Henry VI Part Two

Eager audiences return, as to a family party, where the new uncles will perform. This is odd, because even a sketchy knowledge warns that there will be much deceit and bloodshed. Perhaps criticism has been over-solemn, and Shakespeare knew a thing or two about entertainment.

Now a grassy green carpet covers the stage. (17) It is unmistakeably holiday in feeling. Up-stage a red rope holds back commoners who gently wave red and white roses at the audience, good-humouredly waiting on a summer day for a royal procession. The Clerk of Chatham squats reading a book. Eight, nine, ten, a dozen people assemble; they are the first thing established in the new play, in which they are going to be dominant. As the house-lights go, they greet the young King with rapture, and Alan Howard, his back to the audience, establishes astonished delight in what is happening. The English nobility march forward with him, in two files, to cheerful music, and group themselves on either side having not now mourned a dead king but knelt to kiss a young king's hand. Last comes Suffolk to present Margaret. This time, the messengers from France are a cool nobleman and a warm girl.

The young people, King and Queen, are enraptured from their first encounter. For all her old-fashioned courtly language, this Margaret expects a warmer kiss than the nervous little peck on the cheek that Henry manages. He retreats a few paces, confused by his feelings, but then comes forward again, and while Duke Humphrey begins to read the marriage-terms, Henry and Margaret gaze on each other's faces; they are eager and sensual, not attending to anything else. The point is made that like their near-contemporaries in Shakespeare, Antipholus and Luciana, or Petruchio and Katherine, like Romeo and Juliet or Bassanio and Portia, they fall in love at first sight. This is clearly going to be a different Henry and Margaret from any that have been recorded. From here until the end of Part Three their complex, mysterious love-affair will continue. Each sees in the other complementary qualities. Margaret, as the Sunday Telegraph observed, 'grows in stature until she achieves a surprising degree of dignity .... in her final moments of middle-aged authority' (17 July 1977). This is a woman who would die for Henry, as she says. They share much more than has normally been recognised.

The listening commoners are shocked by the lack of dowry, but they manage muted cheers at the up-stage exit of the King and his Queen, and Suffolk, the cheerful music now sounding a little forced. The quarrelling nobles who now piece out their chess-moves are more numerous and full-blooded than in any scene so far. The old Duke Humphrey (Graham Crowden) is a man whose love for England comes from far back in his ancestry. Two new voices cut across the odious Winchester's drearily-reiterated attacks on Humphrey: Warwick (Julian Glover), and York (Emrys James). Glover represents an older tradition, both of character and performance; there is good decorum in giving Warwick to such a big actor, in every sense. Emrys James at first sight seems bizarre. His restless off-beat inattention, however, his neurotic focus on himself, his sudden, instantly-expressed violent reactions set him apart - that is, until his sons appear. Only when this choleric Lord is with his psychotic off-spring is reason clearly given for the casting. These Yorks are obsessed and manic; later, they giggle as they fight. The Sunday Times called him, 'the plausible chieftain of a bloody dynasty' (17 July 1977), The Times 'a snarling underdog speedily on the way up' (13 July 1977) and later 'a full-blown reptilian narcissus' (14 July 1977). Now, York hangs his head and twitches almost imperceptibly. He is listening to what his peers say, but he is listening to something else inside himself. He is on his own for what is probably the first major soliloquy in Shakespeare, and at the very end of the scene a new tone comes through: self-absorption. The very latest thing at the English court is self-seeking as a way of life. It was seen before in York, touched in Winchester and Somerset, fully introduced in Suffolk's speeches, responded to eagerly by Margaret and taken up by young Warwick. It is now wildly sung by York. Going for the crown is an agterthought for this man (unlike his son Richard), simply something that will give him a theatre of action big enough for his violent and immense ego and its new verbal style. Emrys James gives him the authority of the bounder or even of the psychopath. This is not the man whose chivalry and power were known throughout Europe. But does Shakespeare say it was?

