Thursday, June 15, 2006

2 Henry VI (I.2) - Further Muddling


If Mike is going to throw out compelling connections like Troy and England, then I'm content to just sit back and let him lead me through the text. It was very satisfying to read Mike's thoughts, then go through Act 1, scene 1, where the various dukes and earls (and a cardinal in a pear tree) perform a series of disheartening political pirouettes. After 1 Henry VI, reading the first scene of Part 2 would have seemed like more of the same, although more efficiently laid out, "factions scheming and counter-scheming" as Mike put it. Been there; done that.

So it was more than pleasant to have Mike's examination of Suffolk's Paris simile and his take on the power of words to lend substance to my reading. A thought: If Suffolk is Paris, England Troy, and Gloucester Hector, then Margaret is Helen. Her rather devoted speech (1.1.24 - 31) reminds me a bit of Helen's performance in Book IV of Homer's Odyssey, where she is very careful to appear the dutiful wife of Menelaus rather than the passionate (revisionist Helen calls it "the madness Aphrodite sent me") woman who runs off with Paris. It seems to me that in 1 Henry VI (5.3) and 2 Henry VI (1.1), Margaret's temperament fits Henry's religiosity quite nicely. Even Suffolk's stolen kiss in the previous play doesn't seem to faze her, and she brushes it off as a "peevish token." So, amid the collapse of Henry's rule, what are we to make of Margaret?

Which brings us to Act 1, scene 2. My essential question reading this scene was: how does it build on the first scene? Shakespeare frequently sets up parallel situations -- think Hal and Hotspur, or Hamlet and Laertes, or Lear and Gloucester -- and scenes 1 and 2 give us two wives, Henry's queen and Gloucester's duchess. Whereas Margaret's limited appearance suggests none of the subversive plotting of those around her, Dame Eleanor (Nell), Duchess of Gloucester, harbors an ambition on a par with York, Buckingham and Somerset. She hints at it to her husband, suggesting it is a vision she had in a dream:

"Methought I sat in seat of majesty
In the cathedral church of Westminster,
And in that chair where kings and queens were crowned;
Where Henry and Dame Margaret kneeled to me,
And on my head did set the diadem." (1.2.36-40)

How like York's soliloquy this is ("A day will come when York shall claim his own ... and, when I spy advantage, claim the crown" [1.1.239, 242].) Even after suffering some reproof from her virtuous husband, Nell continues to plot, assisted by some miscreant dabblers in the occult. So Act 1, scene 2 builds on scene 1 in that both present us with our "heroes," Henry and Gloucester, threatened by internal corruption. Henry will suffer from the poisonous machinations of his court, Gloucester from his family.

Nell is further interesting because she clearly anticipates Lady Macbeth. Frustrated by Gloucester's unwillingness to pursue the kingship, she says:

"Follow I must; I cannot go before,
While Gloucester bears this base and humble mind.
Were I a man, a duke, and next of blood,
I would remove these tedious stumbling blocks
And smooth my way upon their headless necks." (1.2.61-65)

Her "were I a man," sounds a lot like what Lady Macbeth might have thought moments before she demanded that the spirits "unsex me here, and fill me from the crown to the toe top-full of direst cruelty." In the same way that Lady Macbeth realizes that her ambition cannot be achieved unless she frees herself from the feminine, Nell understands that her position as wife and woman forces her to "follow." She wants to lead, but does not have Lady Macbeth's ability to transcend / deny her own gender.

What makes the comparison even more interesting to me is that both women turn to the occult to gain power. Lady Macbeth prefaces her demand with "Come you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts," while Nell has employed a conjurer and a witch to conduct a seance, sort of a medieval pyschic friends network. That Nell has not reached Lady Macbeth's level is evidenced by her goal: she has some questions she wants to ask the spirits. Lady Macbeth seeks support for the deed. Both women, however different in degree, are similar in their murderous intent. And that doesn't bode well for Gloucester any more than it did for Macbeth.

At this point, Gloucester is going to wish he were lord of himself, unencumbered of a wife (sly allusion to Dryden for Gil). Ask not, Gloucester, for whom the bell knells; it knells for thee.


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