February 2011 Archives



In a coinage which has achieved fame in the annals of internet film criticism, Onion AV columnist Nathan Rabin discussed "a character type I like to call The Manic Pixie Dream Girl": "that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures." Well, not solely in the minds of film writer-directors. We bookish folk must admit that Manic Pixie Dream Girls enjoy a parallel history in written fiction, from Leslie Burke in Katherine Paterson's Bridge to Terabithia to (it could be argued) Henry James's Daisy Miller. In both Paterson and James, as in MPDG films, the narrative focus is on the effects of these unorthodox, energetic girls on the male narrators, rather than on the inner lives of the girls themselves. In both cases, the girls cause the males to question their preconceived notions. And in both cases, of course, the girls must die, never to lose their effervescent, youthful energy; never to become mature women; never to threaten the fetishized memories kept inviolate by the men they leave behind.

Anna Gmeyner's 1938 novel Manja is a lesser-known example of the MPDG genre, and it really goes for broke. Rather than merely allowing its vibrant, imaginative young heroine to transform the emotional world of one mopey young man, it has her do it for four of them simultaneously: Karl, the son of Communist activists; Heini, child of educated leftists; Franz, son of a stupid, cruel thug who rises in the ranks of Nazi officialdom, and Harry, the half-Jewish child of a banker whose power is on the wane. The five children form the kind of predictably unpredictable band beloved of childhood fiction (the smart one! the cowardly one!), and yet I must say that Gmeyner pulls off their interactions with a certain amount of subtlety and interest. This interest dwells, not so much in the development of the individual characters, who are fairly transparent "types," but in their interactions and the ways in which the rise of Fascist power affects the group dynamic. In the interactions of Karl and Franz, for example, one can trace the similarities in the militarism of both boys' upbringing, despite their positions on different sides of the political spectrum. When the children play Indians, Harry is cast as the noble chieftan, husband of the princess, while Karl and Franz take the roles of her bloodthirsty kidnappers:

        Then the robbers seized the cheiftan's sleeping wife and dragged her through the jungle to their camp. With war-like yells she was bound to the stake. She endured this without complaint, but waited for death with bowed head while the villains discussed cannibalism.
        "I'll eat her legs," said Karli, noisily sharpening the knife on a stone.
        "They're for me," replied Franz.
        "She's got two," said his fellow-cannibal placatingly.
        "What's left over will be pickled and put in the larder," persisted Franz the robber.
        "Red Indian larders?" jeered Karl, forgetting his part.
        "I like the little toes best." The cannibal conversation started up again.
        "Me too," replied Karl.
        "I'll eat both, though," shouted Franz. "They're sweet as sugar."
        "One each," bellowed Karl, adding a sentiment rare among cannibals, "Equal Rights for All."

Besides the debate here between the Fascist idea that the few people worthy of goods in the first place should stockpile any leftovers, and the Communist notion that everyone should share equally, there is also an uncomfortable undercurrent in this discussion about sharing Manja's body. Predictably enough for a Manic Pixie Dream Girl narrative, it is Manja whose imagination and forceful personality holds the little group together—but the boys' gradual realization, as they begin to hit adolescence, that their society views girls as objects to be possessed by one male only, begins to undermine their solidarity. And Manja isn't just a girl: she's a poor Polish Jew, and she's growing up in a society that is tightening like a noose around people in all three of those categories. The boys around her are all torn between the desire to protect her against the threats of the outside world; the desire to maintain the status quo (the children make a heartbreakingly naive pledge that they will never allow their relationships to change); the desire to reject her as her friendship becomes a social liability; and the desire to triumph over the other boys and "win" her for his own.

These dynamics are honestly interesting, and I think Gmeyner does a good job with them. So too, she evokes with complexity certain of the children's parents—in particular, I was impressed with the character arc of Harry's father Max Hartung, an anti-semitic Jew who neglects his own son while fawning over the more Aryan-looking child fathered on his wife by one of Max's political rivals. Gmeyner often makes Hartung extremely unlikeable, yet never abandons the attempt to depict his thought processes with compassion. And I admit to seeing myself in the person of the intelligent, leftist but largely impotent-feeling Ernst Heidemann, father of Heini, who finds himself facing the horror of explaining to his son why their country is controlled by murderous bigots who reject the principles of equal human rights embraced by the Heidemann family.

Manja also asks some interesting questions about destiny and character-formation. It opens, unconventionally, with the scenes in which each of the five children are conceived. From this opening extends a preoccupation with the extent to which our origins dictate our fates: certainly an understandable question for an Austrian writing in 1938. Franz, for example, is growing up in a cruel household devoid of love, a reality reflected in his conception by rape. His parents are callous social climbers and bigots; does this necessarily mean Franz will be, as well? His struggle to break free of his father's cruelty, not to repeat it, is a difficult one: he sometimes succeeds and sometimes fails. Similarly, Manja is conceived under circumstances of unlikely but genuine human connection which is nevertheless unable to avert death: this seems an extremely accurate harbinger of her life to come. Dr. Heidemann, making the rounds of the maternity ward at night, "had a strange thought":

Supposing that their destinies had been packed away somewhere in the basket, like the red water bottles at their feet? And that one of them could be taken out and another put in its place. All had pink faces with sparse and mostly dark hair which would fall out later, and then more would grow, fair curls or smooth black hair. How much of what they were going to be was already in them? How much of what they would experience later was born with them?

Pressing questions at a time when concepts of inborn racial purity or contamination were gaining ever more ominous prominence in Germany. And indeed, one of the most interesting things about Manja, the primary reason I would recommend it to others, is that, like Irène Némirovsky's Suite Française, this is a novel written in the midst of the events it describes. Gmeyner gives us no easy answers at the end of the novel because the future of Germany and Europe were still very much unclear in 1938, and looked very dark for people of Gmeyner's humanist, liberal bent.

So Manja is a relatively thoughtful, anthropologically interesting example of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl genre, and one I'm glad I read. I have to say, though, that many of the aspects of this genre that reliably grate on me, are also present here. Gmeyner does attempt some depiction of Manja's inner life, but sheer numbers are against her: with four boys to depict and only one girl, Manja's subjectivity perhaps inevitably gets overshadowed by those of her male friends. She becomes an object, either for protection or rejection, especially once outside pressures are threatening her as a Jew. Indeed, once a certain key scene of victimization passes, we hear almost nothing from Manja herself before the end of the book, instead watching as the parents and male children react to what they believe happened to her. To some extent this could be read as a comment on how abuse and violation silence and alienate their victims, but for me it isn't totally effective. The narrative structure seems to reinforce the idea that Manja is more important as an idea than as a person—an idea totally supported by the final scenes.

