Three firsts (and three cheers) for the three parts of Henry VI

To get into Shakespeare, apparently, don’t think too hard about Shakespeare.

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It finally happened. I started dreaming about Shakespeare. It came in a very peculiar, decidedly non-bardic form, though: a tweet.

BREAKING: French slay English General John Talbot at battle in Bordeaux.

In my bizarre, cyber-medieval dreamscape, these 39 characters were the work of the Associated Press. Lots of retweets. Big news. The French took down Talbot. Talbot. Talbot!

I was surprised. No, not due to this strange merger of Shakespeare and Twitter. That pretty much sums up my life these days.

I was surprised because of the content of this oneiric tweet. I’m not a history buff. I’m not a military nut or monarchy maven. When it comes to Shakespeare, I like the language. I like the dark psychological anguish. And I like the sex jokes.

A Shakespeare dream about major casualty in a medieval European battle? I would have expected some pensive, artfully crafted, naughty pun.

So, a major casualty in a medieval European battle? I would have expected some pensive, artfully crafted, naughty pun.

I was also surprised by the particular play that first smuggled the Bard into my dreams. Not King Lear’s storm-struck heath. Not Othello’s storm-struck bedroom. Not the whimsical forest of As You Like It or the cave of Cymbeline. But, of all the nearly two dozen plays I’ve read so far, the battlefields of Henry VI, Part I.

I mean, other than completist maniacs like myself, who reads Henry VI? Does any theater ever stage it? Have you even heard of Henry VI?

Well, Henry VI has not one, not two, but three parts. They are long. Very long. They follow the War of the Roses, which entangles us in noble rivalries and competing claims to the English throne. They culminate in one very well-known history: Richard III, the very play I read before taking these three on. I clearly didn’t learn my lesson when I read the Henriad out of sequence.

***

When I first cracked open Henry VI, Part I, I took one look at the character list and went, “Holy shit.” The dramatis personae were broken down into a group of English characters and a group of French. So many sirs, so many earls. I actually moaned aloud, “I don’t think I can do this.” My wife heard me from the other room: “Are you OK?” She sounded legitimately concerned.

I had fallen behind in my reading (and writing) schedule and needed to make up some ground. So, I decided to bite off the three Henry VI plays: a big chunk. As a form of punishment, like some self-flagellating monk.

Or so I thought.

“Do you want to continue watching Henry VI?” my Elizabethan Netflix asked. “Oh hell, yes.” Part III.

Simply put, Henry VI was a lot of fun. And that meant I had another first, thanks to old King Henry VI: I read the plays back to back to back.

Normally, when I finish a play, I collapse as if at the finish line of a long run. Winded. Sweaty. Sore. Victorious. “I made it!” Just as when, starting a play, I flip to the end to see how far I must go, so when I complete a play, I flip back and pinch the thickness of the conquered pages: “I did this shit.” Then, I kick off my shoes, chug some water, and sink into a chair, relieved I don’t have to read Shakespeare for another a few days.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy reading Shakespeare. Otherwise, I would have bailed on my year of reading Shakespeare by now. But let me be clear: It’s not quite the same as binge-watching Breaking Bad. Most of the times. But when I made it to the end of Part I of Henry VI, I immediately started Part II. Same for Part II. “Do you want to continue watching Henry VI?” my Elizabethan Netflix asked. “Oh hell, yes.” Part III.

***

Plot-wise, Henry VI is fairly straightforward. OK, there’s actually a lot of intrigue and twists. But here’re the log lines, if you will:

In Part I, the English fend off a French uprising as a feud over the claim to the throne simmers at home. In Part II, the homegrown infighting boils over as the king survives conspiracies and rebellions, only to be forced to flee after a battle between the vying nobles. Part III sees the king’s rival win the crown. The king is killed in a climactic fight in spite of efforts to retain his power, and his rivals assume rule.

