Wednesday, August 30, 2006

RE4: 3 Henry VI - Evil

Gentlemen (and this is pretty much the last time we'll be starting with that salutation),

Now we're cookin': An "evil" pun from Ernst.

Mike's wrapping up 3 Henry VI soon, but in the meantime during this, our off week, I thought I'd summarize the mini-expansion we're going through beginning with Richard III. All four of us have invited someone to join the group. I asked John; Gil asked a former grad student, Cindy, and Mike has also mentioned a friend who wants to get involved (and who may also be introduced soon). I think this swells our ranks of rank swells quite nicely, and I hope the added commentary will fill the gaps when the four of us originals find ourselves rather busy.

Ernst also invited someone -- his sister, but she has turned us down, and I hope it didn't have anything to do with that Hyundai pun. But if Ernst is still looking for someone, perhaps this guy, mentioned in today, would be a good choice:

[President George] Bush tells NBC's Brian Williams: "I was in Crawford and I said I was looking for a book to read, and Laura said, 'You oughtta try Camus.' I also read three Shakespeares."

He's only three behind us. (I wonder which ones he read.)


Tuesday, August 29, 2006

RE3: 3 Henry VI - Evil

I am probably the only person you know who has read (or skimmed) all the English plays written between 1400 and 1590 – and then proceeded to forget them. The Vice was a comic character from very early on, often dressed as a kind of village boob with firecrackers on his tale. In some ways, he may have been taken less seriously in an age when Christianity was all. I can''t think of many plays when he was a real social threat – partly because he is generally a total relativist (a la Mephistophiles), but certainly characters who surrounded him in such plays and later characters who could be said to derive from him in plays after 1585 represented real social dangers. The vice had disappeared by then.

The type certainly antedated the development of commedia d'ell arte, which, to generalize, derives from the plays of Plautus and later Greek comedy. I never heard of a female vice, although there were lots of women in medieval plays, many treated as butts of jokes – like Mak's drunken wife in The Second Shepherd's Play and the wife of the Second Shepherd, who complains: "Oh, what a horrible, horrible wife;/ It's nagging, complaining for all of my life;/ But though my lot's bad, I've got one consolation:/ We live long before Women's Liberation." (A VERY rough translation from the original).

Your talk of the whore with the heart of gold reminded me of that wonderful old Korean movie, starring Melina Kim Park, about a heart-of-gold whore who refuses to carry on her business in the back seat of a Korean car: "Never in Hyundai."


RE: 3 Henry VI - Fathers and Sons

Henry, add:

I feel like I'm learning lots of new stuff here. First of all I had to look up "Manichaean." I am still not convinced that Richard fits any of John's various evils – comic, Manichaean, or Satanic. But it probably doesn't matter what I think. No doubt the average groundling would have seen certain characters as evil, even though these plays presented them with historical figures. I wonder if our frequent comparison to Iago isn't a bit off base. Would a 16th-century theater-goer have put the fictional character in the same terms as the historical? Perhaps Ernst can send me a bit more enlightment on the use of stock characteristics like Vice in the portrayal of fictional and non-fictional characters.

What I'd really like to find out more about is Shakespeare's perception of evil. Any ideas?

Gil's fathers and sons piece also left me with a lot to think about. I was especially interested in the Blake analogy with innocence represented by Henry VI and experience by Richard. The lamb and the tyger. Again I am left with curiosity about Shakespeare. Religion is so rarely center stage in his plays. Do we read the Henry VI plays as 'Henry, who happens to be devout, is a weak king'? Or is it more like an equation: religious king = weak king?

As we go on, I'd like to keep an eye out for the Shakespearean view of religion.

Fathers and sons, too. We'll see them again in the other Henry plays, and again, albeit in a fictional context, in Hamlet. Here, Gil sees a disruption of a natural order -- the son should succeed the father and to have it otherwise brings disharmony and chaos. I see it a bit more cyclical. Henry VI is not half the king his father was (and should not succeed him). It is clear from his few lines that young Prince Edward has the makings of a solid king, capable of handling the transition of power even as Henry was not:

"Speak like a subject, proud ambitious York!
Suppose that I am now my father's mouth;
Resign thy chair, and where I stand kneel thou" (3 Henry VI, 5.5.17-19)

Would that he were his father's heart instead. Likewise, the Duke of York strikes me as a more kingly character than his son whose vengeances and Machiavellian strategems make him completely unfit for kingship. I see a pendulum here that suggests, perhaps, the law of primogeniture produced dubious results. Maybe that's why the shift from Richard II to Bolingbroke goes uncondemned.

So, is Shakespeare a political radical?

If I only had a time machine,

Saturday, August 26, 2006

3 Henry VI - Fathers and Sons


I've been poking at this for a week, and I was still reaching to recall the scene in 1 Henry VI, when Talbot and his son die, melodramatically and a little out of character. But I suddenly find myself four postings behind, so I will send this before I am voted off the island (John, there may be a little joke here, in that I live on an island). I have not yet read the new postings. By the way, did anyone notice the epic similes, all I think, on Henry's side?


Ernst notes that Henry is, for him, the play's most interesting character, given his "Christian urge for 'contentment,' and the opposing world of egos and political manipulators," though he is meek and he is mild, and by the end of the play, he is dead. I snuck in a little Blake allusion there, because it strikes me that we do have Innocence unbalanced against the cynicism of Experience. Even Henry's queen belongs to the Devil's party and directs Henry to leave the battlefield because her warriors will be more inspired by his absence. ("The [warrior] Queen hath best success when you are absent" II.ii.74) I know in Blake's "Book of Thel," experience must precede innocence, but here I am wondering how I might scan a line about Richard, that reads "what immortal hand or eye/ Dare frame thy fearful asymmetry." Henry even thinks of himself in little shepherd images:

Gives not the hawthorn bush a sweeter shade
To shepherds looking on their silly sheep
Than doth a rich embroider'd canopy
To kings that fear their subjects' treachery?
O yes, it doth; a thousandfold it doth.
And to conclude, the shepherd's homely curds,
His thin drink out of his leather bottle,
His wonted sleep under a fresh tree's shade,
All which secure and sweetly he enjoys,
Is far beyond a prince's delicates- ...
When care, mistrust, and treason waits on him. (II.v.42-51, 54)

Compare this to the lust for a golden crown expressed by Richard of York, Edward, and Richard of Gloucester. Imagine what they would do with homely curds.

