Friday, August 18, 2017

Henry V by William Shakespeare

I'd never actually read Shakespeare's Henry V all the way through before. I'd read a couple of the scenes, for sure, and had seen the Kenneth Branagh film two or three times. So reading the whole play was rather an eye-opener.

Following the accession of hellraising Prince Hal to his father's throne as Henry V, he's shocked everyone by reforming himself into a competent, smart, and vigorous king. As his old companion Sir John Falstaff dies slowly of a broken heart, the new King Harry gets permission from church authorities to invade France, the crown of which he claims in right of his descent from the French princess Isabella. Once in France, however, the English find themselves dramatically outnumbered and outmaneuvered. Will they survive the looming battle at Agincourt? Of course they will, with the help of the most rousing speech ever given in the history of the world. Bask in the awesome:
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember├Ęd-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.
By the time Shakespeare wrote Henry V, he'd already written most of his other history plays. He'd begun with one four-play cycle on the reigns of Henry VI and Richard III, and then went back through Richard II and Henry IV. Henry V is the last and probably the most beloved of these eight plays, and just as Richard III made a villain everyone already loved to hate, Henry V made a hero everyone already loved to love. This play is about a desperate foreign war, but it comes as a rather bright spot amidst a long and exhausting series about civil war. It's a bright, youthful, valiant play about a heroic young king on adventures in France.

Or is it?

Ambiguity is the word that has come to mind every single time I've sat down to write a review of these Shakespearean history plays, and lo, here it is again.

On the one hand, Shakespeare makes King Henry a thoroughly likeable character. Where Richard II was verbose, Henry V is simply inspiring. You wished Richard would shut up; you want Henry to go on. Richard had an over-inflated sense of his quasi-divine entitlement to the throne, Henry takes every opportunity to remind his men that he loves them and considers them his brothers. Richard treated his nobles like peasants, but Henry treats his peasants like nobles. Whether it's the rousing Harfleur or St Crispin's Day speeches, or whether it's Henry's conversations with his men in disguise the night before Agincourt where he argue's that "every man's soul's his own", or his soliliquy on how the only thing that makes a difference between himself and an ordinary person is ceremony, at times this play seems almost anachronistically democratic for Elizabethan tastes. Indeed, these English democratic ethics are implicitly contrasted with the French, who come around after the battle to bewail their dead knights and lords who are all jumbled up on the battlefield with peasants and commoners.

You like Henry in this play. How can you fail to like someone who treats his men so well, someone as adorably awkward around the French Princess Katharine as he is, someone who knows so well how to inspire others, someone who at times seems to act so nobly toward his enemies?

But you don't even have to look very closely to feel uncomfortable about Henry V.

One thing that began to bug me the second or third time I saw the film, and that became very clear as I read the play, was how constantly Henry shifts the blame for the war onto others. He clearly understands the cost in human lives, suffering, and resources that war exacts. In fact, he's constantly talking about it, sometimes in uncomfortably graphic terms. He warns the church officials not to sanction his invasion of France unless they're willing to bear the guilt for this. Later in the very same scene he blames the war on the Dauphin for insulting him. At Harfleur he intimidates the garrison into surrender by threatening a ghastly sack of the town, which he has the nerve to say will be their fault. Henry seems to be roughly on the same moral level as the schoolyard bully who (slap) wants you (slap) to stop hitting yourself (slap).

By the time of the night before Agincourt, when the king in disguise states, "I could not die anywhere so contented as in the king's company, - his cause being just and his quarrel honourable", and the soldier William responds, "That's more than we know", the line hits us between the eyes. It's more than we know, too. And we know much more than William does.

We know, for instance, that Henry IV's dying advice to his son in the previous play was to avoid civil war by busying his nobles with a foreign war. We know that corrupt church officials have offered Henry a huge bribe plus permission to go to war in France if he'll help them politically. We know that Henry is a foreign aggressor invading a peaceful country without any provocation whatsoever. We know that before Harfleur, Henry turns down the opportunity to make peace by taking Katharine's hand and a number of French dukedoms.

