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TOPIC: First notes, Henry VI, Part Two

First notes, Henry VI, Part Two 7 months 2 weeks ago #7430

  • Steve Minkin
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How does Wednesday, June 14 work for a reading date?

This is the key play in the HVI trilogy (within the First Tetralogy, which also includes RIII), featuring the main action of the Wars of The Roses. It is also Will's first play. What we now call Henry VI, Parts 2 & 3 were the original plays of 'the upstart crow,' first staged in 1591 and first published in the Bad Quarto of 1594. This first of all Shakespearean quartos is known as "The Contention" and is entitled "The First part of the Contention betwixt the two famous Houses of Yorke and Lancaster, with the death of the good Duke Humphrey: And the banishment and death of the Duke of Suffolke, and the Tragicall end of the proud Cardinall of Winchester, with the notable Rebellion of Iacke Cade: And the Duke of Yorkes first claime vnto the Crowne."

The 1595 Octavo edition is titled:
"The true Tragedie of Richard Duke of Yorke, and the death of good King Henrie the Sixt, with the whole contention betweene the two Houses Lancaster and Yorke"

A complete photographic copy of the first quarto is included in the appendix of the Arden edition of the play. I see no mention of an author.

All three of the HVI plays were rarely performed until the 20th Century, and then usually in severely altered forms. Most of the modifications involved eliminating or radically reducing the roles of Talbot and Joan (whom we met in the last play, the prequel) and Jack Cade (who leads a commoners' revolt in 2HVI), -- deletions which allow for a drama more tightly focused on The Wars of The Roses.

However, Talbot, Joan and Jack are among these plays' liveliest and most interesting characters, so the current tendency to (usually) use the full text makes for more satisfying plays. (Jack Cade is eliminated from BBC's fairly recent Hollow Crown version of these plays, though; so the bias to focus tightly on the York/ Lancaster wars is not yet completely eliminated.)

Those of us who know Queen Margaret only as the crazy old lady who curses at everybody in Richard III (and as Suffolk's prisoner in that bizarre scene in 1HVI that we recently read) should prepare to meet the real, empowered, termagant Queen in this play and the next. She can be played in a variety of ways, initially, but by the time we get to the next play – 3HVI – she must be as vicious as the rest of them, offering to wipe an imprisoned York's tears with a handkerchief stained with the blood of his freshly executed teenaged son. Helen Mirren's highly regarded portrayal of Margaret in the 1977 RSC production of 2HVI rendered her as initially innocent, and preserving a kind of innocence amid all the backstabbings of the nobles around her. Late in this play (IV, iv), in one of The Bard's more gruesome scenes, we find Margaret grieving and caressing the severed head of her lover, Suffolk!
The King confronts her:
"How now, madam!
Still lamenting and mourning for Suffolk's death?
I fear me, love, if that I had been dead,
Thou wouldst not have mourn'd so much for me."

And Margaret replies:
"No, my love, I should not mourn, but die for thee."

Margaret's line is often played contemptuously, but Mirren plays it sincerely,
explaining: "Margaret is of course sexually involved with Suffolk, but she is uterly loyal to Henry. He is the King, and she has a deep belief in heirarchy. She would leave Suffolk in a minute for the King. Henry isn't what she expected, isn't what she wanted – she had wanted him to be her hero – but she has no doubt about his right the throne. He is King, she is Queen, and that's that."

Margaret's passion for Henry has to be counterbalanced by a Henry who is more than just the common portrayal of him as a holy fool – almost everything the King says is couched in a religious context -- and Mirren's King was played by Alan Howard as a visionary who grows in spiritual power as he loses political power (the same arc as Richard II) and the only sane man in a court filled with maniacal villians.

Jack Cade and his band of rebels (incited by York as a way of undermining the King in Shakespeare, although York had nothing to do with the rebellion historically) bring a vitality of language that is a refreshing contrast to the inauthentic and double-dealing formalities of the gentry. Jack promises "There shall be in England seven/ halfpenny loaves sold for a penny: the three-hooped/ pot; shall have ten hoops and I will make it felony/ to drink small beer." (Small beer = 0.75% ABV) His buddy Dick the Butcher then declares: "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers."

