Friday, September 15, 2017

Henry VI, Part 2 by William Shakespeare

After the plodding, uninspired mess that was Henry VI, Part 1, I wasn't quite expecting Henry VI, Part 2 to be so great.

This play begins with the arrival of Margaret of Anjou, Henry's new queen. Margaret is a fantastic character, by the way--young and penniless, but coldly ambitious and willing to go to any lengths to get what she wants. What she wants is to rule England by ousting Duke Humphrey of Gloucester as Henry VI's protector and taking up his influence over the young, devout, and impressionable king. Her conspiracy to destroy Humphrey quickly gains support not only from her own self-interested Lancaster supporters, but also from the Yorkist faction, led by Duke Richard of York, who secretly hopes that Humphrey's removal will smooth his own way to the throne which he believes is rightfully his...

First of all, Henry VI, Part 2 is not quite Shakespeare at the top of his form, but it's Shakespeare operating at an unprecedentedly epic scope. You name it, this play has it: pirates? villainous forbidden love? assassination? intrigue? witchcraft? battles? satire? catfights? trial by ordeal? Henry VI, Part 2 is a sprawling tale covering years of history, all social strata and dozens of characters. While Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V are known to history as the "Major Tetralogy" and this one gets stuck with "Minor", I can't help feeling that the scope of this play is on a whole different level.

Without a sharp focus on specific characters, and with a plot that encompasses so many different subplots (including fun appearances from the young future Richard III!), this play is a lot to take in, and Shakespeare would for the rest of his career confine himself to a smaller scope. Personally, though, I found it a thrilling and satisfying historical epic. The currents of intrigue that started running in Part 1 now threaten to sweep England into a full-blown civil war, and the sheer scope of the play helps to underline the drama of what's happening.


If this play is difficult to like, it's because of the characters. The only genuinely heroic character is Duke Humphrey, who spends the whole first half of the story being disgraced and then brutally murdered with the connivance of almost every single other prominent character. The notable exception is Henry VI himself, and the great irony of the play is that Henry is a fat lot of help.

In this instalment of the story, more so than in Henry VI, Part 1, Henry's most notable character trait is his devout goodness. A pious and gentle young man, you'd be pardoned for expecting that England would be peaceful and happy under his reign. But it isn't. Henry makes a terrible king, and he's helpless in the hands of his ruthless and cunning nobles.

"Here is the central irony of the play: Henry's Christian goodness produces evil." So says director Peter Hall, arguing that Henry's adherence to Christian ethics puts him at a disadvantage vis-a-vis the ambition, ruthlessness, and hunger for power of the nobles around him. This is, of course, the Game of Thrones school of ethics: goodness simply can't compete with evil because evil is willing to fight dirty. It's a natural modernist interpretation of the play, but I can't believe that the author of The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Winter's Tale, or Macbeth would seriously promote such a worldview. Macbeth is the ultimate picture of an unscrupulous tyrant laying the foundations of his own destruction, while in Measure for Measure, it's the devout Isabella and the just Duke who easily overcome the self-interested Angelo. No, Shakespeare didn't really believe that goodness is incompetent by definition.

So, no, Henry VI Part 2 is not about a king whose devout piety renders him incapable of resisting evil. Henry's kingly flaws are of course bound up in his piety, but it's the specific kind of piety that he represents which makes him weak. Shakespeare would have been familiar with the passage in Matthew 10:16 where Christ tells his disciples: "Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves." Our Lord knew very well that evil men are willing to fight dirty, and he specifically told us not to be naive about this. Shakespeare's Duke in Measure for Measure is a terrific picture of a Christian ruler who aces the wise as serpents part: perceiving and dealing with the corruption in his realm. Henry VI, on the other hand, not only fails to perceive the corruption surrounding him (whether in a mere charlatan pretending to have been cured of blindness, or in his own queen, Margaret), but also repeatedly fails to take action to address it. When things go wrong, Henry complains or faints or calls it the will of God. His primary failure is not his piety. It's his failure to express that piety by means of active justice.

Oddly enough, I read all about the Duchess of Gloucester's case in Charles Williams's book on Witchcraft.


In Act 2, Shakespeare uses a minor subplot to hit this point home. An armourer accused of treason and the servant who accused him undergo a trial by combat. There is a good deal of satire surrounding the trial: this is not a knightly confrontation between noblemen, but a clash between two drunk and frightened men. It's an unedifying struggle of might between might, when it should actually have been a dispute of truth against truth, ably adjudicated by the king himself. (Romans 13:4 designates civil authorities as God's ministers for justice). Throughout the play, repeatedly we see Henry VI fail to minister divine justice. Meanwhile his powerful nobles subvert justice, turning it into a realpolitik contest of might against might.