But this isn't the only dark side to Henry V. There's also a dark side to him personally. In my reviews of the Henry IV plays, I said that I thought Shakespeare didn't mean audiences to see Henry as treacherous for planning to abandon Sir John Falstaff and his other lowlife friends. I still think Shakespeare was trying to show that Henry needed to mature past Falstaff, but in this play he hints that Henry has treated Falstaff badly. The scene in Act 2, for instance, where Henry righteously unmasks and condemns three friends who have betrayed him to the French ("Thou that didst bear the key of all my counsels,/That knew'st the very bottom of my soul,/That almost mightst have coin'd me into gold") is bookended by scenes at Eastcheap in which Falstaff is dying: "the king has killed his heart." Henry has been betrayed, but he has also betrayed his own friends.

This is underlined, rather chiastically, in Act 4 when the Welsh Captain Fluellan compares Henry with Alexander "the Pig" (or the Great, misunderstood and comedically mispronounced). Fluellan gives us a list of completely irrelevant comparisons--both of them were born at places beginning with an M!--but finishes by saying that Alexander killed his best friend. Just like Henry turned away "the fat knight with the great pelly-doublet."

So in Henry V, is Shakespeare depicting a hero or a villain? I tend to suspect that he attempted, with surprising skill, to do both. Henry V is a genuinely charming character, with many genuinely heroic qualities, but he's also got a very decent helping of the villain in him. One feels keenly that he would not be half as taken by Princess Katharine if she didn't come with France thrown in, but one feels equally certain that having married her, he'll do his best to make her happy for the rest of his (perhaps deservedly) short life.

Henry V is a great play, containing some of the best things Shakespeare ever wrote, but it's not by any means a simple read.

I've seen two productions of Henry V. Kenneth Branagh's 1989 version is definitely the one to go for. Despite its rather low-budget production values, it's wonderfully hammy in all the right places, with Branagh himself, Emma Thompson, Judi Dench and Ian Holm all providing great performances. This version plays the story fairly straight, with Henry as a hero, although the ambiguity is well and truly still present in the dialogue.

The Hollow Crown production with Tom Hiddleston as Henry has a similarly low budget, but clearly tries to bring out a bit more of the ambiguity inherent in the play, although I fail to grasp the logic behind some of the directorial decisions (why include the slaughter of the French prisoners but not of the English baggage-train?). Hiddleston's performance is lower-key than Branagh's; he seems more self-aware, more doubtful of his own rhetoric. Which, actually, I don't think was the best decision for the play. Henry V can be portrayed as villainous or heroic and probably should be, but I feel that he only has power if he does believe what he's saying. I actually would have liked to see Hiddleston in full Loki mode as a charismatic tyrant; that might have been iconoclastic, but oh so much fun. Maybe someone else will do that one day...

Find Henry V on Amazon, the Book Depository, Project Gutenberg or Librivox.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

OUTREMER update!

Today, I'm really excited to bring you the latest news on OUTREMER!

As you know if you've been following me for a while, OUTREMER is the giant project that has been taking up the lion's share of my time for the last three years, an epic saga spanning the 200-year history of the medieval crusader states. Since committing to the project at the end of 2014, I've read more than 25 books on the history and geography involved, and written well over 400,000 words' worth of first-draft material.

I haven't given you an update on this project for nearly a year. A few weeks ago I realised that it's been nearly a year since I finished the OUTREMER first draft, and the realisation freaked me out a bit. Eleven months? What have I been doing?

