The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Sunday, 19 January 2014


The second in my series of reviews of the BBC Shakespeares...

Henry VI Part 2

Another boring title. But it wasn’t the play’s original title, oh no. That was:

The First Part of the Contention Betwixt the Two Famous Houses of Yorke and Lancaster

which certainly does what it says on the tin. However, this clearly marks the play out as one of Shakespeare’s earlier plays, preceding, as it does, the day when they guy who printed his posters pointed out to him that if the titles were a bit shorter then there would be room to make the writer's name a bit bigger.

What’s it about? Well, for the first three acts it is pure West Wing power politics. Basically, King Henry VI is a complete Walter the Softy. He’s a godbotherer. He just can’t stop bashing that Bible. It’s interesting, given the times in which the play was written, that King Henry VI’s extreme piousness and religious faith are used to make the King appear weak, gullible, naïve, wilfully blind, impractical and suggestible, given that, from Henry VIII onwards, the principle had been established that Kings and Queens do not merely follow the word of God, but dictate it.

So anyway Henry VI is clearly on the way out and all his followers have their knives out for him. Not literally, this isn’t Julius Caesar. On the one hand you have his wife, the evil bitch Queen Margaret of Anjou, ruthless, ambitious and French to the core, plotting with Suffolk, the good-looking, charming and effete Lord she is doing the shagging with. On the other hand you have the Bishop of Winchester, a fat, greedy old sod. And on the other hand you have the Duke of York, a heroic war veteran with anger issues. He’s played by Bernard Hill in full eye-bulging mode.

In the first three acts they basically plot together to discredit and get rid of Gloucester, the Lord Protector. Gloucester seems like an all-round nice bloke, his wife may have a one-way ticket aboard the loony bus but he’s the one thing stopping Henry VI from f*cking up in a seriously big way, and of course all those who want to get rid of Henry VI want him to f*ck up in a big way.

The plotting scene goes something like this:

SUFFOLK: Hello. Can I help you at all?
WINCHESTER: Yes, I would like to launch a bloody coup against the House of Lancaster.
SUFFOLK: The house of Lancaster, you say?
WINCHESTER: Yes. I wish to be rid of the false Duke Humphrey of Gloucester.
SUFFOLK: Right. (Takes one step back) Margaret?

(Long pause)

MARGARET: (Off) Yes?

SUFFOLK: I’ve got a man here you wants to launch a bloody coup against the House of Lancaster… can fill in the rest.

Shagger’ Suffolk has Gloucester denounced for treason and killed and the play becomes CSI Medieval England as Warwick investigates the corpse. He thinks there may be foul play afoot. He looks like he was strangled. He has strangulation marks on his neck. And Suffolk was last seen walking nonchalantly out of Gloucester’s bedroom rubbing his wrists as though he had strained something muttering something about ‘strangling really taking it out of you’. He is clearly the murderer!

Margaret is a fascinating character. When the King learns of Gloucester’s death, she does something which is both horrendous and yet incredibly true to life - she launches into a ‘Well, you think you’ve got problems, well what about me?!?’ speech. To which the King replies, ‘Well, yes I think I do have problems, the Lord Protector’s just been brutally murdered’. To which the Queen goes, ‘God, it’s all me me me with you isn’t it? You never think of anyone else but yourself!’ And then she launches into this mad speech about how much she loves the King, which includes a detailed description of her ferry crossing from Boulogne.

Meanwhile the Duke of York has a cunning plan. He believes he has a better claim to the throne than Henry VI Part Two. Imagine, if you will, a killer Sudoku, rating tough. Now multiply it by the rules of cricket. And then raise that to the power of the plot of The Schizoid Man. Now what you are left with is roughly half as complicated as the scene where the Duke of York explains what his claim to the throne actually is. I was watching it, and my one thought was, ‘What this scene really needs is a flipchart’.

