Monday, July 10, 2006

2 Henry VI - "There you go again!"


When I remember listening to 2 Henry VI, I remember appreciating the poetry of the philosophical debate about leadership that rises to a grand conclusion with the affair of Jack Cade, which, for me, is the climax of the work. Next to this development, both the final battle (which is merely a kind of advertisement for the extended struggles to come in chapters 3 and 4) and, even, the arguable centrality of the Machiavellian Duke of York fall to second place.

Different from and yet -- at the same time -- continuing the rhetorical thrust of the first two acts’ prophesies and readings of fate, the often hortatory political speeches that dominate the third and fourth acts become a kind of musical theme that rises and takes over toward the
play’s end. Listening, these speeches are the leitmotif that rises up and overwhelms the listener.
There is a series of long, rhetorically effective speeches here.

A Catalogue:

3.1.4-41: The Queen’s long dissertation on how to save the kingdom from men like Gloucester, where she concludes, like Richard II’s Gardener, that the growing "weeds" in the kingdom should be promptly exterminated.

3.1.107-171: Gloucester’s extended self-justification before Parliament advocating counselors as even-handed as himself and naming the connivers who are already angling for the Crown.
3.1.198-222: The King’s long, defeatist "wail" (giving in to the Queen’s and to York’s allies), once again stating the case for counselors like Gloucester.

3.1.331-383: York’s mixture of setting forth his plans and, implicitly, justifying his own sense that a politic, "resolute" aristocrat has the most valid claim to the Throne in chaotic times.

3.2.73-121: The Queen’s lament over the incipient fall of Suffolk, describing England as an "a scorpion’s nest" and revealing the problems of self-indulgence among rulers.

3.2.242-269: Salisbury’s ("quaint orator" that he is) speech threatening the king with a popular revolt should he not banish Suffolk, a speech which brings the potential influence of the commoner mob to greater prominence.

3.2.309-328: Suffolk’s rhetorically flamboyant cursing of his enemies: one more dog has had his day.

4.1.1-14: The lieutenant’s wonderfully metaphor-filled account of a storm at sea whose death-dealing certainty parallels affairs in England. (Read this alone, if you doubt the ascendancy of rhetoric over character and politics in this part of the play.)

4.1.70-103: The same Lieutenant’s grand summary of Suffolk’s evildoings and the Yorkists’ rise in the failing English realm.

And then, set up by all this speechifying, the rise and fall of the play’s most interesting character — Jack Cade:

4.2.62-81: Cade’s first announcement of the know-nothing communism that will mark his future realm

4.7.22-44: Cade’s triumphant demonstration (after taking London) that he is (like Tamburlaine) the "besom that must sweep the court clean of such filth [as Lord Say], combined with his criticism of grammar teaching and corrupt government underlings. (If all we had were the Cheney Administration, Ann Coulter, and Fox News, might not we think similarly?)

4.8.10-17 and 33-51: Clifford’s rousing speech in favor of the King’s Right that, although it counters Cade and shows the Mob to be all too easily led, also shows that clever rhetoric wins the day, which, in a way, cynically undercuts all speechifying.

4.10.1-15 and 71-75: Cade’s final remarks—starved, "Kent’s best man," retaining still a bit of humorous rhetorical flair.

After this, in Act 5, little really happens that has not been thoroughly foreseen, and only one extended speech, an echo, perhaps, of Talbot’s lament for his son:

5.2.31-65: Young Clifford laments Henry’s defeat, bemoans his father’s death, and sets himself up to kill Rutland in the story’s next chapter.

Next to this sort of stuff, made mostly to move the plot along and give us a final, not entirely decisive battle, the rhetorical chain of speeches, culminating in Cade’s rebellion, seems to me to stand out. Cade is not an unsympathetic character, I would suggest. He has a nice way with words, a humorous sense of verbal irony, and a notion of justice (a mad one, I’ll admit) and service to the realm as a whole that constitute a kind of reference point in a world driven by selfishness and aristocratic self-indulgence: a world coming apart and waiting for the devil himself to arrive before it can be set right again.


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