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Henry VI, Part 3 /

A Modern Perspective: Henry VI, Part 3

By Randall Martin

For today’s readers Henry VI, Part 3 may be the most politically resonant play in Shakespeare’s dramatic trilogy about the long but interrupted reign of Henry VI (1429–71), even though Part 3’s subject is the now obscure fifteenth-century conflict known as the Wars of the Roses. These wars saw England’s two leading feudal dynasties, Lancaster and York, whose respective emblems were red and white roses, brawl for national supremacy in a drawn-out series of court intrigues and regional battles. Yet from the time of its first performances in the early 1590s, Part 3’s significance has reached beyond the late medieval details of the wars themselves. The key notion for Shakespeare’s contemporaries was the danger of factionalized government leading to national bloodshed, memories of which profoundly shaped Tudor attitudes toward war, peace, and social order. The Wars’ cultural legacy was not dissimilar to the modern haunting of the American political landscape by the ghosts of Vietnam and, more distantly, the Civil War.

Shakespeare’s interpretation of the Wars of the Roses offers few glimmers of national regeneration or optimistic sentiment, however. Aside from occasional moments of black comedy, it is a historical tragedy dominated by archetypal human experiences of violence, suffering, and grief—alternately thrilling, chilling, and moving. To illustrate one such universalizing pattern, we can compare a play Shakespeare was writing only a few years later: Romeo and Juliet. Though they are very different in other respects, the action of both plays centers on long-standing feuds. When first published, Part 3 was subtitled “the Whole Contention Between the Two Houses, Lancaster and York.” And Henry VI, Part 3, as it was titled when published in the Shakespeare First Folio of 1623, is a kind of family feud writ large, since the Lancastrians and Yorkists were extensively interrelated by ancestry and marriage. Dramatically, their quarrels present the national equivalent of the rival Capulet and Montague households. In both plays an increasingly irrational “ancient grudge” (Romeo and Juliet 1.Prologue.3) destroys a whole generation of their star-crossed children.

Moreover, like modern stagings of Romeo and Juliet or adaptations such as West Side Story that map the play’s tragedy onto present-day ethnic or cultural clashes, Henry VI, Part 3 has the power to mirror local civil wars around the world. This potential has been recognized only recently, however, as directors in the United Kingdom and to a lesser extent North America discover in the play theatrical analogies for Vietnam, Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur, and possibly now Iraq. From a wider perspective, productions such as Jane Howell’s for the BBC/Time-Life Television Shakespeare series (1983)—the most widely available version of Henry VI in performance—have shown that this darkest of Shakespeare’s English history plays makes a compelling statement about the hellish nature of war in any age.

As these contexts of reception suggest, Henry VI, Part 3 has been better appreciated in the modern theater than in academic criticism. Scholars have long been more preoccupied with explaining the play’s complicated textual origins than with discovering its dramatic virtues. It is also not readily esteemed according to conventional literary standards, because much of its action consists of combats and battles, whose mode is visual and spectacular rather than verbal. Shakespeare’s contemporary Ben Jonson was the first to express impatience with the “drum and trumpet stuff” of this and other history plays, especially if the combat was staged poorly—as he put it, when “three rusty swords . . . Fight over Lancaster and York’s long jars [i.e., discords].”1 But Jonson’s comment confused skill in staging with the artistic purpose of the play’s combat scenes. As in post-Vietnam movies such as Apocalypse Now (1979) and Platoon (1986), the violence in Part 3 is not merely a sensational or dumbed-down substitute for verbal dialogue.2 It is a crucial material and emotional component of the play’s wider analysis of war as the destruction of innocent people and civil values.

