Friday, September 22, 2017

Henry VI, Part 3 by William Shakespeare

I was actually super excited to read this play, because it's the last instalment in Shakespeare's English-History Theatrical Universe before Richard III. And it may be rather an irony of this whole belated journey through the history plays, that the chronologically last in this eight-part series is also the one which I first came to. Fifteen years ago or so, my parents hired a DVD of Laurence Olivier's Richard III.

It was mesmerising. It was unforgettable.

It was super confusing, because I didn't know who half the characters were or why they were important or what they'd all been up to before the play began. You could piece together a few things, for example, like the fact that Richard had already been stabbing people pretty freely. But I never actually knew what had happened, and somehow I never quite made the mental connection that hey, maybe I should actually read those plays.

I'm thrilled to have now rectified this situation.

As much as I loved Henry VI, Part 2 I'm now tempted to prefer Henry VI, Part 3This play is a little tighter and more focused than Part 2, and it is intense.

With the Wars of the Roses in full swing and the Duke of York now openly claiming the throne, Henry VI desperately engineers a peace by promising to make York his heir. York is satisfied with this, but Henry's formidable warrior queen Margaret is outraged, and so are many of his staunchest supporters. Margaret raises an army and succeeds in capturing, humiliating, and murdering the duke--but in doing so, unleashes York's three surviving sons on a vengeful rampage that carries eldest son Edward to the throne itself. The Lancastrians retreat to Scotland and France to regroup--and when Edward IV makes a diplomatic faux pas, they're more than ready to reignite war.

This play was terrific, and shows that even after Part 2 Shakespeare had an incredible amount of epic awesome up his sleeve. Defiance, murder, revenge, betrayal, ambition, and the by-now obligatory romantic scene, all of which in this first tetralogy excel in being creepily wrong compared to the more heartfelt and tender scenes in the second. But by far the most compelling element of this play is the relationship between the three brothers that anchors the story.

At the end of the last play, the York brothers are just the Duke's four sons, and the only one with a discernible personality is Richard, already distinguishing himself as a reckless and outspoken fighter. But Part 3 is the tale of how the brothers are welded together into a triumvirate by the tragedies that befall their family--and then shattered apart by their own lusts.

Douglas Wilson once identified "girls, gold, and glory" as the usual temptations of great warriors, and it's interesting that each of the three York brothers is drawn to each of these things. Edward IV's weak spot is women, and his downfall comes at the unwilling hands of presumably the first beautiful woman he's met who refuses to fall into his arms. The steady and dutiful George, Duke of Clarence, is quickly alienated when Edward grants wealthy heiresses to his new wife's family over the heads of his brothers, and defects to the Lancastrians. Meanwhile Richard remains faithful to Edward--but underneath his loyal exterior he's hatching his own plans to eliminate everyone standing between him and the throne.

All this tragedy, revenge and betrayal is everything you ever wanted in a story about siblings. But everything just gets that tiny bit better when one of the siblings concerned is Richard of Gloucester. Richard is a hugely fun character in this play. Silver-tongued, ambitious, snarky, and unscrupulous, it's actually hard to call him a villain, as hard as Shakespeare works to depict him as one. The reason for this is that Richard is only one of many unsavoury characters in this play. Both York and Lancaster are equally morally compromised, and this play merely continues a mounting series of terrible actions on both sides. By now, the civil war is so rancorous that when Margaret kills York, or the York brothers kill Clifford, they do it with lingering, malicious mockery. This is a play where the main characters discover one of their enemies expiring on the battlefield and spend an uncomfortably long time hurling insults and abuses at the corpse. Against such a backdrop, it's not until Richard heads off to knife the only unmistakeably decent person in the whole play that we feel he's crossed a line. Until then, he's simply one among many anti-heroes, and by far the most engaging and colourful one.

Would You Trust This Man?
By now you can probably tell that I absolutely loved this play, and I did. That said, this one is definitely not as strong as Henry VI, Part 2. The first half of the play is absolutely as terrific as anything Shakespeare ever wrote, and it all scrambles back together again for the end. But much of the second half had weirdly rushed pacing, and there were a number of things that fell flat in consequence. The three battles more or less blur into each other, and a number of plot developments don't get the time they need. George's return to his brother's cause, for instance, is abrupt and unexplained. Warwick's death feels like it really should have been made more of. It's as if everything suddenly fast-forwards until we get to the capture of Queen Margaret and Prince Edward.

This is a serious letdown in an otherwise intense and memorable play, but it's salvaged well by the knockout ending. With Lancaster out of the way, Richard is now poised to scythe his way through the entire House of York until it's just him left atop a pile of corpses. I already know how that pans out, but I'm looking forward to reliving it all, this time with a much better idea of what happened in the backstory.

I watched the Hollow Crown production of Henry VI, Part 3 which actually they called "Part 2", even though the majority of the content is from Part 3. Anyway, of course Benedict Cumberbatch makes a mesmerising Richard of Gloucester, consuming the scenery with evident glee. As usual, the adaptation is a good bit looser than usual with Shakespeare on film. While some of the edits in the second half did a good job of adjusting the original play's pacing problems, a surprisingly large number of scenes are altered, some even with lines added or changed, in order to intensify or modify the story. The result works well as television, but is getting pretty far removed from Shakespeare's original. Also, a warning--it's gratuitously, pervasively gory. Not recommended for the young or squeamish.

Find Henry VI, Part 3 on Amazon, the Book Depository, Project Gutenberg or Librivox.


Sophia White said...

Apropos of nothing, this week I was so overjoyed to meet someone who believed that it really is better to die than do aught that might dishonour yield, that I recommended him Pendragon's Heir without asking what kind of books he liked first. I may even go so far as to lend it him.

Also, the other day my sister saw me reading your blog and said, "Is that Pendragon's Heir's mom?"

Anonymous said...

I finally got around to reading the three parts (years before seeing any of 'em) as prep when I was going to teach Richard III, and I too was thrilled. Whatever their defects, reading Richard III is so different, when it is the culmination of the crescendo of slaughterous nastiness throughout the three parts, and he the nastiest of nasties, but also one among many - how much less sympathetic the Margaret of Richard III seems, when we've had the whole of her previous history, for a notable example.

Once more, try the 1983 BBC, if and when you can - no "getting pretty far removed from Shakespeare's original", there (and for fans of the 1981 Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, fun to see 'Zaphod Beeblebrox' (Mark Wing-Davey) as Warwick!).

David Llewellyn Dodds

Suzannah said...

Sophia, ha--thank you for being such an enthusiastic evangelist for my novel! Word of mouth is priceless :)

David, yes! I am definitely getting a different perspective on RICHARD III already, even before having reread his play. Sadly, that review will not be coming out this week, but I'm looking forward to reveling through it soon. I've just looked up the BBC version you mentioned, and I think I'll be able to borrow it from a friend!


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