Henry VI, Part Three
By Dennis Abrams
Act One: (The action continues fairly directly from Henry VI Part II) After their victory at the Battle of St. Albans, the Yorkists force King Henry (who doesn’t take much persuading) to compromise: he will remain nominally in power, but after his death (promised to be a natural one) Richard, Duke of York will inherit the throne. Queen Margaret, not surprisingly, is furious that her son, Prince Edward, has been disinherited and prepares to fight where her husband won’t. In the meantime, York is persuaded by his sons to break his oath and seize the crown immediately. His forces meet Margaret’s at Wakefield; where his young son, Rutland is killed by Clifford and he himself is captured and murdered by Clifford and the Queen.
Once again, at least for me, this play took off like a rocket: Henry’s statement to York, “Think’st thou that I will leave my kingly throne,/Wherein my grandsire and my father sat?/No – first shall war unpeople this my realm;” before in an aside to the audience, “I know not what to say – my title’s weak,” giving into York and allowing him (and his descendants) to take the throne after his death; Margaret’s fury “Who can be patient in such extreme?/Ah, wretched man, would I had died a maid/And never seen thee, never borne thee son,/Seeing thou hast proves so unnatural a father,” before taking matters (and an army) into her own hands; York’s malleability at the hands of his son’s and agreeing to break his oath to Henry and seize the crown; Clifford’s vengeful murder of Rutland; the sadistic glee that Margaret and Clifford taunted and tortured York before stabbing him to death…pretty remarkable.
“The play opens with York and his gang strolling into the parliament house and simply taking possession. Richard throws the head of the Duke of Somerset on the floor, and there is much showing of bloody swords. Indeed, they decide to call it ‘the bloody parliament’ and resolve to stay there, still in their armour. There is no longer a pretence at, or interest in, public ritual. Henry enters, and his followers immediately want to fall on the Yorkists; but, peace-loving and shrinking from action as always, Henry will not let them ‘make a shambles of the Parliament house’. After another of those unresolvable arguments as to who has the stronger title or better claim, Henry suddenly capitulates and offers a shameful deal, saying to York: ‘Let me for this my lifetime reign as king…Enjoy the kingdom after my decease.’ The dismayed reactions of his followers cover the implications of what he has done:
What wrong is this unto the Prince your son?
What good is this to England and himself!
Base, fearful, and despairing Henry!
How hast thou injured both thyself and us!
Henry will remain a curiously isolated figure – in or out of captivity – throughout the play until his death. But while he stands as a permanent protest against the horrors of civil war, and there is a permanent pathos in his continuously disappointed faith in the political efficacy of mercy, pity, and peace, his indisputable ‘virtue’ (I’ll leave my son my virtuous deeds behind’; is catastrophic for England at large. It is this betrayal and the craven disinheritance of his son, Edward, that goads the mother, Queen Margaret, to show herself for the Fury she is, as she effectively banishes Henry (‘get thee gone’;) and, with her son, takes over control of his forces and allies.
Richard soon persuades his father to abandon his promise to allow Henry to see out his life as a king:
And, father, do but think
How sweet a thing it is to wear a crown
Within whose circuit is Elysium
And all that poets feign of bliss and joy.
Clearly, the actual crown – easy to fetishize – had a disturbing magic and allure of its own. York says: ‘Richard enough; I will be King or die’. But what is another act of perjury in a world in which allegiances, loyalties, and the keeping of words, have gone out of fashion?
But Margaret is on the move, along with the mad nihilist Clifford, and we soon see what sort of war we are in for. Clifford finds York’s youngest son, Rutland, with his chaplain. He bundles the chaplain out of the way, and turns to little Rutland:
The sight of any of the house of York
Is as a Fury to torment my soul;
And till I root out their accursed line
And leave not one alive, I live in hell.
Therefore, he stabs him to death. This is immediately followed by the capture, and the prolonged baiting and mockery, of York. He is made to stand on a molehill in a vaguely crucifixion pose; he is crowned with a paper crown; and offered a napkin stained with the blood of his freshly murdered son, Rutland. It is an outrageous profanation and mutilation of the ideals (and idols) of kingship, knighthood, fatherhood, womanhood – everything concerning family and state. Margaret envinces a powerful sadistic pleasure in her prolonged mental torturing of York, who is nevertheless allowed a long, powerful speech of recrimination (‘She-wolf of France, but worse than wolves of France’) of nearly sixty lines, before Margaret and Clifford stab him to death. Shakespeare is just following his sources in showing this whole atrocity as a prolonged, blasphemous inverted ritual. But he clearly wants it to carry more general implications concerning the brutal, anti-chivalric nature of this civil war.”
It’s interesting to note that it was Richard of York’s speech of recrimination against Margaret that inspired one of the first contemporary responses to Shakespeare’s work:
From Marjorie Garber:
“The most famous description of Queen Margaret in the play, is…a line borrowed and tweaked by Shakespeare’s envious fellow playwright Robert Greene to accuse Shakespeare of plagiarizing the work of his contemporaries. The passage has become celebrated because it is one of the earliest apparent references to Shakespeare as a dramatist. In Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit, Bought with a Million of Repentance, published after his death in 1592, Greene complained of ‘an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers heart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposed he is as well to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you; and being an absolute Johannes fact totum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shakescene in a countrie.’ ‘Tygers heart wrapt in a Players hyde’ deliberately cites, and paraphrases, Richard of York’s anguished protest to Queen Margaret about the cold-blooded murder of his young son, Rutland, and her cruel proffer of a handkerchief dipped in the son’s blood to wipe the eyes of the grieving father:
O tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide!
