September Books 9) Henry VI Part 3

9) The Third Part of King Henry the Sixth, by William Shakespeare

This is the least-owned individual Shakespeare play among LibraryThing users, which is a bit surprising since it is the best of the three parts of Henry VI, and is surely important background for Richard III (which comes next).

The title character gets a lot more prominence here than in the previous parts – where Part 1 was Talbot’s story, and Part 2 York’s, this is much more Henry’s. He gets by far the best scene almost to himself – Act 2 Scene 5, a meditation on the awfulness of war and the nature of kingship. Also, where the supernatural forces of the first two parts were the witchcraft practiced by Joan La Pucelle and the Duchess of Gloucester, here it is Henry himself who prophesies that Richmond will succeed him and that Gloucester will cause further deaths and misery (the latter, of course, not a terribly tough call as Gloucester is busy killing him at the time). Henry is a very sympathetic character here – he realises he is unfit to rule and hands over power (under constraint) to York and then (more willingly) to his former enemies Warwick and Clarence. His death, the last in a long series of horrible deaths throughout the play, is a fitting climax to the trilogy.

The other two leading characters (once York has been hacked to bits at the end of Act 1) are Henry’s wife, Queen Margaret, and Richard of Gloucester. Margaret is an established character from the first two plays, but here she comes into her own, essentially providing the leadership for the Lancastrians that Henry is not able to. She is the first really memorable female character who is not a witch. Those characters who complain about female leadership are shown up as mistaken; perhaps this is partly an implicit defence of Elizabeth I? She viciously tortures and kills York in the first act, but then sees her own son given the same treatment by York’s sons at the end; her zeal for the cause is manic rather than admirable, but at least she never changes sides.

Gloucester is of course shaping up to be a super-villain, and I guess I’ll have more to say about him in the next play. Sure, his villainy is a bit one-dimensional, but his asides to the audience explaining what he is up to are tremendously effective in drawing us into his confidence. David Troughton, in the version I have been listening to, makes him entirely fascinating. He is a much more interesting character than his brothers – in particular, Clarence’s motivation for ratting and (even more) re-ratting is pretty cardboardy.

The other two characters worthy of note are Warwick and Edward IV. But neither of them quite came alive for me; I felt Shakespeare was too burdened by the historical record to do a good job – Warwick especially is more acted upon than acting, and the capture and release of Edward by the Lancastrians just seemed a bit pointless. Warwick’s change of allegiance is directly motivated by Edward’s error of judgement in what is practically the only important decision we see him make as King – his pathetic attempt at seduction of Lady Grey in Act 3 Scene 2. I really wasn’t sure how to take that scene; I’ve seen some suggestions that it is meant to be comedy, but it didn’t make me laugh. The interesting echo from Henry VI Part 1, of course, is that we see Edward marrying for physical rather than political attraction, and in both cases this turns out to be a Bad Idea. (Again, I wonder if this was in some way commentary on current affairs?)

A final point is that, apart from the first act which tells of York’s rise and fall, I felt this play was less easily segmented than the other two; where Part 1 had a succession of emsembles doing different bits of the tail end of the Hundred Years War, and Part 2 told different bits of York’s story in each act, here the narrative seemed a bit more seamless.

Fails the Bechdel test dismally. The only point at which two women talk to each other is a very short conversation between Queen Margaret and King Lewis’s sister, Bona, about Edward IV.
Henry VI, Part I | Henry VI, Part II | Henry VI, Part III | Richard III | Comedy of Errors | Titus Andronicus | Taming of the Shrew | Two Gentlemen of Verona | Love’s Labour’s Lost | Romeo and Juliet | Richard II | A Midsummer Night’s Dream | King John | The Merchant of Venice | Henry IV, Part I | Henry IV, Part II | Henry V | Julius Caesar | Much Ado About Nothing | As You Like It | Merry Wives of Windsor | Hamlet | Twelfth Night | Troilus and Cressida | All’s Well That Ends Well | Measure for Measure | Othello | King Lear | Macbeth | Antony and Cleopatra | Coriolanus | Timon of Athens | Pericles | Cymbeline | The Winter’s Tale | The Tempest | Henry VIII | The Two Noble Kinsmen | Edward III | Sir Thomas More (fragment)

One thought on “September Books 9) Henry VI Part 3

  1. Not at all off-topic!

    I think we are in murky territory, but I also think that the precedents in UK history of denying a party which has a legitimate majority its right to propose major constitutional changes are generally very depressing – thinking particularly of the Unionist argument in 1912-14 that the Liberals and their Irish Nationalist allies did not have the right to legislate for Home Rule. Those who swear by the unwritten constitution should be prepared for the consequences of not having things written down in advance, in my view.

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