Henry VI, Part Three

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Henry VI, Part Three



Henry VI, Part Three, first published in 1595, is one of William Shakespeare's bloodiest plays, with a large portion of the dramatic action taking place either on the battlefield, off the battlefield but involving the details of several murders, or inside courts, discussing the need to go to war or the necessity of disposing of enemies. Ironically, it is a story about a gentle king who was a weak ruler, allowing others to take care of the affairs of his government. Henry VI, the real king, was known to be more interested in book learning and spiritual matters than warfare. Unfortunately, much of his legacy (the part that Shakespeare focuses on in this play) involved bloodshed.

This play is the third and last section of the Henry VI trilogy (preceded by the aptly named Henry VI, Part One and Henry VI, Part Two). The trilogy is ostensibly about the life and reign of Henry IV, the son of the great warrior Henry V, about whom Shakespeare also created a drama. Unlike Shakespeare's play Henry V, however, this particular play, Henry VI, Part Three has very little to do with the monarch himself. The reason for this might be that by the time King Henry VI had reached this part of his life, he had become a recluse. In his place stood his wife, Queen Margaret, a defiant woman who fought harder for Henry's throne than the king himself did. Other main characters in this drama include members of the Plantagenet family, the noblemen from York, who claim what they believe is their legitimate inheritance of the throne. The main action of the play revolves around the battle for the crown between the Yorkists and the Lancastrians (Henry's clan); both families were legitimate descendants of King Edward III (1327–77). The play begins with Henry on the throne, which quickly changes when the Yorkists take the throne by force. After another battle, Henry is reinstated as king for a short period of time until the Yorkists recapture the throne.

These were terrible times for the English, as the country was involved in the conflict which history referred to as the Wars of Roses (1455–87). This was a civil war with the Yorkists (symbolized by a white rose on their badges) and their followers on one side and those allegiant to the Lancastrians (who wore badges with a red rose on them) on the other side. As the English rule switched back and forth between the two families, thousands of soldiers sacrificed their lives, noblemen were killed, as were young children of both families who might claim the throne in the future.

Although popular in Shakespeare's time, this play did not receive as warm a reception as many other Shakespearian dramas did between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. It was not until more modern times that scholars and audiences have taken an interest in this drama. Some critics believe that the atrocities of a civil war, with brother fighting against brother, father against son, might have been too much to stomach, at least for some English audiences in earlier centuries. But as a glimpse into English history, especially as Shakespeare demonstrates the human nature behind the scenes of war, this play offers a creatively documented portal into history.


Act 1, Scene 1

Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part Three begins in the midst of a battle. The Duke of York enters the Parliament House with his sons, Edward and Richard, and several of his noblemen. They wonder where King Henry is and how they missed capturing him. They discuss their battles, with Warwick, one of the noblemen, claiming that he first wants Henry's head and next wants to see the duke crowned king. The duke commits to fighting for the title, and to prove his intentions, he sits down on the throne. Shortly afterward, King Henry arrives on the scene with his lords. Henry is surprised to see the duke sitting on the throne and asks him what right he has to do so. After all, the duke's father was not a king, as was Henry's.

York reminds Henry that Henry's grandfather, King Henry IV, gained the throne through rebellion, not through legal accession. The lords on both sides bicker with one another, each claiming legal right of the throne for their leader. One of King Henry's lords, the Duke of Exeter, states that York might indeed have legal claim. This worries King Henry, who is afraid all his lords might side with York. Henry tries to work out a compromise by telling York that if York allows him to maintain the crown until Henry's death, Henry will make the Yorkists heir to the throne thereafter. York agrees. When the two men embrace, some of Henry's men leave, disgusted.

Henry reflects on having disinherited his own son, Edward, the prince of Wales. After York leaves with his sons and nobles, Queen Margaret and the prince arrive. The king tries to slip away from them, but the queen stops Henry. She has heard about Henry's agreement with York. When Henry says that York forced him to disinherit his son, Margaret asks: "Art thou King, and wilt be forced?" And thus begins the queen's battle to save the throne for her son. She vows to use her army to destroy the Yorkists.

Act 1, Scene 2

York's sons, Richard and Edward do not want to wait until King Henry dies before their family can claim the throne. They talk their father, the Duke of York, into forgetting his oath to the king. "I will be King, or die," the duke finally says, disavowing the oath he has just made with Henry, and then he sends his sons and noblemen out to fight for the throne again. A messenger arrives, warning the duke that the queen is coming to his castle with her army. The duke decides to keep his sons with him. As the queen approaches, the armies go out to meet her in the battlefield. York's men are greatly outnumbered, but they do not worry, because their enemies are led by a woman.

Act 1, Scene 3

The youngest son of York, Edmund, Earl of Rutland, appears with his tutor, when Clifford, one of Henry's men, encounters them. Clifford is determined to murder all of York's family in revenge of their having killed Clifford's father. Edmund pleads for his life, but Clifford is not affected. Clifford says, "Thy father slew my father. Therefore die." And then Clifford stabs the boy.

Act 1, Scene 4

The next scene is on the battlefield. York and his men are losing. York is captured, and Clifford wants to kill him. Queen Margaret wants Clifford to be patient, while she mocks York about having earlier taken the throne. Now, she asks York where his sons are. She calls his sons names. Where are York's men? Then she makes a paper crown and sticks it on top of his head, making the Duke of York an imaginary king. York talks back to her, saying she is nothing like a woman. Clifford stabs York; Queen Margaret stabs York, too. Then she orders her men to cut off York's head and impale it on the gate leading to the town of York.

Act 2, Scene 1

On another battlefield, York's sons, Edward and Richard, wonder where their father is, wonder if he is all right. Edward notices the sun rising, but instead of seeing one sun, he sees three that eventually merge into one. This is a sign, Edward believes, that the three remaining brothers, Edward, George, and Richard, should ban together to unite their power.

A messenger arrives announcing the death of York. When the messenger offers details about how their father died, Edward says he wants to hear no more. Richard, on the other hand, wants to hear every detail. Edward cries, but Richard cannot weep because his tears are being used to help cool down his impassioned mind. Richard can only think of vengeance. Edward then realizes that he has inherited the dukedom of his father. But Richard says that Edward has inherited the throne of England.

One of York's men, Warwick, arrives to announce that his men were defeated by the queen. He also tells them that their brother George has arrived from France. A messenger appears to tell them that the queen is coming.

Act 2, Scene 2

The queen and King Henry, with Clifford and the prince, are outside of York. Clifford tries to convince the king to be nice to the prince, Henry's son, to not disinherit him. Then Clifford tells the king that he should treat the Yorkists as enemies. The king defends his position, stating that sometimes sons do not like what their fathers give them. Henry wishes his own father had given him something other than a kingdom. The queen reminds her husband that he had promised to knight their son, which Henry does. Then the prince vows to fight to the death for the Crown.

A messenger tells the king and queen that the new Duke of York is marching an army of thirty thousand men toward them. Clifford asks the king to disappear, as the queen fights better when the king is not around. The king decides to stay.

The York brothers appear. They confront Clifford, who admits having killed their youngest brother and their father. Then the brothers ask if Henry is going to yield his authority to Edward. Edward tells Margaret that if she had been gentler, like her husband, the Yorkists might not have tried to seize the power. Henry tries to speak, but Margaret silences him. The Yorkists leave, saying they are tired of all the talk and will settle this dispute on the battlefield.

Act 2, Scene 3

In the midst of another battle, the brothers, with Warwick, find each other and swear their allegiance to fight until they gain their revenge of the deaths of their brother and father. Their brother George is now with them.

Act 2, Scene 4

Richard and Clifford fight. But when Warwick appears, Clifford sneaks out. Warwick wants to go after him, but Richard says he wants to be the one to kill Clifford.

Act 2, Scene 5

King Henry is sitting by himself in another part of the battlefield. He is reflecting on wars and on his life. Clifford and the queen have persuaded the king to leave the battle. Henry thinks about how happy life would be if he were a shepherd. Then a man appears, carrying a dead soldier he has just killed. He turns the dead soldier's face and sees that he has killed his father. Another soldier appears, also carrying a body. This soldier laments that he has unknowingly killed his son.

The queen, the prince, and Exeter appear, telling the king that they must flee. Warwick and the York brothers have found a new fierce energy and are winning this battle.

Act 2, Scene 6

In another part of the battlefield, Clifford is wounded, and he acknowledges that he is dying. He reflects on life, wishing that Henry had been more like his father (Henry V), stronger in his role as king, so the Yorkists would not have even thought of trying to take over the Crown. Clifford then calls out to the Yorkists and tells them to come and kill him. Then he faints. Edward and Warwick find Clifford, and they bemoan the fact that they cannot kill him because Clifford is already dead. Warwick tells the brothers to take their father's head off the gate of York and replace it with Clifford's.

Warwick tells the brothers to go to London to claim the throne. Warwick will go to France to ask King Lewis XI to help them. He will ask the king to allow the king's sister-in-law, Bona, to marry Edward, to once again bridge the gap between the two countries. Before the brothers leave, Edward names Richard the Duke of Gloucester and George the Duke of Clarence.

Act 3, Scene 1

King Henry is in hiding, north of England. Two hunters, who are hiding from their prey, see Henry, who is talking out loud to himself. In Henry's ruminations, he makes many references to being a king. He also talks about the queen having traveled to France to talk to the French king. Warwick is also in France to ask for the hand of Bona for Edward. The hunters come out from hiding and ask why Henry knows so much about being king. Henry tries to steer them off track, but in the end they realize who he is and take him captive.

