Saturday 20 August 2022

Henry VI, Part 2

1/ Compared to Part 1, Part 2 does sound a lot more like Shakespeare. For example, look at the metaphor used by the Duke of York when he bemoans the King giving away Anjou and Maine for his marriage to Margaret: 

“YORK […] Pirates may make cheap pennyworths of their pillage, 

And purchase friends, and give to courtesans, 

Still reveling like lords till all be gone; 

While as the silly owner of the goods 

Weeps over them and wrings his hapless hands, 

And shakes his head and trembling stands aloof, 

While all is shared and all is borne away, 

Ready to sterve and dare not touch his own…” 

(Act 1 scene 1) 

When Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester, tells her husband about her dream of them being King and Queen, he chides her. She later thinks to herself: 

“DUCHESS […] While Gloucester bears this base and humble mind.

Were I a man, a duke, and next of blood, 

I would remove these tedious stumbling-blocks

And smooth my way upon their headless necks; 

And, being a woman, I will not be slack 

To play my part in Fortune’s pageant…”

(Act 1 scene 2) 

Does she not make you think of Lady Macbeth? 

The first few scenes also show that some of the themes that occupy Shakespeare’s mind throughout his career have been there from the beginning: political forces, power, ambition, truth, slander, and so on. 

Jonathan Bate writes in The Genius of Shakespeare

“His own political position cannot be inferred from the drama; what can, however, be inferred is that he was a great deal more interested in political forces than Marlowe was.” (Ch.4) 

2/ There are two main debates among scholars about Part 1

The first is about authorship: the consensus is that it’s a collaboration, I have no doubt. It is imbalanced, there are clearly different hands involved, and Part 2 is significantly better. The questions are how much was Shakespeare’s; who the other playwrights were; whether they wrote different scenes in isolation or, like modern TV writers, sat in the same room and bounced ideas off each other until nobody knew who came up with what…

I personally think Shakespeare wrote parts of Act 2 and Act 4. Edward Burns, the editor of the third series Arden King Henry VI, Part 1, also thinks so.

The second debate is about whether Part 1 was the first play in a 4-part cycle, or a prequel quickly produced after the success of the other plays. Edward Burns thinks it’s the latter, but I have to read arguments from different sides before I can come back to this point.  

3/ In the blog post about Part 1, I complained about Joan la Pucelle as a character, and I also thought Margaret wasn’t interesting. It’s not the case with the female characters in Part 2: they’re full of life. 

The scene of the Duke of Gloucester with his wife Eleanor, now being punished, is very good. 

“DUCHESS […] Ah, Humphrey, can I bear this shameful yoke? 

Trowest thou that e’er I’ll look upon the world

To count them happy that enjoys the sun? 

No, dark shall be my light and night my day; 

To think upon my pomp shall be my hell…” 

(Act 2 scene 4) 

I like the bird metaphors: 

“DUCHESS […] And York, that impious Beaufort, that false priest,

Have all limbed bushes to betray thy wings; 

And fly thou how thou canst, they’ll tangle thee. 

But fear not thou, until thy foot be snared,

Nor never seek prevention of thy foes.” 


Gloucester’s response is naïve. 

Margaret is also full of life:

“QUEEN Not all these lords do vex me half so much

As that proud dame, the Lord Protector’s wife:

She sweeps it through the court with troops of ladies, 

More like an empress than Duke Humphrey’s wife.

Strangers in court do take her for the Queen: 

She bears a duke’s revenues on her back, 

And in her heart she scorns our poverty.

Shall I not live to be avenged on her?...” 

(Act 1 scene 3) 

Much more interesting than Margaret in Part 1. But perhaps I’m being unfair: after all, Margaret here is a queen, whereas in Part 1, she was a poor king’s daughter, taken prisoner by Suffolk.

4/ I like the metaphors. Part 2, as I said, sounds a lot more like Shakespeare. 

