Henry VI part II: Act III
‘Small curs are not regarded when they grin’ (QUEEN MARGARET III.i.18)
Act III starts where Act II left off: the smell of blood in the water; fins thrashing as a pack of ruthless hunters circle our hapless king; bites being taken from the already-doomed Gloucester.
It’s hard to know what to feel about Henry at this stage. The resistance he offers is feeble, but in the face of Margaret and Suffolk operating almost at the zenith of their powers, is anything he might offer destined to be futile? I noticed that within 70 lines he talks twice about his conscience, and I can’t help thinking of Hamlet’s assertion that:
‘conscience does make cowards of us all’ (HAMLET:III.i)
Which may be unfair, but these speeches do feel like the pointless yapping of a little dog. In fact, he is a dog on a surfboard, watching those fins cut through the water. Like Mr. Blonde in Reservoir Dogs, I long for him to either shut up, or DO something! Gloucester continues his ludicrous idea that a clean conscience in some way gives you agency or efficacy against the unholy alliance:
A heart unspotted is not easily daunted. (GLOUCESTER: III.i.100)
It’s almost as if his pride and assurance is too much for the constraints of iambic pentameter. Henry talks about his stupid conscience again, instead of dismissing a range of charges against Gloucester which are nothing more than vague hints and hearsay. I mean, he can do this – he’s the KING, right? Gloucester is left hung out to dry by this remarkable passage. In fact, the little dog Henry seems to throw him off that surfboard and into the water
My Lord of Gloucester, ’tis my special hope
That you will clear yourself from all suspense.
My conscience tells me you are innocent. (HENRY: III.i.139-141)
You might wonder why I’ve been going on about dogs? Look again, and you’ll see a definite theme running through the scene that even I, a non-dog-lover, found. Gloucester, in speaking with dignity after Henry’s unhelpful comment, continues in this vein, accurately describing York as ‘dogged’ and finishing with a proverbial understanding that without active support from the king, he has no hope of anything like a fair trial:
A staff is quickly found to beat a dog. (GLOUCESTER: III.i.171)
I could and would go on about the scene, but will leave Henry the last word about his power to help Gloucester:
… cannot do him good,
So mighty are his vowed enemies (HENRY: III.i.219-220)
… and he leaves the stage.
The sharks get down to business: turning on each other once the bait-ball has been eaten.
I love in particular York’s wonderful put-down of Suffolk when accused by the latter of having lost France:
Show me one scar charactered on thy skin (YORK: III.i.299)
Margaret has to step in to defend her boyfriend. York is stepping up, and his earlier patience straining, so he’s shipped off to Ireland, the graveyard of so many dreams in and out of the plays – from Richard II to Elizabeth’s favourite, the Earl of Essex, it seems to have been a place of ill-omen and a prolonged fight against an army that could not be beaten: the Vietnam War of the age. Francis Bacon urged Essex several times to avoid getting embroiled in it, as Lytton Strachey tells us, and despaired when his patron took the mission on. York, though, is a man with a plan. Being commanded to Ireland provides him an army, and whilst he’s away we have, of course, Cade …
Back to Gloucester. He turned out to be the best, noblest thing ‘we’ had. In what Arden glosses as ‘part of the stock repertoire of assassins’ (and here I’m reminded especially of Clarence’s killers in Richard III and Banquo’s in Macbeth) one has an attack of conscience – there’s that word again – but inconveniently after the attack on his victim.
Typing this a few hundred miles away from home, with various technological handicaps resulting in an inability to double-check via my BBC iPlayer account, I’m pretty certain that when, in The Hollow Crown, Henry finally snaps upon hearing the news – at his wife’s boyfriend – he looks at her for most of his tirade. I loved the harshness of his words – finally the king seems angry, perceptive even. But like the dog, he’s still simply yapping, ineffectually:
… come basilisk,
And kill the innocent gazer with thy sight.
For in the death of shade I shall find joy (HENRY: III.ii.52-54)
He’s utterly out of his depth, and at this stage, I’d be perfectly happy to stab him myself, and put us all out of his misery. One thing that is happening, though, is that slowly but surely, almost without doing ANYTHING, York is beginning to accrue credit, even if it’s only by default …
But York isn’t here. Only Warwick, who will become the ‘kingmaker’. I imagine Warwick as this utterly insane, Brian Blessed-type man. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_Blessed He’s loud, he’s opinionated, but he also backs his words with deeds. If he threatens to punch you, you know that by the beginning of the next act, you’re going to be well and truly punched. Someone take a pint of his blood and transfuse it into Henry, please …
Away even now, or I will drag thee hence. (WARWICK: III.ii.229)
When he says this to Suffolk, my marginal note reads: “Well done, lad! 🙂 ”
Which leads me – finally – to “Well done, Henry, at last!” I said at the beginning of this piece that I struggled to know what to make of Henry. Were he surrounded by active, properly patriotic peers – by Talbots, by Warwicks, I wonder what type of king he would have made. If you know the play, you’ll know where my annotation arrives:
Had I but said, I would have kept my word;
But when I swear, it is irrevocable.
If after three days’ space thou here be’st found
On any ground that I am ruler of,
The world shall not be ransom for thy life. (HENRY: III.ii.293-297)
Take that, you bastards! Our little dog bites at last! It’s about time Suffolk got what he’s been asking for, for some considerable time. The Wheel of Fortune has started to turn against him, and I can’t wait to see him get his due in Act IV …
All references to Henry VI part II are to the Arden Third Edition. Other references are to www.opensourceshakespeare.org