Category Archives: Plays

Henry VI Part II, Act 5: Decision for York

“If you look at relatively recent British history there have been two huge civil conflicts: the English Civil War and the Wars of the Roses. We don’t have the great work of art about the English Civil War. The Wars of the Roses lives more strongly in our culture than the English Civil War- as a period, as a story, and as a piece of living history- because of Shakespeare.” Interview with Edward Hall on pages 396-397 of Henry VI edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen

I think Edward Hall is correct that Shakespeare is the gateway for most of us to the history of the Wars of the Roses. It’s a flawed view, but it gets you inside the history if you allow it to.

My first encounter with the play had me hoping for Henry, which I believe it was designed to. This time, as I studied more of the background and actual history of the participants, I’ve found myself feeling pulled towards York.

It turns out that York was a better leader than Henry. He didn’t just settle the unrest in Ireland when he got there, his leadership won him the support of its people. Rebelling against the government did not seem to be his ambition. Many times he could have taken advantage of Henry and the power that was given him, and repeatedly he did not. But there was Somerset and there was Margaret, and it is likely those two and Henry’s support of them, that changed everything.

York became the Protector during King Henry’s first episode of madness. According to Isaac Asimov, as soon as Henry regained sanity, York promptly resigned. That is when the real trouble began:

“No sooner was York out of the way than King Henry (or, more likely, Queen Margaret acting in his name) made it his first business to liberate Somerset and place him in charge of the government once again.

This was very foolish of Margaret (but then she always allowed her passions to rule over her good sense-if she had any), for she couldn’t possibly have done anything to worse offend the nation. The last person they wanted was the man they felt had lost France and betrayed Talbot.

Nor could she have done anything to worse offend York. It was only now that York finally felt that nothing could be done with King Henry, that only a complete revolution could save England.” pages 615-616 of Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare Part IV

It was these circumstances that could drive York to cry,

“How now? Is Somerset at liberty? Then, York, unloose thy long-imprisoned thoughts, And let thy tongue be equal with thy heart.” Henry VI Part II, Act 5 Scene 1

and then speak treason.

When the Earl of Salisbury is questioned as to how he could side with York when he had once sworn an oath to Henry, Salisbury says something very fine:

“It is great sin to swear unto a sin: But greater sin to keep a sinful oath: Who can be bound by any solemn vow To do a murd’rous deed, to rob a man, To force a spotless virgin’s chastity, To reave the orphan of his patrimony, To wring the widow from her customed right, And have no other reason for this wrong But that he was bound by a solemn oath?” Act 5 Scene 1

Richard, York’s son, is admirable in his treatment of Salisbury as they fight and win the first battle at St. Albans. And here we end Henry VI Part II.

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Henry VI Part II, Act 4: Mobs and a Metaphor

“Was ever feather so lightly blown to and fro as this multitude?” Act 4 Scene 8 of Henry VI Part II

Cade’s Rebellion did not begin as a mob. It began as concerned subjects attempted to protect their country from evil men and practices that were destroying their area of England from the inside out:

“These be the points, cause and mischiefs of gathering and assembling of us, the king’s liege men of Kent, the 4th day of June the year of our Lord 1450, the reign of our sovereign lord the king 29th, which we trust to Almighty God to remedy, with the help and the grace of God and of our sovereign lord the king, and the poor commons of England, and else we shall die therefore…” Proclamation of Grievances by Jack Cade

While little seems to be known about who Jack Cade really was, it is doubtful that he was the loathsome character we meet in Henry VI Part II. That Henry and his court found him to be a threat is understandable, but his grievances and suggestions for their remedy were well considered.

I think part of what makes Act 4 so disturbing to read or to watch, is the level of brutality depicted there. I know that if I could go back in time, this is not the era or location I would choose, but, distressingly, in several areas of the world today, you wouldn’t have to time travel to experience these situations yourself. Beheadings by lawless individuals with or without cause still happen, and they are still publicized by the perpetrators, though in different ways than those who lived in the 1400s knew. Citizens attempt to clean their governments up through protests regularly. Some of these protests turn violent, some end tragically.

This is a long way of saying that Henry VI Part II, Act 4 still has relevance.

It also has a metaphor that I particularly like and will end with here:

“Knowledge the wing wherewith we fly to heaven.” Act 4 Scene 7 of Henry VI Part II

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Henry VI Part II, Act 3: Death and Departures

The hopes of many in King Henry’s court are dashed in Act 3, beginning with Richard the Duke of York and Somerset’s news that all of France is lost.

