United Kingdom and European Union

Britain and the European Union – the future

Well, the future remains uncertain.  (I remain dismayed by the referendum result.)

The background.

Many UK voters have been expressed worry about, even opposition to, high levels of immigration.   (Many live in areas of low immigration!)  Some politicians have responded to this by supporting the worried voters.   The alternative approach is to deal with social needs vigorously.

Are we witnessing the result of long-term scapegoating of non-Britons and the EU?  Doesn’t nationalist populism rise in times of economic depression?

What have immigrants done for us?  Well, the Huguenots, the Jews, the Irish, the Italians, etc, etc, have helped to build Britain and make it what it is, eg by starting businesses, working in the public sector, etc.

Surely, the shortages in social goods (access to General Practitioners, social housing, etc) are the result of government policies (bad decisions), continued over many years.  These policies should be reversed.

“Affordable” housing = rented housing- well, it should be.  Build, build – fund, fund.  A good investment, a social good.  Make renting respectable, a genuine alternative to buying with a mortgage.

The private rented sector has grown exponentially.  Rents are high and going higher.  The public bill for rent support climbs too.  The money that goes into landlords’ pockets could be put into bricks and mortar.  And the quality of private sector properties varies a lot.

Another social evil is 21st century poverty.  The job market has changed.  Many jobs nowadays are insecure.  Many people draw benefit payments while working hard in low-paid jobs.  Much pay goes on rent, which makes for a low disposable income.

UK and EU

At the moment, the British Government is on the horns of a dilemma: access to the single market versus control over immigration (ie from the EU and non-EU countries).  We can’t have one without the other.

The options.

1 Parliament delays UK departure from the EU, to such a point where the idea fizzles out.

2 The UK rejoins the European Free Trade Association and stays in the European Economic Area, and negotiates with the EU and third parties, as required.

3 Chaos: uncertainty, decline, divisions in society.

Conclusion

We in the UK have been badly led and poorly served by our elected representatives.  The school report reads: “Could do better.”

Shakespeare’s ‘King Henry VI’

Introduction

Fairly early in his playwriting career (ie the early 1590s), Shakespeare produced three dramas about the long reign of King Henry VI (and his rival and successor, Edward IV), and one about Richard Duke of Gloucester (later, Richard III).  These are regarded as the first English history ‘tetralogy’.  (It was followed later by the second tetralogy, covering the reigns of Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V, earlier in time.  The popular character of Falstaff contributes to the fame of the Henry IV plays.)

The Henry VI plays are generally not well known and they are seldom performed.  The Royal Shakespeare Company, for example, however, has put on performances of them all, in recent years (2000 and 2006).  The RSC is followed in this by BBC Television, in the Hollow Crown version of the tetralogy, shown in 2016.  (The three Parts of Henry VI have been compressed into two.)

Richard III is much better known and is often performed, in isolation from the rest of the tetralogy.  This presents a challenge, as it is a sequel to the plays that precede it: in other words, it presumes knowledge, on the part of the spectator or the reader, of what has gone before.

Below, I make brief comments on each Part of Henry VI, and follow them with some remarks on the BBC production.

Henry VI, Part 1 (1H6)

 

This play is set in the context of the ‘Hundred Years War’.  Henry V has died, while fighting in France, leaving a power gap at the centre of government.  The English are still trying to maintain their dominion over great parts of France; but both rivalries among the prominent English nobles, and the weakness of Henry VI (attributed to his naivety and piety), undermine their campaign.  Richard Duke of York commences his personal quest to become king himself.  Helped by these divisions, Joan of Arc leads the French to victories.

 

The English lose the war but win certain battles: Joan of Arc is captured by the English and executed; the Earl (later, Duke) of Suffolk captures Margaret of Anjou (daughter of an ally of the French).  Suffolk proposes her as a bride for King Henry, hoping to increase his influence at court.

 

Different styles appear in this play.  Certain scenes (only) are attributed, by some commentators, to Shakespeare: Act 2, Scene 4 and Act 4, Scenes 2-6 and Scene 7, lines 1-32.

