Henry VI, Part I, part four
Living in the swirl of power and incompetence that is Washington, DC gearing up for a Presidential Election, it is understandable that I fixated on the following thought while reviewing the last two acts of King Henry VI, Part I:
We need Better-than-mediocre People doing Important Jobs.
(And it would be great if we had NO Worse-than-corrupt-and-incompetent Buffoons doing Anything. But let's not get carried away, dreaming big dreams.)
Why doesn't this happen more often? My days as a Management Consultant taught me few things, but one was this: Need Exceptional People? Give them perks, pay, and prestige. In a word: incentives. Now, even having brought you through only the first three acts of Henry VI, part I, it should be clear that 1400s England may not have had the Greatest of the Great staffing the national interest's most important executive functions. Bickering, scheming and manipulation abound, as you might have noticed. For every great badass knight/general and well-intended counselor, there are many self-serving fools, cowards and, yes, evil-doers. Not to mention the king himself, who is only a lad and can't really be expected to preside with much wisdom, given he's still working on mastering his multiplication tables.
HOWEVER, this is not to say some mighty fine incentives didn't exist to attract people to public service. English politicians enjoyed SOME great perks back in The Day; and I believe if these perks still existed, it would create a much larger incentive to dedicate one's life to public service and the great weal. One of these perks is enjoyed in Act IV, scene i of King Henry VI, Part I. During a pow-wow with the King in Paris right after the incredibly anti-climactic coronation, Sir John Fastolfe arrives to inform everyone of Burgundy's defection. Naturally everybody is chagrined. However, Lord Talbot, who has been twice abandoned in battle by the cowardly Fastolfe, is not distracted enough to forget about revenge. And so, begging the indulgence of the court, Talbot reaches over and plucks Sir John's garter from his leg. De-knighting him. Given the code of chivalry, I suppose this is a sort of a paradoxical cross between castration and de-flowering. Fastolfe is then exiled by the king and retires the only way he knows how - in shame.
Now that's a great perk. If I could have done the modern equivalent of plucking a lousy knight's garter off every time a boss, co-worker, or client proved their dishonorableness, unworthiness or just assholic-ness, my career would have gained a whole new level of satisfaction. I would have slept much sounder at night. Obviously, practical challenges existed. For example, people don't really wear garters any more. At least, none that co-workers know about in an ideal skank-free world. But I'm sure we could come up with something. Cutting a male's tie off, for example. This doesn't address the women or business casual wearers, but it's a start. Smashing their Palm Pilots to a million bits with a tiny hammer is another option. And as long as things ended in exile (at my old company, this would have meant being sent to the Providence, RI office), you could consider me incentivized. (Ugh. I just wrote 'incentivized' - We had to make up and use lots of stupid works like that as management consultants.) But the garter thing - there's a real opportunity for pure, visceral satisfaction that Human Resources departments should look into. The ultimate non-financial reward for much-tried employees.
Sadly, I never got to pluck garter, cut tie, or smash PDA while suffering in Corporate America. Ah well. What's past is past. No need for the hair of the dog that bit me when the hangover has already gone away. I'm much happier now making nothing and doing something I love instead of making the vaunted six-figure salary everybody gets so worked up about and doing something that constantly made me want to take a shower. Worrying about the mortgage is a small price to pay, especially when that price compounds at record-low interest rates.
After the inspirational garter-plucking incident, scene i of Act IV wraps up with Henry sending Talbot to win back Burgundy or punish him appropriately. Then a Toady of York and a Toady of Somerset ask Henry for permission to beat each other to a pulp (re: plot #4, The War of the Roses). Henry rattles off another "why can't we all just get along" speech, forbidding them to fight. The king says it makes no difference which rose anyone wears, they should love both aristocrats equally. As a demonstration, Henry picks a red rose and puts it on, while expressing devotion to both Somerset and York. This upsets York, the White Rose guy, a bit. Finally, Great-Uncle Exeter dooms, glooms and prophesizes us out of the scene.
