King Henry VI, Part Three
By Dennis Abrams
If ever there was a play that provided evidence of what critic Jan Kott called the “constant procession of kings” in Shakespeare’s histories, it’s Henry VI, Part III. The action, which follows Queen Margaret’s brief moment of triumph at Wakefield to the Lancastrians’ last stand at Tewkesbury and Henry’s subsequent murder (I don’t think that’s coming to come as too big a surprise), sees no fewer than three characters making a claim for the throne, with one more, Richard of Gloucester, posted to make his move as the curtain falls. But Part III is also Shakespeare’s clearest exposition yet of the horrors of civil war. For critic M.M. Reese, the play presents “a dreadful example of what happened when God’s kindly watchfulness was turned to wrath by the crimes, ambition, and misgovernment of men”; for other commentators it radically undermines all of those assumptions. The play was originally known as The True Tragedy of Richard, Duke of York, and York’s messy end forms one of its most traumatic images – after being captured by Margaret’s forces, the Duke is mockingly crowned with a paper coronet and taunted with the murder of his own son, before being stabbed to death by Margaret herself. It is difficult to deny that 3 Henry VI, which draws extensively on the revenge dramas then popular on the Elizabethan stage, is one of Shakespeare’s most violent plays. Indeed, it is perhaps the darkest history of all.
From Marjorie Garber:
“Like the other plays in the cluster we now often describe as Shakespeare’s ‘first tetralogy’ – 1 Henry VI, 2 Henry VI, and Richard III (our next play!) – this play has generally been treated either as one in an epic series describing the events of the Wars of the Roses and the Tudor succession or as a very early work by a playwright still struggling to find his mature voice. Both assessments undervalue the strength of 3 Henry VI as an independent drama of great power and interest. Published in quarto form in 1600 as The True Tragedie of Richard Duke of York, and Good King Henry the Sixth, the play features at least two brilliantly memorable characters, Richard of Gloucester and Queen Margaret, at their eloquent and vituperative best, and contains, in addition, several unusually effective theatrical set pieces: the mocking and death of York, the murder of the boy Rutland, and Henry VI as the horrified inadvertent witness to the discoveries of ‘a Soldier who has killed his father’ and ‘a Soldier who has killed his son’ – a perfect, and perfectly appalling, emblem of civil war. The quality of the poetry, and especially of the imagery, is vivid throughout, and the portraits of lasciviousness, malevolence, and ambition in high places are as compelling and recognizable today as they would presumably have been in the early modern period.”
And this from Tony Tanner:
“The most vivid image of Henry VI Part 3 is of a figure of mad energy fighting to escape from a wild wood:
And I – like one lost in a thorny wood,
That rends the thorns and is rent with the thorns
Seeking a way and straying from the way,
Not knowing how to find the open air,
But toiling desperately to find it out –
Torment myself to catch the English crown:
And from that torment I will free myself,
Or hew my way out with a bloody ax.
(III, ii, 174-81)
The old chivalric heroes have gone; the great law-givers have been removed; anarchy is the ‘order’ of the day. England is ready for the emergence of its most monstrous creation – Richard.
The first two Acts concern the battles of 1460-61, when Henry was still king, in name. Acts III and IV concern the manouevering of the various parties of nobles with their rival kings; while the last Act presents the campaigns of 1471 – all war. Shakespeare had a morass of more or less shapeless material in front of him, suggesting no one particular dramatic or moral plan – just victories and defeats, victories and defeats. (One or two events did have an inherent dramatic significance – the breach of faith of Edward’s marriage to Lady Grey; the perfidiousness of side-changing Clarence; and these Shakespeare duly exploited.) He compressed, streamlined, amalgamated, telescoped, until the play became a sharpened study of anarchy – in state, family, and individual – and disorder itself. The characters appear to have no inner life; they move like masks through this disintegrating world, and hardly seem responsible for what they do. They are driven by primary passions – fury, hate, ambition, lust – and see nothing outside their own dominant passion and aims. They resemble Morality types – vengeful Clifford, holy Henry, lustful Edward, perjured Clarence, ambitious Richard, she-wolf Margaret – and seem to be as unchanging. They whirl around, as if oblivious of the chaos that is their world – custom, trust, duty, self-control, all forgot.”
I hope I’ve whetted your appetite for the play.
Our reading: Henry VI, Part Three, Act One
Since everybody is coming off a holiday weekend and playing catch up, I’ll give you all some time: my next posting will be Wednesday night/Thursday morning.