An algorithm is defined as “a set of rules for solving a problem in a finite number of steps” (Dictionary.com). Pretty simple. An iteration, however, is a little more complex: “a problem-solving or computational method in which a succession of approximations, each building on the one preceding, is used to achieve a desired degree of accuracy” (ibid.). I have neither any love of nor affinity for math; I raise these concepts because they figure prominently in the theme of Tom Stoppard’s metaphysical triumph, Arcadia, which I recently saw at Yale Repertory Theater. And watching that play made me think of this one. About how often we intend to and trust that we will get from X to Y following a simple algorithm, like, say, a king’s son (X), will become king (Y), based on the algorithm of royal succession. But sometimes life’s iterations change the algorithm so that Y becomes the new X.
This is what happens to poor KHVI in this final, and by far most gripping installment of the KHVI trilogy. I expected this last part to be as hellish as the first two; I was pleasantly surprised that it was, instead, heavenly. Paraphrasing from the program for Arcadia, when the parameters and assumptions under which we operate and from which we expect a certain outcome, determine an outcome which in turn becomes the new normal. The new X.
And what is it that causes these directional shifts? Well, barring acts of God, it’s usually us. Our hopes, desires, impulses, egos, and emotions all conspire to change our world from a deterministic universe to a stew of chaos. WE are the light that, when shone on an atom to reveal its location, by definition changes its location.
Thus the succession of the the British monarchy, in reality or in Shakespeare (who did take liberties with the facts at times for the sake of his art), follows not a simple algorithm of heredity, but more often tips its hat to Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest. The “fittest” being a complex soup of strength, support, character, and luck. Unfortunately for KHVI, who never really wanted the job to begin with, his runs out, and his son will not be the Y to his X. The king himself, his Queen Margaret, and their adversaries supporting York all conspire to create the new iteration.
It is almost painfully obvious from the outset of KHVI3 that he is neither interested in kingship, nor with the attending duties. Like ruling, fighting, or making decisions of any kind. He reminds me of the young prince in Monty Python and the Holy Grail who, when his father the king stands him at the window overlooking the realm and says “son, one day all this will be yours,” and the nightshirted wimp looks at him quizzically and asks, “Wot, the curtains?”
We learn from York and Warwick early on that during the battle that closed out KHVI2, “He slily stole away and left his men;” (I,i,3). We see him defect, dissemble, and defer throughout the play.
He himself hits us over the head with the proverbial frying pan expressing his distaste for his position, and insecurity therein, in no uncertain terms. As he hands his only son’s birthright to inherit the crown directly to York, he confides in the audience in an aside: “I know not what to say, my title’s weak” (I,i,134). His few supporters balk at this unmanly, dishonorable deal (I,i,186).
He regrets that his dad ever handed him the job and defends his hideous betrayal of his son: “I’ll leave my son my virtuous deeds behind,/And would my father had left me no more!/For all the rest is held at such rate/As brings a thousandfold more cares to keep/Than in possession any jot of pleasure” (II,ii,48-53).
He again laments his fate as the battle for his crown rages around but without him: “Would I were dead, if God’s good will were so;/For what is in this world but grief and woe?/O God! Methinks it were a happy life/To be no better than a homely swain” (I,v,19-22). He’d rather be a shepherd than a king (yes I would, if I only could, I surely would…). And yet again, “O that my death would stay these ruthful deeds” (II,v,95). In Act III, scene i, he’s disguised as a gamekeeper. He just does not want to be himself. Perhaps the venerable Pink expresses his feelings best in her “Don’t Let Me Get Me”: “I’m my own worst enemy/It’s bad when you annoy yourself/So irritating/Don’t wanna be my friend no more/I wanna be somebody else,” seems to be the gist of his every move and message throughout the drama.
Everyone heads to France to argue KHVI’s case to the French monarch ( QM’s dad)… except him. He’s wandering, disguised, in the forest, lamenting how this simple algorithm could have gone so badly off the rails, but does nothing to get it back on track. In fact, when he does regain the ping-ponging crown fleetingly, he tosses it like a hot potato to Clarence and Warwick: “I make you both Protectors of this land,/While I myself will lead a private life” (IV,vi,41-2). How often can one king hand off the crown in one play???