A little more context may help to situate these three Henry VI’s in Shakespeare’s broader corpus. Remember how Henry Bolingbroke deposes Richard II? This, in a nutshell, is the origin of the conflict in the House of Plantagenet. Bolingbroke becomes Henry IV. His son, the Prince Hal of the two Henry IV’s, becomes the heroic Henry V. And his son? He’s the Henry VI who rises – well, sort of warms up to room temperature – and falls in this trilogy. Jumping ahead, it’s a future Richard III who is hatching his plots to seize the kingship in Part III.

OK, I actually just shared all of this to show off: I didn’t look at a damned reference to map out these lineages. Not my notes, not the Norton introductions, not a Wikipedia page, not a Sparknotes summary. Me, who has to sit down with charts and graphs to figure out what a second cousin is. Me, who likes all the word-y, feel-y Shakespeare stuff. Boom. Mic drop.

I genuinely just enjoyed Henry VI’s blockbuster action and star-studded cast.

Which brings me to a third Shakespearean first. I genuinely just enjoyed Henry VI’s blockbuster action and star-studded cast.

***

Here are some highlights from each of the plays:

In 1 Henry VI, Joan la Pucelle – Joan of Arc – is an absolute badass. In an early test, Shakespeare has her boast: “And while I live, I’ll ne’er fly from a man” (1.3.82). And she proves this on the battlefield (and in the bed with the king). She even conjures up demons, who provide her with visions that aid the French in fighting. Granted, these demons fail her in the end, she is burned at the stake, and the French cede to the English – but Joan doesn’t take shit from anyone.

In 2 Henry VI, Jack Cade, a tradesman, leads a rebellion in London. He rallies his fellow craftsmen against the rich, hoity-toity upperclass who’ve been screwing them over, using their learnin’ against the little guy. And their insults against the elite are hysterical. A butcher, famously, cries: “The first thing we do let’s kill all the lawyers” (4.2.68). A weaver says of a clerk, “He can write and read and cast count,” to which Cade replies: “O monstrous!” (4.2.75-77). Cade then urges to “hang him with his pen and inkhorn around his neck” (4.2.96-97).

But Cade tops even this in a later rebuke of another lord:

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. (4.7.32-34)

Now this a battlecry for all schoolchildren in all grammar lessons for all time.

In 3 Henry VI, King Henry VI makes a deal with his rival, Richard Duke of York: He agrees to hand over his crown to Richard after he dies, thus dispossessing his own son of royal inheritance. Queen Margaret – a power-hungry French noble he married after the fighting in Part I – has had it with her over-conciliatory, pushover husband. So she leads a fight against Richard herself.

But during one of these battles, Henry takes to a molehill – yes, a molehill – and waxes bucolic:

O God! Methinks it were a happy life
To be no better than a homely swain…
So many hours must I tend my flock,
So many hours must I take my rest,
So many hours must I contemplate,
So many hours must I sport myself…(2.5.21-34)

His daydreaming is then interrupted by a son who realizes he has killed his father and a father who realizes he has killed his son. So much for his proto-four-hour-work-week reverie. 

***

With Shakespeare Confidential, I’m not really in the business of trying to fill the seats, to continue my movie metaphor. Sometimes you just need a mindless, big-budget action flick. Henry VI delivers. Pass the popcorn, Bill.

And, in a project like this, sometimes you just need an escape from self-reflection, from literary analysis, from Shakespeare-with-a-capital-S-Shakespeare. Incredibly, ironically, this is when Shakespeare most got under my skin. 

What Richard III taught me about my nipples

Richard III was a horrible man, but he does have a thing or two to teach us about our struggles with body image.

They called Richard III “crookback.” But if I were an evil, Shakespearean villain, I think they’d call me “pointy nipples.” Case in, er, point:

The other day, I greeted my wife when she got home from work. She took one quick look at me and laughed.

“What?” I asked.

“Your shirt! Just – take a look in the mirror.”

I presented my plain, purple T-shirt to the bathroom mirror. It presented back three white spots about the size of silver dollars: one over each of my nipples, the third over my belly button.