Act 3, Scene 2

In London, Edward, now King Edward IV, is talking to Lady Grey, a widow who is asking to have her land restored to her. She lost the land when her husband died, fighting for Edward. Richard and George are present and are joking about how Edward will probably give the woman her land in exchange for becoming his lover. Edward attempts to woo Lady Grey into his bed, but the widow refuses. Edward then proposes marriage. Lady Grey accepts.

A messenger arrives, telling Edward that Henry has been apprehended. Edward tells the messenger to have Henry taken to the tower.

Everyone leaves but Richard, who thinks aloud, scheming about how he might gain the throne for himself. He lists all the people who stand in line before him. He thinks of alternative rewards for himself but concludes that, because his body is so misshapen, the only way he can find any joy is to rule over everyone. He concludes that he must gain the throne in any way possible.

Act 3, Scene 3

In France, Queen Margaret and the prince meet with King Lewis. Bona is also present in the room. The king tries to make Margaret feel comfortable, but she is too agitated. She finally tells the king that she needs his support to retake the throne. The king considers this, but then Warwick appears. Warwick also asks for the king's support, by giving him Bona for King Edward. King Lewis asks Warwick if King Edward truly loves his sister. Warwick swears that this is true.

A messenger arrives, bearing three letters, one for Queen Margaret, one for Warwick, one for King Lewis. The three of them learn of the marriage of King Edward to Lady Grey. Warwick is angry. He wonders how Edward could have betrayed him. Warwick tells the king and Queen Margaret that he will switch his allegiance and fight with the queen to regain the throne for Henry. The French king promises to send troops to help them.

Act 4, Scene 1

Back in London at the palace, Edward arrives with his new wife, Lady Grey, now queen. George and Richard do not like this marriage and tell Edward that he has made a mistake. Some of Edward's men agree. England needs France as an ally. Others of Edward's men believe England is strong enough to stand alone. Edward tells his brothers that he is king and does not have to listen to them. The messenger arrives and tells them about the reactions in France to Edward's marriage and of Warwick's promise to support Queen Margaret. Warwick has sealed his allegiance to the queen by offering his daughter in marriage to the prince. George says he will marry Warwick's other daughter and he leaves to serve the queen. Richard stays with Edward. He implies that he needs to keep close to Edward in order to find the right opportunity to gain the throne for himself.

Act 4, Scene 2

In Warwickshire, Warwick arrives back in England with French soldiers. He is greeted by George. Warwick tells George about his plan to capture Edward.

Act 4, Scene 3

Edward is encamped in a field, protected only by a small group of watchmen. Warwick and his men surprise the guard and capture Edward. Warwick refers to Edward as duke. Edward questions this, reminding Warwick that before he left for France, Warwick had called Edward king. Warwick says that was before Edward disgraced him when he went to France as Edward's ambassador. Warwick takes the crown from Edward and says that Henry will wear it now.

Act 4, Scene 4

Back in London, at the palace, Lady Grey talks to her brother Lord Rivers, telling him that she fears for Edward's life. She also announces that she is pregnant with Edward's child.

Act 4, Scene 5

Richard has learned where his brother Edward is being held captive. He also knows that Edward is allowed out in the field to hunt. He takes some men with him, and when Edward appears, Richard and his men steal Edward away.

Act 4, Scene 6

Warwick and George go to the tower where Henry is imprisoned. They give him back the crown. Henry accepts the crown but tells them that he is going to retire from leading the government. He asks Warwick to take over that role. Warwick says that position should be given to George. So King Henry appoints them both to the position. Warwick and George agree and promise to make Henry's son, Edward, the rightful heir to the throne. Henry then notices a young boy in their midst. He predicts that the boy will one day bring peace to England. The boy is Henry, Earl of Richmond, the future Henry VII.

A messenger arrives with news that Edward has escaped. This worries Henry, Warwick, and George, who suspect that Edward will raise an army and come back to claim the crown.

Act 4, Scene 7

Edward, Richard, and their soldiers arrive at York, demanding that the mayor of York open the gates. Edward claims that, if not king, he is still the Duke of York. Before the mayor opens the gates, Edward also claims allegiance to King Henry.

Montgomery arrives with his troops and says he is there to help Edward reclaim the throne. Edward says that he is not ready to do so because his forces are not big enough yet. Montgomery, upon hearing this, says he will then leave. Richard counsels Edward, telling him that now is the time. Edward changes his mind and Montgomery stays.

Act 4, Scene 8

Warwick is with King Henry in London. They learn that Edward and his armies are heading to London to retake the throne. Warwick leaves, to prepare to meet Edward. King Henry talks with Exeter about his reign, evaluating things he has done, hoping that he has been fair. Edward enters and orders Henry be taken prisoner and sent to the tower.

Act 5, Scene 1

Warwick is in Coventry with his troops, waiting for others to join him. More troops come to join him. Edward and Richard also arrive. Edward asks Warwick if he will support him. Warwick says that he now backs Henry. Edward tells him that Henry is his prisoner once again. When George arrives with his troops, Richard goes to speak to him. Richard changes George's mind, and George asks his brother Edward to forgive him for deserting him, and he rejoins forces with his brothers. Edward's men and Henry's men, the two opposing forces, agree to meet in the countryside to fight.

Act 5, Scene 2

On a battlefield near Barnet, Warwick has been mortally wounded. Edward leaves him to die. Two noblemen, Somerset and Oxford, appear telling Warwick that the French king has sent more troops with Margaret to help them. It is too late for Warwick, who dies.

Act 5, Scene 3

Edward, Richard, and George, the three York brothers, enter victoriously. They have won this battle. But Margaret approaches, and they go out to meet her.

Act 5, Scene 4

Queen Margaret arrives with her troops from France. She makes a grand speech to the troops, especially those who fought with Warwick. She encourages them not to give up. Prince Edward praises his mother, stating that even cowards, upon hearing his mother's speech, would be proud to fight. A messenger delivers the news that Edward and his soldiers are approaching. Both sides prepare for the battle.

Act 5, Scene 5

The battle is ended. Edward has won. Several of King Henry's nobles are killed. The prince and Margaret are prisoners. The prince tries to talk down to Edward, but this only riles Edward, who orders the prince killed. Margaret tells them to kill her too, but they take her prisoner instead. Richard disappears. George tells Edward that he thinks Richard has gone to the Tower of London to kill Henry.

Act 5, Scene 6

In London, in the Tower, Richard appears before Henry. Henry has heard of his son's death and suspects that his death is near. He refers to the story of Icarus, the man who flew too close to the sun on a pair of waxed wings and fell into the sea. Henry likens his son to Icarus. Henry also predicts that many will mourn all the people that Richard has, and will, kill. Richard then stabs Henry to death. Richard next reflects on his future, stating that his brothers should beware of him.

Act 5, Scene 7

In the throne room, Edward takes his place. His queen and his brothers are with him. Edward asks to see his son, an infant named Edward. He kisses the baby and asks that his brothers do the same. When asked what to do with Margaret, Edward agrees that she should be sent to France, which has promised a ransom for her. The play ends with Edward hoping for "lasting joy."


  • King Henry VI, Part Three was adapted for television by the British Broadcasting Corporation in their Complete Dramatic Works of William Shakespeare, one of the most complete renditions of the play, using almost all of the text as Shakespeare wrote it.



Bona is the French King Lewis's sister-in-law. She has very little to say in this drama and plays a very minor role. She is used in an attempt to bridge the relationship between England and France. Warwick goes to France as King Edward's ambassador to gain the permission of King Lewis to have King Edward marry Bona. When King Lewis asks if King Edward loves Bona, Warwick confirms this to be true. Shortly afterward, letters arrive at the French court, announcing that King Edward has married Lady Grey, although King Edward had sent Warwick to France to ask for the hand of Bona. There is no other communications between Bona and King Edward, and yet Bona claims that she has been spurred by her lover (Edward). She is never seen or heard from again.

Lord Clifford

Lord Clifford is an ally of Queen Margaret's. He is angered from the beginning of the play and throughout all of the action until his death. The Duke of York killed Clifford's father prior to the beginning of this play; Clifford's main motive throughout this drama is to seek revenge. He wants to kill every member of the York family. Clifford kills York's youngest son, Edmund, and then proceeds to kill York. He is the avowed enemy of King Edward, Richard, and George, but he does not face them in any of the battles. Clifford is killed while fighting; however, it is not known who has killed him. He appears with an arrow in his neck and knows that he is dying. By the time the Edward, Richard, and George find him, Clifford is already dead.

Duke of Exeter

The Duke of Exeter is King Henry VI's great uncle. Although a supporter of King Henry, Exeter is the lone voice on Henry's side that agrees with the Duke of York that he is the legitimate heir to the throne. It is Exeter's statement that makes King Henry worry that all his noblemen might agree with Exeter and therefore desert the king in favor of York. This leads Henry to make his compromise with York in the first act, when he declares that upon his death, Henry will make allowances so that York inherits the crown. Exeter remains loyal to King Henry and Queen Margaret, though, and at one point hopes to make peace between the House York and Henry's family. The last Exeter is seen is toward the end of the play. King Henry is using Exeter to reflect on some thoughts, right before King Edward seizes Henry and imprisons him.

