Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Shakespeare's Henry VI Part 2 - Ambitious Animals

After the wild battles on the fields of France that ran all over the stage in the Shakespeare's Henry VI Part One, Part Two settles quickly into palace intrigue proper.

Nobody in the court of young Henry VI seems happy with the way things have turned out. In fact, the very central piece of the treaty worked out at the end of Part One - the marriage of Henry to Margaret - is shown to exist on a shifty foundation. Margaret is more attracted, it seems, to the sceptre of the Duke of Suffolk.

If there is a hero, a central protaganist in this play, it would appear to be the Lord Protector, Humphrey - Duke of Gloucester. He is dispatched quite early by murderers though. Sad, as he seems to see all the treachery about, and often comments about the dangers of ambition and false claims. Shakespeare even has Gloucester expose a false miracle!

What strikes me in this play is the recurring images, metaphors and similes of conniving or striving creatures in Nature. For instance, a scene of falconry gives way to a discussion of the heights of ambition and thoughts, and characters talk of their rivals as cunning or innocent animals.

Queen: Ah, what's more dangerous than this fond affiance!
Seems he a dove? his feathers are but borrow'd,
For he's disposed as the hateful raven.
Is he a lamb? his skin is surely lent him,
For he's inclined as is the ravenous wolves.

Salisbury gives warning to the King:

Salisbury:Yet notwithstanding such a strait edict,
Were there a serpent seen, with forked tongue,
That slily glided towards your Majesty,
It were but necessary you were wak'd,
Lest being suffer'd in that harmful slumber
The mortal worm make the sleep eternal.

Jack Cade, the rebel populist who leads the uprising that nearly overthrows the King, is described by the Duke of York as a dangerous porcupine.

Scorpions sting, crocodiles lie in wait, bird bushes are limn'd, and lambs are slaughtered.

Ambition is mentioned over and over, and even Cade, the villain that steals the show - much as Joan did in the first part, pronounces: "Fie on ambition!"

Perhaps the most lasting impression of this play will always be Gloucester's famous moment with his wife. He meets with her briefly after she has been sentenced to walk in punishment amidst the streets, (painting above is Edwin Austin Abbey's The Penance of Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester), and then to be exiled for her consulting with nefarious spirit-summoners about possibly gaining rank for Gloucester. It is a touching, but still complicated scene.

After she has departed, and Gloucester is murdered, Shakespeare is not done with this couple. For they are the obvious early prototype of the Macbeth's.

Another viewing option online for the Henry VI trilogy is the RSC production from 1965:


Thomas Garvey said...

You know, I've never seen these three plays done in their entirety. I've seen "Henry VI" done as a two-parter, twice, but I've never seen the whooooole thing. I wonder if anyone has done it in the past 25 years or so?

And PS -

What sparked your sudden interest in it?


Art said...

The RSC staged a very well received production of the trilogy a few years back.

Michael Billington reviewed it here.

I was looking at the Joan of Arc passages for something I was writing, and I just said, heck I'll read the whole thing. So I thought I'd comment on things that struck me.

Sarah Enloe said...

The American Shakespeare Center in Staunton,VA opens part 3 this weekend, after having performed parts 1&2 in 2 previous seasons.