I wish I could finish off my series of posts on Henry VI with as much enthusiasm as I had for the second play, but 3 Henry VI (written 1595) was simply not as enjoyable as 2 Henry VI was.
In the first place, 3 Henry VI is simply violent from the first scene, when Richard Duke of Gloucester enters with the Duke of Somerset’s head and York and Montague compare bloody swords. The play also has lots of betrayal: no one can trust each other, and promises are broken from one scene to the next. “An oath is of no moment,” says Richard Duke of Gloucester in Act 1, scene 2. The leaders themselves are unsure who they want to follow and they frequently change loyalties from one king to the other. It should be noted that the cast of characters includes King Henry VI and King Edward IV. Obviously, there is a bit of confusion as to who is actually ruling England during the years portrayed in this play.
But by focusing on the fragility of power, Shakespeare manages to poignantly touch on the pointlessness of greed and power. Although I disliked King Henry VI in the previous two plays, in this play, his steadfastness is the most enjoyable aspect. He remarks on his life and the pointlessness of war, and the scenes in which he does so are the most memorable of the play. So, while the play does for the majority of the moving action illustrated the ultimate chaos that comes from power and greed, it also draws the other parallel in its quieter, more subtle scenes: the pointlessness of war, the danger with leadership being an inherited calling, and the tragedies associated with betrayal.
King Henry’s soliloquy was the most moving part of the play for me. Although it appears before the climax of the play (in which King Edward IV becomes king and alienates Warwick and Clarence), it seems to me to be a mini-climax for the reader (or audience). I feel the need to quote it here:
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
Forc’d by the tide to combat with the wind;
Now sways it that way, like the selfsame sea
Forc’d 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 poise of this fell war. (II.v.1-13)
This analogy of the sea seems so appropriate, given that in Act V, scene 4, Queen Margaret compares the Lancastrian leaders to a crew of a ship (which of course will shortly thereafter be “wrecked” by the Yorkist armies).
But King Henry has it right. The pointlessness of the changing winds of war are only emphasized further by the two soldiers who approach with dead bodies: one is a son who has killed his father; the other is a father who has killed his only son. As King Henry sits in his hidden place of rest, he sees these two mourning soldiers and wishes the war would simply end: “Wither one rose, and let the other flourish!” (II.v.101). He no longer cares who wins. To me, this was truly heroic. King Henry VI no longer seemed weak in my eyes: he cared for the people as none of the other competing leaders did.
There is more in the play, but King Henry’s scene was the point that I enjoyed most. The violence, the pointlessness, and the changeableness of the people all depressed me. But at least King Henry VI leaves the play as a hero. “…Die, prophet, in thy speech./ For this amongst the rest, was I ordained,” says Richard. “Ay, and for much more slaughter after this. / O God forgive my sins, and pardon thee!” says King Henry VI as he dies. (V.vi.57-60)
I finished 3 Henry VI wishing I had time to reread Richard III, because it left off just as Richard III would be beginning1. I am glad I read Richard III last year: it was superior to these three plays in character development, the developing tragedy and plot, and writing. But I’m also glad I revisited the York and Lancaster families in the Henry VI plays this year. I feel I have a wonderful understanding (albeit from the fictional/Shakespearean perspective) of the War of the Roses. It’s fascinating to see it portrayed in all the drama, and it certainly has convinced me of the pointlessness of war and inherited leadership!
Another post for Allie’s Shakespeare Month.
- 3 Henry VI ends with Henry’s death; Richard III begins with the Lancastrians carrying Henry VI’s body on a bier. ↩