Duke of Norfolk

The Duke of Norfolk is one of King Henry's and Queen Margaret's supporters.

Duke of Somerset

The Duke of Somerset, in the beginning of the play, supports the Yorks. However, when Edward's brother, George, goes to the side of the queen, Somerset goes with him. Somerset comforts Warwick when Warwick dies. When Edward wins the last battle, he orders that Somerset's head be chopped off.

Earl of Northumberland

The Earl of Northumberland is on Henry's side and is cousin to Lord Clifford. When Henry promises the throne to York, the Earl of Northumberland curses the king but later supports the queen in her battle to maintain the throne.

Earl of Oxford

The Earl of Oxford supports the queen and travels with her to France. When Edward wins the last battle, Oxford is sent to prison.

Earl of Warwick

Warwick was a nobleman in allegiance with the Plantagenet family, also called the House of York. He was very instrumental in pushing the Duke of York to claim the throne. Warwick was also the force behind Edward gaining the crown. As ambassador for Edward, Warwick goes to France to gain the hand of the French king's sister-in-law, Bona. While in France, however, Edward goes against Warwick's plan and humiliates him in front of the king by marrying Lady Grey after Warwick has just sworn to the French king that Edward loves Bona. In anger and frustration, Warwick tells Queen Margaret that he will leave Edward's side and join her forces. He cements this deal by giving the hand of one of his daughters to the queen's son; they will marry. Warwick sends a message to King Edward, telling him that he will no longer support him. Later, in a battle between the queen's forces and King Edward's, Warwick is killed.

Earl of Westmoreland

Westmoreland is on King Henry's side against the Yorks. However, in the first scene, when Henry promises the throne to the Yorks, Westmoreland becomes disgusted with the king and calls him weak and base. Westmoreland leaves the king and goes to offer his support to the queen.

Edmund, Earl of Rutland

Edmund is the youngest son of Richard, the Duke of York. He appears in only one scene, in which Clifford kills him. Later, Queen Margaret taunts the duke with a handkerchief that has been dipped in Edmund's blood.

Prince Edward

Edward is the son of King Henry and Queen Margaret. He is a young man, always in the company of his mother in this play, and seldom interacts with his father, who ultimately disinherits him. He is betrothed to Warwick's daughter, when Warwick wants to prove his allegiance to the queen. Edward has few lines in this play. Possibly the most notable is when he praises his mother after her speech to encourage her army toward the end of the play. Edward claims that after hearing his mother's remarks, even cowards would be inspired to fight. Edward is killed by King Edward's brother, Richard, thus eliminating another person in Richard's way to becoming a king.

King Edward IV

Edward is the eldest son of Richard, Duke of York. He has three brothers, George, Richard, and Edmund. Edmund, still a young boy, is killed early in the play. George and Richard are more prominent in this play, either staying at Edward's side or, in George's case, at one point actually fighting against him.

Edward becomes the Duke of York after the death of his father. He leads his brothers in battle against Queen Margaret. When they defeat her, Edward claims the crown.

Edward, in Shakespeare's point of view, becomes egotistic after he is crowned and is often heard defying his brothers, telling them that he is king and no longer needs to take their counsel. His brothers become increasingly disenfranchised with their brother, especially when Edward decides to marry Lady Grey. It is uncertain if Edward loves Lady Grey or merely lusts after her. His brothers see no advantage in the marriage to Lady Grey, such as the marriage with the French king's sister-in-law might have brought. More significantly, Edward also frustrates the Earl of Warwick, whose guidance placed Edward on the throne. Warwick and Edward's brother George abandon Edward and work against him after Edward's marriage. In the end, however, George returns and helps Edward defeat Queen Margaret, thus assuring Edward's reign.

At the end of the play, Edward feels no remorse for all the deaths that have been caused in his fight for the throne. He likens those of his so-called enemies that have died to corn that was in need of harvesting.

George, Duke of Clarence

George is son to Richard, Duke of York and younger brother to King Edward. He travels to France to gain support for his father's fight for the throne. Upon returning, he learns that his father has been killed. George supports his brother's fight to gain the throne but is disillusioned when Edward betrays Warwick and marries Lady Grey while Warwick is in France asking for the French king's sister-in-law as a bride for Edward. When Warwick decides to join forces with the queen against Edward, George decides to do the same. However, in the last battle, George reunites with Edward after his other brother, Richard, talks to him. Edward appoints George as Duke of Clarence. By the end of the play, Richard, his younger brother, says in an aside to the audience that George ought to beware because Richard has ambitions of gaining the throne and George is one of the people who is standing in line in front of him.

Lady Elizabeth Grey

Lady Grey comes to King Edward to plead for her husband's land. Her husband was killed fighting for King Edward's right to the throne. When King Edward suggests that he will give her the land if she goes to bed with him, Lady Grey refuses. However, when King Edward proposes marriage, Lady Grey accepts and becomes Queen Elizabeth. She gives King Edward a son at the end of the play.

Lord Hastings

Lord Hastings is one of Edward's supporters. He appears only in act four.

King Henry VI

King Henry VI is the son of King Henry V. Unlike his father, Henry VI is weak, both physically and mentally. He wants peace but is not strong enough to stop his warring nobles. He has made a lot of enemies and by the time the play opens, he must confront the Duke of York, who is sitting on Henry's throne. Henry does not completely back down but he is not forceful enough, being willing to compromise with the duke in order to find a settlement. He promises the duke the crown upon Henry's death. The queen and his noblemen are furious.

Suffering from mental illness, handed down to him from his mother's side, Henry wants to retreat from public life. He dreams about being a simple shepherd and spends most of his time by himself. He delegates the affairs of state to his noblemen and his leadership during battles to his wife and young son. He appears most content while imprisoned, which allows him the peace and the time to read and think of spiritual things.

Henry is a puppet, doing what he is told and going where he is directed. Henry wishes his father had disinherited him the same way he disinherits his son. Henry does not want the throne. He is told to leave the battlefield because his wife fights better when Henry is not around. Henry flees to Scotland when a battle is lost, but he is found and imprisoned. He regains the throne for a year, but not due to any effort on his part. It is in prison that his murderer (in this play it is Richard, the son of the Duke of York) finds him, at which time Henry resigns himself to his fate.

Henry is not a force in this play. He is merely an incident. He appears only when he is forced to, then disappears. He makes no grand speeches and the only forceful move he makes is when he asks (almost pleads) with the Duke of York to allow him to remain on the throne. The duke agrees but only temporarily, canceling out the authority that Henry meekly demonstrated.

King Lewis XI

King Lewis XI (referred to as King Louis XI in some texts) is the king France. He accepts Queen Margaret at court and hears her plea for assistance in putting down the rebellion of the House of York in their attempt to win the crown. King Lewis is also the brother-in-law of Bona and accepts the deal that Warwick proposes—having King Edward marry Bona. The French king is very disappointed, however, when he learns that King Edward has married Lady Grey. At this point, the French king turns all his support to Queen Margaret, sending French troops to England to fight against the Yorks.

Queen Margaret

The queen is wife to King Henry VI and mother of Prince Edward. As Shakespeare portrays her, Margaret is very strong-willed and is as fierce as the king is reticent. Throughout the play, Margaret's main goal is to fight for the throne—not just for her husband, but more importantly for her son. When she speaks forcefully, she is ridiculed for being more like a man than a woman. In turn, she berates her husband for being so mild and giving up the throne without a fight.

In the battle victory that she enjoys in the beginning of the play, she is as violent as any of her men, helping Clifford, for example, to kill the Duke of York. Her speeches as she attempts to raise the spirits of her exhausted army are of an equal to any of Shakespeare's monologues written for male leaders in the midst of war.

Margaret comes across as a strong, articulate woman, who has a goal in mind that she is determined to bring to fruition. She is not afraid of facing her enemies and is not ashamed that she can lead an army better than the king. Of the three women in this play, Margaret does not represent the ultimate vision of femininity, but is rather a woman who is not afraid to fight for what she believes in.

Marquess of Montague

Brother to the Duke of York, the Marquess of Montague supports the Duke of York's claims to the throne. However, when Warwick changes allegiance after Edward marries Lady Grey, Montague also appears on Queen Margaret's side in battle. Montague recognized that England needed the alliance with France. Montague is with Warwick in the last battle between Henry's forces and Edward's.

Richard, Duke of Gloucester

Richard is the third son of the Duke of York and youngest remaining brother of King Edward. Shakespeare paints Richard as having a very misshapen body, which is not completely confirmed by historical events. However, in the play, Richard refers to his body as the reason he will never do well with women or in the court. Richard therefore decides that the only way to gain power is to ascend to the throne. In order to do this, though, he realizes he must get rid of a long line of people in front of him. Richard's goal throughout the play is to stick close to Edward, not through allegiance but in order to keep an eye on Edward and be prepared for the chance to kill him.

Richard is responsible for several deaths in the play, most importantly Prince Edward, son of Henry VI, as well as Henry VI himself. Richard often mocks his brother, Edward, but he does not become as offended by Edward's mistakes as does George. Richard's higher goals keep him disinterested in Edward other than as a stepping stone to Richard's ultimate goal.

