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.


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