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Henry VI, Part 3 /

Reading Shakespeare’s Language: Henry VI, Part 3

By Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine
Editors of the Folger Shakespeare Library Editions

For many people today, reading Shakespeare’s language can be a problem—but it is a problem that can be solved.1 Those who have studied Latin (or even French or German or Spanish) and those who are used to reading poetry will have little difficulty understanding the language of poetic drama. Others, however, need to develop the skills of untangling unusual sentence structures and of recognizing and understanding poetic compressions, omissions, and wordplay. And even those skilled in reading unusual sentence structures may have occasional trouble with Shakespeare’s words. More than four hundred years of “static”—caused by changes in language and in life—intervene between his speaking and our hearing. Most of his vocabulary is still in use, but a few of his words are no longer used, and many of his words now have meanings quite different from those they had in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In the theater, most of these difficulties are solved for us by actors who study the language and articulate it for us so that the essential meaning is heard—or, when combined with stage action, is at least felt. When we are reading on our own, we must do what each actor does: go over the lines (often with a dictionary close at hand) until the puzzles are solved and the lines yield up their poetry and the characters speak in words and phrases that are, suddenly, rewarding and wonderfully memorable.

Shakespeare’s Words

As you begin to read the opening scenes of a play from Shakespeare’s time, you may notice occasional unfamiliar words. Some are unfamiliar simply because we no longer use them. In the early scenes of Henry VI, Part 3, for example, one finds the words bewray (disclose, reveal), raught (reached), extraught (derived, descended), and methinks (i.e., it seems to me). Words of this kind will become familiar the more early plays you read.

In Henry VI, Part 3, as in all of Shakespeare’s writing, more problematic are the words that are still in use but that now have different meanings. In the opening scenes of Henry VI, Part 3, for example, the word faint is used where we would say “lose heart or courage,” silly where we would say “helpless, defenseless,” cost where we would say “attack,” and witty where we would say “skillful, intelligent.” Such words, too, will become familiar as you continue to read Shakespeare’s language.

Some words and phrases are strange not because of the “static” introduced by changes in language over the past centuries but because these are expressions that Shakespeare is using to build a dramatic world that has its own space, time, and history. In the opening scene of Henry VI, Part 3, for example, the dramatist quickly establishes that the action will be played out on late medieval battlefields. We hear immediately about “warlike ears” that will not “brook retreat,” of forces that have “charged our main battle’s front,” of the “shambles” created by “factious” nobles, of men who “mourn in steel,” and of beavers “cleft . . . with a downright blow.” In this world, armies march “with colors spread” accompanied by the sounds of “sennets,” “flourishes,” “drums and trumpets,” and “marches,” as Lancaster and York, turn and turn about, “possess” the “chair of state” and seek revenge for murders past. Such words and the world they create will become increasingly familiar as you get further into the play.

Shakespeare’s Sentences

In an English sentence, meaning is quite dependent on the place given each word. “The dog bit the boy” and “The boy bit the dog” mean very different things, even though the individual words are the same. Because English places such importance on the positions of words in sentences, on the way words are arranged, unusual arrangements can puzzle a reader. Shakespeare frequently shifts his sentences away from “normal” English arrangements—often to create the rhythm he seeks, sometimes to use a line’s poetic rhythm to emphasize a particular word, sometimes to give a character his or her own speech patterns or to allow the character to speak in a special way. When we attend a good performance of the play, the actors will have worked out the sentence structures and will articulate the sentences so that the meaning is clear. When reading the play, we need to do as the actor does: that is, when puzzled by a character’s speech, check to see if words are being presented in an unusual sequence.

Often Shakespeare rearranges subjects and verbs (e.g., instead of “He goes” we find “Goes he”). In Henry VI, Part 3, Henry’s “then am I lawful king” provides such a construction (1.1.141); the “normal” order would be “then I am lawful king.” Shakespeare also frequently places the object before the subject and verb (e.g., instead of “I hit him,” we might find “Him I hit”). Queen Margaret provides an example of this inversion when she says, “Such safety finds / The trembling lamb environèd with wolves” (1.1.249–50), as does Warwick with “ ‘The Bloody Parliament’ shall this be called” (1.1.39). The “normal” order would be “the trembling lamb finds such safety” and “this shall be called ‘The Bloody Parliament.’ ”