For example, when Margaret tries to poison the King’s mind about Gloucester, she says: 

“QUEEN […] Now ’tis the spring, and weeds are shallow-rooted;

Suffer them now, and they’ll o’ergrow the garden, 

And choke the herbs for want of husbandry…” 

(Act 3 scene 1) 

Her slander is followed and echoed by Suffolk’s. Note the metaphor: 

“SUFFOLK […] The fox barks not when he would steal the lamb…” 


In his response, the King combines both the garden metaphor and the animal metaphor: 

“KING My lords, at once: the care you have of us, 

To mow down thorns that would annoy our foot, 

Is worthy praise: but, shall I speak my conscience, 

Our kinsman Gloucester is as innocent

From meaning treason to our royal person 

As is the sucking lamb or harmless dove…” 


Margaret follows up with the same imagery: 

“QUEEN Ah, that’s more dangerous than this fond alliance! 

Seems he a dove? His feathers are but borrowed,

For he’s disposèd as the hateful raven.

Is he a lamb? His skin is surely lent him,

For he’s inclined as is the ravenous wolves.

Who cannot steal a shape, that means deceit?

Take heed, my lord: the welfare of us all

Hangs on the cutting short that fraudful man.” 


Clever, scheming woman. I like the way Shakespeare depicts the various factions setting aside their conflicts for the moment and joining forces to get rid of a common enemy—the most honourable man at court—throwing out all sorts of allegations about him that they themselves know to be untrue. It is fascinating. 

When Margaret and the others plan Gloucester’s death, the conversation is full of animal imagery: crocodile, snake, eagle, chicken, kite, fox. And when the news comes that Gloucester is dead, the King also evokes animals in his speech: raven, wren, serpent, basilisk. The animal metaphors recur throughout the entire play. 

Margaret’s long speech in response to the King is fantastic. Queen Margaret is perhaps Shakespeare’s first great female character. She is scheming, ruthless, manipulative—more like Iago or Edmund than Lady Macbeth, Goneril, or Regan.

I especially like this bit: 

“QUEEN […] What did I then, but cursed the gentle gusts

And he that loosed them forth their brazen caves, 

And bid them blow towards England’s blessèd shore, 

Or turn our stern upon a dreadful rock?

Yet Aeolus would not be a murderer, 

But left that hateful office unto thee. 

The pretty vaulting sea refused to drown me, 

Knowing that thou wouldst have me drowned on shore

With tears as salt as sea, through thy unkindness; 

The splitting rocks cow’red in the sinking sands,

And would not dash me with their ragged sides, 

Because thy flinty heart, more hard than they, 

Might in thy palace perish Margaret…” 

(Act 3 scene 2) 

Shakespeare is a master of rhetoric. 

I also like that Shakespeare gives Margaret and Suffolk a tender parting scene. From the earlier plays, he depicts a wide range of voices and perspectives, and portrays all the characters with depth and complexity. Even a ruthless villain like Margaret has a tender side. 

5/ The language in this play cannot compare to the language in Richard II or the 2 parts of Henry IV, of course, but the imagery is so much better than in Part 1

“LIEUTENANT The gaudy, blabbing and remorseful day 

Is crept into bosom of the sea, 

And now loud-howling wolves arouse the jades 

That drag the tragic melancholy night; 

Who, with their drowsy, slow, and flagging wings 

Clip dead men’s graves, and from their misty jaws 

Breathe foul contagious darkness in the air…” 

(Act 4 scene 1)

That is when the ship carrying Suffolk is attacked. 

6/ Besides Margaret, Jack Cade is another great creation. In The Genius of Shakespeare, Jonathan Bate discusses Jack Cade as something new, original—especially compared to Marlowe. 

It’s true that it’s something new Shakespeare did that Marlowe didn’t do; I haven’t read enough contemporary plays to know if it’s something original to Shakespeare at the time. But I’ve always loved that Shakespeare contains everything, high and low: not just all classes and all kinds of people, but both high, sophisticated language and common language, puns, and smutty jokes. His mind encompasses everything. 

(Tolstoy hates this, calling it vulgarity). 

Jack Cade doesn’t appear in many scenes, but he’s a compelling and memorable character. 

“CADE […] Dost thou use it to write thy name? Or hast thou a mark to thyself, like an honest plain-dealing man?” 

(Act 4 scene 2) 

Would anyone in the audience at the time have identified with Cade? 

The clerk can write. 