“Cold news for me: for I had hope of France As firmly as I hope for fertile England. Thus are my blossoms blasted in the bud And caterpillars eat my leaves away.” Richard, Duke of York in Henry VI Part II, Act 3 Scene 1

York confronts the Duke of Somerset over his inaction and ineptitude in France a little later in Act 3 Scene 1:

“I rather would have lost my life betimes Than bring a burden of dishonour home By staying there so long till all were lost. Show me one scar charactered on thy skin: Men’s flesh preserved so whole do seldom win.”

The shame and disgrace of Somerset’s failed expedition to France led Cardinal Beaufort, the uncle who had supported him, to gradually retire from politics in real life and focus on his religious responsibilities five years before the arrest of his rival Duke Humphrey of Gloucester (see the English Monarchs site here for more information). This is not shown in Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part II, where instead he plots to kill Gloucester with Suffolk, York, and Margaret, but it does remind me of Eleanor’s final words that closed Act 2:

“My shame will not be shifted with my sheet (the outfit she was forced to walk the streets in, prior to her banishment): No, it will hang upon my richest robes And show itself, attire me how I can.” Henry VI Part II, Act 2 Scene 4

Gloucester is arrested in Act 3 Scene 1 to the distress of Henry. In some of the last words we hear him speak, Gloucester warns his nephew:

“Ah, gracious lord, these days are dangerous: Virtue is choked with foul ambition And charity chased hence by rancour’s hand: Foul subornation is predominant And equity exiled your highness’ land.”

This speech is why the Henry VI trilogy continues to have the power to resonate with audiences to this day. In his introduction to his adaptation of the plays with John Barton published in 1970, Peter Hall said, “I realised that the mechanism of power had not changed in centuries. We also were in the middle of a blood-soaked century. I was convinced that a presentation of one of the bloodiest and most hypocritical periods in history would teach many lessons to the present.”

Gloucester is arrested and, in the play, assassinated. (Historians today believe he had a stroke, but at the time, Suffolk was suspected of his death. No one knows for certain. You can see where he is buried in Saint Albans Cathedral here.)

Henry is inconsolable at the news of his uncle’s death. He mourns as so many do when forced to face the rest of their lives without a loved one:

“That is to see how deep my grave is made, For with his soul fled all my worldly solace: For seeing him, I see my life in death.” Henry in King Henry VI Part II, Act 3 Scene 2

In Act 3 of Henry VI Part II Suffolk is banished, York is sent to put down unrest in Ireland, and Cardinal Beaufort dies, as they happened in real life, though over a longer span of time.

York’s soliloquy that ends Act 3 Scene 1 contradicts historical facts (especially in respect to York’s involvement with John Cade), but it’s a powerful speech given by an important character before his departure that could help many:

“Now, York, or never, steel thy fearful thoughts, And change misdoubt to resolution: Be that thou hop’st to be…”

In Shakespeare as in real life, bad guys get some of the best lines. This is true in Suffolk’s goodbyes to Margaret in Act 3 Scene 2 that would make many women swoon:

“‘Tis not the land I care for, wert thou thence: A wilderness is populous enough, So Suffolk had thy heavenly company: For where thou art, there is the world itself, With every several pleasure in the world: And where thou art not, desolation. I can no more: live thou to joy thy life: Myself no joy in naught but that thou liv’st.”

In the final scene of Act 3, Cardinal Beaufort wrestles with death and his conscience, offering England’s treasure for the prolonging of his life. “Ah, what a sign it is of evil life,” King Henry laments, “Where death’s approach is seen so terrible.”

There will be a great deal of dying in Henry VI from now on.

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Henry VI Part II, Act 2: The Art of Falconry

Henry VI Part II Act 2, Scene 1 opens with King Henry, Queen Margaret, Duke Humphrey of Gloucester, Cardinal Beaufort, the Earls of Salisbury and Warwick, and the Dukes of York, Somerset, Suffolk, and Buckingham in the midst of a hunting party that, true to its day, used falconry as a social event steeped in status, posturing, and positioning.

Occurring in or near St. Albans, a Christian pilgrimage site roughly 19 miles north of London and the location of two major battles during the Wars of the Roses (the wars which Henry VI Parts II and III chronicle), St. Albans is also noteworthy for the record of falconry practices written by Prioress Dame Juliana Barnes in The Boke of St. Albans. Apparently what birds you could use to catch wild game were highly dependent upon your social standing to the point where you could lose your hands for keeping birds above your rank (see Shawn E. Carroll’s excellent article “Ancient and Medieval Falconry” here for more information).

This setting is particularly appropriate for the subtle and not so subtle references to the aspirations and power struggles among the members of King Henry’s court.