“It’s the shirt!” I defended from the bathroom with all the whininess of a post-pool George Costanza. “The color’s fading!”

“No, I can actually see your right nipple. It’s sticking out through the shirt,” my wife fact-checked. “It’s so not the shirt. It’s this.” She imitated this, well, behavior of mine. One hand rubbed the ball of her thumb over her chest, the other a few her fingers over her stomach. ““Oh my God, I hope you’re not wearing it in public.”

“It’s one of those cheap Mossimo shirts I got from Target,” I insisted as I ran up the stairs to the bedroom. I closed the door, took off the shirt, and confronted it. Face-to-face. The three, white, threadbare circles stared back at me like some cruel, mocking emoji. Is this why the barista was giving me a funny look at the café the other day?

I had never ruined a shirt before with this nervous, self-conscious touching of my chest and stomach, but I can’t say I’m all that surprised. I’ve been waging war against my torso – my nipples being key targets – since I was a chubby preteen. See, I’ve always felt that – God, I can’t believe I’m sharing this – that I looked thinner when my nipples were hard. In my twisted thinking, harder means smaller, smaller means skinnier, and skinnier means better.

But I think we all have these tics in one shape or another. Hell, even old crookback Richard III – Shakespeare’s most villainous of villains – could relate to these neuroses of body image.

Continue reading “What Richard III taught me about my nipples”

The ‘metacatharsis’ of Richard II

Self-pity has never been so exquisite.

Do you ever imagine your own funeral?

I don’t mean where you want your ashes scattered or what songs you’d like sung at the ceremony or even the drunken “celebration of life” you hope your loved ones throw in your memory.

I mean, do you ever really imagine it? Your family sobs out eulogies, mascara stains cheeks, men conceal their teary eyes with their hands and mutter something about allergies. As all the pews have been filled, your colleagues line the back wall of the church. At the reception, your friends chain-smoke, pass around a bottle of bourbon, and trade fond remembrances out back of the reception.

If we could be so lucky.

I imagine my own funeral from time to time. Back in our pretentious, angsty days, not that I’ve quite outgrown them, my good friend promised me he’d toss two cartons of Camel Lights and dump a pot of coffee on my casket if I went before him. God love ’em, he’ll do it. I should note this in my will, though, else he be escorted from the burial.

These are dark thoughts, I know – and incredibly narcissistic. But I also think they’re very human.

Deep down, don’t we all need to know that we will be missed?

As humans, we’re self-aware. Our consciousness lets us grasp futurity, which forces us to confront our own finality. This makes me, for one, not fear my own death but dread some ultimate futility. What was this all for? Did I mean something? Will people grieve me?

Yes, these morbid musings are vain, but don’t we all need to know, deep down in our small and trembling hearts, that we will be missed? In some primal and ironic way, these existential insecurities underscore how fundamentally other-centered our self-centeredness is.

Nobody, though, throws a pity party like the tragic Richard II.

***

This week, I’ve returned to Shakespeare’s history plays. I’ve decided to round out the so-called “second tetralogy” or “Henriad”: Richard II, the History of Henry IV, and the Second Part of Henry IV. The tetralogy culminates in Henry V, which I read egregiously out of order.

In Richard II, a very kingly Richard exiles his cousin Harry Bolingbroke after his dispute with Thomas Mowbray over the death of the Duke of Gloucester, whose murder the king himself we believe ordered. Following the death of Henry’s father, John of Gaunt, Richard seizes the property – and title – Harry was to inherit. While Richard is waging a campaign in Ireland funded by forced loans from his subjects, Harry stages an overthrow and ascends to the crown. Meanwhile, the uncle to Richard and Harry, the Duke of York, helps foil an assassination plot (which his own son conspired in) against the new monarch, Harry, now Henry IV. A nobleman murders an abject Richard, who’s been penned up in a castle prison.

richard_ii_king_of_england
This ca. 1390 oil portrait of King Richard II in the Westminster Abbey is believed to be the oldest known portrait of an English monarch. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Richard II raises king-size questions about the institution of the English monarchy, the tyrannical possibilities of a monarch’s authority, and the problem of his subjects’ loyalty therein.