I had thought to look for a continuation of the dialectical conflict of tradition and power struggles of civil strife, and I think Randall has deftly addressed this when he argues that "1 Henry VI brought us the death of chivalry [with the aristocratic Talbot, and] in 2 Henry VI, we watch the death of honor, represented in the person of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester," leaving the cynical grasping for power to take 3 Henry VI's center stage, both figuratively and literally. Another theme which illuminates the discontinuity between tradition and the present and future is one of fathers (and one mother) and sons. "I wonder how the King escap'd our hands," declares Warwick, and immediately he has news that several great lords, Northumberland, Clifford, and Stafford have been killed in battle. As you know, I have struggled with the vast panoply of historical personages in the Henry plays, and here, I notice, we are already rid of four (including the Duke of Somerset's head) in the opening scene. But, no, there arise new Northumberlands, Cliffords, Staffords, and Somersets, like giants springing from the earth that has been sown with dragons' teeth. Henry looks with alarm at a bethroned York and appeals: "Earl of Northumberland, he slew thy father,/ And thine, Lord Clifford, and you both have vow'd revenge/ On him, his sons, his favorites, and his friends." (I.i.54-6).

3 Henry VI is not a revenge play in the Titus Andronicus genre, but "revenge" is certainly a more prevailing term than "honor," and by the time Clifford slaughters young Rutland ("Thy father slew my father, therefore die" I.iii.47) the war of the Roses has been reduced to a blood feud akin to Hatfields and McCoys. The pusillanimous Henry disinherits his own son, Prince Edward, in favor of the Duke of York, but Clifford, still breathing hard from murdering York's young son, tries to inspire Henry to stiffen his sinews in defense of Prince Edward.

"To whom do lions cast their gentle looks?
Not to the beast that would usurp their den.
Whose hand is that the forest bear doth lick?
Not his that spoils her young before her face.
Who scapes the lurking serpent's sting?
Not he that sets his foot upon her back.
The smallest worm will turn, being trodden on,
And doves will peck in safeguard of their brood. (II.ii.11-18)

And continues to articulate the nature of fathers and sons:

[York] "but a duke, would have his son a king,
And raise his issue like a loving sire;
Thou, being a king, blest with a goodly son,
Didst yield consent to disinherit him,
Which argued thee a most unloving father....
Were it not a pity that this goodly boy
Should lose his birthright by his father's fault,
And long hereafter say unto his child,
'What my great-grandfather and grandsire got,
My careless father fondly gave away'?" (II.ii.21-25, 34-38)

In rebuttal, Henry asserts that virtue, not political violence, should be the legacy: "I'll leave my son my virtuous deeds behind,/ And would my father had left me no more!" (II.ii.49-50). But in the world of Clifford, Margaret, Edward of York and his brother Richard, this appeal has no more power than, in 2 Henry VI, Humphrey of Gloucester's claim, on being arrested for treason, that his good name would be sufficient defense.

Meanwhile, in Acts I and II, Richard of Gloucester has been an admiring son, and his father has first praised him, "Richard hath best deserv'd of all my sons" (I.i.17), as the son stands before him showing off the Duke of Somerset's head. But defeated and wounded York is vilified by Margaret, who mocks him with a handkerchief soaked in his young son Rutland's blood. Soon York is dead, stabbed by Clifford and the she-wolf of France. His son, Richard, laments "O valiant lord, the Duke of York is slain!" and Warwick personalizes it to "at Wakefield...where your brave father breath's his latest gasp." Do I overreact to distinguish between Gloucester lamenting York by his title, and Warwick refocusing on the blood relationship?

By Act V, we have heard, in soliloquy, Richard revealing his true character, plotting to succeed his father, yes, but with the most chaotic discontinuity imposed on the state. King Henry's son, Prince Edward, stands up against the York brothers (and his mother Margaret, says "Ah, that thy father had been so resolv'd"), and is serially stabbed by now-King Edward, then Richard, then Clarence; thus ends the Lancastrian legacy. Margaret's grief is heart-wrenching, maternal at last, yet ironic if one remembers how she flaunted the napkin stained with Rutland's blood in his father's face. Richard speeds to the Tower to face former-King Henry, still self-described in pastoral images: "So flies the reakless shepherd from the wolf,/ So first the harmless sheep doth yield his fleece,/ And next his throat unto the butcher's knife" (, and thus the father follows his son into oblivion. Richard is left to declare "I am myself alone." Thus ends, King Henry VI, but not, quite, 3 Henry VI, for there is one more tiny scene, in which we are introduced to Edward's queen, Elizabeth, and one more tiny son, young Ned. And Richard (Richard!!) declares fealty: "And that I love the tree from whence thou sprang'st,/ Witness the loving kiss I give the fruit." I wonder how this will turn out in the next play?

Henry's "why me?" soliloquy (II.v) is fine poetry, but it is followed by the curious scene which Ernst calls anachronistic in which the son kills his father and the father kills his son. Each "victor" drags a corpse forward in order to loot the body, then discovers he has killed his dearest relative. Shakespeare, who never indulges in propaganda, here gives us an extended set-piece about the greatest possible horror of war. Once upon a time, I saw a one-act play competition in Leeds (coincidentally, about fifteen miles from York). One of the plays was John Drinkwater's X = 0, set in Troy. In camp, a Greek veteran counsels his young protégé about the nature of war, while on the walls of Troy a similar scene takes place between two Trojans. Then, at night, the young Greek scales the wall, at the same time the young Trojan sneaks into the Greek camp. Each kills the veteran sentry, and recrosses the battle lines. When the young Trojan finds his slain mentor/friend the play ends as he says "One, too, shall come." I remember the competition judge from London – I don't think his name was Simon Cowell – sneering that no one should attempt this play lest the audience anticipate the ending as "one two three..." but clearly this little morality play has stuck with me all these years. And here I find something like it again, in 3 Henry VI, and I want to say, this one too [three] is creaky, not a comfortable fit with all the father-son revenge scenes which surround it. And yet a fable works on my imagination in a different way than a chronicle.