“But what a point, my lord, your falcon made, And what a pitch she flew above the rest: To see how God in all his creatures works! Yea, man and birds are fain (inclined to or fond of) of climbing high.” King Henry to the Duke of Suffolk in Henry VI Part II, Act 2 Scene 1

This innocent exclamation of Henry’s is particularly chilling if you recall the final lines of Henry VI Part I where Suffolk states:

“Thus Suffolk hath prevailed, and thus he goes As did the youthful Paris once to Greece, With hope to find the like event in love, But prosper better than the Trojan did: Margaret shall now be queen, and rule the king: But I will rule both her, the king, and realm.”

In an interview contained in the recent RSC edition of the Henry VI Trilogy edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen, director Michael Boyd concludes that: “Henry’s journey is both a paradox and a pilgrimage. He begins as an ignored and powerless child, overwhelmed by a factious court and the memory of his father, Henry V. Supported by the loyal and pragmatic counsel of Humphrey Duke of Gloucester, he grows in stature, speaks better than anyone of the dangers of internal dissent on the field of France, and makes the best possible effort to balance and neutralize the opposing dynastic factions within the court. His moment of greatest human folly (and the undoing of the English court) is the moment where he most insists upon his will being done: his marriage to Margaret and crowning her Queen of England.” (page 401)

After Henry’s praise of nature and Suffolk’s falcon, Suffolk quickly turns the conversation into an attack on the Lord Protector, Duke Humphrey of Gloucester:

“No marvel, an it like your majesty, My Lord Protector’s hawks do tower so well: They know their master loves to be aloft. And bears his thoughts above his falcon’s pitch.”

to which Gloucester quickly replies:

“My lord, ’tis but a base ignoble mind That mounts no higher than a bird can soar.”

The party quickly degenerates into mass bickering and the challenging of Cardinal Beaufort and Gloucester to a duel. Act 2 ends with Gloucester losing his position at court and solemn words exchanged with his wife, who is being forced to perform public penance prior to her banishment. She warns her husband that he is not safe at court, using the metaphor of catching birds through a process of smearing a sticky substance called birdlime on a tree or a bush.

“For Suffolk, he that can do all in all With her that hateth thee and hates us all, and York and impious Beaufort, that false priest, Have all limed bushes to betray thy wings, And fly thou how thou canst, they’ll tangle thee. “

This warning has a certain irony to it, in that Eleanor’s actions and ambitions- for which she is in that very moment being humiliated- were part of the liming of the bushes to entrap her husband and bring him down.

Gloucester does not see the danger he is in. He tells her with confidence:

“I must offend before I be attainted: And had I twenty times so many foes, And each of them had twenty times their power, All these could not procure me any scathe, So long as I am loyal, true and crimeless.”

If only that is how the world and the governments upon it worked, but as Shakespeare’s Henry VI shows us, it is not.

“The world may laugh again,” Gloucester tells Sir John Stanley, the man appointed to fulfill Eleanor’s banishment, before he entrusts her to his care and protection, “And I may live to do you kindness if You do it her.”

If only that were so. The falcons of the court are circling, and they aren’t satiated yet.

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Henry VI Part II, Act 1: Dowry and Downfall

One fun aspect of reading Henry VI for me is learning about the history of a period of time I know very little about. In history and in the plays, the wives of Henry VI and his Uncle the Duke of Gloucester had serious consequences for themselves, for England, and for France.

Act 1 of Henry VI Part II opens with the first meeting of King Henry and his wife Margaret. Upon seeing her for the first time, he says:

“O Lord, that lends me life, Lend me a heart replete with thankfulness: For thou hast given me in this beauteous face A world of earthly blessings to my soul, If sympathy of love unite our thoughts.”

Unfortunately for King Henry, his choice of spouse was divisive both in his court and in his kingdom, and that sympathy of love and thought he hoped for was lacking in his marriage to Margaret.

Isaac Asimov describes Henry and Margaret’s marriage thus in Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare:

“Margaret of Anjou, had she only been a man, would have made a strong King, while Henry, converted to a woman, would have made a perfect Queen. Unfortunately, that could not be.

Margaret, despising her husband… threw herself into party politics on her own. Naturally, as a Frenchwoman, she would be for peace with France, and she therefore espoused with all the energy of her nature the side of Suffolk and the Cardinal. She bitterly opposed the hawkish Gloucester and the equally hawkish (and dangerously competitive) York.

In this way, she lost her chance to keep the English crown above faction, dragged Henry with her into the mire of partisan politics and civil war, increased the hatred of herself on the part of all who opposed Suffolk, and sought a scapegoat for the debacle in France.

