Henry VI, Act Three
by Dennis Abrams (with a little help from Jeanne Badman)
The deposed King Henry is abducted in Scotland and taken to London as prisoner of King Edward. The widow Lady Grey attends the court to request the return of her husband’s seized lands. King Edward tests her wit (attempts to seduce her in exchange for return of her lands) and she wins his heart. He announces to his brothers that he intends to make her his queen. Richard of Glouchester schemes for the crown in a fascinating soliloquy. Meanwhile, in France, Margaret asks King Louis of France for aid while Warwick asks for the hand of King Louis’ sister, Bona, on behalf of King Edward. Just as Warwick is about to win his case news arrives from London of the marriage of King Edward to Lady Grey. Warwick’s sense of wounded honor forces him to change his alliance from King Edward back to King Henry. Having been wronged by King Edward, both Bona and Margaret’s causes are the same. The French King will provide aid to bring down Edward and raise up Henry once again.
From Maurice Charney:
“At the end of act 3, scene 2, Richard’s long soliloquy (seventy-two lines), is a set piece that prepares for Richard III, and this speech is entirely in keeping with the tone of his opening soliloquy in the later play. He is sardonic and self-mocking, but he is also filled with the ambition of Tamburlaine for ‘The sweet fruition of an earthly crown.’ He reviews with some satisfaction his physical shortcomings, delighting to take the audience into his confidence. He is not made by Nature to be a lover because Nature was corrupted with some bribe
To shrink mine arm up like a withered shrub;
To make an envious mountain on my back,
Where sits deformity to mock my body;
To shape my legs of an unequal size;
To disproportion me in every part,
Like to a chaos, or an unlicked bear-whelp…
The only thing left then for Richard is ambition. ‘I’ll make my heaven to dream upon the crown.’
In this soliloquy Richard asserts his skill in acting and sets forth the qualities that will dominate Richard III: ‘Why, I can smile, and murder whiles I smile’ He can wet his cheeks ‘with artificial tears’, ‘Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,/And set the murderous Machiavel to school.’ But everything is so easy for Richard, why is he then so fearful, and why does he need to assert his preeminence so vociferously?
A remarkable passage in Richard’s soliloquy about his fears makes him sound as if he were a tormented character in Dante’s Hell:
And I – like one lost in a thorny wood,
That rends the thorns and is rent with the thorns,
Seeking a way and straying from the way,
Not knowing how to find the open air,
But toiling desperately to find it out –
Torment myself to catch the English crown…
This is one of the few places where Richard seems to have a tragic dimension, like Macbeth, and the ‘thorny wood’ prepares us for his confrontation with demons in act 5, scene 3 of Richard III in the dark night before the Battle of Bosworth Field.”
“In this play that [meaning the real fighting] means pre-eminently with Richard. His father, York, had already started to develop the potentialities, and exploit the privileges, of the soliloquy – getting the audience on your side, tapping into its willingness to take a low view of human nature and a completely cynical attitude to politics. In an astonishing speech, Richard shows that he has appropriated the soliloquy prerogative, and is capable of developing it in entirely new ways for his own ends. [MY NOTE: Note that it is “Richard” who has taken the soliloquy and run with it, not Shakespeare.] Nothing would have prepared the audience for this speech, and they would have heard nothing like it in the theater before. King Edward (as he now is – though the crown shifts between Edward and Henry for the rest of the play) has just announced his determination to marry Lady Grey – he must have his will, and that’s that. He exits, looking like a figure for whom kingship means primarily the chance to pursue sexual pleasure. Henry we are told, has just been taken to the Tower. Richard stands back and begins to reveal himself:
Ay, Edward will use women honorably.
Would he were wasted, marrow, bones and all,
That from his loins no hopeful branch may spring,
To cross me from the golden time I look for!
And yet, between my soul’s desire and me –
The lustful Edward’s title buried –
In Clarence, Henry, and his son young Edward,
And all the unlooked-for issue of their bodies,
To take their rooms, ere I can place myself:
A cold premeditation for my purpose!
