Thursday Reviews: Henry VI, Part 3 by William Shakespeare

Henry VI, Part 3

William Shakespeare

If Part 1 of this trilogy was a weak collaboration, and Part 2 the prototype for later and better works, Part 3 of Shakespeare’s Henry VI gets to the meat of the War of the Roses. Weak, ineffectual Henry VI is the target of Richard, Duke of York. Tired of fawning to an indecisive monarch and convinced the king’s grandfather stole the crown from his own, York rises up in rebellion. He is soon killed, and only through the machinations of Queen Margaret is the Lancaster throne saved.

Temporarily. The sons of York take their father’s place and succeed in overthrowing Henry. However, through all this, we discover this is not a play about Henry VI. It’s about Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Yes, that Richard, later Richard III, the titular character of probably Shakespeare’s greatest historical play (next to Julius Caesar). Gloucester jumps off the page and likely dominates every performance of Henry VI, Part 3. It’s all there, waiting for Richard to take center stage in his own story: The deceit behind the backs of brothers Edward IV and George, Duke of Clarence, the bloodlust, the physical deformity reflecting an ugly inner person, and, of course, those snarky asides. When Richard steps into his own in this story, I could easily see Ian McKellan’s casual interpretation of Gloucester’s snide breaking of the fourth wall. McKellan did not create that. Gloucester demanded it, which made the character a natural for McKellan’s imagining of Richard III as set in a fascist England of the 1930’s. This guy is not the Darth Vader everyone paints him as.

He’s the emperor, deliberately evil and loving every moment of it.

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.

Thursday Reviews: Henry VI, Part I by William Shakespeare

Henry VI, Part 1

William Shakespeare

I’m about to commit literary blasphemy and give the Bard a bad review. Mind you, I doubt Shakespeare’s reputation will suffer. After all, this is the same man who wrote Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet.

But I decided I’d start going through Shakespeare’s works in as close to chronological order written as possible. Mind you, this is a crap shoot. The same source that told me the Henry VI trilogy came first later told me that, no, Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Taming of the Shrew came first. Oh, well. I can always go back and read them later.

Of Henry VI, however, Part 1 is not exactly what one would expect from the same man who wrote the epic about Henry’s father, Henry V. The story foreshadows the climax of the War of the Roses (its origins explained here in the first act) in Richard III. Let’s be blunt here. Henry VI, Part 1 is a mess of a story. Shakespeare had two comedies under his belt before writing this trilogy (with a collaborator, according to some scholars). Taming and Gentlemen are some of the most frequently performed and copied plays in Shakespeare’s body of work. However, Henry VI is his first historical play. Unfortunately, unlike the transformation of the shallow Prince Harry into noble King Henry V, Henry VI is barely present in this story, a young king easily manipulated and deceived by the Archbishop of Winchester and by Lord Somerset. Give Will credit, though. One plotline involves Joan of Arc’s campaign against England on behalf of King Charles of France. (It also reveals her to be a witch.) During that particular war between France and England, Henry VI was actually an infant, ascending the throne before he could even speak. But hey, history never gets in the way of a good story. Just ask Rowan Atkinson, who insists Richard III was really a good guy, accidentally killed by his nephew, Edmund Blackadder, the story later erased from history by the dastardly Henry Tudor, Henry VII.

But Blackadder our young king is not. Are you kidding? Making an ancestor of the Tudors the original Blackadder would have gotten Will’s head chopped off. The problem here is that too much is going on. Any English literature or drama scholar will tell you that Shakespeare was a master at handling multiple plotlines. His comedy depends on it, and part of the attraction of his later plays, such as Julius Caesar, is this handling of multiple plot threads, sometimes using it as misdirection. After all, Shakespeare also invented the modern action movie, the modern political thriller, and even the modern romantic comedy. So while this first entry in the Henry VI trilogy is weaker than the Bard’s later work, it’s a fascinating look at THE giant of English language writers learning how to became William Shakespeare.