Shakespeare Saturday: Henry VI, Part 3

The sands are numbered that makes up my life. Here I must stay, and here my life must end.

In the beginning of 3 Henry VI, the dust has not settled – in fact, this is where the chaos truly begins to rule. This is a play about revenge and changing fortunes and brothers turning against one another, the horrors of the war making men into monsters.

After the Battle of St Albans, the Yorkists force the king to make an oath that the Duke of York will become his heir over his own son Prince Edward; in return Henry asks that they end the war, to which York agrees. The King’s decision disinherit Edward causes Queen Margaret to abandon him; she raises an army of her own, gaining the support of Lord Clifford, whose father was killed in St Albans, and the battle rages on. In the battle of Wakefield, Clifford avenges his father by killing York’s youngest son (Rutland is 12 in the play, while in real life he was a young man of 17), and later captures the wounded York himself. He is hoisted on a molehill and mocked by Margaret and Clifford, who put a paper crown on his head and wipe his face with a napkin stained with young Rutland’s blood; York is resigned to his own fate, but curses Clifford for killing a mere child (“Alas, it was a piteous deed!”). Margaret’s army and Lancastrians are victorious in the second battle of St Albans, but the Yorkists regroup and win the battle of Towton, dethroning Henry, killing Clifford, and driving Margaret to France to seek for support for her son. As Edward is proclaimed king, his brother Richard breaks the fourth wall and reveals to the audience for the first time his ambition to be king himself.

The Yorkist ally Warrick goes to France to see Louis XI, hoping to secure a marriage between the French king’s sister-in-law, Lady Bona of Savoy, and Edward. In the court he not only meets Margaret and her supporters Somerset and Oxford, but also receives the news that Edward has (rather hastily) decided to marry Elizabeth Woodville, Lady Grey; in rage, he defects to the Lancastrian side, as does in England George of Clarence, Edward’s brother. Warrick returns to England, Edward is captured and Henry returned to the throne. Richard of Gloucester rescues his brother, and the Yorkists are victorious from there on; Warrick dies in the battle of Barnet, and Henry is captured and imprisoned again. In the following battle of Tewkesbury, the Yorkists deal the decisive blow – they capture Queen Margaret and Prince Edward, and of the remaining Lancastrians, Somerset is executed and Oxford imprisoned. The young prince refuses to acknowledge Edward as the king, and the three brothers – Edward, George and Richard – stab him to death, thus fulfilling their father’s words.

My ashes, as the phoenix, may bring forth
A bird that will revenge upon you all

As Edward and the Yorkists celebrate, believing the wars to be over, Richard slips away to London and kills King Henry who, as he dies, predicts

that many a thousand,
Which now mistrust no parcel of my fear,
And many an old man’s sigh and many a widow’s,
And many an orphan’s water-standing eye–
Men for their sons, wives for their husbands,
And orphans for their parents timeless death–
Shall rue the hour that ever thou wast born.

As the newly crowned king, Edward embraces his infant son and celebrates with his court, unaware that already the countdown has began – Richard has set his sights on the throne, and will stop at nothing to achieve his goal, proclaiming to have no conscience, no remorse, no sense of wrong-doing in his pursuit. He acknowledges what Henry has said to be true:

I came into the world with my legs forward:
the midwife wonder’d and the women cried
‘O, Jesus bless us, he is born with teeth!’

He almost offers this as excuse or an explanation – his nature is the result of the unfortunate circumstances of his birth and of his damaged body. He was born with teeth and therefore must bite.

This play has a number of great moments; the most devastating being Act II, Scene V; King Henry is horrified by the battle around him, and also by his unwitting, unwilling part in them. To show the whole horror of the civil war, Shakespeare then shows the king the son who finds the body of the father he has killed, and the father who has killed his own son. Henry understands the true cost of the war – the lords battle for he crown and innocent people, who are caught up in it all, bear the price.

O piteous spectacle! O bloody times!
Whiles lions war and battle for their dens,
Poor harmless lambs abide their enmity.
Weep, wretched man, I’ll aid thee tear for tear;
And let our hearts and eyes, like civil war,
Be blind with tears, and break o’ercharged with grief.

There are no true moral winners in this conflict. The terrible deeds committed by the warring lords don’t cancel each other out, but rather add to the horror, and every character who accuses someone else of something, anything, is guilty of the same sin. The king – the good man, the wise, pious man – himself is guilty of lacking the strength (and maybe courage) to stop the conflict, to stop his wife, his courtiers, his men. There’s almost a sense of inevitability – with these particular people, these particular events must and will unfold, for it is in their nature.