“CADE Away with him, I say! Hang him with his pen and ink-horn about his neck.” 


For those of you who haven’t read the play, or have read it but don’t remember, this scene contains the famous line “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” 

Later, the scene of Jack Cade and his gang throwing false accusations at Lord Say is a nice echo of the people at court making false allegations about Gloucester. 

Jonathan Bate draws my attention to something interesting in Cade’s speech to Lord Say: 

“CADE […] Thou hast 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…” 

(Act 4 scene 7) 

Bate writes in The Genius of Shakespeare

“There is some purposeful anachronism at work here: the first printing-press in England was established by William Caxton in 1477, twenty-seven years after Cade’s rebellion, and the first paper-mill was new at the time of the play (it was built in 1588). The Lord Say may have established a grammar school (that at Sevenoaks in Cade’s native Kent), but the great expansion of grammar schools belongs to the mid-sixteenth century. The corruption which Cade alludes to is really the enfranchisement from which Shakespeare benefited in his own youth. His father signed his name with a mark and almost certainly did not go to school. Shakespeare owed his reading, his writing, his ticket out of Stratford, and his new profession as a dramatist to exactly those innovations which Cade condemns: education and print.” (Ch.4) 

Is that not fascinating? 

Tony Tanner also points out that Shakespeare’s Jack Cade is different from Jack Cade in the sources. He explains the differences, and says: 

“At this point in his pattern, having shown all English law and order gone to the grave with Humphrey, Shakespeare hardly wants the sudden appearance of a reasonable, civilized, and literate mob-leader, with a manifest respect for law and letters. […] So Shakespeare turned back to the Wat Tyler rebellion of 1381, and took just what he needed for his plan—the killing of the lawyers, the destruction of the Savoy and the Inns of Court, and the burning of the records of the realm.” (Introduction) 

My only complaint about the Cade plot is that the resolution isn’t very satisfying. 

7/ The entire tragedy of the King is summed up in these lines:

“KING Was ever king that joyed 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 longed to be a king

As I do long and wish to be a subject.” 

(Act 4 scene 9)

He’s a good man, a moral man, but being king isn’t his thing. 

I like the way Shakespeare explores politics and examines different kinds of kings in his history plays. 

“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” 

(Henry IV, Part 2)

This is an excellent play. 

Monday 8 August 2022

On the 1982 BBC King Lear

After the 2016 version starring Don Warrington, this is the second King Lear I’ve seen. Or third, if you count the Russian film directed by Grigori Kozintsev. Or even fourth, if you count Kurosawa’s Ran

A central difference between Michael Hordern in the BBC production and Don Warrington—and I suppose most other Lears—is that Michael Hordern’s Lear is not monumental, not larger-than-life, not striving against cosmic forces. He plays Lear as old, frail, and feeble-minded, and this version seems to be a King Lear on a small scale.   

Some people may find it a disappointment, but I do like this different approach. It works. His entire performance is great, but there are three scenes I find particularly magnificent: the scene in the storm, the meeting between Lear and blind Gloucester, and the final scene with Cordelia. There is no need to talk about the final scene—the line “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,/ And thou no breath at all?” always brings tears to my eyes. But the scene of mad Lear meeting blind Gloucester is particularly good: it is a tragic scene, a cruel scene, but at the same time there’s a kind of terrible comedy in it. 

“LEAR I remember thine eyes well enough. Dost thou squiny at me? No, do thy worst, blind Cupid! I'll not love. Read thou this challenge; mark but the penning of it.” 

(Act 4 scene 6) 

Michael Hordern and Norman Rodway (Gloucester) play the scene just right: it’s terrible and at the same time funny—a dark, terrible kind of funny. 

I also love the way he says the line “Let me wipe it first; it smells of mortality.”

Another performance worthy of praise is Anton Lesser playing Edgar. When reading the text, I think there isn’t much to the role of Edgar, and yet in the hands of a fantastic actor such as Anton Lesser, he’s transformed into something more tragic, more haunting. He’s even more interesting than Edmund, portrayed by Michael Kitchen.