Perhaps he abdicates so often because QM emasculates him at every turn, wearing the proverbial pants in the relationship and in the realm, from the start. She is the de facto king. York tells us that “The Queen this day here holds her parliament.” (I,i,35). In fact, once KHVI has sold his soul (and with it his son’s inheritance) to his enemies, she claims “I here divorce myself/Both from thy table, Henry, and thy bed.” (I,i,247-8), and off she goes to literally and figuratively fight for her son and adopted country. Thank you, Shakespeare, for this smart, strong female character! And what does KHVI do in the face of his family falling apart and followers scattering to shift the algorithm back into place? He resolves: “I’ll write unto them and entreat them fair” (I,i,271). Knock ’em dead, Henrietta.
Richard underestimates QM when he asks “A woman’s general; what should we fear?” (I,ii,68), as she surmounts Agincourt-like odds in battle. KHVI is nowhere to be found when she, as victor, is “Putting a paper crown on his head” (I,iv, 95) humiliating York.
KHVI is so ineffectual that Clarence and QM actually ask him to leave the battlefield: “I would your Highness would depart the field,/The Queen hath best success when you are absent.” (II,ii,72-3). Although QM fights his battles and goes home to France to appeal to her dad on his behalf, but she can only do so much. This is bigger than both of them.
In addition to his own ineffectiveness and QM’s usurpation of his role, a third variable pushes the trajectory off course: York and sons feel that the Henrys misappropriated the crown which they feel is rightfully theirs. The plotting son Richard (who we will later see in all his hunchbacked glory in Richard III) plots against both KHVI and his own clan (triggering yet another new iteration).
Poor York: “I will be king or die.” (I,ii,35) Well, he gets his wish, but the latter, not the former. The best laid plans… Foreshadowing abounds as Richard asserts, “Tears then for babes; blows and revenge for me.” (II,i,86). His deformity (yet another factor shifting the equation) seems to impel him:
“Then since this earth affords no joy to me
But to command, to check, to o’erbear such
As are of better person than myself,
I’ll make my heaven to dream upon the crown,
And whiles I live t’account this world but hell,
Until my misshap’d trunk that bears this head
Be round impaled with a glorious crown.” (III,ii,165-171)
Interesting choice of word in that last sentence… impaled. Our necks strain as they would in a vigorous tennis match watching the allegiances and alliances shift. In the end, though, the York clan triumphs as they slaughter KHVI and his son and exile QM. But Richard is not victorious, and balks at the ominous title of Gloucester which is bestowed upon him, and like Macbeth, will stop at nothing until the establishes the new X when the crown is his.
Even the new King Edward plants the seeds of his own broken trajectory by choosing a queen impetuously and lustfully (Lady Grey) rather than strategically and diplomatically (the French Bona). At this gaffe, Richard notes, “hasty marriage seldom proveth well” (IV,i,18). As the play closes KE seems to have wandered off into CandyLand where the fairy tale ends happily ever after: “Farewell sour annoy!/For here I hope begins our lasting joy!” (V,vii,45-6). But alas, that happy ending fantasy will prove to be as fragile an algorithm as the one for regal succession does here.
KHVI Parts 2 and 3 remind me of Seinfeld episodes – they’re about nothing. But they’re not nearly as amusing. There’s much more meat on KHVI Part 3’s bones. The plot thickens and twists. QM steps up to the plate and “swings away” while KHVI cowers in the dugout. Or the parking lot. There’s intrigue and action. The War of the Roses is in full bloom and White is the New Red in the end. Many factors work against the supposedly linear direction of royal succession: KHVI’s lack of interest, effort, or ambition; QM’s determination and force, and the opponents’ ambition and drive. KHVI derails the equation, and while QM works hard to right the ship, the York’s wind is too strong for her sails. They each carry and plant the seeds of their own destruction – or new iteration – and so it goes…