Everything is Oll Korrect!

An eclectic bibliophile's journal…

Tag: drama

Richard III, Reading Shakespeare, and Another Way to Fail at Kingship

William Shakespeare’s renown in the English-speaking world knows no bounds. He gets his own section in most libraries and bookstores, he’s assigned in every English curriculum, and in any major city there’s almost always a production of one of his plays going on at any time. Take a poll asking for the greatest poet, dramatist, or even general writer in English, and the Bard will win almost every time. In fact, he’s so famous that we don’t even need to call him by his name; just say “the Bard,” and people know who you’re talking about, like how St. Thomas Aquinas just calls Aristotle “the Philosopher.”

However, there’s also a phenomenon with Shakespeare similar to an observation C. S. Lewis once made about Scripture – if you tried to judge the amount of Bible-reading in England by the number of Bibles sold, you’d be far off the mark. A lot of people never approach Shakespeare’s work outside of class assignments, and find him difficult for several reasons. A common one is his diction; coworker of mine once said, only half-jokingly, that he’d be more interested in Shakespeare if Shakespeare wrote in English. Of course, not only did he write in English, he wrote in Modern English, albeit early Modern English.

A good illustration of the difficulties people run into is the famous opening soliloquy inĀ Richard III, which I just watched recently:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Grim-visaged war hath smooth’d his wrinkled front;
And now, instead of mounting barded steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.

As soon as people see this, I suspect many of them feel like they need to dissect it like a frog in biology class, as they were always required to do in school. “What’s the metre here? Any assonance or alliteration? There is a pun on ‘son’ and ‘sun’, I should mention that. Who is the ‘son of York,’ anyway? There’s also a lot of contrast between images in each lines…” and so on. Are you really supposed to get all of this?…

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Henry VI Part III, or Two Ways to Fail at Kingship

So, at last we come to Henry VI Part III, or The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York and the Good King Henry the Sixth, even though Richard’s brother Edward seems like a more central character than Richard, and historians would contest how much of it is true, but whatever; far be it from me to question the Bard or Oxford’s editors, and The Historically Dubious Tragedy… isn’t as catchy a title, anyway.

In any case, I mentioned that Part II is a study in bad kingship, and Part III continues that theme with two examples of bad kingship. Starting with Henry VI, he seems like a nice guy; I’m sure he’d have made a fine constitutional monarch. Unfortunately, he’s a sad sack. The Duke of York literally sits right down on Henry’s throne and demands that Henry recognise him as the legitimate king, and the two compromise because Henry agrees to disinherit his son Edward and name York as his heir in exchange for York allowing him to live out the rest of his reign as king. Of course, this doesn’t solve the problem at all; his wife, Queen Margaret, understandably protests and she and Edward go off to gather support, and very quickly we’re back at the civil war game.

I hate to say it, but Henry’s like the Jeb Bush of this contest. Later on York’s supporters, now led by York’s heir, confusingly also named Edward, are arguing with Henry’s (or rather, Margaret and Prince Edward’s) supporters; Margaret tells Henry to be quiet, and Henry objects, “I prithee give no limits to my tongue / I am a king, and privileged to speak.” Everyone else just keeps talking over him, anyway, and he doesn’t say another word for the entire scene. Later on, the Duke of Exeter tells Henry that he fears that Edward (York, not Henry’s son) will seduce their supporters to change sides. Henry says of his subjects:

My pity hath been balm to heal their wounds,
My mildness hath allayed their swelling griefs,
My mercy dried their water-flowing tears.
I have not been desirous of their wealth,
Nor much oppressed them with great subsidies,
Nor forward of revenge, though they much erred.
Then why should they love Edward more than me?
No, Exeter, these graces challenge grace;
And when the lion fawns upon the lamb,
The lamb will never cease to follow him.

“[T]hey love Edward more than” you, Henry, because you don’t inspire them. He gives a monologue at one point about how he wished he could have been born a commoner, which reminded me somewhat of a comment J.R.R. Tolkien once made, that he would like a king whose main interest was something like stamp-collecting. Now, I know what Tolkien was getting at, but Henry VI is an example of why stamp collectors don’t make good kings.

On the other hand, we have Edward, who inherits the claims of his father, the Duke of York, and who provides an example of the opposite problem; he wants and enjoys the powers of kingship too much. It is, of course, ultimately his party that starts the civil war, though Henry provided the opening. We don’t see a lot of what Edward does in power, but he’s clearly not above abusing his position. He meets with Lady Gray, who asks him to give her late husband’s estate to her and her children, which had been confiscated because he had fought for York. He offers to grant her request if she fulfill “an easy task,” that is, “to love a king.” She at first assumes he means the loyalty of subject to sovereign until he clarifies, “To tell thee plain, I aim to lie with thee.” She answers “To tell you plain, I had rather lie in prison.” He offers her marriage, and it’s clear that she’s not going to get her estate back unless she agrees.

Now, after they’ve been married a while, her attitude totally changes and she comes across about as dedicated to his cause as Queen Margaret is to Henry and Prince Edward’s. While Edward was wooing her (sort of), though, he’d already sent Warwick as an emissary to arrange a marriage between him and the daughter of the King of France, and thus threw his own ambassador under a bus and insulted the French King. When Edward’s brothers point this out to him, his only defense boils down to emphasising that he’s the king and can do what he wants, even if it means creating two powerful enemies due to an arbitrary exercise of power.

The original title called him “Good King Henry the Sixth,” and I suppose he was good. At one point he disguises himself as a monk, but that disguise seems so fitting that he’d have probably been happiest just joining a monastery for real. One of the main advantages of monarchy is that it keeps the jackals away from absolute power, but poor Henry is just too nice to do that.

On a final note, I think 3 Henry VI is the best of this trilogy. The first part felt more hit-and-miss from one scene to another, though I did enjoy it. The second was more focused on Henry, which is good, but I like that the third part gives us Edward as a foil for Henry, which makes it feel more thematically coherent than the other two parts.…

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