Saturday, February 5, 2011

Happy as a King?

King Henry: ...methinks it were a happy life,
To be no better than a homely swain;
To sit upon a hill, as I do now...
Ah, what a life were this! how sweet! how lovely!
Gives not the hawthorn-bush a sweeter shade
To shepherds looking on their silly sheep,
Than doth a rich embroider'd canopy
To kings that fear their subjects' treachery?

History of Henry VI, Part III, Act II, Scene 5
1123-1125, 1144-1147

I was anointed king at nine months old;
My father and my grandfather were kings...

Act III, Scene 1, 1443-1444

Poor King Henry. He never wanted to be king! He'd rather be a shepherd! But, because of where and to whom he happened to be born, he's the king.

Baby King Henry VI at 9 months of age, being placed in the care of Richard de Beauchamp, 13th Earl of Warwick. Detail from the Accession of Henry the VI, 1422

Richard on the other hand, would simply love to be England's sovereign, and can't...

Richard: ...between my soul's desire and me—
The lustful Edward's title buried—
Is Clarence, Henry, and his son young Edward,
And all the unlook'd for issue of their bodies,
To take their rooms, ere I can place myself...
...I wish the crown, being so far off;
And so I chide the means that keeps me from it.

...I'll make my heaven to dream upon the crown,
And, whiles I live, to account this world but hell,
Until my mis-shaped trunk that bears this head
Be round impaled with a glorious crown.
And yet I know not how to get the crown...
But toiling desperately to find it out,—
Torment myself to catch the English crown:
And from that torment I will free myself,
Or hew my way out with a bloody axe.

-Henry VI Part 3, Act III, Scene 2, 1617-1621, 1629-1630, 1657-1661, 1668-1670

Because of the position to which Richard was born - the third son, and fourth in the York claim for the throne, he has no way to decently ask for the kingship. His only options are a lot of awfully convenient accidents to his relatives, or nothing (we see Richard getting started on the first idea at the end of the play).

Much of the conflict of the story has to do with what the characters claim through their ancestry.... there are a number of fairly convincing candidates to be the rightful king running about. But a lot of the conflict also has to do with the characters' failure to claim, or even accept, what they have inherited. Henry and Richard just *won't* step up to their hereditary responsibilities. Richard does not want to be the Duke of Gloucester ("Let me be Duke of Clarence, George of Gloucester" II, 6). He does not want to be a good uncle ("I love the tree from whence thou sprang'st, Witness the loving kiss I give the fruit. [Aside] To say the truth, so Judas kiss'd his master, And cried 'all hail!' when as he meant all harm." V, 7). Richard does not want to be anything but the King of England.

Now, it makes a certain kind of sense to us that if Richard wants to be king so badly, and Henry really doesn't like it, why can't they just re-arrange things? Or, maybe this whole king thing isn't the best idea (the American way of thinking).

Down with King George!

But even as Americans, who are well rid of the monarchy, Richard and Henry's basic problem has still not gone away. Who has not felt at least a twinge of dissatisfaction, perhaps even resentment, at who, where, and when they were born? It's one of the most important factors in our lives, and we have absolutely no control over it. Who has not even felt some enviousness, like Henry and Richard, when we look at the privileges of others? Perhaps we envy those in other societies, who lead simple, "shepherds'" lives. Perhaps we envy those in prestigious, complicated jobs, and their power and wealth.

I think I might prefer to live there.^

But in the midst of our empathy with Henry and Richard, we have to remember that the grass is often greener on the other side. Would weak, dependent Henry really be up for the tough life of a shepherd? And not to spoil the story, but eventually Richard does get his wish, and it's not all so fun at the top. What's more, it's true that Shakespeare sympathetically shows the struggling pain of these characters, but even as he does so, he shows the bad effects - disaster, really - that this refusal of responsibility brings about. Shakespeare warns us all that if we neglect what we are born to do, tragedy follows.

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