To make this point meaningfully, the play’s battles must tell stories in their own right, through body language and stage movement that enlarge upon the spoken text. In this respect, Part 3 challenges the inventiveness of acting companies as well as the imagination of readers, because it calls for four major battles of the Wars of the Roses to be staged over its five acts—the largest number of battle scenes in any Shakespeare play. Thus when one comes across Part 3’s typical stage directions related to soldiers and fighting—“march,” “Alarum,” and “Excursions”—it is helpful to try to visualize ways in which such moments might be acted out. To advance the play’s narrative and characterization while avoiding repetition, each scene needs to be staged with individualizing resourcefulness. Memorable productions have employed choreographed action, varied types of swordplay, and changing scenery to craft each battle as a distinct episode in the wider story. Michael Kahn’s 1996 production for Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre, for example, featured a changing array of medieval and modern weapons to suggest the chronological sequence of history as well as analogies with wars in later periods. Peter Hall and John Barton’s groundbreaking Wars of the Roses (1963–64) set the fourth and final battle, which took place at Tewkesbury (5.4–5), in a striking snowstorm, as did Jane Howell’s TV production. Howell also used inventive camera work, lighting effects, and martial sound effects to clarify the meanings of the play’s violence and its antiwar themes. Her success in these respects was ambiguously confirmed when the production’s battle scenes were substantially cut for its first American broadcast because they were felt to be too disturbing for television audiences.3

Part 3 has also traditionally been underrated because critics and directors have had little sympathy with the title character. Henry has been regarded as a pious weakling lacking the qualities of heroic masculinity that might bring the country’s ambitious barons to heel. He is repeatedly compared unfavorably with his famous father, Henry V, conqueror of France. Much in the play supports a negative view of Henry. The first thing we learn is that he has fled the battlefield (1.1.3). Later his wife, Queen Margaret, and her Lancastrian supporters force him to stay away from the fighting because he depresses their troops. Indeed Henry is the only main character in the play who never engages in combat. In the first scene he disinherits his son Prince Edward from the royal succession in favor of the duke of York’s heirs after the Yorkists have burst into the Parliament House, seized the throne, and intimidated Henry with a show of arms. For the rest of the play Henry is never in control and often seems annoyingly passive. His detractors refer to his coldness (e.g., 1.1.188, 1.2.34, 2.1.124), a characteristic that in terms of early modern physiology implies lack of manliness. As Stuart Hampton-Reeves and Carol Chillington Rutter have shown in their excellent study of Henry VI, because Henry hardly measures up to the expansionary ideals of the British Empire and muscular Christianity, English stages showed little interest in Part 3 or the trilogy as a whole from the eighteenth to mid–twentieth centuries.4

Yet both Henry’s honesty about his own shortcomings and the wider action of the play invite us to question the assumption that political control through martial aggression would quell the country’s dissensions. Until Richard of Gloucester declares his ambitions for the throne in 3.2 (about which more shortly), the play’s dynamic is eye-for-an-eye revenge. During Wakefield (1.3–4), the first of Part 3’s four main battles, Clifford slaughters York’s young son Rutland in cold blood to avenge old Clifford’s death at the battle of St. Albans in Henry VI, Part 2 (which Shakespeare merges dramatically with the opening scene of Part 3). In the play’s most famous and harrowing scene (1.4), Margaret avenges Lancastrian losses, including perhaps the death of her lover Suffolk in Part 2, by taunting the captive York with a napkin dipped in Rutland’s blood. She and Clifford then execute York as her son Prince Edward looks on. In turn York’s elder sons, Edward—who becomes King Edward IV when Henry is captured and the Lancastrians are defeated at Towton (2.3–6) and later Barnet and Tewkesbury (5.2–5)—Richard, and George, vow to avenge their father. Ultimately they stab a defiant Prince Edward in front of his mother, whereupon Margaret laments her son’s death in words recalling York’s grief for Rutland. Warwick first seeks revenge for his brother killed at Wakefield, and then for King Edward’s betrayal when the latter privately marries Lady Grey while Warwick is negotiating on his behalf for the hand of the French princess Bona. Readers will spot other instances of vengeful motivation.

Through all this slaughter prior to the final scene, when the Yorkists seem to have gained the upper hand (although Richard of Gloucester reminds us that Edward IV’s ascendancy is illusory), the mentality of relentless personal retaliation emerges as the chief cause of the country’s miseries. As in Shakespeare’s more individually focused revenge plays, such as Titus Andronicus (written around the time of Henry VI, Part 3) and Hamlet, “measure for measure” (as Warwick calls it at 2.6.54) is revealed to be a fatally regressive ethic. Part 3’s cascading death scenes take the considerable risk of urging its futility theatrically.

