Henry VI part III, Act III
RICHARD: ‘I can add colours to the chameleon,
Change shapes with Proteus for advantages’ (III.ii.191-192)
I’ll come back to Bowie’s song when I finally hit Richard III in August, because when I revisited the lyrics, I couldn’t avoid staring thoughtfully for a while. I will remind Richard that:
‘And every time I thought I’d got it made,
It seemed the taste was not so sweet.’
Like Bolinbroke in RII, like Macbeth – like almost everyone in Shakespeare, let’s face it – the anticipation, the chase, is far better than the conquest, when it comes to the crown.
In the meantime, nothing seems to stay the same in Act III …
… apart, perhaps, from Henry. Wetter than ever? Wetter than a summer holiday, camping, in Snowdonia? (if my other half reads this, I’m dead – in a Shakespearean manner)
No, Henry, is just as forlorn as ever. And speaking of Richard II, much as I’ve wanted to put the two kings in the same compartment, I’m sorry, it’s time to say it: Henry never really measures up. Worst King Ever. I’ll be glad when he finally dies. And (no surprise) I’ll look favourably on the man who puts him out of his, and our, misery. You know who that man is, everyone!
Back to changes …
God, those Keepers! I should, perhaps, say that I always enjoy the interludes where the ordinary man comes into the picture. I think I might have said elsewhere that I imagine the groundlings appreciating being included, but they are usually amusing, and always help to contextualise these ‘high deeds’. We might, I suppose, call these two ‘keepers of the realm’, rather than of Henry (although they do keep him, for their own purposes). As such, their allegiance is to the body politic, NOT the body personal. Elizabeth I would have understood this, I’m sure. The First Keeper sums it up with awful precision:
KEEPER 1 ‘… we were subjects but while you were king.’
You’re toast, Henry. However much you might complain that like Cade’s mates, like the population of Rome so easily swayed in Julius Caesar, these guys are ‘feathers’:
KING HENRY ‘Obeying with my wind when I do blow,
And yielding to another when it blows,
Commanded always by the greater gust,
Such is the lightness of you common men.’ (III.i.85-89)
These gents are not the only fickle ones, or I would have ch-ch-ch-ch-chosen another title for the post. When we left off in Act II, Warwick was heading towards France on a mission to procure a suitable bride for Edward, something he’s about to complete with his usual efficiency. But he hasn’t reckoned with the changing tastes of the ‘luxurious’ Edward.
Edward’s weakness for the flesh is a pattern we see in La Pucelle’s playing of the Dauphin in part I, but his methods with Elizabeth, Lady Grey (herself a mistress of ambiguity and double entendre) – false hope, delicate negotiation, euphemism, and finally blunt declaration and blackmail – are a direct comparison with another poor ruler, Angelo in Measure For Measure. Before I face-palmed myself again at the way in which important men were thinking with their groins, I wondered at Richard’s asides. How much of his commentary was spiteful, jealous awareness of his own deformity? How much of it was born out of sexual frustration?
RICHARD: ‘He plies her hard, and much rain wears the marble.’ (III.ii.50)
Wishful thinking? If women looked at him with anything other than disgust, I wonder how different things would turn out to be. I’ve made a conscious effort to limit these observations to a maximum of 1,000 words-ish per Act – I mean, otherwise, I’ll never keep up with a schedule that is already challenging because of pesky requirements to work for a living. Plus of course, you – dear reader – might not have the time to wade through even longer posts, assuming you are still reading now! (let me know if you are, lol) All of which makes Richard’s wonderful, exciting and simultaneously terrifying soliloquy (which directly follows Edward’s lovemaking) a casualty of Pony Tail Shakespeare. Along, perhaps, with a closer study of the other brilliant character of the tetralogy – Margaret. Posts for another time; detours which we will take another day … I’m as disappointed as you are!
Which leaves us just enough time /space to deal with the final important change: Warwick’s allegiance.
No-one likes to be shown up in front of important people, and Shakespeare engineers a situation where there’s nowhere to go for our proud ‘kingmaker’ except to defect to the other side. He’s got far more about him than Gloucester, who was similarly discomfited when trying to organise a match for Henry, but stayed loyal. So he changes sides, and the precarious balance swings towards Margaret (not Henry) again.
One final word about Margaret. Henry foretells in scene 1 that she will be able to play the victim well at the French Court. This she does, brilliantly, before taking full advantage of Edward’s priapic folly. Like Richard, she too can certainly ‘add colours to the chameleon and change shapes with Proteus’. What a woman!
Line references are to the Arden Third Edition. Any quotations from other plays are taken from www.opensourceshakespeare.org