But of course, I've been doing plenty. I've actually spent the majority of the last six months working on this baby of mine. It's been slow, and it's been the kind of planning, plotting, and sitting-still-and-thinking work that doesn't always look like work. In January and February, I undertook an evaluation of the characters and themes in the first draft. After a short break from research in the last few months of 2016, I returned to that and have burned my way through some very important research reads, including The Templar of Tyre, a primary source on the late thirteenth century which was worth every penny of its significant cost. In April I spent a lot of time thinking about the history itself, trying to crunch it through a Christian worldview to come up with some judgement calls for how I needed to handle various ethical questions. I then spent an exhausting month in May re-reading the first draft and doing some very intense brainstorming for new ideas, which included systematising the magic and coming up with some overarching symbols to express some of the themes I was seeing in the history. I took a couple of weeks in June to study each of my eighteen major characters, firming up their character arcs and motivations. Finally, in July, I found myself sorting through thousands of words' worth of notes, both handwritten and typed, in order to compile my decisions into a master plan for each level of the plot: the overall story, each protagonists' story, and finally, each book.

Yes, you heard that right: I have abandoned my fond and naive hope to tell this story within one volume. There's no way I can fit it into one book. That was a rather easy decision, but I had no idea whether to split the thing into two, three, or more books. At the beginning of this year, however, I was able to make this decision--a rather daunting one, but one which I'm confident is the right choice.

OUTREMER will be a series of nine books.

This is the most natural way to tell the story. As it is, the first draft was always structured in nine parts, as a sort of interwoven trilogy of trilogies following three different protagonists: John, Lukas, and Marta Bishara. So, nine books is really the easiest and most powerful way to tell this story.

Oh, and I've changed the protagonists' surname, for linguistic reasons that would be too tedious to explain here. Say goodbye to the Bisharas, and hello to the Bessarions!

Anyway, all this is really small beans compared to the big news I am here to share with you. Last month, I started work on the second draft of Book 1. My goal is to have that finished and hopefully ready for first-round beta reading by the end of this year, preparatory to publication, likely late in 2018. DV.

Book 1 is currently titled A Wind from the Wilderness, and it's set during the early stages of the First Crusade. It's coming along slowly, but steadily, and I'm already much happier with it than I was with the first draft.

Once that's finished, I also hope to move quickly on to Book 2, currently titled The Lady of Kingdoms.

Obviously I can't be more excited at how this story is coming together. The second draft--or second drafts, since I'll be writing each book separately--will bear surprisingly little resemblance to the first. I've barely even been consulting the first draft as I work on A Wind from the Wilderness. But I've gained an immense benefit in getting to know my characters, their history, the setting in which they interact, and the themes that will drive their plots. With all this planning under my belt, I couldn't be more excited to dig in and burn through this story. And I can't wait to share it with you!

Friday, August 4, 2017

Henry IV, Part 2 by William Shakespeare

This week I continued exploring Shakespeare's history plays with Henry IV, Part 2. In the third part of Shakespeare's English-History Theatrical Universe (I'm sorry, couldn't resist), King Henry IV's illness worsens as second son Prince John of Lancaster mops up the rebels from the previous play.

In any series, duology or trilogy there are usually instalments that lack the quality of the others, and it's hard not to see Henry IV Part 2 as the obligatory filler episode, necessary to bridge the gap between the two hits of Henry IV Part 1 and Henry V. Putting on my own author hat, I think the main reason this play feels so filler-ish is that the central character, Prince Hal, evidently has so little to do. In Part 1, Hal struggled with his father's disappointment in him, and addressed it by seeking glory on the Shrewsbury battlefield. He did indeed prove himself - but only to himself, because Sir John Falstaff took the credit for the victory (no doubt a sly symbol for how his association with Falstaff has tainted Hal's reputation in other ways as well). 

But in Part 2, although Henry IV remains doubtful about his son, Hal has no plans to prove himself, at least not during his father's lifetime. Part 2 is a waiting game as the king sickens, and the most active role in the plot belongs to Hal's younger brother John, who presents a different kind of foil to him than Hotspur in the previous play. Where Hotspur was hot and chivalrous, John is cold and cunning. Hotspur was an old-fashioned medieval knight; John is a more up-to-date renaissance prince, achieving his goals through ruthless realpolitik. While Hal clearly has a dose of cool calculation himself, while he avoids Hotspur's splenetic idealism, he's very much more warm-blooded than his brother, and perhaps Shakespeare is positioning Hal between the two extremes as a way to comment on the ideal king. 