In scene ii, we have Talbot at Bordeaux, demanding the French open the city gates. Unsurprisingly, they opt to keep the gates shut. In fact, the French general goes so far as to call Talbot "a fearful owl of death," which, to my mind, is a pretty lame insult. It is, for example, preferable to being called "a tedious duck of futility," or "a noxious sparrow of venereal disease," in my opinion. Guess that's the twenty-first century for you. Owls of death just don't hold much potency anymore.
The general makes up for his less-than-Shakespeare-worthy insult by letting Talbot know he is surrounded in one big way. The Dauphin is moving in behind him with all the rest of the French troops. Talbot realizes he is very, very, VERY outnumbered. He manages to give a brief, blustering speech of the inspirational variety. However he is clearly inspiring his troops to die with him, not to eek out an improbable victory with him. Uh-oh.
In scene iii, we find York in charge of forces in Gascony. There he learns of Talbot's troubles through his scouts. However he can't rush to Talbot's rescue because that red-rose-wearing weasel, Somerset, hasn't delivered York's requisite horsemen yet.
York and we also learn, (tug at the old heart strings) that Talbot's young son John is arriving at Talbot's army shortly, marching straight into the slaughter. The father and son haven't seen each other in 7 years. To his credit (I suppose} York is very upset about all this, and curses Somerset thoroughly. To the modern audience who has seen one-too-many cheesy formulaic action movie, all this is the clear signal that the English are going to lose the battle at Bordeaux, and both Talbot and son and going to take a dirt nap.
Therefore, most of scene iv is not particularly necessary these days, except to confirm what a dickweed Somerset is. (I know that phrase is crude, but this weasel definitely earns it.) Talbot has sent a man, Sir William Lucy, to seek aid from Somerset's forces in another part of Gascony. Somerset tells Talbot's man that he can't send anything. He mentions that the Talbot/York plan was "too rashly plotted," and there is no point in sending his troops. Lucy mentions that Talbot REALLY needs Somerset to dispatch his horsemen. Somerset says he'll get around to it in six hours, and vaguely calls York a liar. Lucy suggests that horses arriving in six hours will be too late. Their final exchange is a good summing up of Talbot and Somerset's characters:
Lucy: Too late comes rescue; he is ta'en or slain:
For fly he could not, if he would have fled;
And fly would Talbot never, though he might.
Somerset: If he be dead, brave Talbot, then, adieu!
Lucy: His fame lives in the world, his shame in you.
Me: Take that rhyme, you callous cad!
Scene v and vi concern the touching reunion and mutual slaughter of Talbot and his son, young John Talbot. John arrives just in time for the massacre. Before the fight begins, Old and Young Talbot have an Honor Duel, where they try to out Chivalrous each other. Talbot tells him to escape, so that the name of Talbot might be revived. Only son, I take it. (Cue violins.) John replies that leaving would dishonor same name ("The world will say, he is not Talbot's blood/That basely fled when noble Talbot stood").
They argue about it a while, all in rhyme, which to me dilutes some of the drama and tragedy of the thing. Finally, John sways Talbot. Talbot observes:
Then here I take my leave of thee, fair son,
Born to eclipse thy life this afternoon.
Come, side by side together live and die;
And soul with soul from France to heaven fly.
Again, I'm touched, but the rhyming (which I realize was a required part of plays of the day) ruins the sentiment to these twenty-first century ears.
The rhyming continues in scene vi, as Talbot save John's life in battle. John rhymes in gratitude. Talbot tries to get John to leave again. No dice. They decide to fight side by side, and... die in pride. (I hope this whole rhyming thing isn't contagious. The Spouse might find it quite outrageous.)
In scene vii, Talbot, wounded, reflects on how proud he is of his son. Naturally, his son is killed immediately. Talbot says nice words, and dies too. And a Talbot lived to rhyme a rhyme no more. This is ill shit indeed, when your country's only badass knight/general dies rhyming, and the Dukes are too busy sniveling at each other to send reinforcements.
And so the French win the battle, and tumble upon the bodies of the Talbot clan. Bastard wants to hack them up, but the Dauphin prevents him. Maybe that's why they call him Bastard.
