Henry VI, Part 3 | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Henry VI, Part 3 | Act 1, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

After their victory at Saint Albans (end of Henry VI, Part 2), the Duke of York and his forces have pursued King Henry all the way to London. They now stand in the Palace of Westminster awaiting the king's arrival. York is joined onstage by his sons Edward and Richard and his supporters Montague, Warwick, and Norfolk. Warwick, the first to speak, muses on the king's apparent escape from battle, and the other men remark on the notable Lancastrians (supporters of Henry) they have slain in the battle. Warwick affirms his wish to oust Henry and install York as the new king. York takes his seat in the throne at the head of the room.

King Henry enters, accompanied by his supporters Clifford, Northumberland, Westmorland, and Exeter. Henry expresses shock that York, the "sturdy rebel," has dared to sit on the throne. Clifford and the rest are itching for a fight, but Henry urges them not to "make a shambles [i.e., a slaughterhouse] of the Parliament House!" After several insults are exchanged among their followers, Henry and York come to an agreement: Henry will remain king of England as long as he lives, but the crown will then pass to York and his descendants.

York's supporters are pleased enough by this news, but Henry's followers are disappointed and even angered by his decision. Northumberland, Westmorland, and Clifford storm out of the room, hurling insults at the "faint-hearted and degenerate king." York swears that, in exchange for being made Henry's heir, he will dismiss his armies and give up seeking the throne by force. After embracing the king, he departs along with his followers.

Henry realizes Queen Margaret, his wife, will be furious about his decision to disinherit their son Prince Edward. When he sees her making her way onstage, he tries to run away, but she stops him and upbraids him as a terrible father. She refuses to have anything to do with Henry until his agreement with York is overturned; moreover, she pledges to incite a rebellion to win the crown back for her son. As she and Prince Edward exit the stage, Henry tries to formulate a plan to win back his alienated noblemen and make peace with his queen.

Analysis

This scene picks up right where Henry VI, Part 2 left off. At the end of that play the Duke of York had routed King Henry's forces at Saint Albans; this was the first major battle of the Wars of the Roses, a 30-year period of civil war in which the Houses of York and Lancaster fought for control of the kingdom. Riding on the momentum of his first victory, York has now made it as far as London and is hoping to assume the throne with as little opposition as possible.

For the most part the characters have basically the same personalities and motivations as they did in Part 2. One notable development concerns Richard, younger son of the Duke of York. Back in Part 2 he was mainly concerned with defending his father; here in Part 3 he first appears bearing the severed head of the Duke of Somerset, which he holds up as a kind of gruesome trophy. As the play continues, Richard will far surpass his father in cruelty and cunning, moving further and further along the sliding scale from "misunderstood" to "malevolent." The final stages of this transformation are dramatized in Richard III, where York's son reigns as a ruthless and antiheroic king.

Henry, meanwhile, continues to suffer from the image problems that plagued him in Part 2. When he first comes onstage, he attempts to be stern, upbraiding York as a rebel and urging his supporters on to thoughts of vengeance. But this tough-guy front doesn't last: Henry's hatred for bloodshed prevents him from actually lifting his sword against the Yorkists. Instead he tells his retainers,

frowns, words, and threats
Shall be the war that Henry means to use.

Henry's threats are obviously not scary. No wonder Warwick thinks of Henry as "bashful" and "coward[ly]"—sentiments that will be echoed throughout the remainder of the play. In later scenes those seeking to put a nicer spin on Henry's timidity will call him "simple" and "gentle" instead of a coward. Here, however, York and his partisans are flushed with victory, and they make no effort to be polite to Henry.

Warwick, too, will be a character to watch throughout Part 3. Known to history as the Kingmaker, Warwick seems to base his self-image on his ability to install and remove monarchs at will. His speeches in this scene show that Warwick thinks of himself as the real agent of regime change, with the kings themselves as passive as shrubs or begonias: "I'll plant Plantagenet," he proclaims; "root him up who dares." This sense of self-importance proves to be a serious blind spot for Warwick, who realizes too late (in Act 5) that the Yorkists have grown too powerful for him to "uproot."

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