Inversions are not the only unusual sentence structures in Shakespeare’s language. Frequently in his sentences words that would normally appear together are separated from each other. Often they are separated to create a particular rhythm or to stress a particular word, or else to draw attention to a needed piece of information. Take, for example, Warwick’s “Neither the King nor he that loves him best, / The proudest he that holds up Lancaster, / Dares stir a wing if Warwick shake his bells” (1.1.45–47). Here the subject (“Neither the King nor he that loves him best”) is separated from its verb (“Dares stir”) by an appositive (“The proudest he that holds up Lancaster”) that includes the adjectival clause “that holds up Lancaster.” As Warwick’s purpose is to celebrate his own power, he pauses after invoking Henry’s most loving supporter (“he that loves him best”) in order to ridicule such a noble as the “proudest he” who “holds up” a shaky king. Or take Warwick’s description of the Lancastrians’ swift slaughter of the Yorkist forces at Wakefield: “Their weapons like to lightning came and went” (2.1.131). Here the separation of the subject (“Their weapons”) from the verb (“came and went”) by “like to lightning” throws the emphasis on the terrifying suddenness with which Queen Margaret’s troops wielded their arms.

Often in Henry VI, Part 3, rather than separating basic sentence elements, Shakespeare simply holds them back, delaying them until other material to which he wants to give greater emphasis has been presented. He provides Warwick with this kind of construction in the lines “Before I see thee seated in that throne / Which now the house of Lancaster usurps, / I vow by heaven these eyes shall never close” (1.1.22–24). The main elements of the sentence (“I vow”) are held back so that crucial information about the Yorkist cause can be conveyed: Warwick’s goal, he tells York, is to put him (“thee”) on the throne of England, and his argument will be that Henry and his ancestors (“the house of Lancaster”) are usurpers. York, too, uses this kind of construction in the line “By words or blows, here let us win our right” (1.1.37). By placing the phrase “by words or blows” before the main clause of the sentence, York’s sentence emphasizes that while he is willing to use “words” to win the throne, he is also prepared to use weapons of war (“blows”). Westmorland, too, uses a delayed construction in the lines “Plantagenet, of thee and these thy sons, / Thy kinsmen, and thy friends, I’ll have more lives / Than drops of blood were in my father’s veins” (1.1.98–100). Here, holding back the subject and verb (“I’ll have”) throws the emphasis on the full extent of Westmorland’s threat against “Plantagenet,” the duke of York: not York alone, but also his “sons,” his “kinsmen,” and even his “friends” will be targeted by Westmorland in his search for lives to avenge the drops of blood shed by his slain father. An important sentence in Queen Margaret’s speech protesting King Henry’s disinheriting their son holds back its essential elements far longer:

Hadst thou but loved him half so well as I,

Or felt that pain which I did for him once,

Or nourished him as I did with my blood,

Thou wouldst have left thy dearest heart-blood there,

Rather than have made that savage duke thine heir

And disinherited thine only son.


In this case, the subject and verb (“Thou wouldst have left”) do not appear until the fourth line of the speech. The preceding three lines lay the emphasis on Henry’s lack of love for Prince Edward in contrast to her love; focusing as the lines do on Margaret’s physical ties to their son, they make Henry’s blow to the son’s future an injury to Margaret as well. Thus her divorcing of herself from Henry and her exit to levy her own army have been prepared for in the structure of this sentence.

Shakespeare’s Wordplay

Shakespeare plays with language so often and so variously that entire books are written on the topic. Here we will mention only two kinds of wordplay: metaphors and puns. A metaphor is a play on words in which one object or idea is expressed as if it were something else, something with which it is said to share common features. In Henry VI, Part 3, one finds extended metaphors employed frequently to capture the particular feel of an historical moment. For instance, when King Edward rejoices with his brothers after their victory at the battle of Barnet, he uses the metaphor of the sun that is now shining but that is threatened with a cloud:

But in the midst of this bright-shining day,

I spy a black suspicious threat’ning cloud

That will encounter with our glorious sun

Ere he attain his easeful western bed.

I mean, my lords, those powers that the Queen

Hath raised in Gallia have arrived our coast

And, as we hear, march on to fight with us.


Edward’s metaphor suggests his anxiety as he contemplates the cloud about to darken the sun. This anxiety seems to us all the greater when we recall that he has chosen the “sun” as his personal emblem and that therefore it metaphorically stands in place of him. Clarence, in order to express a much more sanguine view, continues the sun/cloud/rain metaphor:

A little gale will soon disperse that cloud

And blow it to the source from whence it came;

Thy very beams will dry those vapors up,

For every cloud engenders not a storm.


This extended metaphor captures the feelings of the brothers through language that puts those feelings into the readily accessible terms of sun, cloud, rain, wind, and sunbeams.

