Shakespearing #4 by David Foley
Henry VI, Part 3
I imagine Henry VI, Part 3 must have been a rip-roaring experience for its original audience. The last part of the trilogy (or the third part of a tetralogy if you count Richard III) finds the War of the Roses in full swing. Battles, betrayals, blood. Whipsaw shifts in power and advantage. It’s hard not to feel, though, that Shakespeare himself is panting to keep up. The opening scene is clumsily utilitarian, and for much of the rest of the play he seems to be doggedly trying to get all the reversals down. By the time we get to Act IV, scene viii, Henry barely has time to list the reasons the people will support him before Edward and his men rush on stage (where have they come from? how have they gotten to him?) to re-depose him. Perhaps this need to keep up with the action accounts for a curious rhetorical feature: the play is full of anaphora and other repetitive structures. You can find them just by randomly flipping through the play:
Had he been ta’en, we should have heard the news;
Had he been slain, we should have heard the news[.]
You might say this is form reinforcing content: the static rhetorical device imitating the bloody political impasse of the nation. Or it could be that Shakespeare, saddled with a wearily repetitive dramatic structure, keeps falling back on the same weary rhetorical trick. On the other hand, and this may be a young writer’s thing, blood reliably charges up his language and his drama. There’s Margaret offering York a handkerchief stained with his son’s blood to dry his tears. There’s this from Richard:
So underneath the belly of their steeds,
That stain’d their fetlocks in his smoking blood,
The noble gentleman gave up the ghost.
Or this from Edward:
This hand, fast wound about thy coal-black hair,
Shall, whiles thy head is warm and new cut off,
Write in the dust this sentence with thy blood:
“Wind-changing Warwick now can change no more.”
The fact that blood and power can be divided here among three characters points to a difficulty Shakespeare is facing in these plays: there’s no central figure around which to build a drama. You can feel him champing at the bit to write the next play, to have a personality to drive a drama. Richard is introduced before his time. He would have been a child for much of the action of the play, but here he is adult and active, already scheming to seize the crown. And already Shakespeare’s richest language is at his disposal. His famous line “I can add colors to the chameleon” is from this play, not Richard III. Another thing that will reliably charge up Shakespeare’s language is a mind that can fuse thought and image and desire. Here’s Richard in full scheming soliloquy, halfway through the play:
Why then I do but dream on sovereignty,
Like one that stands upon a promontory
And spies a far-off shore where he would tread,
Wishing his foot were equal with his eye,
And chides the sea that sunders him from thence[.]
Maybe this is why the anaphoras are so striking. Shakespeare’s great tone is not the static mind, but the moving one, and his best minds move in multiple directions at once.
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.