Henry VI, Part Two
By Dennis Abrams
Act Two: Out hawking with the King and Queen, Gloucester and Winchester continue their argument when they are interrupted by a man who claims that his blindness has been cured by a miracle at St. Alban’s shrine. King Henry, in his innocence and naivety believes him, but Gloucester quickly uncovers the hoax. News arrives of the Duchess of Gloucester’s arrest: Gloucester resigns the protectorship in disgrace; and his wife is banished to the Isle of Man.
I am seriously enjoying this play. Is it Shakespeare at his best? Hardly. But…it’s eminently readable, the plot moves along, you’ve got the constant squabbling, near fight to the death between Winchester and Gloucester, you’ve got a hero to naïve and religious to be king, you’ve got an attempted scam of a miracle (with the comic relief of the wife) brilliantly exposed by Gloucester, followed by his genuine pain and sorrow at his wife’s crime and subsequent banishment…what’s not to enjoy?
I thought this from Garber, about the use of magical spectacle in the play, was fascinating: I like the way she puts his use of “magic” into the theatrical context of the time.
“The magic ceremonies would surely have been theatrical crowd-pleasers, however forbidden by contemporary religious and law. Gathering at night (‘wizards know their times’, the necromancers make a magic circle and conjure a spirit to appear. This kind of scene, familiar and popular from plays like Robert Greene’s Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay and Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, involved a set of riddling prophecies, each of which comes true – although (as would later be the case in Richard III and Macbeth) they do so in an unexpected way. A question about the future of the King thus produces a piece of complicated syntax with more than one possible interpretation – ‘The Duke yet lives that Henry shall depose,/But him outlive, and die a violent death’ – where much hinges on whether the person who will outlive his rival is ‘the Duke (Richard of York) or “Henry.’ Suffolk is predicted to die ‘by water,’ and he meets his fate at the hands of a man called Walter Whitmore, despite his desperate last-minute attempt to persuade his captor to pronounce his name in the French fashion (‘Thy name is Gualtier, being rightly sounded’) to evade the prophecy. The third prediction, that the Earl of Somerset should ‘shun castles’ turns out to mean not that he should avoid fortresses and fortifications, but that he will meet his death, far less grandiosely, ‘underneath an alehouse’sign,/The Castle in Saint Albans, although as Richard of Gloucester notes, this does fulfill the prophecy, and thus Somerset ‘[h]ath made the wizard famous in his death.’
But if magic is good for theater, it is dangerous for its practitioners, on the stage and off, and the witch, wizard, and accomplice are all betrayed to the Duke of York and sentenced to death. As for Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester, she – being of noble birth – is given a lesser punishment: the humiliation of public penance, barefoot and dressed in a white sheet, and then exile from England. (As she says, ‘I, his forlorn Duchess,/Was made a wonder and a pointing-stock/To every idle rascal follower.’) Since Eleanor has been explicitly associated early in the play with sartorial display and extravagant finery, this reversal is devastating both visually and psychologically.
And partnering these scene of necromancy, or black magic, are scenes that purport to show miracles, the ‘magic’ of pre-Reformation Christian faith, dismissed in Shakespeare’s time by Protestant theologians. Thus, deftly situated by the playwright between the episode of the wizard, witch, and Duchess conjuring spirits and their trial and condemnation, is a scene in which the Mayor of Saint Albans produces, to King Henry’s excitement, a ‘blind’ man, Simpcox, who has supposedly been restored to sight. The pious – and credulous – King praises God on behalf of ‘believing souls,’ but Gloucester is more skeptical. He quickly unmasks the imposter by asking him to identify colors, then pointing out that there is now way, had he been blind, that he would have known the names for those colors: ‘If thou hadst been born blind/Thou mightst as well have known our names as thus/To name the several colors we do wear.’ Simpcox’s supposed lameness is as bogus as his blindness, and when threatened with a whipping, he flees. The fine construction of this scene uses Gloucester’s cleverness as the fulcrum: one moment he is triumphant in a scene among the commoners (Cardinal Beaufort: ‘Duke Humphrey has done a miracle today.’ Suffolk: ‘True: made the lame to leap and fly away.’) the next downcast and undone as his wife’s sorcery is revealed – her ‘[d]ealing with witches and with conjurors’ and [r]aising up wicked spirits from under ground./Demanding of King Henry’s life and death.’ It is worth noting that Buckingham, who makes this pronouncement, and the King, who ordains the punishment, do not accuse the practitioners of imposture. Simpcox is a risible fake, and is merely whipped out of town; the necromancers are real, and are burned to death.
