Henry VI, Part III

Why This Play?:

Well, the last post had me eager to check out the other installments of The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses.  I wanted to see if the second episode would solely focus on the Part III play or be a confused mash-up of two plays like the first installment.  I was pleased to see the pace evened out and had much more focus (it centered on Part III, with just a couple of leftover tidbits from Part II tagged on to the beginning).  This was a much more rewarding viewing, and I was able to enjoy the cast without dealing with the plot whiplash from the first time around.

This play (and this episode) is squarely centered on the concept of revenge.  Most of the players are less motivated by which monarch they feel is truly ordained by God, and more by getting vengeance for any deceased or disgraced relatives who are collateral in the Wars of Roses.  Getting even at any cost is upheld as the marker of honor.  Any time Henry does the opposite and refuses to act out against his enemies, his supporters and family rebuff him.  Retaliation doesn’t lead to anything good in this play, only death and civil war.  It’s hard to feel righteous about fighting back if your head is displayed on a pike, you know?  Our own acts of retribution for the hurts and wrongs we have suffered tend to be less extreme today (less vigilante king-crowning and murdering), but I wonder if they really do make us feel any better.  When is it best to blaze up in righteous indignation, and when is it best to attempt to forgive and forget?

So What Happens?:

We start off straight where Part II left off!  York is fresh off battle and feeling really good about himself.  He and his supporters burst into the castle – emboldened, he sits on the throne.  King Henry charges in with his crew, demanding York get off his rightful seat.  There’s an argument over who actually should be king, mostly to remind the audience of lineage.  [Recap – Both York and Henry are descended from the same family of brothers, sons of Edward III.  His eldest son’s son, Richard II, was the next king but had no children. Yorkists believe that the descendants of the next eldest brother are next in line for the crown.  Richard III was deposed and a younger brother’s son became King Henry IV by seizure of the crown.  That’s Henry VI’s grandfather, a direct line of Lancastrian monarchy.  Family tree below for semi-clarification.]  Henry sorta realizes that since his grandpa stole the crown, he may not be legitimately ordained by God.  He buckles: to secure peace, he strikes a deal that York and his sons can be next in line for the crown after Henry’s life ends.  Queen Margaret is furious that their son, Prince Edward, is thus cut off.

Yeah, the succession is a confusing labyrinth. Hopefully this image helps. 

York returns home, where his grown sons Edward (eldest, not to be confused with Henry’s son Prince Edward) and Richard (yup, that one) convince him to seize the crown now, not to wait until Henry’s (natural) death.  They go back to battle, this time against Margaret leading an army.  Her supporter, Clifford (whose father was murdered by Yorkists in Part II, so VENGEANCE) kills York’s youngest child, Rutland.  Then, York is taken prisoner.  Margaret taunts him with a handkerchief stained with his son’s blood.  He curses her, and Margaret and Clifford stab him to death.  The queen orders that his head be placed on display at the York city gates.

Edward and Richard receive word of their father and little brother’s deaths.  Their biggest supporter is the powerful Earl of Warwick…but he bears the bad news that their supporting army has also fled.  The only upside is that their (middle) brother George is on his way with more troops.  Henry is not happy to learn of York’s murder; he wanted to keep his word about the succession and avoid civil war.  Margaret and Clifford tell him to man up.  There’s another battle, during which Margaret pushes Henry to leave (both for his safety, and because he’s worthless in combat).  He wanders around in despair and witnesses a scene that encapsulates the horror of civil war perfectly: a father has accidentally killed his son, and another man has mistakenly killed his own father.  Clifford is wounded in the fray, and the Yorkist crew taunts him as he dies, then orders his head displayed on a pike (retribution strikes again!).  Edward, the new Duke of York, now takes up his late father’s cause and declares himself the new rightful king.  He names his brother George the Duke of Clarence and Richard the new Duke of Gloucester.  Warwick says he’ll go to France to broker a strategic marriage with French princess Lady Bona to gain allies for the new king. 

Every Englishman each time he realizes he has no clue who the king currently is

Every Englishman each time he realizes he has no clue who the king currently is

Henry meanders about the English wilderness, mumbling to himself about Margaret going to France to ask the King to aid the Lancaster cause.  Two gamekeepers happen upon him, recognize him, and haul him in to the (new) authorities.  Back in London, Edward is now on the throne.  Lady Grey comes to petition her right to her late husband’s lands (he died fighting for York).  Edward’s instantly smitten and wants her as his bride.  Gloucester muses to himself that he wants to be king, but he recognizes how many obstacles (i.e. relatives) are in his way.  Margaret and Prince Edward arrive in France at the court of King Louis to plead for troops to help reinstate Henry to the English throne.  Louis is on board to help, but then Warwick arrives on behalf of King Edward with a royal marriage proposal for Louis’s sister, Lady Bona.  Louis consents, Warwick rejoices, and Margaret fumes.  Just then, a messenger arrives with the news that Edward redacts his proposal as he’s married Lady Grey.  Louis and Bona are horrified at such dishonor, Warwick is angry at being made a liar and patsy, and Margaret is jubilant.  The three of them vow to all fight together to reinstate Henry, and Warwick proves his new loyalty by pledging his eldest child, Lady Anne, to be Prince Edward’s wife.  War’s back on!

