subtitled: The Middle Child, and Darth Vader
It seems an eternity since that I fell into this play, full of fears for my adopted country, and so it has been. My views on how work has impacted on my ability to blog over the last month or so probably need to wait until I’m not feeling as ‘wasp stung and impatient’ as Harry Hotspur. Anyway, as we hit the end of this play my fears for England have receded, at least. In fact, I’m struggling to feel fearful at all. I’m a spectator, but a fully engaged one.
It’s an odd-position, being the middle child in a trilogy (A tetralogy, of course, if we include Richard III). Henry VI part II is the Shakespearean version of Tolkien’s The Two Towers – without Minas Tirith. It’s The Empire Strikes Back, without the AT-ATs or the big reveal, which obviously I shan’t spoil for the many of you who haven’t seen the film … But Henry does have Darth Vader, or at least Anakin Skywalker. Something that has always fascinated me in literature is the journey to villainy, and I’m sure I’ll be referencing Frankenstein and Caliban in talking about Richard. Despite the unforgivable Jar-Jar Binks, one thing that I did enjoy was the journey from cutesie American-Pie ‘freckled whelp’ who happens to be rather good at pod racing, to the Sith Lord with the voice of the Lion King’s murdered father and a stylish line in shiny black helmets. (I say that consumed by jealousy because I’m a little short for a stormtrooper, let alone being able to carry the black cape and helmet)
As Henry VI II entered the final act, I found myself asking about the loose ends that needed tying up before battle commences in earnest in Part Three …
Firstly, we needed to get York back from Ireland, at least before Cade’s blood has dried. He arrives, playing the patient spider as ever, but I sense his patience wearing ever thinner. Within a few lines in his long aside he contradicts himself:
‘On sheep or oxen could I spend my fury’ (YORK: V.i.27)
and then claims to be:
‘more kingly in my thoughts’ (YORK: V.i.29)
Which one is it? Sensibly, he dissembles his purpose, much like Bolinbroke will in Richard II, and receiving an assurance that his condition has already been met, disperses (at least temporarily, I noted) his troops. So far, so peaceful. Except Buckingham, and in turn Henry, seem to have foresworn themselves – there appears to be a crescendo of meaningless oaths as the cycle wears on. Shakespeare has York offer his sons as hostages for his good behaviour – this seems remarkable naive, until we realise that they are in exactly the right place at the right time, when the festering boil of York’s ambition finally bursts.
I said that York sensibly dissembled, but what of Henry? Is it hypocritical of York to react so violently to the sight of Somerset?
‘False king, why hast thou broken faith with me’ (YORK: V.i.91)
My marginalia shows I was staggered by what had happened, too (Henry lying about Somerset?!) It strikes me as miles away from the list of ‘king-becoming graces’, but perhaps on reflection was the idea that Henry could dissemble at all. Another thing I noted was that it was Margaret who forced the issue by refusing to duck out of York’s sight with Somerset, and she too gets the rough edge of York’s tongue. Either way, whilst I’m still probably on York’s side – thinking as far back as Mortimer’s speeches in Part 1 – there is an element, I think, of ‘pot’ and ‘kettle’ when it comes to assuming the moral high ground.
The second question is sort of forced on me, if you can bear any more Star Wars references. I flicked back to see whether our anti-hero had said anything, but it seems he arrived on stage in Act V, which means we don’t need to bother with introductions and can get straight into seeing him turn into a monster next play. Nice one, Shakespeare.
‘if words will not [serve], then our weapons shall’ (RICHARD: V.i.140)
If it is his first utterance, it comes with the naked aggression of youth. It marks him out, perhaps, as impolitic, but also as more effective than Edward, putting a threatening period to Edward’s veiled threat. And, to be fair, this has never been a play for veiled threats.
Richard gives Old Clifford both barrels, and for those of use whose knowledge of Richard III is better than this play, we hear a familiar refrain:
‘Hence, heap of wrath, foul indigested lump,
As crooked in thy manners as thy shape.’ (OLD CLIFFORD: V.i.157-158)
It might be Prospero addressing Caliban, but it’s not. Cometh the time, cometh the hour when I’ll potentially argue that Richard is a product of his treatment, rather than his disfigurements being a giant Renaissance ‘Bad Guy’ tattoo on his forehead.
So, question two is: how did this (ahem) cute young man turn into a monster? And it starts here, in Act 5.
Remarkably, I’ve counted the King asking nine questions of Salisbury on one page in castigating him. It’s a tense stand-off, and these questions signal to me confusion and ineffectualness. They are, of course, largely ignored.
My final question? It’s clear it is all about to kick off. Assuming, wrongly as it turns out, that Richard is no fighter, and not yet convinced of Edward’s credentials, who is going to kick royal (or otherwise) ass for York? Who else but Warwick.
I love him. He’s a larger than life character, almost Falstaffian in his relish for argument and battle, in his ability to spank people. He’s still Brian Blessed. Witness this, addressed to Old Clifford:
‘You were best to go to bed and dream again,
To keep thee from the tempest of the field.’ (WARWICK: V.i.196-197)
My marginalia here is simply a smiley face. He utterly personifies the bear chained to the ragged staff that is his emblem.
And so to St. Albans, a place I know well from my salad days. Act V scene ii kicks off with Warwick in full Blessed mode:
‘Clifford of Cumberland, ’tis Warick calls;
[…] Warwick is hoarse with calling thee to arms.’ (WARWICK: V.ii.1,8)
When Clifford does turn up he is, of course, killed by York, in what I might describe as the last chivalric episode of the War. I’m sure I’ve spoken elsewhere about a tension between the old chivalric ways and the new: Young Clifford has no time for respect for your enemies in the way that perhaps Henry IV and young Hal did for the Douglas. Those days are abruptly gone in his speech full of rage and violence.
Back to Richard. No weakling he, he saves Salisbury three times in battle. The Force is strong in you, young Skywalker. But it’s left to Warwick, as perhaps the strongest character left on stage, to close out the episode. Perhaps this reflects his role as ‘Kingmaker’ in The Return of the Jedi – oops, I mean Part 3.
All line references here are to the Arden Third Edition. Other references are taken from www.opensourceshakespeare.org