King Henry VI, Part Two
By Dennis Abrams
Act Three: Gloucester’s enemies begin to make their move. Queen Margaret denounces him in parliament and he is blamed for the loss of the remaining French territories. Arresting his uncle, Henry announces that Gloucester will be tried fairly, but Margaret plots with York and Suffolk to have him killed before the trial can even begin. York secretly begins his campaign for the crown, revealing (in a riveting soliloquy), that he has convinced a commoner, Jack Cade, to impersonate John Mortimer (York’s dead ancestor) and incite rebellion against the Lancastrian rule of Henry. News of Gloucester’s sudden death reaches Henry, who faints at the news, and then, after being encouraged by the crowds outside, accuses Suffolk of murder and has him exiled, much to Queen Margaret’s dismay. Winchester dies, driven mad by guilt.
Again, I found myself absolutely riveted as I read Act Three. I was amazed at how Shakespeare portrays the king as so weak – letting himself be pushed into arresting Gloucester (actually, the way it read it was more that the conspirators just went ahead and had him arrested), letting himself be pushed by the crowd into exiling Suffolk. His weakness, his innocence and naivety (seemingly based on his strong faith) was made palpable. The constant plotting and scheming (Gloucester hasn’t actually attacked Henry yet, but why should we wait until he does so?) Queen Margaret’s extraordinary speech attacking Henry for not loving her and ending, “Ay me, I can no more. Die, Margaret./For Henry weeps that thou dost live so long.” York’s plot to “use” Jack Cade to test the waters for rebellion against the Lancastrians. Pretty extraordinary stuff.
I was struck by the way that the announcement at court that England has lost all its territory in France, the moment that Henry’s international star is at its lowest, was so underplayed:
Henry: What news from France?
Somerset: That all your interest in those territories
Is utterly bereft you – all is lot.
Henry: Cold news, Lord Somerset; but God’s will be done.
York: (aside) Cold news for me, for I had hope of France,
As firmly as I hope for fertile England.
So while Henry is seemingly content to take the loss of France as part of some divine plan, as God’s will (something then, that he is powerless to resist), York’s response is, not surprisingly, totally selfish – his thoughts are solely on how it effects his designs on the crown. This moment is, I suspect, crucial, not only because it demonstrates how irrelevant the struggle for France has become, but because it demonstrates how completely the English court is now factionalized. While 1 Henry VI portrays nobles so terrified at the thought of losing in war that in Bedford’s words, news of it will make the old King Henry “burst his lead and rise from death,” in the sequel, France is now nothing more than an excuse for more political squabbling and infighting. (Contemporary events in America somehow come to mind…)
It seems that in this play, that opportunistic, dynamic figures such as Richard of York (and as we shall later see, his son, Richard of Gloucester, later Richard III), leave the others in their dust – while Henry equivocates and the lords fight it out amongst themselves, York is after power, pure and simple. As he said in one of the plays few (and therefore most important) soliloquies after his colleagues unwittingly supply him with an army to put down a rebellion in Ireland:
My brain, more busy than the laboring spider,
Weaves tedious snares to trap mine enemies.
Well, nobles, well: ‘tis politicly done
To send me packing with an host of men.
I fear me you but warm the starved snake,
Who, cherished in your breasts, will sting your hearts.
‘Twas men I lacked, and you will give them me.
I take it kindly. Yet be well assured
You put sharp weapons in a madman’s hands.
His language can hardly be called artful – it’s obvious and blunt, but York playing with the meaning of “politic” knows what matters.
A continuation from Tanner, picking up from my last post – as Gloucester shuffles off after giving up the Protectorship:
“When Gloucester arrived at the abbey in Bury, and Suffolk arrests him ‘of high treason,’ he is unmoved:
Well, Suffolk, thou shalt not see me blush,
Nor change my countenance for this arrest:
A heart unspotted is not easily daunted.
The purest spring is not so free from mud
As I am clear from treason to my sovereign.
But then the false accusations mount up against him, and he realizes the case is lost.