How couldst thou drain the life-blood of the child
To bid the father wipe his eyes withal,
And yet be seen to bear a woman’s face?
Women are soft, mild, pitiful, and flexible –
Thou stern, obdurate, flinty, rough, remorseless.
Bidd’st thou me rage? Why, now thou hast thy wish.
Wouldst have me weep? Why, now thou hast thy will.
It is often said that Shakespeare’s line about the ‘tiger’s heart’ would have to had been well known in order for Greene’s jest to be recognizable, and it may b e that Greene and other University Wits would have found it bombastic. His use of this quotation, among all those he might have culled from the then-existent plays of Shakespeare, suggests that the play we know as 3 Henry VI was not only familiar to audiences, but particularly associated with the writer Greene dubs, dismissively, ‘Shake-scene.’
But there is more to observe about the passage. In context this is a speech about a ‘manly’ (or monstrous) woman – played, of course, by a boy player – and the way her cruel willingness to murder a child (think ‘Lady Macbeth’) not only renders her unwomanly, but also makes the father (think ‘Macduff’) weep with grief and rage. The person York calls a ‘false Frenchwoman’ is false in every sense. When York urges that she tell ‘the heavy story right’ to elicit tears from her hearers, and rounds his dying declaration out with ‘take the crown – and with the crown, my curse’ he anticipates the chain of curses and omens that will follow many characters through this play and the next, culminating in Margaret’s own uncannily predictive curse in Richard III. When Richard of Gloucester is restrained from killing her by his brother King Edward in act 5, he protests, ‘Why should she live to fill the world with words?’, and that is exactly what the figure of old Queen Margaret will do in the play that bears her chief antagonist’s name.”
And finally from Jonathan Bate, additional info on the Greene reference to Shakespeare:
“There can be no doubt that this refers to Shakespeare. A pun on his name is combined with a parody of one of his lines. In The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York (MY NOTE: INTERESTING CHANGE OF POINT OF REFERENCE), the historical drama which the 1623 First Folio of Shakespeare’s collected plays calls Henry VI Part Three, the duke of York is taunted by his enemies as they place a paper crown on his head. He hits back at the ‘she-wolf of France’, Queen Margaret, with the words ‘O tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide! By parodying the line, Greene is complaining that Shakespeare had started writing plays in the elevated blank-verse style which was the trademark of the university wits.
Johannes fac totum means Jack-of-all trades. Applied to Shakespeare, it means first actor, then dramatist. A Jack, furthermore, was no gentleman. Greene goes on to refer to the players as ‘rude grooms.’ This is a scornful allusion to the acting companies’ status as ‘servants’ or ‘grooms of the chamber’ to their royal or aristocratic patrons. The narrative of Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit is a downward spiral from respectability to death; Shakespeare is introduced antagonistically because his path seems to be going in the opposite direction, from country clown to rude groom to successful writer.
The image of the crow and the accusation ‘beautified with our feathers’ suggest that Shakespeare may even have been filching with his pen. The phrasing is based on that of Thomas Nashe in the preface he contributed to one of Greene’s earlier works, Menaphon. Nashe had jibed at writers who ‘in disguised array vaunt Ovid’s and Plutarch’s plumes as their own’ and at those who trick up the acting companies ‘with their feathers.’ The image of borrowed plumes is itself a borrowed phrase, in that it is taken from a fable in Aesop concerning a crow with borrowed feathers, which the Roman poet Horace applied to literary thieves. For Greene, then, Shakespeare’s is a double offence: as an actor, he gains credit for mouthing fine lines which really belong to the university wits, and as an upstart writer he is now imitating their style, even borrowing their phrases, in his own plays.
‘Upstart’ is a word which entered the English language with the social mobility of the mid-sixteenth century. It means ‘one who has newly or suddenly risen in position or importance; a newcomer in respect of rank or consequence; a parvenu.’ The word precisely denotes Greene’s perception of Shakespeare: a man of low origins who has suddenly come on the scene and is being touted as an important new voice in the theatre.
We do not know whether ‘in his own conceit’ means that it really was Shakespeare’s own joke that he was the only ‘Shake-scene in a country,’ but it certainly was the case that apt punning on his name became commonplace once his reputation was established. Greene’s principal emphasis is the new boy’s ‘rudeness,’ his lack of an advance education. It is one of the ironies of the Shakespeare story that the first surviving reference to him concerns the very lack of a university degree which three hundred years later led people to start supposing that the plays must have been written by someone more educated.
How did Shakespeare react to Greene’s insults? Like so much pertaining to his life, the answer can only be a matter of inference.”
And I’ll get to that in my next post.
My next post: Sunday evening/Monday morning
Our next reading: 3 Henry VI, Act Two
Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.