The nature of the Castle in Franz Kafka’s ‘Das Schloss’

I have picked up Franz Kafka’s Das Schloss again, after nearly fifty years, reading it again, and translating passages, for my own amusement.  I’ll be writing more about it, later.  On the cover of my copy (Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, Frankfurt am Main), Hermann Hesse is quoted as calling the novel “the most mysterious and beautiful of Kafka’s great works.”  (I agree with Hesse.)

The word ‘Schloss’ can be translated as ‘castle’ or ‘palace’ (or even ‘lock’).  The building (or buildings) that figure in Kafka’s novel appears not to satisfy either description but, rather, to be quite unimpressive – certainly, this is how it appears to ‘K’, the protagonist.

I turn to Chapter 1 and provide a free translation of a descriptive passage (below).

On the whole, the castle, as it appeared from a distance, corresponded to K’s expectations.   It was neither an old fortification, built by and for a knight, nor a new, magnificent palace, but an extensive structure, consisting of few two-storey buildings but many low buildings, tightly packed together.  If one had not known that it was a castle, one could have taken it to be a small town.  K could see only one tower.  He could not make out whether it belonged to a dwelling or a church.  A swarm of crows circled round it.

Keeping his eyes fixed on the castle, K kept on walking.  Nothing else concerned him.  As he got closer to it, however, the castle disappointed him: it was truly a miserable little town, distinguished only by the fact that all of it (perhaps) had been built in stone; but the paint had peeled off and the stone appeared to be crumbling.  K briefly thought of his home town: it hardly came second to this so-called castle.  If K had only been interested in sight-seeing, then he would have had a wasted journey, and he would have done better to visit his old home, where he had not been for such a long time.  He mentally compared the church tower of his home town with the tower in front of him.  That tower rose unhesitatingly and boldly, tapering to its broad roof, ending in red tiles – an earthly building (what else?), but with a higher purpose than the rows of low houses, and with a clearer expression than the grey workday.  This tower – the only one he could see – was apparently the tower of a dwelling, perhaps that of the main building.  It was perfectly round.  It was graced, in places, with ivy.  It had small windows, which reflected the sun, in a crazy pattern.  It had a balcony all round it, the battlements of which – unsafe, irregular and crumbling (as if hand-drawn by an anxious or careless child) – formed a serrated edge against the blue sky.  It was as if a gloomy occupant, who should have kept himself locked away in the remotest room, had broken through the roof, in order to show himself to the world.

From my background reading, it remains unclear to me whether the castle of the novel is based on a real place that Kafka had seen, or more than one, or whether it is derived from his vivid imagination.

In the novel, Kafka’s castle is the headquarters of the opaque bureaucracy that strictly governs everything that happens in the village below – with grave consequences for the fate of K himself.  As in Amerika and Der Prozess, powerful people look very ordinary (just like the castle itself).  They don’t need to show off.



A few thoughts have come to me recently and have combined into a prompting.  I have shared this with my Local Meeting in Wales (Britain) and now I would like to share it further.

Quakers in Britain adhere to silent worship, with occasional vocal contributions (spoken ministry).  This is a minority position in the Quaker world.

Within my home country, Wales, I am continually impressed by the high standard of music playing and in particular of singing (solo, duet, choir, etc) at our Eisteddfodau (multi-aspect cultural meetings and competitions).  This reflects the time and effort put in, the value attached to it, and the tradition.

I have been thinking about the stewardship of a two hundred year old Meeting House in our Area: both Meeting and Meeting House need support, especially as the number of Friends is small and the building is in need of much attention.  It may well prove necessary (and desirable) to elicit the support of the local community, to raise awareness and interest, to generate wider use of the Meeting House, and indeed, to generate funds. Could music play a part here?

I have recently listened to a BBC Radio 3 programme (recorded and put aside for later listening) about the work of the Hungarian composer and teacher, Zoltán Kodály. He believed that everybody can sing; and he devised techniques to bring this about; and his influence is widespread.

