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.


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