Culture is a continuum. Sons succeed fathers. The crown has continued from generation to generation through primogeniture (setting aside for a moment, what neither tetralogy is willing to do, Henry Bolingbroke "succeeding" Richard II). But in 3 Henry VI, the disruption of fathers and sons, in battle, as revenge, for gain, or even symbolically demonstrating the gravest of outcomes in domestic pathos, pervades.


RE2: 3 Henry VI - Evil


Interesting comments from Ernst about Vice. I wonder what the audience reaction to the Medieval dramas was like when these characters appeared on stage? Would that have informed the Renaissance reaction? Or would the Ren-folk, being more secular and worldly, have had a modified reaction to characters like Richard and Aaron and Iago? As a member of a more modern audience, I have trouble seeing anything as "evil." Wicked, maybe, but I'm always looking for or expecting some explanation for the way a person acts, and evil is a nature not a cause.

An aside: when I was studying literature and theater in London on a Carleton program, our program coordinator invited RSC actor John Carlisle into our class to speak. He was playing Don John in Much Ado About Nothing opposite Derek Jacobi and Sinead Cusak (as Benedick and Beatrice). One of us -- not me! -- asked how he prepared for the role. He gave us 15 minutes of backstory -- how Don John had been abused as a child, how he resented his brother Don Pedro, how he'd run around with juvenile delinquent types as an adolescent. Holy Stanislavsky!

Now, Don John may not be up there with the Aarons and Iagos and Richards, but his objective is purely desctructive. Carlisle's preparation, to imagine a past from which the character's present has organically grown, reflects the modern audience's disconnection from pure evil as an acceptable motivation. After thinking about this for a bit, I realize that I don't really believe in evil, and what's more, it now occurs to me that I tend to scorn and belittle those who traffic in such cartoonish extremes: Star Wars, Christian fundamentalists, George Bush, etc. (And even the Star Wars franchise spent $348 million over three new movies to provide a background for Darth Vader, explaining his evil -- he had a tough childhood.)

My father will point to my long association with comic books as a rebuff to this, but I grew up in an age when all the villains had reasons for their villainy; nobody was just plain bad. In Spider-man, the Green Goblin was insane, in keeping with the late '60s and '70s cliché that every villain was a psychopath. Kraven the Hutner was simply acting on a Darwinian principle of survival of the fittest. Dr. Octopus's megalomania was the result of a laboratory accident. The Lizard's transformation from human to beast left him with reduced, animalistic mental capacity. Most of the rest of them were just glorified crooks with super powers. Heck, I even look at Nazis (in movies and such) and think -- there's a bunch of guys who got duped by a megalomaniac who, in turn, had a rotten childhood. Evil is the negative consequence of what we do, not who we are.

Which raises an interesting question: If not Vice, of the stock characters of Medieval drama and commedia del'arte, which still work effectively in modern drama? Miles Gloriosus? Maybe. The Smart Slave (il Furbo)? The last time we saw him, played by Gregory Hines, was in Mel Brooks' History of the World, Part 1. I'm voting for The Courtesan, or The Whore, only now she has a Heart of Gold. (But whatever happened to the 17th-century stock character Drunken Dutchman Resident in England?)

I think John is making a similar point when he writes "We are supposed to see these people as evil, whether it's a comic evil, a Manichaean evil, or a Satanic. But they are also practical and Machiavellian." When Richard steps away from the action and tells us,

"Then, since this world affords no joy to me,
But to command, to check, to o'erbear such
As are of better person than myself,
I'll make my heaven to dream upon the crown,
And whiles I live, t'account this world but hell,
Until my misshaped trunk that bears this head
Be round impaled with a glorious crown" (3 Henry VI, 3.2.165-171)

we understand the motivation behind the villainy. Here is a character who, first, has been referred to as a "crookback prodigy," "a foul misshapen stigmatic," "thou misshapen Dick," and "an indigested and deformed lump." We 21st-century folk know what such negativity can do to a person's psyche. Teachers and parents are taught that students and children become what their overseers imagine them to be. Second, he realistically understands that he is not going to be successful at love ("Love forswore me in my mother's womb"), so his decision to seek the crown and murder everyone in his path is nothing more than successful job self-counseling. Do what you're good at.

So, how closely does this character, whose motivations and inner rationale are clear, reflect the stock character of Medieval Vice? Perhaps one reason why Richard III continues to be a successfully staged drama is because even as our appreciation for stock characters recedes (perhaps), Richard continues to be character we can understand in terms of "why."

One last thought: If John's etymological exploration is pedantry, bring on the pedants! That was cool. I am absolutely thrilled to know that the most sour-faced and sour-souled man in all of baseball, Bud Selig, is really named Bud Blissful, that the owner/baseball commissioner with the soul of a used car salesman is really Bud Pious! Now there's an irony for the ages. Thanks John.


Friday, August 25, 2006

RE: 3 Henry VI - Evil

I like this analysis for Richard, but what do you make of the murder of York at the end of Act 1? I can't quite imagine any audience reacting with hilarity (see etymology below) to those acts – Margaret offering York the handkerchief bloodied with the gore of his murdered son, then, after stabbing him, ordering his severed head placed on a spike on the gates of his own castle! Not exactly belly-laugh material. So is Queen Margaret a glimpse ahead to a less comic villain, a precursor to Lady Macbeth?

I too was surprised at how plodding the bulk of the play was. The civil war that was the War of the Roses, which threatened to permanently tear England apart, was surely one of the two or three most dramatic episodes in English royal history. Yet the greatest dramatist could not make good drama out of it! And it goes beyond character development – there's no dramatic arc that I can detect, though this itself is usually closely related to character development. It brings up the tension between story and history. Are events most remembered when they fit into a story structure, or do we unconsciously (and consciously) shape events into narratives, or do events generally actually happen in something like a story-plot structure? Shakespeare seems to be figuring out both how to shape history into narrative and how to find the narrative in history.

To some of Randall's points, the actions of Richard and company as presented seem to go far beyond mere cynicism and realpolitik. We are supposed to see these people as evil, whether it's a comic evil, a Manichaean evil, or a Satanic evil. But they are also practical and Machiavellian. Maybe this is bringing in too much Hegel, but it looks like he's setting up a dichotomy between wicked but effective manipulators of power versus blessed but (perhaps damnably?) ineffectual moralists. Is Hal his happy synthesis of these two approaches to power?

