Tag Archives: Suffolk

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 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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