Tug of War:
Civil Strife

Henry VI Parts 2 and 3, Richard III

September 14

October 9, 2016

at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

by William Shakespeare
adapted and directed by Barbara Gaines

A Scholar's Perspective

Presented by the John W. and Jeanne M. Rowe Inquiry and Exploration Series

by Stuart Sherman

In Tug of War the tugs are many: on the monarchs and other mortals who people the plays, on Shakespeare, and on us.

The plays gauge the pull of combat on all whom it exhilarates and ruins: on the English kings who generation after generation feel tugged toward France, seeking to reclaim it as (through William the Conqueror) their distant birthright; on their English subjects, drawn by ambition or obligation into a cycle of foreign war and civil strife that seems to have no end; and on the millions past and present whom they here stand in for, whose propensity for war, throughout the long play of history, has proven so intense that they have barely paused to imagine a world without it.

The plays record a more local cluster of tugs also, exerted on and in and by the playwright who crafted them. No one can say for certain what impulses and circumstances pulled William Shakespeare, somewhere in his middle twenties, into the vortex of the London theater. It’s a little easier to guess what prompted him at the very start of his career to embark on a series of plays about English history. A few years earlier, Christopher Marlowe had scored the theater’s most formidable hit with his two-part Tamburlaine, a pair of epic plays portraying the Muslim emperor Timur the Lame, whose rise and fall transpire within an ever-expanding slaughterhouse where death attains perpetual dominion.

In launching a cycle of plays grounded in English history, Shakespeare was making an audacious bid to outgo his mighty predecessor. The tactic allowed him to write closer to home, and closer in time; it enabled him to show his audiences the blood-soaked story of their own becoming, the history of their creation as a nation. (From an American vantage, it would be as though a present-day playwright were to track our history from Jamestown to World War II, focusing most intently on the span stretching from the Revolutionary through the Civil Wars; Francis Ford Coppola and Tony Kushner have each claimed Shakespeare as precedent for their own history cycles, The Godfather and Angels in America.)  

In the end, Shakespeare out-cycled Marlowe fivefold; he wrote or collaborated on eleven plays named for English kings. (Marlowe soon enough paid him the compliment of imitation, in a play called Edward II.) And because he continued to write them (not always in chronological order) from the beginning through the end of his two decades in theater, they came to constitute his most capacious laboratory, the place where he first discovered and most persistently developed his own art.

In the three plays compassed in Tug’s first day, that laboratory is already working at full capacity. Even in Henry the Sixth Part One, for example—Tug’s third play but perhaps the playwright’s very first—Shakespeare is spectacularly alert to the ways recurrent patterns of word and action can subliminally shape the audience’s experience of war’s compulsions. As the English army struggles to reconquer France, three French women, in entirely separate scenes, display their striking capacity to thwart the enemy: Joan of Arc by force of arms; the Countess of Auvergne by strategies of seduction; and Margaret of Anjou by a cunning so complex that it will shape four ensuing decades of English history (and Tug’s entire second day).

The effect, across all these mirrored but varied scenes, is of a glittering kaleidoscope spun at giddy speed, wherein the impulses of lust and combat, like bright sharp shards, converge and disperse at such a rate as to suggest that the passions can seem at times indistinguishable as well as uncontainable. When Joan, defeated and condemned, leaves the stage at last, Margaret within seconds makes her first appearance; her military ambition and efficacy over the long haul will prove even more ruinous to the English, as though these dark mirrorings might replicate forever.

In Shakespeare’s work, they do. What the history sequence most allowed the playwright and his audience to discover was the power of such repetitions and resonance not only within a single play but across them too. In all three of the first day’s plays, Shakespeare shows us ardor and violence inextricably intertwined. In Henry V, Shakespeare depicts in tender detail yet another Frenchwoman, Katherine of Valois, who subdues a conquering monarch by gentler means. And in Edward III, Shakespeare shows us yet another English king, forebear of both our Henrys, obsessed with subduing France and bedding a countess; both objects of his desire resourcefully resist him.

What Shakespeare does with these love/war stories, he does across his history cycle with almost everything he touches; theme-with-variations, resonance-with-revision, become the plays’ métier. Tugging artfully and incessantly on our hearts, our minds, our memories (“We have been here before”), Shakespeare lets us learn upon our pulses the terrible beauty of history as theater, theater as history. We watch history repeat itself, with signal differences but ominous recurrences, at virtually every living moment of the plays’ performance.

For Shakespeare’s original audiences, this process took some time. They had to wait about a year between each new history play and the next. Elizabethan theater never staged three plays in a day; it possessed neither the traditions nor the technology to foster an audience accustomed to binge-watching, in all its life-suspending, life-enhancing glory. But Shakespeare, given the chance, would have leapt at it. He has after all patterned these plays so deeply that, even while spanning centuries, they can come to feel concurrent. He has devised a game of cat’s cradle played with memory, not string: tug anywhere, and you tug everything.

In tug of war, the children’s game, some fall down and some stay standing. In Tug of War, both war and theater work more intricately. In war, as Shakespeare makes clear at nearly every turn, no one stays standing: one way or another, living or dead, we all (to echo another mortality-haunted children’s game) fall down. But the matchless gravitational field of Shakespeare’s theater produces something more complex: within it, we become players and spectators at once. We watch, we fall, we feel; we get to suffer, and savor and sort through all the tugs at once, as the plays suffuse us with the spectacle of England becoming England, Shakespeare becoming Shakespeare.

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Civil Strife

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