Henry VI, Part 3
Key theme: It is better to make a wrong decision than to make a bad decision from a position of weakness.
This is easily one of Shakespeare’s best plays, but since it is a sequel to a previous sequel, the odds of its being read are fairly slim.
Henry VI cuts a deal with the rebel, Richard, Duke of York. Richard will stop the civil war and in exchange Richard’s son, not Henry’s, will be the next king of England. The Queen is appalled and raises her own army against Richard, who is now forced back to fighting.
It’s easy to say that Henry was a weakling, and he probably was, but his reasoning is fairly consistent. He knows that his ancestor usurped the crown, even if his father, the legendary Henry V, was a national hero. When reproached by his wife for disinheriting his son, Henry replies that it is better to “leave virtuous deeds behind,” noting that sons never enjoy their wealth when their fathers are in hell (II.2.49).
It is tempting to make fun of Henry as equivalent to a modern-day “virtuecon.” He probably is, but before we do that we need to ask if Henry’s actions really are virtuous. To be virtuous one must have the character for creating good strength in ethical decisions. Henry displays none of that.
So, then, Richard, Duke of York, is better? Perhaps, though he isn’t smarter. He, too, is manipulated by others, though in other respects he is quite noble.
This play falls into one of those odd categories in Shakespeare’s corpus where the play doesn’t become interesting until the middle of Act II. Unfortunately, it doesn’t maintain that pace at the end of Act V.
I didn’t understand why Leonatus, the protagonist, made that bet with Iachimo. True, he would get 10,000 ducats, but he was also marrying into royalty, albeit estranged royalty. I am not saying it is unbelievable, since I know people who would do that. It’s just stupid. I grant that he would have gotten money, but it wasn’t worth the costs. If he lost, he not only lost his wife, but he destroyed her honor and her future.you
Shakespeare’s genius is in showing there is nothing new in human behavior. We see a glimpse of the “MGTOW” (Men Going Their Own Way” movement. If my woman was perceived to be unfaithful, that can only logically mean that every woman is unfaithful.
There is a chiasm in Act IV.4.30-31. “Shrinking slaves of winter/ Than be so/Better to cease to Be.”
A. Be so
B’ To cease
A’ To be.
Act V was rushed. The denouement didn’t arise, at least not clearly, from the actions themselves. The appearance by “Jupiter” didn’t add anything to the climax. The play is enjoyable for acts II-IV, but the rest of it strains credulity.
Timon of Athens
At first glance it seems that Timon gave greatly to those in need, only to be forgotten when he himself was in need. That’s certainly true, but on a deeper reading, and drawing upon the classical ethical tradition, Timon wasn’t as virtuous as he appeared. There is a difference between generosity and prodigality. The former is an act of charity. The latter is simply mindless giving. Apemantus suggests as much to Timon (IV.3.77).
The Senate refuses to show mercy upon Timon (or his friends) when Timon is down on his luck. They banish Alcibiades, who swears vengeance upon them (and, interestingly enough, tying that vengeance to the Senate’s love of usury; III.3.99, 107-108).
Now living in the woods Timon has a new view of human nature. In poignant, if somewhat extreme, words he notes, “All is oblique/There’s nothing level in our cursed natures/But direct villainy” (IV.3.18-20). Unfortunately, Timon’s own view is now warped. In the classical tradition the earth was the common bounty of mankind, while ultimately belonging to God (cf. Psalm 24). Timon now calls it a “common whore of mankind” (IV.3.42).
I wonder if Timon’s servant, the grouch Apemantus, is actually a play on words. Is he “aping” a man? Perhaps he is a mirror to show human nature, and that is why he is always rude. However, in a touching scene when Timon is acting like a beast, Apemantus lives up to his name and shows him what real humanity is (IV.3.197ff). He tells Timon, “The middle of humanity thou never newest, but the extremity of both ends” (300-301).
There is a chiasm in V.4.35-36:
And by the hazard of the spotted die/Let die the spotted.
A. Hazard of the spotted
B’ Let die
C’ The Spotted.
Among Shakespeare’s plays this is one of the more straightforward. It’s quite easy to read.