The common people, meanwhile, have retreated nervously to one side away from Warwick, who, grieving the loss of his own conquests, Anjou and Maine, has stalked up-stage to control himself. The commoners act like the audience to a play-within-a-play. They rush off to follow the good Duke Humphrey when he leaves in barely-controllable rage against Winchester and Suffolk. The Nevilles point the theatrical image at Winchester's exit with 'Pride went before, Ambition follows him.'

Ruthless self-seeking is a betrayal held to the very bosom of Duke Humphrey. With the grass floor lit as a Persian carpet, Humphrey and his wife Eleanor, two long-married lovers, stand and caress at ease in the domestic shadows, telling their morning's dreams. The amorous and beautiful Eleanor (Yvonne Coulette, also the Countess of Auvergne), made a detailed parallel and contrast with Joan, the Countess, and Helen Mirren's Margaret, who each set a course of sexually enticing betrayal. The scene is beautiful; restrained, delicate, emotionally strong, it is made by two actors and an ambiguous atmosphere of low lighting. But the winner is John Hume, making money in a black hood. The conjuring episode, two scenes on, was, as it has so often been, (18) excellent, with a villainous one-toothed, totally bald Bolingbroke organising thunder in the dark. As her 'spirit' is raised, the prostrate Mary Jourdain's mittened witch-fingers claw the ground like a tortured animal - a worse than Joan is here. After the cry of 'Asnath!', she shrieks in extremis with tones recalling York's voice in crazy soliloquy.

In brighter sunlight on the green sward, the colourful scenes flow into each other in prettiness - there are real falcons at St Albans. But Humphrey and Winchester claw at each other with hisses down front behind the King's back; they stop as the suspicious King draws near. Like old-fashioned overgrown schoolboys, they plan to fight each other as if it were behind the fives-court after Prep. The more captivating the scene, on the pleasant grass, the darker the corruption. King, Queen, Lords and a falconer mingle: there is much merriment, and the commoners, on their narrower side of the red ropes, show a little of that variety of experience and social range we have always so admired in the much later Henry IV plays. The richnesses of Part One have come home, and spread. It is a strikingly well-made effect.

But the people's petitions are torn up by Margaret, the 'miracle' is an oily cheat, the court is electric with plots, and the trial-by-combat is a drunken farce. Helen Mirren's spoiled brat of a young Queen makes an important point in emending I, iii, 40 to 'Away, base scullions! Suffolk, make them go.' This is not a dominant Frenchwoman lording it over an English court, but a child who is simply reflecting and focussing the manners of the world she lives in. This line, and Mirren's performances in the rest of these out-of-London scenes, hang together most interestingly. She is wholly impressionable, and thus most widely responsive. She gets light laughs with no more than a chagrined amusement at the lines wishing her husband could be made Pope (I, iii, 61-4). Her interest in Suffolk is easily distracted. She laughs merrily at Saunder Simpcox running, and before that she has taken young delight in aggravating the Duchess of Gloucester to make her 'ten commandments' remark at I, iii, 142 as she only just manages not to scratch the Queen's face with her ten nails. But she expresses something else altogether when at the end of II, i, Buckingham brings the news of the arrest of Dame Eleanor. The stage darkens a little as he speaks, and Margaret goes to stand very close to Henry.

Alan Howard finishes that scene with a couplet that has become more pointedly uncertain as the months have gone by:

And poise the course in Justice' equal scales,
Whose beam stands sure, whose rightful cause prevails.

Obviously and silently objecting - the only face not laughing - at both the exposure of Simpcox and the victory of Horner, and disliking the necessity of condemning to execution the Bolingbroke conspirators, he is troubled by apparent varieties of justice: but he is simply wiped out by the powerful sounds of self-seeking all round him. In these scenes he cannot speak the new animal language of self-aggrandisement which is the latest English style, from serving-man to Cardinal, from Protector's wife to York. Yet in less than an hour of playing-time before the interval, Howard shows Henry expressing his insight into truth in a succession of strong scenes that were certainly new in drama in 1590. He is given intelligently-played surrounding scenes to which his own fuller statement of the dark side can be seen to relate. The conclusion of Eleanor's personal drama, II, iv, with five cold figures on the big bare stage, is one of the most moving of the entire sequence, leaving largely unstated feelings of grief about hurt affairs of state and tragic married love.

