Huw Griffiths on “The War of the Roses”

Wars Without End

We see yonder the beginning of the day, but I think we shall never see the end of it.

- Shakespeare, Henry V

Recall the cold

Of Towton on Palm Sunday before dawn,

Wakefield, Tewkesbury; fastidious trumpets

Shrilling into the ruck; some trampled

Acres, parched, sodden or blanched by sleet,

Stuck with strange-postured dead. Recall the wind’s

Flurrying, darkness over the human mire.

- Geoffrey Hill, Funeral Music

The bleakly apocalyptic vision of the Wars of the Roses that the contemporary poet, Geoffrey Hill, gives us – a landscape “stuck with strange-postured dead” – is also there in Shakespeare’s plays: a world in which suffering human bodies are caught up in cycles of violence that, as one of his soldiers says, “we shall never see the end of”.

The king himself, at the start of the first part of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, asks his people to remember – and to reject – a time when, “the thirsty entrance of this soil / [daubed] her lips with her own children’s blood.” He renames civil war as “civil butchery” and brands the Wars of the Roses a form of cannibalism. But Henry IV’s plan for a holy crusade, in which civil strife is transformed into national triumph, is inevitably postponed by ongoing conflict. And even as his son later takes up the crusade against the French as Henry V, we are asked to remember that all this will come to nothing, and that the bloodiest conflicts are always still to come.

Shakespeare’s history plays ask us to remember a past in which violence has governed people’s lives. But they also prepare us for a future of yet more violence. They offer us a world that is constituted by a war that is without end. Watching these plays in the twenty-first century, we will be aware of the unrelenting cycles of violence in which our own countries, leaders and armies are currently engaged: conflicts without borders; internment without trial; wars without the possibility of ceasefire. If these plays offer us any sign for a way out, however, it isn’t necessarily a political solution. Instead, we find a more focused awareness of what is always caught up in this pitiless violence: the human body itself.

The Hollow Crown

In Shakespeare’s history plays, the problem lies with the idea of the crown and a conception of sovereignty that seems unavoidably bound up with violent conflict. Whilst hopes for a resolution may seem to rest with the individual who happens to pick up the crown, these hopes are always held in check. From the senselessly ritualised grandeur of Richard II’s court – already degenerating into corruption – right through to the naked aggression of Richard III, each successive occupant of the throne is shown to be inadequate, as much victim as victor in Shakespeare’s ongoing stories of sovereign terror.

If Henry IV or Henry V offer brief hopes for resolution, their fleeting moments of glory are shadowed always by an awareness of their tenuous claims to the throne. Instead, as the internecine struggles of the English royal families advance, we witness displays of humiliation where, time after time, opportunities to assume the role of merciful ruler are superseded by yet more violence. So, as the Duke of York wrests power from Henry VI in the later stages of the conflict, he might begin his brief reign by advertising his pretensions to becoming a merciful ruler, eager to put enmity behind him: “And now the battle’s ended, / If friend or foe, let him be gently used.” But, on discovery of Clifford, a dying enemy, mercy is quickly forgotten: “Now death shall stop his dismal threat’ning sound, / And his ill-boding tongue no more shall speak.” And, later, when the young Prince Edward speaks out against him in court, the young boy is slaughtered in front of his mother.

t is here in the Henry VI plays – in the thick of the wars themselves – that there is most obviously a lack of hope for any salvation that might arrive in the person of the leader. These plays and this reign are not, though, exceptional cases in the cycle, but rather lay bare the conditions of sovereign power that are available elsewhere in Shakespeare’s histories – in Hal’s rejection of Falstaff; in Henry V’s threats of rape and child-murder before the gates of Harfleur; in Henry IV’s ability to order the murder of Richard II whilst, at the same time, attempting to disown responsibility for his death.

Current political theorists, looking to explain the persistence of sovereign relations within a twenty-first century that is only apparently democratic, may offer us a way into Shakespeare’s world of cyclical violence. The Italian writer, Giorgio Agamben, in particular, tells us that the foundation of Western political systems – systems of sovereignty – begin not only in original acts of violence, but sustain themselves by continually re-enacting violent acts of exclusion: exile, abandonment, execution and internment. Politics only seems to offer us solutions – Prince Hal as the glamorous Henry V; the voting in of a new leader under twentieth-first century democracy. But sovereignty itself persists in the capacity of the state to exclude and to kill. Where this battle takes place, of course, is on the human body itself – suffering and humiliated.

If hope for a solution cannot be found in the capacities of any one king, or any one political leader, then Shakespeare’s histories offer us a different kind of optimism. What the experience of theatre allows us to do – perhaps uniquely – is to witness the predicament of the human body in peril, trapped within the violent purview of sovereign power. At the same time, though, we see the struggle of those bodies – the bodies of the actors on stage; the bodies of those people playing at being king – to make some sense of the situation in which they are placed. The drama of these plays lies in this struggle; our hope lies in bearing witness to the attempt.

Huw Griffiths, November, 2008