The Plays We Overlook: Henry VI, Part Three

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The discovery of skeletal remains in a Leicester car park that may be those of King Richard III makes a new view of King Henry VI Part Three especially timely. For this is the play in which Richard comes on like an express train. The first words of Richard III are deservedly among the most famous in all of Shakespeare, but Richard’s first appearance in Part Three is a genuine coup de théâtre:

Speak thou for me, and tell them what I did.
(Act 1 Scene 1 Line 16)

He is addressing the Duke of Somerset’s head. There’s no stage direction in the Quarto or the First Folio (Theobald supplied “[Throwing down the Duke of Somerset’s head]”) but it’s clear that he is shaking a head when he compounds the desecration four lines later:

And thus I hope to shake King Henry’s head.
(Act 1 Scene 1 Line 20)

He won’t quite get that wish but he never lets up until he murders Henry at the end of the play. And we already see that he’s intent on seizing the crown (he could hardly shake Henry’s head without first removing the crown).

Richard’s vaulting ambition is the only constant in this otherwise constantly shifting play. First Henry is in power; foolishly disinheriting his son, he’s ultimately overthrown by Edward, Richard’s brother. Edward, foolishly throwing away a dynastic alliance with France for a woman, is ultimately overthrown and Henry is restored. Finally Henry, his forces defeated at Tewkesbury, is slain by Richard in the Tower. The King of France first offers to help Henry and Queen Margaret, changes his mind, then changes it again when he learns that Edward has married Lady Grey rather than his sister. Warwick, the would-be kingmaker with no convictions, switches sides on a dime depending on who he thinks is winning.

Meanwhile nothing distracts the monster, the crookback (people, including himself, are already mocking his hunch) from his path to the throne. He is the motor of the play, constantly goading others, and his two extraordinary soliloquies (Act 3 Scene 2 Lines 124-195 and Act 5 Scene 6 Lines 61-93) are the equal of anything in Richard III (the second is really a lead-in to “Now is the winter of our discontent”) and deserve to be much better known.

I hope those bones are indeed Richard’s and that our literal search for him is over. But our literary search for him is partial if we only look at Richard III; for Shakespeare’s full picture, we must stop overlooking Part Three.

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Author:James Cappio

James Cappio has taught philosophy in the Ivy League, practiced law on Wall Street, and now works as an independent writer and editor. Inspired by P.G. Wodehouse’s example to read all of Shakespeare's works within one year (2009–2010), he has been blogging about his passion ever since at shakesyear.wordpress.com.

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