Henry VI, Part 3 | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Henry VI, Part 3 | Act 2, Scene 5 | Summary

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Summary

The Battle of Towton is now at its most violent, and the outcome is far from certain. King Henry comes onstage and, in a long soliloquy, comments on the horrors of war and the inevitable sorrows of human life. He sits down on a molehill and complains that even poor shepherds are happier than "kings that fear their subjects' treachery."

A young man of the Lancastrian faction comes onstage, bearing the body of an enemy he has slain. The dead man, he soon discovers, is his father, who was "pressed" (conscripted) into the Duke of York's forces. This news leads Henry, who is still onstage, to weep along with the young man. On a different part of the stage, an older man enters, likewise carrying the corpse of an enemy. In searching the body for money, he makes the sad discovery that he has killed his own son. The two mourning soldiers exit the stage, leaving Henry alone once more. The dialogue tags in this episode are potentially confusing: the young man is referred to as "Son" and the older man as "Father," but these words describe their relationship to the two dead men—not to each other.

Queen Margaret, Exeter, and Prince Edward rush onstage amid the noise of combat. The three inform Henry that the tide of the battle has turned against the Lancastrians; he must retreat now if he wishes to survive. Seeing no other option, the king flees the battlefield alongside his wife and son.

Analysis

Towton was without question the bloodiest battle of the Wars of the Roses; some modern historians describe it as the bloodiest ever fought on English soil. In this scene Henry sees some of the carnage up close. He is, of all the characters who come onstage in this act, perhaps the only one who is appropriately horrified by the wholesale slaughter going on around him. At the same time Henry, with his delicate conscience and utter distaste for violence of any sort, is at least partly responsible for the suffering he sees around him. By refusing to grasp the reins of the English state, he has allowed the Yorkist rebellion to germinate, then blossom into full-on civil war. He is even less capable of effective leadership on the battlefield: Margaret and Clifford, he complains, "have chid me from the battle" so he will not interfere. The king, in a word, has been benched.

Henry's response to all this is sadly predictable: "To whom God will, there be the victory," he declares, having evidently learned nothing about how right and wrong work here on earth. After this he retreats into a daydream about being a shepherd, living in ease and simplicity far away from the concerns of rule. This is not the first time Henry has wished he could quit being king: in Part 2, awaiting news of Jack Cade's Rebellion, he lamented, "Was never subject longed to be a king/As I do long and wish to be a subject!" In this play Henry gets his wish, but not in a way anybody would want: rather than living freely as a "homely swain," the deposed Henry becomes first a fugitive, then a prisoner, then ultimately a target for the assassin's blade.

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