Thursday, January 6, 2011

Shakespeare The Subversive

I just finished Henry VI Part 3 (3HVI) and am taking great pleasure in the emergence of The Bard I Know and Love — William The Wordsmith,  Shakespeare The Subversive. After reading the trilogy, it has become far clearer to me than it was after reading just Part 1 of HVI that the true hero (or anti-hero) of the plays is language itself; these wouldn't be the last Shakespeare plays about which that could be said, but they're possibly among the first. More on that below, assuming I manage to get to it; with any luck I'll be able to make what I mean somewhat clearer through the accretion of textual evidence.

The theory of the Divine Right of Kings figured prominently in Elizabethan/Jacobean political philosophy in England (particularly after James I, a dickishly aggressive proponent of the philosophy, ascended to the English throne in 1603), and in Renaissance political philosophy in general1. Essentially, the theory holds that a legitimate king is ordained by God Himself to rule his realm absolutely and all others are subordinate to him in accordance with their rank. The three HVI plays are, in the aggregate, largely concerned with the issue of what, exactly, makes a king "legitimate" or, to be more precise, they are about what arguments can be adduced to disqualify a king as "illegitimate". The plays, ultimately, dramatize the various attempts to depose the ineffectual Henry VI; but a ruler's ineffectiveness is not a legitimate reason to depose him, according to the DRoK; the only legitimate reason to depose a king is to make the claim, no matter how tenuous, that the king is illegitimate — a usurper himself, or the spawn of a usurper, and therefore not truly king.

This is the claim that is eventually and unrelentingly made against Henry VI: basically, that his grandfather, Henry Bolingbroke (later Henry IV) forced legitimate (but ineffectual) King Richard II to abdicate; so Henry IV was himself illegitimate, as was his son, Prince Hal (who later reigned as Henry V and sired Henry VI just before dying unexpectedly at a young age); and therefore, he too — Henry VI — by this weird quasi-transitive property of regal illegitimacy, is an illegitimate ruler and hence fair game to be taken down by someone with a better claim to the throne; that eventual "someone", in the HVI plays, being Richard Plantagenet, recently re-enfranchised Duke of York2.

Of course, no one deposed Henry IV or Henry V because they were both quite strong and effective rulers — Henry V in particular. But this illegitimacy fear is why Henry IV, in Shakespeare's 1HIV, is so anxious about Prince Hal's drinking and whoo-wering around with Falstaff and his assorted other Mediaevel Slacker Wastoid Droogies: The king knows that the claim of "illegitimacy" could easily be made against his line and if Hal does not step up, does not show himself not just worthy, but a fiercely regal badass, Hal could easily be challenged and deposed, should he succeed his dad. Henry IV not only wants to remain king, he wants to ensure his offspring inherit and keep the throne. (Cf. 3HVI, I, i — in which Henry VI bargains to keep the crown for himself by trading away his son's right to it upon Henry's death.) Hal, of course, knows this and is biding his time to show his true colors3; he eventually straightens up and becomes the much-feared Warrior King, Henry V (known to close friend as "Hank Cinq"), who conquers much of France and consolidates the conquered territory under the English crown. You'd have to be a fucking idiot to challenge that guy and expect to come out on top; he is even more fearsome than his dad, Henry Bolingbroke, a.k.a. Henry IV.

But Henry VI? Yeah, not so much a Warrior as an increasingly religion-obsessed milquetoast. (Unlike his dad, Henry V, you never see Henry VI fighting in battle. He's there, usually, but just as a spectator.) He becomes king at a very young age, when his dad (Hank Cinq) dies, and eventually, under his ... let's just say less than effective reign ...  nearly all of the territorial gains Henry V made in France are lost.

And so it's really interesting because Shakespeare makes it pretty clear that it is this, not Henry VI's supposed illegitimacy, that makes him fair game. More than once in the HVI plays, it is pointed out to those rebelling against Henry that they and their immediate ancestors were seemingly more than happy to be ruled by Henry's forebears, who, according to the selfsame Yorkist lineal theory being espoused by the rebels, were equally "illegitimate". E.g.:
Injurious Margaret!

PRINCE EDWARD [HVI's son and heir apparent]
And why not queen? [i.e., why did Warwick (who, at the moment, is espousing the Yorkist claim to the throne, against Henry) not call Margaret, Edward's mother and Henry's wife, "queen"?]

