Henry VI Part 3


Richard Caton Woodville: The Battle of Towton (detail), 1922

Apparently, February here at Evening All Afternoon is all Renaissance, all the time. I promise excursions into the eighteenth and even the twentieth centuries in the near future. In the meantime, let's take a look at the third (or second, if he indeed didn't write Part 1) installment in Shakespeare's Henry VI trilogy—which entire trilogy is in turn the set-up for Richard III.

In the third play, then, the moral fog I mentioned in my previous post has hardened into place, as both York and Lancaster claimants for the throne have committed some truly despicable acts in their bids for the throne. More than that, as Jenny so amusingly points out, the struggle for control of the kingdom has degenerated into something like a farce. In the opening scene, for example, Henry and his minions run into Edward (now Duke of York, since his father is dead) and his minions at the House of Parliament, where Edward is sitting on the throne. The two parties engage in a pissing match that strikes one as anything but regal:

          KING HENRY
Thou factious Duke of York, descend my throne,
And kneel for grace and mercy at my feet;
I am thy sovereign.
          DUKE OF YORK
                              Thou'rt deceived; I'm thine.
          DUKE OF EXETER
For shame, come down: he made thee Duke of York.
          DUKE OF YORK
'Twas my inheritance, as the earldom was.
          DUKE OF EXETER
Thy father was a traitor to the crown.
Exeter, thou art a traitor to the crown
In following this usurping Henry.
Whom should he follow but his natural king?
True, Clifford, and that's Richard duke of York.

"No, you're a traitor to the crown!" "No, YOU'RE a traitor to the crown!" And so on. This kind of petty squabbling is more convincing, to me, when the teenage Montague and Capulet thugs do it in Romeo and Juliet, although here it could very well be a comment on the maturity level of those that ought to be ruling the country. In any case, one is quite relieved when their bickering gives way to battle, since at least the fighting provides opportunities for dramatic death scenes and further "kingly" behavior such as kicking around the dead body of your enemy while you make fun of his inability to answer (the York boys to Lord Clifford), or taunting your captured enemy with a handkerchief soaked in his dead son's blood, before beheading him and sticking his head on a pike on London Bridge. Queen Margaret's fantastic baiting of the elder Duke of York:

Alas poor York! But that I hate thee deadly,
I should lament thy miserable state,
I prithee, grieve, to make me merry, York
Stamp, rave and fret, that I may sing and dance.
What! hath thine fiery heart so parcht thine entrails
That not a tear can fall for Rutland's death?
Why art thou patient, man? thou shouldst be mad...

What a deliciously evil speech. Margaret, in fact, is probably the most interesting thing to me in the entire Henry VI trilogy, both in terms of its inner logic, and in terms of earlier and later figures of whom she reminds me.

The daughter of a destitute French king whom the now-late Suffolk convinced Henry VI to marry, Margaret turns out to be far more forceful than her king husband: in one scene, for example, she lets Henry tag along to the scene of a battle they're about to fight with the Yorkists, only to tell him, in essence "You only get in the way when you try to fight alongside me; why don't you sit quietly over there under that tree?" She then proceeds to command the army while he bewails the bloodshed all around him. Not only is she a good military commander; she's also by far the most verbally adroit character in these plays, meeting her match only as Richard Duke of Gloster (later Richard III, of the silver tongue) comes into his own toward the end of Part 3. Like Clytemnestra in Aeschylus's Agamemnon, she talks circles around everyone else, and even when one knows she is being utterly duplicitous, one is still halfway convinced, against one's will, by her words. In this scene from Part 2, for example, she's laying a totally unreasonable guilt trip on her husband, saying in effect "I can't believe you're mourning for your dead friend whom we just discovered murdered in his bed; don't I mean anything to you?" Especially despicable given that she herself conspired to murder the duke; yet the gorgeousness of her language can't be denied.

Was I for this nigh wrackt upon the sea,
And twice by awkward winds from England's bank
Drove back again unto my native clime?
What boded this but well-forewarning winds
Did seem to say,—'Seek not a scorpion's nest,
Nor set no footing on this unkind shore?'
What did I then but cursed the gentle gusts,
And he that loosed them forth their brazen caves;
And bid them blow toward England's blessed shore,
Or turn our stern upon a dreadful rock?
Yet AEolus would not be a murderer,
But left that hateful office unto thee:
The pretty-vaulting sea refused to drown me;
Knowing that thou wouldst have me drown'd on shore,
With tears as salt as sea, through thy unkindness:
The splitting rocks cower'd in the sinking sands,
And would not dash me with their ragged sides;
Because thy flinty heart, more hard than they,
Might in thy palace perish Margaret.

Compare her luscious phrases ("but that I hate thee deadly"; "With tears as salt as sea") with the pedestrian thumb-biting going on above between Henry and Edward. Despite her cruelty, she appears in her eloquence far more like a monarch than either of them, and knows it. The men around her realize it, too—Henry himself opines that "The tiger will be mild whiles she doth mourn; / And Nero will be tainted with remorse, / To hear and see her plaints, her brinish tears." (I love this description of her tears as "brinish," again tying her to the sea while at the same time evoking her unsavory, contaminated character, since sea brine is full of all the dirt and flotsam of the ocean along with simple salt water.) And Richard Duke of Gloster, no mean speech-maker himself, questions whether she should be suffered to live "to fill the world with words." Despite the fact that she has proved herself on the battlefield as well as in the verbal realm, it's her way with words that threatens Richard: an explicit admission that, at least in his view, the kingdom will be won with language (and murder), and that Margaret alive is dangerously eloquent.

