Tuesday, November 22, 2016


Satirical more than dramatic, melodramatic more than comical


We are entering the realm and reign of the last Lancaster king of the red rose against the white rose of York. This rivalry is costing England a lot: the successive defeats in France with the final death of Talbot, Senior and Junior, the latter in the arms of the former, the former the grave of the latter, the latter enhearsed in the embrace of the former. Another red rose supporter negotiates a wife for his king who still is a child, at the most a rather young teenager. And at the same time Richard of York who has been reinstated in his dukedom and made regent of France is forced by the clergy to accept a compromise with Charles VII, a compromise that is meant to be humiliating and binding under feudal law and oath. What the English forget is that this long one hundred year war has created something that is far from feudal: national feeling and pride in France with the change in alliance of the Duke of Burgundy who plunges England into defeat when he sides with the King of France. Shakespeare makes fun of Joan of Arc and makes her pregnant of who knows who in the French court, many names are uttered and none prevails. But it is not sure he understood the real national feeling that emerged from this long historical episode covering four or five generations (life expectancy down to hardly twenty with the Black Death raging at the time.

But one thing is sure. France is building some kind of unity whereas England is torn apart by the mounting quarrel between the roses of the two houses of York and Lancaster. Henry VI is a child still and seems to be very weak and very dependent on advice and counselors, though his decision to marry the woman the Earl of Suffolk has negotiated for him though Henry does not know anything about her, nor what she looks like, sounds like a teenage whim and his last words sound like some private engulfment in playing with his body more than anything else:

I may revolve and ruminate my grief.” (Act V Scene v)

Since kings in France make maps of France in such games, I guess Henry VI retired to make a map of England in solitude.

But the play is full of battles. The misery of war is represented I guess by the setting made up of old planks and boards, old disarrayed doors and other recuperated disparaged flotsam of some shipwreck retrieved from the Thames, the whole shabby construction in the shape and form of a central space surrounded by what would be houses, city walls, or any other urban building. It is mostly an all-purpose décor for the miserable dealings of the English crown with a situation they cannot even control since they are deeply divided and ready to riot at any time. The French king accepts the compromise imposed onto him on the advice of his counselors that he will be able to break it any time he wants, which is more than true since then the English crown and the regent of France, the Duke of York, first of all will have other errands to run and secondly other predators to take care of as well as other preys to gobble up, starting with this king of no dignity, authority and prestige. This production chose an actor, slightly too old for this first part, but so meager and so locked up onto and into  himself, unable of any empathy or physical openness, that he looks like a teenager for sure, nearly effeminate, certainly not the siege of power and force. He is the perfect fence made of spiky chicken wire to keep the roaming scavenging beasts of prey away though not the flying vultures smoothly gliding and soaring overhead.

The king of England will thus pretend to be the King of France till the Glorious Revolution – at least – but that is a sham and a lie and the dice got cast by Joan of Arc and Charles VII. In fact in this desire to control a good chunk of the continent and the tremendous frustration they come to in the 15th century lies the ferment that will lead them to Brexit: since they cannot have the terms they want, they step out of Europe in the 21st century. You can’t teach new tricks to old dogs I guess especially now they cannot practice their favorite fox hunting.

But the play is in many ways hilarious. Hilarious in this Henry VI that looks like some library rat cornered by the light and baffled by the promise of a woman he will call his wife. Hilarious with the innumerable running in and out, out and in of the various English and French soldiers with a few in between like the Burgundians or some other turncoats and volatile allies. Hilarious in the way they present Joan of Arc at first and the use of French words like Pucelle, and when they use an English word they come down to maid, which is a nice euphemism for her virginal state, at least today, maybe less in Shakespeare’s time. Hilarious in the fake trial, the appearance of the “father,” if he is, while she claims she is of noble descent, and her pleading for pardon and pity with arguments like being in child and trying to explain who the father is with multiple men who could be or have been. Hilarious in nearly every single scene that is made trite not out of spite but because they are trite with narrow minded people and obstinate asinine caricatures of soldiers, nobles or plain human beings.

Only one scene stands out though probably too long, especially since it is repeated as if we had not understood: it is the confrontation between Lord Talbot and his son John Talbot about saving their skins, or at least the skin of one to be able to get a vengeance or revenge. It is in a way empathetic though the boy seems stubborn and too feudal to be true:

My death's revenge, thy youth, and England's fame:
All these and more we hazard by thy stay;
All these are saved if thou wilt fly away.
JOHN TALBOT: The sword of Orleans hath not made me smart;
These words of yours draw life-blood from my heart:
On that advantage, bought with such a shame,
To save a paltry life and slay bright fame,
Before young Talbot from old Talbot fly,
The coward horse that bears me fail and die!
And like me to the peasant boys of France,
To be shame's scorn and subject of mischance!
Surely, by all the glory you have won,
An if I fly, I am not Talbot's son:
Then talk no more of flight, it is no boot;
If son to Talbot, die at Talbot's foot.” (Act IV, Scene vi)

Of course the demand from the father is reasonable but foolish. Yet the response from the son is unreasonable and just as foolish as the father’s demand. We are dealing here with a father who would die twice if his son died with him, and at the same time a son who would be dishonored, shamed by his flying away, and twice as much if flying away with his father. The son is so feudal that he does not even have any survival instinct. It is empathetic but not that poignant. It becomes poignant when the dead son is brought into the arms of the dying father.

Had death been French, then death had died to-day.
Come, come and lay him in his father's arms:
My spirit can no longer bear these harms.
Soldiers, adieu! I have what I would have,
Now my old arms are young John Talbot's grave.” (Act IV, Scene vii)

The noble families of England and France are so intertwined and inbred that they are all English and French and they are all cousins of any rank. That makes such scenes like this one when acted properly, and it sure is the case, very heartfelt but it does not erase the sorry aftertaste they have: ridiculous values, vain glory, in many ways fake ethics and yet ethics nevertheless. They sound more pitiful and even pathetic than human, humane, sensitive and in any way sensuous or sensual. Manly sensual but sensual nevertheless. Impossible here. It is all prefabricated, standardized. When Shakespeare introduces some desire of a man for a woman, for example Henry VI for Margaret, it is some lascivious innuendo and when the Earl of Suffolk desires the same woman for his king it is purely perverse: to negotiate her freedom against her marriage with Henry VI so that he, the Earl of Suffolk, will be able to manipulate the king through his wife, and take advantage of the queen in the back of the king. In many ways disgusting. That’s not tragic at all but extremely sinister and melodramatic.


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