Seeking some way out of these self-destructive impulses, modern actors have focused attention on Henry’s attempts to transcend the reflex of compulsive revenge. During the opening face-off with the Yorkists, Henry tries to make room for the principle that (in Winston Churchill’s phrase) “to jaw-jaw is better than to war-war”:

Far be the thought of this from Henry’s heart,

To make a shambles of the Parliament House!

                            . . . frowns, words, and threats

Shall be the war that Henry means to use.


At the same time, Henry firmly raises the prospect of fighting for his right:

Think’st thou that I will leave my kingly throne,

Wherein my grandsire and my father sat?

No. First shall war unpeople this my realm[.]


But to justify this course of action, Henry needs legally convincing arguments and united supporters, both of which he lacks. The arrival of Warwick’s soldiers cuts debate short and coerces Henry into submission. Yet he achieves the humanitarian victory of ending the immediate bloodshed by sacrificing his family’s personal advancement:

                                                           I here entail

The crown to thee [York] and to thine heirs forever,

Conditionally, that here thou take an oath

To cease this civil war and, whilst I live,

To honor me as thy king and sovereign,

And neither by treason nor hostility

To seek to put me down and reign thyself.


After both York and Margaret have broken their oaths and during the next verbal confrontation with the Yorkists (2.2), Henry tries again to keep both sides talking to avoid battle but is overruled by Margaret and Clifford. And just before this meeting, Margaret urges her husband to formally recognize their son Edward as heir apparent. There seems to be no compelling dramatic reason for Shakespeare to insert this action here other than to allow Henry to restate his governing principles: “Edward Plantagenet, arise a knight, / And learn this lesson: draw thy sword in right” (2.2.61–62). For Henry, the motives for war are legitimized by honoring the rule of law and humane values. But such precepts vanish amid the partisan bickering that collapses into Towton (2.3–6), the most devastating battle of the civil war.

In the midst of Towton’s fierce fighting, Henry experiences a conversion (2.5). Whether it takes place in his own mind or in some remote corner of the battlefield, he enters an otherwordly space and embarks on a long, meditative soliloquy (2.5.1–54). He contrasts the hollow splendors of kingship with the pastoral virtues of the shepherd who, following a temporally creative sense of “measure for measure,” harmonizes the daily rhythms of man and nature. As if to confirm the truth of his vision, Henry then suddenly experiences its grotesque perversion: the killing of a father by his own son, and of a son by his own father. Interweaving their ritual lamentations, the survivors collectively mourn the shattered hopes and human waste of war. For many modern directors and actors, this scene’s poignant formalism has become the moral and emotional epicenter of Part 3.

The scene has a theatrical logic too. It makes clear that Henry’s subsequent embrace of nonviolence has a rational basis in the experiences of common people in both the fifteenth century and Shakespeare’s own period. Over his dead father’s body the son tells us,

From London by the King was I pressed forth.

My father, being the Earl of Warwick’s man,

Came on the part of York, pressed by his master.


In other words, this father was “impressed,” or forcibly recruited, through the relatively limited medieval custom of feudal lords raising men from among their tenant farmers. But the son was impressed—anachronistically—by a national system of government conscription that applied to all able-bodied English males. This developed in the 1580s and ’90s, when Elizabethan authorities required ever larger numbers of soldiers to fight in Continental and Irish wars. Increasingly, however, the late sixteenth-century practice of impressment was resisted through evasion and desertion, reactions that indicated a deepening popular preference for peace. That Part 3 portrays two generations of soldiers, fathers and sons, among both the nobility and commons also enables it to track the historical decline of chivalry between the medieval and early modern periods, as well as the emergence of widely voiced skepticism about the utility and morality of war.5

A further indication of Part 3’s critical orientation is that Henry’s aversion to violence originates from a different aspect of his personal history than that related by Shakespeare’s chronicle sources. Both Edward Hall’s Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancastre and Yorke (1548) and Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1587) report that Henry suffered from bouts of insanity that “imbeciled” his ability to rule. During these periods, Margaret and others governed in his place, while Henry’s intermittent simple-mindedness also nurtured his popular reputation as a saint. But across the Henry VI plays, Shakespeare gives no hint of the king’s mental illness, and his piety is not linked to personal miracles. Instead his belief in the essential Christian principles of charity and equity (articulated regularly from his first appearances in Part 1) coalesces with personal revulsion against the violent nihilism around him into his first real strength: prophetic wisdom.

