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136 Shakespeare 6 Complexities of Response In Henry VI, Part 2, during the first scene of act 2, King Henry VI, Queen Margaret,Gloucester (the king’s uncle and the powerful lord protector ), and Gloucester’s fierce rivals for power Cardinal Beaufort and Suffolk have all come to St.Albans to divert themselves with some hunting and hawking recreation. What transpires at the sacred site of St. Albans , shrine to the first English martyr, demonstrates the ways in which Shakespeare articulates ambiguous and nuanced thoughts and feelings regarding poverty and charity.1 We have learned in act 1, scene 3, that the local commoners strongly favor the “good man” Gloucester over Suffolk, whom they accuse of enclosure . The high-soaring flight of Gloucester’s falcon, straightforwardly praised by the pious but politically naïve king, is aggressively seized upon as political allegory by the hostile Suffolk and the cardinal, who interpret the high-flying bird as emblematic of Gloucester’s overweening pride and ambition. In a series of fierce asides Gloucester and the remarkably secular cardinal challenge each other to a private duel to be held later on that evening. Their vicious squabbling, decried by Henry, is interrupted by a townsman who cries “A miracle!” and breathlessly tells the court party that a man blind from birth has just received his sight at St.Albans’shrine. The holy king, seconding the townspeople’s belief in the “miracle,” declares, “Now God be prais’d, that to believing souls / Gives light in darkness, comfort in despair!” (2.1.64–65). As a parodic “triumph,” the mayor of St. Albans, a group of townsmen, the“healed” man Simon Simpcox, and his wife process in. As if to double the comic effect (and anticipating Biancolelli’s virtuosic routine of multiple disabilities), Shakespeare adds to the source the extra gag of lameness, so that Simpcox (with one dis- shakespeare 137 ability left) is borne in on a chair. Gloucester, who in some other versions of the story initially rejoices in the miracle, is in Shakespeare’s version neutral enough that he grants the beggar the extraordinary privilege of an audience with the king. This initiates the first of several dramatized or imagined encounters in Shakespeare’s work between the “king” and the “beggar.” King Henry begins to ask questions of Simpcox, not as a skeptical examination but as prompts aimed at confirming the formulaic narrative of the medieval miracle story:“Good fellow, tell us here the circumstance, / That we for thee may glorify the Lord”(2.1.72–73). By revealing that he does not come from the local surroundings but rather from Northumberland , Simpcox begins to arouse concern regarding itinerant beggars who have traveled far beyond their place of birth. Differentiating himself from the exultant credulity of the townspeople, Henry soberly counsels humility for Simpcox. Presumably from a skeptical stance, Queen Margaret asks the beggar whether he has traveled to St. Albans“by chance / Or of devotion, to this holy shrine?” (2.1.85–86). In the vein of the Liber vagatorum, Simpcox tells a narrative of mystic faith and devotion. The martyr himself has spoken to him in his dreams “A hundred times and oft-ner” (2.1.88)—a claim promptly seconded by his wife, as partner in comedy as well as crime. As Simpcox tells it, the oneiric voices of St. Alban invite the reciprocal exchange of medieval charity:“‘Simon, come; / Come offer at my shrine, and I will help thee’” (2.1.89–90). As the scene proceeds,Gloucester’s skepticism builds,but his response is characterized by measured rationality rather than instinctive hostility . In fact, Gloucester’s attitude might be likened to the posture of Sir Thomas More himself (the source’s author)2 in Utopia, where through the persona of Raphael Hythloday he registers both compassion for the plight of new-made beggars dispossessed by enclosure and the determination to respond to poverty in a rational and effective way, ensuring that idlers and dissemblers will not divert legitimate charity. (Gloucester, we recall, is beloved of the commoners because he is thought to oppose Suffolk ’s enclosure policies.) Simpcox’ story explaining his lameness arouses suspicion: he claims that he became lame by falling out of a tree. That a blind man should take to tree climbing completes, in the now increasingly skeptical Gloucester, the conversion of the exchange from a miracle narrative to a municipal examination. He tricks Simpcox into identify- 138 chap ter 6 ing particular colors as...


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