Thursday, June 15, 2006

2 Henry VI (I.1)

Well, here we go...

I've never read 2 Henry VI before (nor have I read any of the others we've read thus far), so I'm playing fair. I've not read a word past Act I, scene 1.

Not to be the overly eager student, as we "read aloud," but given that we start with Suffolk hauling Margaret up from France, I thought that we might return to the final speech of Part One:

Thus Suffolk hath prevailed, and thus he goes,
As did the youthful Paris once to Greece,
With hope to find the like event in love,
But prosper better than the Trojan did.
Margaret shall now be queen, and rule the king;
But I will rule both her, the king, and realm. (5.5.103-108)

So, by his own declaration, Suffolk is Paris. Ill-chosen metaphor, as far as England is concerned, and it gives Gloucester a touch of Hector when he declares in lines 98-103 of the opening scene of Part Two:

O peers of England, shameful is this league!
Fatal this marriage, canceling your fame,
Blotting your names from books of memory,
Razing the characters of your renown,
Defacing monuments of conquered France,
Undoing all, as all had never been.

Shades of Ilium... This list of verbs (canceling, blotting, razing, defacing, undoing) suggests an erasure on par with Troy, and places us in the midst of a mess utterly at odds with the classical virtues of proportion, balance, unity, etc. And didn't England trace their lineage back that way and rather consciously identify, via the Arthurian Legend, with Troy? (Since I'm just reading aloud in class, I'll throw stuff out like that...)

I find it interesting that we begin a place about History this way. Suffolk should know better than to throw out disastrous literary/historical allusions and assume that he can just insert his big "but" and rewrite the books: "BUT prosper better than the Trojan did"? There's too much order and continuity in Shakespeare's world view (at least concerning the monarchy) for him to get away with that.

And Gloucester's appeal has as much to do with how the story will be told as it does with the current political situation; he's concerned with "fame" and "names" in the "books of memory." The "characters" of the peers' renown could even function as a pun, moving beyond persona and elevating the very letters that define their deeds into an edifice (not marble, nor the gilded monuments...) vulnerable to being razed. The poetry doesn't sing the way it does later, but I do see the seeds of Shakespeare's fascination with the powers and limitations of language here, as well as his acute sense that author and authority stem from the same etymological root.

So, clearly we have a shitstorm brewing here. (That's the proper classical term, I believe.) And when all kneel and proclaim Margaret to be "England's Happiness" in line 37 or so, I'd imagine even the most addled groundling felt the irony resonate in his wee brain. My guess is scene one is going to be a microcosm of what's to come -- different factions scheming and counter-scheming, internicine squabbles, some acting for the "public good," some in naked personal interest, and York sitting back and letting it play out until he can act in the "public good" on his own behalf.

I mean, the king is immediately established as someone who has others act on his behalf; he can't even marry his own wife -- he's a cipher, a vessel, a role simply waiting to be inhabited. The "subtance" and the "shadow" have been reversed, Suffolks little speech notwithstanding. Politically, he's clearly not of this world, and while I think we might be able to read him as spending a lot of time in another one (the world of prayer, piety, and beyond), that basically transforms him into a very nice coat that everyone else in the kingdom yearns to try on for themselves, or at the very least see worn by a real king, someone who fills it out a bit more. His center is not located in this realm, and thus he is too willing to compromise to achieve the "peace" and "unity" he alludes to earlier.

And to top it off, he leaves his own play after only 70 lines. Richard the Third would never do that. Words equal power. And, after each prominent player exits and we then listen to the others talk behind their back (not a subtle dramatic technique, I'd say), York has the last word. I've few more wrinkles that I'll follow to see how they play out, but that's it for now.

Peace and Disunity,

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