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henry vi, part 3

9 december 2015

Henry VI, Part 3 was first published in octavo in 1595 as The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York, which is odd because Richard Duke of York buys the farm at the end of Act One. Peter Hall famously produced the play in the 1960s as Edward IV. It would work just as well as Richard III, Part 1 or Margaret of Anjou. Its central character is arguably Warwick, the Kingmaker, though to name a play with royal characters after anyone other than a prince of the blood would break with protocol.

Hvi3 was the play I remembered least about when I embarked on my current completist assault on the Shakespeare canon. I knew it was the last of the Henry VI set and must involve his death, and I knew Richard III was next up (at least dramatically, though Edward IV and even the young Edward V intervened dynastically).

But I didn't remember the specific action of the play that Kenneth Tynan once called "carnage and cutlery" (41). It's a bloodthirsty play for sure, full of people wishing they could cut their hands off and alternatively throw them at their enemies or choke those enemies with the blood flowing from the stumps. One character wishes he could doodle in the sand with the blood spurting from the decapitated head of one of his enemies. Delightful people, these Plantagenets.

It's a play of nonstop action, anyway. The vagaries of the British crown during the Wars of the Roses come thick and fast, and at times the palace door seems to revolve. Warwick, though vain and thin-skinned, seems genuinely to care for the "strength and safety of our country" (Act 3, Scene 3). But nobody else does. Eventually Warwick is displaced from power by Richard of Gloucester, who kills various key opponents by stabbing them personally, while Warwick expires of battle wounds and leaves a power vacuum that the odious (but refreshingly uninhibited) Richard will fill.

But gosh, I'm forgetting the play already, and I read it just a few days ago. Compared to many an old historical drama, it's full of energy; compared to most of Shakespeare's, it's stilted and cluttered.

Shakespeare, William. The Third Part of King Henry VI. 1595, 1623. Edited by Michael Hattaway. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993. PR 2816 .A2H38