To select only one further instance of extended metaphor in a play that is filled with such constructions, we call attention to the scene in which Richard confronts and kills King Henry in the Tower of London. Here the dialogue in which the two antagonists speak approximates a dance in which each follows the steps of the other, taking up each other’s metaphors. The passage is triggered by the cowardly departure of the Lieutenant (“the reckless shepherd”), who leaves Henry to Richard’s mercy:


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.

What scene of death hath Roscius now to act?


Suspicion always haunts the guilty mind;

The thief doth fear each bush an officer.


The bird that hath been limèd in a bush,

With trembling wings misdoubteth every bush;

And I, the hapless male to one sweet bird,

Have now the fatal object in my eye

Where my poor young was limed, was caught,

    and killed.


Why, what a peevish fool was that of Crete

That taught his son the office of a fowl!

And yet, for all his wings, the fool was drowned.


I Daedalus, my poor boy Icarus,

Thy father Minos, that denied our course;

The sun that seared the wings of my sweet boy

Thy brother Edward, and thyself the sea

Whose envious gulf did swallow up his life.


This running exchange of metaphors begins with Richard’s jest that Henry’s fear is like that of a “thief” who mistakes each “bush” for “an officer” of the watch waiting to arrest him. Henry picks up the word bush and moves into the metaphor of birds trapped in bushes that have been treated with birdlime to capture them. He is like a father bird (“the hapless male”), he says, whose offspring (“my poor young”—i.e., Prince Edward, just killed by Richard) was “caught” in a limed bush and “killed.” He is now looking at that “fatal” bush (i.e., the murderer Richard). Richard in turn picks up the language of the son imaged as a bird, and responds with the metaphor of Daedalus (“the peevish fool that was of Crete”)—the father who made bird wings for his son (“Icarus”) and thus, inadvertently, led his son to his death. With this metaphor, Richard puts the blame for Prince Edward’s death on Henry. Henry then explicates the story’s relevance, part by part: Daedalus—King Henry, Icarus—Prince Edward, Minos—the late duke of York, the sun—King Edward, the sea—Richard. Thus the metaphor is extended into an allegory, a one-to-one matching of the characters and events of two different stories. Because Henry VI, Part 3 uses metaphor so often to convey the thoughts and inner states of its characters, we must read its language with special care, whether we are sharing Richard’s thoughts as he grapples with his own ambition (in 3.2 and 5.6), or following Margaret’s rallying of her troops before the battle of Tewkesbury (5.4).

Henry VI, Part 3 is also rich in puns—that is, plays on words that sound approximately the same but that have different meanings, or on a single word that has more than one meaning. When Warwick says “I’ll plant Plantagenet, root him up who dares” (1.1.48), he puns on the name “Plantaganet,” which originally referred to the broom plant. When Henry VI speaks with the two gamekeepers who claim allegiance to Edward IV, he compares them to a feather that moves back and forth when blown upon. “Such,” he says, “is the lightness of you common men” (3.1.88), punning on lightness as fickleness (that of common men) and as light weight (that of a feather).

Implied Stage Action

Finally, in reading Shakespeare’s plays we should always remember that what we are reading is a performance script. The dialogue is written to be spoken by actors who, at the same time, are moving, gesturing, picking up objects, weeping, shaking their fists. Some stage action is described in what are called “stage directions”; some is signaled within the dialogue itself. We must learn to be alert to such signals as we stage the play in our imaginations.

Often the dialogue offers a clear indication of the action that is to accompany it. When, in the first scene of Henry VI, Part 3, Edward tells his father, Richard, duke of York, that, in the battle just ended, he had “cleft” Buckingham’s “beaver with a downright blow,” and adds “That this is true, father, behold his blood,” it seems highly probable that he holds out his sword as evidence. We therefore feel fairly confident about adding the stage direction “He shows his bloody sword,” putting it in half-square brackets to signal that it is our interpolation, rather than words appearing in the Folio printed text. When Montague then says, “And, brother, here’s the Earl of Wiltshire’s blood, / Whom I encountered as the battles joined,” it again seems clear that the evidence being presented is a sword, so we add a stage direction to that effect. Richard’s statement to his father is much more cryptic, and the accompanying gesture therefore carries more meaning. He says simply, “Speak thou for me, and tell them what I did.” York’s response—“Richard hath best deserved of all my sons. / But is your Grace dead, my lord of Somerset?”—suggests that Richard must hold out the head of the dead Somerset, and Richard’s next line—“Thus do I hope to shake King Henry’s head”—seems to confirm that suggestion. We thus add to Richard’s speech prefix the words “holding up a severed head,” placing the words in half-square brackets (1.1.12–20).