It was her passion and venom, in fact, that went far to starting the civil war soon to come, and her energy and indomitability that kept it going so long and made it so disastrous.” (pages 585-586)

It wasn’t just Margaret’s personality that was a problem, it was her lack of dowry. Asimov addresses this also:

“It was customary for a bride to bring a dowry with her. In arranging a marriage, the bride’s dowry was constantly in mind, and in the case of a royal marriage, the dowry might well be some cities or a province brought under the control of the husband.

For the English (who still considered themselves a conquering people with the French as their inferiors) to be forced to take a French princess for their King without any dowry at all, and with the King even paying transportation costs and giving up two provinces in addition in a kind of reverse dowry, was too great a humiliation. From the very moment of the marriage, Margaret was unpopular in England.” (pages 576-577)

Shakespeare portrays this discontent in Act 1 and uses it to bring York to the forefront of Henry VI Part II where he laments his losses alone onstage and vows to “force perforce” (through violence) make Henry “yield the crown”.

In real life, Henry VI’s uncle, Duke Humphrey of Gloucester, didn’t fare much better in the marriage department than his nephew did. Fighting for his first wife’s (Jacqueline of Hainault) inheritance, Gloucester broke the Anglo-Burgundian alliance while alienating her subjects and driving them to join the Duke of Burgundy. (You can read more about that at History… The Interesting Bits! here.) This contributed to England losing control of France. Jacqueline’s story is not included in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, but the downfall of Gloucester’s second wife, Eleanor, which led to his own demise, is.

Eleanor Cobham was a lady-in-waiting to Gloucester’s first wife. The antagonism between herself and Queen Margaret in Henry VI Part II is entirely fabricated, though could have happened personality-wise had Eleanor’s arrest and imprisonment occurred after, rather than before, Henry’s marriage to Margaret. Eleanor’s involvement with witchcraft and her ambition as depicted in Act 1 have a strong historical basis, and did lead to her arrest and imprisonment.

How Margaret and Eleanor affect the lives of their husbands and those of the court and country at large will be seen as Henry VI Part II continues. My feeling is that an apt subtitle for Henry VI Part II could easily be “who you choose to marry matters”. Is that a spoiler? Check it out for yourself and see what you think.

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Henry VI Part I, Act 5: Looking Back

Act V of Henry VI Part I could be subtitled “How Henry Gets a Wife”. It isn’t pretty, but it is in keeping with how women of the nobility found their fortunes altered by the forging of political alliances and the machinations of men. In this play, Henry and Margaret have more of pawn than king and future queen of England about them. In fact, the play ends ominously with the Earl of Suffolk declaring: “Margaret shall now be Queen, and rule the King; But I will rule both her, the King, and realm.”

The Earl of Suffolk is not the only one in Henry’s court ready to seize power from those who currently hold it. Henry Beaufort (the Bishop of Winchester) in his newly acquired position of Cardinal vows in Act 5 Scene 1 to “sack this country with a mutiny” if the Duke of Gloucester does not bend to him. The stage is now set for Henry VI Part II.

But Act V is not yet complete with just these treacheries. Joan la Pucelle (Joan of Arc) still lives. She will die, but not before rapidly committing a succession of lies, manoeuvres, and treacheries. Recalling that it was the English who tried and executed her in real life, in a trial orchestrated to destroy her and her reputation, it should come as no surprise that even a century and a half later, she would be grossly slandered and misrepresented here.

Politics and prejudice of the time surely played a part in how Joan of Arc is depicted in Henry VI Part I, but I can’t read Act V without a passage from Jane Austen’s Persuasion coming to mind:

“Well, Miss Elliot” (lowering his voice), “as I was saying, we shall never agree, I suppose, upon this point. No man and woman would, probably. But let me observe that all histories are against you — all stories, prose and verse. If I had such a memory as Benwick, I could bring you fifty quotations in a moment on my side the argument, and I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps, you will say, these were all written by men.”

“Perhaps I shall. Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.”

Chapter 23, Persuasion

Joan of Arc is slandered roundly throughout Henry VI Part I, but never as ferociously as she is in Act 5, Scene 4. It is my least favorite part of the play, but if you are an actress desiring to play a villainess who is vile, cowardly, and over-the-top depraved, Joan of Arc, as she is portrayed here, is your role.

According to Peter Alexander in The Heritage Shakespeare: Histories, if Henry VI Part I is the play documented in Philip Henslowe’s diaries as Harry the VI that played on March 3rd of 1592 at the Rose theatre, it played to a full house. In fact, according to Alexander, the play was, during its 1592 run, “exceptionally popular”. That level of success for this particular play may be difficult for modern readers and audiences to fathom now.