Some of Richard's significant statements include the image of the three suns in act two, scene one, through which he ironically implies that the three brothers should stand together as one. All the while Richard is scheming to kill his brothers. Richard also asks for all the gruesome details of his father's death, something that Edward cannot bear to hear. This possibly fuels Richard's own desires to kill. At the end of the play, when Richard kisses Edward's newborn baby, Richard implies that he kisses the baby boy as Judas kissed Jesus.

Richard, Duke of York

Richard is an old adversary of King Henry VI and Queen Margaret. He is related to Henry VI and claims he is the rightful heir to the throne, through the line of Richard II. The duke claims his inheritance from Richard II's eldest son; while Henry VI is related through Richard II's younger son. Richard has made this claim prior to this drama, but he takes advantage of King Henry's lessened involvement in the political affairs of his rule. Richard puts together an army, which includes his sons, Edward, George, and Richard, to fight for the crown. The play begins with Richard sitting on the throne, although he has not actually yet won it. When Henry enters the room in the first act, Richard makes a deal with the king, taking an oath that Henry can maintain possession of the crown until his death. At that time, Richard will be crowned king. However, Richard's sons do not want to wait that long. They talk Richard into breaking this oath and once again going against Henry's armies. Richard is killed by Queen Margaret and Clifford after one of the battles. His head is placed on the gate of York, the city that he once ruled.

Lord Rivers

Lord Rivers supports King Edward and is Lady Grey's brother. He appears briefly in act four. It is to Lord Rivers that Lady Grey announces that she is pregnant with Edward's child.


Bloody Murder and War

Most of the action of Shakespeare's King Henry VI, Part Three takes place on the battlefield, as the two branches of one family, the Lancastrians and the Yorkists, fight for the right to the throne. Warfare is glorified throughout the dialogue, praising men who are proud enough to fight and sacrifice their lives. Little thought is given to the taking of life. Most of the murders are rationalized as merely a means to get what one wants—certain people have to be eliminated in order for one family, or the other, to claim the throne. Whoever has the bigger or the stronger army wins the right to rule. Oaths are broken, and there seem to be no laws that can settle the dispute. The only recourse is to fight to the death in wars. This play focuses on the War of Roses and the bloody results as the two families clash. There is less time given to other human developments in this play other than the desire to completely annihilate one another.

Accession to the Throne

The major question of this drama is who deserves the right to be called king. Two branches of one family, descendents from the same relative, Edward III, argue for the throne. Each has a logical, if not legal, case. Bloodlines cross, making the path of accession murky. So it comes down to which side has the most physical power, putting weaker members, especially young princes, at risk. Shakespeare points out the weaknesses in this system, especially through the character of Richard, who commits himself to eliminating all those who stand in his way to accede to the throne. He will kill anyone who is in line before him, or so Shakespeare implies. Whether in real life this actually happened was never confirmed, but Richard did eventually win the crown through the mysterious deaths of those who might have attained it before him. Whether Shakespeare was using this play to point out the horrors of such a system gone wrong is not known. But by emphasizing the battles and adding the element of Richard's scheming, one could argue that this was indeed Shakespeare's point.

Role of Women

There are three women in this drama, Queen Margaret, Lady Grey, and Bona. The most powerful of these women is Queen Margaret, whom Shakespeare endows with the role of saving the crown for her husband and therefore her son, the prince. Margaret's lines in this play are similar to what Shakespeare usually reserves for male characters. Margaret rallies her soldiers to fight and she also stands up to powerful people such as Richard, Edward, and the Duke of York. Even the old Duke of York chastises her for being too manly. Women are supposed to be soft and therefore pliant, the duke tells her. But not so Margaret, who leads her troops to war and even asks that the king leave her side because she fights better when he is not around. Margaret is portrayed to be almost like Joan of Arc, who led the French against the English in taking back the French land that England had once claimed. Margaret is strong willed, intelligent, and brave. She even fools the Yorkists into believing that they can defeat her merely because she is a woman. The way Shakespeare creates her, Margaret plays the so-called husband role to her diminutive Henry, who shies away from war and hides behind books. In the process, though, as the Duke of York points out, Margaret loses all definitions of femininity. In order to be this strong, Shakespeare implies, a woman can no longer be a woman. She, in all but fact, is a man. Even in her role with her son, she acts more like a father than a mother.

It is Lady Grey who plays out the role of femininity. Edward is enamored of Lady Grey's feminine charms and immediately wants to go to bed with her when he sees her. She is also the maker of children, having already conceived and given birth to three when Edward meets her. Edward seems to want to ensure that he has an heir and latches on to Lady's Grey's fertility. Lady Grey is strong but soft spoken. She demands her land and refuses to go to bed with Edward. So the king relents and marries her. Lady Grey then produces a son for him. She is the epitome of the perfect wife: someone strong enough to stand up for her rights and yet willing to succumb when she gets what she wants. She supports her husband, worries about him when he is at war, and stays home, rather than joining him in battle, to take care of their son.

Bona, the French king's sister-in-law, plays a very minor, as well as docile, role. She is woman as object, used to create liaisons between one country and another. She has no will of her own; she does what she is told. She is a title, a piece of paper, a puppet. She is, in other words, not real. She merely holds a place. One of Bona's three lines in the play has her saying to Edward's messenger: "Tell him, in hope he'll prove a widower shortly, I'll wear the willow garland for his sake." This is a powerful line but it lacks any significance. Is she insinuating that she is going to kill Lady Grey? Or is she just hoping for it, a careless wish? There is no substance behind it. The willow garland is the sign of a disappointed lover. But even this is weak, as there was no love between her and Edward. Bona is the weakest woman of the three women in this play, the complete opposite of Queen Margaret. Through these three women, Shakespeare provides a full glimpse of womanhood of his time—at least, that which is seen in the noble classes.


The subject of allegiance sways back and forth through this drama. Starting at the top, King Henry has no allegiance to his son, disinheriting him in hopes that Henry will finally find peace in his life. Margaret and her son, however, have sworn themselves to the recapturing of the throne, a promise from which they do not distract themselves. As wishy-washy as Henry is, Margaret and the prince are completely committed. Shortly thereafter, the Duke of York, who had sworn to accept Henry's decree, goes back on his word and thus negates any allegiance he had shared with the king.

On the side of the Yorkists, Richard is the most committed, although his allegiance is not to his country or to his brothers. Richard's only allegiance is to himself. It is a strong commitment, one he will keep until he has won the throne, no matter what he has to do to get it. Richard's brother George, however, sways one way and then the other, depending on who looks like they might win the war. He stands behind his brother Edward until he believes that having the French king on Queen Margaret's side will ensure that the queen will win. Then, just before a battle against his brother, George is easily persuaded to ask Edward's forgiveness and allow him to fight on Edward's side.

Edward's allegiance is likewise shaky. He appears to want to go forward in attaining the crown, but he is always a bit reluctant to move in that direction. Usually, Richard is the one to push him, telling Edward that now is the time, not later; or reminding Edward that not only is Edward the duke (after their father dies) but also heir to the throne. Edward does not keep his word with Warwick, either, sending his ambassador to France with one goal, to win the hand of Bona, and then no sooner is Warwick gone than Edward marries Lady Grey.

Warwick's lack of commitment is warranted, to a point. He is embarrassed when he has just told the French king that Edward truly loves Bona, then has to announce that Edward has married Lady Grey. Right on the spot, Warwick, who has spent all his life up until that moment on the side of the Yorkists, turns to his enemy, Queen Margaret, and not only tells her that he will support her in her fight to regain the throne but also commits his daughter to marry the queen's son.


  • Compare the Wars of the Roses in England with the Civil War in the United States. Were there any similarities in the weaponry? Were the military strategies different? How did the casualties compare? What were the various sizes of the armies? How much land did each of the civil wars cover? Were the battles continuous or were there intervals in between? How long did each war last? Record your statistics on a chart and present your findings to your class.
  • One commentator compared Queen Margaret to Britain's prime minister Margaret Thatcher. Research each woman and the roles they played in the history of England. Did you find any similarities? Write a short summary of each woman's life, challenges, and accomplishments; then present your findings to your class.
  • Imagine that you are King Edward IV, and you have fallen in love with Lady Grey. She refuses to have anything to do with you because she thinks all you want is to take her to bed. Write a love poem (in any style, either modern or in an Elizabethan tone) to Lady Grey, convincing her that your love is true and that you want to marry her.
  • One of the most poignant scenes in Henry VI, Part Three occurs in act two, scene five, in which the king thinks about the effects of war. Find two classmates who will present a portion of this scene to your class. Begin with line 55, where a son appears on the scene, dragging with him a dead body, only to find out it is his father. Continue the scene until line 124. Each person should memorize his or her lines and deliver them with as much passion as possible, imagining that each has killed someone they loved. Afterwards, lead a discussion on the topic of Henry VI's effectiveness as a king. Was he too weak, or was he a man of peace surrounded by times of war? Base the discussion on the speech that Henry makes in this scene.

Shakespeare might have presented all these different degrees of allegiance to show the meaningless of such commitments. All of the allegiances in this play are non-binding, completely reliant on a person's word. The drama demonstrates that this is not a strong enough bind.


The rivalry between the Lancastrians and the Yorkists, two branches of the same family, brings a whole country into war. It is a longstanding rivalry, going back one hundred and fifty years. Over the course of that time, members of one or another of the families are killed in pursuit of victory.

