Well, Make Up Your Minds Already!
Henry VI Part Three
also confusedly called
The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York and the Good King Henry the Sixth
The reader or viewer of this, the second of Shakespeare's history plays, can be forgiven for regularly muttering, “Well, who's side are you on now?” With all the rapid and frequent turncoating it's all a bit confusing, not to mention breathtaking, in the sense of running out of breath in one's attempt to keep up.
That's probably the whole point of this 16th century action movie – sorry, play. What we have here is a bunch of spoiled whiny lords scrambling for power, scratching and scrapping and of course stabbing their way to the throne and the golden circle. Even those who don't actually change sides on a regular basis change their minds about strategy or even goals every other scene or so. Sometimes from one line to the next!
Why does Shakespeare toss all of this confusing stuff at his audience? Other than the fact that the whole thing is Based on a True Story, I think he had another reason. He wanted to give us real people, people we'd recognize, identify with. Because, honestly, who amongst us can claim that we never change our minds, even in the middle of a sentence? Exactly. None of us.
Let's take a look, then, at these waverers and follow the winding, switchbacking paths of these quarrelsome cousins:
- Richard, Senior – to be or not to be king
- Warwick – to be or not to be loyal. Loyal? What's that? Who to, anyway?
- Henry himself – to be or not to be king
- Edward – to be or not to be king
- George of Clarence – to be or not to be a York
There are others but this will suffice. Let's start with the would-be king Richard Senior, otherwise known as York. Historically speaking he's doing what the tides of change dictate. The feudal system, in which noble lords more or less support more or less strong kings in more or less holy (read territorial-fighting-for-power-over-trade) wars, has been breaking down for awhile but inheritance is certainly still the key. That's of course what the whole thing is all about. Who can make the most conniving claim to the throne, York or Henry, based on who begat whom and in what order way back when. A pretty silly excuse for a bloody civil war, one might say, but people have always found flimsy but occasionally noble-sounding excuses for killing each other over power.
Already in the previous play Richard of York is conniving to present his case. To explore this we have to back up a little and look again at H6:2 where he asks Warwick and Salisbury to
In craving your opinion of my title,
Which is infallible, to England's crown (H6:2, 2.2).
What follows is, of course, a reasonable argument, which according to the rules of the day, support York's claim. Still, he and his buddies don't rush off to kill or otherwise dispose of Henry. They bide their time, even giving Queen Margaret their support in her conflict with Duke Humphrey of Gloucester, while keeping in mind that “'tis York that hath more reason for his death” (H6:2, Act 3.1). In other words he hasn't changed his mind about wanting to be king, he's just waiting for the right time. Momentarily disconcerted when Henry sends him off to Ireland, York in his soliloquy tells himself to “Be that thou hop'st to be” (H6:2, Act 3.1) and realizes that to his advantage Henry has “put sharp weapons in a madman's hands.” Madman? His claim is mad? He's crazy for thinking he will be king? Whatever – he's not changing his mind. He's plotting. He tells us that he's using Cade's rebellion to further his own cause. Sure enough, as soon as York returns from Ireland he claims the crown:
From Ireland thus comes York to claim his right,
And pluck the crown from feeble Henry's head. (H6:2, Act 5.1)
But he speaks these words only to himself and he still pretends to be loyal to Henry in spite of the temper he's whipped up in his next aside:
Scarce can I speak, my choler is so great.
O, I could hew up rocks and fight with flint,
I am so angry at these abject terms;
I am far better born than is the King,
More like a king , more kingly in my thoughts;
But I must make fair weather yet awhile,
Till Henry be more weak and I more strong. (H6:2, Act 5.1)
Why is he so furious right at this moment requires more analysis than this essay allows (we haven't even come to the play, i.e. H6:3, yet!) but angry he is, and conniving too. He clearly hasn't changed his mind.
Henry believes for a couple of minutes that York is still simply a Duke. Indeed moments later, Somerset's appearance tips the tippy York over and York goes public with his ambitions to kingship. “That gold must round engird these brows of mine”, he declares a few lines later. The battle is on.
So on to H6:3. The play opens with York proclaiming, “By words or blows here let us win our right...I mean to take possession of my right” (H6:3, Act 1.1), whereby he sits on the throne. No ambiguity there, no indecision about whether or not he sees himself as the rightful king. But when Henry comes up with his offer just a few minutes later, York says, “OK.” In five lines the whole conflict is resolved in amiable cousinly accord:
King Henry: Let me for this my lifetime reign as king.
