Saturday, November 26, 2016


Pitiful ans spineless king versus PTSS Richard of the twisted spine


This is the third part, hence the end; of this Henry VI, a weak king that lasted longer than any other on the stage. The last events of his reign are not that important. The fight is to the finish, to the death between the two houses of Lancaster, the King, and York, the contender. The Duke of York is eliminated rather fast and his four sons are the heirs of his vain claim.

First Edward, Earl of March and later King Edward IV, who becomes an in and out and back in king in this play: he is the flip flop king and as such uninteresting, whimsical, self-centered, and I mean here centered on his belly-button, and when I say belly-button you can figure out what explicit word I should use: to take advantage of a widow on the whim of the moment, he marries her while an ambassador is negotiating his marriage with the sister of the King of France. More flip flop than that you die. He will eventually after having spoiled everything and caused the worst possible explosions of rivalry and struggle.

Second Edmund, Earl of Rutland, is in many ways unimportant. He is the follower of his elder brother but he is murdered by Clifford at the Battle of Wakefield at the age of 12, supposedly though he does not seem to be that young in the play and on the stage. Third George, Duke of Clarence, who is an opportunistic change-coat who deserts his brother Edward when he marries his widowed paramour, and thus becomes co-protector of the Realm under Henry VI reestablished on the throne, but not for long, since this Clarence betrays again and brings his brother back on the throne.

Fourth and not least Richard, Duke of Gloster, who is the only one who has some real will, desire, want and urge to become king by all means. He will with his two brothers stab to death Henry’s son, Edward to close up the descent of Henry VI, and at the same time shut him up. He will alone stab to death Henry VI in the Tower where the King is held prisoner. Shakespeare from the very start shows him as a killing machine only bent on conquering the throne.

Clarence, thy turn is next, and then the rest,
Counting myself but bad till I be best.” (Act V, Scene vi)

And Shakespeare makes Richard speak of himself in the basest words and feelings possible:

What other pleasure can the world afford?
I'll make my heaven in a lady's lap,
And deck my body in gay ornaments,
And witch sweet ladies with my words and looks.
O miserable thought! and more unlikely
Than to accomplish twenty golden crowns!
Why, love forswore me in my mother's womb:
And, for I should not deal in her soft laws,
She did corrupt frail nature with some bribe,
To shrink mine arm up like a wither'd shrub;
To make an envious mountain on my back,
Where sits deformity to mock my body;
To shape my legs of an unequal size;
To disproportion me in every part,
Like to a chaos, or an unlick'd bear-whelp
That carries no impression like the dam.
And am I then a man to be beloved?
O monstrous fault, to harbour such a thought!
Then, since this earth affords no joy to me,
But to command, to cheque, to o'erbear such
As are of better person than myself,
I'll make my heaven to dream upon the crown,
And, whiles I live, to account this world but hell,
Until my misshaped trunk that bears this head
Be round impaled with a glorious crown.” (Act III, Scene ii)

It is important though to clearly say that these deformities are pure invention probably spread after his death in Bosworth in 1485 when he was denuded to be prepared for burial; and then his real physical state was discovered. Shakespeare was one of those who produced for posterity that image of a twisted and distorted hunchback with a warped backside, a shorter atrophied arm and a shorter or out of shape leg that made him limp. All that was absolutely false: here are the results of the medical examination of his skeleton after discovery and before reburying.

“The type of scoliosis seen here is known as idiopathic adolescent onset scoliosis. The word idiopathic means that the reason for its development is not entirely clear, although there is probably a genetic component. The term adolescent onset indicates that the deformity wasn’t present at birth, but developed after the age of ten.
It is quite possible that the scoliosis would have been progressive, continuing to get worse as Richard got older. It would have put pressure on his lungs and may have caused shortness of breath, but clearly did not stop him from leading an active lifestyle” (

And common modern approaches of this king is as below, pushing aside all the physical handicaps, except his scoliosis, probably well hidden during his life as a king and discovered after his death by the victorious Henry VII, first Tudor king and that’s when the “legend” or the “myth” started. Shakespeare goes very far in that mythical direction in the mouth of Gloucester himself:

'O, Jesus bless us, he is born with teeth!'
And so I was; which plainly signified
That I should snarl and bite and play the dog.
Then, since the heavens have shaped my body so,
Let hell make crook'd my mind to answer it.” (Act V, Scene  vi)

But here is a modern opinion on this problem:

The body of a mediaeval monarch was always under scrutiny, and Richard III's was no exception. In death, however, his body became subject to new forms of examination and interpretation: stripped naked after the Battle of Bosworth, his corpse was carried to Leicester and exhibited before being buried. . .
No mention of Richard's distinctive physique survives from during his lifetime, perhaps out of respect to a reigning monarch, or perhaps because he hid it so well. . .
The stripping of Richard's corpse at Bosworth in 1485 made his physical shape noticeable to many hundreds of witnesses, perhaps for the first time. . .
Richard's body came to be notorious for its misshapen appearance during the Tudor period, although until the discovery of his body it was never clear whether this was pure fabrication to render accounts of his character and actions all the more extreme.
In Richard's case, this purported link between physique and character was frequently underlined, and as the Tudor regime became established, his image became more distorted -he gained a withered arm and unequal limbs, none of which were evident on the skeleton- to fit his blackened reputation.,

To go back to the play, we must say the picture of this future king here is more than bleak. It is monstrous according to the word he himself uses.

Strangely enough the action is tense and dense but it is only action with blood and battles on both sides and the producer enjoys giving some pictures of killed, bloodied half nude corpses after the battles. That’s visual gore and Shakespeare could not afford that just as he could not afford the numerous battles with twenty to forty extras. The BBC could of course invest on extras since the setting itself was made of flotsam recuperated bits and pieces of shredded wood, doors, windows picked from some demolition site.

Some characters stand out and first of all Queen Margaret as a soldier, a captain, a woman leading troops and infantry. I must also say that most of the leading actors are great in their dying scenes.  Warwick and the various Yorks seem to be great dying personae. Richard himself does not die, but he kills very well though his main quality is in his long speeches about his fate of a mongrel in his family, in his house, in his country. And mongrel and monster seem to start with the same letters for him. He is developing a discourse that could freeze your blood and curdle it if it were not on a stage. And there is no black humor in him. He appears as the great central maximum actor in this play, the one who is pulling the strings and soon these strings will become cables. I just wonder if he is not still in the making because he could have been a lot worse in his tone and maybe his body language. But I guess he kept some of his resources in store for the next play.

So this third part of this Henry VI is probably the densest and hence most interesting. Yet Henry VI himself is still smothered in an impersonation that makes him seem a lot more secondary than he should be. The choice is to make him kind of inconsistent. I am not sure Shakespeare’s text could not give him more muscle at least in appearance and tone. Instead of looking pitiful as he does here he might have been able to look impotent in front of people negating his existence and then, he would have been poignant in his powerlessness instead of pathetic in his spinelessness. This is only a question of tone, hence a choice of the director and producer.


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