Etymology: I am reminded that at this time the Old English word (ge-)sælig "blissful, blessed, pious" (compare the related German word selig "happy," and further afield the Latin solari "to console" and Greek hilaros "cheerful") is in the process of changing from Middle English sely "deserving of pity" to the modern meanings of silly. What this semantic progression suggests is that the high value that Old English writers (mostly monks, remember) placed on a blissfully blessed piety was changing to more negative views – first that such a person was pitiably helpless, and finally to the modern meaning, which implies that such preoccupations as piety are so far from serious conduct of life as to be not merely pitiable but worthless. (Note the tension between the neutral to positive connotations of pity – even more positive when set against pitiless – versus the distinctly negative ones for pitiful.)

Well, I guess I've fallen into the pedantic mode I warned you of. But before signing of, let me say that Mike is surely on the right track about a message about the power of language here. I see this subtext running through most of Shakespeare's work that I am familiar with. It certainly pops up repeatedly in the sonnets.

Thanks again for having me on this learned and insightful group.


Thursday, August 24, 2006

3 Henry VI - Evil

One could argue that Shakespearean-era characters representing evil are essentially comic characters deriving from the "vice" of medieval drama. Bernard Spivack argued many years ago (1958) that one of the reasons Iago’s evil seems so unexplainably excessive is that he was created with a heavy dose of the "vice" in him, a contributing factor of which many modern audiences are unaware.

I don’t think I buy this, but I do notice the relative flatness of characters such as Aaron, Don John, Iago, Oliver (early oliver), even Claudius (compare him to Macbeth), and yes, the Richard of York who becomes Richard III. Their machinations can be intriguingly clever (like those of a comic manipulator/trickster), but, in the long run, they are rather dull. We feel no comradeship with them. What they put the more richly human characters through is what’s interesting, but they themselves are less so.

In the last two Henry VI plays and in Richard III, Shakespeare (speaking through Richard and Margaret) tells us about Richard’s character in a few swift strokes and then turns him loose. Yes, on the first reading it’s fun to see what a devil he is, but on the second, he’s a bit ho-hum. It’s partly because of this that I find myself thinking that 3 Henry VI is the least successful of the four plays making up the tetrology (although I guess it was a big hit in its time), a play fit for broken computers and late-summer doldrums. Pound for pound, it contains fewer interesting characters and less interesting character development than any of the other three. Only the semi-deposed Henry’s musings on larger philosophical matters (very much anticipating Richard II’s glorious final scenes) carry much force. Basically, much of the play seems to be a busy getting-from-here-to-there, which squeezes so much history into it that there’s room for little else. In the plays before it, characters and situations were developing; in the one after it, we are into dealing with the Devil-come-to-earth, Buckingham’s development, laying the groundwork for Elizabeth’s England, spooks, child-murders, curses, and lots of better stuff.

Well yes, the mocking of York (reminiscent of the mocking directed at Jesus) and Warwick’s (and the play’s) commentary on the vanity of human acquisitiveness are enjoyable, but . . . .


3 Henry VI - The Rise of Cyncism


That no one challenged my contention that cynicism is the dominant political tone of 3 Henry VI doesn't make it trustworthy, but in keeping with Richard's intense devotion to an egocentric goal, I thought I'd take it a few steps further.

If cynicism reduces people to making selfish or coldly calculating decisions and pursuing base and self-serving objectives, then we can certainly see an element of growing cynicism throughout the Henry VI plays. After all, the social and moral order of chivalry, embodied by Lord Talbot in 1 Henry VI, loses, done in by the political jealousies of York and Somerset. We toyed with the word "realpolitik" as definition of the force that overcomes the chivalric, but when one lifts the rock of realpolitik does one not find selfish motives and arch, calculating policy thinly disguised as practical realism and political gamesmanship? Perhaps I've got the cart before the horse and it is only the cynic who sees it this way. Did Nixon go to China in order to normalize relations with the PRC in the interest of a more stabile world? Or did he do it in order to stabilize his own foreign policy cred and increase his re-electability eight months before the 1972 election? I dunno. I am not accusing Shakespeare of cynicism here; in the conflict between York and Somerset, 1 Henry VI contains, but does not dedicate itself to, a political warning. But York and Somerset are selfish. And as we shall see of York shortly, his objectives have little to do with England's benefit and everything to do with his own.

Of 2 Henry VI, Ernst points out that "the fall of Humphrey of Gloucester is much like the Talbot's fall in the preceding play." It is. But a different virtue is under siege. Humphrey has few of Talbot's chivalric traits. Instead he is a man of Honor. When accused of both moral and patriotic failings, all lies by his enemies, he responds:

"Virtue is choked with foul ambition,
And charity chased hence by rancor's hand;
Foul subornation is predominant,
And equity exiled your Highness' land.
I know their complot is to have my life,
And if my death might make this island happy,
And prove the period of their tyranny,
I would expend it with all willingness." (2 Henry VI, 3.1.143-150)

In 2 Henry VI, the politics of the English court have become intensely personal, resulting in a struggle between the self-serving (Queen Margaret, Suffolk, Cardinal Beaufort) and the honorable, demonstrated by Gloucester's willingness to sacrifice his life for the good, not of Henry, but of England. Here again, the virtue (honor) loses to the cynical ("foul ambition"). I think it is telling that none of the comeuppances of those who kill Gloucester reinstates any sense of honor. For example a "grievous sickness" comes over Cardinal Beaufort and his end finds him in bed "blaspheming God and cursing men on earth," not really the final moments of a man of God recognizing the error of his ways. Suffolk is done in -- superior, condescending, and bombastic to the last -- by pirates, not really the representatives of political or moral order. And Queen Margaret is sent packing back to France after watching her son butchered, a moment that Gil pointed out to me echoes her own mocking and slaughter of York while he bewails the murder of his young son Rutland. What all of these brief moments of "justice" show us is that honor is not restored; indeed, it has been replaced by the brief, empty catharsis of vengeance.

