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Henry VI Part III
A Study Guide
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Table of Contents

Type of Work       Composition and Publication      Sources      Settings      Characters      Historical Background      Plot Summary      Themes
Tone      Conflict      Climax      Nature Imagery      Figures of Speech      Foreshadowing      Henry VI: Saintly Scholar      Extraordinary Ironies
Houses of Lancaster and York       War of the Roses      Questions and Essay Topics      Complete Text      Henry VI Part I      Henry VI Part II

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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003, 2010, 2011

Type of Work

Henry VI Part III is a history play about the struggle for power during the reign of a young English king. 

Composition and Publication

Date Written: Between 1590 and 1592. The latest edition of The New Oxford Shakespearepublished by Oxford University Press and edited by Gary Taylor, John Jowett , Terri Bourus, and Gabriel Egan  maintains that Shakespeare co-wrote the play with Christopher Marlowe.
Date Published: 1623 as part of the First Folio, the first authorized collection of Shakespeare's plays.

Sources

Shakespeare based Henry VI Part III primarily on accounts in The Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (Holinshed’s Chronicles), by Raphael Holinshed (?-1580?). The first edition of the chronicles was published in 1577 in two volumes. Shakespeare also used The Union of Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancastre and York, by Edward Hall (?-1547).

Settings

Henry VI Part III is set in various locales in England and France, including the following: (1) London, England: Parliament House, the royal palace, the Tower; (2) Wakefield, England: Sandal Castle and a battlefield; (3) Herefordshire: a plain near Mortimer's Cross; (4) York; (5) Yorkshire: battlefield between Towton and Saxton, a park near Middleham Castle; (6) northern England: a forest; (7) France: the palace of King Lewis XI; (8) a plain in Warwickshire; (9) Warwick: Edward's camp; (10) West Midlands: Coventry; (11) Barnet: battlefield; and (12) Tewksbury: a plain.

Characters
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King Henry VI: Pious and timorous king of England (House of Lancaster), who sometimes yearns for a simpler life. He is at odds not only with his Yorkist foes but also with his domineering wife. 
Queen Margaret: Ambitious wife of King Henry.
Edward, Prince of Wales: Henry’s son, a smart, stout-hearted, regal young man. He is everything that his father is not. 
Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York: Yorkist throne claimant who fails to gain the crown. 
Edward, Earl of March: Proud and insolent son of Richard Plantagenet. Edward becomes King Edward IV, the first ruler in the House of York.
Edmund, George, Richard: Other sons of Richard Plantagenet. 
Members of the Lancaster Faction (symbolized by a red rose): Duke of Exeter (Henry Holland), Earl of Oxford (John de Vere), Earl of Northumberland (Henry Percy), Earl of Westmoreland (Ralph Neville), Lord Clifford (John Clifford), and the Marquess of Montague (John Neville). 
Members of the York Faction (symbolized by a white rose): Earl of Warwick (Richard Neville), Duke of Norfolk, Earl of Pembroke, Lord Hastings, Lord Stafford, Sir John Mortimer, Sir Hugh Mortimer, Sir John Montgomery, Sir John Somerville, Sir William Stanley.
Elizabeth Woodville (Lady Grey): Widow of Sir Richard Grey (killed in fighting at Saint Albans). She marries Edward, the son of Richard Plantagenet, and becomes his queen. 
Lord Rivers: Brother of Elizabeth Woodville (Lady Grey), the new queen. 
Lewis XI: King of France.
Bona: Sister of the French Queen.
Henry, Earl of Richmond: Noble youth descended from the Lancasters. He seems destined for greatness. 
Others: Tutor to Edmund (Earl of Rutland), Mayor of York, Lieutenant of the Tower, Nobleman, Two Gamekeepers, Huntsman, Soldiers, Attendants, Messengers, Watchmen, Son That Has Killed His Father, Father That Has Killed His Son.

Historical Background

Henry VI, of the House of Lancaster, became king of England as an infant on Sept. 1, 1422, after the death of his father, King Henry V. Henry VI reigned from 1422 to 1461 and from 1470 to 1471. After serving merely as a figurehead in his boyhood and adolescence, Henry began to rule on his own in 1437, at age sixteen. After he married Margaret of Anjou in April 1445, ambitious noblesand his own wifebegan plotting against him for their own selfish ends. Henry VI Part III continues the story begun in Henry VI Part I (which ended with the marriage of Henry to Margaret) and Henry VI Part II (which ended with Richard Plantagenet claiming the crown).
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Plot Summary

By Michael J. Cummings...© 2003, 2011
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Richard, Duke of York, takes the throne in the English Parliament with his supporters at his side. When King Henry VI arrives with his supporters, he orders Richard to “descend my throne, / And kneel for grace and mercy at my feet” (1.1.77-78).
 
