Henry VI, Part 3

(Shakespeare)
   Probably written early in 1591, Henry VI, Part 3 is the third work in William Shakespeare’s tetralogy (or four-play cycle) depicting the WARS OF THE ROSES. Like the other plays in the series (HENRY VI, PART 1; HENRY VI, PART 2; and RICHARD III), this play is based largely on Edward Hall’s chronicle,THE UNION OFTHE TWO NOBLE AND ILLUSTRIOUS FAMILIES OF LANCASTER ANDYORK. The play begins and ends with the house of YORK triumphant; it runs from the Battle of ST. ALBANS in May 1455, which briefly put Richard PLANTAGENET, duke of York, in power, to the Battle of TEWKESBURY and the murder of HENRY VI in May 1471, which destroyed the direct male line of the house of LANCASTER (see First Protectorate; Henry VI, Murder of).
   The main themes of the play—the dissolution of the state and the degradation of its political leadership—tie into the main theme of the tetralogy, which is that the accession of the house of TUDOR in 1485 rescued England from the suffering and chaos that arose from the various usurpations of the throne carried out by ambitious Lancastrians and Yorkists between 1399 and 1483. To serve these themes, Shakespeare compresses what were actually brief periods of active warfare separated by long periods of relative peace into a few weeks of horrific fighting that split both state and society (see Military Campaigns, Duration of).
   In the play, the disruption of families, both royal and common, illustrates the general dissolution of the realm. Under pressure from York, Henry VI disinherits his son, Prince EDWARD OF LANCASTER, an act that drives Queen MARGARET OF ANJOU to declare herself divorced from Henry. On the Yorkist side, George PLANTAGENET, duke of Clarence, abandons his brother EDWARD IV, while Edward’s own lust and indolence alienate his kinsman Richard NEVILLE, earl of Warwick, who allies with Margaret and reopens the wars. In a foreshadowing of the crimes he will commit in Richard III, Richard, duke of Gloucester (see Richard III, King of England), plots against both his brothers and against anyone else who stands between him and the Crown. Meanwhile, in act 2, Henry VI, seeking to escape the carnage at the Battle of TOWTON, witnesses the unspeakable grief of two characters known simply as the “son that hath killed his father” and the “father that hath killed his son.” Each carries the body of a slain enemy from the field for purposes of plunder, only to discover that his victim is his son/father. Until modern historical research showed that Wars of the Roses campaigns were brief and had relatively little effect on the vast majority of English people below the PEERAGE and GENTRY, this Shakespearean image of widespread political, social, and economic devastation largely shaped popular views of the conflict.
   Further Reading: Norwich, John Julius, Shakespeare’s Kings (New York: Scribner, 1999); Saccio, Peter, Shakespeare’s English Kings, 2d ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); the text of Henry VI, Part 3 can be found at http://shakespeare.about.com/arts/shakespeare/library/bl3kh6scenes.htm.

Encyclopedia of the Wars of the Roses. . 2001.

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