In my work as a social worker, I have often remarked how useful and powerful music is in communication with, and stimulation of, people suffering from dementia.

I note that in my own lifetime, and during my long association with Friends, the arts have been warmly embraced, in various ways.  (This has been a cultural shift.)  Examples of our achievements are the Quaker Tapestry and the work of the Leaveners, among many others.

I wonder whether, in the seventeenth century, Friends in Britain missed a trick, as they turned their back on music and concentrated on silent waiting in Meeting for Worship.  I love the silence (and the vocal ministry, of course); and our tradition must be retained and suffer no infringement.  But to outsiders our form of worship must appear austere and off-putting.

Music is a part of all cultures on the planet.  All peoples sing.

I think that as Friends we should think about using music and particularly organised singing.  It has connected purposes: therapy, community generation, the understanding of our message, the conveying of our message to others, and (potentially) bringing new people in to sing with us.

Preaching in a public space is one thing; but singing is quite another – engaging and not threatening.

I envisage local groups of Friends (volunteers) practising singing together and getting better. (If they already exist, let’s have more.)  This may involve training, and it may mean payment.  But I see this as an investment.

I see this as a singing movement.  I foresee unaccompanied singing, at an early stage, but instrumentalists can be drawn in.

The material?  We have Quaker songs.  There are peace songs.  We can also have new songs and lyrics composed and written for us.

We have many singers and musicians among us.  Where do they perform now?  Surely, not much in Quaker contexts.

I would like us to sing out our message to the world, wherever and whenever we can.


David Harries

Member of Bridgend Local Meeting, South Wales Area Meeting

King John, died 1216, Shakespeare, died 1616, and the relevance of ‘King John’ to us in 2016

King John, died 1216, Shakespeare, died 1616 – thoughts on the relevance of Shakespeare’s King John, in 2016

Current political conflicts, and acts of violence, characterise the world in 2016:  Shakespeare’s plays about British history hold up a mirror to it

The relatively obscure and seldom performed early play, King John, resembles the much better known Richard III (written, perhaps, a little earlier)I value John, and I wish to make some comments in its favour, and to compare it with Richard.

It must be acknowledged that the play is only loosely based on historical events, from the reign of John (1199-1216).  Someone coming to it for the first time may be surprised to learn that there is no mention of Magna Carta.

Plot summary

Possession of the English crown is contested.  John has might rather than right on his side.  He maintains his power against the claim of Arthur, his nephew, supported by France and the Pope.  (Arthur dies, in suspicious circumstances: John is blamed.)  John nearly loses his crown, when the Dauphin (the French king’s son’s invades England and the English lords join sides with him.  John’s cause is rescued by Faulconbridge (a fictional bastard son of King Richard I) and Hubert (a commoner).  John dies, not in battle (as Richard III does) but as the result of poisoning by a monk.  He is succeeded by his own son, Henry III.


Both John and Richard portray the rise and fall of a king who is regarded by many commentators as a bad king.  Richard is single-minded, strong and tyrannous; but John is impetuous but fundamentally weak and indecisive; he is over-dependent, firstly on his mother, and secondly, on his loyal supporters, Hubert and Faulconbridge; he is easily outwitted by Pandulph, the papal legate.

There are in theory alternative kings for England.  Arthur is young and weak and over-dependent on his mother.  A victim of John’s machinations, he strikes a very pathetic figure.  Faulconbridge, the (fictional) son of Richard I, has the qualities of wit, strength of character and loyalty, but he is disqualified by his illegitimacy.

On the French side, the king and his son act in their own interest, against that of England; and Pandulph, the papal legate, does likewise.


Both plays feature dynastic marriages: in John, between John’s Niece, Blanche, and the future Louis VIII of France.

Both plays have English lords who have shifting loyalties as between rival claimants to the throne.

Both include battles and an invasion of England: in Richard, the future Henry VII makes good his claim to the crown; in John, the future Louis VIII of France returns home empty-handed.

The tragic fate of Arthur, John’s nephew, parallels that of Richard’s victims, especially that of his own nephews (the “Princes in the Tower”).

