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 . . . .


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