Over Christmas break I’ve been bingeing on Shakespeare plays. I just finished all three parts of Henry VI and… Well, it’s a little disturbing. The reason it’s disturbing is because it’s about the Wars of the Roses, and those were absolutely brutal.
Cruel acts pervade both sides in this conflict, and I found my tender mother’s heart hurting every time a young boy was killed in revenge for his father’s crimes. (And this happened way too many times!)
So I’m not sure you could say that I enjoyed reading these plays, exactly. Sure, there were some beautiful lines, as there are apt to be in Shakespeare. But the subject matter was heavy enough to hurt.
And in this lies its merit. It’s kind of like watching Hotel Rwanda or Schindler’s List. You are moved by the atrocities. You need to know such things have happened. You have to realize these events aren’t just numbers of dead on a page. They’re real. They’re awful. They’re atrocious.
One of the most moving scenes for me was when the peaceful and gentle Henry VI, sickened by the horrors of the civil war battlefield, stumbles upon a son who has just killed his father in combat, and only recognizes him once he pulls off the dead man’s helmet. And then, Henry also sees a father unmask his son after killing him. Both of the poor, surviving soldiers pour out heartbreaking monologues.
Poor Henry is overwhelmed and distraught; these scenes are before him because of decisions he’s made as king. What a horrifying situation! He suffers as he ponders his responsibility for the lives lost in the conflict.
Woe above woe, grief more than common grief. / O that my death would stay these ruthful deeds, / O pity, pity, gentle heaven pity.
Henry VI, Part 3, II, v, 94-96
Sometimes when I hear about people protesting about our new president-elect, I wonder… Do we really appreciate what it means to have a bloodless transfer of power? It’s kind of a big deal, in a good way. It’s amazing.
So all in all, I prescribe more Shakespeare for the masses. Also, more British history.