Friday, August 28, 2009

1-3. Henry VI, parts 1-3 (The War of the Roses Trilogy)


You can say what you will about Henry VI – “It doesn’t stand up to Shakespeare’s better works, it’s clumsy and repetitive, it’s so bad that maybe Shakespeare didn’t write it himself,” etc. (Bloom calls all three plays simply “tedious”.) But for a play, it still manages to give you a certain image of war, which must have been writing-wise, the main challenge.

The problem with a play about war, as opposed to a war movie, is that you can’t show the battles, not really. It’s too much and even if you put a lot of guys on stage fighting back and forth, it’s just a lot of confusion. It only get dramatic when you can identify the individual characters, and so you are more or less reduced to showing a series of duels.

But Shakespeare manages to get around this by narration. He brings is characters onstage, out of breath and just out of reach of the thick of the battle, and they describe to each other what they just went through. It’s war second-hand. But it still works. There are sections where you do get an idea of how the battle was.

There are even one or two sections that really bring it home – the language is clear and dramatic, the imagery is extreme and tactile. Here’s an example:

The army of the queen hath got the field:
My uncles both are slain in rescuing me;
And all my followers to the eager foe
Turn back and fly, like ships before the wind,
Or lambs pursu’d by hunger-starved wolves.
My sons, God knows what hath bechanced them:
But this I know, they have demeaned themselves
Like men born to renown by life or death.
Three times did Richard make a lane to me,
And thrice cried, “Courage, father! Fight it out!”
And full as oft came Edward to my side
With purple falchion, painted to the hilt
In blood of those that had encountered him:
And when the hardiest warriors did retire,
Richard cried, “Charge! And give no foot of ground!”
Edward, “A crown, or else a glorious tomb!
A scepter, or an earthly sepulcre!”
With this we charged again: but out alas!
We budged again; as I have seen a swan
With bootless labour swim against the tide
And spend her strength with over-matching waves…

He’s basically narrating to us what can’t be staged. It’s not great, but it works. It is a bad play(s), but the fact that he tackled this difficult challenge of staging an epic on a tiny space is impressive.


Let’s talk about overplotting.

Shakespeare is not known as a plotter, he’s known for character. But the Henry VI is almost only plot. In fact there’s too much plot.

The plot is continually going back and forth: The Lancasters are on top, then the Yorks are on top, then the Lancasters are on top. It never ends. That’s why it’s so tedious. At some point, we don’t really care.

The question is: Did Shakespeare write it that way because he thought we’d gasp every time fate changes course (of course, we do a little, it’s true, but there are so many characters, and for us today at least there are no clear sympathies with either the Yorks or the Lancasters, so we don’t quite suffer with any of their ups and downs)? Or did he say: “It has to be this way, this is how the War of the Roses went historically, I have to stick to the facts, I have no choice.”

That’s possible. It’s hard to imagine Shakespeare not having the guts to change history if he wanted to, but this is early Shakespeare. (I’m not a guy who respects history enough to say its portrayal in art has to be accurate - I know enough about history to know that you never get it right anyway, and I know enough about writing to know that the writer’s first responsibility is to the story, not the facts.)

On the other hand: I’m not sure the plays would have worked better if they had been less complicated.


And the main reason for that is: The characters are not all that fascinating. Henry VI, the Lancastrian, is mealy-mouthed and weak-kneed; York is tentative – he wants to usurp the throne but he has his moral limits. He won’t murder, he won’t break a vow, he takes a long time warming up before he goes for the throat. Queen Margaret is probably the strongest character here, and she waffles too – she’s big on words but in the end she remains ineffective.

Don’t get me wrong: Shakespeare paints a humanly-accurate portrait of a bunch of weak-kneed wanna-bes thrashing half-heartedly at each other until finally something happens, but wanna-bes are generally not that interesting. Not even Shakespeare can make us love them. No one can. You just can’t make an indecisive character interesting. Everyone says that literature portrays mankind as it really is and gives us truth, but the truth is, some parts of mankind don’t translate into literature and thus are never really well-portrayed, and the wanna-be is one of them. There may be truth about mankind in Henry VI, but it’s truth no one will ever know because no one wants to see the plays.

But wait – that might not be true. Shakespeare will return to the character-as-waffler later in his greatest play, Hamlet. There’s the rub, if you ask me: Why did he fail to make the Lancasters and Yorks, who after all changed the history of England, interesting, while succeeding with a little worm like Hamlet?

