally, “realism” cooperates nicely with Shakespeare’s texts, but I don’t think it does here in the Sixes.  Obviously, many people will disagree with that.  But the fact remains that Bill was not writing in a realistic style because Stanislavsky had not been born yet.  It is in this play that Shakespeare first draws attention to the stage itself.  While York’s men retire on the battlefield to catch their breath, Warwick scolds them: “Why stand we like soft-hearted women here, Wailing our losses, whiles the foe doth rage; and look upon, as if the tragedy Were played in jest by counterfeiting actors?” There is a dual reality here, where the tragedy truly is in jest, yet the characters portrayed still have urgent life-or-death struggles that the audience cares about.

Like that time Jon Stewart ACTUALLY got pissed off.

But I digress: Henry VI is a simple man, and he knows it.  Even as his army gathers to fight for his title, he wanders about his country without much regard for anything but God and the cosmos.  The traumas of war have shook him out of his naivete, though his apparent new-found wisdom makes him disdain politics even more: “Gives not the hawthorn-bush sweeter shade To shepherds looking on their silly sheep than doth a rich-embroider’d canopy To kings that fear their subjects’ treachery? O yes, it doth; a thousand fold it doth.”

"I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas"

Henry’s simple, almost Pastoral, view of the world is his undoing.  I find it interesting that I started to dislike his character for a bit at the beginning of this play, even though everything he does is consistent with his good nature.  He legitimately wants a good, kind, simple life.  This need is heightened as everyone he loves and trusts is killed off over the course of these plays.  You could accuse him of being a foolish King Lear, shirking responsibility when he ought to rule.  But, to be honest, if Margaret had violently sought the crown on behalf of her son then Henry would have ended the war and established peace.  And by giving the crown to York, his son would have followed in that good and simple life that Henry thinks is best… except I seriously doubt that Prince Edward is his son.

Yeah, I went there.

Compare Prince Edward’s death to that of Suffolk in Act IV scene i of Henry VI Part II.  I’m sure that there is some debate in history, but in the world of this play there can’t be much of an argument.  Both are slaughtered by men they consider beneath their station, bragging of their own nobility.  The Prince of Wales rails: “Lascivious Edward, – and thou, perjured George, – And thou, mis-shapen Dick, – I tell ye all I am your better, traitors as ye are,” before he is stabbed to death by the three of them – just as his true father was slaughtered by pirates.  And though he is clearly a son of Margaret, those words seem strange coming out of Henry’s son.  It could be argued that Margaret legitimately cares for Henry – she certainly is a dutiful wife in every way but that early affair – but her single motivation for anything she does in Part 3 is for the sake of her son.  When he is killed in front of her, she wails and begs to be killed as well, but instead she is ransomed by her captors back to France.

She'll be back.

But her tragic keening at the death of her son is horrifically mirrored by York’s grief in Act I at the death of his son: “O tiger’s heart wrapt in a woman’s hide!  How couldst thou drain the life-blood of the child, To bid the father wipe his eyes withal, And yet be seen to bear a woman’s face?” Yet she seems to forget her own cruelty at this moment when she chides, “Butchers and villains! bloody cannibals! How sweet a plant have you untimely cropt!  You have no children, butchers!  if you had, The thought of them would have stirr’d up remorse.”

Shortly afterward, Richard the misshapen kills Henry at the Tower of London, and even stabs the corpse to make sure that the man is dead.  Edward IV becomes the undisputed king, and so he gathers the court before his throne to meet his newborn heir in a time of peace.  But, for the audience, it is an uneasy peace.  Everyone but Richard is relieved to be done with war, but for a good part of the action we have received ominous soliloquies from the cunning Richard.  So, while the happy family is reunited in love, the audience alone is aware of the terror that awaits them after the curtain falls.



More violence at the hands of some malformed creature…

So, yeah, I pretty much have to read Dick 3 now.  And to get us all in the mood for that play, I’d like to quote Henry VI’s description of Richard’s birth (which get’s interrupted by the sound of stabbing): “Thy mother felt more than a mother’s pain, And yet brought forth less than a mother’s hope, – An indigested and deformed lump Not like the fruit of such a goodly tree.  Teeth hadst thou in thy head when thou wast born, to signify thou camest to bite the world.”


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