I mean, don't get me wrong: I shed tears at the end of this book, just like I always cry at the end of Harold & Maude, just like I remember bawling after finishing Bridge to Terabithia as a kid. The MPDG formula is a compelling one: if it weren't, it would hardly be so enduring. There is something satisfying about watching the male recipient of the sacrificed Manic Pixie's joie de vivre walk away from that cliff or that hospital room, a sadder but a wiser, more hopeful man. And yet the formula is compelling at the expense of female subjectivity, of female complexity, of female maturity: an exchange I tire of making again and again and again.


This post on Manja is my contribution to Persephone Reading Weekend, and my first actual Persephone! (Though I did write about Isobel English's Every Eye in a different edition.) Thanks to Verity and Claire for hosting the festivities.

Richard III


Sir Ian McKellan as Richard III in Richard Loncraine's 1995 film adaptation

Growing up, Shakespeare's Richard III was always a family favorite. My parents spent their courtship studying Shakespeare and botany at Southern Oregon College, and their reading of Richard with a particularly charismatic and inspiring young professor led my father, at least, to spend a good deal of time writing on the play. In the last few years we've taken a family excursion to Ashland to prowl their old haunts (and see Richard) and when I was in London I thought of them while visiting the recreated Shakesepare's Globe Theatre (where I stood with the groundlings to watch—what else?—Richard). So while I personally haven't studied this play in a classroom setting, I do have a long history with it, and the parts that have always thrilled me continue to do so. Richard's famous "Was ever woman in this humour woo'd?" speech, for example, will never get old; the language and Richard's diabolical self-satisfaction are just fantastic. Richard himself is one of the great villains of the stage, and it's always a satisfying mixture of fun and horror to watch him dismantle his family and the tenuous peace established by his brother's accession to the throne. This time around, however, a few aspects of the play struck me differently or more forcibly than before.

In particular, those who read my paean to the Margaret character in Henry VI Part 3 will be unsurprised that a reading of the Henry VI trilogy affected my understanding of the Margaret who appears in Richard III. Until now I had always perceived her as a victim—a wronged wraith who hovers on the edges of the action, cursing and prophesying the House of York from a place of righteousness. And indeed she is legitimately a victim, her husband and son having been murdered by Richard; but she was also, in a former life, one of his primary rivals for title of Villain. She is, still, the bloodthirsty woman who murdered Rutland and soaked a handkerchief in his blood with which to taunt his father. Margaret is not Clytemnestra, dragged into evil by the sacrifice of her children. Her harshness and ferocity may feed on the deaths of her son and husband, but did not begin with those deaths—she and Richard are both artifacts of the wars that have shaped them. This makes her prolific and highly accomplished cursing of the York allies a more complex proposition: at this point, despite her hatred for Richard, she is almost collaborating with him to keep the warlike spirit of enmity alive. Neither of the two are formed to pass away the time "in this weak piping time of peace." This is particularly evident in Margaret's final scene, when she is unable to mourn with the York women and instead exults in their grief, offering thanks to God that their children are killing one another:

          QUEEN MARGARET (to the Duchess of York)
From forth the kennel of thy womb hath crept
A hell-hound that doth hunt us all to death:
That dog, that had his teeth before his eyes,
To worry lambs, and lap their gentle blood;
That foul defacer of God's handiwork:
That excellent grand tyrant of the earth,
That reigns in galled eyes of weeping souls,—
Thy womb let loose, to chase us to our graves.—
O upright, just, and true-disposing God,
How do I thank thee, that this carnal cur
Preys on the issue of his mother's body,
And makes her pew-fellow with others' moan!
O Harry's wife, triumph not in my woes!
God witness with me, I have wept for thine.
Bear with me; I am hungry for revenge,
And now I cloy me with beholding it.

That final line, "now I cloy me with beholding it," is a great example of the richness of Shakespeare's language, since "cloy" carries not only the most obvious meaning opposing it to "hungry" ("To satiate, surfeit, gratify beyond desire; to disgust, weary (with excess of anything)" [OED, from 1530]), but also the connotations of "pierce as with a nail, to gore" (OED, from 1590) and "to stop up, block, obstruct, choke up" (OED, from 1548). Margaret's insatiable desperation for revenge, therefore, is sickening her even as it fails to satisfy her hunger; it's also duplicating the same stabbing, piercing act on her, that Richard perpetrated on her husband and she on his brother. And if the wound or cavity produced by this stabbing might be expected to free any of her demons and let her move beyond her grief, that hope is dashed by the "blockage" sense of "cloying": she is hemmed into her own vitriol even as she departs for France. She is fierce, but she is also ruined, and—this is the part I never understood before—as she implies by her own reflexive construction, she's largely brought it on herself, in her craving for power and violence, and then for revenge. "I cloy ME with beholding it."

When my folks and I saw Richard III in Ashland in 2005, all the women were played as a kind of spectral Greek chorus, lamenting upon the war crimes of the men. This was pretty effective, especially given all the anti-war sentiment in the air at the time over the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. In context, though, Margaret is as responsible as any for the years of war behind her. The fact that she has genuinely suffered as a result of said wars, that she has lost her son to violence, makes the situation more complicated but does not change her past actions or, apparently, her basic character. When Elizabeth pleads with her to "teach me how to curse my enemies" (and you can see why she might, since every single one of Margaret's curses comes true), Margaret's answer underlines the cost of her commitment to vengeance:

Forbear to sleep the night, and fast the day;
Compare dead happiness with living woe;
Think that thy babes were fairer than they were,
and he that slew them fouler than he is:
Bettering thy loss makes the bad causer worse;
Revolving this will teach thee how to curse.

Remaining faithful to revenge requires harming one's present self (sleeplessness, starvation), and destroying one's possibility of hope for a better future. What's more, it requires a relentless alteration of history, one that demonizes the hated rival, exaggerating his misdeeds and ignoring one's own. In contrast, Richard's witty, twisted repartee seems positively light-hearted—at least, until he wakes up in the night tormented by dreams of his dead victims.

The dreams, indeed, were another aspect of Richard III that really struck me this time through, to the extent that I'm not sure how I could have failed to appreciate them before. In addition to Richard's haunted nightmares before the battle of Bosworth Field, we have Hastings' prophetic dream of the boar showing its tusks, and, most memorably for me, Clarence's gorgeous retelling of his nightmare of drowning:

Lord, Lord! methought, what pain it was to drown!
What dreadful noise of waters in mine ears!
What ugly sights of death within mine eyes!
Methought I saw a thousand fearful wracks;
Ten thousand men that fishes gnaw'd upon;
Wedges of gold, great anchors, heaps of pearl,
Inestimable stones, unvalued jewels,
All scatt'red in the bottom of the sea:
Some lay in dead men's skulls; and, in those holes
Where eyes did once inhabit, there were crept,
As 'twere in scorn of eyes, reflecting gems,
That woo'd the slimy bottom of the deep,
And mockt the dead bones that lay scatt'red by.

