Henry VI, Part 3 | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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

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Summary

Meanwhile, at the palace in London, King Edward IV has been crowned and is hearing petitions from his subjects, with his brothers Richard (now Duke of Gloucester) and George (now Duke of Clarence) at his side. (From this point on, the play text refers to George as Clarence, but Richard—despite his new title—is still known as Richard throughout.) Lady Grey, the widow of a knight, asks Edward to restore her late husband's lands to her. Edward coyly asks for some time to think it over, but Lady Grey insists her suit is urgent. Edward asks Richard and Clarence to give him a moment alone with Lady Grey, and the two dukes step aside.

Now that he has some privacy, Edward somewhat sketchily attempts to put the moves on Lady Grey. He suggests that she may recover her lands if she will perform a "boon" for him. An awkward guessing game ensues, with Edward eventually blurting out, "I aim to lie with thee." Lady Grey is deeply embarrassed by this proposition and refuses the king's advances. Seeing that Lady Grey will never agree to be his mistress, Edward doubles down on his offer and asks her to marry him. At first she thinks this is a cruel joke, but Edward swears he is being sincere. Richard and Clarence step forward, and Edward asks for their opinion of the match. The two make no effort to contain their astonishment. A nobleman arrives to announce that Henry has been taken prisoner, and Edward orders the deposed king to be sent to the tower. All but Richard exit.

Now that he is alone onstage, Richard lets loose with a lengthy speech—the longest soliloquy, in fact, in any Shakespearean play. Announcing his desire to enjoy the "golden time" of kingship in his own right, Richard mutters a curse against his brother Edward, who he hopes will beget no heirs to clutter Richard's path to the throne. In a rare moment of irresolution, Richard thinks of all the people (including those yet unborn) who stand between him and the crown and nearly resigns himself to seeking some other goal in life. Then, however, he remembers that he is too deformed to "deal in [the] soft laws" of love and too hard hearted to enjoy life's other pleasures. He decides that he will find no satisfaction except in the pursuit of power.

Analysis

At the beginning of this scene, everything is looking rosy (no pun intended) for the House of York. Edward is king, his brothers have been suitably installed as dukes, and Henry (though the Yorkists do not know this yet) has been captured. Naturally Edward proceeds to throw away these advantages by arranging a hasty and politically disadvantageous marriage to the first attractive woman he sees. Readers of the Henry VI trilogy may remember that King Henry lost his kingdom in a very similar way: though not as much of a playboy as Edward, Henry was talked into an impulsive marriage to Margaret of Anjou after he had already promised to marry a different French noblewoman.

Richard, meanwhile, finally gets his "villain song" moment, and he puts on quite a show. In this outsized soliloquy, Richard warns the audience that there is no love lost between him and his brothers—especially Edward, who he hopes will die of a wasting disease before producing an heir. For Richard, Edward and Clarence are mere "bodies" to be cleared out of the way, the sooner the better. Realizing he cannot simply start butchering family members, however, Richard decides to rely on his talent for deceit:

I'll play the orator as well as Nestor,
Deceive more slyly than Ulysses could,
And, like a Sinon, take another Troy.

In aligning himself with these three mythological figures—all renowned for their persuasive speeches—Richard is making rather grand claims for his own oratorical skills. Future acts (and a subsequent play) will bear this out: more than anything else it is Richard's eloquence that enables him to plot and execute the coup of the century. Richard's murkiest scam, however, will have to wait until Richard III, in which he manages to turn Edward against Clarence by means of a sham prophecy.

One image in particular bears further explanation. When Richard likens himself to "a chaos, or an unlicked bear-whelp/That carries no impression like the dam," he is drawing upon a colorful folk belief, discredited but still remembered in Shakespeare's time. Bear cubs, it was said, were shapeless masses of fur when they were born; the mother bear had to literally lick the cub into the familiar Teddy Graham shape. On the one hand this is a striking way for Richard to refer to his physical handicaps, underscoring his sense of his own ugliness. On the other hand the image also reinforces one of Richard's greatest strengths—his seemingly endless ability to adapt to the needs of the moment.

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