After several days of wet miserable (English-style) weather, the rain dropped away and left a cool, billowy day yesterday.
I sat in the Park. Wet drips from the trees and grey clouds canvas out the sky; I listened to/read the first scene in Act 2 (The First Part of the Contention).
There were similarities – none more so than the difficulty the birds were having flying. Most of the ground level, tree flitting birds were OK – it was the cross the sky birds – the crows, the occasional adventurous pidgin and the Kestrel I usually see circling behind the cathedral tower that were having difficulties. They were there, they were getting on with their ‘birdie lives’, but it was difficult.
Wind is exciting – ask any school teacher on playground supervision (do teachers do that sort of thing now?). Great childhood battles brew under Aeolia’s influence …; Juno bribed and browbeat the original in an attempt to destroy Aeneas; Chicago, the windy city, is famed for its gangs and violent crime.
The Queen is under the influence of the wind – she enters the stage on a high. And if the behaviour of the Lords is anything to go by, they too have their schoolboy spirits stirred: Gloucester and the Cardinal plot, the others bicker. The King ignores, to his cost.
It is marvellous how Shakespeare, in a few moments of dialogue, can sum up the basic human experience of exposure to nature. And the wind will be back …
We are out in the wind with our ‘falcons’ – well, Taming the Shrew was an act of falconry and here, in the next play, the we are reminded again of that early marriage comedy – the King tells his wife to shut up – and she apparently does.
Behind the dialogue, spurring it on, one might say, is Gloucester’s Heraldic crest. This included a hawk – so the jokes which follow are bound in with the identity of the Gloucester family in a way which modern audiences have no real way of grasping.
Nowadays we are familiar with the Logo of sports teams and manufacturers of sports wear … a few people might recognise the heraldic devices of a few countries, some still carry them on their flags – but for most, the shield and the livery are quaint ideas, symbols of decadence or mere decoration.
Not so to Shakespeare – he after all, went to get his own coat of arms drawn up. It is worth noting that Shakespeare was not the only stage professional who did this – Augustine Phillips also applied … which would suggest that the heraldic was something of meaning and worth at least to the theatre people. One of the written pieces of evidence for Shakespeare as a writer is in the account books of the Earl of Rutland – payment to Burbage (a carpenter who could act and paint!) and Shakespeare for making/painting/writing a heraldic device and accompanying poem to be used at a ‘joust’ celebrating a visit of James I/VI .
Punning on the meaning of such devices must have been a very powerful ‘weapon’ in the political armoury of the play … giving the right ‘nickname’ to an opponent can be very revealing – children may shout out, ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me’ – but they will go home and cry about it in the secrecy of their own bedrooms.
And the fact that the jokes about towering and raising above don’t reflect the person of Gloucester doesn’t negate the fact they do reflect his ‘family’ in the person of his wife – who we have just seen arrested and the news of whose arrest brings the scene to an end.
Which brings us to the second part of the scene – the revelation of false miracle and reminder of the ever-present ‘low-life’ undertow to the play.
What interests me at this point is plums (testicles) and climbing plum trees (sexual intercourse). We have some overt punning going on here. Again, likely to be lost to modern audiences – and to have been crystal clear to the early watchers of the play.
When ‘the wife’ says:
…, and bought his climbing very dear
a set of levels of meaning are activated – which resonates through all on stage.
Simpcox must surely be regarded as ‘driven’ by his wife – or led through his lust for her. His wife has possibly led him on using his uncontrolled passions.
On stage, we see Gloucester – he is about to fall, like Simpcox, because of his wife – although it is not Gloucester’s fault – but his wife’s blindness to god which will make her husband lame.
The Queen, who is still playing a virtuous game (Henry VI Part I, has not yet been written) is going to go the way of ‘The Wife’ and use a man’s lust to bring down the Lancastrian family fortunes.
The lustful man is surely William de la Pole – Suffolk: He, like Simpcox, will defy God and, attempting to climb into the Queen’s Plum Tree, fall and break his head.
Finally, another, easy to miss element is the onlookers – the crowd who will accompany Simpcox and his wife in the direction of fortune, cheering them on – and then join as heartily in the jeers as they are whipped through the towns – the playground crowd watching the for any excitement and excuse to coagulate.