But wherefore dost thou come? Is’t for my life?

Henry VI, Part Three

Act Five

By Dennis Abrams (with a little help from Jeanne Badman)


King Edward and Richard of Gloucester confront Warwick at Coventry. Warwick is reinforced by Oxford, Somerset, Montague and Clarence. Richard has a brief parlay with his brother, George of Clarence, who then throws his red rose at Warwick and swears allegiance to King Edward. They all arrange for a battle nearby.

Warwick is mortally wounded. Before he dies he learns that Queen Margaret is bringing fresh troops from France. King Edward and his forces prepare to meet her in battle.

Queen Margaret delivers a tearful speech of inspiration to her troops. King Edward wins this final round.

Edward takes Margaret, her son Edward, Oxford and Somerset prisoner. Prince Edward stands his ground, delivering insults, and is stabbed by King Edward, Gloucester, and Clarence. Margaret begs to be killed as well. Richard declares that he is off to London and the Tower, while Edward and company make plans for London and the throne.

At the Tower, Richard confers with King Henry.  As Henry expounds on Richard’s evil, Richard stabs him to death.  Richard previews his plans for future murders and hides Henry’s body.

King Edward assumes the throne, recounting the many dead and their leaders.  He offers up his infant son for kisses from his uncles, and is played falsely by Richard who schemes for the throne himself.  King Edward gives instructions for Queen Margaret to be returned to France. and calls for celebrations.


From Tanner:


“Almost the last atrocity we have to witness is the death of brave young Prince Edward (Henry’s son), who is systematically stabbed by King Edward, then Richard, then Clarence.  It is brutal butchery, but not, it has to be admitted so very different from the stabbing of Rutland at the beginning.  The play is all one long butchery.  Queen Margaret is so distraught at the killing of her child that she asks to be killed as well.  Richard, of course, is instantly willing to oblige, but Edward stays his hand, prompting Richard to say:  ‘Why should she live, to fill the world with words?’  It is a line we may well have occasion to remember in the next play.


The ultimate confrontation of the play, of the whole trilogy, is between Henry and Richard.  These are the two extreme products of the terrible years covered by the plays – the Martyr and the Machiavel, as Brockbank designates them.  Richard has gone to Henry in the Tower, to murder him as Henry well divines.  And, speaking with great moral force and authority, Henry utters his indictment of Richard:


And thus I prophesy, that many a thousand,

Which now mistrust no parcel of my fear,

And many an old man’s sigh and many a widow’s,

And many an orphan’s water-standing eye –

Men for their sons, wives for their husbands,

Orphans for their parents’ timeless death –

Shall rue the hour that ever thou wast born.

The owl shrieked at thy birth – an evil sign;

The night-crow cried, aboding luckless time;

Dogs howled and hideous tempest shook down trees;

The raven rooked her on the chimney’s top,

And chatt’ring pies in dismal discords sung.

Thy mother felt more than a mother’s pain,

And yet brought forth less than a mother’s hope,

To wit, an undigested and deformed lump,

Not like the fruit of such a goodly tree.

Teeth hadst thou in thy head when thou wast born,

To signify thou cam’st to bite the world.

And, if the rest be true which I have heard,

Thou cam’st –


That is quite enough for Richard.  ‘I’ll hear no more.  Die, prophet, in thy speech.’  And stabs him.  One feels that it is the only way this kind of uncompromising moral force can be stopped – pure principle silenced by pure power.  This is the final issue of these wars.  The prophet dying in his speech may not be quite a tragic death, but it has a dignity not accorded to any of the other victims of the play.


Richard – it is his last soliloquy in this play – accepts the birth, identity, and destiny outlines for him by Henry.  He remembers being told he was born with teeth:


…which plainly signified

That I should snarl and bite and play the dog.

Then, since the heavens have shaped my body so,

Let hell make crook’d my mind to answer it.

I have no brother, I am like no brother;

And this word ‘love’, which graybeards call divine,

Be resident in men like one another

And not in me, I am myself alone,


I am myself alone.  This is the first time but far from the last, that these words are heard in Shakespeare.  A certain kind of hard, Renaissance individualism is beginning to speak out, and it can take frightening forms.