York will not budge. Warwick, one of York’s supporters, tells the King: “Be Duke of Lancaster; let him [York] be king” (1.1.90). Westmoreland, one of the King’s supporters, answers, “He is both king and Duke of Lancaster” (1.1.91). A quarrel ensues about who is the rightful king. It ends when Henry asks to be allowed to reign for his lifetime. York agrees to permit Henry to “reign in quiet” (1.1.177) if the King confirms York as rightful successor to the throne when the King dies. “I am content, Richard Plantagenet,” the King says. “Enjoy the kingdom after my decease” (178-179). Queen Margaret is furious. She and the King now have a son who would inherit the throne. But Henry’s agreement with York makes him a disinherited son. She tells the King:
Ah, wretched man! would I had died a maid 
And never seen thee, never borne thee son, 
Seeing thou hast prov’d so unnatural a father 
Hath he deserv’d to lose his birthright thus? (1.1.223-226)
Meanwhile, York’s sons, Edward and Richard, importune their father to take back the throne that he yielded. Edward says: “Now you are heir, therefore enjoy it now: / By giving the house of Lancaster leave to breathe” (1.2.15-16). When York says he is bound on oath to the agreement with Henry, Richard argues that an oath not taken before a “true and lawful magistrate” (1.2.26) is not binding. He also says: “How sweet a thing it is to wear a crown, / Within whose circuit is Elysium” (1.2.32-33). York then agrees to seize the throne immediately “or die” (1.2.38). 
To retain her standing as queen, Margaret raises an army and clashes with York at Wakefield. She conquers. York’s son Edmund is tortured and killed. York himself, taken prisoner, endures taunts and mocks. The queen crowns him with a paper diadem and says, “Now looks he like a king!” (1.4.99). Lord Clifford, a supporter of Margaret and the Lancasters, stabs York. Margaret stabs him again for good measure.
 
After York dies, Margaret orders him decapitated. The head is placed on the gates at York. The queen then wins another battle at Saint Albans over the Earl of Warwick. Warwick carries news of the defeat to York’s sons Edward and Richard. Warwick says Margaret and Clifford, who “have wrought the easy-melting king like wax” (2.1.175), are now marching on London thirty thousand strong to reclaim the throne for Henry. Warwick stiffens his resolve and predicts that with the help of his remaining forces, along with loyal Welshmen and troops under the Duke of Norfolk, the Yorkists will yet win the day. Edward, who has now become Duke of York to succeed his dead father, can then claim the crown.

When the armies meet between Towton and Saxton in Yorkshire, the meek king watches from a distance as Warwick and the Yorkists rout the queen. She flees with her son to France, and Clifford is taken prisoner and beheaded. Edward, Duke of York, is proclaimed King Edward IV. Warwick then lays out the schedule for the new monarch: First, he must hie to London for his coronation.

Then he must marry Lady Bona, the sister of the King of France, because “having France thy friend, thou shalt not dread / The scatter’d foe that hopes to rise again” (2.6.95-96). Warwick embarks for France to arrange the marriage.

Now that Edward is king, his brother Richard becomes Duke of Gloucester. George, another brother, becomes Duke of Clarence. Poor Henry is captured in the north of England and imprisoned in the Tower of London. While Warwick is on his mission in France, Edward falls in love with a beautiful widow, Lady Grey, and seeks to make her his queen. But even as Edward prepares to run the realm, a new rivalry takes shape: His brother Richard, a hunchback who has no conscience, begins lusting for the crown and plotting to overthrow Edward to get it. 
In France, Margaret denounces Warwick in an attempt to block the proposed marriage between Lady Bona and Edward IV. Such a marriage, she believes, would end all chances for Henry to reclaim the throne. Nevertheless, Louis XI approves the alliance. But all is for naught, for word arrives from England that Edward has married Lady Grey. This affront to Warwick’s honor so angers him that he breaks with Edward and aligns himself with Margaret in her effort to restore Henry. Margaret welcomes his change of heart, saying, “Warwick, these words have turn’d my hate to love; and I forgive and quite forget old faults.” The French decide to support Warwick and Margaret, but Louis first asks for a pledge of loyalty before he provides aid. Warwick then offers his oldest daughter to Margaret’s son, Prince Edward, in “holy wedlock” (3.3.250). When the prince accepts the proposal, Louis appoints his high admiral, Lord Bourbon, to ferry troops to England.

