Tug Of War: Foreign Fire

Edward III, Henry V, Henry VI, Part 1

May 11

June 12, 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

Edward III

Edward III ruled England for half a century, and so successfully by the standards of his time that one historian has dubbed him “the perfect king.” But Shakespeare, being Shakespeare, is most deeply interested in his imperfections: the moments of ferocity, cunning, and failed compassion that undergird the image of perfection.

For Edward’s contemporaries, his claim to perfection had much to do with the forcefulness by which he asserted his right to rule France as well as England, claiming that crown through his French mother. But in the play’s opening moments this “right” quickly becomes a complicated thing: a matter not so much of actual entitlement as of visceral desire. Edward grounds his claim not so much in the will of God, or even the rule of law (though both receive his lip-service), as in the art of the deal.

The play goes on to gauge the power of this moral undertow—the tug of violent conquest against other, often better impulses—in part by staging and restaging a common scene of medieval war: the besieging and surrender of foreign cities. In a world where towns were walled like fortresses, and city gates could be stoutly secured, sieges entailed a confession of temporary, tactical paralysis on both sides. The aggressors sought to starve the townspeople into submission rather than incur the far higher cost, in blood and treasure, of invasion; the townspeople hoped to hold out until allied forces from far away might arrive to vanquish the besiegers. Suspense was intrinsic to the operation. In states of siege, time itself is potentially everyone’s ally, and everyone’s enemy.

Shakespeare values siege scenes as a galvanic visual shorthand for moral complexities. The invaders stand their ground on the stage proper, confronting the city gates (as represented by the rear-stage wall). The city’s beleaguered leaders appear on high, walking the parapets (the stage’s balcony) of their town walls. The audience is located, in Shakespeare’s theaters as in ours, at every level from ground to balcony; following the tense transactions from varying perspectives, they succumb readily enough to sudden shifts in feeling, as the gates open and close, dispensing with their wonted unpredictability new players onto the stage as the antagonists below and above argue their cases for submission and for mercy.

The king besieges Calais with an ominous volatility: we watch as he oscillates between impulses of pity and of punitive violence. Even at those moments when he opts for compassion, he is calculating the move’s political value, its potential for burnishing his image and intimidating his French foes.

And yet the oscillation itself must count for something. In the play’s most sustained and moving siege scenes (the ones with Shakespeare’s intricate emotional fingerprint most firmly upon them), Edward liberates the virtuous, married Countess of Salisbury from a sexually threatening siege by the King of Scotland—only to besiege her almost instantly with his own insistent adulterous desire. In these siege scenes, as in those at the city gates, Edward comes to embody not an illusory perfection, but the more fragile possibilities for intermittent, sometimes effectual human change: that by seeing and laying siege to our own errors, we may make things better for a time.

For Shakespeare’s audience, that intermittency would have been conspicuous at play’s end, where Edward and his heir celebrate a shared and signal victory in France. The audience would have known, as the characters do not, that the heir,  for all his promise, would pre-decease his father, that the victories would soon evaporate, and that hereditary throne-claims in both France and England would become messily entangled once again. In Shakespeare’s plays, and in the flickering tradeoffs they track between seeming perfection and human mutabilities, the mutabilities tend to win.

Henry V

In Henry V, Shakespeare meshes Henry’s attainments with his imperfections so subtly as to make of the warrior-monarch a kind of binary Rorschach test: some generations have viewed him as pure hero, others as heartless tactician. In Shakespeare’s time, popular tradition had already integrated the two types; it depicted Henry as a bad-boy prince turned flawless king. His imperfections, by this reckoning, lay mainly in his impishness—a trait whose impact Shakespeare had traced, comically and compellingly, in the prince’s interactions with Falstaff and with his own father, Henry IV, throughout the two plays of Henry IV (not included in our Tug of War) that led up to this one. At the start of Henry V, two high and putatively pious clergymen celebrate the king’s reformation as a done deal.

But another deal is pending. For Shakespeare’s audience, Henry V’s golden reputation remained grounded in the fact that he, to a greater extent than any previous English king including Edward, had managed by battle to clinch his claims to France. Yet here, as in Edward III, Shakespeare anatomizes the brokerage that leads to war. The clergymen agree to endorse, with all their Church’s moral heft, their king’s right to the French crown--as long as the king will grant the Church perpetual possession of rich real estate. This schizoid blend of piety and property is soon mirrored in the language of the king himself. When the now-confident Henry describes the coming war in France as if it were a deadly game of tennis, Shakespeare imbues his speech with a radically uneasy mix of boyish charm and killer instinct.

In the play’s great siege scenes, Shakespeare reenacts this doubleness. Standing at the gates of Harfleur, Henry threatens the already shattered townspeople with utter destruction; his words encompass the most horrific account of war’s depradations, its human costs, in all of Shakespeare. Yet in speeches at this same site and elsewhere, Henry insists on the intrinsic gentleness of his men so movingly, and describes their conduct in battle so dazzlingly, that even pacificists within earshot might feel, however fleetingly, the impulse to join up. Henry urges his listeners to become, first, actors (they must “imitate the actions of the tiger”); and, much later, storytellers, recounting their tales to their grandchildren by the family fireplace. The king is, in short, admonishing his followers to do in their lives the things—acting, storytelling—that Shakespeare and his company are doing here and now onstage. At such moments, the playwright deliberately makes the tug toward heroism difficult for his audience to resist.