York: Confirm the crown to me and mine heirs,
And thou shalt reign in quiet while thou liv'st.
King Henry: I am content. Richard Plantagent,
Enjoy the kingdom after my decease. (H6:3, Act 1.1)
Well, that's reasonable. Now everybody can go home and enjoy life. York's fury, his determination to get the crown by hook or by crook – all gone. Replaced by his oath to be loyal to Henry, his king: “This oath I willingly take and will perform...Now York and Lancaster are reconciled.”
One could be forgiven for almost starting to like York and think he's quite a peaceful man after all but – aha – a few minutes later we see that it takes practically no convincing at all by Richard Junior to go back on “I took an oath.” Young Richard says the oath wasn't legal and Richard Senior says, “I will be king or die.” Of course, oaths and the breaking of them is something that occupies many of Shakespeare's characters in their various power struggles, but this is certainly one of the quickest changes done by a Shakespearean quick-change artist.
And the battle is on. Again. And it doesn't take long for York's prophetic line to come true. Two scenes later York is confronted by Margaret and that's the end of York.
So did York ever actually change his mind? No, he was simply treacherous. Or, if you think he had more right to the throne than Henry (which he probably did), then you'd want to use the word strategic.
What then of his buddy Warwick? As in the case of York, the question of Warwick's steadfast loyalty, or lack thereof, must be traced back to Part Two. As we have seen, Warwick was one of the two to whom York presented his pedigree and it didn't take much persuading for Warwick to declare:
...Father Salisbury, kneel we together,
And in this private plot be we first
That shall salute our rightful sovereign
With honouring his birthright to the crown.
Long live our sovereign, Richard, England's king (H6:2, Act 2.2)
Not being the humble type, Warwick shortly thereafter adds:
My heart assures me that the Earl of Warwick
Shall one day make the Duke of York a king (H6:2, Act 2.2)
Warwick isn't directly involved in the plot against Gloucester, nor the Cade rebellion. Instead he seems to be loyal to Henry until the last act when York has been arrested for declaring himself king in Henry's presence. And then he doesn't really say straight out that he's no longer loyal to the king and after awhile he refers obliquely to raising his banner. His biggest conflict seems to be with the hotheaded Clifford, although he does have the last words in the play, celebrating York's victory over Henry.
The first we see of him in H6:3 is in the very first scene in which he speaks the first line wondering how Henry got away. He doesn't waste much time egging York on to sit on the throne, to take the king's place, and he doesn't bother to answer when Henry enters and calls him “false peer”. Still, in the exchange in which Henry tries to prove his lineage is stronger than York's. Warwick at first rather reasonably says, “Prove it, Henry, and thou shalt be king.” In the following squabble he gets quite belligerent and tells Henry's supporters, “Deposed he shall be, in spite of all.” In other words, I wasn't really being reasonable, no matter what you say, you won't convince me. And in case there was any doubt, he threatens violence:
Do right unto this princely Duke of York,
Or I will fill the house with arméd men
And over the chair of state, where now he sits,
Write up his title with usurping blood (H6:3, Act 1,1)
Two minutes later he says, “Long live King Henry.” Slippery guy, our Warwick.
We don't see much of him for awhile but of course after York is once again in battle with Henry we assume Warwick is too, which is confirmed in Act 2.1 when he reports to the boys of already knowing about York's death, “Ten days ago I drowned these news in tears,” and went on to recount his recent woes. In this long speech he uses the patriotic slogans “justice of our cause,” proclaims his determination that “this strong right hand of mine can pluck the diadem from Henry's head,” and declares his loyalty to young Edward:
No longer Earl of March but Duke of York.
The next degree is England's royal throne -
For King of England shalt thou be proclaimed
In every borough as we pass along
And he that throws up not his cap for joy,
Shall for the fault make forfeit of his head. (Act 2.2)
Long live King Henry indeed.
Warwick continues to declare his loyalty to Edward now and then, in and out of battle until the fateful moment in the French court when he gets the news that Edward has made a public fool of him. And that he cannot endure. Without hesitation he changes his mind, switches sides, says oops, he was wrong all along:
Did I forget that by the House of York
My father came untimely to his death?