In the 2016 version (directed by Michael Buffong and featuring Don Warrington in the titular role), my main complaint is about Fraser Ayres as Edmund—partly because he overacts, partly because he lacks the attractiveness of Edmund. In the 1982 version, Michael Kitchen is attractive—one can understand why Goneril and Regan both fall in love with him and plot against each other—but it’s a bland, unmemorable performance.

However, that’s not my main complaint about the 1982 version—it’s the lack of comedy. King Lear is a tragedy, a bleak, devastating play, but there’s comedy in it, and I think the main problem is Frank Middlemass’s performance as the Fool. Jonathan Miller’s decision to have an old Fool, someone who has probably grown up with Lear, is an interesting one and it could work. The scene on the heath feels very different when the Fool is as old and frail as Lear. But to me, Frank Middlemass isn’t funny, so in many scenes, the Fool comes across as angry, bitter, and moralising. I much prefer Miltos Yerolemou in the 2016 version. 

The unfunny Fool almost ruins the first half of the play for me, and yet the second half is overwhelming. If you really think about it, King Lear is in some ways not very logical and realistic—some of Tolstoy’s complaints are perfectly valid—but it has a strange, overwhelming power I can’t quite explain. By the end, I’m devastated. And the 1982 version gets that right.

It is largely thanks to Michael Hordern and Anton Lesser. I also like Penelope Wilton—her girlish smile as she watches her husband gouge out Gloucester’s eyes and urges him “One side will mock another; the other too” is unnerving. And Brenda Blethyn is closer to my idea of Cordelia than Pepter Lunkuse in the 2016 version.

Despite some imperfections, the 1982 King Lear is excellent. 

Sunday 7 August 2022

Henry VI, Part 1

This is one of the candidates for the title of Shakespeare’s Worst Play. What do I think? Let’s see. I don’t have a lot to say, but I’m going to poke at it from different directions. 

1/ Generally speaking, when you’re spoilt by Shakespeare, the language here is not very good. But once in a while, I come across something interesting. 

“BEDFORD […] Our isle be made a nourish of salt tears, 

And none but women left to wail the dead…” 

(Act 1 scene 1) 

The king, my lord, is dead. 

“PUCELLE […] Glory is like a circle in the water, 

Which never ceaseth to enlarge itself 

Till by broad spreading it disperse to nought…” 

(Act 1 scene 2) 

The Christopher Marlowe chapter in Jonathan Bate’s The Genius of Shakespeare is good to (re)read whilst reading this play: we know Marlowe tends to write 2 kinds of characters—the overreacher and the Machiavellian schemer—and Bate says Shakespeare created “a figure who was both Faustus-like conjuror and cunning schemer: Joan la Pucelle”.

Bate then says, by dramatising the war between Talbot and Joan, Shakespeare doesn’t let a single character dominate the play, as Marlowe generally does. 

“TALBOT My thoughts are whirlèd like a porter’s wheel; 

I know not where I am, nor what I do. 

A witch, by fear, not force, like Hannibal, 

Drives back our troops and conquers as she lists; 

So bees with smoke and doves with noisome stench 

Are from their hives and houses driven away. 

They called us for our fierceness English dogs; 

Now, like to whelps, we crying run away…” 

(Act 1 scene 5) 

On a side note, this is silly:  

“TALBOT […] Pucelle or pussel, Dolphin or dogfish, 

Yours hearts I’ll stamp out with my horse’s heels, 

And make a quagmire of your mingled brains…” 


2/ Look at this passage: 

“TALBOT I laugh to see your ladyship so fond

To think that you have aught but Talbot’s shadow 

Wherein to practice your severity.

COUNTESS Why, art not thou the man?

TALBOT I am indeed.

COUNTESS Then have I substance too.

TALBOT No, no, I am but shadow of myself: 

You are deceived, my substance is not here, 

For what you see is but the smallest part

And least proportion of humanity […] 

COUNTESS This is a riddling merchant for the nonce; 

He will be here; and yet he is not here. 

How can these contrarieties agree?” 