In England, many of King Edward’s followers are unhappy with his marriage to Lady Grey. The Duke of Clarence, Edward’s own brother, is so incensed that he joins with Warwick and agrees to marry Warwick’s youngest daughter. Richard, Duke of Gloucester, stands by Edward, but only because he wants to keep the crown in the family
the better to usurp it later. After Warwick’s forces enter England, they capture King Edward, then free Henry from the Tower of London and reinstall him as king. However, the meek Henry has had enough of governing. He asks Warwick and Clarence to rule jointly in his stead while he pursues a quiet life of prayer.

Meanwhile, Edward has escaped to Burgundy, thanks in large part to Gloucester. After raising an army, he returns to England to reclaim the throne. He and Gloucester capture Henry, return him to the Tower of London, and engage Warwick in battle at Coventry. Clarence decides to switch sides again, saying he will not “bend the fatal instruments of war” (5.1.95) against his brothers. He tells them, “Pardon me, Edward, I will make amends; / And, Richard, do not frown upon my faults” (5.1.108-109). Both brothers welcome him back to the fold.

Margaret then arrives from France with fresh troops. But she is defeated near Tewkesbury, and she and her son are taken prisoner. When Margaret’s son spits insults at Edward, Gloucester, and Clarence, they stab him in turn as he writhes on the ground. Gloucester then returns to London with all dispatch. After entering the Tower, he tells Henry, “Thy son I kill’d for his presumption” (5.4.36). Then he stabs Henry. Edward is restored to the throne, Margaret is exiled to France, and Gloucester remains on the prowl, still dreaming of the crown he will one day wear. 
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Themes

The struggle for power divides a kingdom. The House of Lancaster, to which Henry VI belongs, and the House of York vie for power. The Yorkists believe they were cheated out of the throne in 1399, when Henry Bolingbroke became king as Henry IV. Within the House of Lancaster, there is also division. The Duke of Suffolk conspires with the queen to oust Henry’s protector so that they can exert more control over the young king.
 
Ambition preys on the weak. Self-seekers, including Henry’s own wife, attempt to manipulate the King in order to further their own ends. Weak leaders invite upheaval. Henry VI is an upright but weak king who is easily manipulated. His failure to assert his authority is in part responsible for the discord during his reign.

Power is an irresistible elixir. Henry VI persuades Richard Plantagenet to delay his ascendancy to the throne until after Henry has completed his reign. However, Plantagenet’s son Richard urges his father to seize the throne immediately, saying,

Why do we linger thus? I cannot rest 
Until the white rose that I wear be dy’d 
Even in the lukewarm blood of Henry’s heart. (1.2.35-37)
Women can be just as ruthless as men. Queen Margaret, who envies anyone who stands in her way of achieving power, presides at the torture and death of York’s son. Then she crowns York, taken prisoner, with a paper diadem and says, “Ay, marry, sir, now looks he like a king!” (1.4.99). Lord Clifford, a supporter of Margaret and the Lancasters, stabs York. Margaret stabs him again for good measure. After York dies, Margaret orders him decapitated.

Tone

As in Henry VI Part I and Henry VI Part II, the tone is bitter and rancorous as members of the House of Lancaster vie for power with members of the House of York.

Conflict

The main conflict centers on the struggle for power between the Lancastrians and the Yorkists.

Climax

The climax of a play or another literary work, such as a short story or a novel, can be defined as (1) the turning point at which the conflict begins to resolve itself for better or worse, or as (2) the final and most exciting event in a series of events. The climax of Henry VI Part III occurs, according to the first definition, when Edward reclaims the throne. According to the second definition, the climax occurs when Gloucester stabs Henry in the Tower of London.
 

Nature Imagery

Shakespeare enlivens and elucidates his dialogue in Henry VI Part III and other plays with images drawn from nature—images of animals, birds, light, darkness, clouds, and so on. Following are examples. 