Women characters lose whatever power and influence they have, as the plays progress – they disappear from the stage and leave it to the military men.  In King John, major female characters exit early:

  • Blanche, at the end of Act 3 Scene 1
  • Eleanor (John’s mother), at the end of Act 3 Scene 3
  • Constance (Arthur’s mother), in Act 3 Scene 4.

(This feature was dealt with, in the RSC 2012 production, by combining two male roles and giving them to a woman.)


The nature of ambition, and its effects, are exposed, plainly and devastatingly, by King John’s (fictional) nephew, the “Bastard” Faulconbridge.  See his soliloquy (Act 2 Scene 1) about “commodity” (meaning: expediency, coupled with self-seeking and hypocrisy), described as:


                  ….that same purpose-changer, that sly devil,

That broker that still breaks the pate of faith,

That daily break-vow, he that wins of all,

Of kings, of beggars, old men, young men, maids….

That smooth-faced gentleman, tickling commodity….

This bawd, this broker, this all-changing word…


Pandulph, in particular, is a skilled practitioner of the misuse of rhetoric and specious arguments for his own ends.


Surprisingly, perhaps, Prince Louis of France does strike a note of regret about how events have turned out, in a few remarkable lines (Act 3 Scene 4):

     There’s nothing in this world can make me joy.

Life is as tedious as a twice-told tale,

Vexing the dull ear of a drowsy man,

And bitter shame hath spoiled the sweet world’s taste,

That it yields naught but shame and bitterness.




As in Richard III, it is the women who find the words to give expression to grief.  (Arthur finds the words for fear.)  Blanche talks about her divided loyalties, when her father and her husband are at war with each other.  Constance vents her grief, and her anger, over the capture of Arthur and his betrayal by his French allies.

Those who mourn, in the body of John are the victims of ambitious men (kings, earls and the papal legate) and their single-minded pursuit of power.  (Compare Richard III and his allies.)




The final scene is characterised by the quiet fading away of King John himself and the perfunctory mourning of his passing, followed by Faulconbridge’s putting in a few words acceptance of the present and optimism about the future.  To paraphrase: ‘the King is dead, long live the king!’ and ‘England is strong if we stick together.’




A problem is that John commences somewhat as a comedy but develops into a tragedy.  Well, it would be a tragedy (rather than a history, perhaps), if John himself was a stronger, albeit flawed, character – a hero, or at least a clear anti-hero – and if his death formed a climax to the play rather than an anti-climax.  John lacks Richard III’s wicked humour, cleverness and depth of deceitfulness, which simultaneously attracts and repels the reader or the member of the audience.  (The wit and wisdom are left to Faulconbridge.)


But do not many 21st century leaders resemble King John?  Vacillating at times, impetuous at others, lacking in understanding of issues, deceitful?


In accordance with many of Shakespeare’s early history plays, King John I contains many long rhetorical speeches (as does Richard III).  These require skilled acting on the stage.  In my opinion, several are over-long and repetitive and will benefit from cuts in performance.


On balance, then, King John is worth a look.

[the long version]













King John died 1216, Shakespeare died 1616 – the relevance of ‘King John’ to us in 2016

King John, died 1216, Shakespeare, died 1616 – thoughts on the relevance of Shakespeare’s King John, in 2016

Current political conflicts, and acts of violence, characterise the world in 2016:  Shakespeare’s plays about British history hold up a mirror to it.

It must be acknowledged that King John is only loosely based on historical events, from the reign of John (1199-1216).  (Someone coming to it for the first time may be surprised to learn that there is no mention of Magna Carta.)  It portrays the rise and fall of King John, who is regarded by many commentators as a bad king.  (Compare and contrast Richard III.)  He is impetuous but fundamentally weak and indecisive; he is over-dependent, firstly on his mother, and secondly, on his loyal supporters, Hubert and Faulconbridge.

It is the women who find the words to give expression to grief.  But the women characters lose whatever power and influence they have, as the plays progress – they disappear from the stage and leave it to the military men.