Because thy father Henry did usurp;
And thou no more are prince than she is queen.

Then Warwick disannuls great John of Gaunt,
Which did subdue the greatest part of Spain;
And, after John of Gaunt, Henry the Fourth,
Whose wisdom was a mirror to the wisest;
And, after that wise prince, Henry the Fifth,
Who by his prowess conquered all France:
From these our Henry lineally descends.

Oxford, how haps it, in this smooth discourse,
You told not how Henry the Sixth hath lost
All that which Henry Fifth had gotten? [3HVI, III, iii]
So there you go. Henry's true sin: He lost France through weak ruling. The characters in the HVI plays talk about illegitimacy but they act against perceived weakness — which should surprise no one.

Further proof of my point that legitimacy has nothing to do with who backs whom in this House-of-Lancaster-Versus-House-of-York struggle for the throne: By the end of the very scene quoted above, Warwick fucking switches sides, allying himself with Henry, because he feels he has been made a fool of by the rebel King Edward4.

Edward, by the way, is a real piece of work; keep reading — you'll see what I mean soon enough.

Edward becomes the recognized king5, and, to consolidate his power, sends Warwick to the court of France to ask for king Louis's ("Lewis", in the play) sister's hand. Then, a Lady Grey submits, in person, a petition to King Edward to get her dead husband's lands back. While Edward's brothers, Gloucester (the evil hunchback later to become Richard III6) and Clarence watch and make rude sotto voce comments, Edward the Horndog makes it clear that he'll agree to give Lady Grey her lands back only if she'll fuck him. (He's quite blunt about this, really, stopping just short of saying, "Bend over and spread 'em, wench!") She refuses, but he's really horny, so he proposes making her his queen, even though she is of "lowly" birth and therefore "unworthy". But he marries her anyway.

Meanwhile, Warwick is at the court of Louis asking for Louis's sister's hand for Edward. Louis agrees to this as does the sister, Bona. (Bone 'er? I thought you'd never ask!) It is at this point that a messenger enters with word from England that Edward — who sent Warwick to get the French chick for his bride — has married Lady Grey and made her queen. Now, Warwick (see above), has just made the case for Edward's legitimacy based on the latter's bloodline; but when he is made a fool of thus, he switches sides, then and there, offering his allegiance to Henry whom he, not two minutes before, was claiming was a usurper. Lucky for him, Queen Margaret and Prince Edward (of  the house of Lancaster) are there — because they were trying to get Louis to aid in Henry's cause — and they accept Warwick's offer. Louis, now pissed himself at King Edward, switches allegiance to the House of Lancaster as well. Yeah, the same Louis who had just provisionally agreed to marry his sister off to King Edward of the House of York.

The "nobles" in the Henry VI plays pretty much all behave thus. The death of Talbot and his son in 1HVI  makes far more sense, is far more meaningful, in retrospect; because the death of Talbot and Young Talbot — which effectively wipes out the Talbot line — represents the death of chivalry itself, the end of true noble selflessness in the realm of England during this time of strife.

2HVI is the play containing the infamous line: "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers." This line is uttered by a character named, appropriately enough, "Dick", a follower of Jack Cade during Cade's Rebellion, and the sentiment there expressed is his idea of what should be a priority once the commoners take power. Hatred of the learned and lettered class is shared by Cade himself, who, in the same scene in which the "lawyers" line is uttered, immediately orders a man executed for the "crime" of being able to read and write.

This is part of what I was referring to when I said at the beginning of this post that language itself is a central (anti)hero in the Henry VI plays. It's not surprising that "fancy" language, learning, should be held in suspicion, should be contemned, by the "rabble" of Cade's Rebellion. But language and its meaning are also under attack by the nobles. I've already wasted too much time above talking about other themes in these plays to give this particular topic as much space as I'd like, but I would encourage anyone who reads these plays to pay especial attention to how many times oaths are mentioned or taken, almost always by the nobles; then notice how many times those oaths, sworn before God by a class whose word was supposed to be their bond, are knowingly broken. It's actually kinda hard not to notice how often they are broken, because whenever it is pointed out to a "noble" character that he's breaking an oath, he comes up with an elaborate justification for doing so. For example, at one point, Richard Duke of York agrees to drop his claim to the throne in return for letting Henry reign until his (Henry's) death; in exchange, Henry agrees to sell his own son's birthright, basically telling the Yorkists, "You guys can be king after I die. Just let me be king till then."

