Sunday, October 24, 2010

Discussion: Henry VI, Part III

The play: The Third Part of Henry VI, with the Death of the Duke of York

The plot tweet: Henry is king. Now Edward is king. Now Henry again. Now finally Edward ... but Richard is waiting not-so-patiently in the wings.

My favorite line:
Why, courage then! What cannot be avoided
'Twere childish weakness to lament or fear.


In All of Shakespeare, Maurice Charney calls Henry VI "undoubtedly Shakespeare's most military play," and I have to agree. As soon as one tumult is resolved, another begins. The crown bounces from one head to another in this dynastic battle, and innocent citizens are the ones who suffer -- as Shakespeare reminds us poignantly in the set piece of the father who has killed his son and the son who has killed his father. Henry VI is a perfect chorus for this moving scene, but he doesn't manage to do much of anything else.

As in Henry VI, Part II, the ineffective king drives me batty. He abdicates responsibility at every possible turn. Queen Margaret, horrid as she is, gets it right when she says, "Enforced thee? Art thou King, and wilt be forced? I shame to hear thee speak." Fortunately for her, Henry doesn't get to speak much anyway. He's always being out-shouted and kicked out of battles, and others are always acting on his behalf. When Warwick decides to re-throne the deposed Henry, it doesn't seem to be in England's best interests.

I struggle with the characterization of Queen Margaret here. She is lambasted by the male characters as a "tiger's heart wrapped in a woman's hide," and she is certainly quite cruel. On the flip side, she excels in diplomacy and military strategy, leading the military into battle when her husband cannot or will not do so. The reigning Queen Elizabeth must have seen some of herself in this character, so I'm surprised Margaret comes across as badly as she does.

It's fun to watch the conniving, heartless Richard III emerge in this play, but we must also pity him a bit. Although he is fearsome in battle and carries himself well in general, he's always being dismissed as the "crookback," the "indigested and deformed lump" or the "foul misshapen stigmatic." Although he's clearly a villain in his own later play, I have trouble attaching that label to him here -- even when he murders Henry VI (which, to be frank, is probably the best solution for everyone).

Of course, we'll feel differently about him next week, when his villainy achieves its greatest heights in Richard III. But, for the moment, let's be glad that the "sour annoy" of the War of the Roses has reached a temporary halt.

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