Sunday, October 17, 2010

Discussion: Henry VI, Part II

The play: The Second Part of Henry VI, with the Death of the Good Duke Humphrey

The plot tweet: All the nobles are plotting against each other and the king; lots of people get beheaded; the War of the Roses gets underway at St. Albans.

My favorite line:
Thus sometimes hath the brightest day a cloud;
And after summer evermore succeeds
Barren winter with his wrathful nipping cold:
So cares and joys abound, as seasons fleet.


I find it difficult to comment on this play, dependent as it is upon the resolution that will come in Henry VI, Part III and, to a certain extent, Richard III. Here, in the seventh play of Shakespeare's histories (speaking in historical order), the legendary War of the Roses shares the stage with Cade's almost-successful peasant uprising and a devastating loss of territory in France. Poor Henry VI is beset with troubles on all sides.

One could almost feel sorry for him, if he weren't so naive and incompetent. It's hard to imagine any son of Henry V turning out this way.

Several times while reading this play, I found myself writing exasperated comments like "Man up!" and "Why doesn't he take charge?" I really struggle with act three, scene one, in which Gloucester is falsely accused of treason and arrested. Henry wails that he "can do nought" to help Gloucester, that he "cannot do him good," and that Gloucester's enemies are "so mighty" that he cannot oppose them. Clearly this guy is not cut out to be king.

Only the sight of the dead Gloucester, murdered in his sleep the night before his trial, finally prompts Henry to exercise his authority and snap at his treacherous queen. But it's too late. The nation has already crumbled around him. From this point, he just yells at various traitors and orders others into battle, without once picking up a sword himself -- exactly the opposite of what his father would have done.

I am eager to see his development (or lack thereof) in Part III, and I'm looking forward to the culmination of the War of the Roses. We've just met the future Richard III, as well, and I look forward to getting to know him better; these devious villains are always the most fun to watch.

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