What mightst thou do, that honour would thee do,
Were all thy children kind and natural!
But see,thy fault France hath in thee found out,
A nest of hollow bosoms. (CHORUS, Henry V: II.0.18-21)
Henry VI II: Act I
It’s a strange thing, patriotism.
I’ll try to make this the final time I mention how I don’t feel especially patriotic towards England as opposed to Britain, but the beginning of the play causes me to examine my attitudes again. It probably says something about my pedantic nature that I can’t simply conflate the two. Or maybe it’s simply the fact that my Welsh girlfriend would probably dump me! Either way, I suddenly became acutely aware of an inchoate fear for the country. Ye-e-es, there was some fear for Henry, about to be eaten alive by his Queen like a hapless spider, but the sympathy I felt for Henry as a child effectively evaporated in the white heat of his ineffectuality. It facilitated of the betrayal of my new Shakespearean heroes, the Talbots, and so isn’t easily forgiven or forgotten. So it wasn’t what Margaret might or might not do to Henry that worried me. It was how she might treat England …
All this said, I reflected that perhaps patriotism is merely a construct, and it is even possible to become patriotic for imaginary places. My late teenage years were spent in real concern for The Land and particularly for Andelain, the unspoiled region at the centre of the setting for Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant books. ‘The Second Chronicles’ were almost impossible to read because my pain at what was happening to The Land (not the characters) was almost visceral. And who can consider themselves a Tolkien fan without wincing at what happened to The Shire whilst the Hobbits were off saving the world? Or deciding whether they’d rather fight for the survival of Rohan or Gondor? For what it’s worth I was a Gondor guard when young, but think I’m probably a Rohan rider now …
Anyway, back to Shakespeare! Suffolk was subjugated whilst still in France, and here, Henry doesn’t last 50 lines before surrendering, predictably and quickly becoming putty in Margaret’s dangerous hands:
‘Her sight did ravish, but her grace in speech,
Her words y-clad with wisdom’s majesty,
Makes me from wondering fall to weeping joys.’ (HENRY, I.i.32-34)
‘So much for him’, as Claudius might say … (CLAUDIUS, Hamlet: I.ii.25)
Our glorious leader having been ‘ravished’ and reduced to a soggy mess, any resistance falls to Gloucester – a man I feel I possibly owe an apology to. A month ago I labelled him ‘obnoxious’, but now it appears he’s all that stands between us and disaster. In my defence, he did seem needlessly and consistently confrontational in HVI Act 1: first to break away from the eulogies for Henry V and attack Winchester; throwing ‘thous’ around like cheap confetti; and peremptorily accusing Bedford of cowardice:
Bedford, if thou be slack, I’ll fight it out. (GLOUCESTER, HVI 1: I.i.99)
Suddenly he’s the last good man standing, it seems.
Gloucester’s ire at the awful bargain made by Suffolk is bang on, but rash: even as he ranted (asking seven indignant rhetorical questions of the assembled nobles and finishing with a set of forceful, trochaic statements summarising the situation), I couldn’t help wincing at the realisation that his arch-enemy Winchester was there to hear and take note, or at the latter’s Cassius-like insinuations when Gloucester storms off stage … It takes a special kind of bastard to make capital out of the fact that people use the epithet ‘Good’ to describe his rival!
Gloucester’s seven questions are almost matched (six) by his ambitious wife, Eleanor: an ur- Lady Macbeth? ‘Good Gloucester’ seems better able to resist the ‘canker of ambitious thoughts’ (I.ii.18) than his Scottish counterpart, going so far as to chide her when she begins to nag. Eleanor continues, I think to riff on Lady Macbeth with her ‘Were I a man’ speech at I.ii.63, proving herself ripe for Hume’s double-dealing. In a series of plays full of gullible men (Suffolk, Charles the Dauphin, Henry himself) is this our first gullible woman?
Certainly Eleanor is no match for Margaret. She asks even less questions (five) in expressing her dissatisfaction with Henry (another man too holy for his wife’s tastes), the realm in general and her position within it. Perhaps the less questions you ask, the more effective you are? Either way, her dissatisfied rant reveals– and she leaves this complaint until last – her feminine rivalry with Eleanor. Someone’s going to get hurt! I mean:
‘Strangers in court do take her for the Queen.’ (MARGARET, I.iii.80)
We’ve already seen Margaret’s touchiness, despite her poverty and lack of connection, on the subject of her being a princess, now a queen. This almost obsessive determination to have her due continues all the way through to Richard III:
‘Thy honour, state and seat is due to me’ (MARGARET, Richard III: I.iii.111)
‘To serve me well, you all should do me duty (MARGARET, Richard III: I.iii.250)
… and I love the remarkable, spiteful episode when Margaret uses her royal privilege to deliver an unanswerable box round the ears to Eleanor when Gloucester is off stage. In this, Shakespeare seems to predict Elizabeth’s clip of the Earl of Essex’s ears in 1598 when he turned his back on her in fury. Essex reached for his sword, and in many ways, his eventual fate, even as Elizabeth’s favourite / lover, was sealed with this.* Again, here, it pretty much does the trick: like Hotspur, Eleanor is too ‘Wasp-stung and impatient’ (NORTHUMBERLAND, Henry IV 1: I.iii.234) to be rational. As Buckingham sums up:
‘She’s tickled now, her fury needs no spurs,
She’ll gallop far enough to her destruction.’ (BUCKINGHAM, I.iii.151-152)
And gallop she does, in scene iv.
Far from fearing for Henry, at the end of the Act my sympathy is entirely with Gloucester. With him inevitably going, going, gone, I’m back to that curious sense of patriotism and fear for England as an abstract concept. York calls Eleanor’s fall:
‘A sorry breakfast for my Lord Protector.’ (YORK, I.iv.75)
But, of course, the main course will be far harder to swallow.
Line references and quotations are taken from the respective Arden Third editions.
* amongst various other sources, you can find details of the 1598 episode between Essex and Elizabeth explored in greater detail in:
Strachey, Lytton: Elizabeth and Essex: A Tragic History (1928, Chatto & Windus)
McCoy, Richard C: The Rites of Knighthood (1989, University of California Press)