Rivalries are not only present in the larger scope but also on a more personal level, such as is seen in Richard, King Edward's brother. Richard, who is overlooked as an heir to the throne because he is younger than Edward, is determined to do what he must to ensure that he spends time on the throne. He is not content that his brother is finally king, having won a bloody war against the Lancastrians. Richard must win the crown for himself, even if it means the death of his brothers.

Rivalry is not inherently wrong. In other words, it does not always lead to bloodshed. Rivalry, used in a positive way, can make each side stronger. But in this play, rivalry does no such thing. The battles that are fought are to the death. There are few rules of competition. If someone sneaks up on another person and stabs that person, then the one remaining standing is declared the winner. This is the way rivalry is portrayed in this play, at least. There are no noble causes, no good over evil; there is just a fight between two factions. Whoever has the biggest army claims the prize. England is not necessarily stronger or weaker depending on who wins, thus it does not really matter who wins. The best result of this rivalry is that in the end the fighting is done, and hopefully the country can enjoy some peace.


History Play

Henry VI, Part Three is classified as one of Shakespeare's history plays. Shakespeare wrote ten history plays in all: King John, Richard II, Henry IV, Part One, Henry IV, Part Two, Henry V, Henry VI, Part One, Henry VI, Part Two, Henry VI, Part Three, Henry VIII, and Richard III. Each of these plays covers an English king's reign between the twelfth and the sixteenth centuries. Through Shakespeare's history plays, a sense of nationalism is expressed. Great heroic speeches are presented by kings and queens who appear bigger than life, for the most part. The source for most of Shakespeare's history plays came from the study of English history by Raphael Holinshed called the Chronicle (1587).

Shakespeare was particular about what he chose to put into his history plays. Not all of the information is historically accurate; and he did not include all the details that were available to him. Instead, he shaped the plays so they would tell a more dramatic story. Shakespeare was also influenced by the politics of his time. For example, Richard, the brother of King Edward IV, is clearly depicted as a malformed villain, which some historians find a very distorted description. Literary scholars argue that the form of the history plays was based on propaganda, to show the evils of civil war, for example, and to celebrate the end of the rivalry between Lancaster and York. Shakespeare's last play in this series is Henry VIII, which marks the beginning of the Tudor monarchy, of which Queen Elizabeth I was a part. In other words, Shakespeare's reason behind creating these plays, as well as the form of his stories, may well have been dictated by his allegiance to the queen of his own time.

The history plays are broken into different cycles. The first tetralogy includes the three parts of Henry VI and Richard III. The second tetralogy includes Richard II, the two parts of Henry IV, and Henry V. When the whole series of history plays is performed in historic order (with the second tetralogy presented before the first tetralogy), the series is called The War of the Roses.

Use of Rhetoric to Inspire

Whether Shakespeare was writing Julius Caesar, Henry V, or any of his other plays that focus on a leader who is trying to persuade a crowd of citizens or group of soldiers, Shakespeare demonstrates his powerful use of rhetoric. Henry VI is no exception. The only difference might be that in Henry VI, most of that rhetoric is spoken by a woman.

In act one, scene one, Margaret rails against her husband after he has disinherited their son. The rhetoric is spoken in free verse, a series (usually lengthy) of phrases written in iambic pentameter with no ending rhyme. Margaret's first speech begins, "Enforced thee? Art thou King, and / wilt be forced? / I shame to hear thee speak. Ah, timorous wretch!" Here, Margaret is trying to persuade her husband to change his mind about giving the throne to the Yorkists. She is unsuccessful in encouraging her husband, who has no will to fight, but she does inspire her son and many of the nobles who remain faithful to her.

Shortly afterward in the same act and scene, Richard uses rhetoric to persuade his father, the Duke of York, to forget about his oath that he made to King Henry. The oath, Richard tells his father, is not binding because it was not taken in front of a magistrate. "Your oath, my lord, is vain and frivolous. / Therefore, to arms! And, father, do but think / How sweet a thing it is to wear a crown." Unlike Margaret's power to influence her husband, Richard is quite effective in persuading his father to forget about the oath and fight against Margaret to win the crown.

Another example of how Shakespeare uses rhetorical speeches is in act one, scene four, after Margaret has captured the Duke of York and mocks him before putting him to death. She uses her speech to encourage her troops to continue the fight until they regain the throne completely.

In this play, it seems that more rhetoric is used against the king than he himself uses it. In act two, scene two, it is Lord Clifford's turn to persuade Henry, who is disgusted at the sight of the Duke of York's head impaled on the gate to the city. But Clifford has not yet seen enough blood. The battles have just begun. Clifford knows he must persuade the king to allow the army to continue the fight. So Clifford begins: "My gracious liege, this too much lenity / And harmful pity must be laid aside." Clifford continues by describing how lions look upon beasts that might destroy them, an effective way to get the king motivated to leave and let them fight.

Throughout the play, this use of rhetoric, with its more lofty and poetic language than the ordinary prose, lifts the spirits of the characters, moving them in a specific direction through the power of Shakespeare's words.

Shakespearian Language: Viewing versus Reading

Shakespeare's plays were meant to be seen, not read. This is even truer today than in Shakespeare's time. Because the language is antiquated, with vocabulary that no longer is in use and contains word play whose references are no longer common to the modern audience, it is difficult to understand and appreciate the play just by reading it silently to oneself. When reading, it is hard to flow over the words without understanding each and every one of them. Words are the only clues that a reader has in trying to make sense of what is going on. However, when the play is dramatized with real actors and actresses, settings and atmosphere, the play comes alive. Actors use body language and phrasing that can help the audience interpret what is going on. Voice inflection also helps. The action of the play gives the audience more clues, playing out the meaning of words that are unfamiliar. While observing the play being performed, audiences do not get stuck on single words of dialogue but rather let the words flow through them, matching them with the reactions of the actors, even if the specific words do not make sense. Also, after hearing the words for a while, the audience becomes accustomed to their use and begins to make definitions for themselves, making the play so much more enjoyable than a solitary reading of what can seem like dry text. The text can be used to enhance the experience after viewing the performance.


Henry VI (1421–71)

The English King Henry VI was born at Windsor castle, the only child of Henry V and Catherine. His father had been a valiant and brilliant military leader, having regained ownership of lands in France as well as a legitimate claim to the French throne. Henry VI was only nine months old when his father died, thus becoming, in name, England's next king.

Henry was expected to follow in his father's footsteps. Unfortunately for England, Henry was inclined in a different direction. He was also stricken with a mental illness, inherited from his maternal grandfather, King Charles VI of France, which caused him to often disappear from view during the latter part of his reign.

Because his mother was French and only twenty years old at the time of her husband's death, she did not play a strong role in the upbringing of her son. The nobles around her were suspicious both of her heritage and her age. Henry was given a tutor, the Earl of Warwick; Cardinal Beufort and the Duke of Gloucester, uncles of Henry's, also closely guided his upbringing. A council was formed to rule the country until Henry was of age.

In 1429, right before his eighteenth birthday, Henry was officially crowned king of England. Two years later, due to his father's previous victories in the Hundred Years' War with France, Henry was also crowned king of France. Although this coronation in France was legal, Henry did not pursue the reign, preferring peace over battle. In the meantime, the son of French King Charles VI claimed a right to the throne. With the help of Joan of Arc, Charles reclaimed most of the land the English held in France and was crowned Charles VII, so that technically England's rule of the land became a moot point.

From the beginning, Henry showed little interest in governing his country. Instead, he turned over that job to his noblemen. Instead of fighting France, Henry was advised to pursue peace through his marriage to French King Charles VII's niece, Margaret of Anjou. They were married in 1445. Henry was twenty-four, Margaret was sixteen. With Margaret's strong personality and Henry's reticence, the new queen quickly took over the reign of England. In 1453, Henry and Margaret had a son, Prince Edward. In the same year as his son's birth, Henry VI had a mental breakdown. Richard, Duke of York, was assigned as regent, protector of the realm, until Henry's recovery. Headstrong Queen Margaret alienated Richard, and he attacked her troops in 1455 at St. Albans, beginning the War of the Roses. Five years later, Richard captured Henry and forced him to recognize Richard as legal heir to the crown. Henry escaped and, in 1461, started a counter attack against Richard but lost. Richard's son, Edward IV, was crowned king and Margaret and Henry fled to Scotland. In 1465, Queen Margaret and King Henry were captured and held in the Tower of London for five years. Power was restored to Henry for one year, from 1470 until 1471. When Edward IV regained the throne, Henry and the prince, his son, were killed and Margaret was sent back to France.

Queen Margaret (1430–1482)

Margaret was the fifth child of the Count of Anjou (an accomplished artist and author) and his wife, Isabella of Lorraine. Margaret's father eventually became the king of Naples and Sicily. Margaret was much sought after, so when she was given to King Henry VI, her father got away without offering a dowry. In fact, England's ambassadors, headed by the Earl of Suffolk, as accounted by some historians, approved a deal with the French king to actually give back French lands held by England at that time in order to gain Margaret as a wife for Henry VI.

Margaret allied herself with Suffolk and two successive Dukes of Somerset, against the Duke of York. She tried in vain to gain the title of regent when her husband suffered his first mental breakdown, but this title was given to the Duke of York.