The mob scenes with Cade's rebellion remind one of the later mob scenes in Julius Caeasar. Cade's men kill a scribe because he can read; Caesar's avengers kill Cinna (NOT the conspirator but) the Poet for his bad verses. The mob is determined to kill somebody, and will assign a reason for it that will suffice. There is an another echo of this play in Julius Caesar, as Cade and Clifford's rhetoric sways the crowd this way and then that, as do Brutus and Marc Antony in the later play.

Richard III makes his first appearance at the end of this play, as Richard Plantagenet the Younger in the first scene of the final act, grieving for his father and giving a foretaste of what's to come: "Sword, hold thy temper; heart, be wrathful still:/ Priests pray for enemies, but princes kill."
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First notes, Henry VI, Part Two 7 months 2 days ago #7433

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Let's go with June 14th. June in general presents some problems, but we do have a solid core group to tackle 2HVI.

Jean and Douglas are out – the French edition of 'Into The Forest' has been on the bestseller lists there for a month, so the publishers are bringing her back for addition promotion. And David is maxed out in June, probably out for this one.

But we do have nine readers so far, so we're going to go with the date. 7 pm start for this one -- Conrad and Elizabeth will be setting up one of their Lear shows for the following night and need the time.

We'll have fun casting this – it has the largest cast of any of the plays.

It is also the play with the largest number of severed heads. By far! Cade and his followers enter proudly displaying their staffs topped by (as many as) 12 severed heads. We have already mentioned that Suffolk's head was treasured and caressed by Margaret; in fact, she is so fond of it she carries it around the court with her for the last two acts of the play. Cade announces that the severed heads of Lord Saye and his son-in-law (both of whom Cade has killed) are to have their heads carried throughout the streets of London on poles and made to appear to kiss each other on every street corner! This grotesquery is not only historically accurate, according to Hall, but duplicates an earlier episode with Suffolk rebels and the severed heads of a Lord Chief Justice and a Prior in 1381. Those old Brits were just barrels of fun! In the end, Cade himself is beheaded and his head delivered to the king.

Here is the title page of Hall's 'The Union of the Two Noble and Illustrate Famelies of Lancastre and Yorke,' one of the principal sources of the play:

Here's the opening of the scene in which Cade enters London, IV, vi:

[Enter CADE and the rest, and strikes his staff on London-stone]
CADE: Now is Mortimer lord of this city. And here, sitting
upon London-stone, I charge and command that, of the
city's cost, the pissing-conduit run nothing but
claret wine this first year of our reign. And now
henceforward it shall be treason for any that calls
me other than Lord Mortimer.
[Enter a Soldier, running]
SOLDIER: Jack Cade! Jack Cade!
CADE: Knock him down there.
[They kill him]
SMITH THE WEAVER: If this fellow be wise, he'll never call ye Jack
Cade more: I think he hath a very fair warning.


Cade declares: ". . . there
shall not a maid be married, but she shall pay to me
her maidenhead ere they have it."

Cade's motto is "But then are we in order when we are most out of order." Bloom notes that this is "a wonderful anticipation of Bakunin's Anarchist slogan: 'The passion for destruction is a creative passion.'"

We see in Queen Margaret the ruthless and ambitious woman married to a weaker, indecisive man of title -- a prescursor to Lady Macbeth.

The Machievellian motif of power is strong throughout the tetralogy, highlighted particularly in the death of chivalry with Talbot's death, the weakness of King Henry's Christian piety, and the rising power of the unbridled evil of Richard of Gloucester.

The other historical motif of the tetralogy is the Tudor Myth, the idea that the taking of the throne from RII and the following Wars of the Roses were the worst period of English history; and that the great age for England began with the defeat of RIII by the Tudor Henry VII, who married a York and ended the civil war. Shakespeare's Queen Elizabeth was the granddaughter of HVII, and the Tudor Myth was the history of the day and seen as the will of God.