But is there any emotion more selfish, more cynical than vengeance? Vengeance is a self-serving action that seeks a personal "justice" rather than a public justice. Even ambition, like that which Gloucester complains about in 2 Henry VI, is forsaken when the goal becomes simply vengeance. From York ("These tears are my sweet Rutland's obsequies, / And every drop cries vengeance for his death, / 'Gainst thee, fell Clifford, and thee, false French-woman.") to Warwick ("I will revenge [Edward's] wrong to Lady Bona / And replant Henry in his former state.") to Northumberland, Clifford, and Henry VI ("Earl of Northumberland, he slew thy father. / And thine Lord Clifford; and you both have vow'd revenge") to Edward IV ("...yet will I keep thee safe, / And they shall feel the vengeance of my wrath."), each of the characters in 3 Henry VI reduces his or her political decisions to a murderous individual need while England's political future hangs in the balance. Those that do not are killed. Rutland, for example, asks that Clifford look beyond his own desire for vengeance, that he put things in perspective, that he exhibit some virtue:

"I am too mean a subject for thy wrath:
Be thou revenged on men and let me live ...
Thou hast one son. For his sake pity me,
Lest in revenge thereof, sith God is just,
He be as miserably slain as I." (3 Henry VI, 1.3.19-20, 39-42)

Out of the mouths of babes. Clifford, though, cannot see the larger picture, cannot set his own wrath aside, and kills Rutland ("Thy father slew my father. Therefore die.")

I am arguing first that, from 1 Henry VI to 3 Henry VI, cynicism replaces the earlier virtues of the well-ordered court, and second that we see further encroachment in the rise of vengeance as primary political motivator. Of the variants, "avenge," "revenge," "vengeful," and "vengeance," 1 Henry VI and 2 Henry VI have 12 and 10 instances respectively, although in Part 1, the term lacks the base, secular, individual sense that we see in Part 2, as in Talbot's frequent uses evoking England's revenge on France and Joan's use evoking divine justice -- "whose maiden blood ... / will cry for vengeance at the gates of heaven." In 3 Henry VI, however, we find 24 instances of the terms, reflecting the complete breakdown of an uncynical political order. To these we must add a third, a growing cynicism of language.

Mike wrote in his first comment on 2 Henry VI that:

"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. ... 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 'substance' and the 'shadow' have been reversed, Suffolk's little speech notwithstanding. ... 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."

If we're to examine the power of words, we must also consider their use. Mike's point is that those who talk are in control, and Henry cedes this advantage -- language -- too often to have political power. But just as Shakespeare increases the cynical use of physical power (revenge), so he increases the cynical use of language from play to play. From 1 Henry VI to 2 Henry VI, for instance, Shakespeare creates a movement in the language from order to chaos. In the former play, while Shakespeare includes few of the familiar moments of glorious language that represent simultaneously the internal and external world of his characters, words still lend structure to the qualities of government and character. Frustrated with the growing strife between Somerset and York, Gloucester chastises them:

"Confounded be your strife!
And perish ye with your audacious prate!
Let me persuade you take a better course." (1 Henry VI,, 132)

Here it is their words as much as their enmity that bring danger to England, but I like that persuasion, in the final line, is still a force for good, for order. In the next play, though, "audacious prate" has won the upper hand. Words in 2 Henry VI distort, lie, and undermine order. Take Margaret, Suffolk and Cardinal Beaufort's attempt to convince Henry that Duke Humphrey of Gloucester is a traitor, thus transferring power to themselves. (Henry doesn't believe them, but he still condemns Gloucester; the corrupt words win.) Here again, I think the language, as much as anything else, begins to show signs of the infection of cynicism.

And that brings us to the soliloquies of York and Richard. These are moments that show not only twisted, deliciously corrupt character, but England's inevitable future. (Shakespeare's frequent use of prophecy in these plays is another technique I'd like to explore, another time.) When the Duke of York reveals that he will seek the crown, he describes his plan as "My brain more busy than the laboring spider / Weaves tedious snares to trap mine enemies" (2 Henry VI, 3.1.339-340). What a repulsive image, but for the first time in the plays I found myself compelled by a character. I got caught up in his plot, even though I knew how it would come out. York further explains his plan:

"I will stir up in England some black storm
Shall blow ten thousand souls to heaven or hell;
And this fell tempest shall not cease to rage
Until the golden circuit on my head,
Like to the glorious sun's transparent beams,
Do calm the fury of this mad-bred flaw." (2 Henry VI, 3.1.349-354)

Here, impishly, is an early "glorious [sun]" of York, the crown that will become the sole objective of each faction. I also like the verb "stir" here, evoking as it does the image of York as cook or witch over a cauldron. The result of his recipe, though, is a force of Nature ("storm," "tempest," "flaw"). In a way, York is the anti-Prospero, whose spell is meant to result merely in his own ascension. He suggests that his spell, which will cost many their lives and involve the deposition of a king, is the product of a kind of insanity ("mad-bred"). So York is disconnecting himself from the sane and the rational, which are necessary for words to have a beneficial power. Not only has he undermined any previous integrity he might have had, not only has he let on that he will manipulate English forces in order to arrange his coup, but he has in this soliloquy changed the tone of the plays. For it is at this point that they seem to move from historical record of destructive political infighting to a more character-driven exploration of the nature of political corruption. And at the center of this corruption is cynicism.

Words in Shakespeare are a force and can be used for good or for ill. Whichever a character chooses, be he Hal or Iago, one rarely loses sight of the value of words. In fact, it would be the ultimate in cynicism to both devalue words and yet use them to one's own selfish end. And that is exactly what Richard does in 3 Henry VI.

Richard, regardless of what he will do or say in Richard III, here denies the value of words by denying words altogether. Richard makes his first appearance in Part 3 holding the severed head of the Duke of Somerset. He throws it down, saying: "Speak thou for me, and tell them what I did" (1.1.16). It is easy to focus on the black humor and irony here -- the dead duke will be a poor spokesman -- but I find Richard's denial of the usual war boast interesting. It is the image of the gory head that tells Richard's story, not words. Similarly, when York has agreed to let Henry VI rule the remainder of his life, Richard challenges his decision. York explains, "I took an oath." To which Richard replies:

"An oath is of no moment, being not took
Before a true and lawful magistrate,
That hath authority over him that swears." (3 Henry VI, 1.2.22-24)

Richard's reasoning is lawerly (now that's cynical!), but his first words bespeak the same disregard of words we saw in scene one -- "an oath is of no moment." Given how significant one's word is in these plays -- Warwick promises to devote his life and soldiers to Queen Margaret and Henry, and his allegiance with Edward is immediately forgotten -- that Richard is quick to discount it is equally significant. We know that even if York and Henry VI had agreed before a lawful magistrate, Richard would still be arguing that they not honor the agreement. Words mean nothing to him if they don't help him achieve his own personal ends.