Henry’s hard-won certainty about the futility of using war to overcome injuries recalls arguments made by certain early Renaissance humanists—notably, John Colet (1466/67–1519), Thomas More (1478–1535), and Desiderius Erasmus (1467?–1536). Insofar as it presents such views, Part 3 participates in wider early modern—and by no means outdated—debates over the merits of peace versus war for the formation of national identities and the practice of international relations. Like Henry, Renaissance humanists were led by their experiences of the cruelties of late fifteenth-century civil conflicts to regard all war as a man-made calamity to be strenuously avoided, except possibly as a last resort in self-defense. Philosophically, such views challenged St. Augustine’s idea—often restated by early modern military apologists and preachers alike—that war was God’s recurring punishment for human sin. Though Henry is increasingly aware of the evil motives around him, it is telling that he never makes such arguments. Augustine had also constructed the theory of the just war, which drew on Roman legal precepts and natural law to argue that war could be waged by Christians under certain conditions if its notional goal was worldly or spiritual peace. These views displaced early Christian principles of nonviolence and universal brotherhood with subjective, and infinitely malleable, pretexts for war, as Erasmus pointed out in his well-known antiwar tracts “Dulce Bellum Inexpertis” (“War Is Sweet to Those Who Do Not Know It,” 1515) and The Complaint of Peace (1559; originally published as Querela Pacis in 1517), both of which Shakespeare had possibly read.

One small but significant war-versus-peace debate occurs in 2.2, when Clifford uses just war arguments to persuade Henry to press home the Lancastrian victory at Wakefield (2.2.9–42). He catalogues animal behaviors to justify defending one’s family and possessions from harm as natural, and he defends primogeniture as a stabilizing political principle. By contrast, Henry’s willingness to lay aside his son’s inheritance can be related to humanist arguments that war should not be fought to defend elite privileges masquerading as the country’s collective interests. Instead, war must significantly benefit, and be approved by the consent of, the common people. Henry also rejects the slippery idea that noble intentions justify using violence to advance a nation’s strategic goals (“didst thou never hear / That things ill got had ever bad success?”) and daringly alludes to Henry V’s French conquests to illustrate his point: “I’ll leave my son my virtuous deeds behind, / And would my father had left me no more” (2.2.45–46, 49–50). Anticipating the rueful epilogue of Henry V, this surprisingly negative allusion to England’s victory at Agincourt is, from a popular perspective, patriotic sacrilege. But it made sense to Tudor humanists as an objective evaluation of the human and economic costs of the Hundred Years War (1337–1453) and the Wars of the Roses. As Ben Lowe has demonstrated, the social impact of these conflicts in England seriously eroded medieval amplifications of just war theory, and it exposed the false glamour of chivalric militarism to unprecedented scrutiny.6 Henry VI, Part 3 is part of this early modern critique.

Erasmus’s cultural antagonist was Niccolò Machiavelli, whose famous treatise Il principi (The Prince, 1513) was published the same year as Erasmus’s most famous work, Institutio principis christiani (The Education of a Christian Prince), which concludes with several chapters on peacemaking. Anticipating the modern theorist Carl von Clausewitz, Machiavelli argued that war was a rational and often necessary instrument of political power. And whereas Erasmus maintained that the prince’s will in making war was limited by the agreement of the people, Machiavelli identified it absolutely with the identity of the emerging nation-state. In their attitudes toward violence and the legitimate boundaries of a prince’s power, King Henry and his antagonist Richard of Gloucester emblematize the ideological rivalry between Erasmus and Machiavelli within the historical event of Lancastrian and Yorkist feud (see, e.g., Richard’s early declaration, “Priests pray for enemies, but princes kill” [Henry VI, Part 2 5.2.72]). Each character also gravitates toward the political ethics of each respective writer along the culturally English route of empirical experience. Henry’s awakening, as we have seen, comes about through anguished sympathy for the powerless victims of war. Shakespeare energizes Richard’s Machiavellian identity by having him psychologically redefine the revenger profile that dominates his personality in the first half of the play. This technically groundbreaking revelation bursts out at the exact midpoint of the play (3.2.126–97).