Images: Henry VI of Lancaster (above) and Edward of York (below). They both look like waffelers - in fact, they look exactly alike.


Image: Joan of Arc

Then there are the minor characters. If the Henry VI trilogy is interesting at all, it’s because of the minor characters, mainly Joan of Arc and the scary rebel John Cade. Shakespeare is clearly fascinated by these characters and he makes them fascinating, giving them more space than is really necessary. And that’s good, because they are the best part. It’s John Cade who gets off the best line in the plays: “Kill all the lawyers”.

To get off a great line like that, you need a great character to do it. A character like Henry VI can’t utter a line like that. He’s a king – he can’t be crazy at the same time.

That’s always the problem, in any story. The audience wants to identify with the hero, the good guy, the guy who finds happiness. But the interesting characters are the bad guys, or the losers, or the servants and fools who have nothing to lose and thus can afford to be cynical and funny. That’s why Shakespeare always has these great minor characters and great villains: They’re more interesting. Like the old adage about morality and fiction: Evil is always more interesting that goodness. Like Tolstoy said: “All happy families are the same, all unhappy families are different.”

It is these three characters that Shakespeare invest great lines, he goes crazy with them, pulls out all the stops, even though they are minor characters and really, the plays could do well without them. A character could come onstage and say: John Cade is rebelling… Now he’s defeated... Now he’s been captured and is dead.” We wouldn’t notice the missing scenes.

This is one of the most difficult problems with writing. It’s really hard to make a main character or hero as interesting as these guys – the all-out-evil villains or the little guys who have nothing to lose and can make fun of everything. Detective novels try to do it by giving their heroes some kind of weakness – they are alcoholic, they are sad, their wife was killed and they did nothing to stop it, etc. The amazing TV shows The Shield and Dexter did it by turning the villains in the main characters, as Shakespeare did with Richard III. Comic books try to do it by investing their superheroes with weird and interesting superpowers that would be interesting even if there were no supervillains around – it’s just as nice to watch Hulk punching a building as it is to watch him punching a bad guy. But in general it’s hard to make a main character interesting.

Which brings us to Richard III. This – the Henry VI trilogy - is where Shakespeare discovered and introduced Richard III, here as a minor character but already chewing up the scenery. He is as interesting as John Cade and Joan of Arc, but for different reasons: He is clearly evil.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Order of Reading and Bloom

I am reading Harold Bloom's "Shakespeare - the Invention of the Human" alongside the plays, as I like his theory that humanity began with Shakespeare.

I am also following Bloom's estimated chronology of the 38 plays, which is of course uncertain.

In his book, Bloom does not tackle the plays chronologically, but I will, as would like to see if I can notice some kind of progress or change in Shakespeare's writing over time. (That means I am reading Bloom out of order!)

Thus my order of reading is going to be:

1. Henry VI, Part 1 (1589?)
2. Henry VI, Part 2
3. Henry VI, Part 3
4. Richard III
5. The Two Gentlemen of Verona
-- A Lover's Complaint (narrative poem)
-- Venus and Adonis (narrative poem)
-- The Passionate Pilgrim (narrative poem)
6. The Comedy of Errors
-- (Sonnets 1589 - 1609)
-- The Rape of Lucrece (narrative poem)
7. Titus Andronicus
8. The Taming of the Shrew
9. Love's Labour's Lost
10. King John
11. King Richard II
12. Romeo and Juliet
13. A Midsummer Night's Dream
14. The Merchant of Venice
15. King Henry IV, Part 1
16. The Merry Wives of Windsor
17. King Henry IV, Part 2
18. Much Ado About Nothing
19. King Henry V
20. Julius Caesar
21. As You Like It
22. Hamlet
-- The Phoenix and the Turtle (narrative poem)
23. Twelfth Night
24. Troilus and Cressida
25. All's Well That Ends Well
26. Measure for Measure
27. Othello
28. King Lear
29. Macbeth
30. Anthony and Cleopatra
31. Coriolanus
32. Timon of Athens
33. Pericles
34. Cymbeline
35. The Winter's Tale
36. The Tempest
37. Henry VIII
38. The Two Noble Kinsmen (1613?)

My text: "The Arden Shakespeare - The Complete Works" (1310 pages). All images from