Henry VI, Part 3 | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Henry VI, Part 3 | Act 1, Scene 4 | Summary

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Summary

The battle from the previous scene wears on, with Queen Margaret's followers gaining the upper hand. York comes onstage and wonders aloud what has happened to his sons, who have fought bravely but recklessly. Queen Margaret approaches him, accompanied by her retainers Clifford and Northumberland and her son Prince Edward. The queen's supporters urge York to give himself up; York, realizing he is doomed, replies with high-spirited insults. In response Margaret, Clifford, and Northumberland attack York but do not kill him; instead they restrain him and force him to stand on a molehill, mocking his lofty aspirations. The queen gives him a handkerchief daubed in Rutland's blood ("to dry thy cheeks withal") and then places a paper crown on his head.

York bears this mistreatment bravely and hurls a long invective speech at Queen Margaret, calling her "stern, obdurate, flinty, rough, [and] remorseless" for making light of Rutland's death. Northumberland, hearing York's lament, confesses that he pities him—first in an aside and then aloud. Queen Margaret and Clifford, however, have no qualms about tormenting York; together, they stab him to death. To add insult to (fatal) injury, Margaret decrees that York's corpse be decapitated and the severed head placed above the York city gates.

Analysis

Surrounded by his enemies, York expects no mercy—which is just as well because he will receive none. Rather than imploring Queen Margaret to spare his life, he rails against her in one of the more memorable speeches of the play. He begins his diatribe by harping on a favorite theme of his: Margaret's low-born status. Although Margaret's father is technically a king, he is "not so wealthy as an English yeoman"; thus, York argues, it is ridiculous for Margaret to gloat over her enemies, who remain her superiors even in death. The predominant theme of York's speech, however, is that Margaret's cruelty is somehow "unwomanly": women are supposed to be "soft, mild, pitiful, and flexible," but Margaret has a "tiger's heart wrapped in a woman's hide." Shakespeare, by the way, does not necessarily share York's simplistic view of gender roles: his other early creations furnish plenty of counterexamples to the "soft and flexible" stereotype, including the tough-as-nails Katherine (Taming of the Shrew), the diabolically inspired Joan la Pucelle (Henry VI, Part 1), and the ambitious Duchess of Gloucester (Part 2).

Northumberland's inner turmoil reveals a potential rift in the Lancastrian side. He understands, in principle, the need to dispose of York in order to protect King Henry's claim to the throne from its most serious challenger. He even rationalizes the choice to murder York on the spot rather than taking him prisoner, claiming that "it is war's prize to take all vantages/And ten to one is no impeach of valor." In other words this is war and not some kind of chivalric duel: it's not cowardly to win a fight by sheer force of numbers. Nonetheless, his tearful aside shows he has some qualms with Queen Margaret's methods, and he is conspicuously uninvolved in York's actual execution. Northumberland does not, however, go so far as to defect, as so many other characters in this play eventually do; at the very end of the play King Edward describes him as a slain foe, suggesting Northumberland's allegiance to the Lancastrian cause has remained unchanged. Nonetheless, Northumberland's misgivings underscore the shifting nature of loyalty throughout Henry VI, Part 3; they are a momentary tremor, reminding the audience that the play's alliances are built on unsteady ground.

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