Like Shakespeare's other History Plays, 3 Henry VI is essentially concerned with civil disorder. As the young playwright's skills matured, his handling of the theme improved, and this third play of the minor Tetralogy marks a notable advance. Shakespeare's ability to organize a confused mass of material is superior-to that in I and 2 Henry VI. Also, and more important in light of his later development, his presentation of chaos includes disorder in the individual as well as in the state; malfunctions of personality underlie those of politics. The painter of tableaux and pageantry is becoming a tragedian.
The dissolution of the state is the major concern of the play, which describes the overthrow of King Henry VI but this major theme is also reflected in minor keys. Just as the organizational principle of society the state, is disrupted, so, too, the basic social bond of the family is disturbed. Henry disinherits his own son to purchase relief from York's threats of war, and the action sparks Margaret's unilateral declaration of divorce. The opposing clan, the Yorks, are no better often George abandons his brother's cause after Edward turns his attentions to the relatives of his new bride. Richard plots the death of both his brothers. The theme of familial collapse is given spectacular exposure in 2.5, the scene involving the Son That Hath Killed His Father and the Father That Hath Killed His Son Further, an abandonment of individual honesty characterizes the world of the play. As Edward quite coolly asserts in 1.2.16-17,(... for a kingdom any oath may be broken: ‘I would break a thousand oaths to reign one year.’
These themes, so suggestive of chaos are developed within a regularly alternating cycle of changes of fortune, beginning and ending with the ascendancy of the house of York. Yorkist success at Ac outset is countered by the Lancastrian victory at Wakefield and York’s ignominious death. However. Warwick rallies the Yorkists, who are victorious at Towton in Act 1. In Act 3 Edward's perfidy triggers the defection of Warwick and the consequent reinstatement of Henry as king. But the last swing of the pendulum produces the defeat and death of Warwick and Richard s murders of Henry and his heir. This easily perceived sequence imposes order on the turbulent events.
Dramatic unity is furthered by the persistence of images that reflect the violence of nature. Throughout the Play, the characters refer to their conflicts in terms of the killing of animals by men, as in 1.4.61-62 and 2 4 13, or the taking of prey by animals, as in 2.1.14 and 5 6.7. Even more evocative are references to the power of tempests, such as Henry’s striking description of the battle of Wakefield in 2.5.5-9 and Margaret's more elaborate nautical analogy at the beginning of 5 4 Our awareness of the brutality and viciousness of the play's action is constantly reinforced by this recurrent imagery.
Moreover, Shakespeare frequently has his characters refer to the past and predict the future—devices that serve to bring all the parts of the play to the repeated attention of the audience. For instance, in 1 130-133 Henry foretells the coming battles and his own death; the dying York, in 1.4.165-166 wishes upon Margaret a fate that comes to pass in 5.5. Clifford in 2.6, summarizes King Henry's hapless reign. Henry, before his murder in 5.6, predicts Richard’s future crimes. Many such allusions, both plain and subtle, reverberate throughout the play.
More important than this clever technique, however, is Shakespeare's increasing ability to make his characters much more convincing. Henry VI in particular has grown greatly as the playwright's skill has advanced. The king's gentleness is touchingly rendered in his revulsion at the sight of York's head in 2.2, in his wish to be a simple shepherd (2.5.1-54), and in his forgiving his prison guard in 4.6. However, Henry's virtue has a negative side, causing him to become more and more dissociated from his surroundings. The consequences are both subtly recorded, as when the king demands to speak but is ignored and remains speechless in 2.2, and obvious, as upon his virtual abdication in 4.6. Henry's position involves a tragic paradox: his goodness ought to be given scope by his power, but it is precisely his power that places him in the way of historical forces that goodness cannot resist. That Henry is believably both weak and good makes this situation humanly tragic as well as politically disturbing.
Queen Margaret also displays greater dimensions than in the earlier plays. The strength that enables her to organize the resistance to York is fuelled by intemperate rage. When she has York at her mercy in 1.4, her viciousness comes to the fore, and we are faced with a fearsome shrew in one of the most powerful scenes Shakespeare had yet written. Though Margaret is undeniably bloody-minded—as in 2.2, where she encourages Henry to gloat over York's severed head—she also possesses a capacity for military leadership and strength that is not without a noble appeal. Her persistence in the face of setbacks and her readiness to resume battle when the tide turns, in 3.3, makes credible her leadership in the face of final defeat at Tewkesbury. Her inspiring speech in 5.4 rings true, for we have seen that she is a real warrior.
Edward, too, is a well-developed figure. His stature as York's heir to the throne proves illusory once he is crowned, for he shows no regard for the responsibilities of kingship. He is willful in pursuing his lust, and his behavior brings on further civil war. In the conflict, he indulges in pointless bravado and permits himself to be captured. In 5.5.84, after the final victory, Edward casually permits Richard to murder Henry, evincing a lack of concern for civil order that will eventually result in his own victimization in Richard III.
But Shakespeare's greatest accomplishment in the play is the creation of his first great villain—Richard. Richard's extraordinary personality bursts forth in 1.1, when he abruptly throws down the head of Somerset, saying, 'Speak thou for me, and tell them what I did' (1.1.16). Richard's violence is mixed with sardonic wit throughout the play. He gloats over Clifford's corpse in 2.6, his speech darkening from morbid humor to vicious rhetoric. Later, after killing Henry, Richard raises his bloody sword and sarcastically crows, 'See how my sword weeps for the poor King's death' (5.6.63). Richard is conscious of his own character, and he shares his self-awareness with the audience, enlarging our appreciation of his villainy. In his famous soliloquy at the end of 3.2, he observes that he 'can smile, and murder whiles I smile'; he associates himself with a paragon of atheism and amorality in claiming he will 'set the murderous Machiavel to school'. His appreciation of his own viciousness seems very modern, as does his psychological motivation: his personality is formed in part by his physical deformity, a hunched back. In 3.2.154-164, he attributes his own malevolence to this defect. Richard, established in 3 Henry VI as misshapen and monstrously evil, will achieve heights of villainy in the following play in the sequence, which bears his name.
Shakespeare ties together his various strands in a spectacularly ironic final scene. The victorious Edward congratulates himself on his success, in pointed contrast to Richard's Judas kiss, which prepares us for the horrors of Richard III. In the final line, Edward carelessly rejoices in a future happiness that the audience knows very well to be doomed. The author has combined the consummation of his play's action with a foreshadowing of its sequel.
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