30 May 2016

Poem of the Week 2016/22

Civil War Hits Home

Alarum. Enter a Son that hath killed his Father, at one door; and [later] a Father that hath killed his Son at another door.

Ill blows the wind that profits nobody.
This man, whom hand to hand I slew in fight,
May be possessèd with some store of crowns;
And I, that haply take them from him now,
May yet, ere night, yield both my life and them
To some man else, as this dead man doth me.
Who's this? O God! it is my father's face,
Whom in this conflict I, unwares, have killed.
O heavy times, begetting such events!
From London by the King was I pressed forth;
My father, being the Earl of Warwick's man,
Came on the part of York, pressed by his master;
And I, who at his hands received my life,
Have by my hands of life bereavèd him.
Pardon me, God! I knew not what I did.
And pardon, father, for I knew not thee!
My tears shall wipe away these bloody marks;
And no more words till they have flowed their fill.

O piteous spectacle! O bloody times!
Whiles lions war and battle for their dens,
Poor harmless lambs abide their enmity.
Weep, wretched man! I'll aid thee tear for tear;
And let our hearts and eyes, like civil war,
Be blind with tears, and break o'ercharged with grief.

Enter Father, bearing of his Son.

Thou that so stoutly hath resisted me,
Give me thy gold, if thou hast any gold;
For I have bought it with an hundred blows.
But let me see: is this our foeman's face?
Ah, no, no, no! It is mine only son!
Ah, boy, if any life be left in thee,
Throw up thine eye! See, see what show'rs arise,
Blown with the windy tempest of my heart
Upon thy wounds, that kills mine eye and heart!
O, pity, God, this miserable age!
What stratagems, how fell, how butcherly,
Erroneous, mutinous and unnatural,
This deadly quarrel daily doth beget!
O boy, thy father gave thee life too soon,
And hath bereft thee of thy life too late!

William Shakespeare, King Henry VI, Part 3, Act 2, scene 5, ll 55 - 93

No doubt everyone who spends a lot of time wandering through Shakespeare ends up with some perverse personal preferences, and one of mine is that among the history plays at some strange level I prefer the earlier tetralogy (Henry VI Parts 1 - 3 and Richard III) to the later (Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 - 2, and Henry V). I call them "earlier" in that they are earlier in Shakespeare's career; in actual history Henry VI obviously comes after Henry V. But my concern here is with Shakespeare's writing, not English history. I do recognize that the later tetralogy is superior artistically, theatrically, psychologically . . . but if it weren't, my preference wouldn't qualify as perverse. I do love the extravaganzas of Richard II. My response to Henry IV is handicapped a bit because I am not really a tavern person, though intellectually I can see the brilliance of Falstaff – but intellectually may not be the best way to appreciate Falstaff, despite his cleverness and the many levels on which his language operates. I dislike Prince Hal and dislike him even more as that hollow man Henry V, whose play is frequently described as "a patriotic pageant" and I wish I saw it that way because that would explain why I find it tedious. (I think the play is much more subversive than that frequent reading would suggest; maybe I'll get around to posting about that.)  After the newly ascended king's calculated rejection of Falstaff – one of the cruelest moments in Shakespeare – who wants to admire him while he invades France? I much prefer, for my viewing or (more likely, as these plays are rarely staged) reading pleasure, the gradually increasing social breakdown and savagery of the Henry VI plays, capped off by the anarchic comedy of the tragic Richard III – so irresistible compared to the dull and dutiful Henry V.

Like Hamlet, Henry VI is a man born into a role for which his personality is not suited. Far from being strong and ruthless, or subtle and shrewd, he is saintly and even a bit simple, better suited (as he tells us) to a life as a humble shepherd than as a king, particularly one presiding over a dissolving kingdom. There's a touch of (perhaps justified) self-pity in him as well; he frequently mentions the early age at which he was left both an orphan and a child king. By this point in the drama, he is merely a pawn in the struggle between his ferocious wife and son and their allies and the aspiring Duke of York and his allies. He is wandering the latest battlefield, ordered by his wife to get out of the way (To whom God will, there be the victory! / For Margaret my queen, and Clifford too, / Have chid me from the battle, swearing both / They prosper best of all when I am thence. / Would I were dead, if God's good will were so! . . . Act 2, scene 5, ll 15 - 19.) Over the course of three plays, we have watched as jealousy, intrigues, and rivalry, with the occasional dip into witchcraft, have split Henry's court and then his kingdom, now poised to fall to whoever is both more ruthless and luckier.

In the midst of this total breakdown of the social order, we have this moving battlefield scene. The focus throughout the Henry VI plays is mostly on the powerful aristocrats – there is Jack Cade's rebellion in Part 2, but it is made clear that he is a stalking-horse for the Duke of York's claims to the throne. In this scene, we have ordinary soldiers, each of whom makes a terrible discovery about the man he has just killed. The scene is balanced, almost ritualistic, with the mirror-image killings – by the son of his father, and the father his son – lamented by the two men and the King, each separated from the others. Only Henry is positioned to see the full extent of the damage his reign has brought upon his kingdom. There are repeated references to eyes and hearts, and tears, which overwhelm the soldiers. The two men are nameless, standing in for many others pulled into horrific personal crimes by the battles of King and Duke. The matching images of filicide and parricide are an image of civil war destroying the kingdom.

Both soldiers begin their speeches by preparing to loot the bodies of the men they have just slain. This would explain why they are withdrawn from the on-going fighting; it also gives some insight into how the soldiers are provided for, and of the sometimes hidden costs of war. The crowns referred to in the third line of the excerpt are a type of coin, worth about five shillings – not a huge amount of money; you wouldn't expect a man to go into battle carrying lots of money, but even a little bit is some gain to these men, and the soldier philosophically reflects that some other man might be rifling his corpse for coin before the night falls. (There's also no doubt a pun on the royal crown which has been passed back and forth between the contending houses of Lancaster and York.) Both turn from thoughts of gain to grief and despair once they remove their opponents' helmets; both lift their speeches from the earthly realm by calling on God – not for revenge, or justice, but for pity and forgiveness, which they feel, stricken to their hearts, that they can never receive in this lower world. Both (in the part of this scene that continues beyond the brief excerpt I've given) think of the women at home: it does not occur to either of these basically honest soldiers to hide what he has done. The son wonders how he will tell his mother the sad story of his father's death, and the father knows his wife will never stop grieving for their dead son. They slip away from their armies, to lead sorrowful, grief- and guilt-haunted lives, hidden from our view. And the scene ends as the King is hurried away by Queen Margaret and his son, with their allies – the royal family is still together, at least outwardly, though not for much longer.

This is from the Signet Classic edition of King Henry VI, Part 3, edited by Milton Crane.

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