Such a dangerous yet compellingly eloquent female character brings to mind many of Shakespeare's later plays: Lear's Regan and Goneril (where eloquence itself is almost equated with duplicitousnesss, and reserve with honesty), Lady Macbeth, and in a more comedic setting, Taming of the Shrew's Kate, and Much Ado About Nothing's Beatrice. I think it's interesting that, although these subversive women tend to be punished—killed in the extreme cases, conquered by love and/or abuse in the comedic versions—their presence was plainly compelling to Shakespeare and his Renaissance audiences, just as it continues to be for modern ones. It's always a question, in such cases, whether the attraction lies more the middle of the play, when one gets to watch these women being subversive and clever and sometimes cruel or even evil, or the ending of the play, when one sees them brought into line.

Henry VI Part 3 is a particularly interesting instance of this question, because, while Margaret is certainly not admirable in any comprehensive sense of the word, neither is literally anybody else in the play—and she at least has the advantage of being memorable. In a way, that leaves the reader freer to enjoy her, and to feel disappointed in her downfall, than in a play like Lear, where there is a clear moral center, a "good team" and a "bad team."

It's so interesting that Shakespeare's very first plays presented such a complex, topsy-turvy moral universe, one that at times approaches nihilistic farce. I imagine that, in going on to re-read Richard III, that play will strike me in new and different ways having read these earlier installments. In particular, Richard's villainy takes on a new cast now that I realize, not only that he's whipping up more discontent after a bloody civil war, but that the side on which he fought has won, and he's turning his own brothers against one another. His villainy achieves a lower plain than any of the murderous characters in the Henry VI plays, since they at least (except Warwick) remain loyal to their own houses. And yet, despite his clear demarcation as the villain of the piece, I suppose the same question could be asked about him as I asked about Margaret: is the fun of the play in watching him be evil, or in seeing him brought low?


  • Wow. I just finished reading a comic book peopled by Shakespeare's characters, and I loved it, even though I'm no Shakespeare scholar, but your enthusiasm! -- you've convinced me, you're so right, I should go back and read the real thing. I've only read/studied/seen a few of them and there are so many more!

    • There are so many, you're right. I've studied a small number fairly in-depth and been exposed to a number more, but there are still MANY I've never experienced in any way. Quite a lack considering how much I love the texture and richness of Shakespeare's language. Glad the post inspired you to seek him out! :-)

  • There are all sorts of things I'd like to discuss after reading this really interesting post but I don't want to take up too much space, so just one or two thoughts. I've seen the whole cycle now about half a dozen times and more often than not it is the actress who plays Margaret who stands out in the memory rather than any of the actors. You should have seen Helen Mirren!

    The question about the fun of watching someone being evil needs, I think, to be seen in the light of how close these plays are in date to the Medieval Mysteries with their pervading figure of the Vice who was evil simply for the sake of being evil and was often the source of the greatest comedy. Richard at some point likens himself to the vice figure and another from this early period is Aaron from 'Titus Andronicus'.

    Where the turmoil is concerned, remember how close this was to Shakespeare's audience. Elizabeth's grandmother was the sister of the two princes Richard is supposed to have killed, Richard himself, her uncle. What is more, Elizabeth was by this time in her sixties and there was no obvious line of succession. The possibility of a similar breakdown in civil order was all too real to the people who went along to what was originally known as 'The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of Yorke, and the death of good King Henrie the sixt, with the Whole Contention betweene the two Houses Lancaster and Yorke.

    Thanks for a really interesting post.

    • HELEN MIRREN as Margaret! *swoons*

      Seriously, please don't hesitate to leave long comments - especially such helpful ones. Beyond Chaucer, I am sorely lacking in my medieval British lit background, so your note about the Mystery plays is especially welcome. I'll see if I can read up on them a bit before tackling Titus Andronicus. When I saw Kathryn Hunter as Richard III at the Globe, she really worked the charismatic, humorous angle of his evil-ness; it was super fun to watch. The experience was one of loving to hate her Richard, to the point I was almost disappointed to see him vanquished.

      And VERY interesting to know the original full title! That puts such a different spin on things - that the "tragedy" would be "of" Richard Plantagenet, and Henry would be classified as "good" (which I can see if we're talking about his personality, but not so much his skill at statecraft).

  • I'm really enjoying this. I've read a bit of Shakespeare in high school, which I really enjoyed, but that's it. Someday I'll get around to reading more of it!

  • Heh, I kept waiting for the dialogue in your first quote to get to "I know you are but what am I?" Margaret, however, sounds like a delicious character. Looking forward to your reading of Richard III. That's one I have read, but it was so long ago the details are few and far between.

  • Emily, is that a feminist reading to see the example of a subversive woman who's been "conquered by love" as punishment or did I just misunderstand you?!? On a more serious note, I'm a little distressed to find out that Shakespeare wrote an "Alas poor York!" in addition to his infinitely more famous "Alas, poor Yorick." Tsk, tsk--there goes that genius label. Cheers!

    • Haha, I definitely don't think falling in love is USUALLY a punishment!

      But in the case of The Taming of the Shrew, Kate really is subjected to a punishment as she's "conquered" by love, in that she's beaten up, starved, psychologically tortured, etc. by Petruchio, and ends up loving him as a result. That's always such a problematic play because feminists like me enjoy the initial presence of an outspoken woman, but feel uncomfortable watching a story that seems to celebrate the idea of putting women like us "in our place."

      In the case of Beatrice it's a lot lighter, more comedic all 'round (as I recall), and her happy ending with Benedick feels not so much like she's punished or put in her place, as that they both have to soften their sharp tongues in order to get it on. I think they're super sexy together, apropos of nothing in particular! :-)

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