Return from the fifteenth century

Posted by Tory Historian Tuesday, May 27, 2008 ,

It has taken a little time to recover from the trip back in time but Tory Historian has now returned to the twenty-first century, ready to discuss both the production and the history as presented in the plays, which is very different from the history as it happened though, curiously, the overall pattern is not inaccurate.

(Tory Historian has finally worked out that Prince John, Henry V’s younger brother and later the Duke of Bedford, was not murdered spectacularly and bloodily by Joan La Pucelle but was actually the man who had her tried and executed. Furthermore, he died in his bed, which is quite an extraordinary idea, and was the founder of the University of Caen and a man who commissioned some of the finest illuminated manuscripts of the period. This is not a side of the man that is made at all clear in the Histories. One wonders whether the stylized appearance of Olivier’s Henry V, based largely on the “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry”, did not also take some ideas from the “Bedford Book of Hours”.)

Anyway, back to the Histories as written by Old Will and performed by the renewed Royal Shakespeare Company. First things first: the series was superlative. The whole ensemble performed extraordinarily well, doubling, tripling and quadrupling parts, as it is usually the case with the long sequence that has several hundred characters. Some of the actors are heading into the great Shakespearian league in Tory Historian’s opinion. Jonathan Slinger (Richard II and Richard III, as well as other parts), Geoffrey Streatfeild (Hal, Henry V, Suffolk and smaller parts), Chuk Iwuji (Henry VI, Montjoy and others), Patrice Naiambana (a superlative Warwick and other characters) are stars to be watched. They are not the only ones.

The use of vertical and horizontal space, the speed of action and movement on and off the stage, the fantastic acrobatics on ladders and ropes and the imaginative use of very limited scenery – mostly a couple of large gates, one above the other, and the occasional bed for carousing or dying – made those long, complicated plays engrossing.

Let us hope the RSC has thought of filming the sequence and the DVDs will be available though they will be no substitute for the excitement of being there.

The plays, while they follow events as they happened after a fashion, do play fast and loose with dates, ages of characters and, above all, time lags. It is hard to work out from Henry VI that the Wars of the Roses took up something like thirty years, depending on what you consider to be the end.

But, of course, they are not really history, despite the fact that so many people think them to be just that. The general pattern of what happened is there but, more importantly several themes are worked out, more obviously in the first tetralogy or Richard II to Henry V, which was written some years after the Henry VI and Richard III sequence.

The questions are about the inevitable tension between legitimacy, loyalty and fitness to govern. In what circumstances can one rebel against an anointed monarch? When he is unfit to wear the crown? When he is a usurper?

There is also the overriding concept of England and Englishness, whether in John of Gaunt’s famous speech, Mowbray’s despair at having to leave his country and forget his language, Bolingbroke’s return from exile, Henry V’s battle cry or poor Henry VI’s unaffected pleasure at being back in his own land, despite the danger that surrounds him.

England is special, being an English king is a terrible responsibility and the tensions are never fully sorted out, not even in the character of the hero, Henry V. The notion is that they will be reconciled in Henry VII but that is Tudor propaganda. There was no legitimacy in Henry’s claim and his army of French invaders supported by rebels against the anointed king triumphed through force and treachery against a ruler who then had to be shown to be unfit to rule retrospectively.

Shakespeare takes no real sides though he seems to have been antagonistic to high churchmen, most of whom are villainous intriguers. How much of the trouble in Henry VI might have been avoided if the Bishop of Winchester (a scheming Beaufort), later a cardinal, had not been so intent on establishing his power over the young king and thwarting his uncles?

One of the best scenes in this production is the death of Cardinal Beaufort in Henry VI Part II, where his prayers for God’s mercy are silenced by the ghost of the murdered Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, the King’s uncle. With those two powerful personalities out of the way the fun between the Yorkists and Lancastrians begins.