Sometimes in Henry VI, Part 3 the implied directions are less easy to decipher. When, for example, in 1.4, York is confronted by Queen Margaret and other Lancastrians eager to capture or to kill him, a flurry of activity takes place onstage that culminates in the question to Queen Margaret, “What would your Grace have done unto him now?” (line 65). What actually happens during that flurry, though, is conveyed to the reader (or the director) only in quasi-metaphoric language. After Clifford’s offer to fight with York is dismissed by his companions as a foolish risk for Clifford to take, Northumberland declares that “It is war’s prize to take all vantages, / And ten to one is no impeach of valor” (59–60). The next line of dialogue is Clifford’s “Ay, ay, so strives the woodcock with the gin,” followed by Northumberland’s “So doth the coney struggle in the net” (61–62). These statements both compare York to a small creature trapped and struggling to escape. York responds with his own metaphoric description: “So triumph thieves upon their conquered booty; / So true men yield with robbers, so o’ermatched” (63–64). Here, York compares himself to conquered treasure in the hands of thieves or an honest man outnumbered and overcome by robbers. Following the lead of the dialogue, then, we add the direction “They attack York” just before he is likened to a woodcock, and “York is overcome” just after the image of the “true men” outnumbered by and yielding to robbers.

Occasionally in Henry VI, Part 3, signals to the reader (and the director and actor) are not clear at all. In 2.4, for example, Lord Clifford meets Richard, duke of Gloucester, during the battle of Towton, and the two adversaries begin to fight. The Folio text then prints the following stage direction: “They fight; Warwick comes; Clifford flies” (11 SD). Nothing in the dialogue explains the connection between Warwick’s entry and Clifford’s fleeing. It is possible that Richard is defeating Clifford, and that the entrance of another powerful Yorkist frightens Clifford away. It is equally possible that Clifford is defeating Richard and that Warwick enters in time to come to Richard’s defense. In this scenario, Clifford flees only because the odds are two-to-one against him, or because Warwick is the stronger fighter. The latter scenario is the one presented in The true Tragedie of Richard Duke of Yorke, which gives the following stage direction: “They fight, and then enters Warwike and rescues Richard, & then exeunt omnes [i.e., they all exit].” Because The True Tragedy often presents characters in ways that differ from their presentation in the Folio text, we do not feel that this stage direction persuasively supports such an expansion of the cryptic Folio directions. Thus directors, actors, and readers in imagination can make their own decisions about the most attractive way to stage this scene.

Practice in reading the language of stage action repays one many times over when one reaches scenes heavily dependent on stage business. Think, for example, of 5.1, the scene that opens with Warwick on the walls of Coventry awaiting the arrival of Clarence with his army. Warwick is thus standing on a playing space above the rear of the stage, where he is joined by Somerville. They hear an army approaching that Warwick thinks is that of Clarence, but Somerville corrects him, pointing away from the sounds to the direction from which Clarence is expected. The marching sounds grow louder, and unexpectedly Edward IV enters below on the main stage with his troops, having either slipped past or bribed Warwick’s scouts. Edward and Richard exchange taunts with Warwick, who remains on the wall. Armies enter in support of Warwick—Oxford’s, Montague’s, and Somerset’s—marching across the main stage, banners flying, drums playing—and exit as if entering the city of Coventry. Finally Clarence appears with his army. As Warwick waits for him to enter the city, Clarence instead, it seems, removes his red rose, flings it at Warwick, and joins his brothers Edward and Richard, who greet him warmly. The two opposing sides now agree to do battle at Barnet, Warwick descends to the level of the main stage, and the Yorkist forces march off. To the accompaniment of drums beating the rhythm of the march, “Warwick and his company follows” (114 SD).

For directors, actors, lighting technicians, and scene designers, scenes like this one are a joy and a challenge to put onstage. For a reader, such a scene requires a vivid stage-related imagination. With such an imagination, such an ability to read the language of stage action, scenes like this one—along with, for example, the elaborate and busy scene in the French court (3.3) or the scene of the rescue of Edward IV from captivity (4.5)—come to life much as they do on the stage.

It is immensely rewarding to work carefully with Shakespeare’s language—with the words, the sentences, the wordplay, and the implied stage action—as readers for the past four centuries have discovered. It may be more pleasurable to attend a good performance of a play—though not everyone has thought so. But the joy of being able to stage a Shakespeare play in one’s imagination, to return to passages that continue to yield further meanings (or further questions) the more one reads them—these are pleasures that, for many, rival (or at least augment) those of the performed text, and certainly make it worth considerable effort to “break the code” of Elizabethan poetic drama and let free the remarkable language that makes up a Shakespeare text.

  1. For our use of the name “Shakespeare” in this essay, see our appendix “Authorship of Henry VI, Part 3.”