Scholar Phyllis Rackin brilliantly unifies the play's conflicting historical threads: the providential justice of The Tudor Myth and pure Machievellian power: "What the controversy among the critics both fails to acknowledge and demonstrates, however, is that although neither ideological position is clearly or consistently privileged, the conflict between them lies very close to the center of Shakespeare's historical project. Exploring the dramatic implications and exploiting the theatrical potential of rival theories of historical causation the plays project into dramatic conflict an important ideological conflict that existed in their own time, not only by having dramatic characters speak and act from opposing ideological vantage points but also by inciting these conflicts among their audiences."
Last Edit: 7 months 2 days ago by Steve Minkin.
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Third Notes: 2HVI 6 months 1 day ago #7441

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The allegiances and betrayals are so numerous in this one that I've set up a little scorecard to help myself and identify the major players and their teams. And it is not nearly as tidy as the Lancasters and the Yorks.

Gloucester (aka 'The Good Duke Humphrey') is the moral center of this play (as Talbot was in Part I), the Protector and uncle of the King, younger brother of the universally revered Henry V. Although historically he predeceased his wife, Eleanor, by seven years, in the play her arrest and execution for practicing black magic against the queen is a profound and moving tragedy for Gloucester, compounding all the other evils he is up against.

Allied with Gloucester against the queen are Salisbury and Warwick. In Act 1, York throws his lot in with them, although his intent is to unseat Henry and reclaim the throne for the Yorks. In Act 2, Salisbury and Warwick throw their lot in with his, and the wily York advises them to wait until the queen's supporters murder Gloucester (the last remaining important Lancastrian) before moving on the king and the rest of them.

Supporting the queen and opposed to Gloucester are Suffolk, Cardinal Beaufort, Buckingham, and Somerset. Somerset warns the others that the Cardinal is ambitious and seeks the throne for himself. And we already know from the end of Part 1 that Suffolk is the queen's lover and seeks to control the empire through her.

The Hollow Crown reduces Suffolk to a minor role, and gives the affair with Queen Margaret to Somerset. Somerset, you will recall, was the lord whose failure to send the calvary in at the right time in Part 1 resulted in Talbot's death, and he did so on purpose to make York look bad. I rather liked the strengthening of that character -- his sleaziness as Suffolk seems of a piece with his attitudes as Somerset in Part 1.

As I mentioned earlier, the BBC production completely leaves out the Jack Cade rebellion, certainly one of the most entertaining themes in the play, although it is peripheral enough to the main Wars of the Roses theme that its omission does not derail the play and probably helps sharpen the focus on primary theme. I miss the scenes, but they don't impact the next two plays in the tetralogy so I can understand it.

There are also two charming self-contained small scenes that are left out, also to help narrow the focus to the Roses plots. One involves fake magic, so the scene also serves as a contrast with Lady Eleanor's later arrest for 'serious' black magic. The other is a retelling of a story from the histories of an armorer's apprentice telling the authorities of his boss's treasonous statements. They are ordered to do battle, the victor to be presumed the truthteller. The apprentice is sure he will die, since he is no match for the master. The master thinks so too, gets drunk, and is killed by the apprentice.

To get rid of York, the Queen's men give him an army and send him to Ireland to squelch their revolt. But York needed an army, and will turn it against them:

York: My brain more busy than the labouring spider
Weaves tedious snares to trap mine enemies.
Well, nobles, well, 'tis politicly done,
To send me packing with an host of men:
I fear me you but warm the starved snake,
Who, cherish'd in your breasts, will sting
your hearts.
'Twas men I lack'd and you will give them me:
I take it kindly; and yet be well assured
You put sharp weapons in a madman's hands.
III, i

Henry VI: Was ever king that joy'd an earthly throne,
And could command no more content than I?
No sooner was I crept out of my cradle
But I was made a king, at nine months old.
Was never subject long'd to be a king
As I do long and wish to be a subject.

IV, ix

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Bright moments,
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