(Act 2 scene 3) 

Perhaps I’m talking rubbish, but I can’t help thinking that even though this exchange is not very well phrased, this kind of doublespeak is very Shakespearean: like “so foul and fair a day I have not seen” in Macbeth, or “brown and not brown”, “true and not true” in Troilus and Cressida

3/ Almost all of a sudden, I came across something that sounded more like Shakespeare: 

“MORTIMER Kind keepers of my weak decaying age, 

Let dying Mortimer here rest himself. 

Even like a man new halèd from the rack, 

So fare my limbs with long imprisonment, 

And these gray locks, the pursuivants of death, 

Nestor-like agèd in an age of care, 

Argue the end of Edmund Mortimer.

These eyes, like lamps, whose wasting oil is spent, 

Wax dim, as drawing to their exigent; 

Weak shoulders, overborne with burthening grief,

And pithless arms, like to a withered vine

That droops his sapless branches to the ground. 

Yet are these feet, whose strengthless stay is numb,

Unable to support this lump of clay, 

Swift-wingèd with desire to get a grave, 

As witting I no other comfort have…” 

(Act 2 scene 5) 

The whole scene between Mortimer and his nephew Richard Plantagenet (later Duke of York) is very good, but I’m pasting here this passage because, even though it’s not on the level of, say, Richard II or Henry IV, it sounds more like Shakespeare than many other passages, especially in the early part of the play: “wasting oil”, “wax dim”, “burthening grief”, “pithless arms”, “withered vine”, “sapless branches”, etc.

In Act 4, the language becomes more interesting and the play is full of energy, as there are two things going on: the English court is deeply divided into two factions (York vs Somerset), and the Duke of Burgundy has joined France. The scenes between Talbot and his son John especially are good. 

4/ The Earl of Suffolk meets Margaret and wants her, even though he is married. He later makes the match for her and King Henry VI, with the intention of keeping her near him and controlling both her and the King. In the scene of their first meeting, one thing caught my attention: 

“SUFFOLK [Aside] She’s beautiful and therefore to be wooed; 

She is a woman, therefore to be won.” 

(Act 5 scene 3) 

This is similar to a few lines in Titus Andronicus, another of Shakespeare’s weakest plays:  

“DEMETRIUS Why makes thou it so strange? 

She is a woman, therefore may be wooed; 

She is a woman, therefore may be won; 

She is Lavinia, therefore must be loved…” 

(Act 2 scene 1) 

5/ It is helpful to read Tony Tanner’s essay, as he explains both the historical context and the context of theatre development (with the influence of morality plays). He also, as usual, tells us what Shakespeare does with his sources. 

“In no other history play does Shakespeare so freely disrupt and alter the time sequence of his Chronicle material. He brings events together that were years apart, he inverts the order of their happening; he makes sudden what was slow; he makes simultaneous what was separate. He expands and contracts; he omits—and invents. […] Shakespeare is tightening his pattern—pointing up the conflict between the once heroic English and the devious, effeminate French; the undermining of chivalric ideals, the decay of feudal loyalties, and loss of old values; the fading of the old, noble heroic ethos, and the rise of a generation driven by ruthlessness, expediency, and cunning; and (this is not so commonly noted) the capitulation—on certain fronts—of the masculine to the feminine.” (Introduction)  

Tony Tanner also mentions the pattern of 3 throughout the play, which I didn’t notice. You have to read the essay for yourself. Even for a weak, imbalanced play such as Henry VI, Part 1, Tanner has a lot of interesting things to say. 

6/ One final comment: Tony Tanner mentions the 3 French women in the play—Joan la Pucelle, the Countess of Auvergne, and Margaret of Naples.

The Countess only appears in one scene and I shouldn’t comment on Margaret, whom I expect to become more interesting in the rest of the tetralogy, but I don’t think Joan is good. I’m not comparing her to Lady Macbeth or Cleopatra or Rosalind; in an early play such as The Comedy of Errors, Adriana and Luciana are rather complex and full of life; even in Titus Andronicus, the villainess Tamora is humanised by her love, pain, and anger for her son at the beginning of the play, and she seems to love Aaron. Joan la Pucelle lacks something in comparison. 

I suppose Shakespeare does add something interesting, when Joan sees her father before her execution and denies knowing him—we can see her shame and, in a way, her vulnerability. But I still don’t think Joan is particularly good as a character.