3. Henry VI: Part III
I really enjoyed reading Henry VI: Part III this week. Where Part II felt underdeveloped and confused, Part III feels like the first time in my journey through the Complete Works that I have felt in the company of the Shakespeare that we know and revere. It’s also the first time that I’ve been left feeling like this was a play I’d like to have a go at directing.
This play dives right into the heart of the Wars of the Roses and the tussle between Henry VI and Edward IV for the throne. It is much more tightly structured, with the two sides being set out early on and the battles used at pivotal moments to drive the story forward. There’s still an awful lot happening for one play, but it’s got a clear sense of direction with one central struggle at its heart.
It is also a play of great speeches and one of the best female roles in all of Shakespeare in Queen Margaret. If anyone is looking for good and underused Shakespeare audition speeches, have a raid of Henry VI Part III. You’ll find a couple of powerful speeches from Margaret, some ponderous and philosophical speeches from Henry VI, and the beginnings of the treacherous brilliance of Richard (later Richard III). Warwick and Edward IV have good moments too. It is a play where you can see the seeds of some of Shakespeare’s great History play writing; you can see the beginnings of Richard III, Henry V and Richard II quite clearly.
Whilst this is generally positioned as the culmination of the Henry VI story, I would be more interested to see it paired with Richard III. In many ways it could be legitimately viewed as Richard III Part I. It is the play in which we are introduced to Richard’s character – misshapen, ruthless, determined and treacherous. This play finishes only a few years before Richard III begins, with the triumph of the House of York. This play even introduces us to the future Henry VII, the Henry Tudor who defeats Richard at the Battle of Bosworth. There’s a pseudo-prophetic moment in Henry VI: Part III, where Henry VI sees the baby Henry Tudor, foretells his greatness and gives him his blessing. Dramaturgically, therefore, Henry VI: Part III and Richard III make a compelling diptych.
Something else that makes Henry VI: Part III so compelling is how Shakespeare doesn’t shy away from the horrors of civil war in any way. In fact, in one haunting scene, he highlights them. During one of the battles, Henry VI witnesses a son who realises that he has killed his own father and a father who realises that he has killed his own son. It is a tad forced but it is nevertheless a deeply moving moment, where the high politics of kingship and honour, is reduced to the reality of families being torn apart and forced to fight on opposite sides.
The brutality doesn’t stop there either, as political enemies are stabbed and cut down in cold blood. Children are especially vulnerable, as their deaths are used as punishment for their fathers’ actions. This may be one of Shakespeare’s more poetic plays (like Richard II, it is entirely written in verse), but that doesn’t stop the action being earthy and base. And this is reflective of a play that revels in challenging oppositions for the actor. Henry VI is a king in the midst of a civil war, yet he is peaceful and pious. Warwick is fierce and honourable, yet he changes sides halfway through. Margaret is maternal and feminine, yet she is a fearless warrior and general. Edward IV is warlike and strong, yet he is easily swayed by his advisors and makes rash decisions. Richard is charming and noble, yet he is treacherous and violent. Whoever is King is technically in power yet, as soon as they become King, they immediately become vulnerable to attack. These oppositions all make for fascinating and nuanced drama and keep the play resonant and alive.
This is a play that I would definitely like to come back to. It absolutely needs a good trim but at its heart is a really powerful and questioning piece of drama. Getting this experience and knowledge of a play that I would otherwise have had very little reason to read, is exactly why I undertook this challenge. Henry VI: Part III can now take pride of place in the list of Shakespeare plays that I would one day like to direct.