King Henry VI part 3: Essay Questions
1. What is the purpose of Act 2, scene 5?
This is the scene that takes place while the battle of Towton is still going on. King Henry has wandered off to a quieter place on the battlefield, since he is not a warrior and has no part to play in the battle. In this play which revolves around the political intrigue of noblemen, battles, and slaughter, this scene provides one of the few moments of contrast. In his long soliloquy, Henry provides a kind of counterpoint to the battle raging around him, painting an idyllic pastoral vision. He sits on a molehill for his contemplation, which contrasts with the molehill the Duke of York was forced to stand on in Act 1 scene 4, when he was humiliated and then killed. In this speech, Henry contrasts his life as a king, full of grief, to the happy life of a shepherd. The shepherd lives a life whose orderly rhythm is ordained by the passage of the seasons. It changes little from year to year, unlike the titanic struggle for political power that is raging all around King Henry. The shepherd lives to see old age and a quiet death when the time comes. “Ah, what a life were this! how sweet! how lovely!” says Henry. He contrasts the protection provided to shepherds by the hawthorn bush, which provides shade, with the rich canopy afforded to kings who still cannot protect themselves from treachery. The king may have luxurious foods and accommodations, but the shepherd sleeps more peacefully.
The second part of the scene, in which the father who killed his son and the son who killed his father, appear, also presents a contrast, since it offers the play’s only direct glimpse of the common man. The play is bound up with the maneuverings of the great lords of the realm but here the suffering of the ordinary man caught up in these events and expected to do his duty is painfully apparent. The fact that neither of the men is named adds to the feeling that presented here is the suffering of Everyman. These two anonymous figures represent all the ordinary people whose families are torn apart by untimely and cruel deaths brought about by these wrangling lords who can settle their disputes only by blood and the sword.
2. What role does legitimacy play in the power game that is Henry VI, part 3?
The long opening scene of the play presents a high-minded appearance. After the Battle of St. Albans, won by the Yorkists, it is time for negotiation. The Yorkists are in the stronger position, but they are also anxious to establish that they are behaving in a just manner because the Duke of York’s claim to the throne is a legitimate one. Both sides make their respective cases, as if the issue were one of right and wrong rather than a matter of naked power. For the audience, the question seems to be finely balanced. Henry VI’s claim to the throne is obvious and seemingly inviolable, since he is the son of Henry V, a spectacularly successful king, who himself was the son of another king, Henry IV. But the story is more complicated than that, and goes back several generations, because Henry IV actually seized the throne from Richard II, the legitimate king. How many generations does it take, then, for the heirs of a king who deposed a rightful but weak king (Richard II) to be regarded as legitimate? One might think that York has waited a long time to make his claim to the throne, since he was happy to serve under Henry V, even though his claim has some merit. The truth, it seems, is that what makes legitimacy is success. As long as Henry V was conquering France, the question of whether he was a legitimate king retreated into the shadows. But then came Henry VI, a stark contrast to his father. Henry VI is even weaker and less competent than Richard II, so naturally the legitimacy of his rule comes into question and is used by others who see a chance to seize power for themselves. As the play progresses, the question of who is the rightful king by law becomes less and less prominent. Politics in fifteenth-century England, according to Shakespeare’s version, seems to be more about power than right; the rightful king is he who can seize the crown and hang on to it.
3. What is the difference between Warwick and Richard, in terms of character and ambition?
The power struggle as it played out in fifteenth-century England was not something that innocents or naifs would want to be caught up in. One of them is, however—and his name happens to be Henry VI. Warwick and Richard, Duke of Gloucester, however, are of a different breed than the hapless king; they are both well suited to the ruthless struggle they are engaged upon. They are two of the most powerful, strong-willed figures in the play and are not to be trifled with. When the play begins they are on the same side, but when Warwick switches sides they become enemies. In Act V, scene 1, they insult each other before the Battle of Barnet. However, they have very different reasons for acting in the way they do. Richard is presented as a villain throughout the play. He is only out for himself. He cares nothing for the welfare of the nation and everything for his personal self-aggrandizement. To this end he is cunning and deceitful, covering up his true intentions while behaving viciously when opportunity presents itself. Warwick, on the other hand, does not seek the crown for himself. He is powerful in his own right, and his support or enmity can make or break kings. But while no doubt enjoying the position of power he holds, he also seems to be aware that he must act in the national interest. He has no intention of undermining Edward until Edward shows a willingness to risk relations with France just because he wants to marry a certain woman. As Shakespeare shows it, Edward IV, at least at the start of his reign, makes some serious blunders, and there is some justice in Warwick’s accusations after Edward has been captured and overthrown:
Alas! how should you govern any kingdom
That know not how to use ambassadors,
Nor how to be contented with one wife,
Nor how to use your brothers brotherly,
Nor how to study for the people's welfare,
Nor how to shroud yourself from enemies?
