Thursday, June 29, 2006

2 Henry VI - Deadbeat Host Arise!

My first response to 1 Henry VI was to classify it as a "note-card" play, Shakespeare using everything in his research notes from Hall and Hollinshed. Some commentator asserted that the play really was The Tragedy of Talbot, and I used that to pursue Randall's lead about the end of chivalric culture. Ernst objected, and I acknowledge that I wouldn't really want to attempt a case for tragedy either of Talbot or Joan. Similarly, my Signet edition of 2 Henry VI is titled The Second Part of Henry the Sixth, with the Death of the Good Duke Humphrey. (I see that Ernst has already noted this). This subtitle was apparently added after performances to acknowledge what the early audiences found most compelling.

Worse, the 1594 quarto is entitled The First part of the Contention betwixt the two famous Houses of Yorke and Lancaster, with the death of the good Duke Humphrey: and the banishment and death of the Duke of Suffolke, and the Tragicall end of the proud Cardinall of Winchester, with the notable Rebellion of Jacke Cade: and the Duke of Yorkes first claime unto the Crowne. Hell, if I'd just looked at this quarto title, I wouldn't have had to read the play at all, and you would have heard from me weeks ago.

1 Henry VI was hard for me to find a focus for, while 2 Henry VI is much more compelling. Many characters have more range and depth (I'm thinking of York, Suffolk, Margaret, Warwick, and Gloucester); Henry is "profoundly" shallow. Lord Say, Eleanor and Alexander Iden each has a memorable little moment on stage. And Jack Cade -- hoo boy! -- carnival buffoon, megalomaniac, class-warrior, il- and anti-literate, killer; where will we see fragments of Cade resurface in the next 34 plays? 2 Henry VI has dialogue, characters exchanging ideas and arguments in the 'he said-he listened and responded' pattern. Examples are the vicious insults between Warwick and Suffolk in III.ii (I even wrote 'yo' mamma' in my margin), the romantic love exchanges between Margaret and Suffolk, as promised by Suffolk's little soliloquy-promising-a-sequel at the very end of 1 Henry VI, but, alas, under-developed earlier in this play; the comic display of Cade's self-aggrandizing claims in IV.ii while Dick the butcher and Smith the weaver counterpoint with ridiculing asides.

While thinking of 2 Henry VI as a tighter play, I look again Dramatis Personae. 1 Henry VI has 37 speaking parts, not counting the Joan's fiends that refuse to talk, while 2 Henry VI has 44. You remember of course Vaux, Matthew Goffe (who actually is killed before he speaks, but I should add the poor soldier who is killed just for just saying "Jack Cade!" (, the brothers Stafford, and Margery Jordan, the witch. Personally, I like the recruits to Cade's rebellion, George Bevis and John Holland, not because of what they say, but because Bevis and Holland were players in London during the '90s and the prompt copy or whatever that was the basis for the quarto immortalized them along with the Duke of Somerset and Lord Scales. But the difference for me, apart from the practice I had with the earlier play trying to find a dramatic backbone through all the historical data, is the greater muscle in both the lines and the drama itself. Of style, in IV.viii, Buckingham addresses the rabble in verse, then Cade counters, but in prose. By 1 Henry IV, this verse/prose character contrast will be brilliant. York is complex in his reasons and rationalizations for claiming the throne, starting with the other line from 2 Henry VI I have "always known": "Edward the Third, my lords, had seven sons." (II.ii.10) [I hear my friend and mentor Roger Sale's voice declaiming this line.]

I want to explore some of the things Ernst noted: the class warfare, from Duchess Eleanor's "let them eat cake" attitude to Cade's Cultural Revolution against "all scholars, lawyers, courtiers, gentlemen [whom] they call false caterpillars (IV.iv.36) (and we scholars/caterpillars might contemplate Cade's vow to kill anyone who has founded a grammar school or even can read a book); the humor; the juxtaposition of scenes such as the York/Suffolk followed by the Cade/Dick and Smith. How about the ur-CSI of using forensic evidence to deduce if Gloucester has been murdered or died of a stroke? And what do we make of the prophesies of I.iv in which Suffolk is to die by water and Somerset should avoid castles, and we wait three acts for Walter Whitmore to chop off Suffolk's head (and footnotes in all three of the editions I have open insist Walter is pronounced "water"), and Somerset dies under a pub sign for the Castle Inn. Now we can keep straighter faces when we explain Macbeth cannot die by a man not "of woman born."


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