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Henry VI, Part 3 | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Henry VI, Part 3 | Context


Wars of the Roses

Henry VI, Part 3 dramatizes roughly the first half of the Wars of the Roses (1455–85), covering a nearly 16-year span between the initiating Battle of Saint Albans (May 22, 1455) and the murder of the title character (May 21, 1471). At the end of Part 2 the Yorkists—supporters of the Duke of York in his claim to the English throne—have defeated the forces loyal to King Henry VI, then the reigning monarch. These loyalists are known as Lancastrians since Henry claimed descent from the House of Lancaster. Historically this battle was followed by a fragile four-year truce, with York revolting once more in 1459. In this phase of the fighting, the Lancastrians initially had the upper hand, but York prevailed in 1460 and forced Henry to make him his heir.

Henry's concession, however, did nothing to stop the fighting: angered by the fact that her son would no longer inherit the crown, Queen Margaret (Henry's wife) raised an army of her own and proceeded to defeat the Yorkists at the Battle of Wakefield (December 30, 1460). The Duke of York was slain in this battle, but Edward, his eldest son and heir, continued the struggle as the new duke. A Yorkist victory followed at Mortimer's Cross (February 2, 1461), after which Edward had himself proclaimed King Edward IV. Now on the offensive, the Yorkists dealt the Lancastrians an even more serious blow at the Battle of Towton (March 29, 1461), the bloodiest single engagement of the war. This sent the deposed King Henry into exile, along with his wife, Margaret, and their son, Edward.

After Towton, King Edward IV—York's son, not Henry's—reigned for nearly a decade without a serious Lancastrian threat. His regime was eventually compromised by infighting: the Earl of Warwick—the "Kingmaker" who had been instrumental in winning the crown for Edward—sought to control his protégé and thus govern England by proxy. In 1464 Edward married Elizabeth Woodville (this play's Lady Grey) over Warwick's objections, undermining the earl's efforts to broker a diplomatic marriage with the French. As it became clear that the king would no longer be ruled, Warwick traveled to France, reconciled with the exiled Queen Margaret, and raised an army to unseat Edward. In 1470 Warwick and his allies successfully deposed Edward, clearing the way for Henry to reassume the throne. He reigned for only a few months before the Yorkists, backed by a foreign army of their own, reemerged to challenge his rule once more. A quick series of battles—Barnet (April 14, 1471) and Tewkesbury (May 4, 1471) are the ones portrayed in the play—spelled an end to Lancastrian rule. Henry was taken prisoner, conveyed to the Tower of London, and assassinated on May 21, 1471, just a few weeks after the Battle of Tewkesbury.

As was his usual practice in writing history plays, Shakespeare heavily trimmed the historical timeline, crafting a sort of "director's cut" in which the most important events follow one another with minimal interruptions. As a result there are a few significant gaps that Shakespeare quietly elides in the interest of dramatic pacing. In Act 1, Scene 1 for example, five years of historical time are compressed into one tense and threatening onstage argument: Henry appears to have just arrived from Saint Albans when he is pressured into passing the crown to the Duke of York. The Yorkists, too, seem still to be celebrating their victory at Saint Albans: their swords, as they proclaim, are still red with the blood of the enemies slain there. Richard—the Duke of York's third son—even carries the Duke of Somerset, a sort of grim souvenir from the 1455 battle. As readers rapidly learn, Richard does have a taste for the macabre; still it is unlikely that he has been toting Somerset's head around for five years. Similarly, Shakespeare fast-forwards through the first nine-year period of Edward IV's reign, making it seem as though Edward assumes the throne (1461), marries Lady Grey (1464), and falls captive to Warwick's forces (1469–70) in rapid succession.

Source Material

In portraying these events Shakespeare relied on the English chronicle historians Raphael Holinshed and Edward Hall, whose works also supplied much of the material for Parts 1 and 2. Hall's Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Houses of York and Lancaster (2nd ed., 1550) was the more topical of the two works, focusing on the Wars of the Roses along with its origins and its aftermath. Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Ireland, and Scotland (2nd ed., 1587) is much broader in scope, narrating the history of the British Isles from before the Roman conquest. In fact Holinshed drew much of his account of this era directly from Hall's Union, though he supplemented this with references to other historians.

One major borrowing from Hall and Holinshed is the character of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who rises to power as his brother Edward accedes to the throne. Richard, who will star in the tetralogy's final play (Richard III), is depicted in Part 3 as a ruthless Machiavellian, excluded from polite society because of his deformed appearance. With no ties of love binding him to ordinary concerns of family and friendship, Shakespeare's Richard fixes his eyes on the crown and, one by one, kills off all those who stand in his way—beginning, in this play, with Prince Edward (Act 5, Scene 5) and his father King Henry (Act 5, Scene 6). This unsavory portrayal follows a tradition established by Hall and Holinshed and confirmed by Sir Thomas More, Richard Grafton, and other early historians, all of whom described Richard as essentially evil incarnate.