Yet even in the play’s climactic love scene, the Rorschach’s puzzlements remain intact. While wooing Princess Katherine of France, Henry deftly presents himself as a disarmingly clumsy Prince Charming: tongue-tied, tentative, self-deprecating, solicitous. Yet the threat of willful conquest, so conspicuous in the encounters between Edward III and his countess, persist in this scene too—in the king’s covert confidence, and in the princess’s growing awareness that she is the already-granted bargaining chip in a deal just done between her father and her future husband.

Radiance and rapacity: the blur between the two suffuses the whole play. Shakespeare’s Chorus reappears at intervals, praising to the skies that “star of England,” that “mirror of all Christian kings” whose name the play takes as title, and whose triumphs it depicts hypnotically. But for Shakespeare, counterpoint is all in all. In the down-to-earth scenes he dovetails with the Chorus’s exaltations, he calls this monarch’s stardom into constant question.

The First Part of Henry VI

Imperfection, at its Latin roots (“not-thoroughly-made”), means incompletion; to be imperfect is to be unfulfilled. Nowhere in all his works does Shakespeare offer a more achingly attentive exploration of incompletion  than in the aptly named Henry VI, Part One.

The play opens with an untimely funeral: Henry V has died, aged 35, fighting follow-up battles in France; though he had clinched his claim to the French crown, he never in the end got a chance to wear it. By play’s end, two other phenomenally gifted, fiercely devoted young warriors, each in their way a mirror-image of the lost king, will see their lives cut shorter still than his. The play deliberately devours its young.

And yet the least complete, most stunted life of all may be that of the title character—even though he still has two more plays to go. Henry VI was nine months old when his father died. He is of course absent from the opening funeral where his uncles, reeling at the loss of their loved king, receive news of further losses still: their hold on France is rapidly unraveling. The funeral devolves into an orgy of recrimination, each uncle blaming others for what’s gone wrong.

Hence our sense of the new king’s incompletion. By the time he makes his first appearance, strikingly late in the play, he seems at times to be drowning in a sea of inimically self-interested mentors: uncles who seek to deploy him in their cutting contests with each other. The ways he handles this predicament, here and later on, will become central to our assessment of his character and kingship. For the moment, though, he is living in a near-Carrollian inverso-sphere. This king does not rule; he is ruled.

Topsy-turvydom marks other moments too. In this play, the siege scenes unfold not as paralysis but with an almost giddy hyper-kinesis, as city of Orleans changes hands, between the military genius Joan of Arc and the venerable soldier John Talbot, again and again in rapid-fire succession. The siege becomes a see-saw; for the audience the ride is fast, bumpy, and by turns funny and tragic.

Gender too turns upside down this time round. The besiegers in this play are for the most part not strutting men, but skilled French women. Joan takes possession of the parapets with a theatrical electrifying wit and swagger. (Her chosen sobriquet, “Joan la Pucelle”—Joan the Virgin—captures her complexity; to English ears, “pucelle” sounded very close to “puzel”: whore.) The Countess of Orleans deals in tactics more subtly psychological; Shakespeare portrays her as a medieval Circe. (Try thinking of her scene with Talbot as Edward-and-his-countess played out in reverse). As for Princess Margaret, who comes on late but unforgettable, her motives can at times feel as fathomless as her cunning is profound. She will figure formidably in four whole plays (we’ll see the other three next fall); Shakespeare makes her, in this respect, the longest-lived character Shakespeare created.

Henry VI, Part One is among Shakespeare’s earliest plays; it may have been his very first. It was gutsy in an untried playwright to start with such shard-like materials: a truncated funeral; a stunted king; a scrappy, scrambled tale of war. Of course he makes the mix work brilliantly. But he is also hitting his stride—discovering the arts of imperfection that will become his lifelong métier.


“Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts,” the playwright urges us as we embark on Henry V, today’s middle play. He is worrying partly about practicalities. In a theater company that contains only a few actors (and no horses), realistic battle scenes will be impossible. He’s begging that the audience use its imagination to supply all that’s missing from the stage.

But he is also asking something more, posing a question central to all theater. On stage as in life, flaws abound. If all humans display imperfections (and they do), then actors are doomed to do so doubly: imperfect not only in their life but in their art—for what mortal can possibly achieve perfection in so profound and precarious an enterprise? Part of the theater’s perfection as a medium must consist in its actors’ capacities to register human imperfections, with empathic accuracy, in real time.

Amid that alchemy, “your thoughts” count for much. “Think this through with me,” the Grateful Dead long sang in their glorious communal anthem “Uncle John’s Band.” Shakespeare, in effect, is asking that we do the same. And so are all the characters—kings, queens, countesses, commoners, and suffering soldiers—of his history plays, now long dead but implicitly grateful for these few hours’ resurrection, during which they and we can think through—and perhaps think past—the imperfections that shape our histories.



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