Henry VI, Part Three
by Dennis Abrams (with a little help from Jeanne Badman)
King Edward’s brothers disapprove of his marriage to Lady Grey. Clarence, seeking a better position for himself, departs with Somerset to support Warwick in his efforts to dethrone Edward. Edward leads forces to confront Warwick. Warwick and his men capture Edward, forcing him to claim only the title of Duke of York. Queen Elizabeth flees to protect herself and Edward’s unborn child. Richard’s men free Edward from captivity. Henry is freed and shows his gratitude to Warwick by proclaiming Warwick and Clarence joint Protectors of the Land. Edward’s and company arrive at York with a scheme to win the city over to their side. Montague arrives with his soldiers, ready to fight for Edward only if he will claim the crown. Their joint forces head for London. Warwick and his forces say their goodbyes to Henry and leave the palace planning to battle Edward at Coventry. Edward’s men retake the palace and put Henry in the Tower.
Continuing from my last post, Marjorie Garber’s look at Richard:
“Richard’s vivid description of his political and emotional state as that of ‘one lost in a thorny wood’ seeking a way to get to the ‘open air’ has been described as a birth fantasy, in which the infant, ‘toiling desperately,’ ultimately escapes from the womb (‘[o]r hew my way out with a bloody axe.’) We might, alternatively note the effective local description of a heavily forested feudal England – or, indeed, the Alexander-like solution that Richard devises, cutting himself free rather than merely seeking a pathway, just as Alexander cut the Gordian knot rather than patiently trying to unravel it. (The man who succeeded in untying the Gordian knot was fated, said an oracle, to rule all of Asia.) Richard does, however, dwell here, and elsewhere in the play, on the narrative of his own birth, and the way his misshapen body has destined him for war and policy rather than courtship. (‘Why, love forswore me in my mother’s womb’). The image of the ‘unlicked bear whelp/That carries no impression like the dam’ was early modern folk belief masquerading as science, the idea that bear cubs, when born, had to be licked into physical shape by their mothers. In an equally evocative soliloquy in act 5, Richard will return to this imagined scene of his birth:
For I have often heard my mother say
I came into the world with my legs forward.
The midwife wondered and the women cried
‘O, Jesus bless us, he is born with teeth!’ –
And so I was, which plainly signified
That I should snarl and bite and play the dog.
Again he will therefore forswear love, even brother love, as he is about to betray both of his brothers, Edward and Clarence:
I have no brother, I am like no brother;
And this word, ‘love,’ which graybeards call divine,
Be resident in men like one another
And not in me – I am myself alone.
‘I am myself alone’ is the triumphant – and despairing – cry of the Machiavel. In an essay titled ‘Some Character-Types Met with in Psycho-Analytic Work’ (1916), Sigmund Freud maintained that Richard exemplified persons he called ‘exceptions,’ narcissists who ‘claim to have special rights in view of the injury the external world has done them,’ and who ‘feel that they have not been loved enough.’ Whether we wish to employ modern psychology to assess Richard as ‘overcompensating’ or not, what is indisputable is that dramatic characters of this kind – self-analytical, self-blinded, and dazzlingly articulate – have a roundedness and depth that we associate with the idea of ‘psychological realism,’ or recognizable human complexity. Theatrically this is achieved in part by the device of the soliloquy, of which Richard’s two brilliant speeches, in act5s 3 and 5, are early and powerful examples. Confiding in the audience, boasting and preening before it, the dramatic speaker discloses not only his plans and intentions, (‘Clarence, beware; thou kept’st me from the light…I will buzz abroad such prophecies/That Edward shall be fearful of his life” but also things he does not ‘mean’ to disclose but which the playwright discloses to us over the head of his character, or behind his (crooked) back.
The story of Richard of Gloucester’s prodigious birth, and, indeed, the story of his crooked and misshapen body was – as we will note again in Richard III – a fiction, deriving from the work of political opponents. Tudor propagandists anxious to demonize and delegitimize the Plantagenet claim. It appears in Edward Hall’s chronicle history The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancastre and Yorke (1548), and in Sir Thomas More’s History of King Richard III (1557), both of which date, of course, from the time of Queen Elizabeth, but no document contemporary with the historical Richard (1452-1485) describes him as crookbacked or deformed, and portrait evidence from the period shows him to look not only well formed but handsome and thoughtful. (Josephine Tey’s celebrated mystery novel The Daughter of Time explores the narrative of Richard’s reputation as a deformed and wicked monster, tracing the myth to the ambitious Tudor heir who would become Henry VII – and who makes a mute cameo appearance in this play as ‘young Henry, Earl of Richmond,’ prophetically described as the design of 3 Henry VI as ‘England’s hope.’
Nonetheless, in looking at the design of 3 Henry VI an audience will be concerned not so much with historical accuracy (the play, in Shakespeare’s usual way, takes many liberties with dates, events, and the presence of absence of historical actors in specific places and times, and does not purport to be a chronicle record), but rather with dramatic effect. And here the ‘misshapen’ Richard helps to give the play shapeliness. Richard’s legendary ‘monstrous’ appearance is repeatedly cited by many other characters as well as by himself: the inimitable Queen Margaret calls him ‘that valiant crookback prodigy,/Dickie, your boy’ and ‘a foul misshapen stigmatic’; Clifford addresses him as ‘crookback’, in response to Richard’s taunt of ‘butcher.’ Prince Edward (Henry VI’s son), will address the three York brothers as ‘[l]ascivious Edward, and thou, perjured George,/And thou, misshapen Dick’ and will – fatally as it turns out – twit Richard as a ‘scolding crookback’ in the scene…[deleted until you get to that scene]. And in the play’s final scene Richard, once more in an aside to the audience, hints at his plan to undermine the apparent peace established on behalf of his brother, now Edward IV:
This shoulder was ordained so thick to heave;
And heave it shall some weight or break my back.
Elements of all of these passages are revisited at the opening of Richard III, in the celebrated and compelling soliloquy that begins ‘Now is the winter of our discontent.’ Again the question of ‘deformity’ and the way it ‘mocks’ Richard’s body is made the ostensible cause of his malevolence – although, as we will see there, he immediately goes on to prove himself a very apt lover indeed.”
In my last post, I touched briefly on Shakespeare’s use of the soliloquy – I’d like to finish with this brief paragraph from Bloom (again, I’ll elaborate on this more as we go along)
“Literary character before Shakespeare is relatively unchanging; women and men are represented as aging and dying, but not as changing because their relationship to themselves, rather than to the gods or God, has changed. In Shakespeare, characters develop rather than unfold, and they develop because their reconceive themselves. Sometimes this comes about because they overhear themselves talking, whether to themselves or to others. Self-overhearing is their royal road to individuation, and no other writer, before or since Shakespeare, has accomplished so well the virtual miracle of creating utterly different yet self-consistent voices for his more than one hundred major characters and many hundreds of highly distinctive minor personages.”
How is everyone handling this fantastic game of ping pong? It’s been quiet, how about some comments on the recent action.
Our next reading: 3 Henry VI, Act Five. Relish the ending of Henry VI and stay tuned for our next sonnet.