Introduction: Henry VI, Part 3

January 23, 2011 in Introduction

The quarto edition of this play was printed in 1595 as The True Tragedie of Richard Duke of Yorke, and the death of good King Henrie the Sixt, with the Whole Contention betweene the two Houses of Lancaster and Yorke, but appears in the highly revised version of the First Folio as The Third Part of Henry the Sixt, with the death of the Duke of YORKE. Its popularity is indicated by its reprinting in quarto (1600) and folio format (1619). Following the chronicles of Hall and Holinshed, it is principally concerned with the vicissitudes of the Wars of the Roses, with the alternating defeats and triumphs of Yorkists and Lancastrians. In the course of these struggles both titular heads, the Duke of York and Henry VI, are murdered, together with many of their supporters, leaving Edward IV as king. The widowed Queen Margaret ends exiled and childless, despite her remarkable tenacity for her son’s interests in the face of her husband’s weakness. Many of the scenes are gruesome in the extreme, such as the torture of the captive Duke of York by Margaret after the killing of his son. This scene is followed later by the murder of her own son by the three Yorkist brothers in her presence, after her military defeat. While captive in the Tower of London, King Henry VI is crudely assassinated by Richard of Gloucester.

Unfortunately for the finally triumphant Yorkists, Richard Duke of Gloucester has already become alienated from their cause by the disloyalty of his brother George Duke of Clarence, and by the sexual vagaries of his other brother, King Edward IV. The king’s foolish marriage to a commoner wrecks plans for a more diplomatic alliance with the Duke of Burgundy. Richard’s enormous soliloquy (III.ii. 124-94) about his alienation and ambition to rule is a tour de force evoking a whole new Machiavellian personality which is to dominate the next play in the tetralogy, Richard III. The role will be considered among Shakespeare’s most memorable characters. Indeed, such virtuoso parts of Richard’s role in Part 3 are often transposed to the start of Richard III to reinforce that play’s fascination.

Editors continue to debate the exact relationship of the quarto and folio texts, and the sequence of composition of the three parts now entitled ‘Henry VI’. Critical debates about Part 3‘s sustained brutality often suggest that it exploits popular bad taste, but it has been increasingly revived since Peter Hall’s and John Barton’s production of it as part of their sequence of seven history plays (1963 and 1964): by Terry Hands (1977), Michael Bogdanov (1986), Adrian Noble (1988), Katie Mitchell (1994), Edward Hall (2000) and Michael Boyd (2000, 2006).

Contributed by Hugh Macrae Richmond

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