The line "Methought I saw a thousand fearful wracks" recalls, to me, Margaret's "Was I for this nigh wrackt upon the sea?" speech in Henry VI Part 2—and her "tears as salt as sea" have here swollen to comprise an entire ocean, the weeping eyes mere hollowed sockets. This kind of expansion, indeed, reflects the way in which by this point the whole apparatus of the previous plays is swelling and foundering, as Richard kills off family members and alienates former allies until none remain. By this point, I truly felt both the epic scope and the pathos of the characters in a way I mostly didn't throughout the Henry VI plays; Shakespeare here is hitting his stride.

Les liaisons dangereuses


Putting aside for a moment what deliciously wicked fun it is to read Pierre Choderlos de Laclos's Les liaisons dangereuses—putting aside as well its surprisingly thoughtful politics, its oddly affecting final tragedy, and the glorious character it offers in the Marquise de Merteuil—to me the most fascinating aspect of this 1782 novel of scheming French aristocrats is its pitch-perfect use of the epistolary form. I have read quite a few epistolary novels, and the letter-centric format has usually struck me as a daring, but slightly awkward, choice. It's a cute trick, I find myself thinking, but one that usually adds little if anything to the novel as a whole; I can often imagine that the story would flow more naturally with a traditional third- or first-person narrator. In the case of Les liaisons dangereuses, however, the epistolary frame is absolutely perfect. I wouldn't wish this story to be told any other way.

This is true for a couple of reasons. Primary among them is the deceitfulness of the main characters, the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil, whose sexually-charged duplicity is the driving force behind the novel's events. Their myriad plots and schemes create a vast amount of dramatic irony. Merteuil, for example, could be narrating the same series of events in three letters to three separate people: she will undoubtedly give said events a completely different interpretation in each case, so as to manipulate her correspondents' actions and opinions of her. The epistolary format enables the reader to experience this at first-hand, reading Merteuil's three letters back-to-back and understanding vastly more about the situation (and Merteuil's character, and her opinions of each correspondent) than any one of the three recipients.

One of the chief devilish joys of this book lies the word play and double-meanings Valmont and Merteuil work into their letters. In one famous case, Valmont writes a letter to a virtuous woman he's attempting to seduce, using another lover's body as his desk. The entire missive can be interpreted either as a love-sick paean, or as a narration of the Vicomte's debauchery:

C'est après une nuit orageuse, et pendant laquelle je n'ai pas fermé l'oeil; c'est après avoir été sans cesse ou dans l'agitation d'une ardeur dévorante, ou dans l'entier anéantisement de toutes les facultés de mon âme, que je viens chercher auprès de vous, Madame, une calme dont j'ai besoin, et dont pourant je n'espère pas jouir encore. En effet, la situation où je suis en vous écrivant me fait connaître, plus que jamais, la puissance irrésistible de l'amour; j'ai peine à conserver assez d'empire sur moi pour mettre quelque ordre dans mes idées; et déjà je prévois que je ne finirai pas cette Lettre, sans être obligé de l'interrompre.
After a tumultuous night, during which I never shut an eye; after having been ceaselessly either in the agitation of a devouring passion, or in the entire obliteration of all the faculties of my soul; I come searching from you, Madame, the calm of which I have need, and which I nevertheless don't yet hope to enjoy. ["Jouir" means both "enjoy" and "orgasm."] Indeed, the position in which I am writing to you reminds me, more than ever, of the irresistible power of love; I am at pains to retain enough control over myself to put my thoughts in order; and I can already predict that I shall not finish this Letter, without being obliged to interrupt myself.

And what audience is there for such clever lingual tricks? The question brings up another reason the epistolary format works so well for Laclos, which is that the actual letters themselves, as objects, are of the utmost importance in furthering the plot. Far from a transparent device through which the reader merely watches the plot unfold, the physical letter-artifacts are constantly obtruding themselves on the narrative. Characters stow them in secret hiding places, agonize about whether they should be producing them at all, transfer them to different envelopes to throw their recipients off the scent, request those they sent to be returned to them, and strategically reveal those they received to third parties as incriminating evidence. Valmont and Merteuil often enclose copies of their letters to other people along with their letters to each other, so that they can glory in, and compete with, each others' cleverness. With this in mind, Valmont's letter quoted above actually has three separate audiences: the lover on whose body he is composing it, who is amused at the double-entendres; Mme. de Tourvel, the ostensible recipient, who reads it as a declaration of tortured love for herself; and the Marquise de Merteuil, who reads in it not only Valmont's manipulation of Mme. de Tourvel, but his desire to demonstrate to her (the Marquise) his skill at artifice, his lack of real affection for Mme. de Tourvel, and, since he's sharing the letter with her, the strength of his attachment to Merteuil herself. Because she is an excellent reader, Merteuil is also able to distinguish between the things Valmont intended to show her in the letter, and the things she showed her against his will.

Indeed, the recipients of these letters are not passive readers: they all critique one anothers' content, and the truly sophisticated critique each others' style. And it's here that the Marquise de Merteuil demonstrates her subtlety and sophistication; she has a level of textual savvy that would distinguish her as either a politician or a literary critic. She is a close reader: focusing upon the individual words and phrases used by her correspondents, she analyzes the places where their narratives come apart, where they are betrayed despite their own intentions. In one instance, when Valmont is attempting to disguise his growing attachment to Mme. de Tourvel, the Marquise laughs at him for simply removing one set of descriptors and substituting another, as if she would not notice that the substance of his commentary remained the same. Another time, she dissects the language used by the young Cecile Volanges in referring to Cecile's two lovers, and uses internal evidence to prove which of the men Cecile actually loves. In many other instances Merteuil uses a correspondent's own words and phrases in her responses to them, either in order to manipulate them without their explicit knowledge, or to demonstrate to them the fallacies of their logic. On a number of occasions, she also corrects a correspondent's style: to a young man who is not yet her lover, she objects to the use of the cloying language of courtship; whereas to a young woman she is attempting to train in her own image, she complains:

Vous écrivez toujours comme un enfant. Je vois bien d'où cela vient; c'est que vous dites tout ce que vous pensez, et rien de ce que vous ne pensez pas. Cela peut passer ansi de vous à moi, qui devons n'avoir rien de caché l'une pour l'autre: mais avec tout le monde! avec votre Amant surtout! vous auriez toujours l'air d'une petite sotte. Vous voyez bien que, quand vous écrivez à quelqu'un, c'est pour lui et non pas pour vous: vous devez donc moins chercher à lui dire ce que vous pensez, que ce qui lui plaît davantage.
You always write like a child. I see perfectly the source of this problem: it's that you say everything you think, and nothing you don't think. That would be fine between you and me, who have nothing to hide from one another, but with the world at large! with your Lover especially! You would seem forever a little idiot. You must see that, when you write to someone, it's for them and not for you; you should therefore seek less to say what you think, than what will please your correspondent.