The very last scene shows King Edward comfortably enthroned – ‘Now am I seated as my soul delights’ – talking of autumn and harvests and ‘lasting joy.’  He points to his young baby who will reap the gain of their labours.  Richard has his own ideas about that, as expressed in an aside to the audience:


I’ll blast his harvest, if your head were laid,

For yet I am not looked on in the world.

This shoulder was ordained so thick to heave,

And heave it shall some weight, or break my back.

Work thou the way, and that shalt execute.


And when he is invited to kiss the baby, he is ready – with the Judas kiss.


And, that I love the tree from whence thou sprang’st

Witness the loving kiss I give the fruit.

[ASIDE]  To say the truth, so Judas kissed his master,

And cried, ‘All hail!’ whenas he meant all harm.


Richard, unashamedly intending ‘all harm,’ can, by this time, hardly wait to take over the whole historic show.  And, by this time, the audience, perhaps, can hardly wait to watch him do it.”


From Garber:


“We might linger for a moment on the theme of the deaths of children, since the ‘child’ theme will recur, powerfully, in Richard III.  The play’s mythological imagery is full of hopeful, ingenious fathers and overreaching sons fated to die young:  Daedalus and Icarus, Apollo and Phaeton.  The persistent and consistent Christian language is fully consonant, in a Renaissance reading, with the ‘moralized’ readings of these classical myths as types or anticipations of Christ.  In 3 Henry VI, Richard of York loses Rutland, Margaret loses Edward, and both loudly lament their losses.  The rather formal, if sometimes foul-tongued, Margaret surprises us with a nickname of endearment – ‘O Ned, sweet Ned – speak to thy mother, boy,’ – and anticipates Macduff in claiming (inaccurately, in this case) that the York brothers ‘have no children.’  Her words


But if you ever chance to have a child,

Look in his youth to have him so cut off…


are a foretaste of her more elaborate curse early in Richard III.  Prince Edward himself has something of the pertness and imprudent freedom of speech that will characterize the Princes in the Tower, who likewise tease Richard about his appearance, with equally fatal consequences.  George rightly calls Edward ‘too malapert,’ and a few lines later ‘young Edward’ is stabbed to death in front of his mother.  The name Ned will return only two scenes later as the pet name for King Edward’s heir (‘Come hither, Bess,’ Edward says to his queen, ‘and let me kiss my boy./Young Ned…’)  Both Margaret and Queen Elizabeth will have reason at the beginning of Richard III to lament the replication on both sides of the York-Lancaster ‘contention’ of children, and husbands, with familiar names, and the eye-for-an-eye scenario of revenge and civil war will become an ‘Edward for [an] Edward” when this young Prince, with Richard of Gloucester’s aside to the audience (‘I’ll blast his harvest…/This shoulder was ordained so thick to heave’ and the treasonous kiss he offers in response to Edward’s invitation to kiss the heir to the throne (‘Clarence and Gloucester, love my lovely queen;/And kiss your princely nephew, brothers, both.’


Meanwhile, waiting silently offstage, is the other heir, Henry, Earl of Richmond, whom Henry VI termed ‘England’s hope,’ and about whom he had prophesized, with ‘divining thoughts,’ ‘This pretty lad will prove our country’s bliss.’  The upshot, as Shakespeare’s original audience would obviously have known, would be a Henry for a Henry, as Henry VII, the ‘Richmond’ of Richard III (and the grandfather of Elizabeth I), will fulfill the rest of this King Henry’s prophecy:


His looks are full of peaceful majesty,

His head by nature framed to wear a crown,

His hand to wield a sceptre; and himself

Likely in time to bless a regal throne.