So the warrior Richard speaks not words, the political Richard cares not to honor words; what of the inner Richard? Faced with his father's death, he proclaims:

"I cannot weep; for all my body’s moisture
Scarce serves to quench my furnace-burning heart;
Nor can my tongue unload my heart’s great burden,
For selfsame wind that I should speak withal
Is kindling coals that fires all my breast" (3 Henry VI, 2.1.79-83)

No tears. No words. Both are replaced, he suggests, by vengeful heat. And yet this vengeance soon seems disingenuous. We are only scenes away from his first soliloquy in which he will severe himself from any allegiance to his family and their lives, committing himself to eventual fratricide. And compare Richard's response at York's death to York's response upon hearing of Rutland's:

"See ruthless queen, a hapless father's tears:
This cloth thou dipp'd'st in blood of my sweet boy,
And I with tears do wash the blood away.
Keep thou the napkin, and go boast of this;
And if thou tell'st the heavy story right,
Upon my soul, the hearers will shed tears;
Yea, even my foes will shed fast-falling tears
And say 'Alas, it was a piteous deed!'" (3 Henry VI, 1.4.156-163)

Not only are there tears all over the place and 50 lines of lament (for Margaret's evil as well as Rutland's death), but there is an honoring of words. "The heavy story" that becomes Rutland's epitaph reminds me of Hamlet's request of Horatio:

"If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart
Absent thee from felicity awhile,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,
To tell my story." (Hamlet, 5.2.347-49)

Words, in the form of stories, honor both life and its meaning, and these words take no sides since they can be told by friend and foe alike. Hence, there is nothing cynical about York's language or sentiment in this passage. In fact, I felt that it made him a more complex and interesting character. But it also creates the clear contrast with Richard, who cannot generate either tears or language for his father. He is left instead with a paltry desire for vengeance, and I don't even trust that. There is an emptiness to his words. In the end, I believe that Richard, while content to use words to achieve his ends, despises them. He says, for example, when Queen Margaret begs for death, "Why should she live, to fill the world with words?" (5.5.44), implying that her words are dangerous to him and also that words are obnoxious things. Here then, at the end of 3 Henry VI, is the epitome of cynicism, that the greatest human characteristic -- our language -- is reduced by Richard to a disingenuous, base, and unregarded tool, used to achieve a corrupt and selfish end.

What is interesting to me is that throughout this trilogy, I would never have argued (and do not now) that Shakespeare is a cynic. The cynicism I see spreading like kudzu through the Lancastrian and Yorkist courts is of their own making, and while Shakespeare organizes, shapes, and in some cases manufactures their narrative, he seems to remain free of the quality that taints their endeavors. What emerged for me, then, is a significant theme -- the destructive effect of cynicism when it is allowed political sway over the necessary virtues and altruisms that make healthy government.


Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Henry VI - Performance Log (August 2006)

Henry VI, Parts 1, 2 & 3
Adapted and directed by Ken Holmes
Volunteer Park, Seattle, WA
Aug. 12, 2006


Mirabile dictu, Randall and I saw a production of Henry VI (!) August 12 performed by Greenstage 2006 in Volunteer Park, Seattle. This is the 18th season of a Shakespeare in the Park company. They played at the foot of a sloping lawn in front of a cement stage/band shell (which they never used) between the Volunteer Park conservatory and the Asian Art Museum. Weather sunny and 80 degrees; some typical Seattle airplane noise; audience about 125 on blankets; actors only several feet from the first blanket and sometimes making excursions and alarums through the crowd itself; entrances right dovetailed with exits left (or vice versa), but the actors still get workout credit for jogging a total of about a mile to and from backstage [aside: my current favorite song title is Andy Wahlberg's "You Call It Jogging, But I Call It Running Around"]. There are fifteen in the cast, ten men and five women, none of them also cast in Greenstage's other summer production, A Midsummer Night's Dream.

The play was adapted from Parts 1, 2, and 3 by director Ken Holmes and ran a few minutes short of three hours with no intermission. Randall and I had, of course, read the whole thing, but still the progress of the action seemed quite coherent and I think the audience followed it quite well. But, boy, what a panorama. The players choreographed sword play in slow motion before the performance, which turned out to be a pretty good preview, in that there must have been fifteen sword fights or battles, and Ernst's impression of a lot of people standing around shouting was punctuated by the clash of steel. Yorks were in purple, Lancasters in red (and Warwick half and half). Every actor, of course, had multiple parts, though Henry (Dan Wilson) and Margaret (Erin Day) only had a little ensemble duty.

The company was quite good, all speaking the lines well (I didn't miss a single line, though Henry spoke with a high-speed nervousness that Randall thought was an intentional display of his youth at the beginning, until it turned out he was just as nervous two hours later). The actress who played the Cardinal of Winchester (Courtney Esser), et al, was one of those young actors (about 22) caricaturing a doddering old man, but the rest all seemed to be on the same page in style and talent. The director understandably tried for a little comic relief. For instance, the pirates who capture and kill Suffolk belonged to the "aaarg, matey" school of seamen, and Jack Cade's part was narrowed to the bombastic megalomaniac bits. There were some fine light touches, as in the reconciliation of Warwick (Ryan Higgins) and Queen Margaret in France after the Lady Bona shame, in which the actors' expressions perfectly contradicted their lines and hand-kissing actions.

The play(s): The prologue was taken from Henry V, "O for a Muse of fire..." and its epilogue "Henry the Sixt...whose state so many had the managing, That they lost France and made his England bleed." There is a whole lot of shouting, a whole lot of fighting, a whole lot of killing going on (in al fresco theatre, the bodies would rise and stroll off the stage quietly as the action was blocked elsewhere, sometimes holding their swords in front of them so the hilt made a cross). Joan (Meredith Armstrong) is confident and assertive, and here her "pleading of the belly" did not seem as much a character reversal as consistent assertive strategy, not cowardice or whining. Armstrong, after lord-on-the-left ensemble work, came back as a fiercely articulate Prince Edward, who is butchered for his defiance, stronger than I had seen him on the page.