Timothy Mooney suggests in his book Shakespeare’s Histories that perhaps modern audiences struggle with Shakespeare’s historical plays in particular because they cover events 480-610 (+) years removed from us. For those who watched them in Shakespeare’s day, the events depicted were roughly equivalent to what World War II and the American Revolutionary War are in time to us- different, but not incomprehensible or unimaginably foreign. Most Americans are familiar with the leaders and reasons behind those wars.

Henry VI Part I doesn’t stand particularly well on its own, but it does help the next two plays in the Henry VI trilogy make more sense, and they’re up next!

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Henry VI Part I, Act 4: Infighting, Losses, and Tolstoy

The battles, characters, and chronology of the Hundred Years’ War as represented in the seven scenes of Henry VI Part I, Act 4 scramble the real story almost beyond recognition, but if you ignore names and dates and instead focus on the interactions and situations of the leaders and the court during war, you’ll find a surprisingly large number of commonalities with a famous work researched like crazy and written by a man who had served in the Crimean War- War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy.

The envyings and infighting of the top brass that lead to longer wars with greater casualties, aristocratic birth impacting how you were treated and advanced in the military, bravery, cowardice, fool-hardiness, the burial of the young by the old… these human situations and qualities are present in both Henry VI Part I and War and Peace with a similar tone and treatment in several passages. I find this particularly interesting because Tolstoy wrote openly of his dislike of Shakespeare, having read and studied the plays several times- including this one.

“I remember the astonishment I felt when I first read Shakespeare. I expected to receive a powerful esthetic pleasure, but having read, one after the other, works regarded as his best: “King Lear,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “Hamlet” and “Macbeth,” not only did I feel no delight, but I felt an irresistible repulsion and tedium, and doubted as to whether I was senseless in feeling works regarded as the summit of perfection by the whole of the civilized world to be trivial and positively bad, or whether the significance which this civilized world attributes to the works of Shakespeare was itself senseless. My consternation was increased by the fact that I always keenly felt the beauties of poetry in every form; then why should artistic works recognized by the whole world as those of a genius,—the works of Shakespeare,—not only fail to please me, but be disagreeable to me? For a long time I could not believe in myself, and during fifty years, in order to test myself, I several times recommenced reading Shakespeare in every possible form, in Russian, in English, in German and in Schlegel’s translation, as I was advised. Several times I read the dramas and the comedies and historical plays, and I invariably underwent the same feelings: repulsion, weariness, and bewilderment. At the present time, before writing this preface, being desirous once more to test myself, I have, as an old man of seventy-five, again read the whole of Shakespeare, including the historical plays, the “Henrys,” “Troilus and Cressida,” the “Tempest,” “Cymbeline,” and I have felt, with even greater force, the same feelings,—this time, however, not of bewilderment, but of firm, indubitable conviction that the unquestionable glory of a great genius which Shakespeare enjoys, and which compels writers of our time to imitate him and readers and spectators to discover in him non-existent merits,—thereby distorting their esthetic and ethical understanding,—is a great evil, as is every untruth.” Leo Tolstoy

Doubtless many students of Shakespeare would agree with him, but this makes me smile because while nearing the end of War and Peace I had come to the conclusion that reading the Shakespeare canon would be a wiser use of time and effort for most people than reading War and Peace. Both writers are willing to show men and women as they are and as they seem to be- distasteful as that may be sometimes- but they can also write with incredible passion and compassion (though Tolstoy does this much better in Anna Karenina than War and Peace in my opinion). That said, I feel like Shakespeare tended to like people as a whole more than Tolstoy did, which makes his writing easier for me to relate to and enjoy. Certainly he was less pedantic in his writing.

Back to Henry VI Part I. Many of Henry’s thoughts on what was going on around him in Act 4, Scene 1 mirror my own feelings in regards to Congress: “…what madness rules in brainsick men, When for so slight and frivolous a cause Such factious emulations shall arise?….what infamy will there arise, When foreign princes shall be certified, that for a toy, a thing of no regard, King Henry’s peers and chief nobility Destroyed themselves, and lost the realm of France!”

Many generals and admirals have fought in wars with their sons. Lord Talbot’s final words of the play in Scene 7 are for his:

“Where is my other life? Mine own is gone. O, where’s young Talbot? Where is valiant John?”

I believe most parents who have lost a child to war have at some point longed for an end similar to Talbot’s. As soldiers bring Talbot the body of his son he cries:

“Come, come, and lay him in his father’s arms: My spirit can no longer bear these harms. Soldiers adieu: I have what I would have, Now my old arms are young John Talbot’s grave.”

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