Whether this is so or not, it's fun, in this play, to see John so effortlessly put down the rebellion. The play presents him young and extremely competent, trusted by his father and as anxious as anyone else about Hal's impending accession to the throne. With this in mind, I'm surprised that Shakespeare didn't take this character further, didn't more clearly position him as a threat to Hal, which might have loaned more urgency to the plot. Then again, perhaps Shakespeare is saving him up for some juicy antics in Henry VI. We'll see.

The fact remains that Hal has little to do here, and even Falstaff's antics can't quite save the play. Part 2 finds the fat knight in financial distress, dodging the Chief Justice and taking shameless bribes on a recruiting drive through Gloucestershire, including from two fellows named (I'm not kidding but Shakespeare is) Mouldy and Bullcalf. 

But the play's power, and its somewhat doom-laden tone, derives from the fact that for everyone, time is simply running out. Henry IV, crushed by guilt and disappointment, is dying. Hal's days as a carefree prince are coming to an end, and he has no choice but to go on playing the carefree prince because no one would believe him if he showed his genuine grief. His brothers and courtiers await his accession with dread. And Falstaff's days as a petty thief and general sponger cannot continue, no matter how strenuously he denies it: his only hope is that Hal will become king in time to pay his debts.

The play is, rather simply, the story of how time runs out, and what happens when it does. After so long waiting and wondering, it's actually pretty exciting to see Hal become king. When he does, strangely enough, one of the play's most moving scenes has to do with a highly symbolic character whom we only see in this play: the Lord Chief Justice. We're told that the Chief Justice is trying to corner Falstaff the petty criminal, and that in Falstaff's defence, Hal once socked the Justice's juridical nose. When Hal becomes king, the Chief Justice expects disgrace at best and death at worst, but Hal, it turns out, is more than ready to cast aside Falstaff, the symbolic Vice, and replace him with the equally symbolic Justice. This is easy to understand, but it suggests other possibilities as well: Henry IV, we all know, does not himself have an easy relationship with the blindfolded lady; is Shakespeare hinting that Henry IV had to die before Hal could openly embrace Justice?

At any rate, it was nice to see that when Hal becomes king, he does, in fact, give Falstaff and his other old friends a decent pension. I feel that gets forgotten often.

As before, I introduced myself to this play by watching the Hollow Crown production with Tom Hiddleston as Hal, Simon Russel Beale as Falstaff, and the always excellent Jeremy Irons as Henry IV. It's a great production, though as in Richard II, I thought some important scenes were omitted. 

Find Henry IV, Part 2 on Amazon, the Book Depository, Project Gutenberg and Librivox.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Henry IV, Part 1 by William Shakespeare

My adventures in Shakespeare's history plays continue with Henry IV Part 1, which (to be honest) is really about the misspent youth of Henry V, or "Hal" as he's known in this play.

Henry V was one of the two history plays I was reasonably familiar already. I'm not sure if I've read the whole thing, but I've definitely seen the movie. And of course, in that play, although there are references to his unpromising youth, Hal has become the Model King. And because I already knew how Henry turns out as king, it was fascinating to fill in some of the backstory here.

Henry IV, Part 1 takes place more or less a year after the end of Richard II (although Shakespeare uses a great deal of poetic licence with the chronology). Henry IV, still dogged with guilt after seizing the throne from Richard II, is beset with difficulties. The Scots and Welsh are both causing trouble; young Prince Hal, rather than helping, seems content to spend his life roistering and even thieving in the company of the disreputable and cowardly Sir John Falstaff; and a dispute over Scottish prisoners leads to young Henry "Hotspur" Percy, member of a powerful Northumberland family, starting his very own rebellion.