Talbot (Drew Dyson Hobson) was heroic more by assertion than action, partly because his part was necessarily cut. Humphrey of Gloucester (Therese Diekhans) gave me the dignity and honor as well as the disgust with the political schemers which we noted in our postings on Part 2. Suffolk (Sam Hagen) was smug, less a machiavel than a nasty guy. Dan Wilson, a young actor perhaps newly out of high school was cast as Henry, and except for the speed of his delivery, this was effective. Clean-shaven, fair of face, robed in a gray gown, he was physically different from all the warriors swirling around him.

In one scene, Part 3, II.v ("So many hours must I tend my flock"), Wilson was center stage speaking of the burden of kingship, while around him there was a circle of stop-action sword play (the adaptor cut the father who kills his son/ son who...) The most powerful character was Richard Plantagenet (Johnny Patchamatla), the Duke of York, olive skin, shoulder-length black hair, strong voice; his soliloquies addressed directly to the audience were quite clearly Shakespeare underscoring the inner political understanding of his character. Erin Day's Margaret was very strong, complex, subtle, except for chewing up the scenery (had there been any scenery) in her farewell to Suffolk. When the Lancasters are circled to kill York, on his knees with wounds, her scorn ("She wolf of France"), laughter, and fatal blow were chilling, and seemed the crescendo of the three plays, though it is only Part 3, I.iv.

After that, the action is balanced between Edward (Chad Evans) and Henry, and Edward, despite the seduction of Lady Gray, doesn't seem well-developed. By this time Clifford is just another noble with blood dripping from his teeth, Warwick is really undercut as "kingmaker" because his side-switching is so abrupt, and poor little Henry is captured by deer hunters. That really leaves the emergence of Richard of Gloucester, as Mike said in his very first posting.

In this production Richard was played with a limp, but no hump, by an actress, Sarah Lesley, more slight of build than her brothers, Edward and George. (I'm afraid her gender sort of robbed the spice out of the line "And thou misshapen Dick".) But I felt this adaptation focused the emergence of Richard of York through a maelstrom of civil unrest, with the denouement of Richard of Gloucester emerging with a more psychological complexity than his father. To that end, this play did not end with King Edward IV's "For here I hope begins our lasting joy," but after the stage empties, Richard stepping forward, sneering "Now is the winter of our discontent/ Made glorious summer by this son of York...".


Editor's note: This post has been retroactively identified as a "Performance Log." Pictures and actors names have been added (08/2008).

Photos: (top) Terence Atz, Dan Wilson as King Henry VI, Courtney Esser as Winchester, and Drew Dyson Hobson in GreenStage's Henry VI, Parts 1, 2 & 3; (middle) Chad Evans as Edward, Sarah Lesley as Richard, and Terence Atz as Clarence. Photos by Ken Holmes.

Monday, August 14, 2006

3 Henry VI - Better to Reign Than to Serve in England


I am intrigued by many of the questions posed by Mike and Ernst. I agree with Mike that Richard is fascinating in this play, and as Talbot became the focus of 1 Henry VI, I feel that Richard steals the show from Henry here. He has, for example, two fascinating soliloquies (Act 3, scene 2 and Act 5 scene 6) to Henry's one (in Act 2, scene 5). In a stunning indication that there is order in the universe, on the heels of finishing reading the third Henry VI play for this meeting of minds we call the William Shakespeare Experience, this week Gil and I were able to see a Shakespeare production of all three Henry VI plays condensed into one three-hour production, for free no less. As an audience will recognize a fine solo within a longer jazz composition with spontaneous applause, what inspired our fellow play-goers to mid-scene applause the most were the seductive, revelatory, sheep-in-wolf's clothing soliloquies of Richard, Duke of York and Richard, Duke of Gloucester. I never fail to find this ironic -- that we celebrate that which, in the grand scheme of things, will bring about chaos and death.

What is it about evil that is so compelling?

Mike alludes to Milton's Paradise Lost in his assessment of Richard's vitality. Yes, we absolutely see the same sort of anti-heroism in Milton's Satan that we find in the Richards, particularly Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who captures this succinctly in the final lines of his second soliloquy when he indicates that he will add to the murders of King Henry and Prince Edward, the slaughter of his own brothers King Edward IV and the Duke of Clarence, "counting myself but bad til I be best." The word "bad" here not only dismisses the inappropriateness of his chosen path to kingship with ends-justifies-the-means rationalization ("but bad until"), but embraces the evil as creative ingenuity; it is his badness exclusively that will make him king. Modern pop culture fanatics will hear the same double entendre in Mae West's famous line: "When I'm good, I'm very good, but when I'm bad, I'm better."

We are intrigued by Milton's Satan because he opposes the unopposable, and when he fails, he responds with chutzpah: "'Tis better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven" which is, perhaps, another way of saying, as Richard does, that he'll cry "content" to that which grieves his heart. Richard has his own "reign in Hell" sentiment. He says, in his final soliloquy:

"Then, since the heavens have shaped my body so,
Let hell make crook'd my mind to answer it." (5.6.78-79)

Yet it is not hell that accomplishes the corruption, but Richard himself. His evil, his bald and brazen badness, are self-created. Karen Armstrong points out in her commentary on "Genesis," In the Beginning, that the creative process which Adam initiates as he names the animals, creating "a meaningful world for himself by means of language," goes hand in hand with a separation from his creator, God. Armstrong's idea is that the act of creation usurps God's role, and so separates us from Him. Richard, in his act of self-creation, separates himself from the natural order of things -- any allegiance to England's sovereign, his father, his brothers ("I have no brother" he tells us), and a general sense of honor. Richard's comment, "I am myself alone," further elevates him, echoing as it does God's comment to Moses in "Exodus": "I am that I am" (3:14). And I think this brings us back to Milton, for it is not godhood that Richard achieves but the darker side Milton presents to us in Satan. We may be compelled by Richard, but as Milton tempts us with Satan's anti-heroic nature (he causes the fall of man and opposes Christ), so Shakespeare offers us a satanic Richard -- his aloneness and panache draw us to him, but his works are brutal and horrifying.

