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The War of the Roses: Brilliant or Mediocre?

By Diana Major Spencer
From Insights, 2000

 

The production history of Shakespeare's three Henry VI plays is pathetic. Not that the plays lack splendid verse and powerful scenes, but each in its own way is dramatically unsatisfying. Nevertheless, the Utah Shakespeare Festival, either saving this set until last or avoiding it until the last possible moment, fulfills its goal of completing the canon by “the end of the century” with The War of the Roses. Rather than producing all three as separate plays, the Festival has commissioned Howard Jensen, who played Hamlet in the Festival's first production in 1962 and has maintained a close relationship throughout its history, to compress the Henry VI scripts into one evening’s performance.

Some scholars would find Jensen’s task easy: Just separate the wheat from the chaff, the Shakespearean parts from the collaborator(s)' , the brilliant from the mediocre. The professor who introduced me to Shakespeare loved to jibe about Shakespearean collaboration: “The good parts are by Shakespeare; the bad parts are by someone else.” The assumption is, of course, that Shakespeare, like Minerva, emerged fully grown from the forehead of his literary or mythological parent, that his talent was so perfect he needed no apprenticeship, and that he never stuttered or stumbled during his theatrical years--all of which smack of uncritical bardolatry.

The plays themselves offer insights into Shakespeare’s development from a talented but inexperienced “upstart crow” to the fully accomplished revealer of Hamlet and Lear. The panoramic inclusiveness of his plays suggests acquaintance with mystery plays in his native Warwickshire, where biblical events were separately presented over the course of a holy-day. For example, the story of Noah might be presented in two plays, the carpenters’ guild building the ark and the water carriers bringing the flood. Similarly, in the York cycle, Christ’s crucifixion is one play, His death a second, and the resurrection a third. One must witness the entire cycle before experiencing the resolution audiences need to complete the dramatic experience.

The Wars of the Roses tetralogy (including Richard III) must also be seen as one creation, incomplete for the audience until the closing scene of Richard III. Each preceding collection of episodes ends with a tantalizing “Flash Gordon” hint of adventure to come. Part 1, after revealing Lancastrian in-fighting over which branch of the family should have power, and after defeating the French witch Joan of Arc at Orleans, ends with a postscript episode of the duke of Suffolk so lusting after Margaret of Anjou that he arranges for her marriage with Henry VI, even though the king is elsewhere betrothed. Suffolk speaks the final lines of the play: “Margaret shall now be queen and rule the king; / But I will rule both her, the king, and realm” (5.5.107-108). Certainly, more must come.

During Part 2, Richard, duke of York, establishes his claim to the throne with a genealogical recitation of the descendants of Edward III. Margaret, meanwhile, asserts her power on behalf of her son, another Edward, after Henry VI, in his weakness, makes York his heir, thus dispossessing his own son. Jack Cade's rebellion reflects the chaos of England’s other turmoils, but is resolved within the play. Finally, the Yorkists win the battle of St. Albans. Crookback, not yet duke of Gloucester since Henry is still king, urges the Yorkists on to London to greater victory: “Sound drum and trumpets, and to London all, / And more such days as these to us befall” (5.3.32-33). Again, no resolution.

In Part 3, the Yorkists indeed win the crown, but Richard, duke of York is slain, as is his second son, Rutland. York's eldest son becomes Edward IV and immediately confers the now-available titles and lands of Gloucester on his youngest brother, Richard. While Warwick negotiates for a French bride, Edward marries a commoner, thus alienating the powerful king-maker. For a time, Henry regains the throne, but is again deposed, and this time, Richard of Gloucester kills him in the Tower of London. The play, and the Henry VI series, ends with Crookback kissing the baby son of his brother Edward IV; predictably, Richard mutters an aside: “To say the truth, so Judas kissed his master, / And cried ‘All hail!’ whenas he meant all harm” (5.7.33-34). Obviously, a sequel must ensue.

In Richard III, after cruelly eliminating the brothers and nephews standing between him and the throne, Crookback Richard, duke of Gloucester, becomes Richard III. Not until Henry, earl of Richmond, flaunts the head of Richard III on the tip of his sword is resolution achieved. Finally we can believe that England will see better days, that Henry IV’s usurpation of the English crown is finally atoned.

A second lesson Shakespeare learned during this tetralogy is the necessity of a focal point for satisfying drama. The monolithic character of Greek drama—where all characters report to Oedipus, for example, or Medea or Orestes; or of Marlovian drama, where Faustus or Edward II is the agent around whom all activity swirls—cannot accommodate Shakespeare's panoramic vision; but it would help the playgoer if someone emerged as the character to care about. Henry, who in real life inherited the madness of his grandfather, is portrayed as young, weak, helpless, and utterly ineffective: His most significant contributions to the drama are his Rodney-King-like plaints, “Why can't we all just get along?”
The apparent heroes of Part 1 are Talbot, who loses to the French because an English rival refuses to send reinforcements, and Humphrey, duke of Gloucester, brother to Henry V, and thus uncle to the present king.

As Talbot declines, Richard, duke of York rises, but he doesn't reach his zenith until Part 2, only to be ingloriously executed by Queen Margaret as he stands on a molehill wearing a paper crown. Humphrey, on the other hand, remains in England as regent, trying to protect the realm from the machinations of his Beaufort uncles, the bastard half-brothers of his father, Henry IV. He remains relatively strong until the middle of Part 2, when his wife’s ambition provokes the enmity of the Beauforts, who are then able to eliminate them both.

In a sense, the dominant “character” in the tetralogy is the “duke of Gloucester,” though for the first play and one-half the title is borne by Humphrey and for the rest of the series by Richard Crookback. Recent productions of this difficult series have attempted to correct Shakespeare’s youthful missteps by compressing his scripts into one or two parts. Without having seen a two-part version, I imagine dividing between the demise of Humphrey and the rise of Crookback, which coincides with the shift from the French battles to those of England, would work. Given the 10,000 Henry VI lines Shakespeare left, however, what Howard Jensen includes in The War of the Roses will surprise us all.

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