This does not sit well with York's sons, especially with Dicky Jr., who encourages his dad to break this oath using the following rationalization:
I took an oath that he [i.e., Henry] should quietly reign.

But for a kingdom any oath may be broken:
I would break a thousand oaths to reign one year.

No; God forbid your Grace should be forsworn.

I shall be, if I claim by open war.
I'll prove the contrary, if you'll hear me speak.

Thou canst not, son; it is impossible.

An oath is of no moment, being not took
Before a true and lawful magistrate
That hath authority over him that swears.
Henry had none, but did usurp the place;
Then, seeing 'twas he that made you to depose,
Your oath, my lord, is vain and frivolous.
Therefore, to arms. [3HIV, I, ii]
So there you go! To get out of a sworn oath, just yell: JINX!1! Essentially. Or say you had your fingers crossed.

Needless to say, Richard the Younger's argument wins the day. Which doesn't really matter because the queen and Prince Edward have already decided that the oath the king swore to York is not valid and binding on them. And they get their army together and attack.

Instances of  oaths being thus broken abound in the HVI plays.

There's this, Salisbury's rationale for forsaking Henry:
My lord, I have consider'd with myself
The title of this most renowned duke;
And in my conscience do repute his grace
The rightful heir to England's royal seat.

Hast thou not sworn allegiance unto me?

I have.

Canst thou dispense with heaven for such an oath?

It is great sin to swear unto a sin,
But greater sin to keep a sinful oath.
Who can be bound by any solemn vow
To do a murderous deed, to rob a man,
To force a spotless virgin's chastity,
To reave the orphan of his patrimony,
To wring the widow from her custom'd right,
And have no other reason for this wrong
But that he was bound by a solemn oath?

A subtle traitor needs no sophister. [2HVI, V, ii]
See? It would be a bigger sin to keep that oath because that oath has cooties!

Perfectly reasonable.

I think my favorite forswearing of an oath is this one: York is about to march on Henry but says he will disband his army if Somerset, his hated rival, is arrested. The king's messenger, Buckingham, says: "The King hath yielded unto thy demand:/ The Duke of Somerset is in the Tower."
Upon thine honour, is he prisoner?

Upon mine honour, he is prisoner.

Then, Buckingham, I do dismiss my pow'rs. [2HVI, V, i]
Then, less than 50 lines further along in the scene, we see this stage direction:  

Enter the QUEEN and SOMERSET.

Somerset is not in prison. Noble Buckingham just fucking lied, is all. Lah-dee-dah. No biggie. 

There's tons of this going on with the nobles in the Henry VI plays. Just tons. The nobles speechify better than the rabble, but they pretty much lie, cheat, dissemble, murder, tergiversate ... just generally suck scum as much as any ignoble commoner. I'm not saying Shakespeare depicts them as worse than the common rabble, because the play does not support that view; I'm saying the educated, honey-tongued nobility of Shakespeare's plays tend to talk about noble motivations but act on the basest of motives, as opposed to the low-born, such as Cade, who yearns for power because he thinks it will give my leave, e.g., to fuck whomever he wants. Humpback Richard, at least, is honest, in his soliloquies and asides, about the baseness of his motives: He murders children and family members because they stand in the way of quest for the ultimate power of the throne. Compare this to, say, young Clifford, who, finding the body of his dad, slain in battle, claims this somehow justifies his cold-blooded decision to murder an unarmed child who had nothing to do with the death of his father and wasn't even born when it happened.

The type of "logic" that leads from "my father was killed" to "therefore I may murder children" is yet another example of the utter debasement of language and its role in facilitating rational thinking that is on display in the HVI plays. In a realm as degraded as England is by this Civil War, language itself is degraded, and words are treated as fungible, if not out-and-out meaningless.

Now to me, that is some Good Shakespeare!