What's more, the Marquise writes often, not just about the content of individual letters or even their style, but on the mechanics of letter-writing in general—its strengths and weaknesses, the dangers it holds for composer and recipient, and how to protect oneself from those dangers, especially as a woman.

Because although Merteuil is undeniably a nasty, cruel manipulator, her machinations are not without reason. She is playing the same game Valmont plays, but because of her gender she must play it doubly. In order to trick and manipulate people into and out of her bed, she must also organize the circumstances so that none of her lovers can speak about it afterward and be believed; she must safeguard her own reputation as a respectable woman.

Quant a Prévan, je veux l'avoir et je l'aurai; il veut le dire, et il ne le dira pas: en deux mots, voilà notre Roman.
As to Prévan, I want him and I will have him; he wants to speak of it, and he will not speak of it: in two words, there is our Novel.

At the same time, she must also protect against compromising her independence: she does not wish to remarry after the death of her husband, she says, because she hates the idea of anyone having the right to tell her what to do. Coming from a sheltered convent education, she has painstakingly crafted herself into the person she has become: "Je puis dire que je suis mon ouvrage (I can say that I am my own work)" is a claim not many women of the Marquise's acquaintance can honestly make. She writes "ouvrage," but she could just as easily have written "chef-d'oeuvre": I am my own masterpiece.

Like Chaucer's Wife of Bath or Thackeray's Becky Sharp, the Marquise de Merteuil is an oft-unlikeable character in a satirical work; not a heroine, but a character who nonetheless steals the show in a way hard to deny. It's problematic to call her a "sympathetic" character, and I don't want to downplay just how cruel she is, yet I can't help but love her—for the hard, uncompromising liveliness of her mind, for her jealous independence, and for her sensitivity to textual nuance. As a modern reader, it's tempting to make the argument that Merteuil's twisted manipulations are a necessary result of her limited options and the oppressive culture in which she must operate. Had she the option of exercising her talents as an international diplomat, for example, she may have ended up less twisted and more fulfilled. Or at least more fulfilled. Possibly. Depending on your opinion of international diplomacy.

But why argue that, in any case? Marteuil is a snake, and I love her as a snake. Les liaisons dangereuses is wicked fun, and I love it that way too. Like a good mafia movie, it somehow manages to remain seductive even as it simultaneously exposes the ugly underpinnings of the very process of seduction: a contradiction of which Merteuil and Valmont would heartily approve.


All translations are mine, and inadequate things they are, too. This book is available in English as Dangerous Liaisons, and I'm sure a professional translator would do a better job than I did, but if you can read it in French there's a lot of fantastic word-play that I can't imagine being 100% preserved in translation. There's undoubtedly even more than I realized, given my imperfect French.

Wise Blood


I'm glad I picked up Wise Blood relatively soon after perusing A Good Man is Hard to Find, because this novel clarified some things in my mind about Flannery O'Connor's theology. I'm now certain that I disagree with just about every aspect of her worldview, to the point where I am actually repulsed by her assumptions and arguments. But I also find her thought processes fascinating, and her writing tight and, often, darkly funny. Moreover, it's probably a good exercise, every so often, to stretch one's brain around concepts completely foreign to one's way of thinking, and that Wise Blood most certainly requires me to do. Through Hazel Motes and his frantic attempts to escape his own religious conviction; through Enoch Emery and his resentful adherence to the mysterious dictates of his "wise blood"; through the sham blind-man Asa Hawks and his gleefully wicked daughter Sabbath; and through the blunt apathy and ignorant cruelty of all the regular citizens of the town of Taulkinham, O'Connor presents a vision of the world in such marked contrast to my own, that I can only make sense of it in glimpses, as if through a veil.

I should admit up front that I am not the ideal reader for this book. O'Connor writes in the Author's Note to Wise Blood:

That belief in Christ is to some a matter of life and death has been a stumbling block for readers who would prefer to think it a matter of no great consequence. For them Hazel Motes' integrity lies in his trying with such vigor to get rid of the ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind. For the author Hazel's integrity lies in his not being able to.

I am one of the former class of reader: a secular humanist of the type that O'Connor ruthlessly lampoons throughout this novel, even if I'm not as stupid as most of her characters or as set on the triumph of consumerism and scientism over the mysteries inherent in human existence. Still, perhaps O'Connor would see me as stupid and cruel. That's the way she seemed to see everyone, after all, Christians and secularists alike: she seems to have interpreted the doctrine of original sin to mean that all humans are doltish and mean, all equally bad, not just imperfect but bound to do a poor job at whatever they set their minds to, which will undoubtedly be a petty, irrelevant thing to begin with. Irrelevant, that is, because human intention seems not to matter to O'Connor. Enoch Emery, for example, is resentful and mean about the mysterious messages he receives through his "wise blood," but despite his lack of understanding he must obey; he is subject to grace. Hazel Motes attempts to deny his faith in Jesus, but Christ haunts him wherever he goes and whatever atrocity he commits, a nightmare figure whose presence implies that Hazel needs salvation and is therefore unclean.

Did they know that even for that boy there, for that mean sinful unthinking boy standing there with his dirty hands clenching and unclenching at his sides, Jesus would die ten million deaths before He would let him lose his soul? He would chase him over the waters of sin! Did they doubt Jesus could walk on the waters of sin? That boy had been redeemed and Jesus wasn't going to leave him ever. Jesus would never let him forget he was redeemed. What did the sinner think there was to be gained? Jesus would have him in the end!
          The boy didn't need to hear it. There was already a deep black wordless conviction in him that the way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin. He knew by the time he was twelve years old that he was going to be a preacher. Later he saw Jesus move from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he was not sure of his footing, where he might be walking on the water and not know it and suddenly know it and drown.

But Motes cannot escape sin; he cannot escape Jesus; he cannot escape into some kind of humanist daydream that declares him already clean and in need of no salvation. For O'Connor humanity is inherently sub-par—the hucksters out for a buck, the sleazy waitresses and their sleazier customers; the tight-fisted landlady plagued by the suspicion that she's being cheated. No character in Wise Blood is empathetic; the best you could say for any of them is that they're conventional, or, looked at another way, that they're tortured and struggling. And it matters not whether they try to be good, or try to be bad: God is an incomprehensible mystery, and his grace is given regardless of human intent or action. That the two most sympathetic characters in the novel commit murder before the end of it, seems hardly relevant to their, in O'Connor's word, integrity: as she herself wrote, "grace changes us and change is painful." Based on her writings I'd say she opined in the other direction too: not only did grace imply pain, but pain equaled grace.

