Thursday, March 25, 2010

Henry VI Part 1: Fathers, Sons and Soccer Practice

There’s a story my dad used to love to tell. He coached my first soccer team when I was six years-old. In the middle of a game the ball rolled up to me and I kicked it as hard as I could. It went sailing into the air and down the field, over other kids’ heads. I ran straight to the sidelines and said: “Dad! Did you see THAT?!”

When we were young it was impossible to go to a place in Kenosha where my dad was unrecognized. The grocery store, restaurants, the gas station, if we all went as a family to the high school track to run around or hit tennis balls off the backboard there was always some adult I’d never met who would say: “Hey, Ernie!” and my dad would say, hey Rick or Mike or Rusty or Booker. He was a firefighter and a softball player and such accomplishments are enough to cement a father’s heroism in his young son’s hopeful mind.

George Bush and George W. Will Smith and Jayden Smith. Henry V and Henry VI. Fathers often cast long shadows from which their sons struggle to escape. Check out this eulogizing by the Duke of Gloucester to the late great Henry V that opens Henry VI Part 1:

England ne’er had a king until his time.

Virtue he had, deserving to command;

His brandished sword did blind men with his beams;

His arms spread wider than dragon’s wings;

His sparkling eyes, replete with wrathful fire,

More dazzled and drove back his enemies

Than midday sun fierce bent against their faces.

What should I say? His deeds excel all speech.

He ne’er lift up his hand but conqueréd. (1:1)

A mere 20 lines later, Gloucester describes the young Henry VI: “an effeminate prince whom like a schoolboy you may overawe.” (1:1) Granted, Joan of Arc is one of the major characters in this play, so describing someone as effeminate might not carry the same derogatory meaning that such knights normally ascribe to it, but it ain’t like he’s talking dragon’s wings about the heir to the throne.

Shortly into the play the French rebel, the houses of York and Lancaster argue and pluck red and white roses to start the War of the Roses, and the great military hero of England, Talbot, is abandoned in battle because of the civil discord.

Talbot is the scourge of the French. And while fighting Joan la Pucelle (of Arc) he and his son, John Talbot, are killed. They had been separated for 7 years by war, but Talbot called his son to the battle to teach him the family business:

O young John Talbot, I did send for thee

To tutor thee in stratagems of war (4:5)

When he sees that they are badly outnumbered, he tries to send his son away, but John refuses to fly:

Is my name Talbot? And am I your son?

And shall I fly? O, if you love my mother,

Dishonor not her honorable name

To make a bastard and a slave of me! (4:5)

Before Talbot dies, his son’s body is brought to him:

And in that sea of blood, my boy did drench

His over-mounting spirit; and there died

My Icarus, my blossom, in his pride. (4:7)

Icarus is, of course, the average son of Daedalus from Greek mythology. They flew on waxen wings to escape Crete and foolish Icarus flew too close to the sun and fell into the sea where he drowned. A cautious tale of venturing from beneath your father’s shadow.

But there are also accounts within this play of the sons who outdo their fathers. Standing watch at Orleance is the Master Gunner, who leaves his son on the watch in his stead. And when the opportunity arises, the son fires on Talbot and Salisbury, and he kills Salisbury.

Later on in the battle of Roan, the dying Duke of Bedford mentions Pendragon:

Not to be gone from hence, for once I read

That stout Pendragon, in his litter sick,

Came to the field and vanquishéd his foes. (3:2)

If you don’t know who Pendragon is, that’s okay. It’s only really important that you know that his son was King Arthur. Another son who outshone his father.

The opportunity is there, but Henry VI’s cards have been dealt. The evil of the early imagery of the play bodes poorly for the young king. “Hung be the heavens with black, yield day to night!” (1:1) Day and night, like York and Lancaster, the warring factions of heaven.

What’s interesting is that this trio of plays was written before Henry IV parts 1 and 2 and Henry V. So, it's possible that for the audiences attending Henry VI that the legend of Henry V is as perfect in their minds as Richard the Lionheart and King Arthur. His father was not a human. He was a myth, a folk hero. A giant among kings.

Eventually, Shakespeare humanizes Henry V in those other histories. He shows his flirtations with criminals and drunkards in Henry IV parts 1 and 2. And even in Henry V after he conquers France, there’s the courtship of Catherine, when he bumbles through the French language in declaring his poor, soldier's love. It’s important that the legend of the father dissolve so that the son may achieve a unique success in life.

For my part, my father was humanized to me in two parts. The first of which relates to soccer.

My dad coached a soccer team with another woman before my parents got divorced. I was in college and I would sometimes come to practices and run little clinics on heading or shooting. There was a moment I observed between my dad and this woman when we were working on trapping. He was throwing the ball to her and she was trapping it while sixteen nine year-old girls ran around doing the same thing. Amidst all that giggling and the flying soccer balls. I saw my dad throwing the ball… but it wasn’t like watching my dad. It was like watching me. He was awkward and stumbling exactly the way I was around a girl I like, having no idea what to do. It was chemistry. I saw that connection and felt pangs of confusion. A strong want to combat the momentum of events. But I'm a midwestern boy, and despite my mother, I buried that confusion. Cause we hope ignoring such things makes them go away. But they don't. Eventually my parents got divorced and this woman became my stepmom.

My dad became a person entirely in my eyes soon after my parents were divorced. One day he had this weary look on his face. There was some superficial stressful thing that froze him for a moment. And he rubbed his eyes and scratched his head with both hands and said, “I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m doing.” He wasn't really saying it to me. And he wasn't really saying it about this stressful thing that had happened. He was saying it about everything in the world. 

You can forgive a person for almost anything when they admit that. Because even though they don't know what they're doing, at least they're trying.

Fathers can overreach. They wrongfully conquer sovereign nations and leave the mess to their sons. They fall in love with other women. They believe they can fly. Sometimes their sons suffer for it. But sometimes they do the right thing and sacrifice their mythological legacy for mere humanity, and it's okay. We're still going to run to them on the sidelines after we send that ball flying through the air. They're still our fathers, even if they’re only men.

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