To give him his due, Henry recognises (as his nobles do not), that justice is ultimately done in history by a watchful and concerned personal God (this is one of the distinctives of Christianity). When the trial by combat comes to its close, Henry observes:
For by his death we do perceive his guilt.
And God in justice hath revealed to us
The truth and innocence of this poor fellow,
Which he had thought to have murdered wrongfully.
Henry puts his trust in God to see justice done: its "righteous cause prevails." Of course, by the end of the play, hopelessly outmaneuvered, he's fleeing the triumphant Duke of York who is hell-bent on taking his throne. Duke Humphrey puts his trust in justice and innocence too: "All these could not procure me any scathe/So long as I am loyal, true and crimeless." The equally ill-fated Lord Say states, "The trust I have is in my innocence/And therefore I am bold and resolute." These three men are the most just men in the play, and all of them believe they will get justice because they are just. What all three of these men fail to recognise is that however steadfast divine justice may be, earthly justice is, at the moment, hopelessly corrupt (at least partly because the Lancastrian succession actually does have its roots in usurpation).

And as God's ministers of justice, it's their job to fix this.

Again, the trial by combat is the perfect expression of what's wrong with England in this play. The armourer goes into battle confidently, a skilled swordsman, while his accuser is not just hopelessly outclassed but also petrified. To everyone's shock, the accuser triumphs and the armourer confesses his treason as he dies.

This scene struck me when I was reading it as being rather irrelevant to the rest of the plot, but thinking back, I realise how incredibly pivotal it is in a thematic sense.

First, the play is full of good and just men being disgraced and defeated. If Shakespeare believed in divine justice at all, we should expect him to include one small exception as foreshadowing of the ultimate truth and reality of divine justice. That, in this scene, is exactly what we find. The armourer loses, and the servant wins, not because he is powerful but because he is right. It's a hint that no matter how bad things may be in the rest of the play, evil will ultimately fail.

Second, however, this scene is only a small exception to the injustice running rampant in the rest of the play. In this scene God dispenses divine justice by means of something close to a miracle, and it's pretty obvious that for Shakespeare this is a bad thing. If justice was being properly done in England by means of the ministers appointed for it, then trial by combat, war, and insurrection - in a word, raw power struggles - would not be deciding the fate of anyone, let alone thousands.

An Underappreciated Masterpiece?

There is a lot in this play, and this review has run a bit longer than I expected. (I should acknowledge that on first reading, most of the thematic richness of this play passed me by, and I turned to the helpful discussion on Wikipedia for some jumping-off points for my analysis.) Apparently, however, critics consider this the best of the Henry VI plays, and I can see why.

In that case, I have a question: why on earth is it so hard to find a decent production? I've now seen two adaptations of this play, and both lopped out most of the content in order to graft it onto a similarly truncated version of Part 1. Along the way, most of the action and the thematic richness was lost. Henry VI Part 2 is a sprawling, epic play with a thought-provoking point to it, well and truly deserving of a full adaptation. I think it's my second favourite play in either tetralogy so far.

I saw the Hollow Crown production of Henry VI, Parts 1 and 2 which condenses both plays into about two hours (boo!). With gorgeous production values and excellent acting (I was initially unconvinced by the decision to cast Sophie Okonedo as Margaret, but quickly won over by her energetic performance), it was compelling watching. I skipped two scenes and would recommend checking out a parental advisory if you like to be warned about content. A couple of historical inaccuracies made me laugh (I'm pretty sure they didn't use voodoo dolls in medieval England, and a noblewoman like the Duchess of Gloucester would never have been brought to trial looking like a scarecrow!), and like I mentioned, a lot of the action got cut out. Alternate recommendations welcomed!

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


Joseph J said...

Thanks for the thoughtful review. What a legacy Shakespeare has, that we are still watching and debating him in 2017! Your blog has helped me realize how much I have yet to discover of him. I just realized you haven't reviewed Hamlet yet. Is it too cliché? It was the beloved companion of my emo teenage years. I think I studied it at school three times.

Suzannah said...

Great fiction lasts forever! I'm conscious myself how much Shakespeare I either haven't read, or haven't read for years. I'm tempted to keep going till I've run out!

I have read HAMLET at least once, not counting seeing a number of productions. It's heresy, but I've just never cared for it much. Too much angst, not enough action. (I never promised to have good taste). When it comes to the tragedies I tend to prefer the romantic ones.

Anonymous said...

completely off topic, but it appears that Herbert swiped quite a bit of Dune from a previous book:!

although this would play into your 'Vintage Novels' theme.

i've also read 'Babur the Tiger', which is moderately interesting reading into the mind ( it's a translation of an autobiography ) of a Muslim conqueror.

Suzannah said...

Bob, thanks for the recommendations. That second one sounds particularly interesting.

And by the way, Vintage Novels is a family-friendly site. May I ask that you bear that in mind when choosing a screen name?

Anonymous said...

Again, the 1983 BBC version, if you can find a copy - I love Peter Benson's Henry (so much, he may make me think too well of Henry - I ought to reread 'em), and Ron Cook as Richard is very good, if very different than many another Richard.

David Llewellyn Dodds

Suzannah said...

Thanks, David! I'm pretty sure a friend has those versions, so I'll have to borrow them!


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