(This aspect was dealt with, in the RSC 2012 production, by combining two male roles and giving them to a woman.)

The nature of ambition, and its effects, are exposed, plainly and devastatingly, by King John’s (fictional) nephew, the “Bastard” Faulconbridge.  See his soliloquy (Act 2 Scene 1) about “commodity” (meaning: expediency, coupled with self-seeking and hypocrisy), described as:


                  ….that same purpose-changer, that sly devil,

That broker that still breaks the pate of faith,

That daily break-vow, he that wins of all,

Of kings, of beggars, old men, young men, maids….

That smooth-faced gentleman, tickling commodity….

This bawd, this broker, this all-changing word…


Other characters display their pursuit of “commodity”, to the detriment of others.


Do not many 21st century leaders resemble King John?  Vacillating at times, impetuous at others, lacking in understanding of issues, deceitful?  And dangerous!

[the short version]














Notes on Franz Kafka’s ‘Der Prozess’/’The Trial’


I have found it a pleasure to study Kafka’s Trial again.

The Trial is a good read.  It is well written. Kafka covers the absurd in a dispassionate way.  The prose reflects, at times, legalistic language (appropriate to the nature of the story), very cleverly.

At first sight, The Trial may appear to foreshadow the oppressive tyrannies that have disfigured the history of the 20th century and later.  (It was written in 1914 but first published, after Kafka’s death, in 1935.)

But I think we should study it carefully and retain an awareness of its ambiguities.

The Content

As at the beginning of Amerika, The Trial story opens with a dramatic, informative and emphatic sentence:

Jemand muẞte Josef K. verleumdet haben, denn ohne daẞ er etwas Böses getan hätte, wurde er eines Morgens verhaftet.

Somebody must have told lies about Josef K, for although he had nothing wrong, he was arrested one morning.

His being taken by surprise, early in the morning, is reminiscent of the rude awakening of Gregor Samsa, in Die Verwandlung [The Metamorphosis].

Josef K’s fate follows this sequence: arrest, but no charge, no release of court papers to K or his advocate, no cross-examination, no verdict, no sentence, but a violent disposal.

The court proves to be opaque, impenetrable, highly bureaucratic, hierarchical and secretive.

From the start, it is downhill all the way, for K.

Selected themes


The officers who arrest K observe that he claims to be innocent, while not knowing the law (whatever that is): “er gibt zu, er kenne das Gesetz nicht, und behauptet gleichzeitig, schuldlos zu sein.”

Leni, the woman who looks after the lawyer, and who seduces K, advises K to admit his guilt.  The lawyer himself gives K the same piece of advice: ‘Das einzige Richtige sei, sich mit den vorhandenen Verhältnissen abzufinden’ [‘The only correct course was to come to terms with things as they stood’].  (Chapters 6 and 7)

The court chaplain informs K that his case is going badly and that he is already considered to be guilty.  K denies that he, or indeed anyone, can be guilty.  The chaplain replies that this is exactly what guilty people say.  (Chapter 9)


K meets other defendants.  Involvement with the court takes up more and more of their time and it wears them out.  K has a similar experience.  He tries to carry on as normal and continues working at the bank; but he perceives the extent to which he is distracted by the court case, and tired out by it.

At his lawyer’s house, K meets a defendant who has been involved with the court for five years (Chapter 8).  The relationship between this defendant and the lawyer has been inverted: the man is extremely humble in front of the lawyer, as if his self-respect has been completely undermined: ‘Das war kein Klient mehr, das war der Hund des Advokaten.’ [‘This was no longer a client but the advocate’s dog.’]

Finally, at the point of death, K compares himself his treatment to the way a dog might be treated: ‘“Wie ein Hund!” sagte er, es war, als sollte die Scham ihn überleben” [‘“Like a dog!” he said, it was as if the shame was meant to outlive him.”].  (Chapter 10)


Josef K seeks help with his case from both men and women.  With his contacts with women, there is a sexual aspect.