Talbot's aide Lucy arrive to collect bodies and prisoners from the French. Worried as to the fate of his boss, he talks for a really long time about Talbot's names and accolades. La Pucelle is a bit less than lady-like about the whole thing, I'm afraid. This is how she interrupts Lucy to tell him that Talbot is dead:
The Turk, that two-and-fifty kingdoms hath,
Writes not so tedious a style as this. -
Him that thou magnifies with all these titles,
Stinking and fly-blown, lies here at our feet.
Classy. Very classy.
Thus ends Act IV.
Act V is the final act. Hooray! But since it is only the first of three plays in a cycle, Will feels at liberty to throw in a few more plots and whatnot at the end. Scene i finds us back in London, where Gloster tells Henry of a proposal from the French Earl of Armagnac. The Earl, who is a close relation of Charles, offers his daughter in matrimony to Henry, with a large dowry. Henry thinks he is too young to marry, and would rather study, but a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do. He agrees to close his eyes and think of England.
Uncle Winchester appears, promoted to Cardinal, to make sure his plot (#2, Gloster versus Winchester
) gets its fair share of stage time this act. Exeter serves his usual dismal function, telling the audience of Henry V's prophesy, "If once he comes to be a cardinal/ He'll make his cap co-equal with the crown".
Henry sends Winchester to France, with a peace treaty for Charles and a big honkin' jewel for the future Mrs. VI. After the king and Gloster leave, Winchester has another evil aside with the audience. He tells the Ambassador to wait a moment while he gets the gold he promised the Pope for making him a Cardinal. Then he says,
Now Winchester will not submit, I trow,
Or be inferior to the proudest peer.
Humphrey of Gloster, thou shalt well perceive
That neither in birth or from authority
The bishop will be overborne by thee:
I'll either make thee stoop and bend thy knee,
Or sack this country with a mutiny.
Man. Another downer. With all these horrendous oracles and divisive backstabs cropping up, it's a miracle England managed to survive this period at all. You practically expect it to sink into the sea, drowned under the weight of the tons of bad karma.
Meanwhile, on another good note for the British, in scene ii Paris is revolting, and calling for the Dauphin. However, the divided English army is now united too late to save the family Talbot, but coming to battle Charles' forces.
Joan of Arc appears in scene iii and calls forth her fiends from hell to give her signs about the future. They show up and are silent. She offers blood sacrifices, her body and soul, but still they seem uninterested in helping her anymore. Joan assumes this is bad news for France, not just her:
See! They forsake me. Now the time is come
That France must vail her lofty-plumed crest
And let her head fall into England's lap.
My ancient incantations are too weak,
And hell too strong for me to buckle with:
Now, France, thy glory droopeth to the dust.
This seems like a rather egotistical interpretation. But then again, Will isn't writing this thing to sell "I LUV LA PUCELLE" T-shirts.
York captures Joan in the battle and the French run away as quickly as possible. She curses him and everybody else, including Charles. Frankly, she seems quite pissed about being captured, and not in the least saint, virgin or maid-like.
Just as we are settling in to resolve at least a few of the plots (the peace treaty has been sent to Charles, Joan and Talbot's sparring is at an end), Suffolk, an Earl who has existed to this point for no particular reason whatsoever, (banal rhyming back-chat and the like), enters, leading a hostage, one Lady Margaret, daughter of Reignier (the King of Naples and member of Charles's entourage). During some clever repartee, Suffolk falls madly in love with Margaret, remembering too late that he is already married. Troubled by this inconvenience, he decides to win her for Henry instead, whom he assumes, being a young 'un, can be easily manipulated. The only problem is that Reignier is poor, so kiss the big dowry to replenish the old English war chest good-bye. Suffolk is nice enough to check how Margaret feels about the whole arrangement. Happily for him and Plot # 5
, Suffolk and Margaret
, Margaret is cool with the deal, as long as Daddy is, too. So off to see Daddy!
The apple-of-Suffolk's eye doesn't fall far from l'arbre. Daddy is cool with it, too, although he is acting under the impression that Henry already a) knows about and b)desires his precious pumpkin (pardon the mixed fruit salad of a metaphor). Margaret seems to be of the puritanical school; when asked by Suffolk if she has a token to send to his majesty, she offers "a pure unspotted heart, never yet taint with love". Oh - I hope it doesn't clash with the royal robes.