Gamekeepers (heh, heh)

Gamekeepers (heh, heh)

Over in England, Clarence and Gloucester are not happy about Edward’s marriage.  They try to warn him that his choice of Lady Grey isn’t a good political move, and sure enough, news arrives that Warwick and Margaret are gunning for them with French troops.  Clarence revolts and makes a hasty alliance with Warwick in exchange for marriage to another of his daughters.  Warwick leads a raid that takes Edward prisoner and strips him of the crown.  Brother Gloucester sets him free.  Warwick and Clarence swing to the Tower to free Henry, re-crown him, and have him grant them governing power (after all this, he’s content to be a quiet figure head).  Henry then notices a young Earl of Richmond and prophesies that he’ll be England’s herald one day (he’s the future Henry VII, Elizabeth I’s granddad, who eventually overthrows tyrannical Richard III).  Edward’s followers convince him to try for the crown yet again, so he storms the castle and imprisons Henry.

War of Roses = Sharknado

War of Roses = Sharknado

Everyone’s squaring off for battle.  Edward offers Warwick a chance to beg forgiveness, but Warwick is far too proud.  His new ally Clarence shows up…to promptly and publicly betray him and to cozy up to his brothers once more.  The fight commences.  In the fighting, Warwick is injured, can see the tide turning against Henry, and he dies.  Margaret has one last hurrah as warrior queen, addressing her army before the Yorks capture her and her son.  When Prince Edward refuses to yield to (new again) King Edward, Gloucester slays him – right in front of Margaret.  She rages in despair, now a prisoner, and Gloucester hightails it to London to clear his family’s final hurdle to royalty.  He marches straight to the Tower, up to Henry’s cell.  Henry shows one final moment of grit, cursing Gloucester and prophesying that many countrymen will rue the day he was born. Gloucester brutally stabs Henry, dwelling on his words.  The final scene reveals a settled King Edward and Queen Elizabeth showing off their newborn prince and heir.  Gloucester smilingly shows affection, secretly sneering his revulsion and ambition to be king.  Thus, we’re all queued up for the sequel.

Check This Out:

I normally point out little fun pop culture or historical items about the play in this section, but for this particular post I’m just going to use it to point out fun bits of The Hollow Crown’s second episode.  I liked it much more than the first, probably since it primarily focused on the contents of one play (with only bits from Part II and Richard III)

  1. It was an interesting idea to have Richard secretly witness Rutland’s death.  Does this add to revenge motif?  Does it spur him on to become more violent himself?  Or does it just show us early on that he’ll put self-preservation first and won’t stick his neck out for his brother? 
  2. Smart script move: putting some of Richard’s speeches (borrowed from the next play, where he confides in audience) at end of episode 2 as he’s heading up to kill Henry.  It’s a perfect segue into episode 3, portrays his greater motivation for the crown as a whole, and is a stylistic transition to ready the audience for the 4th wall to be broken lots in Richard III.
  3. Tom Sturridge did a fine job here, and I found him weirdly reminiscent of Ben Whishaw in Richard IIback in the first Hollow Crown go-around.  I’m thinking particularly on the loin-cloth-clad lamentation over the state of being a king.  It provided a nice circularity and nod to the king’s overthrow that set about decades of strife.
  4. I also watched the final part of the series, Richard III.  That was the very first play I covered for this project, back before I figured out that tying each one into modern, everyday life was my goal.  This particular film included Margaret as a crazy witch who curses everyone, so I enjoyed it thoroughly.  A fine stand-alone production.
  5. I pointed this out a while ago on Twitter – Warwick looks like an 80s-era WWF fighter.  He even comes with a wrestling name: The Kingmaker 
The Kingmaker would definitely fight the Hulk for Elizabeth's affections. He could also easily take down Rowdy Roddy Piper

The Kingmaker would definitely fight the Hulk for Elizabeth's affections. He could also easily take down Rowdy Roddy Piper

Thoughts & Themes:

Anyone reading or watching this play cannot escape the motif of revenge (vengeance, retaliation, retribution, whatever name you choose to give the idea).  It’s blatant, practically hitting us over the head every other scene.  Time and again we see characters who strike back solely because they’ve been hurt.  Clifford rampages against all Yorks because they killed his father, Clarence (initially) abandons his family’s cause because he is jealous that Edward grants a plum position to one of his new brother-in-laws instead of him, and Warwick switches royal alliances because he is dishonored when Edward rebuffs his advice and makes him go against his word of honor to the French.  Characters even embrace old enemies when a new, more prevalent adversary rears up to do them fresh wrongs.  This revenge cycle in part perpetuates decades of civil war, creating a domino effect of rage and destruction.  We are shown that it is not worth it, that everyone who participates gets his or her comeuppance. 

