|O, tiger's heart wrapped in a woman's hide|
Act 1, scene 4, line 140
Why, I can smile, and murder whiles I smile
Act 3, scene 2, line 184
Henry VI, Part 3 is dominated by a struggle between two military forces, neither of which can achieve victory for long. Until the end, the Yorkists and Lancastrians strive for the English crown. The conflict between these two families began under Richard II. Half a century later, during the reign of Henry VI, it moved toward civil war. Now, in Henry VI, Part 3, Henry’s long reign becomes intermittent as his cousin Richard, Duke of York, seeks the crown and York’s son Edward sporadically succeeds in seizing it.
As we watch the crown pass back and forth between Henry VI and Edward IV, our attention is caught by other characters: the Earl of Warwick, Queen Margaret, and Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Warwick is the power behind the challenge to Henry VI, until he shifts to Henry. Margaret raises an army in England and later leads one from France, all in a futile attempt to secure the throne for her son, Prince Edward. Historically, his death destroyed her, but Shakespeare wisely saves Margaret to bring her back in Richard III. Richard, Duke of Gloucester, increasingly draws our attention. Both attractive and repellent, he is energetic, self-aware, bitter about his deformity (which may not have existed historically), ruthless, and unable to care about others.
As this play ends, it is hard to imagine a time when hostilities cease. That resolution lies in the future, with Shakespeare's play Richard III.
Scholars believe that Shakespeare wrote Henry VI, Part 3, in 1590-91; a version was first published in 1595. Sources include Edward Hall's Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and York, Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles, and other historical works.
Adapted from the Folger Library Shakespeare edition, edited by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. © 2009 Folger Shakespeare Library
Stuart Hampton-Reeves and Carol Chillington Rutter. The Henry VI Plays. Shakespeare in Performance series. New York: Palgrave, 2006.
Jean E. Howard and Phyllis Rackin. Engendering a Nation: A Feminist Account of Shakespeare’s English Histories. London; New York: Routledge, 1997.
Nina S. Levine. Women's Matters: Politics, Gender, and Nation in Shakespeare's Early History Plays. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1998.
John Julius Norwich. Shakespeare’s Kings: The Great Plays and the History of England in the Middle Ages, 1337-1485. New York: Scribner, 1999.
Thomas Pendleton, ed. Henry VI: Critical Essays. New York: Routledge, 2001.
Peter Saccio. Shakespeare's English Kings: History, Chronicle, and Drama. 2nd edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Alexandre Bida. Henry VI 3rd part. Watercolor, 19th century
T. Brown after J.A. Houston. The death of the Earl of Warwick. Engraving, late 19th century
Inside the Collection
Folios and Quartos from the Collection: Henry VI, Part 3