Henry is given, too, as opponent, a York gaining in real authority. From the beginning of II, ii, until the end of III, i, apart from that scene of the parting of Humphrey and Eleanor, York is not away from the stage. The sequence begins with the after-supper scene with the Nevilles in his garden, again excellently played. The struts holding the ropes for the open-air daylight scenes make elbow-rests for Salisbury and Warwick at ease with drinks in the softly-lit darkness, York between them urbanely telling off on his fingers his line to the crown. Warwick gets an unsatirical laugh on 'What plain proceedings is more plain than this?' The scene is open, rapid, lucid, and uncluttered, and Emrys James's powers of simple, sardonic speech are at their best - his claim is something of a quick joke. By contrast, in the following scene, when Duke Humphrey is persuaded to give up his staff, there is a very long moment of slow, puzzled anguish from Howard. Helen Mirren's reading of Margaret's first line after Humphrey has left, 'Why now is Henry king, and Margaret queen' (II, iii, 39) is original. Barbara Jefford, playing throughout the 1958 Old Vic productions as the passionate scheming she-wolf, was widely noticed at that point. It was 'her supreme moment of triumph', and on that line 'her arms stretched upward exultantly'. (19) Here, for the RSC, Helen Mirren's arms come forward, as she goes to Henry in affectionate pleasure. She is also taking pleasure, of course, in her growing political interest and power; but she is altogether removed from the older tradition of scorching the stage as a French tigress.

The long scene of the Parliament at Bury St Edmunds has the commoners, in the half-light, busily setting up the throne and benches (one is half-seen naughtily sitting in the throne for a second or two). They stay and watch at the side and back, right through the scene until the King's exit. Every word that Henry speaks, as Howard reads him, results in an exercise of the power of life or death: but he can't do properly what his father and grandfather could, dirty his hands with politics. He is simply wearied at the incessant attacks on Duke Humphrey. He tries to hold to Humphrey's innocence, out of a loving certainty of it, and so dismisses him to the murderous clutches of the whole court. He himself attempts to follow the departing Humphrey as if drawn by a rope. Called back by Margaret, who makes 'What! Will your Highness leave the Parliament?' into a genuine question, not a shrill crow of victory, Howard is seen to be shedding real tears, and speaks of his 'heart drown'd with grief,/Whose flood begins to flow within mine eyes'. His first long speech of passion, about the calf roped for slaughter, expresses some of the grief previously unspoken by Humphrey and Eleanor at their parting. Henry grieves too for his own special understanding.

His exit makes a closing period. It is followed by a flurry of rapid political bargaining, in which Margaret controls York and Somerset by physical warmth to them; York responds to Margaret's pressing presence, but he is too quick a thinker for her, and this echt Politiker, left alone to glory in his power over the audience, has suddenly achieved leave of absence, and an army.