When O'Connor's characters endure pain, they are closer to a state of grace. When Enoch Emery is most resentful; when Mrs. Flood is most troubled; when Hazel Motes wraps himself with barbed wire and fills his shoes with broken glass; they are, in O'Connor's mind, closer to God than when they are comfortable, and closer to God than the oblivious, semi-religious or secularist folks who stream by in blithe ignorance in her crowd scenes. Just as the murdered grandmother in "A Good Man is Hard to Find" "would have been a good woman, if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life"; just as the young boy in the story "The River" is closer to God when alone and drowning than at home with his drunk parents, tortured struggle is a sign, in Wise Blood, that grace has been received. Not because the recipient has become a more virtuous or better person, or because his tormentors are enlightened; on the contrary, the acts of torment are themselves more evidence of universal human corruption. It's just that, because of all humans' inherent badness, because they are intrinsically unable to fathom the mysteries of God and because their wills are inherently warped to desire the wrong things, human pain and discomfort is, for O'Connor, a fundamental symptom of the approach to the divine. The sham preacher who tells his congregants that "You don't have to believe nothing you don't understand and approve of" may be more comfortable and happy than Hazel Motes, and he may be no worse a person than Haze, but he is less in a state of grace. You can tell because he's not suffering, and because he is disregarding the fundamental mystery of existence.

(Can I just reiterate that I IN NO WAY relate to this. Nor do I imagine that this is official Catholic doctrine or the majority Christian view. O'Connor was seriously dark! I am just trying to fathom the way her philosophy worked.)

Much of the humor in Wise Blood comes from the disconnect between people who are suffering—people who are struggling, and doing daily battle with their religion—and those who are happy enough to drift along with conventional flow of life. O'Connor does not endow the sufferers and strugglers with any more intelligence than the complaisant secularists; most everyone in her novel is stupid as dirt. The strugglers, though, are gifted or cursed against their will with an instinct for living life at a symbolic, mythological level, which passes completely over everyone else's head. In this scene, for example, the protagonist Hazel Motes has just spotted a man he sees as his doppelgänger, another false prophet preaching from the hood of a car:

          Haze was standing next to a fat woman who after a minute turned her head and stared at him and then turned it again and stared at the True Prophet. Finally she touched his elbow with hers and grinned at him. "Him and you twins?" she asked.
          "If you don't hunt it down and kill it, it'll hunt you down and kill you," Haze answered.
          "Huh? Who?" she said.
          He turned away and she stared at him and he got back in his car and drove off. Then she touched the elbow of a man on the other side of her. "He's nuts," she said. "I never seen no twins that hunted each other down."

Hazel is either too noble, too apathetic, or too self-centered, here, to notice that "If you don't hunt it down and kill it, it'll hunt you down and kill you" is not an appropriate thing to say out loud in company, even if you believe you have spotted some kind of shadow-self whom God is telling to to search out and destroy. Not too surprising, since by this point it has been long established that Hazel is well-nigh driven mad by his religious angst. What's funnier, to me, is the response of the fat woman. She doesn't think to herself, "Wow, that is a batshit crazy thing to say! Maybe I should call the cops." She doesn't even become alarmed and inch away from Haze through the crush. No, she has decided she's going to have a superficial conversation with another member of the gawking crowd, and when Hazel gives her an answer she's not expecting, she just turns to someone else and responds to the absolute surface level of his comment: "I never seen no twins that hunted each other down." It's hilarious because the two people appear to be having a conversation with each other, but they're actually not interacting at all. He's too deep into symbolism and metaphor to be conscious of the surface, whereas she's too committed to the superficial to recognize a metaphor when it's standing in front of her.

And that's pretty much the fate, I think, of a secular person like me and a person of O'Connor's particular brand of extreme religiosity: we may attempt a conversation, but our words do not point to the same referents. I deeply admire what O'Connor does with the English language, and laugh at the bizarre interactions of her characters. I can even relate to the value of discomfort, in that it can stimulate human growth, and mystery, in that our existence contains more than we can fathom. But I, like her supposedly misguided secularist landlady, can't bring myself to admire what O'Connor admires, can't help asking myself why anyone would put themselves through such suffering if they believed in no hope of becoming a better person, especially considering all the pain and cruelty that already exist in the world. To do so is not useful—a shortcoming beyond which I am simply too utilitarian to move. For O'Connor, it is a mark of Hazel Motes's integrity that he is unable to escape his religious conviction; for me, who finds plenty of struggle and inspiration in secular life, it, and he, are merely incomprehensible.

She was not religious or morbid, for which every day she thanked her stars. [...] What possible reason could a sane person have for wanting to not enjoy himself any more?
          She certainly couldn't say.

Henry VI Part 3


Richard Caton Woodville: The Battle of Towton (detail), 1922

Apparently, February here at Evening All Afternoon is all Renaissance, all the time. I promise excursions into the eighteenth and even the twentieth centuries in the near future. In the meantime, let's take a look at the third (or second, if he indeed didn't write Part 1) installment in Shakespeare's Henry VI trilogy—which entire trilogy is in turn the set-up for Richard III.

In the third play, then, the moral fog I mentioned in my previous post has hardened into place, as both York and Lancaster claimants for the throne have committed some truly despicable acts in their bids for the throne. More than that, as Jenny so amusingly points out, the struggle for control of the kingdom has degenerated into something like a farce. In the opening scene, for example, Henry and his minions run into Edward (now Duke of York, since his father is dead) and his minions at the House of Parliament, where Edward is sitting on the throne. The two parties engage in a pissing match that strikes one as anything but regal:

          KING HENRY
Thou factious Duke of York, descend my throne,
And kneel for grace and mercy at my feet;
I am thy sovereign.
          DUKE OF YORK
                              Thou'rt deceived; I'm thine.
          DUKE OF EXETER
For shame, come down: he made thee Duke of York.
          DUKE OF YORK
'Twas my inheritance, as the earldom was.
          DUKE OF EXETER
Thy father was a traitor to the crown.
Exeter, thou art a traitor to the crown
In following this usurping Henry.
Whom should he follow but his natural king?
True, Clifford, and that's Richard duke of York.

"No, you're a traitor to the crown!" "No, YOU'RE a traitor to the crown!" And so on. This kind of petty squabbling is more convincing, to me, when the teenage Montague and Capulet thugs do it in Romeo and Juliet, although here it could very well be a comment on the maturity level of those that ought to be ruling the country. In any case, one is quite relieved when their bickering gives way to battle, since at least the fighting provides opportunities for dramatic death scenes and further "kingly" behavior such as kicking around the dead body of your enemy while you make fun of his inability to answer (the York boys to Lord Clifford), or taunting your captured enemy with a handkerchief soaked in his dead son's blood, before beheading him and sticking his head on a pike on London Bridge. Queen Margaret's fantastic baiting of the elder Duke of York:

Alas poor York! But that I hate thee deadly,
I should lament thy miserable state,
I prithee, grieve, to make me merry, York
Stamp, rave and fret, that I may sing and dance.
What! hath thine fiery heart so parcht thine entrails
That not a tear can fall for Rutland's death?
Why art thou patient, man? thou shouldst be mad...