1 There were, also, just a ton of other supposed royal and aristocratic "rights" tied up with this "Divine Right", a doctrine not truly formalized until the Renaissance, but having its origin in beliefs going back to the Middle Ages; not the least of which alleged rights was the supposed "Droit de seigneur" or "Lord's right" (also called "Right of the First Night" (or Jus Primae Noctis)), which supposedly stated that Lords had the right to "take the maidenheads" (I'm being characteristically fucking genteel, here, for you Lady Readers) of any of his serfs' daughters — a "right" frequently invoked, allegedly, just as the virginal serfettes were newly-betrothed. You can see how this might lead to resentment. There is little evidence that such a "right" existed1a, but some thought it did, and, in any case, it gives you an idea of the kind of power the High Born had, or were thought to have had, over the lives of their lowly dependents.

It is significant that the rebel/pretender-to-the-throne Jack Cade invokes this "right" in 2HVI, IV, vii:
The proudest peer in the realm shall not wear a head
on his shoulders, unless he pay me tribute; there
shall not a maid be married, but she shall pay to me
her maidenhead ere they have it: men shall hold of
me in capite; and we charge and command that their
wives be as free as heart can wish or tongue can tell.
It is indicative of the general degradation of things in the world of the HVI plays — especially any semblance of the rule of law — that the ignorant commoner Cade believes that, as king, he would have the right to fuck whomever he pleases; he sort of conflates the Divine Right of Kings and the (alleged) Right of First Night.

Cf., however, HVI, III, ii, in which Edward of York, now claiming to be King Edward IV, makes nearly the same claim as Cade: basically saying to the widow Lady Grey, "I want to fuck you and, being king, I have the right to fuck you." This "noble" echo of Commoner Cade's ignorance is just one of many instances in which Shakespeare shows that the "nobles" are essentially no more noble, as a group, than the common rabble.

1a It should be noted that The Right of First Night, unlike The Divine Right of Kings, was probably an utter myth — a latter-day fabrication. There's little if any evidence that lords were demanding the legal right to deflower their serfs' daughters. Although on Faux News the other night, I think I caught Hannity claiming that Obama ultimately wants to fuck your daughter, for which claim Hannity offered his usual unimpeachable proof, which I quote in full here: "...".

2 Re-enfranchised, it should be noted, by Henry VI, the very king York seeks to dethrone.

Now, before I quote the passage detailing York's rationale for considering himself a better claimant to the throne, I strenuously advise you to take another hit off that bong you're enjoying or maybe drop a tab of that Owsley you were saving for a special occasion because the explanation is going to blow your mind anyway, so why not read it with mind conveniently pre-blown?

Okay. Are you groovified yet?

Right then. Here goes:
Now, my good Lords of Salisbury and Warwick,
Our simple supper ended, give me leave
In this close walk to satisfy myself
In craving your opinion of my tide,
Which is infallible, to England's crown.

My lord, I long to hear it at full.

Sweet York, begin; and if thy claim be good,
The Nevils [i.e., collectively, Salisbury, Warwick and their kin] are thy subjects to command.

Then thus:
Edward the Third, my lords, had seven sons;
The first, Edward the Black Prince, Prince of Wales;
The second, William of Hatfield; and the third,
Lionel Duke of Clarence; next to whom
Was John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster;
The fifth was Edmund Langley, Duke of York;
The sixth was Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester;
William of Windsor was the seventh and last.
Edward the Black Prince died before his father
And left behind him Richard, his only son,
Who, after Edward the Third's death, reign'd as king
Till Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Lancaster,
The eldest son and heir of John of Gaunt,
Crown'd by the name of Henry the Fourth,
Seiz'd on the realm, depos'd the rightful king,
Sent his poor queen to France, from whence she came.
And him to Pomfret, where, as all you know,
Harmless Richard was murdered traitorously.

Father [i.e., Salisbury, who is Warwick's dad], the Duke hath told the truth;
Thus got the house of Lancaster [Henry VI's family line] the crown.

Which now they hold by force, and not by right;
For Richard, the first son's heir, being dead,
The issue of the next son should have reign'd.

But William of Hatfield died without an heir.

The third son, Duke of Clarence, from whose line
I claim the crown, had issue Philippe, a daughter,
Who married Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March;
Edmund had issue, Roger Earl of March;
Roger had issue, Edmund, Anne, and Eleanor.

This Edmund, in the reign of Bolingbroke,
As I have read, laid claim unto the crown;
And, but for Owen Glendower, had been king,
Who kept him in captivity till he died.
But, to the rest.

