Shakespearing #3 by David Foley
Henry VI, Part 2
Samuel Johnson said that Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 were two plays “only because they are too long to be one.” The same could be said for the Henry VI trilogy, at least from the evidence of the first two plays. There’s something almost funny about the way the sequel is seeded into the end of each part, as in a Spiderman movie. Part 1 ends with Suffolk all but rubbing his hands together (perhaps he did so in performance) as he gloats, “Margaret shall now be Queen, and rule the King;/But I will rule both her, the King, and realm.” At the end of Part 2, York and his armies go chasing after the retreating King.
Putting aside all argument about how and when and by whom the separate parts were composed, it’s at least possible to imagine that Shakespeare envisioned a trilogy from the start, or that he got to the end of Part 1 and realized, in his over-copious way, that he was still far from the end of his story. In any case, writing Part 1 seems to have taught him a lot. Part 2 marks a leap ahead. The scene work is more fluid, the characterizations sharper and more mobile, the plotting more infused with tension and suspense. There are memorable scenes: Gloucester meeting his wife as she is led barefoot in disgrace through the streets; the death of Cardinal Beauford; Suffolk’s doomed negotiations with his executioners; and almost any scene with Richard, Duke of York, including his soliloquies, which seem to prefigure his son’s in Richard III. And there’s comedy! The minor comic characters, the armorer Horner and his apprentice Peter, remind you that Shakespeare, either through careful planning or natural bent of mind, always set up echoes and parallels in his plots. Here is Peter falling into comic misunderstanding with the Queen:
Queen: What say’st thou? Did the Duke of York say he was rightful heir to the crown?
Peter: That my master was? No, forsooth; my master said that he was, and that the King was a usurper.
Peter’s semantic confusion reflects a larger confusion about who has the right or the power or the audacity to rule the realm. It’s a little startling when, a few scenes later, Peter kills Horner in single combat and the dying Horner confesses his disloyalty. We don’t expect death in the comic bits. But this turns out to be only a foreshadowing of the plays larger comic character, Jack Cade, a layabout who has convinced (or not quite convinced) his followers, that he is the rightful heir to the throne. Cade is as comic a buffoon as any in Shakespeare, but it’s pretty black comedy. His men kill a clerk for the crime of literacy, and when they’ve lopped off the heads of Lord Say and his son-in-law, they put them on pikes and make them kiss each other. This is not comic relief; it’s comic intensification, and what’s being intensified is dread. This dread, dread not just of civic disorder but of the chaotic human mind itself, is one of those feelings you can trace through Shakespeare. Its most consistent answering call is a defiant joy in language, the moment at which a character rises above the chaos and makes sudden vibrant meaning out of terror. Here is Young Clifford finding his father killed: “O let the vile world end,/And the premised flames of the last day/Knit earth and heaven together!” There’s no way to describe the thrill of a line like that, except to say it’s Shakespeare.
David Foley is a playwright and fiction writer living in Brooklyn. His plays include Cressida Among the Greeks, Paradise, Nance O’Neil, The Murders at Argos, A Hole in the Fence, and Sad Hotel, among others. His novel The Traveler’s Companion is available on Amazon. He teaches at New York University.