Even so, Henry rises for a while to out-top them all in personal power. The second and third scenes of III rise steadily, from the moment of his swoon at the news of the death of Duke Humphrey. Margaret shows sudden human concern, swooping like a lover to recover him, holding his head to her bosom. But as he wakes, he spurns her and rises, and from then on, point after point gets home to him. One can almost see the scales falling from Howard's eyes, as he backs away from both Margaret, and, separately, Suffolk. His seventeen lines beginning 'What, doth my Lord of Suffolk comfort me?' are delivered at almost full Howard power, though he attacks Suffolk from inside the news of Gloucester's death, as it were, not from the politics involved outside. (Margaret's reactions at this point I want to look at a little later). Henry sits in paralysed horror on the throne, his cheeks puffy with unshed tears, staring ahead at the visible truth. It is the commons, of course, who make the final point, clamouring against Suffolk at the gates, and Howard's double banishment of Suffolk now has the power of some of his greatest speeches from his powerful Henry V. But there is more to come. The scene of the death of Winchester, only thirty-four lines long, feels intrusive after the closing of the Margaret-Suffolk parting: but only for a few seconds. The centre of the play is Henry, not Margaret. John Rhys-Davies's gross and physically powerful Winchester could not die in a bed, it must have been felt, especially Gloucester's bed, though that is what Folio states, and Quarto amplifies. Instead, he staggers across the stage, stumbling over the throne, and falls to the ground in a parody of the death of young Talbot. King Henry, wrestling with the fiend in Winchester, urgently holding his cross to his face, finds the element of darkness he has been coming to understand. Warwick, aloof and lofty, murmurs a little smugly, 'so bad a death argues a monstrous life'. Alan Howard's next line is at full power, a recognition that in this court, justice is dead: 'Forbear to judge, for we are sinners all.' The line and a half that follow after a pause, 'Close up his eyes, and draw the curtain close; / And let us all to meditation' let us daown for the interval. But that great cry reverberates on, quite against the traditional 'religious and ineffectual' reading of the lines. (20) Biblical it certainly is: but that gives it the greatest authority. This is a new Henry, demonstrably here the son of his father. Convincingly, Howard has brought Henry to power, for the first time, I suspect, for nearly four centuries.

But, unlike his father, Henry has had no training in the difficult business of political causistry, and he has declared the truth too late. Events simply sweep him away. York's triple advantage of being in Ireland, perfecting a private army, and maintaining Jack Case's rebellion, from a distance, wins everything in the rest of this play.

The dramatic grip of the opening of IV took me by surprise. Barrie Rutter's 'Lieutenant' (i.e. pirate) gets great moral weight against Suffolk in powerful, vivid speeches. So strong was the theatrical pressure, though we had barely settled into our seats again after the interval, that the audience reaction at the end of the scene to Suffolk's head, discreetly wrapped in a black cloth, was, each time, a low murmur of horror. It is a key scene, one suddenly sees, in the preparation for Cade.

In this production, the scenes of the Jack Cade rebellion are uniformly brilliant, and beyond cavil. Each time I saw Part Two it was played to an international house unfamiliar with the play, twice on a matinée; yet the second half, after the interval, got the sort of concentrated, breath-holding attention usually reserved for a fine Othello or Macbeth. This was a little more understandable in the royal and court scenes later on: but the Cade scenes involve here much running about, and great activity all over the big stage. There are laughs, of course; but not many, and not of the kind which the Henry IV plays get. There is unease in the audience; crisp playing only adds to the sense of simply watching matters gets worse and worse so rapidly - the scenes are played to be in a proper sense cinematic. There is a little of the circus, too; but one of the achievements of this production is to get the sense of the largeness and closeness of the catastrophe, with much senseless slaughter all over the streets, and with half London on fire. There develops, too, an alarming sense that the anarchy will begin to extend out into the audience. The first death, of the Clerk of Chatham, momentarily surprises the murderers, who are in fact simply the 'commons' who have been spectators of so much in the first half. The Staffords are more horribly butchered, their aristocratic superiority infuriating the mob. The deaths of Lord Say and his son-in-law are sickening - and suddenly the mob too has had too much of killing. Clifford wins them over with the name of Henry V, and, cynically, with scattered coins, but some of them are half won already, revolted - as are the audience - by Barrie Rutter's Dick the Butcher and his horrible bloody cleaver. (21) James Laurenson (who was a swaggering Dauphin) makes Cade a parody of the timeless revolutionary, a hint of the would-be Che Guevara about him. He is fully in command, sitting on mossy London stone directing with large gestures the destruction-of-civilisation-as-we-know-it. His supporters know the facts of history, and mock him even while they follow him. They reflect York, their ultimate master, in their opportunism, exulting at first in mad claims and murder. Like York, they are very dangerous. The point of the wider application is made with characteristic discipline in the treatment of the soldier who comes running in shouting 'Jack Cade! Jack Cade!' at IV, vi, 7. He is killed instantly and startlingly for using the wrong name, and the incident is over in five seconds. His body is allowed to remain unobtrusively on stage for nearly twenty minutes, through the riotously swirling scenes of the 'Alarums. Matthew Goffe is slain, and all the rest' in the stage direction before scene vii, the long scene of the deaths of Lord Say and his son-in-law, the surrender to Clifford, and right through scene ix, between Queen Margaret and King Henry (of which more later). It remains as a comment on the emptying of all value which the Cade rebellion is effecting, as the weapon of the Duke of York.