Act 4, scene 3 lines 35-40
There is no reason to disbelieve Warwick at this point. Although he felt personally slighted by Edward when his negotiations with the king of France to bring home a bride for the new king came to nothing, he is genuinely concerned that a man such as Edward is not fit to be king. In contrast, fitness for office is something that does not enter Richard’s thinking at all. In his own mind he is fit to be king because he desires it so much. There is no other consideration.
4. How does the role of George, later Duke of Clarence, reveal the underlying themes of the play?
After the murder of Rutland, George is one of three surviving sons of Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York. He is younger than Edward, so Edward is ahead of him in the line of succession. He is older than Richard, but he lacks Richard’s single-minded devotion to self-advancement. Given this lack of natural advantage, Clarence does what he can to secure and advance his own position, not by the ruthless murder that his brother Richard specializes in, but by guile, treachery, and deceit—qualities that seem to flourish in the power circles of fifteenth-century England. George is initially annoyed when his brother, the new Edward IV, arranges profitable marriages for his wife’s family but does not do so for him. Even though Edward offers to find Clarence a bride, Clarence has his own ideas about the matter. He befriends the powerful Warwick, who gives him the hand of one of his daughters, at which point Clarence switches sides, coming out against his own brothers. Warwick has just split with Edward and wants to restore Henry to the throne. He seems to have a pretty good idea of what it will take to keep Clarence on his side, and promises that once Henry is restored, he will make Clarence next in line for the throne. Clarence is pleased with his backroom dealings and takes part in the raid that results in the capture of his brother Edward. However, after Warwick marries off his younger daughter to Henry VI’s son, Clarence realizes that he is not going to be heir to the throne after all. Warwick has shown that he can play the game of guile and deceit just as well as Clarence does. So the disillusioned Clarence changes sides yet again, returning to his brothers, who, knowing how the game is played, welcome him back—they need the forces he commands. In the later play, Richard III, it is revealed that Clarence never achieves his desire for the throne. He is murdered by his brother Richard, a man even more unscrupulous than he.
5. Analyze the exchange between Clifford and Henry at the beginning of Act 2, scene 2.
The exchange between Clifford and Henry is between two men with starkly different character and motivation. Henry, although caught up in a bloody struggle for the crown, is nonetheless a man for whom morality still means something. Clifford, on the other hand, is driven by the fierce demons of revenge.
The exchange begins as Henry laments seeing the head of the former Duke of York displayed on the city gate. Henry is not a vengeful man and he says he hopes God will not seek revenge on them for such an act. For Clifford, though, this speech acts like a goad. He cannot understand such a way of thinking. His reply is cunning, however. He does not urge on the king the need for revenge against those who tried to seize his crown. Instead he tries to convince the king that it is unnatural for him to feel pity for someone who would have taken what rightfully belonged to the king. He uses many analogies from the world of nature to convince the king on this point. Do lions, bears or serpents offer a peaceful face to those who would do them harm? Clifford then goes on to describe yet more examples from the natural world about how animals and birds protect and defend their offspring. He is trying to convince the king he was wrong to disinherit his son. He says it is shameful for the son to lose his inheritance in this way.
But none of Clifford’s arguments cut any ice with Henry, who responds from a moral point of view. He asks Clifford, “didst thou never hear / That things ill got had ever had success?” In other words, he believes he cannot bequeath to his son anything valuable if he himself behaves dishonorably. He would sooner leave to his son his virtuous deeds rather than a crown. This is a man who believes in the moral framework of the universe, that God will judge all for their conduct. This is a quite different world from the one Clifford inhabits, as he has already showed when he murdered the boy Rutland. Clifford and Henry could talk all night and never reach agreement.