Perkin Warbeck, by John Ford

I’m reading at the moment Winter King by Thomas Penn, a history book about the reign of Henry VII, and in it he comments that Henry VII was the only king between Richard II (though surely Edward III?) and Henry VIII that Shakespeare didn’t write a play about (presumably assuming Henry VI is split, at least the latter plays, fairly equally with Edward IV). His speculation for why this is, is because Henry VII was essentially a problematic and dangerous figure, for a Jacobean playwright who wanted to keep on the good side of the Tudors, to portray, seeing that his claims to the throne were distinctly dubious (an area seemingly of particular interest to Shakespeare under normal circumstances), that he was paranoid and essentially used a network of spies to run a police state. On the other hand, John Ford, not seemingly mentioned in the slightest by Penn, living only thirty years later than Shakespeare (though still under those selfsame Tudors/Stuarts), seems to have had no such problems or compunctions, and portrays the king as a man of dubious claim to the throne, who is paranoid and essentially relied on a network of spies to run his police state.

This is his late play, Perkin Warbeck, written, one feels, with a fair degree of homage to Shakespeare’s history plays. Indeed, the play forms in its way a kind of coda to Shakespeare, whose history plays reach a denouement in Richard III, with the final solution to the problem of the Yorkist / Lancastrian problem in the ultimate appearance of Henry VII (he does appear, of course, at the end of Richard III – he has half a dream sequence, encourages his men, and defeats Richard in battle – and he also appears, as a boy, in Henry VI (part 3?), in which Henry VI sees in him – sometimes curiously in the context – signs of future kingship). More likely Shakespeare didn’t write a play about Henry VII because in Henry VII his schema found its resolution.

Perkin Warbeck revives the old flames, however. Just when Henry VII thought he’d escaped, they drag him back in. Warbeck appears in France, and then Scotland, claiming to be Richard, the younger of the sons of Edward IV, supposedly murdered by Richard III in the Tower of London, though their bodies were never found. Naturally, there is no way for this claim to be proved, but it threatens to stir up the past. Ford, at first, plays quite nicely with this: he has a heroine, Katherine, who has rejected one suitor because, despite his valour and honorable nature, he isn’t enough of a toff; and then instead falls in love with and marries the pretender Warbeck, purely because he is a toff – though of course there remain some questions about this; which just goes to prove – but then Ford seems to lose this idea somewhere along the line, and there’s a bit of fighting, and not much else.

Ford does seem to have a very different notion of kingship to Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s theory of kingship consists merely in presenting oneself to one’s subjects correctly; not to be too matey or standoffish. It’s true that they’re both interested in the question of ruthlessness vs mercy (Henry VII is here presented as a man whose temperament is fundamentally merciful, but who recognises there are times when one has to be ruthless). But in Ford, Henry VII has also begun to act like a true statesman: he interacts with other statesman; he considers the needs of his people; he’s formed a secret serivce; and he’s keen to state exactly where his tax-dollars are being spent. Civil conflict is here not determined and ended by war, but by diplomacy.

Of course, this leads to a rather dry, unexciting, characterless drama. Perhaps after all Shakespeare only determined kingship should be based on character for good artistic reasons. There seems almost too much of the sceptical historian in Ford, who must reduce every extreme to its mean.


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