Imagery and Similes
As in Henry VI parts 1 and 2, Shakespeare uses extensive imagery drawn from the natural world to help his characters explain their thoughts and the situations they find themselves in. Almost all the characters express themselves in this way. Queen Margaret tells Henry, when they have been defeated in battle, that Edward and Richard, their opponents, are “like a brace of greyhounds / Having the fearful flying hare in sight” (2.5.129-30). Richard speaks of his father, the Duke of York, fighting fiercely in battle:
As doth a lion in a herd of neat;
Or as a bear, encompass'd round with dogs,
Who having pinch'd a few and made them cry,
The rest stand all aloof and bark at him.
Act 2, scene 1, lines 14-18
(Neat means cattle.) It is noticeable that Richard does not stop with just one comparison; he uses the word “or” to introduce another one, as if one was not enough. This is typical of the way Shakespeare presents the imagery in this play. One image or simile will pile up on another.
The boy Rutland uses similar imagery when Clifford comes to kill him:
So looks the pent-up lion o'er the wretch
That trembles under his devouring paws;
And so he walks, insulting o'er his prey,
And so he comes to rend his limbs asunder.
Act 1, scene 3, lines 12-15
What is noticeable about these images is the leisurely and extended way they are presented. This is a hallmark of Shakespeare’s early plays, in which poetic figures often take precedence over dramatic action. The action stops while the characters elaborate their thoughts in drawn-out similes.
An example of this kind of extended simile is when Richard, Duke of Gloucester, uses the image of an observer looking at a far-off place as a simile for his own desire for the crown, which, at the time, is a long way from his grasp:
Like one that stands upon a promontory,
And spies a far-off shore where he would tread,
Wishing his foot were equal with his eye,
And chides the sea that sunders him from thence,
Saying, he'll lade it dry to have his way.
So do I wish the crown, being so far off,
Act 3, scene 2, 135-140
The longest example is contained in Queen Margaret’s speech in which, over the course of thirty lines, she compares the misfortunes of her army to a ship caught in a storm at sea, which sustains many casualties but the captain still lives:
What though the mast be now blown overboard,
The cable broke, the holding-anchor lost,
And half our sailors swallow'd in the flood?
Yet lives our pilot still. Is 't meet that he
Should leave the helm, and like a fearful lad
With tearful eyes add water to the sea,
And give more strength to that which hath too much,
Whiles in his moan the ship splits on the rock,
Which industry and courage might have sav'd?
Ah, what a shame! ah, what a fault were this!
Say Warwick was our anchor; what of that?
And Montague our topmast; what of him?
Our slaught'red friends the tackles; what of these?
Why, is not Oxford here another anchor,
And Somerset another goodly mast?
The friends of France our shrouds and tacklings?
And, though unskilful, why not Ned and I
For once allow'd the skilful pilot's charge?
We will not from the helm to sit and weep,
But keep our course, though the rough wind say no,
From shelves and rocks that threaten us with wrack,
As good to chide the waves as speak them fair.
And what is Edward but a ruthless sea?
What Clarence but a quicksand of deceit?
And Richard but a ragged fatal rock?
All these the enemies to our poor bark?
Say you can swim; alas, 't is but a while!
Tread on the sand; why, there you quickly sink;
Bestride the rock; the tide will wash you off,
Or else you famish.
Act 5 scene 4, lines 3-33
Another notable feature of the similes is that many of them reference not the natural world but classical myths. These would have been very familiar to Shakespeare’s audiences, although today’s readers usually have to look them up. One example occurs when King Henry is confronted by his murderer, Gloucester, in the penultimate scene of the play. Henry compares himself to Daedalus, who was an inventor in Greek myth. Daedalus was imprisoned by Minos of Crete to prevent Daedalus giving out knowledge of the Labyrinth he had built for Minos. Daedalus fabricated wings and was able to fly like a bird. He taught his son Icarus to fly, but Icarus flew too close to the sun, which melted the wax that held his feathers together. He fell into the sea and was drowned.
I, Daedalus; my poor boy, Icarus;
Thy father, Minos, that denied our course;
The sun that sear'd the wings of my sweet boy,
Thy brother Edward; and thyself, the sea
Whose envious gulf did swallow up his life.
Act 5, scene 6, lines 12-25.
In this ingenious metaphoric comparison based on the myth, Henry compares himself to Daedalus; Prince Edward his son (who has been killed) to Icarus; and Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York—Richard of Gloucester’s son—to Minos, since it was York that “denied our course,” i.e., first rebelled against Henry’s reign. Henry then compares Edward IV, who in claiming the throne disinherited Prince Edward, to the sun that melted the wings of Icarus. Finally, Gloucester is compared to the sea that claimed Icarus because Gloucester was in part responsible for Prince Edward’s death.