After her army was defeated and Edward IV took the throne, Margaret first retreated to Scotland and later to her homeland in Lorraine in 1463, where she set up a court in exile with her son. In 1468, the Earl of Warwick combined forces with her, and Margaret returned to England in an attempt to reclaim the throne. Unfortunately, Warwick was killed in battle the day she returned in 1471. Unwilling to give up, Margaret marched her army toward Wales to gather reinforcements. King Edward learned of this and cut off her passage to the bridge across the Severn River. Margaret had to take an alternate route, which further exhausted her already tired troops. She planned to cross the river at Tewkesbury, but Edward was right behind her. She turned her army to face Edward's on May 4, 1471. Margaret's forces were defeated. The Duke of Somerset, who had supported Margaret, was tried for treason and killed. Margaret's son died in the battle. Margaret was taken prisoner and later ransomed in 1478. Margaret spent her remaining years in Anjou and died four years later.

Wars of the Roses, 1455–1487

The Wars of the Roses were a series of battles fought in a civil war in England between two opposing houses, the House of Lancaster (symbolized by a red rose) and the House of York (symbolized by a white rose). The term Wars of the Roses was actually instigated by Shakespeare. At the time of the civil war, no such term was used.

This civil war, mostly because of such a high death toll on the nobles of the country, caused many changes in England. It marked the beginning of the end of the feudal system in England and the strong emergence of a merchant class that was accumulating wealth, land, and therefore, power. It also marked the end of Medieval England and the beginning of the country's Renaissance. Another ending was the line of the Plantagenet monarchy and the beginning of the Tudor reign, begun with Henry VII and continued, in Shakespeare's time, with Henry's daughter, Elizabeth I.

The civil war had its roots in the overthrow of King Richard II (1367–1400) in 1399. Henry Bolingbroke (who would become King Henry IV) brought an army to England from France to reclaim an enormous amount of land that King Richard had taken away from Henry upon Henry's father's death. King Richard had a legal right to do so, seeing as Henry's land and the power it gave him was viewed as a threat to the kingdom. However, Henry was willing to fight for his land, which he did. While King Richard was putting down a rebellion in Ireland, Henry took advantage of the king's absence, fought with local nobles and gained enough power to declare himself king. Richard, who was not a very popular king, was put into prison, where he died, mysteriously, a year later.

Henry IV's reign was not an easy one. Having taken the throne by force, he had made many enemies, especially those whose legitimate claim to the throne he had ignored. Henry's oldest son (who would become Henry V) was a brilliant and courageous warrior and was responsible, on many occasions, for putting down major rebellions against his father—rebellions that came from the other side of the family who wanted the throne. Beginning in 1405, Henry IV suffered from a recurring illness that finally took his life in 1413.

Henry V (1387–1422) would go on to secure English-held lands in France and strengthen the bond between the two countries by winning the right to the French, as well as to the English, Crown. Henry V died at a young age in battle in France, leaving a nine-month-old son—King Henry VI. While Henry V was busy fighting wars in France and accumulating wealth for his country, the feud between the York and Lancaster Houses was subdued. Only one rebellion occurred, and the leader of that rebellion was tried for treason and killed. However, with Henry V's death—and only a baby for king, and Henry V's wife, who was not only young but of French blood—members of both Houses began maneuvering again for power.

Henry VI was a weak man, surrounded by poorly managed counselors. Not only did Henry suffer from mental illnesses, he lost most of the land that his father had won in France. Although Henry VI technically was king of France, he lost all authority in that country. Many English nobles, each with his own powerful army, grew discontent with Henry VI's rule. They saw a chance to overtake what they perceived to be an illegitimate monarch and replace him with one from the House of York. The Duke of York was appointed as regent when Henry had his first serious bout of mental illness in 1453. Two years later, wary of the duke's rise in power, Queen Margaret made sure the duke was booted out of the court. Then she built a powerful army, ready to face the duke's anticipated attack, which came in 1455 in St. Albans. The queen's army lost, and the duke was restored to power as a regent of the court.

After several more battles and jockeying for military power, the two armies met in Northampton for a battle that would once again see the defeat of the king's army. King Henry, as a result, in 1460, was taken prisoner. This gave the Duke of York a surge of power; and he made a claim for the throne. The nobles in parliament were stunned. Even the men who supported York thought this was too bold a move. They had not meant to remove Henry from the throne. The parliament then worked out a compromise, which stated that the duke would inherit the throne upon Henry's death. The queen and her son were told to leave London, and the duke retained his position as regent, thus he was able to govern England when Henry was incapacitated by his disease. The queen rebelled at these actions, gathered an army around her, and positioned herself outside of York. When the duke learned of this, he went after her, although the queen's troops were double the size of the duke's. The duke's army was easily defeated.

The Duke of York was beheaded, as was his seventeen-year-old son. His head, as it was in Shakespeare's play, was placed on the gate to the city of York. Edward, eldest son of the duke and who was just eighteen at the time, led an army into London. The town favored the House of York and cheered Edward on. Parliament unofficially named Edward king.

In 1461, the Battle of Towton, one of the bloodiest battles ever fought on English soil at the time, was fought with an estimated 25,000 people dying. Edward's army greatly defeated the queen's army, forcing the queen and king, with their son, to flee to Scotland. That same year, Edward was officially crowned king of England, becoming Edward IV.


  • 1400s: England is involved in a long civil war as rival members of the Plantagenet family claim their right to the throne.
    Today: England is involved in a war against terrorism, supporting the U.S. effort in Iraq. British involvement is causing dissention at home among the populace and members of Parliament.
  • 1400s: Queen Margaret forms an army and leads her men into battle to fight for the throne.
    Today: Queen Elizabeth II tries to keep her family's secrets out of the tabloids, which expose clandestine love affairs of her children, among other things.
  • 1400s: The Tower of London is used to house imprisoned royalty, including Henry VI and Lady Grey. The Tower also houses a set of ravens, kept there due to superstitions that if they are released, England will fail.
    Today: The Tower of London is a historic site that tourists often visit. There are souvenir shops and restaurants inside. The Tower also houses a set of ravens, kept there due to long historic traditions.
  • 1400s: London's population ranges between 60,000 and 100,000 people.
    Today: The population of London is approximately 7.3 million.

Edward enjoy a few years of peace, but when he married Elizabeth Woodville in secret, he embarrassed Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, a long-time friend, who was working to arrange a marriage for Edward with the French king. Edward also disallowed his brothers, Richard and George, to marry Neville's daughters. Neville, no longer enjoying privileges at court as he once had, formed an allegiance with Edward's brother George, who was jealous of his brother's power. In 1469, they fought against Edward. Neville and George won a decisive battle, held Edward hostage, killed Edward's father-in-law, and forced Edward to have parliament recognize Edward as an illegitimate king and to give the crown to George. Edward's younger brother, Richard, rescued the king, and Neville and George had to flee to France.

In France, it was King Louis XI who suggested the alliance of Queen Margaret and Neville. The two agreed, Neville promised his daughter as wife to the queen's son, and returned to England with a powerful army. Edward was defeated and had to flee to Holland and then to Burgundy. Edward, supported by the king of Burgundy, returned to England. Shortly after Neville had paraded Henry VI all over London as the restored king, he was defeated by Edward's new army in 1471. Henry as well as his son were then killed, strengthening Edward's claim to the throne.

Edward died young, in 1483, leaving his twelve-year-old son heir to the throne. Edward V's reign lasted only a couple of months. Richard, the uncle to the young king, claimed that his brother (Edward IV) had married Elizabeth illegally and therefore his heirs could not be crowned king. Parliament agreed, and crowned King Richard III in 1483. Edward V was placed in the Tower of London, along with his younger brother, and was never again seen.

Two years later, in 1485, Richard would meet his death in a battle against Henry Tudor of the House of Lancaster; he would become King Henry VII. Henry married Elizabeth of York, the strongest claimant for the throne from the York house, thus securing his position and ending the long Wars of the Roses.


King Henry VI, Part Three was a popular drama when it first appeared. As Norrie Epstein, in the book The Friendly Shakespeare, writes, "The Henry VI trilogy was a box-office smash that turned an unremarkable actor named William Shakespeare into the most successful playwright of the day." Epstein continues that the Elizabethan audiences enjoyed watching dramas that depicted their past. In Shakespeare's time, "the Wars of the Roses were still vivid in the minds of Shakespeare's audience." The stories of the members of the House of Lancaster and the House of York were as familiar to the English audiences in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as stories about the Kennedys were to twentieth-century citizens of the United States. Knowing the outcome of all the historic events gave the audiences of Shakespeare's time a "double perspective," which "allowed them to observe the past while knowing its outcome—both in history and on stage. Thus the characters' words were given an extra level of meaning that is lost to us today."

Epstein then expounds on the merit of Shakespeare's history plays by stating: "Shakespeare domesticates history. Kings and queens are mothers and fathers. When not conducting state business, rulers eat, drink, make love, sleep, and gossip." In spite of this, Epstein writes, "Even many Shakespeare enthusiasts don't bother to read Henry VI, and it's rarely performed in its entirety" (all three parts). Although "the plot is a sweeping panorama," Epstein writes, "there's no hero, just a succession of characters who temporarily hold center stage and then quickly depart." Epstein adds, "Even Henry seems almost incidental at times."

