Henry VI, Part 3 | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Henry VI, Part 3 | Themes


Absent King

Henry VI, Part 3 dramatizes the end stages of a slow decline: unable or unwilling to rule, King Henry eventually finds the crown forcibly seized from his head. This outcome is foreshadowed in the previous two installments of the trilogy, which show Henry as too indecisive and unworldly to have the makings of a good monarch. In Part 1 Henry is a mere child; his inability to command respect is understandable since all his chief courtiers are his uncles and great-uncles. The trouble becomes more evident in Part 2, however, as Henry's failure to govern extends long past the age of majority. In that play Henry retreats into religion as an escape from the complex ethical quandaries he faces as king.

In Part 3 Henry reaps what he has sown—or more accurately he realizes to his chagrin that his entire field is overgrown with weeds. His reaction to the Yorkist crisis is not so different from his response in Part 2, but now he both physically and mentally isolates himself from the world around him. This is evident in the opening scene: Henry hates confrontation so much that he disinherits his own son, then tries to sneak away before his (understandably irate) wife finds out. When the civil war resumes, as it quickly does, Queen Margaret realizes her husband is more of a liability than an asset militarily: like the kid in the outfield who sits down to pick at the grass, Henry simply does not have his eye on the ball. Consequently he is more likely to get hurt than to make a genuine contribution. A king must be far "out in left field" to stand on a molehill in a combat zone (Act 2, Scene 5) and daydream about raising sheep.

In Act 3 Henry is seen wandering in Scotland and northern England as a fugitive—a symbolic mirror for his mental state. With his trusty prayer book, he roams the northern woods and complains to nobody in particular about the loss of his kingdom (which he did not want to rule when he had it). After his capture (Act 3, Scene 1) Henry spends remarkably little time onstage for the title character of a Shakespearean history (compare the later-written Henry V, where the king seems to be everywhere). Although his right to rule is a central issue of the war, Henry has been permanently upstaged by his wife, Queen Margaret, and his successor King Edward IV, who are the true leaders of their respective factions.

Shifting Loyalties

Changes of faction and allegiance permeate Henry VI, Part 3. From the first scene onward, noblemen leave Lancaster for York and vice versa in every act of the play. Some, like Northumberland and Westmorland (Act 1, Scene 1), merely seek to wash their hands of the whole conflict, but most are responding either to a crisis of principle or to a perceived personal slight. For Warwick (Act 3, Scene 3), Edward's contemptuous treatment is reason enough to abandon one king for another; Clarence, in Act 4, leaves the Yorkist faction because his brother is growing reckless and egotistical, but he rejoins in Act 5, apparently having rediscovered the value of family ties. Even Henry, in his way, faces a test of loyalties, ultimately choosing to spare his kingdom from civil war rather than to do justice to his wife and son. (This, at any rate, is what he believes he is doing.)

Although the play's characters shuttle back and forth between the warring houses, they do not generally like being reminded of this fact: for these medieval warriors, oaths are still sacred and "disloyalty" is a dirty word. Thus, when he wants to get under Warwick's skin, King Edward refers to the earl as "wind-changing Warwick," alluding to his abandonment of the Yorkist faction in Act 3. Prince Edward, captured by Yorkist forces in Act 5, Scene 5, tries a similar tactic on Clarence. Clarence is so piqued by this insult that (with the help of his brothers) he stabs the prince to death. In the world of the Henry VI plays, one of the easiest ways to make an enemy is to accuse someone of lacking a moral compass.

The few major characters who remain on the same side of the fighting are generally loyal to principles rather than persons. Clifford, for example, is not so much a supporter of Henry or Margaret as he is a kind of wind-up action figure who kills, kills, and kills some more. He clearly has his qualms about Henry's leadership: he says so in Act 1, Scene 1 when he momentarily abandons the king, and he complains more forcefully about the king in his death scene (Act 2, Scene 6). But for Clifford, any distaste for Henry's policies (or apparent lack thereof) is vastly outweighed by his hatred for the House of York. Richard, similarly, has no personal loyalties to speak of: he is a mercenary who, for the moment, sees more advantage in fighting on his brother's side of the war.

Rise of the Antihero

One of the most compelling characters in the First Tetralogy is Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who is as vicious as King Henry is virtuous—and as iron willed as the king is weak. There are many ways, in fact, in which Richard could be considered a mirror image of King Henry. One man would gladly give away his kingdom if he could only live in peace; the other is willing to stir up war and bloodshed for a shot at the crown. One carries a prayer book, the other a dagger. Yet there is much more connecting Richard and Henry than a simple match-up of opposites can reveal.

A popular adage, often credited to Edmund Burke, holds that "the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." Although "good" and "evil" are somewhat simplistic terms to apply to the complexities of politics and warfare, the basic sentiment is repeatedly borne out by the events of Henry VI, Part 3, with Richard's "triumph" the strongest illustration of all. In the earlier Henry VI plays, the spread of self-seeking Machiavellianism is checked by the presence of patriotism, chivalry, and generosity—qualities idolized in the late Henry V and embodied by Lord Talbot (Part 1) and Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester (Part 2). Part 3, in contrast, shows the result when the truly virtuous are sidelined by those interested only in revenge (Lord Clifford) or personal gain (King Edward IV, Warwick, and many others).

In such a scenario, it is entirely understandable that antiheroes should flourish: those who profess no allegiance to any ideal but are able to change their identity to suit the times. Richard gleefully announces himself as just such a person in his star-turn soliloquy of Act 3:

I can add colors to the chameleon,
Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,
And set the murderous Machiavel to school.
Can I do this and cannot get a crown?

In a more peaceful time, with a stable order of succession, the answer to Richard's rhetorical question would be simple: you can't "get" a crown, only inherit it. With the Yorkist uprising, however, the crown has become the prize in an ongoing game of violence and intrigue. The amoral Richard, with his strong stomach for bloodshed and his chameleon-like powers of flattery and deceit, is a natural contender in such a contest. To be fair, much can be said in praise of Henry: his peaceable nature, his willingness to compromise, and his devotion to study and religion could all be considered virtues in someone not tasked with ruling a kingdom. Against all this, however, must be weighed a disturbing fact: Henry's well-meaning inaction prepares the way for Richard's diabolical action.

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