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Theatre / Henry VI Part 3

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As the play is Older Than Steam and based on historical events, and as most twists in Shakespeare's plots are now widely known, all spoilers on this page are unmarked.
Why, what is pomp, rule, reign, but earth and dust?
And, live we how we can, yet die we must.
Warwick, V.ii

A history play principally penned by William Shakespeare, Henry VI Part 3 is the last of three plays describing the end of The Hundred Years War and the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses. In the final chapter of the trilogy, the houses of Lancaster and York wage bloody war against each other until one is victorious. The play also sets up conflicts and characters for Richard III.

The play opens with a face-off between York and Henry and their respective supporters. Henry gives in to the Yorkist threats and agrees to a deal: York will inherit the throne on the natural death of Henry. Disgusted with the King's cowardice, Margaret and his other supporters continue the war on their own, defeating the Yorkists in battle. York's youngest son, Edmund of Rutland, is murdered by Young Clifford, and York is captured, taunted with the death of his son, and then executed.

The Earl of Warwick, now the senior military figure in the Yorkist cause, continues the fight on behalf of York's son Edward. Edward's younger brother Richard is now also joined by his second brother George, at the head of reinforcements from France. Between them, they defeat Margaret and the Lancastrians and Edward is proclaimed King Edward IV, with Richard and George being made dukes of Gloucester and Clarence respectively.

Edward takes a fancy to Elizabeth Woodville and marries her quickly — outraging Warwick, who was in the middle of negotiating a political marriage with a French princess. Warwick switches sides, joining the Lancastrian cause, and George of Clarence petulantly goes with him. The tide swings the other way once more — Edward is captured, and Henry restored. But Edward is rescued and kills Warwick in battle, before Clarence repents and rejoins his brothers. In the final battle, Edward kills Henry's son and captures Margaret, while Richard sneaks off to murder Henry VI and remove any further complications.

As the trilogy ends, things are looking rosy for the House of York — the Lancastrian cause seems dead and gone, and there is a new heir to the throne — Prince Edward. As Richard of Gloucester, the King's brother, summarises it at the start of the next play — "Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York". That's right, folks — he's going to become Richard III very soon and we all know how that turned out...

While this play is traditionally credited mostly to Shakespeare's authorship, scholarly analysis since the 1980s has led to theories that Shakespeare collaborated with his contemporary Christopher Marlowe much more extensively on its writing than was previously believed. These theories were deemed compelling enough that the publishers of the 2016 edition of New Oxford Shakespeare credited Marlowe as a co-author.

This play provides examples of:

