Monday, April 5, 2010

Shakesblogging: Henry VI, Part 3

What I love about this play: Part 3 is dark, violent, and chilling; first the Lancastrians, then the Yorkists, kill the head of the opposing family and one of its children. Revenge piles upon revenge; both sides make claims on the audience’s sympathies and then lose them; in a lot of ways, it’s a more morally complex world than the sequel, Richard III, although the two plays are clearly of one piece, and there are lots of touches of foreshadowing. (Particularly of note is Richard of Gloucester’s verdict on Margaret: “Why should she live, to fill the world with words?”) It’s also an increasingly claustrophobic world, as the focus grows narrower and narrower. We don’t see much of the commons in this one, apart from the scene where poor King Henry encounters two of his subjects who emblematize the kingdom as a whole: a father who has unwittingly killed his son, and a son who has killed his father.

This is very much Queen Margaret’s play. I’m not sure she really coheres as a character across all four parts of the tetralogy – she seems more like a collection of feminine archetypes: ingenue, dangerous French adulteress, queen, mother tiger, witch. But she’s a great, tragic character in this installment. She leads armies. She fights for the kingdom her husband has abandoned. She takes bitter, cruel revenge on her enemies, and they butcher her son in front of her in return. She pleads for death, and those pleas are denied, so she curses, and those curses take root.

I also like the fact that the hapless Henry VI – alone of all the characters who surround Richard – calls him on his essential falseness: “What scene of death hath Roscius now to act?” (Pretty nearly everyone will accuse Richard of being a monster by the end of R3; but it is only Henry, in that sharp moment of clarity before his death, who accuses him of being an actor.)

Favorite moment: I’m running out of Henry VI-associated memories, so it’ll have to be a favorite moment: the end of 3.2., when Richard of Gloucester comes into his own. There have been little character touches, lines that are clearly intended to play up the contrast between Richard and his brothers, from the middle of Part 2 onward, but in this 70-line soliloquy he bursts into life – confessing his ambitions, taking the audience into his confidence, promising to put on the performance of a lifetime: “I’ll play the orator as well as Nestor / Deceive more slyly than Ulysses could ... I can add colours to the chameleon, / Change shapes with Proteus for advantages, / And set the murderous Machiavel to school. Can I do this, and cannot get a crown?” This is the speech where Richard becomes Richard, and it’s awesome.


heu mihi said...

OK, you are increasingly convincing me that I have NO BUSINESS teaching Shakespeare (which I only teach in the survey, so it's not a big deal, BUT STILL).

I'm enjoying this series--thanks for doing it! Maybe I'll even pick up some details for the next play that I teach (whatever it may be).

Fretful Porpentine said...

OK, you are increasingly convincing me that I have NO BUSINESS teaching Shakespeare...

Aww, I hope not! Maybe I should do the Canterbury Tales next year, so that you and the other medievalists can tell me about all the stuff I'm getting wrong.