Did I let pass th'abuse done to my niece *
...Did I put Henry from his native right?
I hereby renounce [Edward] and return to Henry. (Act 3.3)
(* In Norton's note we're told that Edward had attempted to rape Warwick's niece, which evidently didn't bother him until now.)
He even promises Queen Margaret, whom he had called “proud, insulting queen” to be “thy true servitor.”
Warwick is really, really annoyed. Here he'd gone and made Edward king and this is the thanks he gets. One could almost feel sorry for him. But he reveals his true nature to us – noble cause, rightful king, whatever – his change of mind is purely personal:
Not that I pity Henry's misery,
But seek revenge on Edward's mockery. (Act 3.3)
He tells Edward so a couple of times in later scenes and actually manages to remain loyal to Henry for the rest of his life. Which however, was short. Who know how many more times he might have switched sides if he'd lived longer? Anyway, exit Warwick, loyal and true subject to Henry.
It's time to look at Henry himself. Henry has never been a happy king and throughout the play he can't make up his mind about his crown. Give it away? Keep it? Keep it for awhile? Fight for it? Poor Henry.
In the first scene he's upset to find Edward in his throne but he tries to calm his hot-headed friends and prevent violence with reasoning:
Far be the thought of this from Henry's heart,
To make a shambles of the Parliament House
...frowns, words and threats
Shall be the war that Henry means to use.
Thou factious Duke of York, descend my throne
And kneel for grace and mercy at my feet.
I am thy sovereign. (Act 1.1)
He then asks, “And shall I stand and thou sit in my throne?” and goes on, as we have seen, to convince everybody he should be king by inheritance. And as we have seen, he fails. He offers the compromise that he keep the crown while he lives, thereafter York will be king. Fine. Everyone agrees. Sort of.
An admirable statesmanlike move on Henry's part? Hardly. He immediately wiggles out of Margaret's wrath by saying, “The Earl of Warwick and the Duke enforced me.” Margaret, of course, is right in the context to demand, “Art thou King, and wilt be enforced?” No, Henry isn't really king, at least not in his mind, or heart, or wherever hunger for power resides.
Henry fades from the stage and doesn't return until the second scene of Act Two in which he flutters around saying it wasn't his fault York was killed. He hints once again that he wishes he wasn't king:
I'll leave my son with virtuous deeds behind,
And would my father had left me no more
For all the rest is held at such a rate
As brings a thousandfold more care to keep
Than in possession any jot of pleasure. (2.2)
Of all the turncoating characters, Henry is the one who provokes the most impatience – all right already! If you don't want to be king, just abdicate! If you want to be king, get regal! Quit futzing around!
But futz he does and though he lamely points out, “I am a king and privileged to speak,” he meekly doesn't in the heated exchange between Margaret et al on one side, and the Yorks on the other. One can't help but wonder what Henry had intended to say but knowing him it would have been the equivalent to, “Uh er...”
Henry continues to hover around the action but chooses, and is directed to, keep out of things. One has to feel a little sorry for him and sympathize, even admire, his humanity in his long speech on the hill and his despair at witnessing the sons and fathers who've killed their sons and fathers unawares. But he can't weep his way out of the responsibility he has in the war.
And he continues to waver. King or not? In the first scene of Act 3 in which he is captured by the gamekeepers he claims, sort of, that he is the king and they owe their loyalty to him, but then he says. “Oh well,” and goes with them peacefully.
Once again, fade out Henry. And fade in again in Act 4, Scene 7. Released from pleasant imprisonment he expresses joy at being king once again, or at least out of jail, and promptly hands the power of state over to Warwick and George of Clarence. He himself “will lead a private life.”
Hmmm. Why then is his response to Warwick's news, that Edward is approaching, rather aggressive: “Let's levy men and beat him back again”, (Act 4.9). Private life or not, Harry is still at war with the Yorks. And in the next scene he tries to convince Exeter and himself that he's more kingly than Edward and should therefore be more beloved by the people. Whereupon Edward enters, proclaims the crown once again and sends Henry back to the tower.
Exit Henry. And exit permanently he does with Richard's help. In the moments before he's murdered, Henry says not a word about his royal rights, his claims to the crown or the injustice of Edward sitting on the throne. He mourns the death of his son, he analyzes Richard's nastiness, and he dies, his wish to a private life forever now fulfilled.