See how the morning opes her golden gates, 
And takes her farewell of the glorious sun. (2.1.23-24)

The duke is made protector of the realm; 
And yet shalt thou be safe? such safety finds 
The trembling lamb environed with wolves. (1.1.247-249) 

Reveng’d may she be on that hateful duke, 
Whose haughty spirit, winged with desire, 
Will cost my crown, and like an empty eagle 
Tire on the flesh of me and of my son!  (1.1.273-276)

So looks the pent-up lion o’er the wretch 
That trembles under his devouring paws; 
And so he walks, insulting o’er his prey, 
And so he comes to rend his limbs asunder. (1.3.15-18) 

NORTHUMBERLAND   Hold, Clifford! do not honour him so much 
To prick thy finger, though to wound his heart. 
What valour were it, when a cur doth grin, 
For one to thrust his hand between his teeth,   60 
When he might spurn him with his foot away? 
It is war’s prize to take all vantages, 
And ten to one is no impeach of valour.  [They lay hands on YORK, who struggles. 
CLIFFORD   Ay, ay; so strives the woodcock with the gin.   64 
NORTHUMBERLAND   So doth the cony [rabbit] struggle in the net. (1.4.57-65) 

Doves will peck in safeguard of their brood. (2.2.20)

This battle fares like to the morning’s war, 
When dying clouds contend with growing light, 
What time the shepherd, blowing of his nails, 
Can neither call it perfect day nor night. 
Now sways it this way, like a mighty sea 
Forc’d by the tide to combat with the wind; 
Now sways it that way, like the self-same sea 
Forc’d to retire by fury of the wind: 
Sometime the flood prevails, and then the wind; 
Now one the better, then another best; 
Both tugging to be victors, breast to breast, 
Yet neither conqueror nor conquered: 
So is the equal poise of this fell war. (2.5.3-15) 

She did corrupt frail nature with some bribe, 
To shrink mine arm up like a wither’d shrub; 
To make an envious mountain on my back, 
Where sits deformity to mock my body; 
To shape my legs of an unequal size; 
To disproportion me in every part, 
Like to a chaos, or an unlick’d bear-whelp 
That carries no impression like the dam. (3.2.159-166)

       I, like one lost in a thorny wood, 
That rents the thorns and is rent with the thorns, 
Seeking a way and straying from the way; 
Not knowing how to find the open air, 
But toiling desperately to find it out, 
Torment myself to catch the English crown: 
And from that torment I will free myself, 
Or hew my way out with a bloody axe. (3.2.178-185) 

Figures of Speech

Following are examples of figures of speech in Henry VI Part III. For definitions of figures of speech, see Literary Terms.

Alliteration

Patience is for poltroons, such as he. (1.1.65)

Whose haughty spirit, winged with desire (1.1.274)

I, then in London, keeper of the king, 
Muster’d my soldiers, gather’d flocks of friends. (2.1.115-116) 

Even then that sunshine brew’d a shower for him, 
That wash’d his father’s fortunes forth of France. (2.2.160-161) 

    Wrangling woman, we’ll no longer stay: 
These words will cost ten thousand lives this day. (2.2.180-181) 

Thy brother being carelessly encamp’d (4.2.17)

Anaphora
So looks the pent-up lion o’er the wretch 
That trembles under his devouring paws; 
And so he walks, insulting o’er his prey, 
And so he comes to rend his limbs asunder. (1.314-17)

Had he been ta’en we should have heard the news
Had he been slain we should have heard the news
Or had he ’scap’d, methinks we should have heard 
The happy tidings of his good escape. (2.1.6-9)
 
Why, Via! to London will we march amain, 
And once again bestride our foaming steeds, 
And once again cry, ‘Charge upon our foes!’ 
But never once again turn back and fly. (2.1.186-189) 

Did I forget that by the house of York 
My father came untimely to his death? 
Did I let pass the abuse done to my niece? 
Did I impale him with the regal crown? 
Did I put Henry from his native right? (3.3.192-196) 

Metaphor
How sweet a thing it is to wear a crown, 
Within whose circuit is Elysium. (1.2.32.33)
Comparison of a crown to the boundary of heaven 

Thy brother’s blood the thirsty earth hath drunk. (2.3.20)
Comparison of earth to a living thing; comparison of blood to a beverage

In this vow [I] do chain my soul to thine. (2.3.39)
Comparison of the soul to a corporeal thing that can be chained

So we, well cover’d with the night’s black mantle, 
At unawares may beat down Edward’s guard. (4.2.25-26)
Comparison of darkness to a cloak

