My crown is in my heart, not on my head;
Not decked with diamonds and Indian stones,
Nor to be seen: my crown is called content:
A crown it is that seldom kings enjoy.
— Henry VI, Part III, Act III, scene one
I was appalled by the laughable vendetta against Joan of Arc in Part I. I was largely frustrated and bored with Part II, though I found I appreciated it more in retrospect. I’m happy to report that Henry VI, Part III — which I was dreading would be more of the same — has returned me to my full appreciation of the Bard and his prowess as a storyteller.
The original published title of this play was The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York and the Death of Good King Henry the Sixth, with the whole Contention between the two houses of Lancaster and York. That, my friends, is a mouthful, and it suggests a HUGE play. This play delivers on that promise. Where Part II ended with the beginning of the Wars of the Roses at the first Battle of St. Albans in 1455, this one picks up shortly after that and covers the events all the way to the return of Edward IV of York to the throne in 1471 at the Battle of Tewkesbury. In the course of this play, Henry VI is removed from the throne, returned, and dethroned, ultimately killed by Richard in his own bid for the crown. During that time, we get one battle after the next, with all manner of political power play and subterfuge in between. This is a play that would no doubt be exhausting to try to stage properly. And it would make one hell of a big screener if done properly. There would be complications, of course, such as having to stage the previous two for this one to make sense to a modern audience, but it would still be a feat to behold. To think, this is one of Shakespeare’s early plays.
Having struck the first blow in the Wars of the Roses, York arrives in London and ultimately comes to a deal with Henry VI. Henry will remain king, but upon his death, the kingdom will pass to York and his heirs. Queen Margaret is understandably pissed off as this forsakes her son and lineage. York’s heirs — Edward, George, and Richard — are equally peeved, saying that the deal is invalid as Henry’s line is that of a usurper, and to the victor go the spoils. York concedes to his sons, and he and Margaret go to war with Henry at the sidelines for most of the play. York is killed, and Edward pursues the claim to take the throne as Edward IV. Again the factions clash. Henry is captured, and Margaret tries to gain support in France. Edward’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville (or Lady Grey as she’s known here), upsets Warwick’s alliance with France and his honor, so he switches sides and joins with Lancaster along with George. Richard, outwardly loyal to Edward, starts plotting towards the throne from within. George switches sides again, then Edward kills Warwick, imprisons Margaret, and kills Henry’s son Edward. Richard heads to the Tower of London and kills Henry, whose last breath predicts that thousands will suffer from Richard’s deeds. Lady Grey gives birth to an heir, and Edward’s reign seems secure, but Richard is still plotting.
Need a scorecard? Welcome to the Wars of the Roses. Shakespeare made it easy to understand, especially if you’re fortunate enough to see this performed as intended, as opposed to simply reading the script. This play is, to date, the most complex of any I’ve ever read of his work. I won’t say it’s the best, but as mentioned, it’s certainly a good deal better in my humble opinion than the previous two installments. Pound for pound, I still think his later entries (Richard II through Henry V, which chronicle events before this series) are finer works. Still, it’s difficult to argue the intensity of this one.
By now, I’ve beaten the proverbial dead horse on how the Bard is calling out all of England’s problems in his own time and placing them squarely at Queen Elizabeth’s feet. This play does so by addressing the aspects inherent with civil war. To the Bard, civil war is an unnatural state. For countrymen to fight one another is against God in his eyes, and it signifies a soft and wavering power of the monarch, as depicted by the paper crown Margaret gives to York before he’s killed. For Shakespeare, this unnatural state kicked off when Richard II was deposed by Henry IV, unleashing a multi-generational curse. By the time of this play, Henry VI is a weak king, and his queen is out on the battlefield, something Shakespeare sees as a sign of just how unnatural things are. It’s a slap in the face to Elizabeth. To add power to the slap, Margaret taunts York with a handkerchief soaked in the blood of his youngest son, Rutland. Likewise, Clifford accuses Henry of unnatural behavior by passing the throne to York, thus disinheriting his own son, Prince Edward.
In a strong society of this era, the throne is the power. That was the Middle Ages. In Shakespeare’s time — the Renaissance — we see the rise of a new kind of individual: the self-empowered. These people make their own way, disturbing God’s natural order in the process. Margaret and Richard exemplify this on both sides of the war, ensuring that there will be no peace. These two will persist into the next play in the series, completing the Wars of the Roses.
Where those are self-empowered, there will be betrayal. Social bonds unravel. Family ties no longer bind. Allegiances are shifty. This is civil war as depicted in the play. A very different kind of civil war persisted in Shakespeare’s time: the Reformation. The throne was secure for now, but Elizabeth had no heir, and Protestant vs. Catholic was guaranteed to tear the country apart according to the Bard’s eye, especially if a protestant remained on the throne. He couldn’t know what was coming after Stuarts take the throne, of course, and he was still very much a product of his time. That we humans keep finding new ways to undermine ourselves by ignoring the same old lessons… this is why Shakespeare’s plays will echo into eternity in spite of their author.
Richard III is the grand finale of The Hollow Crown cycle when the plays are arranged into chronological order by event as I tend to do for maximum understanding. Everything in the Henry VI plays leads to that shining jewel in the Bard’s repertoire. Richard is one of the great villains in all of drama. I love that in this final Henry VI play we see him take the role of antihero first, crossing the line into villainy slowly and by deliberate undertaking, ultimately killing off the title character here so as to claim his own titled play along with his crown in the next play. He’s an excellent foil for Henry, nearly the polar opposite in every respect. It makes us ask the question: to be a good monarch, does that mean one must sacrifice being a good person? Or is this simply how it must be when the kingdom is set adrift against God’s will as the Bard sees it? We may never have an answer, but that, too, is part of what makes Shakespeare’s plays so enduring.