His eldest sister, Anne,
My mother, being heir unto the crown,
Married Richard Earl of Cambridge, who was
To Edmund Langley, Edward the Third's fifth son, son.
By her I claim the kingdom: she was heir
To Roger Earl of March, who was the son
Of Edmund Mortimer, who married Philippe,
Sole daughter unto Lionel Duke of Clarence;
So, if the issue of the elder son
Succeed before the younger, I am King.

What plain proceedings is more plain than this?
Henry doth claim the crown from John of Gaunt,
The fourth son: York claims it from the third. [2HVI, II, ii]
Yeah, fuckin'-A! Like Warwick sez, what could be fucking clearer than this? And worth waging decades of bloody war over?

3 This Shakespearean characterization of Young Hal as a bit of a slacker wastoid, by the way? A real fucking slap in the face; because the historical Hal (as opposed to the Shakespeare character Hal) took a fucking arrow in the face — which nearly killed him, as arrows to the face are wont to do —  at like 16 years of age while fighting for his dad's realm.  But a guy tough enough to live through an arrow to the face is probably tough enough to take Shakespeare's pussy-@$$ dramatic slap to his face.

Incidentally — this here footnote being as good a place as any to mention this, I guess — I'm not, in fact, overly concerned with what the historical originals of Shakespeare's characters were truly like; when I talk, above and below, about, e.g., Henry VI, I am referring to the character, not the historical personage. If you're interested in what these foax were truly, historically like, well ... follow the links I provide above in the opening paragraphs.

Incidentally #2: Although he doesn't come right out and say it in this here post, SteveQ, when he's training for a race? Yeah, he routinely shoots himself in the face with an arrow — like once a week, at least. And if you don't do that as part of your race training, well, I guess you just don't want Victory bad enough, do you, you fucking pussy? And SteveQ is, rightly, kinda disgusted by you.

I thought you should know.

4 Yeah, you read that right. The House of York dude making claim to Henry's throne by this point in time is Edward, Duke of York, because his dad, R. Plantagenet, has been murdered; and so now Edward, Richard's eldest son, is next in line.

5 For a while. The throne is a real hot potato and, especially in 3HVI, nobody has "possession" of it for long; it is not uncommon to see the stage direction of one scene saying, e.g., "Enter King Henry" be followed in the very next scene by the s.d. "Enter King Edward". Things are further complicated by the fact that, eventually, Henry doesn't really give a fuck about whether or not he remains king and so the Lancastrian fight for the throne is taken up by his Queen (a right evil French shrew) and their son ... whose name is ... Edward. Yeah. The same as the Yorkist claimant to the throne.

In the scenes describing Cade's Rebellion, Shakespeare makes much of how fickle and easily swayed are the commoners, which, it is strongly implied, is exactly why they should not be trusted to rule. In 2HVI, IV, vii, e.g., the commoner followers of Cade proclaim as one, at various times, "God save the king! God save the king!"; then, after Cade speaks, "We'll follow Cade, we'll follow Cade!"; then, after the king's man Clifford again addresses them: "A Clifford! a Clifford! we'll follow the king and Clifford" ... to the point where Cade himself throws up his hands and asks, "Was ever feather so lightly blown to and fro as this multitude?" (Good question.) But the thing nobody ever tells you about the HVI play is that the plays also demonstrate how fucked up and unfit to rule the nobility is; pert-near everything negative that is said or shown about the "rabble" is also true of just about all of the nobility.

6 Many people read Richard III without having first read the Henry VI plays. I know I did. And they think, Wow, what an evil douche this Richard III is. You will get no argument on that score here. But the Henry VI plays provide some context. There is just tons of evilness and dastardly-doings going on amongst the nobility in the Henry VI plays. Richard, to his credit, manages to stand out amongst all of these "noble" douche-satchels, which is quite an accomplishment. In the HVI plays, Richard is already counting up the number of people he'll have to kill or otherwise remove from his path to claim the crown himself; and he says quite explicitly that he'll kill anyone he needs to, which he starts to do in the HVI plays and continues to do in Richard III. He even murders children, which is pretty awful, right? Except what the HVI plays show you is that vicious child-murder is by no means unique to Richard the evil humpback.