What a deliciously evil speech. Margaret, in fact, is probably the most interesting thing to me in the entire Henry VI trilogy, both in terms of its inner logic, and in terms of earlier and later figures of whom she reminds me.

The daughter of a destitute French king whom the now-late Suffolk convinced Henry VI to marry, Margaret turns out to be far more forceful than her king husband: in one scene, for example, she lets Henry tag along to the scene of a battle they're about to fight with the Yorkists, only to tell him, in essence "You only get in the way when you try to fight alongside me; why don't you sit quietly over there under that tree?" She then proceeds to command the army while he bewails the bloodshed all around him. Not only is she a good military commander; she's also by far the most verbally adroit character in these plays, meeting her match only as Richard Duke of Gloster (later Richard III, of the silver tongue) comes into his own toward the end of Part 3. Like Clytemnestra in Aeschylus's Agamemnon, she talks circles around everyone else, and even when one knows she is being utterly duplicitous, one is still halfway convinced, against one's will, by her words. In this scene from Part 2, for example, she's laying a totally unreasonable guilt trip on her husband, saying in effect "I can't believe you're mourning for your dead friend whom we just discovered murdered in his bed; don't I mean anything to you?" Especially despicable given that she herself conspired to murder the duke; yet the gorgeousness of her language can't be denied.

Was I for this nigh wrackt upon the sea,
And twice by awkward winds from England's bank
Drove back again unto my native clime?
What boded this but well-forewarning winds
Did seem to say,—'Seek not a scorpion's nest,
Nor set no footing on this unkind shore?'
What did I then but cursed the gentle gusts,
And he that loosed them forth their brazen caves;
And bid them blow toward England's blessed shore,
Or turn our stern upon a dreadful rock?
Yet AEolus would not be a murderer,
But left that hateful office unto thee:
The pretty-vaulting sea refused to drown me;
Knowing that thou wouldst have me drown'd on shore,
With tears as salt as sea, through thy unkindness:
The splitting rocks cower'd in the sinking sands,
And would not dash me with their ragged sides;
Because thy flinty heart, more hard than they,
Might in thy palace perish Margaret.

Compare her luscious phrases ("but that I hate thee deadly"; "With tears as salt as sea") with the pedestrian thumb-biting going on above between Henry and Edward. Despite her cruelty, she appears in her eloquence far more like a monarch than either of them, and knows it. The men around her realize it, too—Henry himself opines that "The tiger will be mild whiles she doth mourn; / And Nero will be tainted with remorse, / To hear and see her plaints, her brinish tears." (I love this description of her tears as "brinish," again tying her to the sea while at the same time evoking her unsavory, contaminated character, since sea brine is full of all the dirt and flotsam of the ocean along with simple salt water.) And Richard Duke of Gloster, no mean speech-maker himself, questions whether she should be suffered to live "to fill the world with words." Despite the fact that she has proved herself on the battlefield as well as in the verbal realm, it's her way with words that threatens Richard: an explicit admission that, at least in his view, the kingdom will be won with language (and murder), and that Margaret alive is dangerously eloquent.

Such a dangerous yet compellingly eloquent female character brings to mind many of Shakespeare's later plays: Lear's Regan and Goneril (where eloquence itself is almost equated with duplicitousnesss, and reserve with honesty), Lady Macbeth, and in a more comedic setting, Taming of the Shrew's Kate, and Much Ado About Nothing's Beatrice. I think it's interesting that, although these subversive women tend to be punished—killed in the extreme cases, conquered by love and/or abuse in the comedic versions—their presence was plainly compelling to Shakespeare and his Renaissance audiences, just as it continues to be for modern ones. It's always a question, in such cases, whether the attraction lies more the middle of the play, when one gets to watch these women being subversive and clever and sometimes cruel or even evil, or the ending of the play, when one sees them brought into line.

Henry VI Part 3 is a particularly interesting instance of this question, because, while Margaret is certainly not admirable in any comprehensive sense of the word, neither is literally anybody else in the play—and she at least has the advantage of being memorable. In a way, that leaves the reader freer to enjoy her, and to feel disappointed in her downfall, than in a play like Lear, where there is a clear moral center, a "good team" and a "bad team."

It's so interesting that Shakespeare's very first plays presented such a complex, topsy-turvy moral universe, one that at times approaches nihilistic farce. I imagine that, in going on to re-read Richard III, that play will strike me in new and different ways having read these earlier installments. In particular, Richard's villainy takes on a new cast now that I realize, not only that he's whipping up more discontent after a bloody civil war, but that the side on which he fought has won, and he's turning his own brothers against one another. His villainy achieves a lower plain than any of the murderous characters in the Henry VI plays, since they at least (except Warwick) remain loyal to their own houses. And yet, despite his clear demarcation as the villain of the piece, I suppose the same question could be asked about him as I asked about Margaret: is the fun of the play in watching him be evil, or in seeing him brought low?


After two somewhat lacklaster reading experiences at the end of January, I'm happy for the opportunity to write about a book with which I was passionately engaged: Sarah Bakewell's How to Live is, in my opinion, how literary biography should be written. Or, more specifically, it's the way this literary biography should be written: a perfect match of subject and approach which was a joy from cover to cover.

Given that I just went into my love affair with Montaigne's peregrinatory style of "accidental" philosophizing, I won't wax lyrical about it again. Suffice to say, in starting How to Live the evening after I finished that post, I was nodding and chuckling along with Bakewell's characterizations of the Renaissance essayist, checking to make sure I myself hadn't written her book in a moment of more-than-characteristic narrative fluidity and verve. And indeed, in placing Montaigne's life and work in their evolving historical contexts, Bakewell points out over and over that this was a reaction readers often had to Montaigne himself: they found, in the Essays, a reflection of themselves and their own times, and ignored or rejected those aspects that didn't mesh with their worldviews. Thus, the same writer could be embraced by his contemporaries as a provider of helpful mental tricks in the tradition of Stoical skepticism, while seventeenth-century libertins could read him as a rebellious free-spirit, and early twentieth-century modernists find inspiration in his attempts to analyze his own consciousness.

Indeed, Bakewell's book, while incorporating throughout a thread of traditional biography (Michel Eyquem de Montaigne was born, grew up unconventionally, wrote steadily, died), interweaves another, equally prominent thread concerned with the intellectual conception and after-life of the Essays: fitting, since Montaigne himself said that he and his book were one and the same. These sections were my particular favorites. It's probably true that any author who is read for five hundred years will be subject to many versions and interpretations, but Bakewell makes a good case that Montaigne's own propensity to look at an argument from all possible perspectives, and chart the bending and winding of his own mind without passing judgment, has lent him to an especially large number of interpretations over the years—often ones he would never have predicted, but which, she argues are nonetheless fascinating for what they reveal of the readers' own times and characters. Two of my favorite examples demonstrate Bakewell's narrative range, which is always engaging and readable but moves with ease from clever and humorous to quite tragic.