K seeks out Fräulein Bürstner, his neighbour, to talk about his arrest: he ends up kissing her repeatedly without her permission (a case of sexual assault).  (Chapter 1)  Unsurprisingly, she terminates all contact with him.

K shares a fleeting mutual attraction with the wife of the court usher.  The usher – let alone K himself – feels obliged to tolerate court officers taking her for themselves.  (Chapter 3)

K is seduced by Leni, his lawyer’s carer, as the same time as she offers to help him.  At this point, K reveals some insight: ‘“Ich werbe Helferinnen,” dachte er fast verwundert’ [‘“I recruit women helpers,” he thought, rather to his surprise”].

The court chaplain expresses disapproval of K’s approach.  He tells K that he seeks too much help from strangers, especially women, but that they cannot help him: “Du suchst zuviel fremde Hilfe, und besonders bei Frauen.  Merkst du denn nicht, daẞ es nicht die wahre Hilfe ist?”

Philosophical questions raised by The Trial

1 What is guilt?

2 Who is fit to judge the guilty?

3 What if the judges are themselves corrupt?

4 How should men relate to women, and women to men?

Hypotheses re interpretation

Some of these may overlap.

1 K is innocent and it is the court that is guilty.

2 K changes.  The corrupt nature of the court infects him.  At the start, he is innocent; but under the influence of the arrest, he becomes guilty.  The arrest precedes the commission of the crime.  K’s guilt arises from the lustful aspect of his character, which comes to the surface.

3(A) The court represents dark aspects of the human psyche (especially K’s), or human society, or both, normally hidden from view.

3(B) K should face up to his faults, without relying on advisors and advocates.

4 What is the meaning of life?  Well, life has no meaning, other than the meaning we give to it.  Many things do not make sense.

5 Some aspects of our world are benign, others are not.  We suffer cruel, unjust events, inflicted by arbitrary, unaccountable forces.  As individuals or as a society, we do not have full control.

6 The world that Kafka portrays is ambiguous and the reader has to live with the ambiguity.  No single interpretation of his work is adequate.

7 It is also possible to read Kafka’s novels as reflecting his own anxiety about sex and relationships with women, as reflected in events in his personal life.


This remains a very modern novel.  The protagonist is not an old-fashioned hero – he has faults and makes mistakes.  He arouses sympathy in the reader, as he finds himself in a maze, with no way out other than the one that is imposed on him.

Militarism, pacifism, Christianity

Events in the UK in 2016 make me think – particularly Brexit (a horrible new word) and the vote in Parliament in favour of a replacement for the current Trident submarine system.

Brexit means a sovereign nation state disentangling itself from an international alliances – against the worldwide trend.

Trident replacement also means a sovereign state trying to assert itself as a global power – in a changed world.

One excuse for Trident replacement is the assertion that it forms a UK contribution to NATO.  However, whatever the UK provides is dwarfed by the US contribution.

The building, testing and maintenance of nuclear weapons systems is extremely expensive – billions of pounds.  (Will the cost go up?)

This policy has been kept up since the end of the Second World War.

I would argue that the costs associated with nuclear weapons has distorted the UK economy all this time.  Compare the more prosperous Germany, which has no such weapons.

(The economic record of West Germany and subsequently the reunited Germany has been far superior to the UK’s.  The UK has suffered successive devaluations of its currency, with no visible long term benefit, whereas West Germany periodically revalued – upwards – the Deutsche Mark.)

UK policies are characterised by militarism – they rest on the belief that war, and preparedness for war – is an acceptable way of solving conflicts.

I wish to step back in time for a while.

In the 1930s, in the UK, success stories include the defeat of home grown fascism and the acceptance of refugees (many of them Jewish, many of them children).

In the 1940s, after long struggles and much shedding of blood, fascism was defeated in Germany, Italy, Japan, etc.  A case can be made that here, militarism worked.  Once defeated, resistance by the fascist elites crumbled; and democracy was installed (with a great degree of success).

