My Time of Shakespeare: The First Tetralogy – Henry VI Third Part

18 Mar

From the Painting in the Boydell Gallery, by J. Northcote, R.A.

Full well hath Clifford play’d the orator,
Inferring arguments of mighty force.
But, Clifford, tell me, didst though never hear
That things ill got had ever bad success?
And happy always was it for that son
Whose father for his hoarding went to hell?
I’ll leave my son my virtuous deeds behind;
And would my father had left me no more!
For all the rest is held at such a rate
As brings a thousand-fold more care to keep
Than in possession any jot of pleasure.

With these words, Henry defies those who accuse him of cowardice, including myself. As I conclude this story of King Henry VI, I find myself concerned solely with his character. I understand that with a broad enough scope, discontent and sedition prove cyclical without an end point where justice stands victorious over her enemies and all wronged parties contendtedly relieve themselves. After all, as it may always sway with politics, the powerful alone define the truth of justice.

Yet Henry VI introduces me to an unfamiliar type of king, one who remains so much in the background of the civil warring in his kingdom yet still symbolizes the boon of one side of the fight. It seems Shakespeare inverts the story arch with my emotional reactions to Henry’s behavior. Where a story begins by setting the scene, then introduces the rising conflict, the climax and finally the falling resolution, I held Henry in a high regard, then he fell when the story rises and climaxes, then he rose again, for me, during the falling resolution. I esteemed his wisdom and sense of priority regarding the kingdom above himself in Part 1, began to question his conviction and will to defend his moral integrity in Part 2, then let him fall entirely in my regard as he agreed to York’s succession. But then I embraced him again, more fully than any other time during the trilogy, as a righteous philosopher who understands more of a man’s contentment and the false promise of happiness included with the purchase of a crown.

As the next generation enters the stage, after the tumultous revolting of Henry’s younger years, I wondered if Henry might have his own son’s true interests at heart when he gives up Prince Edward’s right to the crown. Of course, Queen Margaret, a beautifully bold feminine image of power and conviction in a man’s political world, violently defends their son’s right to the crown. But where they hold in common purpose for Prince Edward’s happiness, they differ in their methods. She thinks raising him to the highest office in England means providing his joy. Henry fundamentally disagrees as he comes to understand the true nature of this game and life.

In Act II, Scene V, Shakespeare illustrates a wonderous portrait of civil strife. First, Henry delivers a moving soliloquy on his perspective, one which he may have always had but finally puts in words and owns as his stance, then the image of fathers killing sons and sons killing fathers. The language would crush the heart of any horse-blinded warrior but I appreciated its simplicity most – an image of a corpse, colored in white by his pale cheeks and red by his blood, embodying both the red and white roses of this civil conflict. Such strife serves only to pay tribute unto death, nothing more. The victor dies as much as the vanquished as both share the same body politic.

We now look forward to the exploits of Richard III. I loved his confrontation with Henry VI when he decides to forfeit the effort to keep the nature of his soul and intellect differentiated from his body – a difference the public had ignored and considered his parts one and the same in monstrosity. With develish words Richard surrenders the battle to keep apart the magnetized aspects of his being and allows his spirit to reflect his physical form as so many in ignorant bigotry had marked him. What a tragedy, but no more tragic than the end of a life which wanted nothing more than to know God, serve his realm justly and live happily.

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Posted by on March 18, 2013 in William Shakespeare


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