Henry IV, Part 1 seems to have been a hit during Shakespeare's day and ever since, and it's not hard to see why. Hal is the central figure of the play, but the supporting characters are colourful and sympathetic as well. To begin with, there's Henry IV himself, suffering the consequences of how he gained the throne: guilt and rebellion. Shakespeare is too good a playwright to make a villain of him, but there's a distinct sense of taint about Henry, and ironically, one of the most promising signs that Hal will prove a better king is his intentional distancing himself from his father. But that meaning is more in the subtext than the text of the play: in the text, Henry reproaches his son for irresponsibility, arguing (again, with an ironic twist of meaning) that Hal takes after Richard II rather than himself. He means, of course, that Hal imitates Richard's irresponsibility. But Shakespeare is really hinting that Hal has a better, because not usurped, title to the throne.

This is underlined when Henry compares Hotspur, another key supporting character, to himself. Like the young Henry IV, Hotspur has taken offence at a perceived wrong done him by the King, and is determined to topple the King. Unlike the young Henry IV, Hotspur has a much better argument to help him gain allies: the King is a usurper. Hotspur is another intensely likeable character, as hot-headed as his nickname suggests, and the only person in his rebellion who is doing it purely for honour's sake. Shakespeare likes him so much that he calls his wife Kate (a name he seems to have reserved for his favourite female characters) and provides them with a hilarious, yet tender, bickering romance. In reality, Hotspur was a couple of years older than Henry IV, but Shakespeare makes him younger so as to act as a better foil to Hal. While Hal slums it in London taverns, Hotspur is winning fame and glory as a knight. But as different as they are, we can't help liking both of them, and it's painful watching them forced into conflict as the story escalates.

If Hotspur primarily serves as a foil to Hal, someone King Henry can wish loudly had been his own son rather than Hal, then Sir John Falstaff serves as a foil to King Henry, Hal's other father figure. Falstaff is the dark horse in this play's ensemble, a character so enjoyable in his cunning cowardice that he has passed into literary legend. He's regularly compared to the Vices in a morality play, his main aim being to lead youth astray. And Shakespeare definitely encourages the audience to boo him. Whether pressing unsuitable men into military service, or trying to get undeserved credit after the battle of Shrewsbury, at least some of Falstaff's actions are intended to be sinister rather than comic.

But this play is about the making of a king, the future Henry V. Falstaff contributes to Hal's future in a number of ways: his quick-wittedness and silver tongue, his flashes of magnanimity, will all make an appearance, fully refined, in Henry V. Hal ends this play standing above the bodies of both Hotspur and Falstaff, but he lives the play, symbolically speaking, between them. Certain themes crop up in both Hotspur's and Falstaff's scenes: the most obvious one is honour. Hotspur puts honour above anything else; Falstaff has a lengthy speech deriding it. Neither of them is right, and rather than choosing between them, it's Hal's job to learn what he can from each and reject their faults.

This brings us to Hal himself, another very enjoyable character. In an early speech, Hal makes sure to inform the Elizabethan audience (probably as concerned as any father by his irresponsibility) that his fecklessness is a show, adopted to make everyone think all the better of him when he suddenly reforms upon becoming king. It's not hard to assume from this that Hal must be a fairly cold and conniving character, but I don't think this is what Shakespeare is trying to convey. Shakespeare often gives us heroic characters who plan their success in cold detail ahead of time, and it's almost always a sign of moral seriousness and strength of character. Just think of Petruchio, arriving in Padua with the avowed intention of marrying wealthily no matter how ugly or old the woman is. Deliberation is always a sign of strength of character in Shakespeare, and Hal is no exception. He intends to become king, and to do a good job of it, and as genuinely as he enjoys the low company he keeps, as much as he is learning about how to relate to and inspire the ordinary man, he knows that his place is not truly with them. One day, he will be forced to break with them, and it's going to be painful for everyone.

I wish I could have spent more time thinking this play through before reviewing it, but Shakespeare is difficult to get to the bottom of! If you've read a helpful article on Henry IV Part 1, drop a link in the comments!