In the chapter on late 18th-century reception to Montaigne, Bakewell relates how the Romantics basically invented the idea of literary tourism—the instinct to make pilgrimages to the homes and haunts of writers one admires. One of the sites so honored was Montaigne's château, which left his descendants a bit bemused at all the scruffy, overly-earnest young men suddenly showing up and wanting to tour the old man's tower. The post-Rousseau generation was deeply struck by Montaigne's fascination with people from the New World, interpreting his open-mindedness about the arbitrariness of custom as agreement with the idea of the uncorrupted "noble savage" (conveniently ignoring all the times when Montaigne points out cruel or unjust customs practiced by "savage" peoples). They were also drawn to the heat of his youthful passion for Étienne de la Boétie. Despite their initial enthusiasm, however, many Romantics became disillusioned with Montaigne's insistence on moderation, on keeping an even keel. Bakewell writes,

The poet Alphonse de Lamartine was one such frustrated reader. When he first came across Montaigne he hero-worshiped him, and kept a volume of the Essays always in his pocket or on his table so he could seize it whenever he had the urge. But later he turned against his idol with equal vehemence: Montaigne, he now decided, knew nothing of the real miseries of life. He explained to a correspondent that he had only been able to love the Essays when he was young—that is, about nine months earlier, when he first began to enthuse about the book in his letters. Now, at twenty-one, he had been weathered by pain, and found Montaigne too cool and measured. Perhaps, he wondered, he might return to Montaigne many years later, in old age, when even more suffering had dried his heart. For now, the essayist's sense of moderation made him feel positively ill.

Bakewell goes on to make the intriguing point that, by advocating moderation over the (perhaps sexier but unsustainable) frenzy, be it of war or doomed poetic brilliance, Montaigne was actually proving himself rebellious,

bucking the trend of his own time as much as that of the Romantics. Renaissance readers fetishized extreme states: ecstasy was the only state in which to write poetry, just as it was the only way to fight a battle and the only way to fall in love.

Yet the "ecstasy" of war, something Montaigne was forced to see at close quarters throughout the forty years of France's bloody civil wars of the 1560s through 1590s, proved an understandably unconvincing answer to the question "How to live?" as far as he was concerned. A more serious yet still occasionally wry Bakewell does a remarkable job bringing these wars, with their prevalent spirit of religious extremism, to life for the reader. Of the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacres, which left ten thousand dead throughout France, she relates this mind-bending rationale:

In most places, the bloodshed was done more chaotically [than in Bordeaux] and by people who would have been reasonable folk the rest of the time. In Orléans, the mob stopped at taverns between killings to celebrate, "accompanied by singing, lutes and guitars," according to one historian. Some groups were composed mainly of women and children. Catholics interpreted the presence of the latter as a sign that God Himself was in favor of the massacres, for He had caused even innocents to take part. In general, many thought that, since the killings were on no ordinary human scale, they must have been divinely sanctioned.

I am no theologian, but if anything does NOT say "divinely sanctioned" to me, it's little children slaughtering people in the street. Montaigne, too, rejected the romanticized furore tradition, arguing that ideally, even a soldier in the midst of battle should be able to turn away from killing a friend if he recognizes him on the field. Reading about the extremism with which he was surrounded throughout his life gave me new respect for the doctrine of moderation that was one of the most consistent elements of Montaigne's work.

Montaigne's own secularism is an interesting subject, especially in light of this ongoing religious conflict, and it's one Bakewell treats with sensitivity. Although he remained a nominal Catholic throughout his life, the essayist hardly ever takes his arguments in a religious direction, even in cases where one might expect him to do so. Among his answers to the "How to live?" question, one never finds, for example, "trust in Jesus Christ," or "Obey the dictates of the Church." This makes it easy for a secularist like me to relate to the Essays, but Bakewell points out that Montaigne's lack of religious fervor probably doesn't indicate that he was a complete non-believer: hardly anyone was, in sixteenth-century France. More likely, he was moderately religious in a way that didn't intrude much on his day-to-day life, and at the same time was likely attempting to steer clear of trouble with either set of the extremists demolishing his country, by not seeming to hew too closely to the theology of either group.

I could go on in Montaigneanly unending style about How to Live; it brings up a plethora of fascinating points about a favorite author of mine, placing him in his time and place as well as analyzing how his work has been transplanted into other contexts, including our own. There are so many juicy tidbits I didn't even touch on in this post: Montaigne's extremely unorthodox childhood, for example, or the bizarrely strong aversion certain seventeenth-century philosophers felt for the Essays. Instead I'll just say that I gobbled up every page of this book, and was sorry to see it end.

Henry VI Parts 1 - 2


Edwin Austin Abbey: The Penance of Eleanor, 1900

Recently, I don't know why, I've been taken by a sudden and overwhelming craving for Shakespeare. It could be all the Montaigne, I suppose; having not read Shakespeare at all since finishing my undergrad thesis on King Lear and Montaigne's "Of Experience," the self-effacing humanism of the one has me coveting the richness and textured diction of the other. In any case, I decided on a whim to start at the compositional beginning: with the three Shakespearean plays first performed (1590-92), Henry VI, Parts One and Two.

The compositional beginning is, of course, not the chronological beginning. Henry VI Part 1 opens on a kingdom in disarray: the strong old king, Henry V (whose earlier incarnations as Prince Hal and Henry V Shakespeare would go on to portray later in his career) has just died, leaving an underage son and a political vacuum of which literally everyone and their cousin is rushing to take ownership. And what a bunch of vile cousins they are. The Duke of Gloster, the official Protector of young Henry VI and one of the only truly sympathetic characters, is at odds with Cardinal Beaufort, a Wolsey-esque figure attempting to rule the kingdom from the Church seat. In Part 1 we get the famous scene of discord between the Duke of Somerset and Richard Plantagenet (later the Duke of York) which establishes the red rose as the badge of the house of Lancaster and the white rose as the badge of the house of York, and presages the bloody Wars of the Roses to follow. On top of all this, the Duke of Suffolk is attempting to curry favor with the King by convincing Henry to marry the woman of Suffolk's choice—Princess Margaret, through whom Suffolk himself hopes to rule by proxy. A Better Book Titles-style renaming of this trilogy might be, Too Many Dukes! (And Also A Surfeit of Earls).