This occasions two of the most important speeches of the play, concerning the positive values which, the play suggests, are certainly under threat, if not in the process of being dismantled. Gloucester turns to the king:
Ah, gracious lord, these days are dangerous:
Virtue is choked with foul ambition,
And charity chased hence by rancor’s hand;
Foul subornation is predominant,
And equity exiled your Highness’ land.
I know their complot is to have my life,
And if my death might make this island happy,
And prove the period of their tyranny,
I would expend it with all willingness.
But mine is made the prologue to their play:
For thousands more, that yet suspect no peril,
Will not conclude their plotted tragedy.
He tells the king he has thrown away his ‘crutch’:
Thus is the shepherd beaten from thy side,
And wolves are gnarling who shall gnaw thee first.
At first, Henry seems to touch the bottom of his abject, concessionary hopelessness – ‘My lords…do or undo”…Do what you like. But then, in a speech of high passion, of which there is not a trace in the Chronicles, Henry laments Gloucester and turns on his queen. It is his most sustained piece of oratory, and as one must feel, one of his most heart-felt, in the trilogy. As Gloucester recedes, it is as if Henry sees more clearly all the values he embodied.
Ah, uncle Humphrey, in thy face I see
The map of honor, truth and loyalty;
And yet, good Humphrey, is the hour to come
That e’er I proved thee false or feared thy faith?
What louring star now envies thy estate;
That these great lords, and Margaret our Queen
Do seek subversion of thy harmless life?
Thou never didst them wrong, nor no man wrong:
And as the butcher takes away the calf,
And binds the wretch, and beats it when it strays,
Bearing it to the bloody slaughter-house,
Even so remorseless they have borne him hence;
And as the dam runs lowing up and down,
Looking the way her harmless young one went,
And do nought but wail her darling’s loss,
Even so myself bewails and good Gloucester’s case
With sad unhelpful tears, and with dimmed eyes
Look after him and cannot do him good,
So mighty are his avowed enemies.
His fortunes I will weep, and ‘twixt each grown
Say, ‘Who’s a traitor? Gloucester he is none.’
[MY NOTE: While reading this, I kept wanting to shake Henry and remind him, “You’re the king! Stop this!”]
He leaves. It is a final flaring, a last attempt to express his sense of what is happening around him. Henceforward he is effectively extinct, politically impotent. But he is absolutely right, of course. England is headed for the ‘slaughter-house.’ Meanwhile, Suffolk articulates the complete lack of interest in ceremony or law, or anything else which constrains and guides conduct:
And do not stand on quillets how to slay him:
Be it by gins, by snares, by subtlety,
Sleeping or waking, ‘tis no matter how,
So he be dead.
Just kill him – any way at all. Force perforce.
We do not see the murder – that is night-time, secret work. The butcher’s shop, or slaughter-house, is now open for a new sort of business. But, in a gruesome scene – which feels like something in a medieval Morality – Gloucester’s corpse is exposed on stage. For as second time, the audience is invited to consider the dead body of an old Englishman, whose world is being supplanted by one dominated by people who are immeasurably littler, and inexpressibly meaner. The spectacle is macabre – grotesque – and a minute description follows. This is the real close-up of Death in the play. From the black face and starting eyes, it is clear he has been strangled. Gloucester’s earlier Morality abstraction has been terribly literalized. ‘Virtue’ really has been choked foul ambition.
After the death of Gloucester, Shakespeare allows things to happen very quickly; or rather, things seem to tumble pell-mell towards disintegration. Holinshed emphasizes that Gloucester’s murder brought about the end of the rule of law: ‘while the one partie sought to destroie the other, all care of the common-wealth was set aside, and justice and equitie clearlie exiled.’ Hall makes clear what an unmitigated disaster the death was – not least, indeed, for the queen herself. She ‘procured and consented to the death of this noble man, whose only death brought to pass that thing, which she fain would have eschewed…if this Duke had lived, the Duke of York durst not have made title to the crown: if this Duke had lived, the nobles had not conspired against the king, not yet the commons had not rebelled: if this Duke had lived, the house of Lancaster had not been defaced and destroyed.’ If this Duke had lived – perhaps no War of the Roses. But this Duke died – look at the stage – and the roads to chaos are open.”