Modern researchers generally pronounce Richard complicit in Henry's murder, even if he did not actually wield the fatal knife. However, they generally accord Edward a substantial share of the blame as well—he, not Richard, was the reigning monarch when Henry VI died. Shakespeare glosses over Edward's responsibility by having Richard sneak offstage to commit the bloody act. Moreover, scholars are unlikely to take other aspects of the chroniclers' accounts at face value. "Shakespeare's Richard," explained Oxford historian Paulina Kewes in a 2013 interview, "is a physically misshapen, tyrannical usurper ... But scholars today dismiss this as the product of Tudor propaganda."

Textual History

Unusual for a Shakespearean work, the first known printing of Henry VI, Part 3 was neither a folio nor a quarto but an octavo—a format even smaller, cheaper, and more portable than the popular quarto. This edition, dated 1595, was titled The True Tragedie of Richard Duke of York, and the Death of Good King Henrie the Sixt; it is thought to be based on a memorial reconstruction; that is, an actor's recollection of the performed play. A more cleanly formatted but otherwise unchanged quarto (Q2) appeared in 1600, followed two decades later by an additional quarto (Q3, 1619) with more substantial revisions. The First Folio edition, published in 1623, is much longer than any of the early octavos or quartos; it serves as the basis for most modern editions.

Although the play did not appear in print until 1595, scholars generally believe that Henry VI, Part 3 was written no later than 1593, and perhaps as early as 1590. This range of dates is based on an apparent reference to the play in Greene's Groats-Worth of Wit, a 1592 satirical pamphlet that lampoons Shakespeare as an arrogant upstart who thinks he can compete with London's established playwrights. In his sendup of Shakespeare's work, Robert Greene describes the Bard as having a "tiger's heart wrapped in a player's [i.e., actor's] hide," closely paraphrasing a line from Act 1, Scene 4 of this play. Much remains uncertain about the order in which the Henry VI trilogy was composed, but scholars generally see Part 3 as a sequel to Part 2.

Shakespeare, it is now widely recognized, collaborated with other playwrights throughout his career. The Henry VI plays, composed shortly after Shakespeare's arrival in London, are thought to represent one such joint effort. According to the most widely endorsed theory, the plays were co-written with Christopher Marlowe, an Elizabethan tragedian whose most famous creations include Doctor Faustus and Tamburlaine the Great; editors of the New Oxford Shakespeare (2016) explicitly endorse this view by naming Marlowe as a coauthor for the trilogy. Curators of the British Library's Shakespeare collections suggest poet George Peele (author of the bizarrely comic Old Wives' Tale) as another possible collaborator.

Stage and Screen Productions

Apart from the date provided by Greene's quotation, little information is available concerning early performances of Henry VI, Part 3. In modern times, too, performances of the play remain infrequent: critics and directors generally agree that the Henry VI trilogy fares best when performed as a complete series, an undertaking that naturally requires a greater commitment of resources than staging an individual play. For James Cooray Smith (New Statesman, 2016), the First Tetralogy plays (the Henry VI trilogy plus Richard III) not only "work better as a cycle" but "depend on the others within their own tetralogy to a greater extent than Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V do." Varsha Panjwani, reviewing Nick Bagnall's 2013 production of the trilogy, argues an additional benefit of staging the three Henry VI plays together: when handled by a capable director, each play can highlight a different aspect of a central underlying theme. In Bagnall's rendition, for example, "each of the three plays ... emphasise[s] a different way of engaging with the past."

Because of their great length, the plays of the Henry VI trilogy are often abridged in performance, sometimes quite heavily. Peter Hall and John Barton, cofounders of the Royal Shakespeare Company, made substantial cuts to the Shakespearean play text in The Wars of the Roses (1963), which was further adapted for television in 1965. Similarly, in Adrian Noble's The Plantagenets (1988), Parts 2 and 3 are melded together into a single installment titled The Rise of Edward IV. Both the Hall/Barton and the Noble production incorporate material from Richard III as well as the Henry VI plays; this allows for full development of a character whose villainous career is just getting its start in Part 3. More recently the text of Henry VI, Part 3 has featured prominently in Dominic Cooke's television miniseries The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses (2016). This adaptation condenses the Henry VI plays into the first two parts of a trilogy, with an abridged Richard III serving as the third and final episode.

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