Henry VI Part III
By Dennis Abrams
Act Two: Despite his father’s death, Edward Plantagenet is proclaimed the rightful king. In the royal camp, Henry knights his own son, but declines to fight. When Edward appears and repeats his claim to the throne, Margaret and her supporters reject it and the two armies fight at Towton. Henry ponders (and ponders) on his country’s suffering but is interrupted by the news that Margaret’s army has been defeated. Clifford is killed, and Edward heads to London to be crowned.
I’d like to continue with Tanner’s discussion of the play, picking up from where we left off last time, with York’s murder by Margaret and Clifford:
“A similar scene is almost re-enacted when, later, Clifford falls in battle. The York boys gather round, as they ‘devise fell tortures’ for their number one enemy. Fortunately for Clifford, he is already dead though the Yorks, thwarted of their anticipated ghoulish pleasures, can hardly accept the fact. Richard:
‘Tis but his policy to counterfeit,
Because he would avoid such bitter taunts
Which in the time of death he gave our father.
Ideally, Clifford and Richard would like to go on taunting each other, and fighting each other, forever. As psychopaths, they are evenly matched. But Clifford has dropped from the field. And there will be no one else who can take on Richard for a long time.
Henry has been kept entirely apart from the action, so when he appears, he speaks as a solitary melancholy observer, able to subsume the surgings of the war into the great struggles of nature:
This battle fares like to the morning’s war,
When dying clouds contend with growing light,
What time the shepherd, blowing of his nails,
Can neither call it perfect day nor night.
Now sways it this way, like a mighty sea
Forced by the tide to combat with the wind.
Now sways it that way, like the selfsame sea
Forced to retire by fury of the wind.
Sometimes the flood prevails, and then the wind;
Now one the better, then another best;
Both tugging to be victors, breast to breast,
Yet neither conqueror nor conquered:
So is the equal poise of this fell war.
Here on this molehill will I sit me down.
To whom God will, there be the victory!
This is, at least theatrically, the same molehill on which York was mocked, so it is a good site for kingly mediation. And there, Henry draws out his pastoral fantasy:
O God! methinks it were a happy life,
To be no better than a homely swain;
To sit upon a hill, as I do now,
To carve out dials quaintly, point by point,
Thereby to see the minutes how they run –
How many makes the hour full complete,
How many hours brings about the day,
How many days will finish up the year,
How many years a mortal man may live;
When this is known, then to divide the times –
So many hours must I tend my flock,
So many hours must I take my rest,
So many hours must I contemplate,
So many hours must I sport myself,
So many days my ewes have been with young,
So many weeks ere the poor fools will ean,
So many years ere I shall shear the fleece.
So minutes, hours, days, months, and years,
Passed over to the end they were created,
Would bring white hairs unto a quiet grave.
Ah, what a life were this! how sweet! how lovely!
It is a dream of a world slowed down to its lowest pulse-rate; a life reduced to seasons and cycles and their repetitions and recurrencies. A life and a world which history does not penetrate and violate. But then, as if in a tableau, two figures carrying corpses enter from different directions. Only now do they realize that one is a father who has just killed his own son; the other a son who has killed his own father. The grief is very stylized and antiphonal, and the theme was a common one, showing up:
What stratagems, how fell, how butcherly,
Erroneous, mutinous and unnatural,
This deadly quarrel daily doth beget!
It allows Henry to lament over the whole war:
Woe above woe! grief more than common grief!
O that my death would stay these ruthful deeds!
O, pity, pity, gentle heaven, pity!
The red rose and the white are on his face,
The fatal colors of our striving houses:
The one his purple blood right well resembles;
The other his pale cheeks, methinks, presenteth:
Wither one rose, and let the other flourish!
If you contend, a thousand lives must wither.
Henry’s recipe for peace – ‘wither one rose’ – has no future, though his desire for peace is manifestly heart-felt. But this rather dream-like heraldic, or emblematic, tableau-interlude is soon over, and we are back among the real fighting.”