I've seen the Hollow Crown production of this play, featuring some excellent acting work from Tom Hiddleston as Hal, Jeremy Irons as a crabby and compelling Henry IV, Simon Russell Beale as Falstaff and Joe Armstrong as Hotspur. For some reason the director thought it was important to include a bit of nudity, which, you know, back then they had guys playing the ladies anyway so they would have kept them all covered up so as to preserve the illusion, so don't pretend you need it for authenticity, gah. Parental discretion advised.

Find Henry IV Part 1 on Amazon, the Book Depository, Project Gutenberg or Librivox.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Poem: The Village Choir by Anonymous

I've been a little behindhand this week, so I will just edify you with this poem, which I came across years ago in a music anthology. Old Hundredth, of course, is the "All People That on Earth Do Dwell" setting of Psalm 100, which usually isn't rendered with such verve as on the memorable occasion of the Village Choir...

The Village Choir
(After the Charge of the Light Brigade)
by Anonymous

Half a bar, half a bar,
Half a bar onward!
Into an awful ditch
Choir and precentor hitch,
Into a mess of pitch,
They led the Old Hundred.
Trebles to right of them.
Tenors to left of them,
Basses in front of them,
Bellowed and thundered.
Oh, that precentor's look,
When the sopranos took
Their own time and hook,
From the Old Hundred!

Screeched all the trebles here,
Boggled the tenors there,
Raising the parson's hair,
While his mind wandered;
Theirs not to reason why
This psalm was pitched too high;
Theirs but to gasp and cry
Out the Old Hundred.
Trebles to right of them,
Tenors to left of them,
Basses in front of them,
Bellowed and thundered.
Stormed they with shout and yell,
Not wise they sang nor well,
Drowning the sexton's bell,
While all the church wondered.

Dire the precentor's glare,
Flashed his pitchfork in air,
Sounding fresh keys to bear
Out the Old Hundred.
Swiftly he turned his back,
Reached he his hat from rack,
Then from the screaming pack,
Himself he sundered.
Tenors to right of him,
Trebles to left of him,
Discords behind him,
Bellowed and thundered.
Oh, the wild howls they wrought:
Right to the end they fought!
Some tune they sang, but not,
Not the Old Hundred.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Ensign Carey by Ronald Welch

Ensign Carey, the eleventh (and second-last) in Ronald Welch's Carey Family Series, begins unconventionally with a burglary. In a gritty Victorian London setting, an impoverished young blueblood robs the house where he was a guest the week before, then murders an accomplice who seems a little too curious about his real identity.

It quickly turns out that this character is not, in fact, our protagonist and the latest Carey whose adventures we'll be following through some pivotal moment of history... but it's a brilliant opening to one of the more unconventional of the Carey series, an opening that manages to neatly foreshadow just about everything else.

Because William Carey, our actual protagonist, is not a particularly heroic figure either. Selfish to the point that he's never felt true sympathy for another human being, William Carey is an idle young man who prefers slumming in the London underworld to study or honest work. An encounter with a billiards sharp provides William with his first real ambition: to become a billiards sharp himself, and use his skill to line his pockets.

After a drunken horse race at Cambridge goes terribly wrong, William is sent down in disgrace and forced to enlist as an ensign in the extremely uncelebrated Bengal Army. William endures his purgatory in the heat and boredom of life in India in his usual way, but trouble is in the air: not just for him, but for all the English sahibs in Bengal.

I often feel that plotting is not Welch's strong point, and as with many of his other books, this one, while never dull, is not particularly tight. But it made up for this with some terrific characters, plus opening and closing chapters that form deliciously ironic bookends for the story.

Ronald Welch's heroes usually have a character flaw to overcome, but none of the ones I've read are so close to sociopathery. William is a genuinely repulsive character, but I was impressed by how well-written he was. Welch is always showing him doing understandable or even thoughtful or brave things, and then just as you think William has grown and learned, yank! out comes the carpet from under your feet, as you learn the truly selfish motivations William has for his actions. This is not to say that William doesn't grow or learn: by the end of the story, he's risen to the occasion in a number of ways, and managed to feel sorry for someone not himself. But I was fascinated and impressed by the deftness of the characterisation here, which never completely breaks your liking for this character, despite all his avarice, low cunning, and gutsy determination to live comfortably on the misfortunes of others.