But retaliation is a very natural human act.  It’s right there in the well-worn phrase “getting even”: we somehow believe causing pain in return will level the playing field.  I’ve been thinking a lot about how we react when we’ve been hurt by someone, particularly a person we care about.  There is a near-immediate, visceral need to make that person understand your hurt.  That can manifest in wanting to teach someone a lesson, to make him/her feel as badly as you do, or to just deflect and blame that person for the entirety of your pain (when perhaps, you may have contributed to the situation that caused it).  I deal with this as a parent every single day – my kids have that innate sense of “if you hit me, I hit you back”.  I have to break them up, try to get them to empathize and talk instead.  So why can’t I behave the same way instead of flaring up anytime someone cuts me off when I’m driving? 

When someone is cruel or dismissive or disrespectful, we have a few ways to respond:

  1. Respond with a comment or action in the exact same tone – matching insult for insult
  2. Grumble to yourself about it and/or complain to others about that person’s meanness without confronting them directly
  3. Call the person out on their actions and ask them to stop (either publicly or privately)
  4. Turn around and leave that person behind

To varying degrees, some of these actions will perpetuate the situation and keep the cycle of abuse going.  Other choices may help you to feel heard, but the hardest part is to realize that even if you state your position of hurt succinctly, even if you have a factually strong defense and you present it in perfect clarity, you do not have any control over how the other person will receive and respond to your feelings.  You never will.  You can’t make the other person feel badly for their actions or see that he/she was wrong.  You can only take responsibility for anything that you have done and try (and it is so hard!) to lay down the rest of it. 

I was tested big time last month with the dissolution of a friendship that I hinted at in my last blog post.  Someone I had known forever and trusted ended our friendship (which was fine) and wrote things to me that were deliberately mean (not so fine).  When this first occurred, my husband was full of fury on my behalf, and he asked me how I was going to respond.  In a flash, I thought of numerous points on how this person had misinterpreted, even twisted, my actions.  I even had text message exchanges and emails to back me up; this wasn't simply based on my own memories. It would be so easy to stew in indignation, to respond with my side of the story.  To try to make her feel badly, to send blame right back over to her.  I had to step out of my head and try to see what felt like an attack from another angle.

I decided to give myself a couple of days to just mull everything over without acting on it.  I tried to consider her point of view.  And I realized that everything she had unloaded had little to do with me; I think venting felt necessary to validate her opinions and feelings.  I felt badly for her when I saw her harsh words were more about her own insecurities than about anything I had actually done. I recalled the words of caution that other loved ones had been giving me for a couple of years about this relationship, all the ways that it had become mutually unhealthy.  I thought about which mistakes I had made and the issues I had ignored.  I own part of this dissolution, and it is a shared responsibility between us both (despite trying to lay blame for the relationship's end squarely in my lap).  Even in light of my mistakes, I knew that I did not deserve to be treated with disrespect and rancor.  And I did not want to respond in kind.  I want to be better than that.  The only way to do that is practice.

I don’t need to get in the last word on this breakup.  It won’t help me feel better, and it won’t change her opinions. The best way for me to stop being hurt or angry is to try to let go without needing to be right.  This post isn’t an open letter to her.  This isn’t a defense of my actions or an accusation towards another person.  I have not and will not speak about the situation or this person with our few mutual friends (none of whom read this blog anyway).  This is simply my version (which is what the blog is all about!) of a time when I chose option 4, to leave any idea of retribution behind.  Unlike the slew of characters from Henry VI, I chose not to push back.  It's done.  I wish her nothing but the best, and I hope that she goes forth to learn and strive to be a better person.  I hope the same for myself.  Anyway, it's easier to let go of someone who has proven that she is unreliable, even volatile. Our mutually unhealthy cycle of the past years wasn't doing either of us any favors. With that said, it's time to try to let go of anger or hurt, to forgive and forget.  Nothing good happened to Warwick, anyway.

In 2017, I’m working on being deliberate, on taking a beat before responding to any frustration that’s directed toward me.  I’m trying to train myself to ask more questions and to listen.  To attempt being polite to diffuse a flare-up before one can really begin.  I put my foot in my mouth (constantly), so this will not be easy.  How to do that without becoming a pushover?  Perhaps the hardest part is to find a balance – no one wants to be the dog that constantly rolls over when approached.  Maybe the first step is acknowledging the difference between standing up for oneself and engaging in disrespect out of some sense of retaliation.

To the point of forgiveness, I can't help that "the quality of mercy is not strained". It's been an awfully long time since we tackled a comedy. How about The Merchant of Venice  next time?