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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Shakespeare’s Henry VI envisions a world without war

The other day, I happened to read closely, for the first time, the following memorable speech spoken by King Henry VI in Act 2, Scene 5 of Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 3, a scene introduced by “Alarum. Enter KING HENRY VI ALONE”, during which the King is observing one of the major battles of the War of the Roses, at Towton, at which enormous casualties were suffered by both sides.

I invite you all to do the same -- please read it through, slowly, savoring the Shakespearean language; and then at the end of the quotation I have two questions for you. Answering them will require NO prior Shakespearean expertise, just (in the case of Question #1) a knowledge of modern popular culture which we all have, unless you’ve been living in a cave. ;)   I promise I’ll deliver a very interesting and surprising payoff at the end of this whole exercise, when I reveal my answers in a followup post on New Year’s Day, along with a summary of any answers I receive from all of you, as well.

But first, Henry VI speaks from the heart, so please listen:

This battle fares like to the morning's war,
When dying clouds contend with growing light,
What time the shepherd, blowing of his nails,
Can neither call it perfect day nor night.
Now sways it this way, like a mighty sea
Forced by the tide to combat with the wind;
Now sways it that way, like the selfsame sea
Forced to retire by fury of the wind:
Sometime the flood prevails, and then the wind;
Now one the better, then another best;
Both tugging to be victors, breast to breast,
Yet neither conqueror nor conquered:
So is the equal of this fell war.

Here on this molehill will I sit me down.
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;
For what is in this world but grief and woe?

O God! methinks it were a happy life,
To be no better than a homely swain;
To sit upon a hill, as I do now,
To carve out dials quaintly, point by point,
Thereby to see the minutes how they run,
How many make the hour full complete;
How many hours bring about the day;
How many days will finish up the year;
How many years a mortal man may live.
When this is known, then to divide the times:
So many hours must I tend my flock;
So many hours must I take my rest;
So many hours must I contemplate;
So many hours must I sport myself;
So many days my ewes have been with young;
So many weeks ere the poor fools will yean:  [i.e., wean]
So many years ere I shall shear the fleece:
So minutes, hours, days, months, and years,
Pass'd over to the end they were created,
Would bring white hairs unto a quiet grave.

Ah, what a life were this! how sweet! how lovely!
Gives not the hawthorn-bush a sweeter shade
To shepherds looking on their silly sheep,
Than doth a rich embroider'd canopy
To kings that fear their subjects' treachery?
O, yes, it doth; a thousand-fold it doth.
And to conclude, the shepherd's homely curds,
His cold thin drink out of his leather bottle.
His wonted sleep under a fresh tree's shade,
All which secure and sweetly he enjoys,
Is far beyond a prince's delicates,
His viands sparkling in a golden cup,
His body couched in a curious bed,
When care, mistrust, and treason waits on him.  END QUOTE

At that point in this same short scene, a father and a son (both unnamed, and obviously unrelated to one another) enter and each tells, in alternation, a brief, Oedipally tragic tale of having unwittingly slain his son and father, respectively, in the battle of Towton. In each case, the King mourns these tragic losses, and then the scene ends with Henry being abruptly whisked away from danger by his wife (the queen), his son, and his courtier Exeter.

Okay now for my two questions, the answers to which I request that you respond to me privately by sending me an email at  prior to this Saturday, Dec. 31, at Midnight PST – I will then post my followup post on Sunday, and summarize any answers I received, without naming names of my respondents. You can then chime in to any followup discussion as you wish.

Question 1: Is there a famous work of 20th/21st Century art (as to which I’m being deliberately vague --- it could be a novel, a movie, a painting, a play, a song, or a poem, or some combination thereof) which you’re specifically reminded of by Henry’s long soliloquy – in particular the specific imagery that Henry VI uses? Once you think of the work of art that popped into my head while reading Henry’s speech, you will know it’s the one I had in mind, the parallels are that strong, so that when you then reread the speech, it will, I believe, be obvious to you. But I want to know if others have the same reaction.

Question 2: What do you think Shakespeare wished his readers/audience to infer about Henry’s state of mind at the precise moment when he delivers this speech? The answer to that question popped into my head after I realized the answer to Question 1, and I started thinking about the whole thing. It was only then that I found out that my answer to Question 2 fit like a glove with both history and Shakespeare.

To assist you in answering the second question, I give you three additional hints:

ONE: “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” –soliloquy by King Henry V (i.e., Henry VI’s father) in Henry IV Part 2, Act 3, Scene 1; a play written by Shakespeare out of historical order, i.e., he wrote it after he wrote the Henry VI trilogy.

TWO: “Henry the 6th: I cannot say much for this Monarch's sense.”—Jane Austen, age 15, in her brief, satirical take on Henry VI in her The History of England.

THREE: Watch the following YouTube clip of David Warner, as King Henry VI, delivering that very same speech in the BBC 1965 production

If you put these three hints together, and really think about them in tandem, I’m hoping that the answers to my two questions will eventually pop into your heads, too! If not, no worries, I will reveal all on Sunday in any event!

Happy thinking, and happy new year!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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