Friday, February 25, 2011

Shakespeare's Henry VI Part 3 - Embracing the Villainous, Pondering the Void

Richard, son of York, who later is to become the Richard the III of one of Shakespeare's most popular plays, makes quite an entrance at the beginning of the third and final part of the Bard's Henry VI trilogy.

Carrying the head of Somerset, York's rival, young Dick makes a grisly joke. All of the parties are speaking of how they fared in the battle when Richard raises Somerset's head and addresses it: "Speak thou for me and tell them what I did."

Shakespeare loves his villains. Joan of Arc is the remembered presence from Part 1, and the populist scoundrel Jack Cade breaks Part 2 open from the cloistered halls of the court into the frightening tumult of rebellion. Young Richard steals this show of this last installment, not by his stage time, but by the force of his eloquence and his voice. His evil intelligence is displayed by his ability to speak the declamatory language that he needs for the politics he must navigate with the other characters combined with his ability to manipulate US expertly.

For instance, here he sways his father to go for the crown:

Richard:Therefore to arms! And, father, do but think
How sweet a a thing it is to wear a crown,
Within whose circuit is Elysium
And all that poets feign of bliss and joy.
Why do we linger thus? I cannot rest
Until the white rose that I wear be dy'd
Even in the lukewarm blood of Henry's hear

And, when he is alone, with only us to listen, he arranges his verses to achieve our sympathy by pointing out his deformity, only to then reveal the darkness of his heart. But he is cunning enough to take us on the journey with him:

And yet I know not how to get the crown,
For many lives stand between me and home;
And I - like one lost in a thorny wood,
That rents the thorns, and is rent with the thorns,
Seeking a way, and straying from the way,
Not knowing how to find the open air,
But toiling desperately to find it out -

This is followed by an admission of his moral blankness:

I'll drown more sailors than the mermaid shall
I'll slay more gazers than Ulysses could,
And like Sinon, take another Troy.
I can add more colors to the chameleon
Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,
And set the murtherous Machevil to school.
Can I do this, and cannot get a crown?
Tut, were it farther off, I'll pluck it down.

Richard has two rivals for the spotlight in the play, though they are distant. One is Margaret, the other is, in fact, Henry VI himself, who is very overshadowed in the whole trilogy. Here he is a soul caught up in large circumstances, having trouble sorting it all out.

At a key point of the play, the King sort of wanders the fields and thinks on existence and his seeming impotence in the midst of it all. (The painting above is William Dyce's Henry at Towton.)He wonders if life would have been better as a "homely swain." Of course, it is a bit overdone, but it has the power to move though. And you can't read these sections without thinking of Hamlet.

Below is a video of a 1983 version of the 3rd Part of Henry VI - this clip ends with the Richard monologue I referenced above:

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