Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Henry VI Part II by William Shakespeare

I have been very busy, and although I've been reading, I haven't been able to post like I've wanted to.  I'm taking a class on Shakespeare now, and as such I've been reading these plays at a pretty fast clip--faster than I'm able to post on them--and I know that our readers aren't as interested in them probably, but I've committed to posting about each book, and I'm gonna do that, dammit.

Henry VI Part II reflects my mental state perfectly: it's a hot mess.  It's hectic; it's disjointed; it's scatterbrained.  It's probably a lot more fun if you're familiar with the history of Henry VI, who apparently was not fondly remembered by Shakespeare's age.  Otherwise it's hard to keep track of the various subplots: There's the Duchess Eleanor, caught summoning demons to foretell her husband's political future.  There's the Queen Margaret, carrying on an affair the Duke of Suffolk.  There's Richard of York, scheming for the throne.  There's a popular insurrection, led by the charismatic rebel Jakc Cade.  And there's Henry himself, impotent as all this revolves around him, preferring to pray in his room than try to control his state.

If there's an overarching narrative to be found, it's that: The realm is going bonkers because Henry is an ineffective king.  Each weird mini-plot is in some way a response to the void in power that Henry represents; Eleanor, Margaret, Suffolk, York, Cade--each asserts their own power because they perceive that the king cannot or will not assert his own.

The most entertaining of all of these is Cade, and I enjoyed the play most when he is in it.  Cade is York's plant, suborned to destabilized the country's political situation, but Cade himself often approaches a compelling anarchist vision of political and economic freedom:

CADE: I think you good people!--there shall be no money.  All shall eat and drink on my score, and I will apparel them all in one livery that they may agree like brothers, and worship me their lord.

BUTCHER: The first thing we do let's kill all the lawyers.

CADE: Nay, that I mean to do.  Is not this a lamentable thing that of the skin of an innocent lamb should be made parchment?  That parchment, being scribbled o'er, should undo a man?

Cade and his followers condemn and kill for the crime of merely knowing how to read.  Shakespeare intends this to be satirical, of course, but there is sense in the satire:

CADE: ...Though has most traitorously corrupted the youth of the realm in erecting a grammar school; and whereas before, our forefathers had no other books but the score and the tally, thou hast caused printing to be used and, contrary to the King his crown and dignity, thou hast built a paper-mill.  It will be proved to thy face that thou hast men about thee that usually talk of a noun and a verb and such abominable words as no Christian ear can endure to hear.  Thou hast appointed justices of peace to call poor men before them about matters they were not able to answer.  Moreover, thou hast put them in prison, and, because they could not read, thou hast hanged them when indeed only for that cause they have been most worthy to live.

Here an ironic silliness (I love that "noun and a verb and such abominable words as no Christian ear can endure to hear...") is transformed unexpectedly to a very pointed criticism of a political system which is stacked against the poor and uneducated.  Cade is engaging because he is the center of the play's ambiguity.  Like the noble characters of the play, Cade shallowly seeks his own self-interests, and yet he manages also to give voice to a number of unsettling moral issues.

The rest of the play, I'm afraid, is something of a slog.  I could never keep the Suffolks and the Somersets straight, nevermind the Beauforts and the Buckinghams, much less the two characters named Clifford.  Seeing it on stage is probably good fun, but even then I suspect that Cade usually steals the show.

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