You just know something’s amiss when someone “stands in” for you at your own wedding, as Suffolk does for King Henry VI (KHVI) in France with the lovely but disloyal Margaret. Or so KHVI should have. Suffolk, in effect usurps him in one fell swoop, in bed and throne, by standing in his stead at the ceremonial nuptials – but he seems not to take notice. Neither at the outset, nor for the duration of the play. Nor does he see the betrayal, manipulation, deceit and treason that surrounds him at every turn. Nor does he make any independent decision or take any decisive action against either the perpetrators thereof, or his blatantly betraying wife.
But, “wait!,” you might say. Poor KHVI’s coronation at the tender age of nine months left him bereft of both a solid role model and any substantial tutelage or training in king things. He himself notes:
“Was ever king that joy’d an earthly throne/And could command no more content than I?/No sooner was I crept out of my cradle/But I was made a king at nine months old./Was never subject long’d to be a king/As I do long wish to be a subject.” (IV,ix,1-6) He never asked for the job that was thrust upon him.
And you’d be right. But his father, KHV, who, as a youth was alienated from his father and lived the life of a rapscallion, suckled at the teat of the irreverent, undependable, tippling scoundrel Falstaff, managed to rise quite nicely to the occasion. While KHV rides united into the breach with his kinsmen against France, KHVI faces a sea of troubles in needing to deal with waves of nobles who not only don’t like or trust each other, but feel he’s an illegitimate heir to the crown and dig their heels in to stake their claim to it. There’s also a cartoonish angry mob of disgruntled Londoners pursuing him like the mob of townsfolk gunning for The Beast, and a foreign wife who alienates his affections by flaunting her feelings for the groom stand-in. After Suffolk meets his untimely end, she literally cradles his severed head to her bosom as she laments her loss: “Here may his head lie upon my throbbing breast.” (IV,iv,5)
Yet he does not take arms against this sea of troubles. As he watches his ululating wife clutching her paramour’s disembodied head, the all the cuckold can muster is: “I fear me, love, if that I had been dead,/Thou wouldst not have mourn’d so much for me.” (IV,iv,23-4). He is most notable in the final battle scene (V,ii)only for his absence.
He’s got it tough, no doubt, but he doesn’t really takes the reins, or control of the ship, to extend the metaphor, and ends up quite adrift. He never decisively takes the throne, or the queen for that matter. He ascends to his position as a boy, and is emasculated in every way before he ever gets to be a man. The best he can do is flee the scene, at his wife’s urging, after she calls him out for being a coward: “What are you made of? You’ll nor fight/nor fly.” (I,ii,74) “We shall to London get,” she says. (V,ii,81) And thus, unfortunately, she drags us all along to the third and final installment of the KHVI trilogy. To be continued… is all Shakespeare leaves us with after all the intrigue, infighting, and beheading.
Dick, the literally butchering Butcher, famously exclaims: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all/the lawyers.” (IV,ii,76) While providing some much needed amusement, and a line for the ages, the real villains are the rogue’s gallery of nobles who fight amongst and for themselves, and sadly, the emasculated, ineffectual, and immature KHVI.
KHVI ponders and pontificates on the impact of karma as he sits at Cardinal Beauford’s death bed: “Ah, what a sign it is of evil life,/where death’s approach is seen so terrible.” (III,iii,4-5) Warwick commiserates: “So bad a death argues a monstrous life.” (III,iii,30). It remains to be seen in Part 3 how that might apply to KHVI and his cohorts.