 

In Act 2 Scene 4, the supporters of rival claimants to the English throne meet up in a garden: those who favour Henry VI (of the House of Lancaster) pick a red rose, those adhering to the House of York, a white one.  The first hint is given of the forthcoming ‘Wars of the Roses’, which will occupy Henry VI, Parts 2 and 3.

 

Henry VI Part 2 (2H6)

 

This play is so full of noteworthy incidents that I choose to mention only a few, below.  It begins with the arrival of Margaret of Anjou as the Queen of England.   It ends with the outbreak of civil war.

 

Rival nobles put aside their disputes to unite against Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester and ‘Protector of England’.  Several scenes project him as a statesman, concerned for the common weal.  But several of his peers plot against both him and his wife: found guilty of witchcraft, the Duchess is publicly humiliated and then sent into exile, while the Duke is assassinated, before he can be brought to trial on trumped up charges.

 

Secretly encouraged by Richard Duke of York, the commoner Jack Cade leads an underclass rebellion: he invades London with his followers and orders the execution of higher class men who stand in his way.  Levity is combined with brutality; the turmoil that is taking over England is laid bare.  A semblance of order is restored, but with difficulty.

 

Finally, Richard Duke of York makes an open bid for the crown, supported by his sons and Warwick the “kingmaker”; and the nobles divide, according to their previously declared loyalties.  The first Battle of St Albans takes place (1455); it is won by the Yorkists.

 

This play has been praised by scholars who have studied it.  On page 1 of his Introduction to the Cambridge edition (1991), Michael Hattaway writes: “Henry VI Part 2 is a fine, important, and undervalued play.”  And on page 2 of the Arden 3 edition (1999), Ronald Knowles goes so far as to say:

 

This Introduction contributes to an edition which has been prepared in the conviction that, had a barely known young Warwickshire playwright been carried off by the plague of 1592, 2 Henry VI would remain as the greatest history play in early modern drama and one of the most exciting and dynamic plays of the English Renaissance theatre.

 

I agree with these judgements.  Read it and enjoy!

 

Henry VI Part 3 (3H6)

 

As Dr Samuel Johnson pointed out, 3H6 is a direct continuation of 2H6.

 

This play paints a bleak picture of a country at war.  The powerful wreak vengeance on their enemies, in cycles of violence.  Major characters, including both Richard Duke of York and Henry VI – and Edward, his son and heir – are put to death, in cold blood.  Thousands of ordinary soldiers are slaughtered, notably, at Towton in Yorkshire (1461), and at Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire (1471).

 

Confined to the role of spectator, King Henry witnesses the Battle of Towton. (Act 2 Scene 5).  He sees (as we see) fathers and sons fighting on opposite sides.  There appear: first, a son who has killed his father, not recognising him until it is too late, and then, a father who, unknowingly, has killed his own son.  The divisions of the kingdom are reflected in these men’s fates.  Henry is powerless to help; he shares their grief.

 

After much bloodshed, the Yorkists are victorious.  York’s eldest son is crowned as King Edward IV.  But his younger brother, Richard Duke of Gloucester, awaits his opportunity to seize the crown for himself!

 

The partisan debates at the beginning of the play are effective; but the continual debates, battles and killings are (arguably) rather tiring for the reader (or the viewer).

 

On pages 21-2 of his Introduction to the Penguin edition (1981), Norman Sanders comments on the civil war and its consequences, as follows:

 

Like every human value in the play, majesty is debased, stripped of its sacramental dignity or ritual splendour.  Here it is merely a prize to be fought over by warring animals.

 

The BBC’s Hollow Crown, 2016, Henry VI, Parts 1 and 2

 

The first episode covers major events from 1H6 and 2H6, and allocates a little under an hour to each.  The number of major roles is reduced; many lines and indeed whole scenes are cut; several interesting parts of 2H6, notably the Jack Cade rebellion (Act 4), are left out.  Cinematic action often takes the place of long speeches.

