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Shakespeare & Beyond

“Comic sport”: Shakespeare’s depictions of governments in chaos

Chaotic and ineffective government may be a problem in our current life, but it makes for excellent drama in the theater — and in William Shakespeare’s hands, excellent comedy as well.

Henry VI, Part 1 begins with the funeral of Henry V, a somber affair that becomes comic almost immediately when the dead king’s survivors (his brothers Bedford and Gloucester, and uncles Exeter and Winchester) try to out-eulogize each other with increasingly exaggerated tributes. As the infant Henry VI is too young to assume the throne, the tension between Gloucester (the child king’s Lord Protector) and his uncle the Bishop of Winchester quickly escalates into bickering that’s comically interrupted by messengers bearing increasingly dire announcements about loss of French territory and threats from abroad.

Scene from Henry VI Part 1
Act 1, Scene 1 from Henry VI, Part 1, one of a set of seven original drawings by Byam Shaw, ca. 1900. Folger ART Box S534 no.12 part 3 (size S)

Shakespeare announces what he’s doing early in Act Two when the French Duke of Burgundy proclaims, “I see our wars will turn unto a peaceful comic sport,”. This is a trick modern improvisational comedians refer to as “calling the game of the scene,” a metatheatrical pronouncement that underscores how the playwright knows he’s turning bloody 200-year-old history into comedy. Oaths are sworn and fidelity pledged with such intense earnestness, you know they’re bound, inevitably, to be broken.

Which is not to suggest that the events being depicted, or indeed Shakespeare’s intent, are in any way frivolous. One of Shakespeare’s glories is how he weaves comedy and tragedy into all of his plays, regardless of genre, a point Samuel Johnson elaborated on in his 1765 Preface to Shakespeare. “Shakespeare’s plays,” Johnson wrote, “are not in the rigorous and critical sense either tragedies or comedies, but compositions of a distinct kind” that “[approach] nearer than either to the appearance of life” [emphasis added]. And just as there’s comic tension between order and disorder, a similar tension exists between the past in which the plays take place and the present in which they’re being viewed. What doesn’t feel funny at all to the participants registers as comic and absurd to the audience, and can help give productions of this rarely-performed play an entertaining and unifying tone. Think of Armando Iannucci’s two television series, The Thick of It and Veep, or his film The Death of Stalin: Pitch-dark comedies about desperate struggles to win, maintain, and exercise power.

Scene from Henry VI, Part 1
Scene from Henry VI, Part 1, one of a set of seven original drawings by Byam Shaw, ca. 1900. ART Box S534 no.12 part 2 (size S)

Like the over-the-top violence in Titus Andronicus or the exaggerated linguistic playfulness in Love’s Labor’s Lost, the amount of reversals and betrayals in 1 Henry VI is ridiculous, highlighting the absurdity of the rivalries that led to the thirty-years-long War of the Roses without diminishing their threat. The jockeying for power within a leadership vacuum leads to violent factionalism and civil war, serious business that Shakespeare telescopes and turns into both satire and a cautionary tale for his audience, living as they were in the fourth decade of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I — a monarch whose lack of an heir or clear successor might possibly result in a new leadership vacuum.

1 Henry VI also gives voice to common people throughout, like the nameless messenger who early in the play (line 80) cries out, “Awake, awake, English nobility!” The warning goes unheeded as the squabbling amongst the nobles leads to civil war. The second play in the Henry VI trilogy, Part 2, is similarly suffused with the comedy of class conflict: Jack Cade’s rebellion is pitched in a comic key, and the depiction of the so-called “Miracle at St. Albans” is what Jeffrey R. Wilson, in his upcoming book Shakespeare and Game of Thrones, an exploration of how Shakespeare’s first tetralogy about the Wars of the Roses influenced George R.R. Martin’s novels and HBO’s filmed adaptation, calls pure “slapstick comedy.”

Many of Shakespeare’s plays, from King John to King Lear and A Midsummer Night’s Dream to Troilus and Cressida, deal with leaders struggling — sometimes tragically, sometimes comically — to maintain order. It’s perhaps not a coincidence that Henry VI, Part 1, with its mixture of (in Johnson’s words) “comick and tragick scenes,” was one of the most popular plays of Shakespeare’s lifetime and, as Phyllis Rackin points out, the second highest-grossing production ever for theater manager Philip Henslowe.

The three parts of Henry VI may be regarded today as lesser Histories, but with their epic canvases and cautionary warnings about unstable governments — and despite their lack of marriages signifying a happy ending — I’d love to see them newly appreciated as some of Shakespeare’s most important Comedies.