  • Abdicate the Throne: Forced. And afterwards voluntary — when Warwick and Clarence place Henry back on the throne, he makes them Protectors and gives them all the real power, while he means to spend the rest of his life in private religious devotions.
  • Adaptational Villainy: Richard of Gloucester. In Real Life he was a child through most of the events of the play, and was thought of as a pious law-maker who was brave in battle.
  • Age Lift:
    • Richard and George. Richard in particular would have been two years old at the start of the play.
    • Edmund of Rutland was about five years older than in the play, and had fought in the battle before fleeing when the tide turned.
  • Anti-Hero: Many. Not many real heroes.
  • Artistic License – History:
    • Edmund of Rutland was actual York's second son and died in the fighting at Wakefield aged 17; it was Richard who was the youngest.
    • The play portrays baby Edward as Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville's firstborn, but in reality he was their fourth child; due to Compressed Adaptation his three older sisters (Elizabethnote , Mary and Cecily) are left out.
  • Because Destiny Says So: Richard of Gloucester morphs into The Starscream and The Brute of the Yorkist faction in part because he literally seems born for it, misshapen and disfigured but still a twisted and cunning strategist and soldier. Henry VI testifies to numerous bad omens on Richard's birth and knows he's going to die the second Richard gets them alone.
  • The Chessmaster: Warwick. Not for nothing he was known as The Kingmaker.
  • Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: Oh boy! Apart from both Dukes of York, Richard, Henry, Northumberland, Clifford and Oxford pretty much every noble character changes side at least once.
  • The Clan: Several, but especially the House of York.
  • Colour-Coded for Your Convenience: The Yorkists wear white roses, the Lancastrians red. Quite often this is extended to general costume colour-coding as well.
  • Decapitation Presentation: There are lots of disembodied heads floating around in this play, and although this action is not mentioned explicitly in the stage directions many directors do it anyway, 'cause it looks awesome terrifying.
  • Everyone Is Related: Expected, given that almost every major character is of noble blood and there's not that much to go around.
  • Feuding Families: York and Lancaster.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • Henry when he meets Henry Tudor, whom he recognises as England's hope.
    • When Margaret's son Prince Edward is stabbed to death by the three York brothers, Margaret curses them so that any sons they have will die young. In the following play, both of Edward's sons will be murdered by Richard's order note .
  • Get It Over With: Margaret begging George Clarence for death after Edward wouldn't let Richard kill her:
    Margaret: Here sheathe thy sword, I'll pardon thee my death:
    What, wilt thou not? then, Clarence, do it thou.
    Clarence: By heaven, I will not do thee so much ease.
    Margaret: Good Clarence, do; sweet Clarence, do thou do it.
    Clarence: Didst thou not hear me swear I would not do it?
    Margaret: Ay, but thou usest to forswear thyself:
    'Twas sin before, but now 'tis charity.
    (Since Clarence had stabbed the Prince for "twitting him with perjury," this is surely a heartfelt effort.)
  • God Save Us from the Queen!:
    • Margaret stabs the captive York after taunting him with Clifford's murder of the youngest York boy, Edmund of Rutland. He's only a kid!
    • To a lesser extent, Queen Elizabeth. The titles and advantageous marriages she gets for her relatives (who were not such high-ranking nobles before) piss off the "old nobility," including Edward's own brothers. They may be part of George's motive for turning traitor. (However, the greater harm is done by Edward's decision to marry her in the first place, which offends both Warwick and the King of France.)
  • Handicapped Badass: Richard's pretty good in battle, in spite of his crooked back, gimp arm, and short leg.
  • Happily Ever Before: The play ends with the House of York triumphant, their enemies dead or imprisoned, and a new heir literally just born — but Richard has previously made it clear that he not only wants the crown but is willing to kill anyone who gets in his way, including his own family. Many productions end with him holding his infant nephew, and already plotting his next move.
  • I Just Want to Be Normal: Henry VI, sitting on his little hill in the middle of a battlefield, delivers a speech about how he would have liked to be born a simple man.
    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;
  • Jerkass Has a Point: York's claim to the throne is conceded by Exeter and Henry as being better than Henry's.
    • Richard, Clarence and Warwick all decide to betray Edward for their own ambitions at different points in the play, but all three are prompted in part by Edward's incredibly reckless decision to marry a random women he just met and make her Queen of England, insulting the French Royal Court and provoking a war by doing so.
  • Lampshade Hanging: When things are going badly for the Yorkists at the Battle of Towton, the leaders gather and exchange poetic speeches about how badly it's going, that being how characters do things in these plays. Warwick reproves them:
    Why stand we like soft-hearted women here,
    Wailing our losses, whiles the foe doth rage;
    And look upon, as if the tragedy
    Were play'd in jest by counterfeiting actors?
  • The Last Of These Is Not Like The Others: When Edward of Westminster insults the three York brothers, he cites character flaws for Edward (lascivious) and George (perjured), but for Richard, he uses a physical flaw (mishapen).
  • Love at First Sight: Elizabeth Woodville petitions Edward to have the lands of her late husband returned to her. He immediately starts flirting and tries to make "sleep with me" a condition of returning the lands, but when she continues to evade and resist his propositions, he makes the ultimate one by suggesting she might like all of his land instead of her husband's—in other words, by becoming his Queen. Keep in mind that he's only known her for about fifteen minutes, and he knows a political marriage is already being negotiated for him.
  • Love Ruins the Realm: Edward's impulsive decision to follow his lust into marrying Elizabeth keeps England from regaining its lost French lands, enrages the French into declaring war (as he'd snubbed the King's own sister), and enrages Warwick into throwing his lot in with the Lancasters — although the Yorkists ultimately win, Edward's choice causes a great deal of bloodshed that could have been avoided if he'd just let Liz have her lands back like she wanted in the first place. Even after Edward gets the throne back, Elizabeth's position as queen and the power granted to her relatives will sow the seeds for future conflict...
  • Mama Bear: Margaret, over her son's death.
  • Manipulative Bastard:
    • Richard has yet to start pulling his tricks on his oldest brother Edward, but has already made the middle brother George his loyal ally and future victim.
    • Warwick himself controls most of the plot until Act 4.
  • Motive Rant: Richard of Gloucester gets a few that foreshadow his opening monologue in Richard III.
  • Non-Action Guy: Henry VI, a bookish and pious ruler when England really needed a strong warrior.
  • One-Steve Limit: Averted; York and his son Richard share the same name, both York and Henry VI's sons are called Edward, and at the end of the play a new Prince Edward is born.
  • The Only One Allowed to Defeat You: Richard, when pursuing Young Clifford.
  • Pet the Dog: Richard, despite all his crimes later on and continuing in his own play, is genuinely outraged by the deaths of his father and young brother and is determined to kill Young Clifford, their murderer.
  • Regent for Life: Henry VI agrees to make Richard of York his heir if he, Henry, is allowed to finish his reign.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Young Clifford, Margaret, the York brothers - in fact, nearly everybody.
  • Royals Who Actually Do Something: Edward IV is a great battle commander. Queen Margaret as well.
  • Start of Darkness: Richard Duke of Gloucester, on his way to becoming Richard III.
  • Then Let Me Be Evil: Richard has a powerful monologue about how the world has always been against him - "Why, love forswore me in my mother's womb" - and thus, crippled and despised, he owes the world nothing...least of all to behave himself.
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth:
    • Henry VI, always shown as pious and good, but also weak and gullible. When Richard stabs him, his last words are, "God forgive my sins, and pardon thee!" In the next play, Anne is reproving Richard for having slain Henry, and Richard replies accordingly:
    Anne: Thou mayst be damned for that wicked deed!
    O he was gentle, mild, and virtuous!
    Richard: The better for the king of Heaven that hath him...
    Let him thank me, that holp to send him thither,
    For he was fitter for that place than Earth.
    • York's young son Edmund of Rutland counts too; he is an innocent child showing no malice toward his eventual killers.
  • Turn Coat: Across the trilogy, Warwick once, Burgundy once, Clarence twice.
    • Also lampshaded by Joan of Arc in Part One, when the Duke of Burgundy wavered between the French and English sides.
    "Done like a Frenchman: turn, and turn again!"
  • Welcome Back, Traitor: Edward makes a brotherly appeal to Clarence before the final battle and persuades him to rejoin the Yorks. But Clarence's betrayal here is why Edward decides the traitorous G of the next play stands for George and not Gloucester.