[Garber goes on to discuss the final confrontation between Henry and Richard in terms of language]:


“The stylistic contrast is, deliberately and effectively, as strong as the contrast in character.  Henry speaks in balanced periodic phrases reminiscent of the Senecan poetry so popular in the period (Seneca’s plays had recently been translated and were read and performed in schools):  ‘many an old man’s sigh, and many a widow’s,/And many an orphan’s water-standing eye –‘; ‘Thy mother felt more than a mother’s pain,/And yet brought forth less than a mother’s hope.’  (His excoriating phrase ‘indigested and deformed lump’ echoes Old Clifford in 2 Henry VI, ‘foul indigested lump./As crooked in thy manners as thy shape’; both are versions of the description of chaos in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, book 1, lines 7-8.)  Richard speaks in energetic bursts, and once he has slain Henry he faces the audience to describe himself as “I that have neither pity, love, nor fear,’ and to make his exciting and terrifying declaration of independent ‘Machiavellian’ agency:  ‘I am myself alone.’  It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that in this phrase a new mode of Shakespearean character is born.”


[And finally from Garber, a look at Henry as outside observer]


“This role of the anguished spectator, unable to intervene or to look away, feeling – as indeed King Henry should – responsible for the tragedy unfolding on the stage, is one that the playwright will make use of many times in his subsequent career, creating figures like Edgar in King Lear who mediate between the dramatic characters in the play and the audience in the theater.  For the King to be in this position of impotent spectatorship is a sign, however, of his limitations as a monarch, as well as of his theatrical and literary debt to an older, more emblematic and allegorical mode of drama.  Even if young Richmond is ‘England’s hope’ in a historical sense, the theater’s future clearly belongs to Richard of Gloucester.  His astonishing soliloquies, his refusal of self-pity even as he mimes it for an audience, his energy, and his pleasure in plotting all bode well for audiences, whatever they do for the ‘England’ depicted in the plays.  This remarkably well-shaped early play is balanced on his misshapen shoulder, which he will use, as he says in the last scene, to ‘execute’ his plans in both senses, accomplishing them when necessary by murder.  The new King, Edward IV, has the last word in 3 Henry VI, as is customary for surviving or inheriting kings in many of the history plays.  Edward, who does not suspect his brother Richard’s intentions, is full of hope:  in his wife, Elizabeth; in his son, Ned; in the fact that Queen Margaret is being ransomed away to France by her father and seems to be leaving England, and the stage, for the last time.  But Edward’s final words, offered in the traditional rhyming couplet that clears the stage, contain all that an alert audience needs to anticipate a further reversal:


Sound drums and trumpets – farewell, sour annoy!

For here, I hope, begins our lasting joy.


To rhyme ‘joy’ and ‘annoy’ is a small stroke of genius; to invert the vain ‘I hope’ as a qualification of the last line takes away all that the proud assertion seems to claim.  Almost any production will balance attention in this scene between ‘lascivious’ King Edward and the determined, political Richard of Gloucester, whose opening soliloquy in Richard III  takes off so brilliantly from the point where this play will end.”



And this from Harold Bloom, who is not the biggest admirer of the plays:


“’I am myself alone’ is the Crookbackian motto, and seems to me the prime aesthetic justification for the Henry VI plays.  They do not live now except for the triad of Joan, Jack Cade, and Richard, all Shakespearean exercises in the representation of evil, and all vivid comedians.  Richard III, whether in its strengths or its limitations, owes its energy and brilliance to the laboratory of the three parts of Henry VI.  That is justification enough for Shakespeare’s immersion in the Wars of the Roses.”



And finally, to complete the last post:  What was Shakespeare’s response to Greene’s “attack” on him in Groatsworth?


“In the autumn of 1592, when the Groatsworth was published, the London theaters were closed.  This was an occupational hazard which Shakespeare faced throughout his career:  fear of public disorder and the risk of plague infection spreading through closely packed audiences meant that there were frequent bans on performance.  Save for two brief seasons in midwinter (when the cold weather diminished the risk of plague), the theaters remained closed from June 1592 until June 1594.  This must have been frustrating for Shakespeare, since, thanks to the Henry VI plays, his new career as a writer was just taking off.