Which side is Old Will on? An interesting question, given the circumstances in which the plays were written and given the final one with the fantastically evil, hunchbacked Richard at the heart of it. The problem is that Richard the Monster is an inexplicable and unusual character, who suddenly morphs from Richard the loyal son of the Duke of York, member of a warm and affectionate family, brave and talented soldier. Towards the end of Henry VI Part III and in Richard III the clever, complex plays become crude propaganda.

Even then Shakespeare’s genius shines through. Richard is a favourite part for actors, most of whom seem to be able to find much that is human and, if not admirable, then attractive. After all, even according to the text, the hunchbacked, crippled monster excites loyalty in men and love in women. Famously, Richard wonders about that himself while spurring himself on to greater nastiness.

It’s not as if the series was particularly pro-Lancastrian. Quite clearly, they are usurpers who have cheerfully executed everyone who stood in their way and who supported the rightful king or his heir, imprisoning said heir, Mortimer, for life; when the Duke of York explains his claim to the throne, Warwick and Salisbury easily accept them and Henry VI finds them hard to refute.

Nor are the Yorkists particularly unpleasant in their behaviour except the boys to Lord Clifford who had tormented their father and, worst of all, murdered their much loved younger brother, a child who would have been spared by anyone except a man demented by his father’s death in battle years before that.

The Rutland episode in Henry VI Part III is very peculiar. Easily the most brutal and revolting in the whole sequence, it trumps the infamous murder of the young princes in the Tower. Presumably, it is not so well known because the three parts of Henry VI are performed rarely whereas Richard III is fairly frequently.

Lord Clifford maddened by the death of his father in battle finds the Duke of York’s youngest son, a child who is hiding with his tutor after what is presumably the Battle of Wakefield, and cuts his throat. Subsequently, the Duke is captured (in fact, he was killed in battle) and tormented by Clifford and other Lancastrians before being murdered. Part of the torment is Queen Margaret producing a napkin, which she had dipped in Rutland’s blood, and rubbing it into York’s face.

Before his death the Duke, naturally enough, curses the She-Wolf of France and expresses the hope that she would experience a torment that equals his on learning of Rutland’s death. Unusually, she does not remember this curse when her own son is killed after the Battle of Tewkesbury.

When the three brothers learn of this monstrous behaviour they, particularly Richard, go into a frenzy of rage. The deliberate murder of a child is horrific.

The general effect is to turn the audience into Yorkists, even if they were not that before. In fact, one wonders whether there is not an academic dissertation to be written that would prove Shakespeare, the Warwickshire man, to have been a secret supporter of the Yorkist cause. (Just joking.)

The point is that the episode never happened. It did not simply happen otherwise; nor is there a question mark over it as there is one over the unexplained disappearance of the two princes. There simply was no such event and could not have been.

Edmund, Earl of Rutland was not the youngest son of the Duke of York – that was Richard. He did take part in the Battle of Wakefield and seems to have been killed afterwards by Lord Clifford but he was seventeen, old enough to be a soldier. His head went up on the gates of York together with those of his father and his uncle, the Earl of Salisbury. It was George and Richard who were little boys and had to be sent away to safety after the battle, which temporarily put paid to Yorkist hopes and ambitions.

Why did Shakespeare invent something so utterly nasty against the Lancastrians? There seems no explanation.

While we are on the subject of unexplained matters, one cannot help wondering about the fascination usurpers and usurpation exerted over Shakespeare. Of course, there is plenty of dramatic tension in the subject but there was also plenty of danger in writing about it in Tudor times. What, one wonders, did Queen Elizabeth and her various courtiers make of these discussions about legitimacy?

What did they make of a later play, also about usurpation and legitimacy, the very popular Hamlet? And what did King Jamie make of yet another play on that theme, Macbeth, with its uncanny description of what we would now call a totalitarian state?

Or were rulers then, as they are now, so thick-skinned that nothing short of a rebels’ standard, a sword or an axe brought their attention to these matters? One can believe that about James but Elizabeth? Surely not.


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