Thursday, September 24, 2009

Mothers and Sons

After Edward's death, Act 2 becomes a chorus of lamenting mothers. Elizabeth mourns her husband and fears for her sons, the Duchess of York mourns two of her sons and fears the third, and children actually appear onstage, a rarity in Will's plays. The statue at right is of Margaret (it's in Paris, unsurprisingly--she isn't all that fondly remembered in England), who doesn't appear in Act 2. Nevertheless, her angry laments on the death of her husband and son set the tone for the other mothers in the play.

If the role of women in the Henry VI plays was to represent a threat--by means of adultery, witchcraft, or sexual allure--to hereditary monarchy, their role in Richard III is simply to curse and weep. What's interesting, however, is how they do it--their laments are highly stylized, almost choric. They look both backward, to the violence of the past, and forward, to imminent disaster. They seem, at these moments, to belong in a Greek tragedy rather than a Shakespearean history. Note the ritualistic tone of Elizabeth's Cassandra-like speech:

Ay me! I see the ruin of our house
The tiger now hath seized the gentle hind.
Insulting tyranny begins to jet
Upon the innocent and aweless throne.
Welcome destruction, blood, and massacre!
I see, as in a map, the end of all.

These are grand, prophetic pronouncements more suited to a biblical context than to a history play. There's some wonderful language here, too--I love "the innocent and aweless throne" as a description of a child king. He's innocent, and compels no "awe" in his subjects as a result. If Elizabeth's lament looks forward to "ruin" and "destruction," the Duchess's speech is an equally gloomy retrospective:

Accursed and unquiet wrangling days,
How many of you have mine eyes beheld?
My husband lost his life to get the crown,
And often up and down my sons were tossed,
For me to joy and weep their gain and loss.
And being seated, and domestic broils
Clean overblown, themselves the conquerors
Make war upon themselves, brother to brother,
Blood to blood, self against self. O preposterous
And frantic outrage, end thy damned spleen
Or let me die, to look on death no more.

The war for the throne has ended, but her sons are unable to live in peace. The Duchess has lost her husband (Margaret killed him in the last Henry VI play) and now "two mirrors of his princely semblance/Are cracked in pieces by malignant death." Edward and Clarence are dead, and she is left with only "one false glass/That grieves me when I see my shame in him." Her two elder sons mirrored their father's greatness, but the surviving youngest is but a "false glass"--a poor and deceitful reflection of his sire.

There are a lot of images of reflection and representation in the play. After Richard successfully woos Anne in Act 1, he congratulates himself and asserts that he must be more handsome than he'd thought. He pretends to be eager to find a mirror to confirm this:

Shine out, fair sun, till I have bought a glass
That I may see my shadow as I pass.

Throughout the play, Richard is said to be a "shadow" on the sun/son of York. Actors were often called "shadows" as well, because their performances are but a shadow of real life. Mirrors, similarly, can be deceiving--they can show what one wants to see, rather than what is. Just like the theater itself. Richard is a "false glass" because he is a deceiving actor. One might well retort that all actors are deceitful--that's their job, after all. But Will wants to make it clear that there's acting and then there's...acting. Good acting holds a mirror up to life, while bad, deceitful acting distorts the truth, slanders good men, and sows discord among them.

Which is kind of what Will is doing with this play, when you think about it. It is, after all, a pretty slanderous piece of work, at least if you're one of those people who doesn't approve of sacrificing historical truth to political expediency. I guess that's why they call it "poetic license."

I'll have more to say about Richard as "director" of his own play in the next post. For now, however, I want to return to the weeping mothers. In scene two, Elizabeth and the Duchess "compete" to see who has more to cry about. Clarence's children get into it as well, asserting rather childishly that since Elizabeth didn't weep for their father's death, they won't weep for her husband's. Here, again, the language has a stylized, ritualistic quality that seems to belong to an (even) earlier age:

Elizabeth: Give me no help in lamentation.
I am not barren to bring forth complaints.
All springs reduce their currents to mine eyes,
That I, being governed by the wat'ry moon,
May send forth plenteous tears to drown the world.
Ah, for my husband, for my dear Lord Edward!
Children: Ah, for our father, for our dear Lord Clarence!
Duchess of York: Alas for both, both mine, Edward and Clarence!
Elizabeth: What stay had I but Edward, and he's gone?
Children: What stay had we but Clarence, and he's gone?
Duchess: What stays had I but they, and they are gone?
Elizabeth: Was never a widow had so dear a loss!
Children: Were never orphans had so dear a loss!

These lines are chanted rather than spoken, and sound nothing like real speech. They are also a stark contrast to Richard's straightforward conversational tone. Richard manages to make iambic pentameter sound like everyday language--well, okay, not like our everyday language--partly because he's always talking to someone, even if it's only the audience. These laments are not addressed to anyone but "fate"; like a tragic chorus, they provide a comment on events, but don't move any action forward. They're kind of "frozen" in time, looking backward and forward but having no purchase on the present. The "now" belongs to Richard, the Modern Man.

Elizabeth's use of maternal and natural imagery reinforces the idea of a sickly, barren land. She's "not barren to bring forth complaints"--in Richard's English wasteland, women bear only laments, not children. "All springs reduce their currents" to her tears--the water that should give life to the land is now reduced to a woman's tears. The Duchess of York uses similar imagery as she ends the choric complaint:

Was never mother had so dear a loss!
Alas, I am the mother of these griefs!
Their woes are parcelled, mine are general.
She for an Edward weeps, and so do I;
I for a Clarence weep, so doth not she.
These babes for Clarence weep, and so do I;
I for an Edward weep, so do not they.
Alas, you three on me, threefold distressed,
Pour all your tears. I am your sorrow's nurse,
And I will pamper it with lamentation.

As the mother of both dead men, the Duchess lays claim to a more encompassing grief, and her words suggest that her tears are more potent for that reason. The image in the last two lines is interesting--the Duchess claims to be a "receptacle" (a mythic feminine association) for the tears of all the others. She will nurse their grief, then "pamper," or over-feed it, with lamentation.

These "plaints" remain outside the action of the play, a choric hand-wringing that will have no bearing on the events to come. In the Henry VI plays women were too powerful, too active, too sensual. In Richard III, they are static figures who do what most women do in extremely misogynistic cultures: when young, they bear children; when old, they mourn them.

And that's pretty much it.

While all this complaining has been going on, Richard has been moving his plots along. Young Prince Edward is the heir-apparent, and Elizabeth realizes the need to get him to "sanctuary" at Westminster Abbey. Richard, in turn, realizes the need to have the Prince at his mercy, so he has Elizabeth's brother and son (Rivers and Gray) arrested and taken to prison.

As Act 3 opens, young Edward is surrounded by Richard and his minions--a lamb among wolves.

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