I am a bit sad and a bit nostalgic to leave behind The Merchant of Venice and Measure for Measure, but I am also feeling invigorated to completely switch gears to the early history plays. I have a much larger question in mind for my dissertation project of The Kingship Cycle (Part 1, Fall 2012: 1, 2, 3 Henry VI and Richard III and Part 2, Spring 2013: Richard II, 1 & 2 Henry VI, and Henry V) about the education of a king. Looking for questions of law, equity, and justice feels like a good basis for this.
This week I've been focusing my reading on 1 & 2 Henry VI. I'm interested in the legality of Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York's claim to the English throne over our titular king of these plays, Henry VI. Throughout these Big 8 history plays is the lingering of question of legal succession to the throne. In order to make some semblance of sense of the line of succession:
Edward III (incredibly fertile)
Richard II (deposed)
Henry IV ("usurps")
Henry V (succeeds)
Henry VI (succeeds at 9 months old)
Richard, Duke of York
(claims throne according to descent from Lionel, Duke of Clarence,* never crowned)
Edward IV (son of Richard, Duke of York)
Edward V (never crowned, deposed)
(one of the famous Princes in the Tower allegedly murdered by Richard III)
This is possibly the most simplistic and rudely basic line of succession that I can draw in a blog post without proper tools.
* Here's what I want to be more specific about. The claim actually proceeds from before Richard II. Edward III had seven sons. His eldest son (also named Edward and more famously known as the Black Prince of Wales) would have succeeded Edward III, but died. His son Richard succeeds as king. But because Richard II is #1) usurped and #2) dies without heirs, the claims to the throne following are messy (to put it lightly).
Henry IV descends from Edward III's fourth son, John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster. Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York and his son Edward IV claim the throne through Edward III's third son, Lionel, Duke of Clarence:
YORK The third Son, Duke of Clarence,From whose line I claim the Crown,Had Issue Philippe, a Daughter,
Who married Edmond Mortimer, Earl of March:
Edmund had Issue, Roger, Earl of March;
Roger had Issue, Edmund, Anne, and Elianor.
SALISBURY This Edmund, in the Reign of Bolingbroke,
As I have read, laid claim unto the Crown,
And but for Owen Glendower, had been King;
Who kept him in Captivity, till he died.
But to the rest.
YORK His eldest sister, Anne,My Mother, being Heir unto the Crown,
Married Richard, Earl of Cambridge,
Who was to Edmund Langley,
Edward the third’s fifth Son’s Son;
By her I claim the Kingdom:
She was Heir to Roger, Earl of March,
Who was the Son of Edmond Mortimer,
Who married Philippe, sole Daughter
Unto Lionel, Duke of Clarence.
So, if the Issue of the elder Son
Succeed before the younger, I am King.
WARWICK What plain proceedings is more plain than this?
Henry doth claim the Crown from John of Gaunt,
The fourth Son, York claims it from the third: (II.ii)
This excerpt is taken from ADK Shakespeare's prepared performance script, based on First Folio.
York's argument convinces Warwick and Salisbury. Is it supposed to convince the reader/the audience? The average audience member of Shakespeare's day would certainly have a greater level of familiarity with the line of British kings than today's average American audience member. The claim is filled with such intricacies, twists and turns, that Shakespeare no doubt thought his average audience member would not perfectly follow this history. Warwick's response, "What plain proceedings is more plain than this?" aims for (and likely receives) a hearty chuckle. Of course, these proceedings are far from plain! Warwick then reduces the claim to the more digestible germ: Henry VI claims "the Crown from John of Gaunt, / The fourth son, York claims it from the third". Insert collective "Oh!" here.
The basis of York's argument is a legal one. His claim must be legal if he hopes to have full support. My question is what kind of law and legality do we have in these plays (specifically 1 & 2 Henry VI, but even more broadly through 3 Henry VI and Richard III too)? Do we have strict readings of the law such as Angelo and Shylock respectively advocate in Measure and Merchant? Or are these technicalities, such as what Portia finds in the bond? Or are either of Henry VI's and York's respective claims to the crown too liberally interpreted?
So much of what I am reading is clearly setting up events-to-come. What I want to look for as I continue to read:
- the legality of establishing a claim to kingship
- the contrast of liberty / justice (like what we saw in Measure and Merchant)
- who is interpreting law and how? And whose side is the play on?