Sunday, April 18, 2010

Why the F would anyone want to be king of England?

I've been in one real fight in my entire life. I went to a boarding school for high school and one year I had this roommate, let's call him Aaron. Aaron and I had been friends, we founded the LFA Chess and Checkers club together, we played pick up soccer and went on van trips to Hawthorne Mall. Then we became roommates and I hated him. Aaron was from Texas and outweighed me by about sixty pounds. He used to invite people into our room at midnight to play Monopoly when I was studying for History tests, he peed in my gatorade once and I drank it. And he knew I was crazy about this girl and he asked her to the winter formal.

So I tried to fight him and he kicked my ass. Or more accurately he didn't even have to kick my ass. We just wrestled and I never stood a chance. I couldn't throw a punch, because he had pinned my arms and gotten me onto the ground in the first five seconds. He laughed and told me to chill out. He laughed more when he saw how serious I was. I kept struggling for another ten minutes or so, until I was exhausted, but he was too fat and too strong and I was too big of a nerd. 

Sometimes, even if you're a nerd and a pacifist. You have to fight. Especially if you're the King of England.  

            Henry VI Part 3 continues the War of the Roses, where the house of York makes a claim against the house of Lancaster for the throne and war ensues. At the beginning of the play. King Henry VI, who is pious and peace-loving is cornered and relinquishes the inheritance of the throne to York and York’s family as long as they allow him to continue his reign in peace.


                                                            I here entail

            The crown to thee and to thine heirs forever,

Conditionally, that here thou take an oath

To cease this civil war (1:1)


York accepts. This pisses of Henry’s wife, Queen Margaret, who raises an army to kill York so that her son, Prince Edward, can be King, which is his birthright. Before she even comes knocking, York is persuaded by his sons to go back on his word and kill Henry and take the crown for the House of York. There’s a bunch of battles. York gets killed and his son, Edward, claims to be King Edward. This gets a little confusing because Henry’s son is Prince Edward. And it’s also confusing because there are in fact now two kings of England. King Henry VI and King Edward (the IV I think?).

People change sides and get married and in the end there’s revenge and heads on poles and King Edward (of York) kills Prince Edward. Richard of Gloucester kills Henry VI and begins to put his Machiavellian plan into action to take the throne from his brother in the final installment of the tetralogy: Richard III.

Richard figures prominently in this installment. He holds a severed head on the end of a pole at the beginning of this play and speaks to it, begging it to tell the tale of the victory the white-rose-wearing men of the house of York won against King Henry and the House of Lancaster:


Thus do I hope to shake King Henry’s head. (1:1)


            Later on Queen Margaret rallies her soldiers (the armies of Lancaster and the Red Rose) to arms at the battle of Wakefield:


            Off with his crown and, with the crown, his head  (1:4)


Queen Margaret wins at Wakefield and captures York and the Queen orders:


            Off with his head, and set it on York gates (1:4)


And then Warwick, finding Clifford injured to the point of death outside the city gates:


            Off with the traitor’s head (2:6)


King Edward:


For Somerset, off with his guilty head. (5:5)


            Obviously there is some association here with Alice in Wonderland, especially when you consider the oft-employed imagery of staining the white roses with blood or painting the roses red throughout Shakespeare’s Henry VI series:


Why do we linger thus? I cannot rest

Until the white rose I wear be dyed

Even in the lukewarm blood of Henry’s heart. (1:2)


            Maybe it’s because I saw Tim Burton’s 3-D mess, but I am none too interested in talking Alice. It’s a little more interesting to think about all these calls for decapitation as something out of Highlander. When they cut off a nobleman’s head there’s lightning and brouhaha and then they are infused with the dead man’s power and youth. 

There can be only one King of England, right? That’s why Richard has to kill Henry in the end even though he doesn’t fight and doesn’t want to be king.

            Decapitation is symbolic. As King Edward observes when they have Henry VI captured:


But Warwick’s king is Edward’s prisoner.

And, gallant Warwick, do but answer this:

What is the body when the head is off? (5:1)


            Like chess, capturing the king should mean victory. Unfortunately, the Herculean task of overthrowing a monarch is more aptly analogous to beheading the Hydra. In all the mess of a headless state many new heads emerge, each in turn wonting a good severing. After Henry relinquishes his inheritance, he essentially puts the crown up for grabs. This is how they end up with King Edward and King Henry and Prince Edward and Richard of Gloucester lurking and plotting.

            John Wilkes Booth played Richard III many times and was a Shakespearean actor of renown. It makes sense that he would believe that assassinating Lincoln would somehow undo the Union. He learned his history from the original theatrical Machiavel. But the fact that he commits his assassination after the war ended demonstrates something else: vengeance is futile.

            Almost every player in the War of the Roses has some blood they wish to avenge. The Earl of Westmoreland:


I’ll have more lives

Than drops of blood were in my father’s veins. (1:1)

Clifford slays York's innocent youngest son:

Your father slew my father; therefore die. (1:3)


Warwick is embarrassed by King Edward and switches sides to revenge his honor. Queen Margaret taunts York with a handkerchief dipped in his son's blood before revenging the murder of her lover, Suffolk. And the entire war was begun as vengeance for the generations earlier deposition and murder of Richard II by Henry's grandfather.

Revenge has a wicked momentum. Just ask the Hatfields. 

      Henry VI, for his part, is not interested in vengeance. He is happiest when he's being held captive by the Yorkists:


My crown is in my heart, not on my head;

Not decked with diamonds and Indian stones,

Nor to be seen. My crown is called content;

A crown it is that seldom kings enjoy. (3:1)


Henry tries to surrender and stand aside, but Lord Hastings makes it plain that words and treaties won’t settle this conflict:


            Away with scrupulous wit! Now arms must rule. (4:7)


When one’s rivals are warlike, even the most pacifist of men must be prepared to fight. And Henry was always going to have to pay the price for his grandfather's crimes against the Yorkists. He's the King after all, his head is the most important one to have off. And you can't cut it off yourself with words. He should have fought, even if he was going to lose.

I fought Aaron. Presumably it was over a girl. A girl who I never asked out. Who I liked in secret and with ineffectual gestures like fasting for Ramadan and writing terrible poems. When you fight for a girl, your chief rival is her affection. She's the one who needs to be confronted on the battlefield. Not your 220 pound, mo-hawked roommate.

For me, fighting Aaron was actually about fighting Aaron. It was about revenge. And revenge doesn't get you anywhere with the ladies. 

No comments:

Post a Comment