The nature of war has changed.  Recognisable front lines have gone; guerrilla tactics and terrorism are prevalent; that the great powers rely heavily on air strikes (bombing both the armed and unarmed on the ground).  The world is flooded with so-called “small arms” and indeed BIG arms too.  So if a former imperial power, like the UK, or a current economic and military power, like the USA, invades a country, they run great risks of being confronted by Kalashnikovs and more.

The practicality of militarism is called into question.  (Have we realised this yet?)  As for Trident, is it really a cold war weapon?  Is it a useful response to the threats we all face, in 21st century?  In particular, does it help us counter terrorism?  I think not.

It is fair to recognise that governments have the responsibility to use ‘reasonable force’ (UK courts pay attention to this) to maintain law and order (‘the Queen’s peace’) at home.  Indeed, many people who work in the public sector play some role in this (eg social workers, myself included).

The picture, beyond the borders, is less clear.  For example, one of the duties placed on the UK’s Royal Navy is the protection of British trade, ie that carried by the Merchant Navy – this can be a long way from home.

So much for practicalities.  What about the ethics of militarism?  Is it compatible with (for example) Christianity?

To go to the root of Christianity: the teaching of Jesus is pacifist.  Consider the Sermon on the Mount (in Matthew and Luke).  We should allow for the fact that the Gospels do not provide a political manifesto, nor (in my opinion) a clear answer to every detailed moral problem that arises today.

One aspect of Christianity is other-worldliness.  Militarists constantly argue that we have to live in the “real world”.  (A counsel of despair.)  In other words, war will be abolished when all lay down their weapons.  Till then, “if you seek peace, prepare for war.”  An excuse or a reason?

If militarism is essential to the maintenance of “law and order” between nations, then the corollary is that Christianity, as it has been handed down to us, is imperfect – idealist and not realistic.

One can argue that when Christians were a minority, in the Roman Empire, governance was not an issue for them – they were the governed.  (And they had to decide when to conform to Roman rule and when not to.  Saints Peter and Paul tried to give guidance on this.)

Eventually, of course, Christians (genuine or nominal) found themselves in positions of power, in many countries, and in many times.

This is the point where I need to refer to the conventional wisdom that the first duties of the State are to safeguard its population, internally and at its borders.  I also need to refer to the idea, concocted by theologians, of the “just war”.

It is virtually impossible to wage a “just war”, especially today.  No state or alliance can be sure that a display of its fire power will result in a conclusive military victory.  Recent history differs significantly from that of the 1940s (see above).

I worry that, once one steps into the arena of governance, backed up by force and the threat of force, it is not clear where one should stop – where the line should be drawn.

I also fear that, if one possesses military might, then one may be tempted to use it.  (Every challenge is like a nail; and the military response will be like a hammer.)

Self-restraint on the part of a government is required. Sometimes, members of the public, media moguls and populist politicians will demand the opposite.  I do not see the development of Trident as an example of self-restraint.  And I have grave doubts about other systems too.

Self-restraint is the watchword.  It is the best concept I can offer at present.

Building Bridges after the UK referendum

The Britain Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) has put out  a statement:

The outcome of the European Union referendum and the campaigning that led up to it have shown up and sometimes exacerbated divisions within and between our communities.

There is now great need for bridge-building, for reaching out to one another in love, trusting that below the political differences lie a shared humanity and a wish for flourishing communities.

Inequalities run deep in society and some are exposed by the vote.

Quakers in England, Scotland and Wales are committed to working together and with others – including Quakers cross Europe – for a peaceful and just world.  In the coming year our Quaker Yearly Meeting will focus ob building movements with others locally and globally.  We refuse to prejudge who is or is not an ally.

Turbulent times can be frightening, but the Spirit is a source of strength for all, in guiding us in who we are and what we do.  We take heart from the knowledge that with change comes opportunity.  We will look for creative ways to find common cause, to listen, to influence and to persuade.  As the status quo is shaken we and our neighbours must look to one another for support, wisdom and above all else ways of healing divisions.




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.


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’


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.