Last night, in the Shakespeare reading group I teach in Haarlem, we wondered about a line in the first scene of 3 Henry 6, where Clifford states that he mourns in steel. King Henry VI has just reminded Lord Clifford and the Earl of Northumberland that they have vowed to be revenged on the Duke of York for the murder of their fathers in the Battle of Saint Albans. The two don’t really need reminding, they are bent on revenge:
If I be not, heavens be revenged on me.
The hope thereof makes Clifford mourn in steel
(3 Henry VI, 1.1.58)
The footnote to this line explains that “to mourn in steel” here means “to grieve without removing his armour”. Instead of mourning in black, Clifford has transformed his grief into anger, and is still dressed for battle. The line strongly reminded us of the opening first part of Henry VI (which, by the way, is perhaps the last part to have been written), where the English nobles in after the death of Henry V seek revenge on the French, and wonder “We mourn in black, why mourn we not in blood?” and “Away with these disgraceful wailing robes; | Wounds will I lend the French, instead of eyes, | To weep their intermissive miseries” (1 Henry 6, 1.1.17 and 86-88).
Philip Fisher writes that one of the great mysteries of the passions is “how one state of vehemence finds itself linked to another” (Raritan 11:1, 1991). In these quotations from Henry VI, it is the state of vehement grief that leads to rage, that leads to revenge. As Laertes says in Hamlet: “When these [tears] are gone, the woman will be out” – after his grief he will be ready to avenge his father’s death. Revenge in these examples, then, is not considered a rational duty imposed on the family member, but is always seen to be engendered from grief: it is a passionate kind of revenge. As David Riggs writes about the scene I began this post with: “With these words, the battle of St. Albans is transformed, ex post facto from the open, chivalric test enacted by York and old Clifford into a personal tragedy involving the violation of family pieties” (Riggs, Shakespeare’s Heroical Histories 1971, 130.)
In this context of revenge and grief, Robert N. Watson makes an interesting suggestion about post-reformation culture and its loss of ways to express grief. Whereas the Catholic tradition knew many rituals of mourning, he writes, such as saying masses for the dead or paying for indulgences, these traditions were outlawed by the Reformation. He relates this loss of mourning rituals to the popularity of revenge plays in the early modern theatres. For in these tragedies, the bereaved use worldly revenge to redeem the ghosts of their family members. “If prayers for the dead were discouraged in churches, then revenge on behalf of a ghost would be performed in theatres,â€ Watson suggests. (Cambridge Companion to Shakespearean Tragedy, 2002, 174).
See also Martha A. Kurtz, “Tears and Masculinity in the History Play: Shakespeare’s Henry VI” in Grief and Gender 700-1700, edited by Jennifer C. Vaught and Lynne Dickson Bruckner (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003). She argues that in the course of the three plays, weeping is no longer represented as a sign of feminine weakness, but as a patriotic virtue. See also Marshall Grossmann’s “Hamlet and the Genders of Grief” in the same volume.
On Shakespeare’s Hamlet and purgatory see Stephen Greenblatt’s marvellous Hamlet in Purgatory (Princeton University Press, 2001).