Tag Archives: Eric Rasmussen

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 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 I, Act 2: Two Quotes

History told by the losing side sometimes leads to… exaggeration, slanders, and out-and-out lies. In Henry VI Part I, Act 2,  the retaking of Orleans in Scene 1, the triumph of Talbot over the French Countess who sought to entrap him in Scene 3, and Richard Plantagenet’s meeting with Mortimer in Scene 5  are all, according to Isaac Asimov in Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare, wishful thinking and total fabrication.

There is evidence and plenty of debate that Henry VI was the collaborative work of several authors, only one of whom was Shakespeare. In the introduction to Henry VI  in the version edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen in cooperation with the Royal Shakespeare Company, the editors mention that two of the strongest scenes of the play (one of which is Act 2, Scene 4) are the ones computer tests show to be all Shakespeare.

It is commonly believed that Parts II and III of Henry VI  were written by Shakespeare before Part I. Rasmussen and Bate suggest that Henry VI Part I was the 16th century equivalent of a “prequel”.  As such, Act 2, Scene 4 is of particular importance. It is one of the few scenes in Henry VI Part I which lead directly into the action of Parts II and III. From a continuity perspective, if you read only one scene in this play, this should probably be the one.

However, from an I-can-relate-to-that-quote perspective, my favorite lines of Act 2 come from Scene 2.

When Talbot asks his friends to accompany him for (what appears to be) a social invitation to the Countess’s residence, the Duke of Bedford replies:

“No, truly, ’tis more than manners will: And I have heard it said, unbidden guests Are often welcomest when they are gone.”

This quote struck me in particular, most likely, because I read it near the time when an unbidden guest invited more than two dozen additional unbidden guests to my home without any notice. It was a taxing experience.

This is one reason why I like Shakespeare: in some way on some level, he has addressed practically everything I have ever thought or felt- but coming from his pen it tastes less bitter when I speak it. It helps me feel understood and validated, but not entitled necessarily to go and do likewise. It’s a safe and cathartic way, in other words, to get the difficult out of my system without harming someone else. These particular lines may or may not be Shakespeare, but they are my favorite from the play thus far. My thanks to whoever wrote them.

As for Scene 4, roses were not used to differentiate political alliances between the houses of York (White) and Lancaster (Red) in the actual time period the events took place. In fact, according to Isaac Asimov, the red rose became associated with the wars only after they had concluded, as a contrast to the white rose which the Yorks used during the wars . The roses, however, were firmly entwined with the legend of the time, and as such, effectively begin the story of the Wars of the Roses here.

As Somerset and Richard Plantagenet disagree regarding who has highest claim to the throne- Richard Plantagenet or Henry VI- they try to draw others to their sides. In a time when such talk could be considered treason and worthy of death, few are willing to speak outright so Richard suggests that those who support him should pluck a white rose as a sign of their allegiance to him instead. Somerset plucks red.  Near the end of this scene, Warwick, who was the tutor of Henry VI by the will of Henry V in real life and who brought young Henry VI to France when he (Warwick) supervised the trial and execution of Joan of Arc, sides with York and says in part:

“Meantime, in signal of my love to thee, Against proud Somerset and William Pole, Will I upon thy party wear this rose. And here I prophesy: this brawl today, Grown to this faction in the Temple garden, Shall send, between the red rose and the white, A thousand souls to death and deadly night.”

This quote presages one of the most moving scenes regarding the horrors of civil war that I have ever read or seen: Act 2, Scene 5 of Henry VI Part III. It starts here, in Act 2, Scene 4 of Henry VI Part I.

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