Bit of an odd thing next. Act IV is all about something else entirely, the rebellion of John Cade. This has little to do with the rest of the play and is, if you’re watching it in the theatre, a good point to pop outside for a couple of g and t’s. The problems with it are twofold. Firstly, because it involves peasants that means it has to involve lots of comedy thicko commoners being incredibly gullible, plus some agonisingly contrived puns which really should have been lost in the translation. The second problem is that Shakespeare, or whoever, tries to tie it into the rest of the play by saying that the Duke of York was responsible for the rebellion, his intention being to gauge the King’s strength – something which doesn’t have the ring of historical accuracy. And then, come Act V, this is entirely forgotten. So you get the feeling on some plot elastoplast coming a bit unstuck, one of Will’s ‘will-this-do?’s.

Anyway, by this point Suffolk is dead too, and in Act V, after the longueurs of the peasant revolt, everything becomes very exciting. It’s like 24. The Duke of York is a Jack Bauer figure, he’s almost psychopathic. He is starting his own rebellion, demanding the removal of the appeasing Duke of Somerset (remember him from Part One?) one of those no-good pen-pushers back at city hall. He’s never got his hands dirty, he’s never been out in the field. There’s an electric scene where the Duke of York confronts the King, with all their Lords lined up beside them, including York’s two sons, of which more later, and then there’s a bloody great fight in which lots of people die, including Somerset. Hooray!

Now, having watched this, I’m pretty sure that this play was written before Henry VI Part One. My reasons are a little nebulous but I shall do my best to denebulise them. Essentially, it’s a compare and contrast with Richard III. Richard III feels like a play written as a follow-up because, for its first couple of acts, you feel a bit like you have walked into a story half-way through, with lots of plot threads hanging over from the previous play, lots of characters referring back to events that happened in the previous play, and even a cameo from Margaret, just because she’s such a great character she had to be brought back even if she has nothing to do with the story. And you have the famous story-so-far speech at the beginning, ‘Now is the winter of our discontent, previously on Buffy’. Whereas Henry VI Part Two barely refers back to Part One at all and has a ‘cold opening’.

It doesn’t have a proper end, though, with York and Henry VI racing back to England from the battle of St Albans, it is clearly an instance of a young writer trying to secure another commission by ending on a cliffhanger (see also: Blake’s 7, Coupling). I don’t know how much serialisation there was in Elizabethan theatre, but it strikes me that this must be one of the earliest examples of a ‘to be continued’. Parts Two and Three seem to have been written close together, as the cliffhanger is such a well-chosen midpoint of the story.

So I think Henry VI Part One was written as a prequel, before, or around the time of, Richard III. Why does it feel like a prequel? Because it has a story, plus a load of seemingly irrelevant scenes which only exist because they are there to retroactively enhance stuff we already know. Part One makes great pains to tie into Part Two, but Part Two doesn’t try to tie in with Part One at all. It’s kind of like the Frasier episode You Can Go Home Again, or Revenge of the Sith, or even Genesis of the Daleks, it derives its power from the audience knowing what will come later, whereas in The Good Son or A New Hope or The Daleks you have stories which are clearly intended as starting points, not continuations.

Plus, rather like Genesis of the Daleks being a prequel to The Daleks, you have the problem that the continuity doesn’t quite match. Two instances spring to mind. In Henry VI Part One York outlines his claim to the throne. In Henry VI Part Two he outlines his claim to the throne again, to the same people! Now, this sort of thing can happen when a prequel is written later, but it seems odd if the plays were written in numerical order. Plus Henry VI Part One sets up things which are then forgotten about in Henry VI Part Two - the whole business of the colour of roses, for a start, but also York’s rivalry with Somerset, which is barely touched upon in Henry VI Part Two until Act V. This could of course be a problem with Henry VI Part Two feeling like three different plays (or the work of three different authors) stuck together but nevertheless it seems oddly remiss, compared to the seamless continuity between Henry VI Parts Two and Part Three and between Part Three and Richard III.

Anyway, I seem to have gone on a bit, I’ll shut up now. Next up will be, I think, another opening, another show, in which John Cleese decides to brush up his Shakespeare and where some flighty Shrew called Kate gets too darn hot. Yes, it’s Coriolanus.

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