Thursday, August 24, 2006

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.


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