Henry VI, Part 3 | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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

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Summary

The battle between Margaret and York (the Battle of Wakefield) is now in full swing. Rutland, the youngest son of York, is attempting to flee the battlefield with his tutor, an unarmed priest. Clifford rushes onstage with a group of soldiers, and the tutor implores him not to murder Rutland, who is a mere child. Clifford has his soldiers drag the tutor offstage.

Realizing Clifford intends to cut him down, Rutland pleads for his life, offering every reason he can think of that he should be spared. Clifford, however, is determined on vengeance and will not listen to the boy's appeals for mercy. As he lifts his sword to deliver the killing blow, he coldly proclaims, "Thy father slew my father; therefore die." Rutland expires almost instantly, and soldiers quickly bear his body away. Meanwhile, a vindictive Clifford gloats over the blood he has spilled and announces his plan to kill York next.

Analysis

Clifford's bloodthirstiness in this scene is alarming, even in a play about a decades-long civil war. His decision to murder Rutland does not, however, simply come out of the blue. In the previous play (Henry VI, Part 2) Clifford's father was slain by York at the Battle of Saint Albans. There, standing over his father's corpse, Clifford swore vengeance in terms closely foreshadowing the events of this scene:

Meet I an infant of the house of York,
Into as many gobbets will I cut it
As wild Medea young Absyrtis did.
In cruelty will I seek out my fame.

This is a gruesome image, to be sure, and it does not bode well for any Yorkist noncombatants Clifford happens to encounter. Still one might expect that Clifford is speaking hyperbolically: surely he does not really intend to chop Yorkist children into pieces? Perhaps, a reader of the trilogy might think, Clifford will cool off just a little as his father's death recedes into memory. No such luck—if anything, his hatred toward the House of York is even more inflamed in Part 3:

The sight of any of the house of York
Is as a fury to torment my soul,
And till I root out their accursèd line
And leave not one alive, I live in hell.

Fortunately for the audience, Clifford does not actually hack Rutland into bits, vows notwithstanding. Still, by killing a defenseless child Clifford confirms that his gory speech in Part 2 was not an outburst of momentary anguish but the on ramp to a remorseless rage from which there is no turning back. Rutland's dying words, "Di faciant laudis summa sit ista tuae," are themselves a callback to Clifford's wish to "seek out [his] fame" in "cruelty." The phrase, which comes from Ovid's Epistles, literally means "May the gods grant that this [act] be the sum of your fame"; in other words Rutland is wishing that Clifford will be remembered as a child murderer rather than, say, as a great warrior or military leader.

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