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

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Shakespeare’s holy hilltop fool Henry VI was McCartney’s Fool on a Hill!

I posed the following quiz 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.”   END QUOTE FROM MY PRIOR POST

And now I am ready, as promised, to answer the questions I posed to you:

QUESTION #1: Is there a famous work of 20th/21st Century art 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.”

And here’s my answer: THE FOOL ON THE HILL, 1967, lyrics and singing of course by Paul McCartney –I’ve put the words which echo Henry VI”s above speech in ALL CAPS to give a strong visual sense of how closely Sir Paul echoed the words that Shakespeare put in the mouth of his most famous holy fool. In that scene, King Henry VI indeed sat alone on a hill and, even as his heart broke to watch the horrific, pointless slaughter on the ground, kept his third eye focused on the great cosmic cycles of days and years, and their concomitant natural cycles of birth and rebirth:

DAY after DAY

The MAN with the FOOLISH grin is keeping PERFECTLY stillBut NOBODY wants to KNOW him
They CAN SEE that HE's just a FOOL
And HE NEVER GIVES an answer

But the FOOL on the HILL
SEES the sun going DOWN  
And the EYES in his head

SEE the WORLD spinning 'round

WELL on the way

Head in a CLOUD
The MAN of a THOUSAND voices talking PERFECTLY loudBut NOBODY ever hears him
Or the sound he appears to MAKE
And HE never SEEMS TO notice

And nobody seems to like him
They can tell what he wants to do
And he never shows his feelings

HE never listens to them
HE knows that they’re the FOOL
They don’t like him    

I hope you can see that it’s much more than a mere repetition of keywords that could have occurred by accident. It's the idea of a holy fool who sees a deeper truth than those who mock and dislike him – and it’s even the choice of the recorders as the solo instrument for the song – that just happens to be a modern version of the pan flute which is the instrument of choice of the kind of good shepherd King Henry VI wishes he could be to his subjects the lambs he watches slaughtering each other. The resonance is extremely strong and pervasive, it's really as if McCartney set out to paint a picture in simple, modern words set to music, the much more complex poetry of the young Shakespeare (who was about the same age when he wrote Henry VI as Sir Paul was when he wrote "The Fool on the Hill". And...after all "The Fool on the Hill" was part of an album and film (Magical Mystery Tour) which included the song "All You Need is Love" which I think would make a an equally good title for King Henry VI's Christlike vision of a kinder, better world at peace!

In this regard, you may be interested to know that Paul McCartney has given a couple of different explanations of his inspiration for the lyrics, neither of which explicitly involves Shakespeare, and yet, are not contradictory to that possibility:

First the McCartney biographer Barry Miles wrote this in 1997:   “The song's lyrics describe the titular "fool", a solitary figure who is not understood by others, but is actually wise. McCartney said the song relates to someone like Maharishi Mahesh Yogi: 'Fool on the Hill' was mine and I think I was writing about someone like Maharishi. His detractors called him a fool. Because of his giggle he wasn't taken too seriously ... I was sitting at the piano at my father's house in Liverpool hitting a D 6th chord, and I made up 'Fool on the Hill.'

“Paul McCartney wrote this song. It's about a man who is considered a fool by others, but whose foolish demeanor is actually an indication of wisdom. An event which prompted this song happened when Paul was walking his dog, Martha, on Primrose Hill one morning. As he watched the sun rise, he noticed that Martha was missing. Paul turned around to look for his dog, and there a man stood, who appeared on the hill without making a sound. The gentleman was dressed respectably, in a belted raincoat. Paul knew this man had not been there seconds earlier as he had looked in that direction for Martha. Paul and the stranger exchanged a greeting, and this man then spoke of what a beautiful view it was from the top of this hill that overlooked London. Within a few seconds, Paul looked around again, and the man was gone. He had vanished as he had appeared. A friend of McCartney's, Alistair Taylor, was present with Paul during this strange incident, and wrote of this event in his book, Yesterday. Both Paul and Alistair could not imagine what happened to this man. He had seemed to vanish in thin air. The nearest trees for cover were too far to reach by walking or running in a few seconds, and the crest of the hill was too far as well to reach in that short time. What made the experience even more mysterious, was that just before this man first appeared, Paul and Alistair were speaking to each other of the beauty they observed of the view towards London and the existence of God. Once back home, they spent the morning discussing what had happened, trying to make some sense of it. They both agreed that this was something others were infer occurred as a result of an "acid trip," but they both swore they had not taken or used any drugs. When Paul filmed the sequence for this song in the film, it shows him on a hilltop overlooking the town of Nice.”

And very spooky, isn’t it, that Paul filmed that scene in Nice, not that far from where Joan of Arc led the French against the English in a great battle, all as reimagined by Shakespeare in Henry VI Part One?

In any event, my personal (and unprovable) guess is that either Sir Paul forgot, or was deliberately being coy, about having seen, in 1965, the BBC film of the groundbreaking 1963 stage condensation by Barton of the 4 plays into The War of the Roses, which was not long before Macca wrote “The Fool on the Hill”. The 22 year old David Warner played Henry and I bet that is what inspired Macca although he said he was thinking of the Maharishi. And that’s one reason why I gave you the following link to the scene from that film in which David Warner waxes so poetically:

And that leads me directly to my other….

….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.

If you watch that video clip of Warner’s speech, I believe you’ll agree that it is clear that the director sees this scene as purely internal – i.e., the unnamed Father and unnamed Son fade in and out of Henry’s tortured consciousness, and were not meant by Shakespeare to be seen as actual combatants who just happened to wander into the King’s presence and speak these lines. And the film also makes it clear that after those other characters fade to black, Henry is suddenly brought back to real life in the midst of battle, not entirely alone as he seemed to be after the initial battle cried faded.

And that fits with my other two hints:

HINT # 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. 

What is apparent from the entire speech by Henry V is that he is lying down trying to sleep, and that is, I assert, Shakespeare deliberately echoing the scene with Henry VI on the molehill, and hinting to us that Henry VI was himself in a dream or altered state of consciousness of some kind, just like his father-- and that's why Henry VI explains his shepherd alter ego's situation watching (but not really watching) the battle as a kind of dream:

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

A curious bed --as in, a bed of roses!

HINT #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.

And the above quote tells me that Jane Austen was well aware of what Shakespeare was up to in that scene, when she, in her typical ironic mode, pretty much says that King Henry VI was crazy, and part of that craziness involved seeing hallucinations! 

In a followup post, I will get into the weeds about all of the above, and flesh things out a good bit more, especially about the famous psychological problems that the real King Henry VI suffered from, and also how mainstream Austen scholars have misunderstood her witty comment for a very long time. But for now I just wanted to get my first post of 2017 out there as soon as possible!

Happy new year!

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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