According to Nashe, writing in the summer of 1592, the play featuring the brave Lord Talbot’s battles against the French in the time of Joan of Arc was a triumphant success, drawing some ten thousand spectators.  The play in question was printed as Shakespeare’s in the First Folio, where it is called Henry VI Part One.  It may, however, have been a work of collaboration between Shakespeare and one or more of the university wits, perhaps even Greene himself.  A partnership which ended in tears, with Shakespeare ending up gaining all the credit for the hit play, is as good an explanation as any for Greene’s bitterness.


With the future of the London theatres uncertain, Shakespeare had two choices:  to continue as an actor and follow his company on a provincial tour, or to try and make his way through his writing.  Touring was hard work with little reward:  the financial returns from the provinces were too poor for it to be worth writing new plays for performances there.  Shakespeare made the other choice.  Greene’s death in poverty at exactly this moment would have been a stark reminder that this was a high-risk decision.  Publishers paid writers as poorly as the actors did.  One could not sustain a living as a full-time writer.  The only means of advancement was to gain aristocratic or court patronage; flatter a lord or lady with an elegant and complimentary dedication and they might vie you at least a guinea or two for it.  Continue to ingratiate yourself with them and if you were very lucky they might employ you in some secretarial or other post in their household.  This seems to have been Shakespeare’s plan of action.


Suddenly to find himself publicly tarred with the feathers of the upstart crow must have been a setback.  What incentive would there be for a lord to employ a Johannes fac totum when there were university educated wits aplenty on the market?  It looks as if Shakespeare arranged for measures to be taken to defuse Greene’s bombshell.  Within three months, Henry Chettle, who had been responsible for the publication of the Groatsworth, was prevailed upon to offer an apology in the preliminary epistle to his collection of stories, Kind-Heart’s Dream.  He disclaimed the insult to Shakespeare, but admitted to editing Greene’s papers and said that he was ‘as sorry as if the original fault had been my fault.’  He then added a commendation of Shakespeare:


my self have seen his demeanor as no less civil than he excellent in the quality he professes.  Besides, divers of worship have reported his uprightness of dealing, which argues his honesty, and his facetious grace in writing, that approves his art.


Chettle’s language inverts that of the Groatsworth.  Social derogation is replaced by cordial respect:  civility of demeanor and uprightness of dealing are the marks of the gentleman.  ‘Honest’ means ‘of good birth’; the word is intended to repair the damage done by ‘upstart.’  Chettle defends Shakespeare’s poetic language as well as his social status; the bombastic player is transformed into a polished writer, characterized by ‘art’ and ‘facetious grace.’  ‘Facetious’ suggests elegance and urbanity.  This is the image needed if one is to gain aristocratic patronage:  Chettle’s characterization marks Shakespeare’s first step on the literary and social road of upward mobility.”


Wow!  I don’t know about the rest of you but I feel a real sense of accomplishment at having completed this immense and intense play.  I was on the point of deciding that I prefer the comedies, but closer work with Henry VI has increased my appreciation for the histories.  How is everyone feeling about Henry VI overall? And, what are your thoughts about this ultimate confrontation – between Henry and Richard, the Martyr and the Machiavel?

Our next reading will be Sonnet #53.  Have great weekend and a great read.

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2 Responses to But wherefore dost thou come? Is’t for my life?

  1. Eddie C. says:

    I have been enjoying these much more than I thought I would. I almost felt like skipping the histories because I thought they would be too confusing for someone who did not know much of the actual history, and in fact the only ones I had any familiarity with before this were Henry V and Richard III, both from watching the movie adaptations. I feel like I’ll appreciate Richard III much more than when I watched the Lawrence Olivier film years ago having now read the three plays that precede it!

  2. Ridg Gilmer says:

    The Winter 2012 issue of The American Scholar carries an interesting article, “His Hour Upon the Stage” by Douglas L. Wilson. The author discusses Abraham Lincoln’s lifelong admiration of Shakespeare, whose works he often quoted. But more interesting is the issue raised concerning differences between the written plays and the dialog used in stage productions. Lincoln took great exception to the alterations written by Colley Cibber in transposing the written to the performed, sometimes fabricating new dialog not authored by Shakespeare. I find myself in agreement with Lincoln in preferring the reading to the acting.

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