That Ol’ Black Magic

The Third Part of Henry the Sixth.  Third in a sequence, each one building on the one that came before it, continuing motifs set up earlier.

The First Part had Joan la Pucelle, the French witch.  The Second Part had Marjorie Jordan, the English witch, and Eleanor Cobham, Jordan’s “employer.”  And The Third Part?

There is neither explicit witchcraft nor practitioner here.  But there is an implied demon, and that would be (of course) Richard Duke of Gloucester.  Throughout the play, what Richard does, others follow; what Richard suggests, other enact.

For example, as the play opens, the Yorkists take the stage celebrating their victory at the First Battle of Saint Albans.  Edward and Montague boast of their military prowess, brandishing their bloody swords.  York says nothing.  Then Richard unveils Somerset’s head and mockingly talks to it.  York immediately says, “Richard hath best deserved of all my sons” (I.i.17), then talks to the head himself.  What Richard does, his father follows suit.

In Act One, Scene Two, Edward tries to convince his father to break the agreement with Henry and to take the throne by force.  York replies that “it is impossible” (I.ii.21) for anyone convince him to break the oath.  But fourteen lines later–after Richard has brought to light a trifling technicality (the oath wasn’t taken before a “true and lawful magistrate” [I.ii.23]), and asks his father to “think // How sweet a thing it is to wear a crown” (I.ii.28-29)–York is convinced: “Richard, enough!  I will be king or die” (I.ii.35).  That’s an incredibly quick change of heart and mind.

When Warwick enters the stage at the beginning of Act Two, Scene Three, he is a man “Forespent with toil” (II.iii.1), so fatigued he cannot even breathe.  Nowhere in his seven-line opening speech does he give any impression that he will (be able to) go back into battle.  But after Richard enters from battle, he inspires Warwick to avenge his brother’s death (a la Hamlet’s father), so much so that after only nine lines, Warwick is more than ready to return to the fight: “Then let the earth be drunken with our blood. // I’ll kill my horse, because I will not fly” (II.iii.23-24).  Again, a few words from Richard, and the listener’s entire outlook is changed.

At the end of the Battle of Towton in Act Two, Scene Six, Edward, victorious, calls for mercy on any prisoner of war found, living or injured (“let him be gently used” [II.vi.45]).  In the very next line, Richard discovers Clifford’s body, and he calls for Edward to “Revoke that doom of mercy, for ’tis Clifford” (II.vi.46), and sure enough with Edward’s next speech, he commands,

Bring forth that fatal screech-owl to our house,
That nothing sung but death to us and ours:
Now death shall stop his dismal threatening sound,
And his ill-boding tongue no more shall speak.

— II.iv.56-59

Again, Edward changes–from gentle use to death–in one short Duke of Gloucester speech.

Now, at this point, one might just conclude that Richard is the master orator, or a great leader, one whose influence is strong, but (still) human.  It’s only when Richard begins to talk of himself that we see that something else is at work here.  In the midst of his soliloquy that outlines his ambition in Act Three, Scene Two, he ponders what–excluding the crown–might satisfy him:

What other pleasure can the world afford?
I’ll make my heaven in a lady’s lap,
And deck my body in gay ornaments,
And 'witch sweet ladies with my words and looks.
O miserable thought! and more unlikely
Than to accomplish twenty golden crowns.

— III.ii.147-152

Would he find “heaven” in sex (“a lady’s lap”)?  He COULD, since he can “‘witch sweet ladies with (his) words and looks.”  He has the power of bewitchment.  He admits it (or at least he tells the audience this).  It is the goal or result of the bewitchment–in this case, mere sex (with women that he can “‘witch” to overlook his withered arm, hunchback, unequal legs, and overall disproportion)–that deserves his scorn as “miserable”… he only has eyes for the “golden crown.”

From this point in the play onward, the manner of his influence changes.  No longer does he need to make suggestion or urge actions; now he merely makes statements, drops insinuating comments, and gets the results he desires.

As Richard and George await the entrance of their brother at the beginning of Act Four, they ponder the political implications of Edward’s marriage to Lady Grey; at this point, George defends Edward’s decision, saying, “How could he stay till Warwick made return?” (IV.i.5).  But once Somerset announces the arrival of the king and (as Richard puts it) “his well-chosen bride” (IV.i.7), George immediately changes his tune: “I mind to tell him plainly what I think” (IV.i.8).  It takes all of four words, none of them a prompt, suggestion or command, to make George ready to challenge his brother’s decision.

In Act Four, Scene Eight, Edward is reluctant to re-arm and fight the Lancastrian army in order to retake the throne.  Montgomery will support a King Edward, but not for a Duke of York; this ultimatum has no effect on Edward.  Edward’s advisor Hastings calls for an end to “scrupulous” thinking (IV.viii.61); Edward does not respond.  Only after Richard states, “Brother, we will proclaim you out of hand, // The bruit thereof will bring you many friends,” does Edward relent, “Then bit it as you will, for ’tis my right” (IV.viii.63-64,65).  Richard makes a relatively innocuous statement (we’ll say you’re the king, and the news will bring supporting armies), one much less provocative than Montgomery’s threat to leave Edward and Hastings statement that “Now arms must rule” (IV.viii.61); yet it takes just one short comment by Richard, and Edward is ready to go to war.

When George arrives with an army to fight Edward in Act Five, Scene One, it takes only a moment of “Richard Duke of Gloucester and George Duke of Clarence whisper(ing) together” (V.i.82 stage direction), for George to switch sides (again), defy Warwick (“I throw my infamy at thee!” [V.i.85]), and rejoin his brother.  Not a single line of dialogue, only a dubious stage direction, and Richard convinces George to make a decision that could conceivably end his own life.

When Prince Edward defies and insults the York brothers upon his capture after the Battle of Tewkesbury in Act Five, Scene Five, Edward IV threatens the Prince, “Peace, willful boy, or I will charm thy tongue” (V.v.31).  Edward threatens to silence the boy by putting a spell (charm) on him.  But he can’t, he doesn’t have that power.  Neither does George.  Richard does, but he doesn’t make the effort, and Prince Edward makes one insult too many, prompting the Yorks to kill him.

Later in the same scene, after George tells Edward that the absent Richard has hurried to London, Edward states, “He’s sudden if a thing come into his head” (V.v.85).  Ironic.  Edward doesn’t realize that it is everyone else who is “sudden” after Richard comes into THEIR heads, as in the next scene, when Richard comes to Henry in the Tower, and the deposed king already knows that his “poor young was limed, was caught, and killed” (V.vi.17).  There is no way, either in terms of either time or trail of communication, that he could know.  How could he know?  The only reasonable conclusion is that Richard has put the information in the king’s head.

Richard Plantagenet, Duke of Gloucester… Jedi knight (or would that be Sith lord?)

Shakespeare, after the explicit call of Joan and Jordan to dark spirits in the previous two Parts of Henry the Sixth, goes suddenly subtle in this Third Part, raising the possibility of a male witch, Richard Duke of Gloucester, one who is gaining otherworldly power now, to gain worldly power in the next play.

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