To go now from Henry, who was king whether he liked it or not, or acted like one or not, to a minor, rather sleazy character like George of Clarence may seem illogical but I am going to conclude this list of back-and-forthers with Clarence anyway.
What makes Clarence interesting is that he is so uninteresting (except that he has very bad dreams and ends up head first in a vat of wine but of course we don't know that yet) but plays what could be be seen as a pivotal role in this phase of the War of the Roses. He doesn't even show up in H6:2 and even more than Henry he hovers around the edges of H6:3 and doesn't have any soliloquies at all. He doesn't enter the play until Act 2.2. His father has been killed and he takes small but belligerent part in the heated conflict with Margaret. Interestingly, the first thing he says is:
Since when his oath is broke – for as I hear,
You that are king though he do wear the crown
Have caused him by new act of Parliament
To blot our brothers out, and put his own son in (Act 2.2)
As we will soon see, Clarence, like many others, is a fine one to talk about breaking oaths.
The point is that in this and the next confrontation with Margaret -
Yet thou know, since we have begun to strike,
We'll never leave till we have hewn thee down,
Or bathed thy growing with our heated bloods (Act 2.2)
- he puts himself squarely in the York corner. He stays there with a few lines here and there until Edward marries Lady Gray. He makes fun of Edward together with Richard while Edward is wooing her (if that's what you want to call it) in Act 3.2 but he doesn't get angry until Act 4.1. There, however, he's mostly dissatisfied that the wedding will cause (has caused) King Louis and Warwick to turn against them, and disgruntled over the favors that Edward has shown the River family. He refuses Edward's (probably) disdainful offer to find him a wife by saying he'll
...play the broker in mine own behalf,
And to that end I shortly mind to leave you (Act 4.1)
When they hear definite news that Warwick has switched sides and married off his daughter to Prince Edward, Clarence declares his intention to join Warwick and marry the other one.
This is certainly the action of a petulant middle brother who has probably grown up in the shadow of his less-than-kingly but nevertheless older brother and his clever, sly, dominating little brother. More of a tantrum, then, than a well-thought out political decision. Sure enough, in the next scene he's joined Warwick and won the daughter.
We next see him in the exchange with Warwick and Henry in which he agrees to share the responsibility of the government with Warwick. He shows neither reluctance nor eagerness.
He pops up once more in Act 4.9 where he encourages Henry to quickly stamp out the advance of King Edward then, in Act 5.1, two seconds after he marches in declaring “Clarence! Clarence for Lancaster!”, Shakespeare gives the direction “Richard and Clarence whisper together.”
How intriguing! What in the world does Richard say to him? I would dearly like to know, but Shakespeare gives us no hint. Whatever is said, Clarence promptly switches sides and in his only longer speech of the play now declares himself back in the family fold and he slickly manipulates his oath to Warwick as being invalid because “To keep that oath were more impiety...” and refers to the Bible, always a clever ploy that Shakespeare doesn't hesitate to use.
So now Clarence is back to making sharp retorts, here to Prince Edward. And his is the final stab killing the doomed Prince. He refuses, however, to kill Margaret.
So why emphasize this particular example of swivel-door mind-changing in a play full of them? Because, maybe, if Clarence hadn't changed back to Edward, the Lancasters might have won.
Not that this would have changed history in the long run but it certainly would have changed some individual lives.
However, I'm not a what-if kind of historian. What happened, happened. The Lancasters lost, the Yorks won. Whatever the political and historical restrictions Shakespeare had in writing the play, he made full use of the infinity of human motivations. York changing his public position for strategic reasons. Warwick for the same reasons initially but finally and irrevocably switching sides for reasons of personal honor. Henry wavering back and forth simply because he couldn't decided whether or not he wanted to be king. And Clarence changing his mind first from petulance and then – who knows?
Strategy, injured honor, indecisiveness, adolescent defiance and no known reason. All of us can recognize ourselves in this list of reasons why we can't always make up our minds.
And who is Shakespeare writing about, if not us?
June 6, 2011
1983, BBC. Directed by Jane Howell. Cast: Henry – Peter Benson; Margaret – Julia Foster; York - Bernard Hill; Warwick – Mark-Wing Davey; Edward – Brian Protheroe: Clarence – Paul Jensen; Richard of Gloucester – Ron Cook. Confusing at times but generally well done. The York family is well acted.
Seen on stage: No.