Henry VI part III: Act I
Part III begins, as Part II ended, with Warwick, perhaps reinforcing his role as ‘kingmaker’, and with the suspicion – to be dealt with later, maybe – that Henry is a ‘Jonah’ on the battlefield. Whoever’s side he appears on (note I don’t say ‘fights’ on) he seems to suck the fighting spirit out of the army like a Dementor whose puppy has just been killed in a hit-and-run accident …
But, as I alluded to in rounding off my ramble through Part II, I feel the play is very much about Richard’s journey to becoming Shakespeare’s version of the Sith Lord Vader. This gives me some pause for thought, though: bearing in mind that by many accepted chronological bibliographies (and I have looked at loads of them) there is a substantial gap between the HVI plays and Richard. It’s interesting (as well as futile, because of course, we can never know) to try and second-guess Shakespeare, but I wonder that (not whether) someone yet to feel financially secure (and we can’t forget that Shakespeare wrote for money, not for Art) could envisage such a wide sweep of plays: in writing HVI III he MUST, surely, have had Richard III in mind. And in HVI as a whole, he MUST, surely, have had Richard II through to Henry V in mind? These are the times when I have to set aside analytical reasoning and simply bow to the author’s vision and genius … like when I get goosebumps, every time, when students realise that the first exchanges between Romeo and Juliet form a sonnet …
Back to the play.
I think there are immediate signs that Richard is the more effective, the more bloodthirsty, the more favoured of York’s sons. Whilst Edward and Montague can only describe their deeds in battle, Richard produces the evidence, and his father’s response is subtly telling:
RICHARD [Shows the head of Somerset]: Speak thou for me, and tell them what I did.
YORK: Richard has best deserved of all my sons. (I.i.16-17)
There is a kinship between them: they are both initially patient characters, only moving when they believe the time is right. And of course, they are both called Richard. I wondered, as the play continued, to what extent our young Richard suffered from the loss of his champion at a young age.
This sense of Richard being the favoured son continues in the wonderfully dramatic confrontation in the throne room, where not for the first or last time he outshines his brother Edward – on this occasion by speaking first. It’s worth noting the violence and ambition of his interjection – an 11-syllable line indicating his emotional excess:
RICHARD: Father, tear the crown from the usurper’s head. (I.i.114)
Richard always, always, has the crown – has, I think his potential, eventual primacy – in view, so his soliloquy in Act III shouldn’t come as a shock. Here’s another example, from Scene ii:
RICHARD: How sweet a thing it is to wear a crown,
Within whose circuit is Elysium. (I.ii.28-29)
And another, reported by his father shortly before York is captured:
YORK: Richard cried ‘Charge, and give no foot of ground!’
And cried, ‘A crown, or else a glorious tomb,
A sceptre, or an earthly sepulchre!’ (I.iv.16)
My emphasis in all these cases. Richard contrasts markedly with hapless Henry, who thinks he can settle the dispute with ‘frowns, words and threats’. (I.i.79) Or indeed with Edward, who very clearly shows us that he’s not the king we’re looking for either:
EDWARD: I would break a thousand oaths to reign one year. (I.ii.16)
Henry’s case isn’t helped by Clifford. Whilst we started this cycle with the valiant chivalry of the Talbots, we see further evidence of the death of the old ways: not just in the sophistry of Richard or the readiness of Edward to foreswear himself, but in Clifford’s declaration for Henry regardless of his title:
CLIFFORD: King Henry, be thy title right or wrong,
Lord Clifford vows to fight in thy defence. (I.i.159-160)
And that’s ignoring the implied rebuke to Henry just moments earlier, when urged to be patient by his sovereign:
CLIFFORD: Patience is for poltroons (I.i.62)
Passive, patient Christianity simply won’t do in this situation. The only way Henry might succeed is by getting seriously Old Testament on the Yorkist faction …
Instead, he makes a remarkable offer to York, at which point I simultaneously winced and giggled. anticipating Margaret’s reaction. I’m not the only one:
CLIFFORD: Come, cousin, and let us tell the Queen these news. (I.i.182)
EXETER: Here comes the Queen, whose looks bewray her anger.
I’ll steal away. (I.i.211-212)
Being familiar with Richard III, it had struck me for a while that Margaret doesn’t seek revenge for Suffolk – after grieving for him in Part II, she moves on, apparently without looking back. Maybe Dame Peggy Ashcroft has the answer:
“… her passion for Suffolk is sublimated into her love and ambition for her son Edward, and it is her long-nourished desire for revenge which finds its outlet in the murder of York, the usurper of her son’s rights”¹
Margaret, a character I respect and enjoy a lot more than the blog might indicate, doesn’t disappoint. I wonder how Elizabeth I might have liked Margaret – when the furious Queen says:
MARGARET: Had I been there, which am a silly woman,
The soldiers should have tossed me on their pikes
Before I would have granted to that act. (I.i.243-245)
I can’t help drawing comparisons to Elizabeth’s 1588 speech at Tilbury (as well as other speeches, made to Parliament):
“I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too […] rather than dishonour shall grow by me, I will myself venter my royal blood.”²
If we date the play (as Arden does) no later than 1592, thanks to Greene’s ‘upstart crow’ remark, the speech is suggestively contemporary. Margaret as drawn by Shakespeare certainly had the potential to be a ‘good’ (read ‘effective’) Queen of England had she been English and not been saddled with a wimp of a husband …
Margaret is NOT a wimp – which leads me to acts of deliberate cruelty. Whilst Clifford makes good on his savage tendencies in killing Rutland, the real villainy is reserved for Margaret in her remarkable, extended taunting of York. I noted again the repeated use of rhetorical questions, and her determination to be entertained by his misery:
MARGARET: Stamp, rave and fret, that I may sing and dance. (I.iv.91)
and this outdid Lady Macbeth’s worst excesses, and called to mind the monstrous blinding of Gloucester in Act III scene vii of King Lear, certainly the worst act of deliberate cruelty I have seen happen on stage. Arden tells me that the mocking of York was compared to that of Christ in Holinshed, but the actual Christ-like crowning may well be Shakespeare’s own dramatic invention. Whichever – it feels like a step too far, an unforgivable, quasi-blasphemous act as chivalry dies and any semblance of honour in the civil war goes with it.
And – like Walt Whitman‘s patient spider – Richard’s acts of deliberate cruelty are a way off yet …
Line references to the text of Henry VI part III are to the Arden Third Edition.
¹ Dame Peggy Ashcroft in Introductions to Shakespeare (ed. Charles Ede), The Folio Society: London, 1977
² Elizabeth I in The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Eighth Edition, Volume B (The Sixteenth Century; The Early Seventeenth Century) (ed. Julia Reidhead), WW Norton & Co: London, 2006