Today, we watch movies where our leaders are usurped or even killed, but in the sixteenth-century, texts of the play – and likely performances – omitted the parts where Richard gives his crown to Harry, as my Norton Shakespeare informed me. Shakespeare’s history plays were no doubt The House of Cards of his day, but actually staging a deposition was a subversive act, though, from what I’ve read, some opponents to Elizabeth I indeed paid Shakespeare’s company to put on a performance of this play.

Here’s an excerpt of Richard’s regal resignation:

BOLINGBROKE Are you contented to resign the crown?

RICHARD: Ay, ay; no, ay; for I must nothing be;
Therefore no, no, for I resign to thee.
Now mark me how I will undo myself.
I give this heavy weight from off my head,
[BOLINGBROKE accepts the crown]
And this unwieldy sceptre from my hand,
[BOLINGBROKE accepts the sceptre]
The pride of kingly sway from out my heart.
With mine own tears I wash away my balm,
With mine own hands I give away my crown,
With mine own tongue deny my sacred state,
With mine own breath release all duteous oaths. (4.1.190-200)

Richard continues in his majestic – and megalomaniacal – monologue. The passage vividly exemplifies the costume of power and the performance of identity, thematic obsessions in Shakespeare’s body of work. By literally taking off his crown, Richard is “unkinged” (4.1.210).

But more interesting to me than the “hollow crown” (3.2.156) is the very intense and perceptive psychological portrait Shakespeare gives us in Richard when he’s unkinged, unselved, undone.

No longer a king, Richard becomes a drama queen. After he’s imprisoned, Richard asks for a mirror following the coronation of King Henry and literally self-reflects in one of the play’s most famous scenes:

A brittle glory shineth in this face.
As brittle as the glory is the face,
[He shatters the glass]
For there it is, cracked in an hundred shivers. (4.1.277-79)

(Richard should have watched more modern cinema. He could have hidden a shard of glass to attack his captors.)

Self-pity has never been so poetic. Self-pity has never been so exquisite. But at this point in the play, Richard has already transcended self-pity, even. He has climbed the proud heights – or sounded the pathetic depths, depending on how you want to look it – of self-mythology. Before he’s separated from his wife (she’s been exiled to France) and imprisoned at Pomfret, Richard consoles his wife – and himself:

Good sometimes Queen, prepare thee for France.
Think I am dead, and that even here thou tak’st,
As thou from my death-bed, thy last living leave.
In winter’s tedious nights, sit by the fire
With good old folks, and let them tell thee tales
Of woeful ages long ago betid;
And ere thou bid goodnight, to quit their griefs
Tell thou the lamentable fall of me,
And send the hearers weeping to their beds;
Forwhy the senseless brands will sympathize
The heavy accent on thy moving tongue,
And in compassion weep the fire out;
And some will mourn in ashes, some coal black,
for the deposing of a rightful king. (5.1.37-50)

That’s a lot of wallowing, Richard, but damn, your mud sounds as soft as velvet.

***

In his Poetics, Aristotle presents catharsis as a metaphor for our experience of theater, especially tragedy, which arouses – and subsequently purges – our pity and fear. Yes, we experience catharsis in the tragic demise of Richard II after his egregious abuse of power. But, as he imagines his wife telling the “sad stories of the death of kings” (3.2.152), we experience a second catharsis as Richard induces his own catharsis. Call it a “metacatharsis.”  (Permission to punch me in the nose).

For me, this is Shakespeare’s genius: Four hundred years ago, casting his light into the shadowy recesses of the human psyche and condition, he understood why our favorite songs are the sad ones, why we need rainy day , or why imagine our own funerals from time to time. In the theater of the human mind, we like to perform – we need to perform –our own catharsis.