 

In the allocation of parts, Somerset largely displaces Suffolk.  The longstanding personal enmity between York and Somerset is vividly depicted, by the actors, Ben Miles and Adrian Dunbar.  Duke Humphrey, acted by Hugh Bonneville, comes across as a tragic figure – perhaps the true hero of the story.

 

In a dramatic touch, at the end of the first episode, York goes from the Tower of London to his own castle, and summons his four sons to join him: the last one to appear on the screen, albeit in shadow, is the half-lame Richard (Benedict Cumberbatch).

 

The second episode allots about two hours to 3H6, so its reproduction on screen is pretty full.  Again, some scenes, lines and roles are transposed or cut.  For example, the tv account of Somerset’s death recalls, in its wording, the one that Shakespeare allocates to Suffolk (in 2H6, 4.1).

 

The acting is very good.  Tom Sturridge (King Henry) has a Lear-like experience, alone and nearly naked, out in the countryside, but accepting of his fate.

 

Sophie Okonedo (Queen Margaret) is effective as a warrior, a leader and a mother, more effectual than her husband, Henry.  Her thirst for vengeance on her foes is frightening, as it is meant to be.  Benedict Cumberbatch’s role, as Duke of Gloucester, mirrors hers: he conveys the part’s ruthlessness and cunning.

 

It is good to see these plays reaching a wide audience.

 

David Harries

June 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What really happened at Troy (with apologies to Homer)

Once upon a time, long ago, a great Greek army, assembled from numerous cities, and led by King Agamemnon, King of Mycenae, sailed across the Mediterranean Sea and besieged the city of Troy in Asia Minor (now Turkey).  A semi-permanent tent city grew up, between the city and the Greeks’ ships, beached on the nearby shore.  The men were accompanied by women, captured in previous battles, and enslaved; and they had animals with them too.

The Greeks’ war aim was to take back the beautiful Helen, wife of Menelaus, King of Sparta, and brother of Agamemnon.  Helen had been abducted by the Trojan Prince Paris and taken to Troy.  The two armies were well matched; but true it is that the Trojans, led by the great Hector, would often take the offensive and sally forth through the city gates.  Sometimes they would reach the enemy’s ships and threaten to set them on fire.  Finally, repulsed by the Greeks, who desperately defended their camp, they would retreat into safety behind Troy’s impregnable walls.  The Greeks felt obliged to build their own wall, to protect their camp.  They found that they were making no progress in their campaign.

Then real disaster struck the Greeks: first, their mules died, unaccountably, in great numbers, next their dogs, and finally their men sickened and died.  What, they wondered, was the cause?

The funeral pyres continued for nine days.  Then, the redoubtable Achilles called the Army commanders, to a council: and so they all met.

When all had assembled, Achilles spoke first. “The way our losses are continuing,” he said, “we shall soon have to give up the fight and return to our own homes.  Perhaps we have offended the gods.  I suggest that, with no more ado, we should consult a priest or prophet for advice.”

Calchas, the augur, responded to this and stood up to speak, in turn.  “The gods are angry,” he claimed, “because Agamemnon has taken the fair daughter of the priest Chryses as his concubine.  When the father appealed to the king, and offered him a ransom, he was insulted and driven away from our camp.  We must give her back, in short order, and without conditions.”

Agamemnon was enraged by this.  At first he struggled to find his own words, but at last he spoke up.  “Calchas,”he said, “You never have a good word to say for or about me!  If needs must, I am willing to return the girl to her father.  However, I demand to be compensated: I want another young woman, to take her place.”

Achilles, in turn, grew angry.  “The booty won has already been shared out fairly among the troops and the commanders,” he said.  “If you give the girl back, we will compensate you – once we have conquered Troy.”

Agamemnon retorted that he was not prepared to wait so long, and indeed that he was considering taking a concubine from one of his fellows, such as Achilles himself.

Achilles grew hotter.  “I came here of my own will,” he said.  “I am under no obligation to you.  Indeed, we are all volunteers, come here to support you and your brother and to restore Helen to her lawful spouse.  And now you have the audacity to take away what belongs to me!  We do the hard fighting, with myself in the vanguard; but you get more than your fair share of the spoils!  I may as well go home straight away and spare myself all this trouble.”