Iden, called 'Eden' here, as making a point about ideal gardens which seems unnecessary, is played by Dan Meaden (22) as a bulky John Bull, killing Cade with contemptuous ease. The overlapping of the collapse of the Cade rebellion and the arrival of York and his army is painfully clear. There are suddenly too many political fronts even for the newly-strong King to fight on. He is called 'our dread liege' by Buckingham, not ironically, but the opposition is suddenly monstrous. Even the father and grandfather of this 'dread liege' would have been overtaxed by so impossible a test. Enraged, treacherous and deceitful, grimacing like a fiend, York has to pick a quarrel, which he does over Somerset's liberty, and state a reason - and he gives the incredible one that he is the real king.

All the Cade scenes had been backed by a sort of mindless banner, the vacant grin of a silly turnip-lantern face with blood running down it. Emrys James makes York's claim wear an equally silly face, it being the mischievous whim of a black opportunist. Old Clifford, he who knew and defeated the anarchy of Cade, has to grope for some sense about York. 'To Bedlam with him! Is the man grown mad?' (V, i, 131). Suddenly, Henry has no power at all. The Nevilles, scenting advantage, are supporting York, and new rebellion catches fire among the youth. Animal language of childish insults, all initiated by the York father and sons, turns to fighting. James gives a crazy passion to York's reply to the royal challenge, calling Margaret 'O blood-bespotted Neopolitan, / Outcast of Naples, England's bloody scourge'. This line is widely quoted by commentators as a clue to Margaret's character, but it is said by an egomaniac in response to the first check he has received, and even if York be played otherwise, it is hard to see why Margaret is 'blood bespotted' compared to York himself, who caused the deaths of the Talbots and their army and many innocent Englishmen in the Cade adventure. 'England's bloody scourage' is taken to link Margaret with Joan, (23) but here the link with Joan is through someone else. The York family win the battle of St Albans in swaggering triumph. There is no apparatus of battle; no guns, no barricades - just almost comic noblemen on England's green grass, as if on a cricket pitch. But the Yorks and Nevilles grin like the French, and the witchcraft of Joan is in young Richard's hunched back and withered arm.

17. The green carpet is also, of course, by an old tradition dating from Shakespeare's time the stage-setting for tragedy. The Dublin Theatrical Observer for 6 March 1821 observed the opening of Love in a Village at the new Theatre Royal, 'Upon entering the Theatre, we were somewhat surprised at seeing the stage covered with a green cloth, and naturally imagined that the performance had from some unforseen cause been changed to a tragedy.......'

18. Sprague, Shakespeare's Histories, p. 116.

19. Clarke, Shakespeare at the Old Vic.

20. See for example A.S. Cairncross's footnote at III, iii, 33, in his Arden edition.

21. Mary Clarke reports on the 1958 Old Vic production that the Cade scenes got all out of hand, with everyone working up his comic bit-part for all it was worth. 'Cade himself was obliterated in the hurly-burly and it was doubtful if anyone in the audience had any idea of what was going on.'

22. Dan Meaden gets what we might call the Jeffery Dench Award for the Most Frequent Appearances, as in the trilogy he appears as Falstaff, Woodville, Sheriff, Mayor, Whitmore, Iden, and Hastings.

23. See A.S. Cairncross's footnote at V, i, 118, in his Arden edition.

Taken from 'Themes in Drama, 1. Drama and Society' , ed. James Redmond (Cambridge University Press, 1979).

Henry VI: Introduction

Part One

Part Three


Playing Shakespeare/Henry VI Part II