Henry VI Part Two consistently plays these ‘folk,’ or common, characters off against the noblemen, to powerful theatrical effect. Thus is another telling episode an armourer, Horner, is accused of treason by his apprentice Peter, who claims he has heard Horner say that Richard, Duke of York, was the rightful king. According to the jurisprudence of the time, this dispute is to be settled by a single combat. The scene of the fight between ‘appellant and defendant –/The armourer and his man’ is both comic in performance (Horner is drunk, Peter terrified) and serious in outcome (Peter kills Horner, who confesses as he dies; but, as the King notes, it is losing the fight, not making the confession, that proves him treasonous: ‘by his death we do perceive his guilt.’ The weapons used in this combat are ‘combat flails,’ long staffs with sandbags fastened to them, thus more capable of inflicting injury than the agricultural flails used in harvesting, but less immediately deadly than the iron flails used as military weapons in war. The combat scene is a visually successful – and in part amusing – interruption of a play that often tends to be dominated by high-sounding talk. But it also marks a middle ground between the weighty, old-fashioned ‘two-hand sword’ of Gloucester, the traditional weapon of earlier combat, and the ‘staves’ wielded by lawless rebels. Horner and Peter are ‘low’ characters, not noblemen, but they abide by the rules of combat and of law. Thus they stand in useful contrast to their social ‘betters,’ from Suffolk to York to Cardinal Beaufort, who plot against law and against the King.
“Given that he was so hopelessly inadequate and ineffectual as a king, Henry VI’s reign was a surprisingly long one – about fifty years if we include his short, second reign. During that time, all manner of political events occurred, but, as it might be felt, in a random and disconnected way. It was all very rambling and scattered. Shakespeare simply had to take hold of a chunk of that time and make it appear as a self-explanatory sequence, all contributing to a single dramatic line. He fixed on the period from 1444, when Henry welcomes his French Queen Margaret to England, to 1455, the battle of St. Albans, and the final unambiguous emergence of York as an intending usurper. To achieve the concentration and focus he wanted, Shakespeare omitted a large amount of Chronicle material which would not have served his purpose; he tightens and emphasizes causes by linking what was historically unlinked (thus, the Armourer scenes, and the Cade rebellion, are directly related to York’s treason); he conflates with ruthless economy (the subversion of Salisbury and Warwick dragged on for twenty years – it is here reduced to a single scene); he reaches into other periods for what he wants (Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester, in fact fell four years before Margaret landed from France; Shakespeare clearly wants them contemporary). More remarkably, when it comes to the Jack Cad rebellion, Shakespeare ignores most of his Chronicle material, and goes back to sources concerning Wat Tyler and the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381. This play will show the tragic fall of Gloucester, and the irresistible rise of York.
In the first part of the trilogy, England lots its old heroes. In this second part, it loses (in the symbolic form of one man) its law-givers. The fall of Gloucester effectively occupies the play until…the middle of Act III. Gloucester is a strong and active man (he is not a feeble relic like John of Gaunt). The play opens with high ceremony as Henry’s French queen is welcomed to the English court. It must be stressed that this marriage is seen as the triggering disaster behind the events of the play. Gloucester, it should be remembered, had proposed an eminently sensible, diplomatic marriage to which the young king had at first agreed. Then he succumbed to Suffolk’s guile ‘which fact,’ says Hall, ‘engendered such a flame, that it never went out, until the parties with many other were consumed and slain, to the great unquietness of the king and his realm.’ This is the marriage which Gloucester says will wipe out England’s old heroic history. His first task in the scene – he is Protector – is to read out the contracted articles pertaining to the marriage. When he comes to the quite shameful surrender of Anjou and Maine, he lets the paper fall from his hand and can read no more. Power and authority have begun – literally – to slip from his hands, as other plots – out of his cognizance and control – begin to seethe around him. Almost as soon as he leaves, a small group is planning to ‘quickly hoist Duke Humphrey from his seat.’ And when they have gone we are left with York – alone. He speaks the first of a series of long – dangerously long – soliloquies. Dangerous because the more time and space are, as it were, arrogated by the private voice going over its own intentions and devices, the less time and space seem to be committed to publicly performed, orderly, communal life. This voice is not remotely interested in ‘common-wealth.’
Then, York, he still awhile, till time do serve:
Watch thou and wake, when others be asleep,
To pry into the secrets of the state;
Till Henry surfeit in the joys of love.
And, force perforce, I’ll make him yield the crown,
Whose bookish rule hath pulled fair England down.
We have already seen man plotted-against (Gloucester); and man-plotting (York). The die is cast. And we are heading for a period during which England as a whole will fall under the way of – ‘force perforce.’
For two Acts we see Gloucester administering law with robust confidence and justice (which is perhaps a little severe). The business of Simpcox and the false miracle, and the fighting armourers, presumably shows him looking after the law of the land. While he is there, there is still some social order. But the plot to set up his ambitious wife, and bring her to disgrace on account of her trafficking in black magic (here arranged by Suffolk for the queen), effectively brings him down as well. This is presumably why Shakespeare wanted both events brought together. When Eleanor is arraigned, he is bowed down by his ‘dishonour,’ and, in tears, asks the king’s permission to leave. Surrendering his staff of office, he shuffles off – suddenly an old man. (He is not old in the Chronicles. It is as if, while in the first part Shakespeare saw heroes to be a dying breed, so in this part he sees ‘honour’ fading out of England.)
But Gloucester is still confident that he remains outside of the reach of the law (‘I must offend before I be attained’ – already a touchingly old fashioned trust)…
So…how are you enjoying the play? How does it compare with what you thought the history plays would be like?
Our next reading: Henry VI, Part Two, Act Three
My next post: Sunday evening/Monday morning
Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.