Metaphor, Paradox
And yet shalt thou be safe? such safety finds 
The trembling lamb environed with wolves. (1.1.248-249) 
Metaphor: Queen Margaret compares Henry to a lamb among wolves.
Paradox: Safety in danger
Personification
See how the morning opes her golden gates, 
And takes her farewell of the glorious sun. (2.1.23-24) 
Comparison of morning to a person
Simile
I saw him [Richard Plantagenet] in the battle range about, 
And watch’d him how he singled Clifford forth. 
Methought he bore him in the thickest troop 
As doth a lion in a herd of neat [herd of cattle or oxen]. (2.1.13-16)
Comparison of Richard Plantagenet to a lion

       All my followers to the eager foe 
Turn back and fly, like ships before the wind. (1.4.5-6)
Comparison of the followers to fleeing ships 

She did corrupt frail nature with some bribe, 
To shrink mine arm up like a wither’d shrub. (3.2.159-160)
Richard compares his arm to a withered shrub.

Henry VI: Saintly Scholar

Shakespeare depicts Henry VI as weak and ineffectual, as he was in real life. However, the historical Henry did possess some praiseworthy qualities, notably his piety as a devout Catholic and his love of learning and education. He exhibited the latter quality when he established Eton College in 1440 as the King's College of Our Lady of Eton Beside Windsor, providing scholarships for deserving boys who enrolled. Henry also founded Cambridge University's King's College to enable Eton boys to continue their education. Both Eton and King's College continue operation today as two of England's most respected educational institutions. As for Henry's famous saintliness, Edward Hall, a historian who graduated from Eton and King's College, described it in a history that Shakespeare used as one of his sources for the play. Hall (also spelled Halle) wrote:

    He did abhor of his own nature, all the vices, as well of the body as of the soul; and from his very infancy he was of honest conversation and pure integrity; no knower of evil, and a keeper of all goodness; a despiser of all things which were wont to cause the minds of mortal men to slide or appair. Besides this, patience was so radicate in his heart that of all the injuries to him committed (which were no small number) he never asked vengeance nor punishment, but for that rendered to Almighty God, his Creator, hearty thanks, thinking that by this trouble and adversity his sins were to him forgotten and forgiven (qtd. in G.B. Harrison, ed. Shakespeare: The Complete Works. New York: Harcourt, 1952, page 143).
Red Badge of Ruthlessness: a Foreshadowing

The play opens at the House of Parliament in London with a bit of black humor that foreshadows the ruthless, bloodstained machinations of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, as he murders his way to the throne in another Shakespeare history play, Richard III. First, Edward, Prince of Wales, tells his father—Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York—that he either killed or severely wounded the Duke of Buckingham. As proof, Edward shows his father his bloody sword. Not to be outdone, Montague then displays his sword, stained with the blood of the Earl of Wiltshire. Richard, Duke of Gloucester, then ends the game of one-upmanship by throwing down the head of the Duke of Somerset. Plantagenet then says, “Richard hath best deserv’d of all my sons” (1.1.19).

Historical Irony

Henry VI, though a good man, was one of England's weakest rulers. Ironically, his father, the warrior king Henry V, was one of England's strongest and most beloved monarchs. Henry VI may have inherited his father's throne, but not his genes. Perhaps even more ironic, though, is that Henry VI was king of England for approximately 40 years, a term of office far longer than all but a few English monarchs.

War of the Roses

Henry Bolingbroke's ascendancy to the English throne as Henry IV was the germinal event that triggered the War of the Roses (1455-1485) between the House of Lancasterfounded by Bolingbroke's father, John of Gauntand the House of York. For additional information on the War of the Roses, click here.

Lineage of the Houses of Lancaster and York

House of Lancaster: Henry IV ("Bolingbroke," son of the Duke of Lancaster), 1399-1413. Age at death: 47. Henry V (son of Henry IV), 1413-1422. Age at death: 34. Henry VI (son of Henry V, deposed), 1422-1471. Age at death: 49. 
House of York: Edward IV (son of duke of York), 1461-1483. Age at death: 41. Edward V (son of Edward IV), 1483. Age at death: 13. Richard III ("Crookback," brother of Edward IV) 1483-1485. Age at death: 35.

Study Questions and Essay Topics

1. Which is the most admirable character in the play? Which is the least admirable?
2. Write an essay that uses Henry VI Part III to demonstrate how ruthless politicians maneuver to get their way.
3. Write a psychological profile of King Henry VI or his wife, Margaret.
4. Do King Henry’s loyalists support him because they like him or because they believe he is the rightful king?
5. In monarchies, rulership passes to a son or daughter of the king and queen. Is a monarchy a flawed system of government? Or does it have its merits?
6. Does Richard Plantagenet have a legitimate claim on the throne?
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