THE SLINGS AND ARROWS Reviewing Shakespeare

Two writers on the Bard and pop culture

Archive for March 2011

Revenge Of The York…

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My apologies. This post is more than a little late. ‘Better late than never’ I always say, though should I find myself sentenced to some form of capital punishment for a crime I didn’t commit, I’ll no doubt contradict that maxim. Come to think of it, there are indeed a great many number of things which are preferably nonexistent rather than tardy: car trouble, nuclear holocaust, freaking Justin Bieber, etc…

The past couple of weeks have been a busy blur of work junkets, home renovation manoeuvres and moments of sheer shock while witnessing current affairs. It’s been hard to process the world’s political and geographic upheaval amongst the early rises, bad coffee and bleary eyed painting into the wee hours of the morning. To top it off, my wife and I have spent a great deal of time speaking with the authorities after entering our new home one night only to find the freshly murdered body of a hobo adorning the upstairs landing…  well, maybe I made that last part up… but it’s better than a typical ‘dog ate my homework excuse’.

Henry VI Part 2 ended with Warwick leading the charge after Henry, so Part 3 opens with him wondering how the King got away. First, York literally plonks himself on the throne, then there’s a standoff, a head in a box and a sour deal. Margaret finally ditches her bland hubby and leads her own army in battle against the Yorkists (French women are pretty sharp in Shakespeare’s world). From this point, all humane ethic crumbles as we witness a great deal of on-stage, bloody biffo. There is civil war, torture, dispatched heirs, deals, broken deals, banishment and finally Henry meets his inevitable end, forgiving his murderer as he dies. After five Acts and nearly everyone slaughtered, I come to a hardly innovative observation…

Bloodlust makes for sour satisfaction.

Sure, it’s warm, but it’s also bitter. After all the narrative build-up of Part 1 and 2, the author finally unleashes everything he has promised against our hapless monarch. Full fury. Imagine spending six hours building a house of cards, or an ornate sand castle, knowing every second the venture will end in gleeful destruction (scholars have actually debated how unusual it was for Shakespeare to depict so much conflict on stage). Now I know why the cast is so big for these plays, the more characters, the more cannon fodder. So Shakespeare pulls down the fragile kingship of Lancaster with devastating, gory thrusts of his pen and The Henriad goes out with a bloody bang.

After all is said and done (then murdered), Henry VI Part 3 is reminiscent of that moment where after patiently and methodically cornering some squat spider for half an hour, you strike and pound the minute beast into a quivering splotch. The thing you hunted is now slaughtered haplessly and you wonder why you desired it dead in the first place. How strange that the drive of cruelty sometimes ceases when its aims are achieved. You pity that spider now, as much as you first wanted it smeared across your floor.

So Henry is soft and slow and polite in a political world of teeth. We have watched Henry wander onto the throne in grief, then pray and sigh and stress as war was declared openly against him. We have pitied him, despised him, hoped for him, screamed at him and finally we have murdered him, inevitably. We knew this was coming, Shakespeare told us every step of the way how this would end…

… those damn roses.

I spent the week before last out of town at a work conference. I can be something of a shut-in and find these events odd, particularly the inoffensive chit chat over breakfast (a form of discussion which should rarely be indulged, particularly during the uncaffeinated hours). In these circumstances I’m frequently given to moments of humour that escape the grasp of common conversation. Somewhere in my psyche lurks an Iago, a Puck, some inner anarchist who enjoys those odd moments where jokes are more absurd than obvious. So at the end of my rope, one morning at this work ‘do’, I made an absurd joke… and no one got it.

I can’t quite recall the content of the joke, something about a funeral director with Tourette’s syndrome maybe? I dunno. Regardless, at that juncture, which I have visited countless times before, I am faced with a choice: revel in the moment of awkward absurdity or explain the joke. Problem is, a joke, like a metaphor or some pity observation, is robbed of its power once explained. So, explain the joke and appear lame but sane, or let it hang and laugh all the way to social isolation?

At that moment, I caved and explained my odd gag (cue the chirping crickets and tumble weed). I will try a little of the same now with the War of The Roses, though I’d deem my ability to rob the Bard’s work of power rather unlikely. So forgive me for dealing in the bleeding obvious… pun intended.

A rose is attractive, but to take hold of it will inevitably draw your own blood, particularly if you must wrestle it from the ground. Beautiful but dangerous, such was the throne of England initially represented by red and white roses. Like a frying pan to the face, Shakespeare made it understood, whoever reaches for the throne will die.