Despite the lack of production and the length of this play (when all three parts are considered), Milton Crane, a professor at the George Washington University, who wrote an introduction to the text of Shakespeare's play Henry VI, Part Three, states that in the twentieth century "more persons have seen the three parts of Henry VI than had ever seen any one of the plays in all the centuries of their existence." Crane credits the explosion of interest to the exciting details of the play. "Though the framework of Henry VI is serious, moral, and didactic—a history, on the one hand, of France's efforts to free herself from English domination and, on the other, of the hideous social and political convulsions that we call the Wars of the Roses—these annals of an age of anarchy are full of thrilling and gruesome details calculated to delight the heart of a groundling." Crane then adds that this play, with its bloody feud between the Houses of Lancaster and York, is "Shakespeare's inspired anticipation of the Western movie."

Maurice Charney, writing in All of Shakespeare, refers to Henry VI, Part Three as "undoubtedly Shakespeare's most military play." Then Charney adds that from the very first scene in the play, Shakespeare "sets the tone for this murderous, savage, and chaotic play." But for all the blood, there is a scene that Charney focuses on in act two, scene five, the famous Father and Son scene, in which a son realizes that he has killed his father; and a father discovers that he has killed his own son. This scene, Charney writes, "powerfully enacts a symbolic tableau…. This is a choral scene intended to represent what the savagery of the Wars of the Roses is all about."

In John Julius Norwich's Shakespeare's Kings, the author writes, "Nowhere is Shakespeare's extraordinary ability to turn a chronicle into a drama more impressively demonstrated than in the third part of King Henry VI." It was only in part three of this play, Norwich states, that Shakespeare "is called upon to encapsulate in little more than two hours what is virtually the entire course of the Wars of the Roses," a process that, in reality, took sixteen years. "Now at last, with all the inevitability of Greek tragedy, the House of Lancaster suffers retribution for the atrocity committed at the end of the previous century: the deposition and murder of Richard II and the usurpation of his crown by Henry IV are finally avenged." Norwich then goes on to surmise that in the last scene of the play, Shakespeare makes clear the true purpose of this play, the "villainy and duplicity" of Richard, who would go on (in Shakespeare's next play as well as in history) to become Richard III. "It was this, above all else, that the Elizabethan audiences would carry home with them; it was to emphasize this that Shakespeare had been deliberately building up the character of Richard; and this that he was to make the theme of the last and greatest play of his series [the tetralogy of Henry V, Henry VI, and Richard III]."


Joyce Hart

Hart, a freelance writer and published author, digs into the text of this play to find the nature of the king as Shakespeare presents him.

There are many descriptions of the historic King Henry VI, the English ruler of the fifteenth century. He was known for having inherited a mental illness from his mother's side of the family and, therefore, for being an ill and weak monarch. Others refer to King Henry VI as being a bit of a philosopher, who was a voracious reader, and an attempted peacemaker. But Henry was also a descendant of King Edward III, of the Plantagenet family, a line of kings that was not well liked, especially by the Tudors, of whom Shakespeare's Queen Elizabeth I was a member. Since Queen Elizabeth held a tight rein on the material that was presented on stage during her time, audiences might never know for sure how Shakespeare truly felt about King Henry. Shakespeare's depiction of the king in Henry VI, Part Three may merely reflect what Shakespeare thought Queen Elizabeth might want to see. So the question is not what did Shakespeare like or dislike about King Henry but rather, how he presented him on the stage. What kind of ruler was Henry as presented by his actions and his speeches in this drama? What kind of a father was he? What were some of the thoughts that Shakespeare attributed to him? And how does King Henry compare with some of the other major characters in this play?

King Henry's first appearance in Henry VI, Part Three is in the first scene of the first act. The king enters and sees the Duke of York sitting on King Henry's throne. King Henry's tone is mild and timid, first turning to his men, specifically the Earl of Northumberland and Lord Clifford. Instead of Henry directly confronting the Duke of York and stating his outrage (if it is outrage), Henry reminds Northumberland and Clifford that the duke was responsible for their fathers' deaths. "You both have vowed revenge," the king tells them, just in case they might have forgotten. Strangely, after trying to rile Northumberland and Clifford by reminding them of the deaths of their fathers, the king then tells them to be patient, as if he has had second thoughts, which is exactly what Shakespeare implies. For the king then mentions that the citizens of London favor the duke and his noblemen, and more importantly, the king knows that the duke's army is prepared to fight. Although the king's own noblemen are ready to kill the duke for what they see as an act of treason on the part of the duke, the king informs them that he too wants a war, but it will be a war of words, not of swords. The king's reason for not wanting bloodshed (other than not having a prepared army to back him) is that the fighting would disrupt the Parliament. The king says: "Far be the thought of this [killing the Duke] from Henry's heart, / To make a shambles of the Parliament House!"

A lot could be read into these words of the king. At first seeing the duke sitting in the throne, Henry was obviously surprised. He must have felt anger or fear to have turned to his men and invited them to act out their revenge. But a bigger fear, that of being unsuccessful in removing the duke or worse that—of being defeated—also existed in Henry's mind. Then there is a third fear, one that he hides more cleverly. It is a fear that if his men realize that their king is afraid, they might also desert him. Henry then summons up as much courage as he can, confronting the duke and telling him to remove himself from Henry's throne and kneel before him to exhibit the duke's submission. Of course, the duke refuses and a battle of words ensues.

The duke and his sons, as well as his noblemen, make the king rethink his stance. It is true that Henry's grandfather and father were both kings before him, but the duke has pointed out that they attained the crown through rebellion against Edward III, which is pretty much the same thing the duke is planning on doing against Henry. In an aside to the audience, the king acknowledges that his own argument for a legitimate title to the crown is weak; and at that moment Henry begins to think about compromise. It is at this point that the audience sees that King Henry is not willing to fight for the throne. The king wants to maintain it, and he partially believes that he is entitled to it, but his argument is standing on shaky ground. The way the king looks at it, a compromise is better than completely losing the throne, even if it comes with the high cost of sacrificing his son's inherited right to be crowned. The king sighs over this thought, pondering what consequences will result, especially in reference to his son; but the king does not change his mind. Instead, he asks the Duke of York to make an oath. In his speech to the duke, Henry sounds regal. He suggests that he is making this compromise, giving the crown to the duke upon his own death, in order to stop the civil war that the country would have to suffer through. Whereas before, Henry's avoidance of war sounded more fearful, here it sounds passionate. Henry sounds more like a king wanting to spare his people further bloodshed.

As York and his men depart, each mentioning where they are going, either to their castle, to their soldiers, or to their followers, the king states that he will be returning to his court "with grief and sorrow." Since it looks like, at this juncture in the play, Henry has ended the civil war, you would think he would be happy. But he is not. The only thing that could be troubling him is that he has taken the throne away from his son. This proves to be true when Henry hears that the queen is coming and Henry tries to sneak away. It is probably not his son that saddens Henry. He is reluctant to confront his wife, just as he was disinclined to confront York, who was sitting in Henry's throne. The audience can feel the fear rising in Henry once again.

There is reason for Henry to be concerned. The queen enters the room in a storm, cursing her husband for the mess he has created. Henry tries to calm her, as he had Northumberland and Clifford. But the queen is not quieted as easily as the king's men. "Ah, wretched man! Would I had died a maid / And never seen thee, never borne thee son." How could Henry have disinherited his son, the queen and the prince want to know? Here, Henry appears to be at his weakest in the entire play. He tries to rationalize his actions. He tries to make an excuse for himself. He tells the queen that he had no choice, that the duke made him do it. This is, of course, a rather pathetic statement, one that a child might make when he is caught doing something wrong and is about to be punished. Henry could have told the queen that he wanted to avoid bloodshed, that he wanted to prevent a civil war. He could also have told her that he believed his claim to the throne was illegitimate. These were, after all, the thoughts that he had had before he made the compromise with the duke. The queen sees through Henry's lame excuses and begins her diatribe against him. She insinuates that Henry is a lamb in the midst of wolves. Had she, a silly woman, confronted the duke, they would have had to kill her before she gave them the throne, she tells Henry. Unlike Henry, the queen has an army prepared and leaves to fight York until she has won back her son's right to the throne. And thus, the queen takes over the role that will work its way through this play: she will be the warrior, while Henry passes his time reading.

In act two, the king turns up in York, after the queen has slain the duke. It is in the second scene that Henry's wisdom begins to shine through his fear. The queen and Clifford are proud in their accomplishments, but the king has no such feelings and even warns Clifford that "things ill got had ever bad success." Henry also mentions the battles that his own father fought. His father thought that he had left a legacy that Henry would be proud of. But the king denies this. "I'll leave my son my virtuous deeds behind; / And would my father had left me no more!" Henry says. In other words, what the queen and Clifford have done, Henry likens to actions far less than righteous. Instead, Henry is grieved to see York's head on the post, just as he grieved for the murders that his own father committed in the name of winning land and thrones. The queen, on the other hand, is embarrassed by her husband, saying that his "soft courage" is a poor example to set for her troops. They will become disenchanted if they see the king feeling sorry for the duke. So in this scene, Shakespeare displays Henry as a soft-hearted humanitarian who cannot stand the mutilation and death that comes in war. Shortly after this, the queen and king are confronted by York's sons and noblemen. The king tries to speak, but his wife and son tell Henry to pick up his sword and fight, and Clifford tells the king to be quiet. This is the last time that Henry will be this close to battle. He will depart, and the queen will do all the rest of the fighting.