Why then, I do but dream on sovereignty;
Like one that stands upon a promontory,
And spies a far-off shore where he would tread,
Wishing his foot were equal with his eye,
And chides the sea that sunders him from thence,
Saying, he’ll lade it dry to have his way:
So do I wish the crown, being so far off;
And so I chide the means that keeps me from it;
And so (I say) I’ll cut the causes off,
Flattering me with impossibilities
I’ll make my heaven to dream upon the crown,
And, whiles I live, t’account this world but hell,
Until my misshaped trunk that bears this head
Be round impaled with a glorious crown.
And yet I know not how to get the crown,
For many lives stand between me and home…
(III, ii, 124-143, 168-173)
Then follow the lines…about fighting his way out of a wild wood with a bloody axe, hinting at some monstrous, unnatural birth. But it is the final lines that are the most astonishing:
Why, I can smile, and murder while I smile,
And cry ‘Content’ to that which grieves my heart,
And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,
And frame my face to all occasions.
I’ll drown more sailors than the mermaid shall;
I’ll slay more gazers than the basilisk;
I’ll play the orator as well as Nestor,
Deceive more slily than Ulysses could,
And, like a Sinon, take another Troy.
I can add colors to the chameleon,
Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,
And set the murderous Machiavel to school.
Can I do this, and cannot get a crown?
Tut, were it farther off, I’ll pluck it down.
(III, ii, 182-95)
Richard reveals that he has at his disposal the energies and proclivities of all the other characters – York’s steely ambition and crown-hunger; Clifford’s dedication to pure violence and killing; Edward’s soft indulgent pruriences; Margaret’s soaring ruthlessness, and so on. And those last lines are addressed to the audience. He will outplay all the famous dissemblers and shape-changers of legend and epic. Indeed, he promises them a performance the like of which has never been seen before. He will treat history as his theatre, which he will dominate because he is capable of playing any and every role. The ground is here laid for the mood and atmosphere of the first three Acts of Richard III.”
Fascinating – and I’ll have much more to say about Shakespeare, soliloquies, and the art of overhearing oneself, as we go on.
And finally, it’s well worth noting that when Laurence Olivier staged – and then filmed – his version of Richard III he began it with Richard’s soliloquy from 3 Henry VI. As Garber points out,
“This magnificent speech is the self-portrait not only of a ruthless politician but also of an actor, one who can ‘play the orator,’ ‘[d]eceive,’ weep on command, ‘frame [his] face to all occasions,’ and ‘change shapes’ even better than the god of shape-shifting, Proteus. The early modern understanding, or misunderstanding, of the political writings of Niccolo Machiavelli, based upon the Frenchman Innocent Gentillet’s Contre Nicolas Machiavel, identified Machiavellianism with ruthlessness, amoral duplicity, and atheism. (Machiavelli, himself a republican, had produced for the Medici ruler of Florence a book, The Prince, advocating a strategic, self-interested, and unsentimental mode of governance based upon a sober view of human nature.) This portrait of energized evil was, needless to say, immensely attractive to dramatists (and other writers), who were able to put onstage the pleasurable self-congratulation of single-minded ambition. By Shakespeare’s time the word ‘Machiavel’ was being used, in plays like Marlowe’s Jew of Malta and Shakespeare’s 3 Henry VI, as the proud boast of a character who set himself apart from mundane humanity, espousing any tactics for his own gain, scornful of sentimentality and religion. Not only Richard of Gloucester but later Shakespeare characters like Iago in Othello and Edmund in King Lear trace their lineage to this source, and are often described as Machiavels. A Christian audience might also have seen in this account the stigmata of the Antichrist, as Richard’s monstrous birth (prodigious rather than miraculous) is repeatedly associated not only with his quest for the crown but also, three times in two lines, with thorns.”
More on this in my next post…
Just a reminder – all of this post, except the title and brief synopsis, was prepared for you by our own true Dennis Abrams, who wishes you all continued enjoyment in your readings.
Your next reading: 3 Henry VI, Act Four
The next post: Sunday evening/Monday morning
Have great weekend and a great read!