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perkin warbeck

12 december 2015

Shakespeare never wrote a Henry VII play, but he would have appreciated John Ford's Perkin Warbeck, written a few years after his death. Ford dramatized the most exciting elements of the first Tudor's reign in noisy Shakespearean fashion, but added some psychological nuance that even Shakespeare never reached. The result, as T.S. Eliot noted, is one of the best English history plays aside from Shakespeare's, not like that's a large and distinguished set.

I'd read Perkin Warbeck before and admired it, so on my current tour through Shakespeare's kings, I thought I'd better read it again or probably miss my chance for decades if not forever. The play is still impressive. Not flawless, not elegant, but with a weird undercurrent of tragic mania that its few critics down the centuries have responded to.

There's a lot of exposition in Perkin Warbeck, particularly early on. Quite a few speeches seem to be versified directly from chronicle sources, a technique that editors tend to cite admiringly in footnotes in order to celebrate scholarly discoveries. But versified exposition seems neither poetic nor dramatic, and might be cut in performance; it's certain skimmable in the reading. Shakespeare does some of this too, of course; there seems to have been value for these early playwrights in running down a list of noble names of history. These "household words" would still exist with new bearers, of course, who might be flattered to hear themselves mentioned onstage even if their ancestors were traitors or finks.

Once we get past the set-up, the play gathers energy and keeps gathering it till the curtain falls. Perkin Warbeck himself enters in Act II. I mentioned recently here that it would be odd to name a play about royalty after a non-royal character. Warbeck at least thinks he's royal, but nobody else really does, so the title is slightly ironic.

To recap, Henry VII had become King by killing Richard III at the battle of Bosworth. Richard had become King a couple of years earlier after having a couple of little princes, sons of Edward IV, murdered in the Tower of London. Many years later, Perkin Warbeck appears, claiming to be one of those little princes and the rightful King Richard IV:

The softness of my childhood smiled upon
The roughness of their task, and robbed them farther
Of hearts to dare or hands to execute. (Act 2, Scene 1)
Warbeck claims to have been spirited away to Flanders and grown up there with a kind of amnesia about his royal origins, till
Of living so unknown, in such a servile
And abject lowness, prompted me to thoughts
Of recollecting who I was. (Act 2, Scene 1)
That way of putting it gives a taste of Ford's offbeat way of expressing people's thoughts. His characters don't always think directly and though they can use platitudes rhetorically, they don't find formulaic thought sufficient.

James IV, King of Scotland, finds Warbeck's claims intriguing, or at least convenient, and declares war on England on Warbeck's behalf. He also marries Warbeck to a cousin of his, Katherine Gordon. Katherine's father Huntley is disappointed, because he'd promised her to a young man named Dalyell, who mopes around the Warbeck entourage ineffectively for the rest of the play. In a remarkable scene (Act 3, Scene 2), Huntley gets drunk at Katherine's wedding and counsels Dalyell to let things go: "kings are earthly gods," after all, and you just have to roll with what they decide.

The war in the North of England goes swimmingly enough for a while till James IV realizes that nobody's exactly coming out of the woodwork to acknowledge Perkin Warbeck as "Dick the Fourth." (That's Ford's term, by the way; would I make a dumb joke about a 380-year-old play?) James strikes a separate peace with King Henry, and Warbeck hies himself to Cornwall. He has a couple of supporters who are sure he'll eventually catch on:

'Tis but going to sea and leaping ashore, cut ten or twelve thousand unnecessary throats, fire seven or eight towns, take half a dozen cities, get into the market-place, crown him Richard the Fourth, and the business is finished. (Act 4, Scene 2)
But instead it's Henry who takes Warbeck captive. At the lowest ebb of his fortunes, Warbeck becomes one of the grander characters in English drama. Magnanimous, forgiving, uncowed, he stands up to Henry. And his Katherine stands by him, vowing never to remarry after he'll inevitably lose his head. Perkin Warbeck goes to the block leaving every other character somehow in his debt. As Warbeck explains to another pretender named Lambert Simnel, who has truckled to Henry and now serves as royal falconer:
Coarse creatures are incapable of excellence.
But let the world, as all to whom I am
This day a spectacle, to time deliver,
And by tradition fix posterity,
Without another chronicle than truth,
How constantly my resolution suffered
A martyrdom of majesty. (Act 5, Scene 3)
"He's past / Recovery; a Bedlam cannot cure him," says Simnel. Historians and literary critics have differed on whether the real Warbeck was nuts, or deluded, or sanely convinced of his royal destiny. Ford made marvelous drama out of the debate, without deciding it. As Peter Ure notes,
when a historical narrative is being "translated" into a five-act drama, all the perspectives shift around and all the elements alter their relation to each other. The implications are without end, and the opportunities magnificent. (Ure xli)
And it's easier to see this in a masterly treatment of unfamiliar material than in Shakespeare's histories, which have become so canonical that they overshadow their narrative sources.

Ford, John. Perkin Warbeck. 1634. Edited by Donald K. Anderson, Jr. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965.

Ford, John. The Chronicle History of Perkin Warbeck: A strange truth. 1634. Edited by Peter Ure. London: Methuen, 1968.