Here's a short list of what some of the other "worthy nobles" are up to in the various Henry VI plays:

Young Clifford, finding the body of his father, slain in battle against the Yorkists, makes the following vow:
Even at this sight
My heart is turn'd to stone: and while 'tis mine,
It shall be stony. York not our old men spares;
No more will I their babes: tears virginal
Shall be to me even as the dew to fire,
And beauty that the tyrant oft reclaims
Shall to my flaming wrath be oil and flax.
Henceforth I will not have to do with pity:
Meet I an infant of the house of York,
Into as many gobbets will I cut it
As wild Medea young Absyrtus did:
In cruelty will I seek out my fame. [2HVI, V, ii]

Clifford makes good on this threat to be a pitiless killer of York babes when he later crosses paths with young Rutland, son of Richard Plantagenet, in a non-combat situation (the kid is actually just walking along with his fucking school tutor, who's a priest, for the love of RBR Pete!) and, despite the child's pitiful pleas to be spared, ruthlessly murders the boy:
Had thy brethren here, their lives and thine
Were not revenge sufficient for me;
No, if I digg'd up thy forefathers' graves
And hung their rotten coffins up in chains,
It could not slake mine ire, nor ease my heart.
The sight of any of the house of York
Is as a fury to torment my soul;
And till I root out their accursed line
And leave not one alive, I live in hell.
Lifting his hand

O, let me pray before I take my death!
To thee I pray; sweet Clifford, pity me!

Such pity as my rapier's point affords.

I never did thee harm: why wilt thou slay me?

Thy father hath.

But 'twas ere I was born.
Thou hast one son; for his sake pity me,
Lest in revenge thereof, sith God is just,
He be as miserably slain as I.
Ah, let me live in prison all my days;
And when I give occasion of offence,
Then let me die, for now thou hast no cause.

No cause!
Thy father slew my father; therefore, die.
Stabs him

Di faciant laudis summa sit ista tuae! [The gods grant that this may be the height of thy glory.]
Dies [3HVI, I, iii
Okay, but that's just one sick fuck, right?

Wrong. Because when Clifford, Queen Margaret and some of the other Lancastrians run into Rutland's dad, Richard P., they — the "noble" Queen in especial — get their yuks by psychologically torturing him, like a group of truly sick (but noble!)  fucks, taunting him by describing how Clifford murdered Richard's son, Rutland, then going so far as to give Richard a cloth steeped in Rutland's blood to dry his tears:
What would your grace have done unto him now?

Brave warriors, Clifford and Northumberland,
Come, make him stand upon this molehill here [...].
What! was it you that would be England's king?
Was't you that revell'd in our parliament,
And made a preachment of your high descent?
Where are your mess of sons to back you now?
The wanton Edward, and the lusty George?
And where's that valiant crook-back prodigy,
Dicky your boy [aka Richard III-to-be], that with his grumbling voice
Was wont to cheer his dad in mutinies?
Or, with the rest, where is your darling Rutland?
Look, York: I stain'd this napkin with the blood
That valiant [! "valiant"!] Clifford, with his rapier's point,
Made issue from the bosom of the boy;
And if thine eyes can water for his death,
I give thee this to dry thy cheeks withal.
I prithee, grieve, to make me merry, York.
What, hath thy fiery heart so parch'd thine entrails
That not a tear can fall for Rutland's death?
Why art thou patient, man? thou shouldst be mad;
And I, to make thee mad, do mock thee thus.
Stamp, rave, and fret, that I may sing and dance.
Thou wouldst be fee'd, I see, to make me sport:
York cannot speak, unless he wear a crown.
A crown for York! and, lords, bow low to him:
Hold you his hands, whilst I do set it on.

Putting a paper crown on his head
Ay, marry, sir, now looks he like a king!
Ay, this is he that took King Henry's chair,
And this is he was his adopted heir.
But how is it that great Plantagenet
Is crown'd so soon, and broke his solemn oath?
As I bethink me, you should not be king
Till our King Henry had shook hands with death.
And will you pale your head in Henry's glory,
And rob his temples of the diadem,
Now in his life, against your holy oath?
O, 'tis a fault too too unpardonable!
Off with the crown, and with the crown his head;
And, whilst we breathe, take time to do him dead.

That is my office, for my father's sake.

Nay, stay; lets hear the orisons he makes.