Traditionally, murder has always been the handiest form of political succession. This is true even today where Western democracy waits and hopes that the penny drops on some bright spark within the Libyan government who’ll promptly send Gadaffi to his Maker. Murder makes the political world go round, literally and figuratively. Just ask the late Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

The key value here is foundational for much of Shakespeare’s political work: Ambition for power = death. This idea was representative of Elizabethan politics, religion and morality. Too big a thing to go into within this already belated missive. Another time perhaps…

For now I’m done, exhausted by the domestic renovation and literary conflict. Farewell Henry, you had it coming…

P.S. Richard killed him…



March 20, 2011 at 8:52 am

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Henry VI, Part III: Blue Harvest

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In the opening scene of Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part III, Edward – future king of England, son of York, and brother of another future king, Richard III – recalls his battle with the Duke of Buckingham and proclaims “I cleft his beaver with a downright blow”. Call me puerile, but in that instant I knew I was going to enjoy Henry VI Part III. And I did.

Comedy of anachronism aside – we can return to that theme when Hamlet’s mother invites him to talk in her seemingly TARDIS-like closet – after liking Henry VI Part I a lot more than I’d anticipated and not liking Henry VI Part II as much as I expected (this sounds like Iron Man all over again), Henry VI Part III emerged – for me at least – as the most engaging and successful of the Henry VI plays. While there are a number of reasons for this, it can in large part be attributed to the play’s particular dramatic calibration. While Henry VI Part I is largely set-up, and Henry VI Part II is even more set-up, Part III is all about the pay-off. It combines the sturdy and detailed historical soap opera of Parts I and II with the pulpier narrative momentum of the Bard’s next two plays, Richard III and Titus Andronicus. It also helps that many of the key players introduced in the first two plays have shuffled (usually by force) off this mortal coil by the start of Part III, making for a much more streamlined and manageable assortment of core characters.

It also helps that King Henry VI is given more attention this time around. When we meet the King at the start of the play, he’s forced to promise the throne to the Duke of York in order to placate the raging civil war, a decision which enrages the Queen and their son and alienates the loyal Lancaster lackeys. Clearly Henry’s still very much the ineffectual character of the previous two plays, but here his presence has been fleshed out, and we’re forced as readers and viewers to identify with him and his plight for the first time. He’s still a blank, but he’s a tragic blank and we can’t help but sympathise. He’s the George Reeves of the British monarchy. In mining this superficially empty character for depth and pathos, Shakespeare foreshadows his later, more accomplished treatment of another ineffectual leader, Richard II, later in the canon.

Meanwhile, in depicting Queen Margaret’s indignation at her husband’s ineptitude and her bloody resolve to win back her son’s rightful (from a Lancaster point of view at least) inheritance, Shakespeare foreshadows another character who will surface later in the canon, the always-popular and consistently fascinating Lady Macbeth. But where Lady Macbeth is largely housebound, Margaret leads an army against the Yorks. The contrast between husband and wife is certainly marked: as Clifford notes to the King at one point, “I would your highness would depart the field. The Queen hath best success when you are absent”. Ouch. Henry doesn’t seem to mind though: his son’s birthright is reclaimed, and the antagonist York is slain. However, he must still contend with the sons of York – Edgar, Clarence, and Richard – who plan to avenge their father and take the crown. Richard has his own plans too, which will see fruition in Richard III but are nicely previewed here:

I’ll drown more sailors than the mermaid shall,

I’ll slay more gazers than the basilisk;

I’ll play the orator as well as Nestor,

Deceive more slily than Ulysses could,

And, like a sinon, take another Troy.

I can add colours to the chameleon,

Change shapes with Protheus for advantages,

And set the murd’rous Machiavel to school.

In other words, this “scolding crookback” and “misshapen Dick”, as the Prince of Wales calls him, is gonna be a bad motherfucker. And how. The Yorks ultimately succeed in taking the throne, slay Henry and his heir, and the play ends with Edward upon the throne as England’s king, with Richard plotting foul deeds against his kin.

In my post on Henry VI Part I I compared Shakespeare’s undertaking in these plays to modern franchise filmmaking. While modern film history seems to dictate that 3rd episodes of franchises are among the weakest – see The Godfather Part III, Spider-Man III et al – with Henry VI Part III that isn’t the case. Given that Anthony wasn’t the biggest fan of Part II, I look forward to hearing his thoughts on this one, and on the play that wraps up the War of the Roses, Richard III



March 3, 2011 at 4:18 am

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