Last month, we took a day to discuss who might be the main character of 1HenryVI… and to no success, leaving us pretty unsatisfied by the play as a whole. So this month, as we lurch toward Thanksgiving, let’s see if we can give thanks for having a protagonist in The Second Part of Henry the Sixth.
We have quite a few characters to choose from, as this play has SIXTY-SEVEN (count’em!) characters, the most of any play in the Canon.
Let’s take the major characters in order of the number of speeches each has…
Well, at 82 lines, titular Henry has the most cues (speeches) of any character. He DOES perform a more pivotal role here than in The First Part. He is at the center of the action, but it’s as if the action is acting upon him, making him who he is, rather than the play being about how Henry acts upon anyone or anything, making history HIS story. There doesn’t seem to be a discernable goal for the young King (and since the play depicts history that occurred between ages 24 and 34 for Henry, we can pretty much dispense with the use of the “young” moniker). What is it EXACTLY that Henry wants to achieve? We don’t know. If his lack of an objective weren’t bad enough, his passivity is an issue as well. And unlike Hamlet, it’s not just his passivity, but his lack of self-awareness OF his passivity. Hamlet at least has a goal, but is (seemingly) paralyzed to act upon it. He’s passive, AND he knows it… he even soliloquizes on it (“To be or…”). Our king, however, almost seems unable to even THINK about his position as well. Is this Shakespeare’s nod to Henry’s historical (but not dramatized) nervous breakdown? Interestingly, Henry doesn’t appear in the original title of the play (The First Part of the Contention Betwixt the Two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster, With the Death of the Good Duke Humphrey: and the Banishment and Death of the Duke of Suffolk, and the Tragical End of the Proud Cardinal of Winchester, With the Notable Rebellion of Jack Cade: and the Duke of York’s First Claim Unto the Crown)… so again, I’d say Henry is a non-starter, protagonistically speaking.
At 67 cues, the Dukes of Gloucester and Suffolk tie for the second largest number of speeches in the play, and both appear in the original subtitle. However, Gloucester’s goal of loyalty (or protecting the king) is snuffed out early; he’s gone by the midpoint of the play. And while Suffolk’s original goal of “(bringing) Duke Humphrey in disgrace” (I.iii.99) is successful by halfway through the play, its success brings about the dismantling of his larger goal: “(Margaret) shall steer the happy helm (of state)” (I.iii.103)… we’ll see how this success turns to failure in a couple of days when we discuss the midpoint of the play. With that failure, too, comes his own demise and he’s dead by end of the first scene of Act Four (though his head does make a cameo appearance in Margaret’s arms in Act Four, Scene Four. So with their quick demises, I think we’re going to have to lose both Gloucester and Suffolk as true protagonists.
At 61 cues, Jack Cade dominates Act Four (enough to grant him subtitle status: “the Notable Rebellion of Jack Cade”). If the whole play was comprised of Act Four (or even the second half of the play), an argument might be made for Cade. However, Act Four isn’t the whole play. Gloucester dies 1567 lines into the play; Suffolk 2264. Cade, however, from his first mention by York (historically inaccurate) in Act Three, Scene One, through the knighting of his killer Iden in Act Five, Scene One, appears in less than 44% of the play, only 1360 lines (and that’s a kind estimate… if we only take the fourth act into account, that’s only 801 lines). I’d be hard pressed to grant him protagonist status.
Queen Margaret also has 61 cues, and–unlike Cade–appears in all five acts of the play. Her goals in the play, however, seem pretty slight; while Duchess Eleanor wants the “seat of majesty” (I.ii.36), Margaret seems more focused on score-settling. Her targets include Gloucester,
the haught Protector... Beaufort
The imperious churchman, Somerset, Buckingham,
And grumbling York
... (and) that proud dame, the Lord Protector's wife
— I.iii.71-73, and 79
She achieves only some of these nominal goals–Gloucester, Eleanor, and Winchester ARE out of the picture by Act Four–but after the banishment and death of her lover Suffolk, she is reduced to a “mind… fearful and degenerate” (IV.iv.1-2). And while she professes a desire for “revenge” (IV.iv.3), all she can do is snipe at her husband’s inability to “fight nor fly” (V.iv.3). I’m not sure if we can call her the protagonist (if she ended up dead? maybe… but if that was the case, you’d figure she’d appear somewhere [anywhere] in the title).
So who does that leave us? How about Richard, Duke of York? At 58 cues, he’s one of the major characters of the play. He also appears in the original … TWICE: “The First Part of the Contention Betwixt the Two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster … and the Duke of York’s First Claim Unto the Crown.” He certainly has an objective: the crown, and while he doesn’t achieve the throne (and–SPOILER ALERT!!!–he won’t, either. EVER.), he does succeed in launching combat in the War of the Roses. York is around from start to finish…. except for Act Four, from which he’s completely absent.
But I am NOT saying this is an argument against his protagonism, though. Check out some other protagonists who go missing prior to a “big finish”: Romeo disappears during all of Act Four; Hamlet is gone through Act Four, Scenes Five through Seven (nearly 450 lines); Lear is offstage from Act Three, Scene Seven until Act Four, Scene Four (nearly 500 lines); Macbeth sits out from Act Four, Scene Two until Act Five, Scene Two (nearly 400 lines); and Pericles is offstage from Act Three, Scene Four through Act Five, Scene One (well over 600 lines, though he does appear in a dumb-show in Act Four, Scene Four)… of course, in most of these cases (and others I’m sure we’ll find in the coming years), the gap is really a rest for the actor to prepare for a huge final act, either in physicality or emotions… not so much the case with York here, unless the production’s depiction of the Battle of Saint Albans is very physical, filled with combat.
So who’s our protagonist? I’d hate to go with the “no protagonist” conclusion we had last month… so I guess I’d go with York.
What do you think?