By scene five in act two, Henry is in a remote field, away from the actual fighting. It is here that Shakespeare has Henry be his most reflective. Henry thinks about war and compares it to storms at sea, swaying first one way and then the other. Ironically, Shakespeare, in the first act, had the queen insinuate that Henry was like a lamb. Here, in this scene, Shakespeare has Henry ruminating on how much sweeter life would be if he were a shepherd of sheep. If he were so, Henry would sit all day and do nothing more than count the minutes. "How sweet! how lovely!" Henry says to spend the day watching his sheep rather than to spend it fearing his "subjects' treachery." To be a king, Henry states, is not what it appears to be. Some think that being a king means one sleeps in comfort and eats the best fruits of the land. Henry does not see it that way. Rather, for him, everything in his life is touched by mistrust and treason. In this scene, it is not fear that fills Henry, but compassion. He cries with the son who has just killed his father and with the father who has just killed his son. Shakespeare, through Henry, decries the consequences and suffering of a civil war, a war unlike others because no matter who wins the battles, the country suffers great losses in the war.

Removed from battle, politics, and his throne, while hiding in northern England, Shakespeare has Henry admit that he has come to a place in his life where he feels most satisfied. Henry is found out by two hunters who ask him why he talks so much about kings. When Henry admits that he is a king, the hunters ask, if that is so, where is his crown. Henry answers: "My crown is in my heart, not on my head; / Not decked with diamonds and Indian stones, / Nor to be seen. My crown is called content: / A crown it is that seldom kings enjoy." Here Henry is at his strongest psychologically. He realizes that what he thinks of himself, what definitions he holds, cannot be taken away from him. If he thinks he is king, then that is so, no matter that Edward is sitting on the throne. Henry was crowned king and king he will be to his death. He does not need outward images to prove who he is. He is content with himself. His kingdom is not out in the world but in his heart and soul. Even after Henry temporarily regains the throne, he has no further use of it. He gives Warwick and Clarence the job of ruling the country. Henry has retired from the world.

In act four, scene eight, Henry evaluates his kingship. He talks with Exeter about the possibilities of Edward gaining the throne again. Henry has been reinstated to the throne and believes he will maintain it. He is wrong, of course, but he does not yet know this. Even minutes before Edward returns to take the crown once again, Henry mistakenly forgets that he is but a lamb and for a few minutes sees himself as a mighty lion. However, the image that Henry has as a powerful beast is not a brutal one, but rather one that has led his people with pity, mildness, mercy, and moderation. He has listened to his people's needs and tried to soothe their ailments. He has consoled them when they weep and forgiven them when they did wrong. He sees no reason why the people would choose Edward over him as their king. "And when the lion fawns upon the lamb, / The lamb will never cease to follow him." This is how Henry quietly and all but passively takes upon himself the image of the lion. However, Shakespeare has set Henry up to fail. As soon as Henry utters these words, he hears Edward and his men approaching. Edward's men take Henry into custody and imprison him in the tower. Henry had the image backward; he was out of touch with reality. The people do not support him, they do not follow him. Henry is not the gentle lion. He is still the meek lamb.

And finally, just before he dies, Henry refers to the shepherd metaphor again. Henry is locked in the tower when Richard enters with the tower guard. When Richard orders that the guard leave, Henry says: "So flies the reckless shepherd from the wolf; / So first the harmless sheep doth yield his fleece, / And next his throat unto the butcher's knife." Henry, once again, sees himself as a lamb, one marked for death this time. Henry knows it is his time to die, and he faces it more bravely than any other confrontation in the play. "Ah, kill me with thy weapon, not with words!/My breast can better brook thy dagger's point / Than can my ears that tragic history."

So Henry dies maybe with more courage than he lived, at least more courage than he fought for his throne. Shakespeare portrays Henry as a soft-hearted king, who cried more for his people than for himself. Henry was a king who did not want to be king if it meant that he had to fight in wars. But he was not strong enough to keep the peace. He was surrounded by warmongers who thought more of themselves and their power than of the people they led. As Shakespeare creates him, Henry was a man out of step with his court and with his times. He was fearful when forced to confront his wife, his men, and his enemies. He might have been incapable of becoming what it took to be a king, powerless of averting a civil war, but in the end, Shakespeare has Henry appear as a self-actualized man, who knew what he wanted and, although he could not attain what he wanted, was content with himself at his death.

Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on King Henry VI, Part Three, in Shakespeare For Students, Second Edition, Thomson Gale, 2007


  • Rose Rage is Edward Hall and Roger Warren's adaptation of Shakespeare's three parts of Henry VI, first performed in 2002, which tells the story that led to the Wars of the Roses. These screenwriters set the plays in a slaughterhouse and provide a musical background and choreography when staged. A script can be bought from Theatre Communications Group, also published in 2002.
  • To fully gain a picture of Henry VI's reign, seeing, or reading, all three parts of Shakespeare's Henry VI is highly recommended. Part One of Henry VI begins with the death of King Henry V, Henry VI's father, and ends with Henry's marriage to Margaret. Part Two follows the development of Henry VI as king and the underpinnings of the contested right of the throne that will lead to the Wars of the Roses in Part Three.
  • Shakespeare's play Henry V provides a glimpse into the valor of this warrior king, the father of Henry VI. Reading this play will give you the contrast between the father and son who would succeed him. Also, Shakespeare's play Richard III will provide you with a more complete view of the monarchs from the House of Lancaster, as Richard takes the throne; he was the last Lancaster member to do so.
  • To help you better understand the political background and fuller historical context of Shakespeare's Henry VI read Allison Weir's Wars of the Roses (1996). Weir explains the relationships between the Yorkists and the Lancastrians, showing how their counterclaims to the throne led to the bloody civil war in England. Weir also wrote The Princes in the Tower (1995), an account of the last part of the Wars of the Roses, with a focus on the disappearance of Edward IV's two sons, whom Weir speculates were killed by Richard III in his bid to win the crown.

John D. Cox and Eric Rasmussen

Cox and Rasmussen provide a general overview of King Henry VI, Part 3. Examining the historical sources of the play, the critics focus on the "magical thinking" that Shakespeare offers in the work.

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Source: John D. Cox and Eric Rasmussen, "Introduction," in King Henry VI, Part 3, edited by John D. Cox and Eric Rasmussen, Arden Shakespeare, 2001, pp. 57-64.

John Julius Norwich

Norwich provides a historical analysis of King Henry VI, Part 3, comparing the action in the play with the actual historical events. In particular, the critic highlights the various places in the work where Shakespeare telescopes historical time for the sake of literary expedience. Norwich concludes with comments on the character of Richard, the Duke of Gloucester, later King Richard III.

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Source: John Julius Norwich, "King Henry VI Part III," in Shakespeare's Kings: The Great Plays and the History of England in the Middle Ages: 1337-1485, Scribner, 1999, pp. 307-18.

Michael Hattaway

In his introduction to the play, Hattaway examines the themes of death and battle. The critic compares and contrasts the play with Henry VI, Part 1 and Henry VI, Part 2, noting that by Part 3, "the political community of England is no more," having been destroyed by violence and treachery.

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Source: Michael Hattaway, "Introduction," in The Third Part of King Henry VI, edited by Mihael Hattaway, Cambridge University Press, 1993, pp. 9-19.


Charney, Maurice, All of Shakespeare, Columbia University Press, 1993, pp. 132-33.

Crane, Milton, "Introduction," in Henry VI, Part One, Henry VI, Part Two, Henry VI, Part Three, Scribner, 1999, pp. xxiii-xxxiv.

Epstein, Norrie, The Friendly Shakespeare, Penguin Books, 1993, pp. 161-63, 191.

Norwich, John Julius, Shakespeare's Kings, Scribner, 1999, pp. 307, 318.

Shakespeare, William, Henry VI, Part One, Henry VI, Part Two, Henry VI, Part Three, Signet, 1989.


Abbott, Jacob, History of Margaret of Anjou, Queen of Henry VI of England, Kessinger Publishing, 2004.

Abbott covers all aspects of this fascinating queen, from her time spent in France with her parents, to her wedding and hardships as a queen, a new wife of a troubled king, the loss of her child and her widowhood.

Ackroyd, Peter, Shakespeare: The Biography, Nan A. Talese, 2005.

Ackroyd focuses on Shakespeare's life as seen in reference to the development of the Elizabethan theatre.

Amt, Emilie, Medieval England, 1000–1500, Broadview Press, 2000.

Written to help students understand not only medieval times but to question the documents that bring the details of that era to modern readers, Amt's book provides an understanding of life and politics of the period of, and the ages before, the rule of Henry VI.

Baldwin, David, Elizabeth Woodville, Mother of the Princes in the Tower, Sutton Publishing, 2005.

Elizabeth Woodville was the wife of King Edward IV and mother of two sons who were imprisoned in the Tower of London by King Richard III. Baldwin presents her story in a more graceful light than many other historical accounts in which she was often referred to as a witch who put a spell on Edward.

Griffiths, R. A., The Reign of King Henry VI, Sutton Publishing, 2005.

Griffiths has written a very readable and comprehensive biography of King Henry VI, covering details of his private life, his court, and the politics that surrounded the Wars of the Roses.

Pendleton, Tom, ed., Henry VI: Critical Essays, Garland, 2001.

Pendleton has put together a comprehensive collection of essays covering critical interpretations of the play, customs and reception of the play in various time frames, and interviews with actors who have performed in this play for a well-rounded look at and understanding of Shakespeare's Henry VI.