“Go!  Go now!” replied Agamemnon.  “We can manage without you.  You show yourself in your true colours.  Your disloyalty is on display, for all to see!  I am in charge here!  How dare you defy me!  I shall send for your own girl, Briseis, and give her a home with me.”

Achilles felt driven to take immediate revenge upon the king by stabbing him with his sword.  But he hesitated and thought better of it.  His parting shot was: “I am going!  And I refuse to fight for you ever again.  You’ll miss me!  You’ll never defeat Hector without my help!”

The venerable Nestor tried to reconcile the two men.  He urged Agamemnon not to take Briseis away from Achilles.  He urged Achilles to fall into line and to follow Agamemnon, appointed leader of the Greek campaign.  But neither listened.  For his part, the wise Odysseus understood both sides of the argument; but he chose to remain silent, especially as nobody was asking his advice.

The meeting ended.  Agamemnon instructed the men of his household to go to Achilles’ tent at first light next day, to fetch Briseis.

Chryses’ daughter was duly returned to him; and the spate of sudden deaths ceased.

 

Seeking solitude, Achilles sat on the shore and looked out to sea, in the direction of his home.  He pondered the prediction that he had heard from his mother, that he was fated either to have a short and heroic life, with everlasting fame, or else to have a long and uneventful one.  He said to himself that his opportunity to win fame and honour was being denied him, by Agamemnon’s arrogance.  Moreover, he was genuinely fond of Briseis; and he believed that his feelings were reciprocated.  How, he wondered, could he break the news to her?

Quietly, Odysseus joined him.  He too stared longingly over the sea.  Wistfully, he said, half to Achilles and half to himself, “I wish I could be back home with my family.  I miss them so.”  Turning to Achilles, he added, “I’ve hardly seen my son Telemachus since he was born.”

There was a pause.

Achilles said, “I ask myself whether our cause is noble, and whether it justifies the great loss of life we are witnessing.”

Odysseus replied, “Our aim is noble, in principle.  But we need to be practical too.  The war has taken a heavy toll, on both sides.  Young men have died, who should not have done.”

Achilles asked, “What, then, should we do?”

“I don’t know.  My loyalty to the cause, and the promises I have made, keep me here.”

“As you have just seen, my loyalty is being tested severely.”

“Why are you still here, then?”

“I came here in the hope of winning fame and honour, through my valour, even at the cost of my life.  Till now, I’ve retained the hope.”

I’d argue that, once men have died, they are soon forgotten, however brave they’ve been.”

“So,” Achilles sighed, “I’m wasting my time.  I’ve been misled.  I’ve come here on false pretences.”

I place a high value on loyalty – to friends and to one’s wife.  Part of me itches to get back home to Penelope.  But I am fulfilling a promise, and I can’t let down my friends.  Your friends need you and rely on you.  Stay loyal to them – stay here.”

“I give your words the weight they deserve.”

And there the conversation ended; and they went their separate ways.

 

Early next morning, Agamemnon’s men made their way to Achilles’ tent, pitched by his ship. They looked and looked, but neither tent nor ship, neither Achilles nor his followers, was anywhere to be seen.  They were incredulous but had to believe the evidence of their own eyes.  “Achilles has sailed away,” they said to each other.  “What shall we say to Agamemnon?  How shall we tell him?”

They sought out Odysseus: they imparted their news and asked his advice.  Odysseus sighed heavily.  He thought back to his conversation with Achilles, the previous day.  He also thought of his loyalty to Agamemnon and Menelaus.  Swiftly, he made his decision: “I shall tell him myself,” he said.

 

The result of the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles was that the Trojans won the war; Hector was triumphant; Paris kept Helen.  The Greeks (bedraggled and licking their wounds) admitted defeat, and the survivors all went home.  Troy remained standing for many centuries: it was eventually abandoned, but it was never destroyed by hostile forces.  As for Achilles, he enjoyed a long and happy life, with Briseis at his side, and his close friend Patroclus nearby; and he never went to war again.