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Friday, June 1, 2012

In Search of Virtuous Rulers - Henry VI And Shakespeare's Historical Nihilism

The plays of Shakespeare’s Henry VI trilogy, are some of the least-read and -performed of all of Shakespeare’s works.  There is good reason – little memorable poetry, complex history, and difficulty in reading/performing just one of the three.  At the same time, they are some of the many important ‘political’ plays which deal with governance.  

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Among the best are Coriolanus, a play about the tentative Roman attempts to create a republican democracy and the way strong nationalist leaders are often misunderstood and thrown out for the very traits that make them heroes; Troilus and Cressida, a play about international political strategy and philosophy focusing on honor vs. realpolitik; Measure for Measure, a play also about political philosophy and how strict regulations and discipline although harsh and arbitrary in the short run may be protective and good for society in the long run; and Julius Caesar which is built around the theory of presumptive guilt.  Brutus and his co-conspirators perceive in Caesar’s behavior tendencies which might lead to autocratic and tyrannical rule, threatening the authority of the Senate let alone the populace.

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All of Shakespeare’s Histories are about governing but not all about governance.  The Henry VI trilogy and especially 2 Henry VI come the closest to examining the issue and what happens to kingdoms when they are badly governed.  In this play, closely following English history, a young, weak, virtuous, but idealistic king is unable to stop the dissension in the palace and presides over the infamous War of the Roses – a war begun over petty differences but fought for nearly 15 years.

In fact, all of the differences between palace principals are either petty or tenuous.  Cardinal Beaufort (Winchester) fights Humphrey, the Duke of Gloucester and Lord Protector of young King Henry not because Gloucester has done anything, but as in the case of Julius Caesar might do something.  In both the cases of Winchester and Brutus, their suspicions are not virtuous and innocent.  Gloucester because of his relationship to the King (Uncle) and his position, is next in line to the throne, and if Henry were to die, Winchester and his close allies, Margaret (Henry’s wife) and Suffolk (her lover) would lose out.

Gloucester, although petty, insulting, and offensive to Winchester is totally blameless in the affair, and as Henry rightly sees, he has no ambitions for the throne and only has Henry’s welfare at heart.  Because of his virtue and the naïveté which is associated with it, he is vulnerable to the plots of his enemies.

The two principal female characters in the play – Margaret and Eleanor, Gloucester’s wife – are typical of Shakespeare.  They are strong, determined, and unstoppable in their desire to protect their position, wealth, and title provided by their men.  Margaret, who becomes Henry’s Queen only through an insidious negotiation by Suffolk who is her lover, has nothing but scorn for her young and innocent husband.  She is totally dismissive of him and is only concerned that he stay in power to satisfy her own interests.

Eleanor, who is a true harridan and virago, is forever after her innocent and virtuous husband, Gloucester, to look after his own and her interests:
Why droops my lord, like over-ripen'd corn,
Hanging the head at Ceres' plenteous load?
Why doth the great Duke Humphrey knit his brows,
As frowning at the favours of the world?
Why are thine eyes fixed to the sullen earth,
Gazing on that which seems to dim thy sight?
What seest thou there? King Henry's diadem,
Enchased with all the honours of the world?
If so, gaze on, and grovel on thy face,
Until thy head be circled with the same.
Put forth thy hand, reach at the glorious gold.
What, is't too short? I'll lengthen it with mine:
And, having both together heaved it up,
We'll both together lift our heads to heaven,
And never more abase our sight so low
As to vouchsafe one glance unto the ground. (I.ii)
The centerpiece of the trilogy is the War of the Roses which at the same time was fought over nothing – the selection of red and white roses – and over something – accession to the throne.  Richard Plantagenet, later Duke of York, contends that he is the rightful heir because he is descended from the third brother of Edward III not the fourth from whom Somerset, a Lancaster, is descended.  This simplifies matters, and the question of lineage and legitimate accession is very complicated and contended; but in any case, this real reason for the dispute degenerates into a bitching match over Roses.  Since the War went on for over a decade, by the time it was ending few remembered the real cause and were only fighting over symbols:

Image result for images the war of the roses
Since you are tongue-tied and so loath to speak,
In dumb significants proclaim your thoughts:
Let him that is a true-born gentleman
And stands upon the honour of his birth,
If he suppose that I have pleaded truth,
From off this brier pluck a white rose with me.
Let him that is no coward nor no flatterer,
But dare maintain the party of the truth,
Pluck a red rose from off this thorn with me
I love no colours, and without all colour
Of base insinuating flattery
I pluck this white rose with Plantagenet.
I pluck this red rose with young Somerset
And say withal I think he held the right.
Stay, lords and gentlemen, and pluck no more,
Till you conclude that he upon whose side
The fewest roses are cropp'd from the tree
Shall yield the other in the right opinion (1 Henry II.iv)
The fight between York and Somerset has serious implications, for York – probably rightly – contends that Somerset never sent him the troops he promised to support Talbot (an English military hero, similar in reputation to Henry V) against the French.

So, during this tumultuous period when England needed to consolidate the gains that the heroic Henry V had made in France, the regime was in total disarray.  Allies of Somerset and York were conspiring to do each other in; Margaret and her lover Suffolk were doing their best to undermine Gloucester; Eleanor, wife of Gloucester was doing her best to destroy Margaret, Winchester, and Henry.  Winchester was trying to destroy Gloucester.  York was trying to dethrone Henry, and the poor young, naïve, clueless, but virtuous king was powerless to do anything about it.

In all of Shakespeare’s Histories and most of his Tragedies, might wins out over right.  There are few virtuous leaders, and Henry VI and his more principled but aggressive father, Henry V were perhaps the only two.  Richard II, the ‘poet king’ was ruminative, reflective, and sensitive when it came to pondering the nature of kingship and the ebb and flow of life itself (as Henry VI was as well); but he was not a passive leader and by far not a virtuous one.  He instituted an unpopular and unfair poll tax on the peasants to pay for a dubious war, expropriated John of Gaunt’s lands and fueled even more dissension in the palace, and made bad but self-serving political decisions (sending Bolingbroke off in exile). 

In one play, 2 Henry VI, are found two of Shakespeare’s virtuous leaders – Henry himself, and the selfless Gloucester.  Both believe in righteousness and justice.  Henry is distraught and disconsolate when he hears of Gloucester’s murder":
What, doth my Lord of Suffolk comfort me?
Came he right now to sing a raven's note,
Whose dismal tune bereft my vital powers;
And thinks he that the chirping of a wren,
By crying comfort from a hollow breast,
Can chase away the first-conceived sound?
Hide not thy poison with such sugar'd words;
Lay not thy hands on me; forbear, I say;
Their touch affrights me as a serpent's sting.
Thou baleful messenger, out of my sight!
Upon thy eye-balls murderous tyranny
Sits in grim majesty, to fright the world.
Look not upon me, for thine eyes are wounding:
Yet do not go away: come, basilisk,
And kill the innocent gazer with thy sight;
For in the shade of death I shall find joy;
In life but double death, now Gloucester's dead. (III.2)
At the same time, Henry is not guiltless, even as virtuous as he is, for he accedes to the wishes of his wife and Suffolk and agrees to let the blameless Gloucester be led off to prison where he is murdered.

The lesson learned from the scope of Shakespeare’s work is that there are very few virtuous rulers, and when they exist, their refined sensibilities of justice and righteousness often cause more pain and suffering than if they had been strong, determined, and unprincipled Machiavellian leaders.  Had Henry and Gloucester been smarter, less naïve, and far less innocent, they might have nipped the War of the Roses in the bud, thus saving lives in the war with France and retaining Maine and Anjou, and not precipitated the brutal war between York and Henry’s forces which resulted in Henry’s death.

The rule of Shakespeare was the rule of Machiavelli – leaders like us all are acquisitive and self-protective by nature and will always compete for power, wealth, status, and resources.  This is neither a good thing nor a bad one, but how life is; and history shows that the adversarial relationships of powerful men result in periods of equilibrium and peace without virtue.  Unless these adversaries are equal in strength; or unless a reign is all-powerful, wars and disputes will continue.  The Pax Romana was possible because of a true Roman hegemony.  The years of modern Cold War peace was because of military parity between two powerful adversaries; and once that equilibrium was destroyed with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the fight for dominance and a new hegemony continues.

Image result for images the war of the roses

In other words, virtue not only is too much to expect from world leaders, it may not be the attribute most conducive to peace and harmony (the object of virtue).  Suspicion, subterfuge, deception, duplicity, and physical might – although far from the idealistic notion of reigns built on trust, honesty, and a belief in human goodness – are the right armaments in the battle for predominance.

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