She-wolf of France [Margaret is French], but worse than wolves of France,
Whose tongue more poisons than the adder's tooth!
How ill-beseeming is it in thy sex
To triumph, like an Amazonian trull,
Upon their woes whom fortune captivates!
But that thy face is, vizard-like, unchanging,
Made impudent with use of evil deeds,
I would assay, proud queen, to make thee blush.
To tell thee whence thou camest, of whom derived,
Were shame enough to shame thee, wert thou not shameless.
Thy father bears the type of King of Naples,
Of both the Sicils and Jerusalem,
Yet not so wealthy as an English yeoman.
Hath that poor monarch taught thee to insult?
It needs not, nor it boots thee not, proud queen,
Unless the adage must be verified,
That beggars mounted run their horse to death.
'Tis beauty that doth oft make women proud;
But, God he knows, thy share thereof is small:
'Tis virtue that doth make them most admired;
The contrary doth make thee wonder'd at:
'Tis government that makes them seem divine;
The want thereof makes thee abominable:
Thou art as opposite to every good
As the Antipodes are unto us,
Or as the south to the septentrion.
O tiger's heart wrapt in a woman's hide!
How couldst thou drain the life-blood of the child,
To bid the father wipe his eyes withal,
And yet be seen to bear a woman's face?
Women are soft, mild, pitiful and flexible;
Thou stern, obdurate, flinty, rough, remorseless.
Bids't thou me rage? why, now thou hast thy wish:
Wouldst have me weep? why, now thou hast thy will:
For raging wind blows up incessant showers,
And when the rage allays, the rain begins.
These tears are my sweet Rutland's obsequies:
And every drop cries vengeance for his death,
'Gainst thee, fell Clifford, and thee, false

Beshrew me, but his passion moves me so
That hardly can I cheque my eyes from tears. [3HVI, I, iv]
This is so beyond the pale that even the Lancastrian Northumberland weeps to witness the unfathomable, Senecan cruelty of it.

Needless to say, they do murder York after they have their fun mocking him.

Now, of course, Queen Margaret lives to witness the ruthless murder of her own child, Prince Edward, at the hands of the Yorkists, and she rebukes them for not having spared her child for pity's sake:
O Ned, sweet Ned! speak to thy mother, boy!
Canst thou not speak? O traitors! murderers!
They that stabb'd Caesar shed no blood at all,
Did not offend, nor were not worthy blame,
If this foul deed were by to equal it:
He was a man; this, in respect, a child:
And men ne'er spend their fury on a child.
What's worse than murderer, that I may name it?
No, no, my heart will burst, and if I speak:
And I will speak, that so my heart may burst.
Butchers and villains! bloody cannibals!
How sweet a plant have you untimely cropp'd!
You have no children, butchers! if you had,
The thought of them would have stirr'd up remorse:
But if you ever chance to have a child,
Look in his youth to have him so cut off
As, deathmen, you have rid this sweet young prince! [3HVI, V, v]
This is simply colossal "noble" hypocrisy: "You couldn't be so bloodthirsty if you had a child" ... from the same woman who bade a mourning father dry his tears in a cloth steeped in his murdered son's blood; who himself had pleaded for his life by pointing out to his murderer, "You have a son! Pity me for his sake."

These "nobles" have no pity.

I could go on citing instances of ruthless and/or despicable "noble" behavior in the Henry VI plays, but I think you'll agree, these will suffice to make my point.


  1. You were not kidding about long. I'll be back. Important stuff to do first. Important stuff.

  2. I was hoping to have you explain to me why I like Henry 4: 2+3 so much, but if it's in that post, it's lost for good. And that was a very mild kertwang thrown my way - can't lob the grenades with a busted mitt, can you?

    Shouldn't you be reading Twelfth Night, anyway? A good Catholic boy should know this is the 12th Day of Christmas. Holy Lords a-Leapin', Batman!

    Every exegesis needs Steeleye Span. (Hey, that sounds almost Joyce-ian)

  3. The worst of Shakey's plays, IMHO, is King John. I think he was just trying to fill in the historical gap and have a play for every king. John Lackland was almost as terrible as king as he was a play. His little-known son, John Lacknads, liked to wear tights and prance around stages saying things like "Forsooth!" and "Verily!"