A Tale of Two Soldiers

Act Two, Scene Five of The Third Part of Henry the Sixth puts Henry on the battlefields near York, watching the battle and pondering (and bemoaning) his place as king.  From this vantage point, he sees, separately, two soldiers, each carrying a victim he has slain–in both cases, a victim with familial ties.  One soldier carries his father, the other his son.

This should not surprise anyone who’s read more than a play or two of Shakespeare.  They guy just LOVES parallel, complementary, and (at times) oppositional structure.

But there is something else going on here, in both the stage directions and the dialogue, that is of interest, both to the director and the student of the play.

When the first soldier appears, the stage direction explicitly states the army affiliation: “Enter at one door a Lancastrian Soldier with a dead Yorkist Soldier in his arms” (II.v.54 stage direction).  This cannot be more clear.  Of course, many believe (and at times I agree) that stage directions are sketchy at best and completely unreliable at worst, and that we should rely on what’s in the SPOKEN text for these kinds of clues.  And in this case, the monologue of the Lancastrian Soldier (and yes, that’s how he’s noted in the List of the Actors), backs up this claim.  Once he realizes that he has “unwares” (II.v.62) killed his own father, he deduces what has happened:

From London by the king was I pressed forth;
My father, being the Earl of Warwick’s man,
Came on the part of York, pressed by his master

— II.v.64-66

But when, moments later, “Enter at another door another Soldier with a dead man in his arms” (II.v.78 s.d.), these directions could not be more UNclear.  Worse yet (or better yet, depending on your point of view), the speech given to the soldier (who discovers he’s killed his own son) gives no clue to his army affiliation.

The structure of the scene is pretty “formal” (in the words of the editors of the Pelican edition we’re using), and so you’d might think then that the second soldier should be Yorkist, and his dead son a Lancastrian.  This oppositional parallelism would make perfect sense, and onstage it would play visually well (as each army would be sure to be visually different from its opposition).  In this directorial case, there would be a sense of equality in death.

But the scene doesn’t have to be directed this way.  Consider…

The scene opens with Henry’s view of the battle then his retreating into a reverie of life as a shepherd.  Into this reverie comes the Lancastrian Soldier.  Or is he real?  Is he a vision, a la Scrooge’s Christmas ghosts?  If this is the case (and, even if it isn’t), the second soldier could be a Lancastrian as well.  It would deepen Henry’s grief and sense of guilt; he truly would be the cause of this (remember that after seeing the second soldier, Henry cries, “O that my death would stay these ruthful deeds!” [II.v.95]).

On a symbolic level, too, this works.  A Lancastrian kills his father; in a sense, Henry’s grandfather, Henry Bolingbroke did that when he usurped Richard II.  A Lancastrian kills his son; in a sense, Henry himself has done this by disinheriting Prince Edward.

A Lancastrian second soldier would put the responsibility of all this on Henry, where it belongs (at least within Henry’s mind at this point in time).

of course, there is textual support in Henry’s opening speech that the second soldier should be Yorkist, too… Henry comments on the “equal poise of this fell war” (II.v.13)… that would give a director another reason to present the second solider as Yorkist