Then Suffolk sneaks a kiss from her. Margaret responds: "That for thyself - I will not so presume to send such peevish tokens to a king."
Ahh, flirtations. This bodes well for the royal-couple-to-be. But don't worry. I'm sure the young kids are gonna be just fine, with a long happy marriage in front of them. What else could the next two plays possibly be about?
Scene iv is a more good clean fun, if you don't mind a little witch burning. York and co. are in Anjou, proceeding with the Joan condemnation. A shepherd appears, claiming Joan is his daughter and swearing he'll die with her; he's been looking for her for a while, and is beside himself to find her like this.
Could Shakespeare be stirring pangs of sympathy for Joan in his audience at last? Nah - Joan denies the shepherd is her father, claiming she came from noble parentage, and calls her dad a peasant. Dad offers her a blessing before her death, but she won't kneel down to receive it. Dad is incredibly ticked off, and suggests that they burn her, as hanging is too good. Exit Shepherd, and the last shred of hope for some love for Joan.
York is eager to get on with the witch burning. The English are about to light Joan's fire, but first,...
1) Joan insists she's been guided by Christ, not the devil, and as an immaculate virgin warns she'll "cry for vengeance at the gates of heaven"
Warwick: Well, since she's a maid, add more faggots to the fire to shorten the torture.
2)Has Joan mentioned she's pregnant? They wouldn't kill an innocent child-to-be, now would they?
York: "She and the Dauphin have been juggling...."
(I include this line verbatim only because it is my new favorite euphemism for sexual intercourse, and I wanted to share it with everyone.)
Warwick: We don't need any bastards, anyway, especially the Dauphin's. Burn her!
3) No, no. Not by Charles, but by Alencon!
York: "That notorious machiavel!" (Aka: no dice. Burn her.)
4) Did Joan say Alencon? She meant Reignier, King of Naples.
Warwick/York: A married man! You should be ashamed of yourself. This lady sure sleeps around, especially for a virgin. Strumpet, with or without child, to the fires with you.
5)Fine. But Joan is SO cursing ALL of you!
Well then, I guess you know what happens next.
Do I even need to tell you?
(Sorry; that line is for The Spouse; The Spouse loves puns).
After the Feu d'Arc, the un-burnt French contingent arrives at York's camp to listen to the peace deal Henry has sent through Winchester. The offer is that the English will stop fighting if Charles swears to submit to him and pay tribute. Then Henry will make Charles a viceroy under the English crown, to enjoy 'regal dignity'.
Since the French control half of France, this is insulting, and Charles says so. Reignier (aka, Margaret's dad) tells him the opportunity for peace may not come again soon, and Alencon points out the deal will at least save the French subjects from being pillaged, massacred and the like, until it is convenient to attack Henry again. Thus fortified, Charles agrees to the deal.
Wrapping it all up in London in scene v, Suffolk has successfully hissed into the young ear of the king, and convinced him that Margaret is The One. Gloster is not happy, since word has already been sent that Henry accepted a previous offer. Gloster and Suffolk argue. Henry says to fetch Margaret and stop the quibbling. Everybody leaves the stage in a huff but Suffolk, who gets the last word:
Thus Suffolk hath prevail'd; and thus he goes;
...[to get Margaret]...
Margaret shall now be queen, and rule the king;
But I will rule both her, the king, and realm.
And it's Suffolk out of nowhere, from way back in the pack! He moves ahead of Somerset, passing the ashes of La Pucelle on the rails! He's neck and neck with Uncle Winchester down the stretch! Oh! And Suffolk is pulling away! It's Suffolk by a nose at the finish line! Suffolk wins, and it looks like we have a new bad guy to crown in this play!!!
And so ends King Henry VI, Part I
. Nothing is resolved, and it all looks to be a doomed, miserable ride to the finish of Part III
, with no joy, much evil and few surprises.
Living in the swirl of power and incompetence that is Washington, DC gearing up for a Presidential Election, it is understandable that I fixated on the following thought while reviewing the last two acts of King Henry VI, Part I
Competent villains are never in short supply.