And indeed, in the Henry VI plays one can see the beginning of a Shakespearean obsession: the danger inherent in a divided kingdom or house, in having too many cooks in the kitchen. However revolutionary he was in a lingual sense, Shakespeare was a political conservative; in his mind, a country lacking a single, strong and legitimate monarch was in serious trouble. This is especially true when a whole court is distracted from an outside threat; in this case, the infighting comes at a particularly unfortunate time, because England is currently at war with France, and the French army has just acquired the secret weapon in the form of Joan of Arc. While the French find new purchase thanks to Joan's galvanic leadership (and conjuration of demons), the English let their petty rivalries keep them from sending reinforcements into battle, thus jeopardizing one of their most experienced and honorable commanders. In fact, it's usually the nice guys who finish last when dueling dukes get going:

Ah, gracious lord, these days are dangerous!
Virtue is choked with foul ambition,
And charity chased hence by rancour's hand;
Foul subornation is predominant,
And equity exiled in your highness' land.
I know their complot is to have my life;
And, if my death might make this island happy,
And prove the period of their tyranny,
I would expend it with all willingness:
But mine is made the prologue to their play;
For thousands more, that yet suspect no peril,
Will not conclude their plotted tragedy.

(In this speech we see a hint of another typically Shakespearean practice more famous in Hamlet, Midsummer Night's Dream, and As You Like It: the tendency to use imagery of plays and actors within the plays themselves, creating a nesting-boxes effect. "Plotted tragedy" is a nice pun on "plotting" as in scheming, and "plotting" as in planning out the events of a story or drama.)

That problem of legitimacy is a tough nut in the Henry VI plays—much more so than in some other Shakespeare works, because, at least at first, the "rightful" succession isn't clear. Often, when there is a cold-blooded and manipulative usurper in Shakespeare, like Richard III or Hamlet's Claudius, that person is clearly marked out as a villain, while the rightful heir to the throne is de facto morally righteous. Reluctant or "weak" usurpers, like Macbeth, are perhaps a more complicated case—their character fails them, despite their qualms. But in Henry VI, we have in Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York a clear-headed, manipulative character who is attempting to arrange events to topple the current king; yet Shakespeare hesitates to portray the Duke of York as a complete villain—unsurprising, since his claim to the throne is actually stronger than Henry's. Throughout Part 1, it's as if all the characters are struggling through a moral fog: everyone has his set of allegiances, but all sides are morally equal, equally self-serving. One could equally well come to the conclusion that one person is the rightful king, as that another is. As Salisbury says late in Part 2, "It is a great sin to swear unto a sin; / But greater sin to keep a sinful oath." In such a catch-22 situation, there's really no easy way to stick to one's guns and feel secure in one's virtue: a surprisingly nihilistic vision for the first plays by a man who often shows himself a staunch monarchist.

As this fog coalesces around the Duke of York and his claims to be the rightful heir to the throne in Part 2, Shakespeare grapples with the question of whether a plot against the crown is ever justified: what creates "legitimacy"? Henry VI is the grandson of a usurper, and York's line of descent is closer than Henry's, so if legitimacy is a marker of Divine Right to Rule, the crown should go to York. Yet Henry is the lawful son of the previous king, who was himself the lawful son of the king before that, not to mention that he's already sitting on the throne—so if legitimacy is a practical device for ensuring stability in the realm, the crown should stay with Henry. Though again, if it is a simple practicality in the service of stability, leaving the crown to Henry may not be the best idea after all, given the young king's gullible, easy-going nature in this time of war. Is York, then, justified in intentionally undermining Henry's rule? If he is justified, is it because of his lineage, or because of Henry's weakness as a monarch? His behavior looks from the outside exactly like a treasonous plot. Is there any difference, especially when he sacrifices virtuous people in order to gain his ends? And when he makes such delicious yet devious speeches as this?

        DUKE OF YORK
Well, nobles, well, 'tis politicly done,
To send me packing with a host of men;
I fear me you but warm the starved snake,
Who, cherisht in your breasts, will sting your hearts.
'Twas men I lackt, and you will give them me;
I take it kindly; yet be well assured
You put sharp weapons in a madman's hands.
Whiles I in Ireland nourish a mighty band,
I will stir up in England some black storm,
Shall blow ten thousand souls to heaven or hell;
And this fell tempest shall not cease to rage
Until the golden circuit on my head,
Like to the glorious sun's transparent beams,
Do calm the fury of this mad-bred flaw.

It's hard to think that York is as admirable as Gloster; on the other hand, he's certainly no more despicable than Suffolk, Somerset, Beaufort, or any of the other schemers and plotters. Does his noble(r) birth alone elevate him above their level? One wonders if the answers to these moral questions are, for Shakespeare, at all dependent on outcome: had Richard Plantagenet succeeded in his bid for kingship, rather than merely touching off the powder keg that became the Wars of the Roses and siring the villain who would become Richard III, would they have been justified by the end result of returning the legitimate heir to the throne? Particularly in a time of war, an argument has often been made that ends justify means; and it's just possible that York himself believes that restoring the golden circuit to his own head would "calm the fury of this mad-bred flaw," whether the flaw in question is that a lower-born man is holding the sceptre, or that a less competent man is holding it. If he sees himself as a snake and a bringer of storms, he is perhaps honest in believing those poisonous and warlike images describe a fiercer and more effective England.

But there seems a stronger argument within these plays for the idea that possession is nine-tenths of legitimacy. In the latter part of Part 2 we get the faux-populist leader Jack Cade, spouting off about his own dubious claims to the throne and manifesting what is more or less Shakespeare's worst nightmare: rule by a mob, which is, like all Shakespearean mobs, easily swayed one way or the other by the slick speeches of whoever cares to woo them. Cade is in every way Henry's opposite; he is petty and bloodthirsty, and sends men to their death in a light, joking fashion. Not only is he an exaggerated caricature of the usurping spirit of the Duke of York himself, but he is actually acting on York's orders when he foments rebellion: not a ringing endorsement of the latter's fitness to wear the crown. Yet, despite Cade's obvious cruelty and nightmarishness for an anti-populist like Shakespeare, there is a fascinating grain of truth to his flippant, backwards speeches:

        JACK CADE (to Lord Say)
Thou hast most traitorously corrupted the youth of the realm in erecting a grammar-school: and whereas, before, our forefathers had no other books but the score and the tally, thou hast caused printing to be used; and, contrary to the king, his crown, and dignity, thou has built a paper-mill. It will be proved to thy face that thou hast men about thee that usually talk of a noun and a verb, and such abominable words as no Christian ear can endure to hear. Thou hast appointed justices of the peace, to call poor men before them about matters they were not able to answer. Moreover, thou hast put them in prison; and because they could not read, thou hast hang'd them; when, indeed, only for that cause they have been most worthy to live.

This speech is undoubtedly funny, and undoubtedly horrifying for those of us who value the written word; at the same time, Cade's complaint about "justices of the peace [calling] poor men before them about matters they were not able to answer" rings uncomfortably true, at least in modern ears. It's not the last time Shakespeare used the comic relief of a lower-class character to take a pot-shot at issues of class or gender inequity, without stepping too far outside his own (and his patrons') received ideology.

A fascinating beginning; I'm looking forward to Part 3!

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography