Monday, June 6, 2016

June 2016

Now that the 400th anniversary month is over things have been a little calmer but there is still a lot of Shakespeare out there.  Richard III has dominated this month for us but there have been other activities and sightings of interest. As always, though, I will start with a reminder that Shakespeare Calling – the book is available for purchase and I appreciate all your support.

Please help promote the book by liking and sharing it on Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Bokus…. And please encourage your local book shops and libraries to buy it.  Thank you.

or Adlibris, CDON or Bibliotekstjänsten

From Davis and Frankforter’s The Shakespeare Name Dictionary:
  • The only entry under ‘X’ is Xantippe who was married to Socrates and reported to be a real shrew. She is only mentioned in The Taming of the Shrew and I suspect that her shrewishness was akin to Katharine’s – a survival strategy. 

Shakespeare sightings:
  • In the novel Lifeless by Mark Billingham the detectives are bemoaning the fact that the complete works of Shakespeare can be computerised on a keyring, but the various computer systems of the Scotland Yard aren’t compatible and cross references can’t be made.
  • In the old series from the 70’s Rock Follies, Anna, one of the members of the new rock group, once played Ophelia.
  • In the as yet untitled novel by my new friend JS, the main characters talk about Romeo and Juliet and several other Shakespeare plays. Poor Aislin is from a parallel universe so she doesn’t know so much about Shakespeare yet.
  • In The X Files, season 6, an author imagines all kinds of terrible things, for example the death of Scully, and says, ‘That’s what authors do, like Shakespeare.’ Later in Season 7, the smoking man says, in regard to something, I didn’t note down what, ‘When in disgrace in fortune and men’s eyes.’ Later he tells Mulder, ‘You’re not Prince Hamlet.’
  • In the film Stardust Robert DeNiro plays Captain Shakespeare.
  • In the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith, which supposedly the film Philomena is based on, though Philomena herself is scarcely mentioned, Shakespeare makes a couple of appearances: Mike and Charlotte were studying Romeo and Juliet in high school and later Mike’s boyfriend talked about a production of Hamlet he had seen.
  • In the novel South Riding by Winifred Holtby
    • Lydia Holly, the girl from the shacks, has her love for reading awakened when she is given the complete works of Shakespeare and later discovers when studying Shakespeare in school that it ‘had not been a lie, then, that ecstasy which visited her when she read A Midsummer Night’s Dream on top of the railway coach last summer. It had meant something. She had understood something. She was drunk with an intoxicating wine of gladness.’
    • Unfortunately, her classmates do not agree, showing a ‘lamentable lack of enthusiasm for Shakespeare’s descriptive powers’.
    • Poor socialist Astell is offended by Shakespeare’s humorous depiction of the working class.
    • And quotes are peppered throughout.
  • Dagens Nyheter
    • Reports on a new play called Gertrude’s Hen Party, a feminist spin off of Hamlet starring the great Finnish Swedish singer Arja Saijonmaa.
    • Writes that there has been much ado about the birthday boy and gives a list of some of the ways in which the 400th anniversary has been commemorated.
    • Has a long article about how little we know about Shakespeare’s own opinions and claims that today’s fixation with theoretical theatre is putting a stop to the art of acting. Hmmm.
  • In the film Arthur the butler John Gielgud is dying. Arthur asks, ‘Do you want me to read some Shakespeare? Hamlet was in trouble when we left off.’ The butler says, ‘No.’ It must have hurt the great Shakespearean actor to say that!
  • In the film The Kid there is a poster for Julius Caesar on the classroom wall and the teacher is trying to get the kids interested in King Lear.
  • In the book The House on the Thames by Gillian Tindall, which goes through the history of that wonderful narrow house near the Globe that we have walked by so many times, and so far Shakespeare has been mentioned four times:
    • We like to think that there was a tavern there which Shakespeare would have visited.
    • Sir John Fastolf, upon whom Falstaff is said to be based, bought the house in the early 15th century.
    • Because of Shakespeare’s connection to the area, Bankside’s theatrical history has loomed larger than it really should have because both the theatres and Shakespeare himself were there for such a short time.
    • In spite of diligent research, it has not yet been proven that Shakespeare ever lived in the area. 

Further since last time:

Posted this month
  • ‘The Method Actor’ in Richard III 
  • This report

The Method Actor in Richard III

The Method Actor
Richard III

     ‘Since I cannot prove a lover,’ Richard says in the classic opening soliloquy, ‘I am determined to prove a villain.’ This after having described himself as ‘rudely stamped’, curtailed of this fair proportion’, ‘cheated of feature’, so deformed ‘that dogs bark’ at him – in other words ugly and unlovable.
     He pulls at our heartstrings immediately. How can we not pity this wretched man? We are drawn into his mind at once and there we stay. We are Richard as he convinces Clarence of his brotherly love even as he plots Clarence’s murder. Clarence believes him, we believe him though we know better. Because Richard is the ultimate method actor.
     From Clarence to Anne. Richard has just told us that although he has killed her husband and father he will marry her, and although she hates him, naturally, and calls him, ‘thou lump of foul deformity,’ she marries him. How is it possible? Because in this, her time of grief and utter vulnerability, Richard tells her that it was her beauty and his love for her that caused him to commit murder. He begs her to kill him if she will not have him.  When he ends by saying about Henry VI whom he has also murdered, ‘this noble king, I will wet his grave with my repentant tears’ (Act 1.2) she is on her way to succumbing. Because as the method actor that he is, not only does Anne believe him, he at the moment believes it himself.
     He continues to act the part of loving brother, friend, uncle. And people believe him.
     But not his mother, the Duchess of York.  A formidable woman. Again, we must pity the man, and we begin to see where his ‘I cannot be loved so I will be a villain’ persona comes from. In Act 2.2 he asks his mother for her blessing and grudgingly she says:

God bless thee, and put meekness in thy breast,
Love, charity, obedience and true duty. (Act 2.2)

     Hardly a loving personal blessing and Richard feels the sting of its meaning. Says he to Buckingham:

…And make me die a good old man.
That is the butt-end of a mother’s blessing;
I marvel that her grace did leave it out. (Act 2.2)

     He does not fool his mum but the mayor and citizens fall for his humility. When they have been urged by Buckingham and Catesby to appeal to Richard to become king Richard says:

Alas, why would you heap this care on me?
I am unfit for state and majesty.
I do beseech you, take it not amiss:
I cannot nor I will not yield to you.
…Will you enforce me to a world of cares? (Act 3.7)

     This time with prayer book in hand Richard plays the part of pious recluse, believing it himself just long enough for them to accept him as king. That’s long enough for his purposes.
     And maybe he knew that what he had murdered to achieve really was a ‘world of cares’ because once he is king things start falling apart. His continued viciousness doesn’t stop the process and when the ensuing war is about to break out, his mother the Duchess of York confronts him and this time there is no blessing, grudging or otherwise. She tells him she wishes she had strangled him in her ‘accursèd womb’ and goes on:

Thou toad, thou toad…
Thou cam’st on earth to make the earth my hell…
What comfortable hour canst thou name,
That ever graced me with thy company?
…take with thee my most grievous curse,
Which in the day of battle tire thee more
Than all the complete armour that thou wear’st!
…Bloody thou art, bloody will be thy end:
Shame serves thy life and doth thy death attend. (Act 4.4)

     A death curse from his own mother. Even the best method actor cannot pretend that this doesn’t hurt but Richard turns immediately to his sister-in-law, Elizabeth, Edward’s widow, and offers his hand in marriage to her daughter, also Elizabeth. He’s just had her two sons murdered so even less than Anne could Queen Elizabeth possibly agree to this preposterous proposal.
     The method actor takes over once again. In a long exchange he wears her down. Or seems to.  ‘Shall I be tempted of the devil thus?’ Elizabeth asks then says:

…Write to me very shortly,
And you shall understand from me her mind. (Act 4.4)

     Richard believes he has convinced her: ‘Relenting fool, and shallow, changing woman!’ (Act 4.4) What he doesn’t know is that Elizabeth consents to the marriage between her daughter and Richard’s mortal enemy Richmond, soon-to-be Henry VII.
     There remains only one role for Richard to play. He realises this when he awakens from his dream in which his victims one after the other have come to him with the damning words, ‘Despair and die!’
     That role is the role of the tragic villain.

I am a villain…
My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,
And every tale condemns me for a villain…
I shall despair. There is no creature loves me;
And if I die, no soul shall pity me.
Nay, wherefore should they, since that I myself
Find in myself no pity to myself? (Act 5.3)

     Richard, the method actor, finally converges with Richard, the man who was not loved so he made himself the man who was hated and feared. Richard the villain.
     And so he dies. King Richard, the crown achieved through method acting that fooled almost everyone. Himself included.
     But not for long. Acting, even the best method acting, is after all just acting.
     The great playwright knew that. And gave us Richard III.

Works cited:
  • William Shakespeare, the Complete Works, the RSC edition, 2007. Edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen

 Films seen this time:

 Seen on stage: Not since seeing the brilliant Jonas Karlsson at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in March, 2014.  See further in Shakespeare Calling – the  book

Sunday, May 1, 2016

May 2016

What a Shakespeare month April has been! Newspapers and television have been filled with Shakespeare, his plays are everywhere, celebrations have abounded. So much has happened that I scarcely know where to begin. So I’ll just begin:
Shakespeare Calling – the book
or Adlibris, CDON or Bibliotekstjänsten
Please help promote the book by liking and sharing it on Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Bokus…. And please encourage your local book shops and libraries to buy it!
Once again, thank you all for visiting the blog throughout the years and for supporting this project.

From Davis and Frankforter’s The Shakespeare Name Dictionary:
  • Wye is a river flowing from southern Wales to the Bristol channel. The name is Celtic for ‘conveyor’. It is mentioned in Henry IV Part One and Henry V. 

Shakespeare sightings:
  • In the novel The Long Room by Francesca Kay the main character Stephen, when he was at university, fell for the student playing Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Later when leaving a pub, his colleague says, ‘Once more into the breach, old man.’ Another colleague whose baby niece has been saved by modern medicine says, ‘…when people say that they’d like to have lived in ancient times so that they could have had a chat with Shakespeare, I point out that they probably would have died at birth…’
  •  Dagens Nyheter has had so many articles that I will just mention a few: a comparison of Othello and today’s fear and hatred between ethnic groups, a review of an opera version of Hamlet, a rather uninteresting Sunday supplement with various articles about the 400th celebration, a notice on how the Shakespeare hype in England is even worse than here in Sweden, one on Shakespeare and Cervantes sharing the same death date but not day, a long article by Salmon Rushdie about Shakespeare and Cervantes, an interview with well-known actor Mikael Persbrandt doing Macbeth, a review on a Twelfth Night
  • In the very good novel In the Woods by Tana French
    • DCIs Rob and Cassie are talking about Shakespeare and Rob wants to continue but Cassie starts telling him about an attempt to molest her when she was a child.
    • Rob is questioning the father of the victim and asks, ‘Who’s the Shakespeare fan?’ The father doesn’t understand until Rob points out that the man’s three daughters are called Rosalind, Jessica and Katharine, all Shakespeare characters. The father replies that Rob is the first to have picked up on that, and yes, he had gone through a self-improvement period when he read Shakespeare, Milton and other classics. I hadn’t picked up on it…
  • In the novel Bodies of Light by Sarah Moss, young Ally is given A Midsummer Night’s Dream which her puritanical mother finds unsuitable. Ally thinks about various Shakespeare characters throughout the novel.
  • In Jodi Taylor’s One Damned Thing After Another, in which the characters are skilled time travellers, they find two lost Shakespeare plays about the Scottish queen, which makes them realise that some mistake has been made in their travels and history has been changed.
  • In Mark Billinham’s 5th Tom Thorne novel Tom’s friend Phil Hendricks philosophises about human nature and comes to the conclusion that if you want Shakespeare you also get Shipman (a mass murderer, I had to Google him).
  • On The Third Rock from the Sun Dick and Mary are playing a sex board game and Dick gets the question, ‘What’s the craziest thing you’ve done in bed?’ His answer is that he staged Othello in bed and Desdemona was played by a duvet.
  • On The X Files someone (I didn’t note who) used the phrase ‘mortal coil’ etc.
  • On Kulturnytt Jeanette Winterson is interviewed about her new book The Gap in Time, roughly based on The Winter’s Tale, one of a series of novels based on Shakespeare plays. She said among other things that reading Shakespeare is a reality check, comparing today’s refugee situation with the shepherds taking care of baby Perdita in The Winter’s Tale. Today we say that refugee children aren’t our problem and turn them away and Winterson asks, ‘What have we learned in the past 400 years, really?’ 

Further since last time: 
  • Read aloud: excerpts from Shakespeare Calling – the book at a well-attended ‘Breakfast talk’ at the English Bookshop in Stockholm
  • Received and started reading: Kent Hägglund’s Shakespeare en man för alla tider.
  • Performed: with SEST the program for the 400th anniversary on the 23rd and 24th April. On the 22nd Macbeth only was performed but I was there with Shakespeare Calling – the book. All three performances were sold out. Some comments from the audience: ‘brilliant!’ ‘impressive!’ ‘magical!’ ‘the best thing I’ve seen in years!’ ‘I’ll never see a Shakespeare play in Swedish again!’, ‘sooooo impressed, enjoyed everything immensely!’  See further ‘On stage with Shakespeare’, posted today.
  • Bought: Howard Jacobson’s Sherlock is My Name, one of a series of novels based on Shakespeare plays.
  • Watched, a few days after the live sending: Shakespeare Live with the RSC and BBC. It’s available on Svt-play until 15 May Don’t miss it! 

Posted this month

On stage with Shakespeare


Happy circumstance brought me into contact with SEST – the Stockholm English Speaking Theatre - and after Facebooking with each other for a month or so they invited me to work with them on their Shakespeare 400 project.


It can have escaped no one that this April marks the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. To honour this, SEST planned three comeback performances of their successful Macbeth and their well-received Angry Shrews and Merry Wives, a medley of some of Shakespeare’s most interesting women.

And they wanted me to become involved.


In a program of about two and a half hours (including Macbeth) I was given ten minutes. A lot can be said in ten minutes! They wanted anecdotes on being a bardolator, on Shakespeare’s language, on the prevalence of Shakespeare in our society and on the Rose and the Globe.  No problem! On their Angry Shrews and Merry Wives, I thought bits from the play analyses from the book (blog) might be interesting. Not as easy as I thought but after the first rehearsal and seeing what they actually do, and after wise suggestions and requests from the troupe, things fell into place.

Rehearsing. I don’t know when I’ve had so much fun.  Especially dress rehearsal when it starts feeling real (almost), in the amazing medieval Black Friars cellar in Stockholm’s Old Town. Lines are flubbed by most of us and my other job as costume assistant helping Viola change from her Cesario togs into her Mistress Page gown – hooks were missed in backstage murkiness and bulges appeared on the back. But isn’t that the way dress rehearsals are expected to go?

Then suddenly it’s time. The audience is in place and Kristina steps onto the small platform and says, ‘All the world’s a stage!’ The others converge with their lines and then together, ‘Sans everything!’

My cue!

I step out from the backstage nook, not stumbling on the uneven centuries old stone steps, and into the limelight. Nervous, but not. Through the glare I see the faces of friends, on Sunday Hal too, and lots of strangers.  I feel an enormous affection for each and every one.

Me: ‘Hello. I’m Ruby. I’m addicted to Shakespeare.’

They listen, they smile, they laugh. If they notice my small stutters and memory losses they don’t seem to be bothered.

My first bit is done and I step off stage to perch on the stool next to Keith, later to be Macbeth but now doing the sound and lights. Richard steps up to do his powerful interpretation of some of the sonnets and before the applause dies away Ingela enters the stage to start the troupe’s hilarious machine gun exchange of Shakespearean insults.

What? Already my turn again? Back on stage to offer some insight into theatre history in Shakespeare’s day and a few sentences from the book/blog’s play analyses to introduce Angry Shrews and Merry Wives.

Then my bits are over and it feels good! No disasters, lots of laughs. I could get used to this applause…

I slip backstage and listen with the waiting Viola/Cesario as Ingela’s strident Emilia debates with Helena’s sugary southern belle Katherine. It gets a lot of laughs. Viola – on stage, then off and I help him/her become Mistress Page as Helena’s Juliet and Ingela’s Beatrice discuss men over drinks. There is a time factor here but well before Juliet and Beatrice have finished their drinks all of Mistress Page’s hooks are in place and there are no bulges! I listen as Mistress Page and Mistress Ford rage about Sir John Falstaff and plot their revenge. The audience loves it. Then poor Helena (Ingela) and Hermia (Helena) – just like in Shakespeare the names can be confusing! – battle it out in the Midsummer Night’s forest.

Can it already be the finale? Kristina steps out onto the stage again, the troupe offer the epilogue of As You Like It, ending with ‘bid…me…farewell!’

It’s over! But for the bows and I step again onto the stage between Keith and Richard and we bow and it’s sad and happy and wonderful and it’s over and I just want to do it again. And again.

On stage with the brilliant, hard-working, devoted and very talented Kristina Leon, Ingela Lundh, Helena Lewin, Keith Foster and Richard Asker.

On stage with Shakespeare. Loving every minute of it.


PS Off stage too, while they do Macbeth, I admire the calm competence of Jenni Söderqvist, prop and costume and everything-else manager extraordinaire.

PPS Macbeth is even better, if possible, than in November. See review here

Sunday, April 3, 2016

April 2016

Shakespeare fever is spreading as the 400-year anniversary of his death approaches.  See below for coming events. March itself has been a busy month. Among other things we’ve finished reading the Henry VI trilogy and my text is now on the blog. Richard III is waiting in the wings.
Now to the report:

Shakespeare Calling – the book
Available on
or Adlibris, CDON or Bibliotekstjänsten
Please help promote the book by liking and sharing it on Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Bokus…. And please encourage your local book shops and libraries to buy it!
Once again, thank you all for visiting the blog throughout the years and for supporting this project.

From Davis and Frankforter’s The Shakespeare Name Dictionary:
  • Woodstock – Henry VI was there! Not the one you’re thinking of, however. This one is the royal forest in Oxfordshire that ‘was a favourite retreat for kings throughout the Middle Ages’.  Henry VI was captured there, at least in Shakespeare’s play. Blenheim palace, known amongst other things for Branagh’s Hamlet, is found there. 

Shakespeare sightings:
  • On the subject of despairing thoughts in Third Rock from the Sun Dick’s new lady love Jennifer spouts some poetry, as she tends to do, and then says, ‘Shakespeare.’ To which Dick replies admiringly, ‘He’s good!’ In a later episode, when he believes he is about to be interviewed about his intellectual prowess Dick proclaims, ‘Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some thrust their greatness upon others!’
  • In Isaac Asimov’s massive Guide to the Bible he compares Tobit, in the book bearing his name, to Polonius, because Tobit too gives his son advice before sending him off on a journey.
  • In the novel Academy Street by Mary Costello the hospital library where the main character Tess spends much of her time while recovering from an illness has Romeo and Juliet in its collection.
  • Dagens Nyheter had a 5-page spread about the significance of King Lear in the political situation of today: ‘Johan Hilton sees a tragedy about politicians who are no longer capable of steering their country and right-wing populists who are shredding the little remaining decency.’
  • Dagens Nyheter also has a review of a production of Romeo and Juliet in which the two lovers have lived into old age and are now living together in a pensioners’ home. It’s described as unexpectedly successful if not analysed too much.
  • Imagine our surprise when we started seeing full-page adverts for the Royal Opera with our dear friend ÖB - who is sought after in advertising as well as small roles in films, partly because of his magnificent beard and general wise old wizard good looks – as Falstaff! He assures us however that he doesn’t play Falstaff in the coming opera…
  • In John Le Carré’s classic spy novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy Guillam (the character played by Benedict Cumberbatch) thinks that he’s ‘not so sure whether Percy realised, on that first presentation of the facts, quite what the facts were: after all, he was still Chief, and Haydon was still his Iago.’ 

Further since last time: 
  • Read aloud: excerpts from Shakespeare Calling – the book to a well-attended gathering at our local library under the heading: ‘Why Shakespeare?’
  • Finished reading aloud with Hal: Henry VI Part Three.
  • Seen with Hal: BBC’s version of Henry VI Part Three.
  • Written: analyses of Henry VI Part One, Two and Three.
  • Ordered but not received: Kent Hägglund’s Shakespeare en man för alla tider and Tina Packer’s Women of Will: following the feminine in Shakespeare’s plays.
  • Work started: with SEST on the program for the 400th anniversary 22, 23 and 24 April. Those of you in the Stockholm area – do not miss this!
  • Event posted on Facebook: at the English Bookshop in Stockholm ‘Breakfast Talk: Ruby Jand on Shakespeare Calling, 21 April’. Those of you in the Stockholm area, welcome! 

Posted this month
  • ‘Holy Henry’ in Henry VI Parts One, Two and Three
  • This report

Holy Henry in Henry VI Parts One, Two and Three

Holy Henry

Henry the Sixth, Parts One, Two and Three

     In the introduction in the RSC edition to all three of these plays bearing his name, King Henry VI himself is scarcely mentioned. This is symptomatic and accurate.
     This Henry is even less visible than his grandfather Bullingbrook is in his two plays. While Joan of Arc makes fools of the French and English alike and Talbot blusters his way to defeat in Part One, while the Duke of York decides that he should be king and Margaret uses her formidable force to betray Henry and at the same time protect him and the throne in Part Two, and while vicious civil war rages in Part Three, Henry wafts around in the periphery, uttering holy platitudes that only earn the contempt of the Yorks and frustrated impatience from his own Lancastrians.
     The man who would not be king. A king not whatsoever hereafter.
     Shakespeare does not glorify his kings. Even those who have historic reputations as heroes or villains are given a human complexity by Shakespeare. The hovering Harry in these three plays is as far from heroic or villainous as can be imagined, but is he complex in his holiness?
     Let’s take a look.
     In Part One we first see him when he is pleading with Gloucester and Winchester to stop feuding. He uses such words as ‘prayer’, ‘love and amity’, ‘my soul’ and laments that ‘holy churchmen take delight in broils’ (Act 3.1). In Act 3.4 he makes Talbot Earl of Shrewsbury in an unremarkable little speech. Later he expresses dismay at the budding conflict of the roses:

Good Lord, what madness rules in brain rich men,
When for so slight and frivolous a cause
Such factious emulations shall arise? (Act 4.1)

I quite like him for these lines. They could be said in regard to many conflicts. Alas, the Yorks and Lancastrians don’t listen, even after Henry, in Warwick’s words, ‘Prettily, methought, did play the orator.’ Prettily, yes but without dealing with the conflict.
     In the last act he laments, regarding the wars with France, that it is

…both impious and unnatural
That such immanity and bloody strife
Should reign among professors of one faith (Act5.1).

     His glorious dad should have thought of that. Henry agrees however to marriage with a French princess after protesting that he’s too young and prefers his books. Poor Henry. If he only knew what he was agreeing to. In the final scene, however, he claims his devotion to the ‘beauteous Margaret’ and waxes lyrical over how her virtues awaken ‘passions in my heart.’ But then in his final lines in Part One he reveals that it’s not so much love for the young princess but that he expects her to ease his unrest:

I feel such sharp dissension in my breast.
Such fierce alarums both of hope and fear.
As I am sick with working my thoughts…
…Be gone, I say, for, till you do return [with Margaret],
I rest perplexèd with a thousand cares…
…so conduct me where from company
I may revolve and ruminate my grief (Act 5.5).

     Piety does not protect young Henry either from the strife of court intrigues or his own neuroses.
     Part Two, then.
     Margaret arrives, eager to wed the king and play her part. He welcomes her graciously enough but we soon learn that he is not what she had expected. She says:

…all his mind is bent to holiness,
To number Ave-Maries on his beads:
His champions are the prophets and apostles,
His weapons holy saws of sacred writ.
His study is his tilt-yard, and his loves
Are brazen images of canonized saints (Act 1.3).

     This she says to macho Suffolk and she’s clearly not pleased with her holy husband.
     In Act 2.1 we see that Margaret is causing trouble and Henry frets about the dissension. He is then piously amazed by the miracle of the blind man seeing, only to have his piety mocked by the hoax.
     Next problem: the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester. Henry is firm in dealing with Eleanor’s accomplices: ‘the witch in Smithfield shall be burned to ashes’ and the others ‘shall be strangled in the gallows’ (Act 2.3) but when Gloucester is to be dealt with, though Henry goes on about his grief, he tells the queen and cardinal to do what they’re planning, and exits. Overwrought, yes. Cowardly, no doubt. Pious? Not especially. Kingly, not at all. He later swoons at the news of Gloucester’s death and appeals to God for forgiveness in suspecting foul play.
     When Suffolk is accused of treason Henry is resolute enough and banishes him. He says to Margaret:

Ungentle queen, to call him gentle Suffolk.
No more, I say: if thou dost plead for him,
Then wilt but add increase unto my wrath.
Had I but said, I would have kept my word:
But when I swear, it is irrevocable… (Act 3.2).

     Ah, so there is some oomph to Henry and maybe he’s not foolishly blind to Margaret and Suffolk’s shenanigans after all. When Margaret later grieves, cuddling Suffolk’s severed head (yuck) Henry says – indifferently? sarcastically? callously? –

How now, madam?
Still lamenting and mourning for Suffolk’s death?
I fear me, love, if that I had been dead,
Thou would not have mourned so much for me (Act 4.4).

     Maybe a bit clever, our Henry.
     Sadly, no rest for Henry. Cade on one side, York on the other. And maybe not so clever, after all. Henry puts his staunchest supporter, Somerset, in the Tower and utters his classic understatement:

Come, wife, let’s in, and learn to govern better,
For yet may England curse my wretched reign (Act 4.10).

     And that’s about it for Part Two. Despite his feeble attempt to stand his ground – ‘Can we outrun the heavens? Good, Margaret, stay’ (Act 5.2) – Henry runs.
     Part Three opens with Henry protesting feebly over Richard’s claim to the throne and offering the compromise of declaring Richard and his sons heirs to the throne when Henry dies. This does not please Margaret, their son Edward or the Lancastrians. In any case the agreement doesn’t last long because everyone immediately goes back on their oaths as Shakespeare’s characters tend to do. Full war ensues.
     Henry is upset to see Richard’s head on the gates of York and tries to instil some valour into his son when knighting him, ‘…draw thy sword in right’ (Act 2.2) – easy enough to say. His allies and enemies wrangle about this and that and when Henry says ahem can I say something? – or to quote:

Have done with words, my lords, and hear me speak.
…I am a king and privileged to speak (Act 2.2).

- it is simply embarrassing because they all ignore him. He utters not another word until three scenes later when he alone as the battle rages around him contemplates the simple life of a swain and the passing of time. At this point he witnesses the son grieving over having killed his own father and the father grieving over having killed his own son. Henry says:

Was ever king so grieved for subjects’ woe?
Much is your sorrow: mine ten times so much (Act 2.5).

     Hardly. Here I lose patience with the good king Henry. He is not as unhappy as the son or the father, he’s just self-aggrandising. Not admirable.
     In the next scene he uses kingly logic with the hunters but is arrested anyway and taken off to the Tower. He is rescued by the side-switching Warwick but cedes the power to Warwick and Clarence, ‘While I myself will lead a private life’ (Act 4.6).
     Finally, we think. Still he’s upset at the thought that people might love King Edward (oh yes, Edward of York has seized the throne, forgot to mention that) more than him because he, Henry, has been kind, mild, loving. Oh well, to the Tower he goes.
     And soon ends up dead, at the hand of Richard of Gloucester, the future Richard III. Before dying Henry in detail describes to Richard’s face his, Richard’s, villainy.
     So it goes. Henry is dead. Richard is plotting.
     We have seen Henry as a young unsure king who prefers his books to love, serenity to conflict.  We have seen him filled with care and grief, sometimes with obvious cause, sometimes not. We have seen him swoon, evade his responsibilities and resolute in punishing traitors. We have seen him unhappier for his own problems than that of his subjects’ and we have seen him recede in silence when ignored.   
     Does this all make Henry complex? Or just piously wishy-washy? He is no doubt pious. Does Shakespeare admire Henry? Maybe. He’s quite gentle with him. But these plays, we should realise, are not about Henry. They are about what Jan Kott calls ‘the Great Mechanism…a great staircase on which there treads a constant procession of kings. Every step upwards is marked by murder, perfidy, treachery. Every step brings the throne nearer. Another step and the crown will fall…From the highest step there is only a leap into the abyss. The monarchs change. But all of them – good and bad, brave and cowardly, vile or noble, naïve and cynical – tread on the steps that are always the same’ (Kott, pages10-11).
     In this cynical but accurate description of the historical process Henry scarcely emerges as just an unfortunate individual born into the wrong role. Actually the historical Henry founded Eton, Cambridge, Oxford and other colleges for which we are grateful and this proves that he wasn’t so wishy-washy. But in these plays he stumbles on the steps of kings, piteously pious Holy Henry. We can but hope his holiness gives him comfort.

Works cited:
  • William Shakespeare, the Complete Works, the RSC edition, 2007. Edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen
  • Kott, Jan. Shakespeare Our Contemporary. 

Films seen (the following is what I wrote the last time these films were seen but after this viewing I have no reason to change my assessment):
  • BBC, 1983. Director: Jane Howell. Cast: Joan - Brenda Blethyn; Talbot – Trevor Peacock; York – Bernard Hill; Warwick – Mark Wing-Davey.
    • Brenda Blethyn is great as the arrogant saucy Joan but less convincing as a tragic defiant figure. Trevor Peacock is appropriately macho and frustrated in a fittingly somewhat stupid bull-headed way.
  • 1983, BBC. Director: Jane Howell. Cast: Henry – Peter Benson; Margaret – Julia Foster; Gloucester – David Burke; Suffolk – Peter Chapman; Duchess of Gloucester – Anne Carroll.
    • The intro in the Norton edition calls the production ‘tepid’. I tend to agree but in spite of my complaints [about the interpretation of Margaret in my text ‘Margaret’s Marriage to Henry’], it's always very gripping to see. Shakespeare shines through no matter what. David Burke as Gloucester is best but Peter Benson is a convincing wimp.
  • 1983, BBC. Director: Jane Howell. Cast: Henry – Peter Benson; Margaret – Julia Foster; York - Bernard Hill; Warwick – Mark Wing-Davey; Edward – Brian Protheroe: Clarence – Paul Jesson; Richard of Gloucester – Ron Cook.
    • Confusing at times but generally well done. The York family is well acted.
  • I’m so looking forward to seeing the Hollow Crown production, to be shown this year, with Tom Sturridge and Sofie Okonedo as Henry and Margaret.

Seen on stage: No