And from Garber:
“The bravado and festivity of the display of white and red roses with which the play begins, the apparent emblems of the Wars of the Roses and thus, more generally, the emblems of civil war, are succeeded in the play’s most sublime and painful tableau by the desperate events of discovery witnessed by King Henry in act 2, scene 5: ‘Enter at one door a Soldier with a dead man [his father] in his arms’ (stage direction, line 55), and then ‘Enter at another door another Soldier with a dead man [his son] in his arms’ (stage direction, line 79).
Henry is taking refuge from the battle – from what he calls, finely, ‘the equal poise of this fell war.’ Indeed, his wife, the martial Margaret, and his ruthless chief warrior, Lord Clifford, have asked him to stay out of the way, since, he reflects, ‘They prosper best of all when I am thence’. (Clifford is this plays version of a character like Tybalt of Hotspur, full of energy and drive, impelled by revenge or the sensibility of insult, heedless of a political moderation.) Thus unmanned, King Henry wishes himself for a moment unkinged as well, as he takes a seat ‘on this molehill,’ thereby recalling to the audience the mocking and death of York at the hands of Margaret. (Shakespeare’s contemporary George Peele would write in his play The Battle of Alcazar , ‘King of a mole-hill had I rather be,/Than the richest subject of a monarchy.’ Henry’s lengthy reverie on the simple life, beginning ‘O God! Methinks it were a happy life/To be no more than a homely swain./To sit upon a hill, as I do now;/To carve out dials quaintly, point by point,’ anticipates the similar thoughts of another temperamentally unfit monarch, Richard II, in Shakespeare’s later play of that name (King Henry VI: ‘So many hours must I tend my flock,/So many hours must I take my rest,/So many hours must I take my rest,/So many hours must I contemplate,/So many hours must I sport myself’; King Richard II: ‘I’ll give my jewels for a set of beads,/My gorgeous place for a hermitage,/My gay apparel for an almsman’s gown,/My figure goblets for a dish of wood,/My sceptre for a palmer’s walking staff.’) But this utopian vision of the life of a shepherd, insulated from the cares of the court if not from the depredations of the weather, is rudely interrupted by the appalling discovery scenes to which Henry is a silent and suffering onstage witness. Both the ‘Soldier who has killed his father’ and the ‘Soldier who has killed his son’ think they have gained spoils of war (‘some store of crowns’ and ‘gold’) by vanquishing a foe; importantly, their motives are local and economic rather than gloriously patriotic. Indeed, as the son laments, he was impressed into the army by the King, and his father, who served the Earl of Warwick, was ‘pressed by his master’ to fight on the side of York. Neither the first soldier nor the second is fighting out of personal conviction or loyalty. Their exclamations of despair are, again, manifestly and explicably biblical: ‘Pardon me, God, I knew not what I did,’ says the son who has killed his father, ‘And pardon, father, for I knew not thee’ while the anguished father who has killed his son undergoes a similarly agonizing reversal of expectations: ‘But let me see: is this our foeman’s face?/Ah, no, no, no – it is mine only son.’ The entire scene is a play-within-the-play, of a kind at which Shakespeare the dramatist excels. The appalled King, an onstage spectator, comments to himself and to the audience, noting of the dead son that ‘[t]he red rose and the white are on his face,/The fatal colors of our striving houses’ He sees very clearly in this moment that the civil war is internal and emotional as well as external and political: ‘I’ll aid thee tear for tear;/And let our hearts and eyes, like civil war,/Be blind with tears, and break, o’ercharged with grief.’”
A powerful scene, but I’d like to make the point that it seems to me that Henry seems not to take (or even to see) responsibility for the events that are unfolding around him. He is a spectator, nothing more.
And finally…I should have given you these with my last post: A powerful performance of 3 Henry VI Part Three, Act One — the confrontation between York and Margaret:
And finally and lastly — an announcement:
I’m going on vacation for the next three weeks: BUT…rest assured that The Plays The Thing will continue. A good friend of mine and of the site “Art Mama” will take over my duties while I’m away. She’ll be posting twice a week vs. my three — so she’ll be taking us through the end of 3 Henry VI, Sonnet #53, and the introduction to and the first act of one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays: Richard III.
I hope you’ll give her a hand by jumping in, commenting and asking questions.
Your next reading: 3 Henry VI, Act Three
The next post: Wednesday evening/Thursday morning