The Shakespeare Series: Henry VI, Part 3 Review

How sweet a thing it is to wear a crown,
Within whose circuit is Elysium,
And all that poets feign of bliss and joy.

The final episode of the Henry IV saga is filled with the sombre tones of contemplation and the transient nature of life. This comes from directly from the plot: We as the audience knows that during this play Henry’s time is nigh. The armies are battling as all Henry tires to do is reach peace.

In opposition to Henry’s calm, almost resigned manner we have his wife Margaret who understands that the throne is about more than just one man that sits on it and decides to take matters into her own hands. Against her stands the strong and purposeful Warwick, who will support the figure he gets the most out of. At the same time the Sons of York are also mustering, having grown confident in their ability and authority to take the throne. All comes to a head at the great Battle of Barnet which decides everyone’s fate as well as providing a portent as to Richard (to be Richard III)’s future character.

Despite it’s tumultuous subject matter I find Part 3 less enjoyable than its predecessor. I always felt that its battle scenes diminished the introspection in the play. However it must be reminded that this play is a rush to the end, the Return to the King of the trilogy. Its objective is resolution and it sticks to the dire nature of the civil war to do that. The high body count and depictions of physical and psychological violence do not tell us what the Bard has not told us before but does serve as the final nail in the coffin to a grim episode not just in terms of the play, but also in history. The bustling, almost claustrophobic fast paced action helps to create the sense of chaos, of allegiances and lives changing faster than we can take breath. It also helps emphasises the shortness of life that comes with such war and provides effective contrast when we reach Henry’s lonely predicament at the end of the day.

He is a man desperate to keep the peace, so find his own private world and physically escapes the warring masses until he reaches a lonely hill. But his physical escape is only that, for even when he is far away from those that would fight for his throne he still cannot escape it. It’s a final reminder as to the tragedy of his life, that he was born almost literally into a throne which he was neither equipped nor wanted to inhabit. Shakespeare captures his desolation and the desolation of civil war. It might not have been Shakespeare’s finest play, but I think Henry the ‘Star of England’, certainly would have wept for his son.

O God! methinks, it were a happy life,
To be no better than a homely swain;
To sit upon a hill, as I do now,
To carve out dials quaintly, point by point,
Thereby to see the minutes how they run:
How many make the hour full complete,
How many hours bring about the day,
How many days will finish up the year,
How many years a mortal man may live.

(photo credit: from the RSC 2000)


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