King Henry VI, Part Two
Acts Four and Five
By Dennis Abrams
Act Four: While on his way to a life in exile, Suffolk is murdered at sea by the ships captain and crew in revenge for Gloucester’s death and because of his affair with Queen Margaret. Meanwhile, in Kent, Cade’s rebellion (started at the instigation of the Duke of York) is under way: his supporters (or the mob if you will) kill Sir Humphrey Stafford and his brother, who had intervened on behalf of the King. Cade’s rioters move on to London before executing Lord Say and his son-in-law, but the rebellion quickly falls apart when Old Clifford and Buckingham offer to pardon those who will support the son of the much beloved Henry V. Cade flees, and is killed by Iden. MEANWHILE, it is reported that York’s army is marching towards the King.
Act Five: York and his sons challenge Henry, and their armies fight at St. Albans. York kills Old Clifford (whose son vows revenge) and Richard kills Somerset, before Margaret and Henry admit defeat and flee to London. They are pursued by the Yorkists, determined to claim the crown itself.
Damn…this is an enjoyable play. For me, at least, it’s extremely readable – the action is straightforward, the motivations are clearly drawn – and what more could you want? You’ve got rebellion, pirates, more beheadings…A few observations…
1. I found it interesting that the captain of the ship was aware of Suffolk’s affair with the Queen – obviously, word had spread.
2. Suffolk’s arrogant attitude towards his murderers, while perhaps his undoing was also, in its own way, admirable.
3. Jack Cade and his rebellion. What struck me was how close, in its intent to go after the educated it was to certain rebellions in our time: The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the Cultural Revolution in the People’s Republic of China, just to name a couple off the top of my head.
4. One thing I wondered about was this: when played to an Elizabethan crowd, was Cade, the butcher, etc., seen as a horrifying affront to the rule of law, the comic relief it’s almost impossible not to see them as, or perhaps something in between?
5. The fickleness of the mob, it seems to me, can only be seen as comic.
6. Once again, one of the great stage directions: “Enter King Henry reading a supplication, Queen Margaret carrying Suffolk’s head.” Personally, I would love to see that entrance.
7. Jack Cade’s end; his prose vs. Iden’s verse.
8. And finally, Act Five: York’s entrance with an army, and Henry and Margaret’s ignominious retreat to the safety of London – talk about leaving an audience waiting for Part three…
And finally this take on deaths and violence in the play:
Gloucester’s violent death sets loose a chain of events ending in the deaths of Beaufort, Suffolk, Somerset, and other nobles. The failure of the monarchy is emphasized largely through the various forms of violence inflicted on human bodies. As the body of the kingdom is threatened by popular revolt and civil war, this suffering first registers in the death and destruction of actual bodies. Gloucester’s death draws much attention to the state of his body; the unnaturalness of his bulging eyes and disordered features show signs of murder rather than peaceful death. However Beaufort’s unnatural death which soon follows signifies his is a soul weighed down by sin.
Other bodies suffer throughout the play. Simpcox, who tries to fool the King into believing that his sight was restored, is revealed to be a liar, and beaten by Gloucester until he runs away. Suffolk is beheaded by pirates; his head is delivered to Margaret, who carries it around the court. Lord Saye and his son-in-law are beheaded and their heads are carried throughout the streets of the city. Jack Cade, head of the rebels, is beheaded and his head delivered to the king. Cade kills Stafford and his brother and drags their bodies behind his horse on the way to London. And others suffer the indignity of death in battle, including Somerset and Clifford.
“And Jack Cade. Shakespeare’s Cade hardly resembles the ‘young man of goodly stature and pregnant wit,’ ‘the subtle captain’ portrayed by Hall. And whereas Shakespeare’s Cade is violently against all forms of literacy. Similarly in Holinshed, Cade is of ‘goodlie stature and right pregnant wit,’ and his ‘fair promises of reformation’ and his (written) ‘Complaint of the Commons of Kent’ are responsible and sensible. There is none of this in Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s Cade and his merry men are a very, very crude lot. Some think this is more evidence of Shakespeare’s personal antipathy – he loathed mobs. Perhaps this is not so very hard to understand. But there must be a little more to it than that. At this point in his pattern, having shown all English law and order gone to the grave with Humphrey, Shakespeare hardly wants the sudden appearance of a reasonable, civilized, and literate mob-leader, with a manifest respect for law and letters. As Brockbank says, this rebellion must appear as a direct evil consequence of misrule, specifically the misrule of Suffolk (we see this starting when he cruelly tears up the petitions of the conscientious citizens, in I, iii) and the forces of negation which that helps to release. So Shakespeare turned back to the Wat Tyler rebellion of 1381, and took just what he needed for his plan – the killing of the lawyers, the destruction of the Savoy and the Inns of Court, and the burning of the records of the realm. The death of Cade in Iden’s all-too-perfect pastoral retreat is not very interesting. Iden is a little manniken of Tudor order and degree, and hardly credible. But the way Cade’s followers turn against him is more interesting. Confronting the mob, Clifford invokes Henry V, with obscure reference. The mob immediately cries to follow Clifford. Cade is justified in his appraisal. ‘Was ever feather so lightly blown to and fro, as this multitude? The name of Henry the Fifth hales them to an hundred mischiefs and makes them leave me desolate.’ Clifford has not dealt with the problem of mob violence. He has simply found a way to divert it another direction. Brockbank is surely right to see distant promise in this early scenario:
‘It is assimilated into a firm comprehensive structure, a version of political and historical tragedy that will serve later as the ground of Julius Caesar – another play which moves through the plotting and execution of an assassination, through the generation of lynch law in the streets, to the deflection of that violence into civil war.’
Pirates, mobs, and York and his sons – these are the phenomena which emerge in the post-Humphrey lawless wasteland of England. As far as Henry is concerned, some ‘pirate’ is trying to board his ship of state – Cade or York, it hardly matters. Since York started Cade on, it might be felt he will serve as the representative figure. York, we must feel (historically this is very unjust), is an adequate progenitor of that entirely new animal in English history and politics – Richard. Young Clifford has an eye for the Yorks. ‘Why, what a brood of traitors have we here!’ – and specifically for Richard:
Hence, heap of wrath, foul indigested lump,
As crooked in thy manners as thy shape!
Clifford will become an arguably insane figure of violence in the next Part. But it is Clifford who speaks some of Shakespeare’s most awesome lines about war, starting with an utterance about the general chaos of war, and moving on to a long lament for his father whose corpse he has just found.
Shame and confusion! All is on the rout;
Fear frames disorder, and disorder wounds
Where it should guard.
(V, 11, 31-3)
These famous lines are not clear to me. The idea of ‘fear’ ‘framing’ – arranging, putting in order – anything, hardly sits easily, though when you take into account the fact that the verb could more generally mean simply ‘shapes,’ then it presents no problems. And what should ‘disorder’ ‘guard?’ Does it mean that those forces which should be protecting are wounding those in their care? Perhaps. Things are becoming unsettled in the mists of war. And what about the king, whose play this is – what has he been doing? As you might expect, very little. We last see him hopelessly trying to keep up with events until the queen says with pardonable exasperation – ‘What are you made of? You’ll nor fight nor fly’. Clifford helps him to pack off. But he will have to endure a whole further play, during which uncertainties come inseparable from atrocities. It will be the worst.”
I’ll post more about the end of King Henry VI, Part Two on Wednesday night/Thursday morning.
I’ll post about Sonnet # 40 on Friday night.
We’ll begin reading King Henry VI, Part Three, next week – I’ll do an introductory post on the Monday evening after New Year’s.
Does this work for everybody?