Having just witnessed his brother Edward recklessly give in to impulsive lust and thereby squander the chance to use royal marriage as a tool of international diplomacy, Richard, in soliloquy, vents his frustration at being unable to achieve the same level of worldly advancement or sexual satisfaction as his brother. Seeking a cause for these disappointments, Richard constructs a pathological case history, itemizing the alleged evil omens of his birth and his supposedly debilitating physical deformities (which may or may not correspond with his actual appearance on stage; modern actors tend to suggest that Richard exaggerates his disabilities). Unjustly victimized by these circumstances, Richard is therefore exempt from the moral constraints that regulate ordinary people, and he is entitled to seek the compensation of political power by any possible means:

Why, I can smile, and murder whiles I smile,

And cry “Content” to that which grieves my heart,

And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,

And frame my face to all occasions.


Erasmus argued that just war theory allowed princes to relativize Christian prohibitions against killing when there were extenuating national provocations or personal grievances. Richard’s ability to turn his alleged physical and sexual frustrations into excuses for his transgressive desires epitomizes this tendency to rationalize the inhumanity of violence. Leaving the memory of his murdered father behind, Richard exchanges the monomania of the revenger for the psychopathy of the Machiavel—an Elizabethan caricature of the amoral, ruthless, and (in the theater) deviously entertaining politician:

I’ll drown more sailors than the mermaid shall;

I’ll slay more gazers than the basilisk;

I’ll play the orator as well as Nestor,

Deceive more slyly than Ulysses could,

And, like a Sinon, take another Troy.

I can add colors to the chameleon,

Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,

And set the murderous Machiavel to school.


At the same time, Richard’s creed exemplifies a new modern political reality. Rather than being rooted in battlefield prowess or traditional heroic or moral virtues, power comes from manipulating public opinion through role-playing and image-making.

The dramatic fruits of this Protean transfiguration will be fully harvested in Richard III, which Shakespeare evidently had in mind while writing Henry VI, Part 3. The Wars of the Roses finally end when Henry Tudor, earl of Richmond, defeats Richard on Bosworth Field and unites the kingdom through a political marriage joining the families of York and Lancaster. Notwithstanding Tudor government propaganda celebrating these events as a divinely ordained triumph, and modern critics’ dissatisfaction with both this historical spin and the complacent tone of Richmond’s victory speech (Richard III 5.5.15–41), Henry VII’s accession did establish the precarious but relatively durable civil peace that encouraged Renaissance humanists to dream of a new ethic founded on civic and international values other than war. It was also a society that most ordinary Elizabethan men and women preferred over the economic and social dislocations of impressment, taxes, and ideologically driven wars. In Henry VI, Part 3, Shakespeare symbolically unites these widely approved, though still contested, shifts in historical and philosophical outlook in two of Henry’s prophetic speeches: one over the young Richmond (4.6.70–76), the other in the teeth of Richard’s murderous threats (5.6.36–57). They doubly foreshadow positive and negative outcomes of the debased militarism Shakespeare boldly memorialized in his play about the Wars of the Roses.

  1. Ben Jonson, Every Man in His Humour, ed. Robert Miola (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), Prologue 9–11.
  2. Michael Manheim, “The English History Plays on Screen,” in Shakespeare and the Moving Image, ed. Anthony Davies and Stanley Wells (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 121–45.
  3. Susan Willis, The BBC Shakespeare Plays: Making the Televised Canon (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991), p. 63.
  4. Stuart Hampton-Reeves and Carol Chillington Rutter, Shakespeare in Performance: The Henry VI Plays (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006), especially chapter 2, “Rediscoveries: Nation, War, and Empire (1899–1953),” pp. 33–53.
  5. Michael Hattaway, “Blood Is Their Argument: Men of War in Shakespeare and Others,” in Religion, Culture, and Society, ed. Anthony Fletcher and Peter Roberts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 84–101, esp. 95.
  6. Ben Lowe, Imagining Peace: A History of Early English Pacifist Ideas, 1340–1560 (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997).