Thursday Reviews: Henry VI, Part 2 by William Shakespeare; The Green Mile by Stephen King

Henry VI, Part 2
William Shakespeare

Last time I looked at Shakespeare, it was part one of his Henry VI trilogy (with Richard III, my favorite Shakespeare play, btw, part of the War of the Roses tetrology). Henry VI was a very early play of Shakespeare’s, though he had two comedies under his belt when Part I debuted. The reason Part I was so weak was that the central character, Henry VI himself, was such a weak character, and the story involved the loss of England’s French territories, including the royal family’s ancestral home of Normandy. Historically, Henry was an infant during all this. It was as though Shakespeare (and, as some scholars believe, his collaborator) had a hard time getting a handle on such a weak and ineffectual ruler. Consider Shakespeare’s later historical work, Julius Caesar, Richard III, Henry V. Shakespeare invented the modern political thriller and the action movie template. Ian McKellan even directed Richard III as an action movie.

But if Part I fails to show what Shakespeare could do with political intrigue and larger-than-life characters, Part II remedies that. It’s pretty clear already that Henry VI is not his famous father, nor the scheming son of York from Richard III (who makes a cameo as York’s younger son.) He is a whiny, easily manipulated wimp, and there’s no shortage of manipulators: His Sicilian bride Queen Margaret, his Lord Protector Gloucester, the Duke of York who believes he is the rightful king. History is corrected in Part II, as Henry actually notes that he was “but an infant” when he came to the throne. Margaret resents Gloucester’s role as Lord Protector as Henry is an adult now. (Never mind that he was somehow an adult in Part I, which opens with news of Henry V’s sudden death.) She schemes with York to remove Gloucester. When Lady Gloucester is condemned for consorting with seers and witches behind Henry’s back, the Queen and York make their move. Soon, Gloucester, popular with “the commons”, is killed, and a civil war ensues. First, Henry finds himself besieged by John Cade, a “common” who claims to be descended from King John and thus the rightful heir. Though one of Henry’s allies manages to turn the rioting commons against Cade, Henry is then faced with York and his Irish troops, come to claim what he believes is rightfully his. In modern terms, this is The Empire Strikes Back, with the heroes sent on the run while the forces of darkness triumph in a three-part story. Of course, Shakespeare depended on patronage from a Tudor queen, one whose grandfather killed the last York king at Bosworth Field. So naturally, York and his sons are the forces of darkness.

This is not as strong as the later works (Julius Caesar, Richard III, King Lear), but it’s quite good. It’s less surprising that the writer of Part II became the English language’s most important writer than the writer of Part I. Though even scholars acknowledge the Bard wrote a few stinkers over the years.

The Green Mile

Stephen King

This is probably one of King’s best works. If you’ve seen the Tom Hanks movie, you know this story already. A giant of a man named John Coffey is brought to Cold Mountain Penitentiary, condemned to die. He will spend his final days on “The Green Mile,” what passes for death row at Cold Mountain. Paul Edgecombe, the lead “screw” on the Mile, gets to know Coffey and learns that he is not just another killer. He is something quite special. None of the guards, except mean, dimwitted Percy, can figure out how such a gentle, tormented, and slow-witted man could have raped and killed two young girls. The truth emerges as does Coffey’s special talent: Coffey can heal with touch.

King released this originally as a serial novel. The single-volume version remains relatively intact, though King acknowledges tweaking a continuity error that bugged him. The movie is pretty faithful to this novel, though it dispenses with a parallel plot about Edgecombe’s life at a Georgia nursing home in 1996, where he eventually reveals to his girlfriend that he is 104 and likely to live for a long time to come, the effects of his association with John Coffey. The movie also is more chronological than the book, a function of its serial origins. Nonetheless, the emotional punch in this story is one thing that translated loud and clear into the movie. Coffey’s supernatural gift is a plot point, but it’s not the center of the story. It demonstrates why King is more highly regarded than virtually any other horror author since Poe. It’s pretty clear he could step away from the horror genre and still execute with as much skill and style as he did when he made The Stand an American classic.