Wednesday, June 21, 2006

2 Henry VI - Thoughts After Listening to Acts 1-2

This comes without reading either Randall’s or Mike’s responses. I’ve got nothing terribly profound to say, I’m afraid.

This play is so much more tightly put together that I am altogether ready to side with those who claim that Shakespeare wrote the better part of all these plays and did so in the order in which we are reading them. I hear no particular echoes of other playwrights, although, I suppose, it’s remotely possible that Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus may have been an influence for the spirit-raising scene (1.4). [I would also note in passing that Marlowe’s and Kyd’s plays were played when they were first written and also re-staged from time to time. Both sorts of performances produced imitations and homages. It was probably such a re-staging that led to Pistol’s Marlovian outbursts or to Richard Burbage’s asking his friend Bill to consider writing a “Jew” play (that he asked is mere hypothesis on my part)]. In any case, the play is well built, and the plot is well pointed, nicely reinforced by parallel episodes and events, and moves right along. It reads easily, and there is no old-style poetry — at least in the first two acts.

I was delighted to find an early echo of Roethke’s “In a Dark Time” at 2.4.40: “…dark shall be my light and night my day” (Eleanor).

Obviously, the fall of Humphrey of Gloucester is much like the Talbot’s fall in the preceding play and, apparently, an audience-pleasing feature of early productions — to the extent that a 1594 printed version added “with the death of the good Duke Humphrey” to its title page, a fact I imagine you have all already read.

And, sure, the factionalizing and the duplicity of powerful men remains a strong theme, carrying forward what was established in Part 1. The best lack sufficient real power; the worst are full of passionate intensity, and the anti-herald of the GRB, the Devil himself, will appear before the usurpation of Richard II can be cleansed and the Tudors brought to the throne.

To me, the two most interesting aspects of the first two acts are (1) the many curse- or prophesy-like pronouncements, voices from the “other world,” and audience-engaging questions concerning the fate-like forces driving history (Indeed, fate and inevitability might be key components in any definition of a “History Play”), and (2) the parallelisms. A third theme is the relationship between the self-obsessed nobles and the common people. And a fourth element worthy of thought is the way humor is included in the larger picture.

1. Just a list of curses, predictions, etc.:

  • (A) 1.1.212ff: York’s Richard III-ish plan for the future — all of which will come true.
  • (B) 1.2.87ff: Hume’s plan for Eleanor—all of which will come true. [Hume is an instance of what I might call a “tool villain,’ and early example of which is Pedringano in The Spanish Tragedy.]
  • (C) 1.3.53-60: Eleanor’s setting up an opposition between Henry’s dependence on Christian traditions (vs. her own dependence on witches and diabolic interpreters).
  • (D) I.3.145-7: Eleanor’s prediction of Queen Margaret’s taking power—which is already happening as she speaks.
  • (E) 1.3.205-11: Gloucester’s apparent looking upon a duel as the proper way to settle the Horner-Peter Thump conflict.
  • (F) 1.4.24-41: The diabolical Spirit’s predictions of Henry’s, Suffolk’s and Somerset’s ends—all of which come true.
  • (G) 2.1.1-15: Henry, Suffolk, Gloucester, and the Cardinal commenting on the significances of the flight of Henry’s falcon [as managed by Margaret].
  • (H) 2.1.66-150: The phony Simcox’s efforts to con the nobles with his “miracle.”
  • (I) 2.2.69-82: York’s “prophesying” the future of his and Henry’s careers—not entirely true, for he will never become king himself, although his son will.
  • (J) 2.3.93-105: The battle between Peter and Horner reveals that Horner has lied about Peter, which Henry takes to be representative of God’s will. (Horner will have learned greater subtlety by the time Wycherley gets hold of him.)
  • (K) 3.4. 48-73: The shamed Eleanor predicts her husband’s downfall—all true—which Gloucester refuses to believe, although an unconsented-to summons to the Court suggests to us that he will be a believer soon.

2. I will leave parallelisms undiscussed, although there are several, including Henry/Margaret and Gloucester/Eleanor; the lying con-man Simpcox and, let us say, the truth-speaking Demon; and the duplicitous Horner and the conniving Suffolk (Is Horner his Suffolk’s creature?).

3. About this the relationship between the nobles and the commoners, I will only note that the commoners’ discontent makes its way into the first two acts at several points:

  • (A) 1.3.1-40: the Commoners’ complaints—ignored by Queen Margaret and Suffolk [in Cambises there is an allegorical character named “Commons Cry”].
  • (B) 1.3.177-223: The falling out between the [probably suborned] Horner and Peter, suggesting that duplicity among the nobles produces duplicity among commoners.
  • (C) 1.4—the witch Margery Jourdain, whose mere existence bespeaks an unsettled lower class in the realm.
  • (D) 2.1.57-150—The townspeople’s foolish enthusiasm for a miraculously healed con-man reminds one of the impoverished, close-to-the edge existence underlying Pompey Bum’s “I am a poor fellow that would live (Measure for Measure, 2.1.222).”
  • (E) The Sheriff’s being dragged (reluctantly, one would suspect) into York’s and Buckingham’s design to undo Eleanor.

4. Here I will only note that there is a good bit of humor in these two acts—in the obvious foolishness of some of the commoners, the undercutting of various pompous speeches, and the blatant excesses of some of the characters, most especially, York’s lone dissertation on his genealogy (2.2.9-62). Keeping this entirely serious would be a difficult task for an actor or a director, I would think.

Some time Later: I find myself wondering about Shakespeare’s religious attitudes in 2 Henry VI. He seems to hold little regard for Henry’s version of religious piety and believe in God’s ultimate justice. At the same time, here, as in so many plays, he seems to maintain a skeptical attitude about those who would judge others quickly without walking in (or imagining walking in) their shoes. I will mull on this.


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