Posts tagged ‘History Cycle’

I Had a Margaret, Till a Director Killed Her

Richard III is Shakespeare’s second-longest play (the longest being Hamlet), so a production of it has to be substantially edited. More often than not, that means cutting out the entire character of Queen Margaret. It’s an understandable edit, given that Margaret doesn’t have any influence on the plot, and she makes reference to events that occur in the Henry VI plays, with which even many avid Shakespeareans are often unfamiliar.

I wholly respect any decision to eliminate Margaret, but personally, I find her essential to the theme of the play, and one of the more powerfully dramatic figures of the play. She frames the entire context of time within the play.

First, she represents the past. As the last Lancastrian, she reminds the current Yorkist regime of its overthrow of Henry VI. She’s like a ghost, just as haunting as those that visit Richard and Richmond on the eve of battle. She knows history.

She also knows the present, and sees what’s going on better than anyone else in the play. She can see through Richard and knows his plots when everybody else is fooled by him.

And lastly, she foresees the future. She predicts that Richard will destroy the House of York, and warns them that they will look back on her predictions and note their accuracy: “O, but remember this another day, / When he shall split thy very heart with sorrow, / And say poor Margaret was a prophetess!” (I.iii.299-301) And they do: “Thus Margaret’s curse falls heavy on my neck. / ‘When he,’ quoth she, ‘shall split thy heart with sorrow, / Remember Margaret was a prophetess'” (V.i.25-27).

But these are not distinct roles. Margaret isn’t a historian, journalist and prophet. She is the person who views connections over time and history. Margaret isn’t actually a prophet; she doesn’t have a supernatural power to see events in the future. In actuality, she finds connections between the past and present and knows that the future will be the same. The old saying is, “Those who don’t know the past are doomed to repeat it.” Margaret knows the past, and she knows the Yorkists don’t know the past (or, more accurately, they know the past but ignore it), and thus she knows they will repeat it. She parallels the present to the past quite effectively when talking to Elizabeth and the Duchess of York:

I had an Edward, till a Richard killed him;
I had a husband, till a Richard killed him;
Thou hadst an Edward, till a Richard killed him;
Thou hadst a Richard, till a Richard killed him

In summary, Margaret believes that Richard’s violence is inevitable. Peace cannot exist in England as it is now. The era is designated for violence, and violence will happen. It will come at Richard’s hands, and there is no stopping it.

Richard, on the other hand, views his role a different way. He believes he can manipulate the era. As early as his opening soliloquy, he says that the time is now designated for peace, but he will change the time and make it violent and bloody.

So who’s right? Is Richard a tool of time, simply the object by which the era of violence exercises itself? Or does he actually alter what would otherwise be an age of peace? Many people talk about this matter in terms of fate and free will, but I don’t know that it’s as metaphysical as that. It’s the old question of history. Does history march on its own and some people follow and some don’t (“The statesman’s task is to hear God’s footsteps marching through history, and to try and catch on to His coattails as He marches past.” — Otto von Bismarck), or do individuals alter the course of history (“The history of the world is but the biography of great men.” — Thomas Carlyle)?

The real conflict of Richard III is between the views of Richard and Margaret, even though they only appear on stage at the same time once. The conflicts between Richard and his relatives are, by and large, reflections of the deeper conflict between Richard and Margaret. So while Margaret may not be important to the plot, the play loses much of its edge when she is gone.

All that, and she’s just gosh darn awesome.

Women and land in “Henry V”

Henry V is one of Shakespeare’s most misogynistic plays — yes, comparable even to The Taming of the Shrew. In some ways the former is even more dangerous than the latter, since The Taming of the Shrew brings out its misogyny in such a way as to be laughable and over the top, while misogyny in Henry V is more subtle.

I was revisiting Henry V recently, and exploring the way in which women are equated to land. Consider, for example, the manner in which Henry equates Katherine to the several small cities he’s willing to exchange for her in the final scene; the manner in which he Anglicizes her by calling her “Kate,” an English nickname; or the way she tries to learn English by asking for words for parts of the body, as if she were becoming English herself: “This is my English arm/hand/neck.”

But in my last reading, I stumbled upon a pun that reinforces this image. Henry gives two speeches before Harfleur. In the second of the two, he tells the governor that should Harfleur not surrender, even he (Henry) won’t be able to stop his men from coming in and raping all the women (III.iii.13-14). Rape is a key to conquest. But the first of the two speeches is where I picked up on something I hadn’t seen before. It is one of the two very famous speeches of the play, and because the lines are so famous, they’re not very often heard: “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more / Or close the wall up with our English dead!” (III.i.1-2) For the first time, I payed attention to what was being said here: There is a hole in the walls of Harfleur that Henry is encouraging his men to forcibly penetrate. Harfleur doesn’t just have women to be raped; it is a woman to be raped.

Metric variations in “Henry V”

Since I started working with Susan Guthrie, I’ve been paying more and more attention to verse form in Shakespeare. Susan is a big believer in classical verse form, and I’m picking that up from her, and discovering some incredible new things.

For example, I was reading Henry V recently, and came upon noticable variations in one of his famous speeches (IV.i.282-299):

O God of battles! steel my soldiers’ hearts;
Possess them not with fear; take from them now
The sense of reckoning, if the opposed numbers
Pluck their hearts from them. Not to-day, O Lord,
O, not to-day, think not upon the fault
My father made in compassing the crown!
I Richard’s body have interred anew;
And on it have bestow’d more contrite tears
Than from it issued forced drops of blood:
Five hundred poor I have in yearly pay,
Who twice a-day their wither’d hands hold up
Toward heaven, to pardon blood;
And I have built two chantries,
Where the sad and solemn priests sing still
For Richard’s soul. More will I do;
Though all that I can do is nothing worth,
Since that my penitence comes after all,
Imploring pardon

Notice the variation on the four lines in which Henry talks about what he’s done and what he will do in Richard’s memory:

Toward heaven, to pardon blood;
And I have built two chantries,
Where the sad and solemn priests sing still
For Richard’s soul. More will I do;

I’ve never been much of a believer in the hype around Henry as a great patriotic hero. Personally, I find the play that bears his name to be more ironic than promotional with regards to patriotism. For example, when Henry says that if any commoner fights at Agincourt, the battle will “gentle his condition” (IV.iii.64), does he mean it? It doesn’t seem so, given that only the nobles get their names specially mentioned when Henry finds out about the English death toll (IV.viii.101-104). Moreover, why is this “mirror of all Christian kings” (II.Cho.6) praying to a pagan god in the above speech?

Anyway, my point here is that, if indeed Henry is not entirely honest and genuine, the varied lines in his speech may indicate dishonesty; ie, he’s not genuinely sorry about Richard’s death or his father’s actions, nor does he truly intend to do the penance he claims. (After all, nobody in this play seems to acknowledge the fact that, due to Henry’s father’s usurpation, even if the King of England is legitimately the King of France, Henry is legitimately neither.)

Some editors choose to compile those lines to turn them into proper blank verse. When read as three lines, they work well:

Toward heaven, to pardon blood; and I have built
Two chantries, where the sad and solemn priests
Sing still for Richard’s soul. More will I do;

These were printed as four lines in the First Folio (see here), but it’s well known that printers would often break up lines to take up space when printing a book. So perhaps when Shakespeare wrote those lines, they were in iambic pentameter, and this whole long rant was meaningless.

What do you all think of Henry and this speech?