Is this what the throne of England has come to? 1 Henry VI brought us the death of chivalry. In 2 Henry VI, we watch the death of honor, represented in the person of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. Any vestige of honor is wiped out with Richard Plantagenet's death (he who wanted to abide by the oath he'd made with King Henry), leaving us with political windsocks like Warwick and Clarence. In the absence of chivalry and honor, what organizes English politics? In 3 Henry VI, it is cynical grasping for power. Allegiences are made on who is most likely to succeed. The throne is tossed back and forth not by right but by might. And the worst, it seems, is yet to come. For Richard will make a hell of England.


Friday, August 11, 2006

RE: 3 Henry VI - Brief Comments

Addendum: I like the possibilities deriving from Mike’s trio of post-Renaissance evils: proto-protestant, nationalistic Christianity (Joan — see Shaw’s treatment of her), Luddite know-nothing-ism (Cade) and godless, self-centered love of manipulation (Richard). Obviously, all three rise during periods of uncertainty and fear. And, in the 1590s, anxiety was rising in England, and pessimism was growing (anxiety about the aging Queen, the death of Sidney, a series of lousy crops and a recurring plague didn’t help). In some ways, the only direction to go after the defeat of the Armada was down. Late-Renaissance melancholy had reached the north some time after baroque art had peaked in Italy and would be reach full focus, with respect to drama, in plays like Doctor Faustus and, more significantly, Hamlet.

Our own age, driven by every sort of fear-mongering, could be seen in the same way with Fundamentalism, Joe Sixpack, and Dick Cheney running things. Of course, World War II and the over-glamorized fifties are a bit further back than the Armada was for England. Obviously the first person to be got rid of before things can be made whole is Cheney, whom Maureen Dowd always refers to as “Vice” (and, of course, his Chief Puppet). Get the Devil — whether it be Cheney or Richard -- out of there, and there’s hope. Time will re-adjust the other two.

This IS about as glib and superficial as I have stomach for.


Thursday, August 10, 2006

3 Henry VI - Brief Comments

Brief after-listening comments:

1. Our son once referred to opera as a lot of people standing around shouting in Italian. There is a lot of shouting in 3 Henry VI. Again and again and again, some military leader is shouting orders or rationales or pep talks or defiances, followed by the steady beat of drums and screaming soldiers. And it's a long play. Part of it seems to be primarily a fair attempt to get so complex a story told. Did Shakespeare find this boring?

2. The central theme of the play seems to me to have to do with the tension between Henry's Christian urge for "contentment" and the opposing world of egos and political manipulators, nearly all of whom die or are marked down in Richard's little black book by play's end.

3. Thus, to some extent, Henry is the play's most interesting character for me. He is not as interesting as, say, Joan or Jack Cade. I need to re-read his remarks and career some. His respone to political breakdown seems the best, in a way -- especially with unstoppable Richard waiting in the wings. That he might have done better seems -- to me, at least -- less on Shakespeare's mind here. Perhaps Margaret is the character who develops most, but she is still unfinished by the play's end. Perhaps Warwick, who seems generally to be treated with respect, is the most ironic.

4. The early episode in which son kills father and father kills son strikes me as anachronistic, not really fitting the general tone of the play.

5. Several echoes of Tamburlaine's famous "sweet fruition of an earthly crown" speech, but, then, that must have been among the top three best-known phrases of the time.


Wednesday, August 2, 2006

3 Henry VI - Opening Remarks


I'm only a bit tardy because that's clearly become the fashionable thing to do with this crowd.

Given that we're two thirds of the way through this, I'm not really introducing anything -- I just have some a thought, and some potential implications, to throw out there. Pick them up if you find them interesting; cast them away, if not. And let discussion commence as soon as the spirit moves you.

I find Richard fascinating. (That's Richard (Gloucester), soon to be R III.) And one of the things I'm interested in tracing, as we funnel into Richard III, is how he's sketched here, in the antecedent to Richard III, which has historically been one of Shakespeare's most popular and oft performed plays. (And the first play that we'll encounter in this experiment that I've actually read. Hoo-ha!) So where did this deliciously clever, triple ironizing, strangely magnetic fellow come from?

Milton Crane puts it like this in his intro to my Signet Edition: "For the more sophisticated, 3 Henry VI reserves yet another reward -- that of watching the early development of a major character, Richard III, from his beginning as a strong, courageous, admittedly brutal, but not yet frankly villainous figure to the monster who will meet deserved destruction on Bosworth field."

Here are some of his final lines from this play: Act 5, scene 6:

The midwife wondered, and the women cried,
"O Jesus bless us, he is born with teeth!"
And so I was, which plainly signified
That I should snarl and bite and play the dog.
Then, since the heavens have shaped my body so,
Let hell make crooked my mind to answer it.
I have no brother, I am like no brother;
And this word "love," which graybeards call divine,
Be resident in men like one another
And not in me: I am myself alone.

I hear a lot here.

Hints of an early map for existential isolation, to be sure. And, in the powerful pentameter of "I am myself alone," framed by the caesura and the period, I hear the burgeoning (and somewhat frightening) power of the atomized individual, unfettered by communal or moral bonds. This presages a very modern notion of what it means to be a "man" in the world, the uber-capitalist, (he's a creature of appetite, "born with teeth"), the superman, etc., and it's mesmerizing, more than a little seductive, and frightening, all at once.

How did this world of Shakespeare's deliver this fellow to us? How much is he a product of the York/Lancaster feud? (And does this civil strife echo in later plays, such as Romeo and Juliet?) Is he the monster created by his world to end the fight? To what extent are these three plays merely an illustration of powerful individual will rising up again and again, (Jack Cade, Joan of Arc, etc.), to be held repeatedly in check by a somewhat tired framework? Are the seeds of democracy, in some form, gestating in these words? (The dark, corporate, amoral form we inhabit today?) Or is it just the id being released on stage, for our vicarious pleasure, before being stuffed back into a dark corner by the end of the play? I find Joan, and Jack, and little Ricky to be very vital characters, often the emotional center of what's happening, a bit like Satan in Paradise Lost? What do you all think?

And, yes, all the threads we've currently started upon are also still fair game.