It was huge fun to have a black-sheep protagonist for a change. After all, not all families turn out generations of unblemished military heroes. But my favourite thing about this book was what Welch did with this character in the end. I'm not going to tell you exactly what happens, but suffice it to say that William does not get away with the fruits of his misdeeds. I am a huge fan of morally compromised characters in fiction, as long as the author doesn't then attempt the belly-dance of moral relativism in an attempt to get me to approve of their wrongdoing. Ronald Welch is not, on the whole, that kind of author. He's the ruthless kind, and I loved it.

That said, it is nice to have a rather more heroic Carey in this book. The protagonist of the previous instalment, Nicholas Carey, turns up in this one to provide a foil for what William might have been if he was less selfish. Of course, Nicholas had his own character arc from apathy to sympathy in his own book, and it's interesting that in both the books Welch wrote in a Victorian setting, he was savagely critical of the vices of young Victorian men.

Another part of this critique of Victorianism crops up in the India passages. I know that the case against colonialism is often over-stated these days (at least one Indian intellectual has dedicated significant time to exploring the benefits of colonialism in India), but Welch has some thought-provoking things to say. He depicts, without overt judgement, a life of idle luxury which depends on armies of native servants to do the exhausting work of keeping the sahibs and memsahibs comfortable; and he blames the Sepoy rebellion, at least partly, on the fact that few of the British officers took the trouble to learn the names or language of their men. I don't know how historically accurate all this is (Welch's book Knight Crusader, while pretty fair considering how little scholarship had then been done on the history of the Crusader States, is not a miracle of historical accuracy), but as usual with Welch, it's even-handed and level-headed.

I particularly enjoyed this installation of the Carey Family Series. With a delightfully unpleasant protagonist, and an ending that is as ironically satisfying as anything I've every read, this book surprised me in all sorts of delightful ways.

After years out of print, Ronald Welch's Carey Family Series is briefly available in beautiful heirloom-quality limited editions from Slightly Foxed. Find Ensign Carey on their website, or better yet, check out the whole series. It's very good! Generally appropriate for middle grade and up, although this book and the next in the series, Tank Commander, include some PG-13 level swearing.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Richard II by William Shakespeare

Well, I'm back. Tasmania was, as always, wonderful, and at the Pilgrim Artists' Festival I was privileged to meet (or spend more time with) some amazing local artists: indie author WR Gingell, whose books you should definitely check out if you love fairytales, Georgette Heyer, or mysteries; acoustic guitarist Alan Gogoll; Steve and Marion Isham, who between them write poetry, produce children's books, and make amazing drawings and paintings.

During our stay, our lovely hostess Margaret (herself an award-winning oils painter, while we're on the topic) introduced us to The Hollow Crown, which somehow I'd missed seeing, or getting excited about. Splendidly-acted new Shakespeare films? True, I've never been all that interested in the history plays, but still: Shakespeare.

We only got the chance to see Richard II during our visit, but it was terrific, and having seen it, I knew I had to read the play in full.

For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison'd by their wives: some sleeping kill'd;
All murder'd: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court...

At first glance, you might not think Richard II a bad king. When two noblemen come before him with competing accusations of treason, Richard tries to make up the quarrel before allowing the trial by combat to go ahead. The Duke of Lancaster's son Henry Bolingbroke is convinced that the Duke of Norfolk is guilty of murdering the Duke of Gloucester, and is willing to fight him to prove it. But just as the combat starts, King Richard cancels the match and banishes both combatants to an arbitrary period of exile.

When the Duke of Lancaster, the wise and experienced John of Gaunt, dies, Richard shows his true colours, seizing the Lancaster property to finance a war in Ireland. Enraged that his rightful inheritance should be seized by the crown during his absence, Henry Bolingbroke returns to England determined to reclaim it, by force if necessary. Meanwhile, rumours about the Duke of Gloucester's death thicken: was the murder plotted by Norfolk, or did Norfolk only cover up for someone who must not be suspected?

