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

Friday, March 10, 2017

“Good Lord, what madness rules in brainsick men…”: The mad Henry VI as medieval Cassandra

A few months ago, I wrote a post…  “Shakespeare’s holy hilltop fool Henry VI = McCartney’s ‘Fool on the Hill’! ”  http://tinyurl.com/jaf7c44 …in which I argued that when Paul McCartney wrote “The Fool on the Hill”, he had in mind Henry VI’s speech in 2.5 of Henry VI Part 3 (spoken on a mole hill at the Battle of Towton). I included a link to David Warner in YouTube delivering that speech in the 1965 film thereof, and stated as follows regarding same:

“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.

Since then, after some diligent searching of the scholarly literature about Shakespeare's depiction of Henry VI, I am astonished that the scholarly consensus is directly contrary to the way Warner played that scene:

"Shakespeare's portrayal of Henry is notable in that it does not mention the King's madness. This is considered to have been a politically-advisable move so as to not risk offending Elizabeth I whose family was descended from Henry's Lancastrian family. Instead Henry is portrayed as a pious and peaceful man ill-suited to the crown. He spends most of his time in contemplation of the Bible and expressing his wish to be anyone other than a king. Shakespeare's Henry is weak-willed and easily influenced allowing his policies to be led by Margaret and her allies, and being unable to defend himself against York's claim to the throne. He only takes an act of his own volition just before his death when he curses Richard of Gloucester just before he is murdered."

In stark contrast to that prevailing view, and after some study on my own of the texts of the Henry VI trilogy, I believe that Warner’s depiction was spot-on, and that Shakespeare repeatedly hinted at the historical Henry's madness (Nigel Bark and some others have been more specific and have argued it was schizophrenia), most of all in that scene with Henry on his mole hill, when he coincidentally finds himself an eavesdropper on a parricide son and a filicide father, but which I believe Shakespeare did indeed mean to be understood by the cognoscenti to be Henry's hallucination.

The big picture I take away from the Henry VI trilogy is that while it was undeniable that the historical Henry VI was mentally ill over his entire lifetime, he couldn't help himself (since he was obviously unmedicated, and, to boot, was placed under extreme stresses that would have exacerbated his disease symptoms), and his heart was definitely in the right place (which is one reason why there was a very active cult associated with his supposed sainthood during Henry VIII's reign).

Whereas I believe Shakespeare meant for us all to note that the far greater culpability for the carnage of the Wars of the Roses lay with all the sane nobles who rushed into the vacuum of Henry’s passive reign, and, without the excuse of an actual mental illness, unleashed a long series of horrific wars on themselves and their entire country, in their collective lust for power and vengeance that consumed so many of them, as well as countless innocent commoners.

And I find the most pointed irony in a couple of speeches by Henry VI in which he, the king whom all of the cognoscenti would have known was truly mad, calls those nobles mad! I think Shakespeare expected the sharp elves among his audience and readers to recognize the irony, and also the veiled portrait of Henry VI's tragic illness ---tragic most of all because he was a kind of Cassandra, who could clearly see how people should behave, and could accurately characterize their wrong behavior, but who was utterly incapable of implementing his saintly vision. 

In that light, read the relevant part of Act 4, Scene 1 of 1 Henry VI, and ask, who does Shakespeare mean for us to see as the real madmen?

Enter VERNON and BASSET
KING HENRY VI
KING HENRY VI
BASSET
VERNON
SOMERSET
KING HENRY VI
YORK
SOMERSET
GLOUCESTER
EXETER   It grieves his highness: good my lords, be friends.
Putting on a red rose
Flourish. Exeunt all but YORK, WARWICK, EXETER and VERNON

So, I conclude with this question – whom among modern Shakespeare scholars has taken note of the above ironies, and/or has realized that Shakespeare did indeed depict Henry VI’s madness, hiding it in plain sight.

Cheers, ARNIE PERLSTEIN

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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