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.


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