I'm not sure I even realised that Shakespeare had written a history play about Richard II (my tastes have always run to his comedies), let alone whether it was considered one of his best or not, but Richard II was magnificent, and as usual with a well-regarded Shakespeare play, it surprised me with a few very famous speeches. For example, this is where the This sceptr'd isle, this seat of Mars, this other Eden, demi-paradise... this England speech comes from, as the dying John of Gaunt complains about Richard's rule.

This play, like much of Shakespeare, is full of spine-tinglingly magnificent lines. In addition, I was fascinated to note that the "sceptr'd isle" speech begins a motif repeated through the play, of England as a badly-tended garden, an Eden beset by curses. Another motif, drawn out and beaten to death in the Hollow Crown version, is Richard II's view of himself as a quasi-divine figure, a type of Christ, having a divine right to rule however he wants. Against this, Shakespeare pits the insistence of Richard's barons that right to rule depends not on birth or office, but on justice. Richard fails multiple times at the beginning of the play to do justice, and it's this that naturally deprives him of his crown.

But one of the things that struck me most deeply about this play was its ambiguity. The two dominating figures are the plain-spoken Henry Bolingbroke, and Richard himself. And what a character Richard is, by the way: wilful, emotional, and weak; always performing to an audience, saving himself from the worst of his humiliations simply by bravura monologuing; and yet weirdly charming, sympathetic, and even noble in the midst of his richly-deserved trials. Richard is no clear-cut villain (indeed, Victorian productions of the play apparently used to make a saint of him), but neither is Henry a clear-cut hero. He accuses Norfolk, rather broadly, of "all the treasons for these eighteen years", and legitimises his own claim to the throne in speeches that seem increasingly threadbare and desperate; by the end, he consolidates his grip on the crown with a series of executions, but puts on a show of remorse over Richard's coffin.

Which makes this play a fascinating character study. Overall, I believe it's a veiled critique of the idea of the diving right of kings (an evaluation shared by Elizabeth I, who was so offended by the play that it had to be heavily censored). There are two theories of kingship here: Richard's theory that kingship is substantiated by its existence, and Henry's (at first), that it is substantiated by justice. As the Duke of York warns Richard early on, a king who refuses to respect his subjects' rights is laying a dangerous precedent:

Take Hereford's rights away, and take from Time
His charters and his customary rights;
Let not to-morrow then ensue to-day;
Be not thyself; for how art thou a king
But by fair sequence and succession?

If Richard takes away Henry's patrimony, he ought not to be terribly surprised when Henry takes away Richard's patrimony. And yet that first act of injustice does not absolve Henry. By not being content to regain what he has lost, by taking more than he promised, Henry founds his own kingship on the same brand of injustice that Richard committed early in the play. Although Henry begins his rebellion on a platform of limited monarchy, he ends it with something very like absolutism because at this stage he can no longer rely on justice. By the end of the play, Richard dies; but by the end of the play, it seems, he has converted Henry to his way of thinking.

Richard II is an extraordinarily rich and subtle play which I'm sure I've only scratched the surface of. And now I'm excited to dive in and work my way through all of Shakespeare's historical plays, especially now that I know where to find some excellent filmed editions to form my introduction.

The Hollow Crown production of Richard II features Ben Whishaw in a truly excellent performance and some memorable supporting work from Patrick Stewart as John of Gaunt and Rory Kinnear as Henry Bolingbroke. For some reason, it chooses to cut the Gloucester subplot entirely, an odd decision since that makes so much sense of many of the characters' actions, as well as the fun scene in Act IV where everyone is throwing down gauntlets and Aumerle has to ask someone to loan him a third. Oh well--this was otherwise very good, and you really must see Shakespeare performed to experience him properly.

Find Richard II on Amazon, the Book Depository, Project Gutenberg or Librivox.


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