Friday, January 25, 2019

William Shakespeare: Henry VI, Part 2

Queen Margaret, Cardinal Beaufort, the Earl of Suffolk

[Image source: . From the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production, directed by Scott Kaiser and Libby Appel.]

My Lord of Winchester, I know your mind;
'Tis not my speeches that you do mislike,
But 'tis my presence that doth trouble ye.
Rancour will out: proud prelate, in thy face
I see thy fury: if I longer stay,
We shall begin our ancient bickerings....

Just give me a company and I'll direct it myself! I thought as I read on. There's nothing a director needs to do, really; the play speaks so directly to the rancour and intransigence of our Brexit days.

That was from the first scene, a virtuoso disintegration of the formal concord with which the play begins: Henry, Margaret and Suffolk sweep from the stage, and one by one we meet the court's other variously discontented and opposed parties: Gloucester, Beaufort, then Buckingham and Somerset, then the Nevills (Salisbury and Warwick) and finally York. (It's a great way to grab our interest. Marlowe copied the main idea in The Massacre at Paris.)

For my part, noble lords, I care not which;
Or Somerset or York, all's one to me.
If York have ill demean'd himself in France,
Then let him be denay'd the regentship.
If Somerset be unworthy of the place,
Let York be regent; I will yield to him.
Whether your grace be worthy, yea or no,
Dispute not that: York is the worthier.
Ambitious Warwick, let thy betters speak.
The cardinal's not my better in the field.
All in this presence are thy betters, Warwick.
Warwick may live to be the best of all.
Peace, son! and show some reason, Buckingham,
Why Somerset should be preferred in this.
Because the king, forsooth, will have it so.
Madam, the king is old enough himself
To give his censure: these are no women's matters.
If he be old enough, what needs your grace
To be protector of his excellence?
Madam, I am protector of the realm;
And, at his pleasure, will resign my place.
Resign it then and leave thine insolence.
Since thou wert king--as who is king but thou?--
The commonwealth hath daily run to wreck;
The Dauphin hath prevail'd beyond the seas;
And all the peers and nobles of the realm
Have been as bondmen to thy sovereignty.
The commons hast thou rack'd; the clergy's bags
Are lank and lean with thy extortions.
Thy sumptuous buildings and thy wife's attire
Have cost a mass of public treasury.
Thy cruelty in execution
Upon offenders, hath exceeded law,
And left thee to the mercy of the law.
Thy sale of offices and towns in France,
If they were known, as the suspect is great,
Would make thee quickly hop without thy head.

(from Act I, Scene 3)

In this extract the good Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, makes the error of showing his irritation at Queen Margaret's persistent needling. He reaps a whirlwind of trumped-up charges; he's a marked man from now on. 

But whatever the immediate point at issue, the tone of debate in 2H6 remains constant: high-mettled, indignant, thin-skinned, factious, uncompromising, blameful, dismissive. Everyone has ammunition and everyone wants to use it.

Presumably as Warwick says "Warwick may live to be the best of all" he half-draws his sword. At any rate the threat of violence is palpable. 2H6 portrays a society on the brink of civil war... That war begins in earnest in Act V (with the battle of St Albans) We're not exactly in the same place today, except online: our Brexit civil war is a virtual one. But the rhetoric is unnervingly similar. 

Our director (me or another) could develop plenty of other Brexit angles too. Jack Cade's crusade against anyone who can write his own name might recall some modern remarks about having had enough of experts. The Earl of Suffolk's utter contempt for ordinary people is pure cosmopolitan elitism in action. Anti-French feeling courses through the play -- Cade regards being able to speak French as evident collusion with England's foes. Yet this is an entirely English power struggle, and we see that its big players are apt to exploit nationalism and xenophobia for their own ends.

But these analogies are, relatively speaking, just a bit of fun.While, on the contrary, the play's portrayal of spreading rancour and its consequences is a serious as well as thrilling thing to contemplate.

Here's Suffolk, the Queen, York and the Cardinal, rationalizing their murder of an innocent man. 

That he should die is worthy policy;
But yet we want a colour for his death:
'Tis meet he be condemn'd by course of law.
But, in my mind, that were no policy:
The king will labour still to save his life,
The commons haply rise, to save his life;
And yet we have but trivial argument,
More than mistrust, that shows him worthy death.
So that, by this, you would not have him die.
Ah, York, no man alive so fain as I!
'Tis York that hath more reason for his death.
But, my lord cardinal, and you, my Lord of Suffolk,
Say as you think, and speak it from your souls,
Were't not all one, an empty eagle were set
To guard the chicken from a hungry kite,
As place Duke Humphrey for the king's protector?
So the poor chicken should be sure of death.
Madam, 'tis true; and were't not madness, then,
To make the fox surveyor of the fold?
Who being accused a crafty murderer,
His guilt should be but idly posted over,
Because his purpose is not executed.
No; let him die, in that he is a fox,
By nature proved an enemy to the flock,
Before his chaps be stain'd with crimson blood,
As Humphrey, proved by treasons, to my liege.
And do not stand on quillets how to slay him:
Be it by gins, by snares, by subtlety,
Sleeping or waking, 'tis no matter how,
So he be dead; for that is good deceit
Which mates him first that first intends deceit.
Thrice-noble Suffolk, 'tis resolutely spoke.
Not resolute, except so much were done;
For things are often spoke and seldom meant:
But that my heart accordeth with my tongue,
Seeing the deed is meritorious,
And to preserve my sovereign from his foe,
Say but the word, and I will be his priest. ...

(from Act III, Scene 1)

[York loathes Suffolk and the Queen, they despise both him and the Cardinal. It's wonderful how working together on a well-scoped project brings people together.]



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