The Roughly Chronological Re-Read Week 4: Henry VI, Part 3

Date:  1591-ish.


First read: 2005-ish.


Productions seen: No full productions, just scenes at drama school.


Productions worked on: As above.


Edition I’m using: Signet Classics. Same book, different week.

Cheating by having one book for all three plays. Don't tell anyone.




  • I will not get over-excited and make this all about Richard III. I will not get over-excited and make this all about Richard III. I will not get over-excited and make this all about Richard III.
  • Earlier on today I was replying to comments on the last post and something that Bee Dice said prompted me to start thinking about where this play comes not only in the chronology of Shakespeare’s plays, but also of Elizabeth I’s reign. By the time this play was written Elizabeth was well into her 50s and it would have been very clear that she wasn’t going to produce an heir. She also hadn’t named one, nor would she. The sense of trepidation must have been considerable, given the turbulence that had preceded Elizabeth’s rule. I wonder how that coloured the play for the original audiences?
  • I like that things start to get a bit more personal in this play. It’s not all about power for power’s sake, the grievances aren’t just professional, there are some serious personal wrongs to be avenged! Margaret in particular takes Henry’s capitulation very badly because it disinherits and disempowers her son, something that might be a bit of a sensitive issue for the daughter of Rene of Anjou.  I absolutely love her speech to York in 1.4. Such a terrible idea, such bad politics… such a beautiful theatrical moment. I’d also say it’s the most neatly-written of the speeches so far. She talks a little too much, but it’s in Margaret’s nature to shoot her mouth off and it’s just enough to make Edward IV’s revenge against her inevitable.
  • Speaking of Edward IV, fuck that guy. I am really not Team York. I don’t think I’m on Team Lancaster either, to be honest, but I find myself with a certain amount of sympathy for Henry VI at least. He’s a terrible king, it’s true, but this is the trouble with monarchy – you get whoever you get, whether they want to be there or not. It’s why it’s such a deeply unethical system. But at least if Henry had been allowed to go off and join a monastery he’d have made a good monk. Edward IV, wherever you put him, would still be a gadgie. (NB: I am not talking about the historical Edward IV here, only the Shakespearean one. I believe that historically he was a competent king who liked books, but Shakespeare’s Edward deserved to have most of the other characters in the play line up and slap him. If this play is anti-Yorkist propaganda, it seems fairly effective.)
  • Structurally, this piece seemed a bit better balanced than its predecessor. It’s still on the crazy side, with a disproportionate quantity of alarums and excursions, but there are more subtle shifts in tone, more moments of (admittedly pitch black) humour mixed into the death, devastation and dethronings. It’s perhaps a bit heavy on the action in the first act, but I suppose that makes sense since it’s a sequel and we do start in media res. Then again, the first act of Part 2 was also insane, so it’s quite possible that it’s just an early career writer not having found his groove yet.
  • Once again, Mark had the Arden and I had the Signet, and we noticed quite a few differences between the two. My copy was missing lines in the first act (I’ll check exactly where later), and the Arden had Clifford making his final speech with an arrow through his neck while mine just indicated that he was wounded. It is quite a lot of talking for someone with an arrow through his neck. Just saying.
  • Richard. RICHARD. This is where I start getting excited. There are theories about the possible existence of an earlier version of Hamlet and you could argue that there are shades of the Prince of Denmark in the hesitant Henry, and there are lots of moments in this and Part 2 that seem to reappear in more developed form in Macbeth, but in Richard we have a definite example of a character who must have stuck around in Shakespeare’s imagination for a while. And what a character! The first of the great villains and we actually get to see him take shape. His acerbic wit is chiefly responsible for correcting the drama/humour balance in this play (in as much as it is corrected), and it’s fascinating to see Shakespeare take what looks like his first crack at the opening monologue from Richard III in Act 3 Scene 2.
  • I’m going to stop myself there. I don’t want to go off on one about Richard when his own play is coming up in a few weeks, and I need to keep this brief because there are applications to be done, money to be earned and forms to fill in. So this post ends here, perhaps to be lengthened when I don’t have a million pressing deadlines.


NEXT WEEK: Titus Andronicus

2 responses to “The Roughly Chronological Re-Read Week 4: Henry VI, Part 3”

  1. Much of what I said about 2 Henry VI goes equally so here: this is, for the most part, one long, absurd shouting match, which reaches its apotheosis with the young captured Prince’s studious “Suppose that I am now my father’s mouth” (V.5:18), of cosmic and comic inconsequentiality. The characters rarely stray from this script, although to their credit they do it in rather admirable ways, from the Queen’s rallying speech (cf V.4:7-8) to the titular King’s denouncements of nobility (II.5:21-22, II.2:49-53). But mostly they just yell flowery language at each other about who oughta be King, which might explain why not one of them gave any explanation for any of their radical shifts in allegiance. This whole charade is interrupted only once, by the bit character Hastings, whose “Away with scrupulous wit! now arms must rule” (IV.7:61) is an apt description of what actually underlies these motivations.

    Appropriately, this is followed by the future Richard III’s prophetic “And fearless minds climb soonest unto crowns.” Richard’s villainy sure is plentiful, but consider that this may just as well have been spoken by the lusty Edward IV, who gives us “But for a kingdom any oath may be broken / I would break a thousand oaths to reign one year” (I.2:16-17), or the Queen, who rather outdoes them both by offering a napkin stained with his dead son’s blood to the captured York. Hell, even Warwick outdoes himself by offering to chop off his one hand and fling it with the other into Richard’s face. Villainy is cheap here, and why wouldn’t it be? It is no coincidence that, with the exception of King John, Shakespeare’s histories give us an almost direct line from Richard II to Henry VIII, a span of two centuries centered on the tumultuous War of the Roses. A great topic for storytelling, but humane drama is hard to sustain, and certainly not on the back of characters with little inwardness.

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