And this from Garber:
“The murder of Gloucester, his body graphically described by Warwick, marks a turning point in the play’s attitude toward the display of violence. Suffolk, who hired the murderers, has pretended shock at the news of the Protector’s death. (A little scene showing the remorse of the hired killers – ‘O that it were to do! What have we done?’ – is typical of Shakespeare, and anticipates similar scenes in other history plays and in Macbeth.) But Warwick, hearing rumours (‘[t]hat good Duke Humphrey traitorously is murdered/By Suffolk and the Cardinal Beaufort’s means’ demands, on behalf of the ‘commons,’ to see the body, and when it is produced onstage Warwick reads the signs of violent death:
But see, his face is black and full of blood;
His eyeballs further out than when he lived,
Staring full ghastly like a strangled man;
His hair upreared; his nostrils stretched with struggling;
His hands abroad displayed, as one that grasped
And tugged for life and was by strength subdued.
Look on the sheets. His hair, you see, is sticking;
His well-proportioned beard made rough and rugged,
Like to the summer’s corn by tempest lodged.
It cannot be but he was murdered here.
The least of all these signs were probable.
I cite this aversive passage at length because it evokes so vividly the appearance of the murdered man, as if he were visible to the audience in all his deathly disarray. This is a version of a technique I will call the ‘unscene,’ often used by Shakespeare to bring to life, by narrative, events that take place offstage. (One ready example is Ophelia’s description of Hamlet in her closet, his clothing awry, taking her hand and staring into her eyes like a ghost.) In this case, even though the body is onstage, the audience cannot see these particulars except through Warwick’s pungent description.
Suffolk, accused, denies the accusation: ‘Myself and Beaufort had him in protection,/And we, I hope, sir, are no murderers.’ But Warwick, bolstered by the insistence of the commons – who loudly cry, ‘Down with Suffolk!’ – draws his sword against him, and ultimately, at the behest of the commons (scornfully characterized by Suffolk as ‘a sort of tinkers,’ but championed by Salisbury and Warwick), the King announces that Suffolk will be banished from England. The parting scene between Suffolk and Queen Margaret, the only love scene in the play, is affecting despite their perfidy, and is expressed in terms that will recur powerfully in later Shakespeare, with anticipatory echoes of the banishment of Bolingbroke in Richard II and Leontes’ pledge of perpetual mourning for the wronged Hermione in The Winters’ Tale. (‘Well could I curse away a winter’s night,’ says Suffolk to the Queen, ‘Though standing naked on a mountain top,/Where biting cold could never let grass grow./And think it but a minute spent in sport.’ But this bittersweet interlude is brought to an end, not only by Suffolk’s departure, but by another deathbed scene, this one the agonizing death of Cardinal Beaufort, who ‘sees’ the ghost of Gloucester in his mind.
Alive again? Then show me where he is.
I’ll give a thousand pound to look upon him.
He hath no eyes! The dust hath blinded them.
Comb down his hair – look, look: it stands upright,
Like lime twigs set to catch my winged soul.
Here again, as with Warwick’s speech about the body of Gloucester, the vivid image is summoned by language; no physical ghost presents itself upon the stage. But with the murder of Gloucester a far greater and more visible violence begins to afflict the play; it is symbolized by the sudden presence onstage of severed heads – heads that are produced not only as evidence of violent death, but also as macabre ‘actors’ in the ensuing scenes.”
Christmas week schedule:
The week’s reading: King Henry VI, Part Two, Acts Four and Five
My posting schedule: I’ll do a post Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning about Shakespeare himself, not the play; and I’ll post a summation of 2 Henry VI on Sunday evening/Monday morning.
Enjoy. And enjoy your holidays.