Is it any good?
2 Henry VI is probably better, but this installment isn’t too shabby either – there are some great speeches, some greatly moving moments, some moments of great revelation. There’s also a great deal gruesome violence, and the open ending is a bit of anticlimax – Shakespeare’s mind was obviously already in Richard III, where the Contention was probably going all along. It must have been the popularity of this play that would bring Shakespeare to write Part 1 before he gets to the final part of the Tetralogue.

Fun fact:
Lady Bona, whom Edward didn’t marry, later became the Duchess of Milan and, after her husband was assassinated, served as regent for four years. She commissioned the famous Sforza Book of Hours:
hoursWhat say thou?

There are too many good things to count, but King Henry’s soliloquy in Act II, Scene 5 is my favourite. Weary of the fighting, drowning in the sense that he has, and never has had, control over his own life, he talks about the simple life and simple concerns of “a simple swain”. Henry VI is shown as weak through Part 2, but I think that in Part 3 Shakespeare not only shows the root of his weakness (his extreme reluctance for being the ruler and his moral horror of the position), but also the true strength of his character.

This battle fares like to the morning’s war,
When dying clouds contend with growing light,
What time the shepherd, blowing of his nails,
Can neither call it perfect day nor night.
Now sways it this way, like a mighty sea
Forced by the tide to combat with the wind;
Now sways it that way, like the selfsame sea
Forced to retire by fury of the wind:
Sometime the flood prevails, and then the wind;
Now one the better, then another best;
Both tugging to be victors, breast to breast,
Yet neither conqueror nor conquered:
So is the equal of this fell war.
Here on this molehill will I sit me down.
To whom God will, there be the victory!
For Margaret my queen, and Clifford too,
Have chid me from the battle; swearing both
They prosper best of all when I am thence.
Would I were dead! if God’s good will were so;
For what is in this world but grief and woe?
O God! methinks it were a happy life,
To be no better than a homely swain;
To sit upon a hill, as I do now,
To carve out dials quaintly, point by point,
Thereby to see the minutes how they run,
How many make the hour full complete;
How many hours bring about the day;
How many days will finish up the year;
How many years a mortal man may live.
When this is known, then to divide the times:
So many hours must I tend my flock;
So many hours must I take my rest;
So many hours must I contemplate;
So many hours must I sport myself;
So many days my ewes have been with young;
So many weeks ere the poor fools will ean:
So many years ere I shall shear the fleece:
So minutes, hours, days, months, and years,
Pass’d over to the end they were created,
Would bring white hairs unto a quiet grave.
Ah, what a life were this! how sweet! how lovely!
Gives not the hawthorn-bush a sweeter shade
To shepherds looking on their silly sheep,
Than doth a rich embroider’d canopy
To kings that fear their subjects’ treachery?
O, yes, it doth; a thousand-fold it doth.
And to conclude, the shepherd’s homely curds,
His cold thin drink out of his leather bottle.
His wonted sleep under a fresh tree’s shade,
All which secure and sweetly he enjoys,
Is far beyond a prince’s delicates,
His viands sparkling in a golden cup,
His body couched in a curious bed,
When care, mistrust, and treason waits on him.

Best character?
I really like Henry in this. He almost has a magisterial quality in this play; he’s the man who has resigned to his fate and gained wisdom from this resignation. I also love his scene in the end with Richard of Gloucester – the classical allusions (calling his son, whose ill-timed defiance gets him killed, Icarus), counting the bad omens at the birth of Richard, predicting his dark future:

The owl shriek’d at thy birth,–an evil sign;
The night-crow cried, aboding luckless time;
Dogs howl’d, and hideous tempest shook down trees;
The raven rook’d her on the chimney’s top,
And chattering pies in dismal discords sung.


Another BBC Shakespeare from 1983. The playground sets have been charred black, there’s some fake snow and some artful slow motion sequences, the costumes are all dark; the concept is not very telegenic, but it works and would be brilliant on stage. Peter Benson as Henry VI aces it in this installment, and Bernard Hill is quite excellent as York, as is Brian Protheroe as his son Edward (they were btw both born in 1944). Julia Foster is possibly worse in this than she was in Part 2; more common fishwife (as the saying used to go) than a French she-wolf, chewing the scenery even more rabidly. Not sure about Ron Cook as Richard yet.

I haven’t watched the Hollow Crown version yet so cannot comment on that.

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