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02 March 2006

Henry VI, Part Two (2003)

A Fully Dramatized Reading of William Shakespeare's The Second Part of King Henry VI (1590)

Vol. II of The Complete Ark- angel Shakespeare by Audio Partners; David Tennant (Henry VI), Clive Merrison (York), Kelly Hunter (Queen Margaret), Norman Rodway (Gloucester)

The Wikipedia plot summary can be found here.

Review

I found this play highly entertaining for two reasons. First, Shakespeare was here! As opposed to the patchy, irregular pacing of Part One, this play sounded more... Shakespearian. The puns were out in full force, at least among the commoners, and the language was much stronger in the use of artistic phrasing and poetry. Turns of phrase were tendered with more elegance and wit, rather than mere rhyming couplets, and the sound of the lines were more engaging overall.

Second, I was fascinated with the lack of moral direction within the confines of this play. Of what I already know regarding Shakespearian morality, the status quo is almost always preserved. Romeo and Juliet disobeyed their parents and died because of their folly. All of the aristocrats in Twelfth Night marry partners of their same station, while commoners and servants are left to pine alone.

In this supposed history, however, almost everyone has a duplicitous angle. The king's great-uncle, a cardinal, has his nephew, the Duke of Gloucester, murdered. Margaret's advisor and lover, Suffolk, is despised by so many for his schemes that his death is heralded by all but the queen. The Duke of York claimed hereditary authority to the throne. The court is full of self-serving, greedy, disloyal sycophants who have no purpose but their own betterment.

Henry, for his part, is portrayed as a weak-kneed and godly man who has no desire to rule at all. Ascending to authority as an infant, he has been king in name - if not in deed - for most of his life, and he hates that pressure. His decisions, when he does make them, are overruled or ignored. When Gloucester is imprisoned, Henry has no more power to prevent his assassination than a servant would.

The king's protector, Gloucester, is also unable to wrangle the forces lined against his good intentions. His wife, Dame Eleanor, schemes with conjurers and fortune tellers to further her desire that Gloucester should become king in name as well as deed. Her arrest and exposure hasten Gloucester's downfall. This series of events - wherein a woman's ambitions undo her partner's better nature - is a theme that plays out more directly and powerfully with Margaret and Henry. Here, women are deceivers of the most heartless and conniving kind, whose influence in politics is warped by greed (Eleanor) and lust (Margaret).

Luckily for England there's... QUEEN ELIZABETH. Written in the 32nd year of Elizabeth's reign, The Second Part of King Henry VI is a love story to Shakespeare's most important patron, the queen. What happens when a monarch is too intellectual and cannot act? What happens when a sovereign has not the strength of will to control the royal court? And what happens when women in positions of authority are swayed by greed and lust? Rebellion. Loss of territory. Internal strife. Moral ambiguity and chaos.

Elizabeth, the "virgin" queen who allied in marriage with no foreign powers, ruled successfully for over 44 years. She had none of Henry's waffling will or lack of resolve. Shakespeare, by fleshing out historical events in this way, reaffirmed Elizabeth's just, moral claim to rule, as well as the necessity of her leadership. When a country exists under a monarchical government, the wisdom, fairness, and strength of that monarch are essential for the good of the nation. And when a playwright depends on the good favor of a particular royal patron, this message is all the more important to convey.

Quotes

King Henry, about a blind man who regains his sight: "Great is his comfort in this earthly vale / Although by his sight his sin be multiplied."

York: "Show me one scar character'd on thy skin: / Men's flesh preserv'd so whole do seldom win."

Warwick, about Gloucester's murder: "Who finds the heifer dead and bleeding fresh, / And sees fast by a butcher with an axe, / But will suspect 'twas he that made the slaughter?"

Warwick, about Suffolk: "Pernicious blood-sucker of sleeping men!"

King Henry, about Cardinal Beaufort's grim death: "Ah, what a sign it is of evil life / Where death's approach is seen so terrible!"

Suffolk, before his death by pirates: "True nobility is exempt from fear!"

Rebel leader John Cade, about the changes he would make as king: "I will make it a felony to drink small beer..."

And the most famous quote from this play, by a rebel commoner named Dick: "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers."

Cade, about a lord: "Away with him, away with him! he speaks Latin!"

Richard Plantagenet, the future King Richard III: "Priests pray for enemies, but princes kill."

Vocab & References

alder liefest, peroration, Althaea & Calydon, cullions, callet, meetest, hollaing, doit, groat, conventicles, condign, kerns, porpentine, Morisco, Aeolus, Ascanius, obsequies, pinnace, bezonians, palfrey, puissance, clouted shoon, buckram, besom, sallet, burgonet, Medea & Absyrtus, Aeneas & Anchises

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