The Shakespeare Project: Henry VI, Part 3

Well, that was a bit of a whirlwind.

Summing up the complicated War of the Roses in a manner that would be amenable to Shakespeare’s Tudor rulers must not have been an easy task. As a result, Henry VI, Part 3 has a tendency to get confusing, even for the author himself (the character of Montague seems a bit confused as to which side he is on). Just in the span of Act IV, Edward is king, exiled and king again. Nobles change sides seemingly on whims. The few strong moments — the scene in the French King’s court for example or the murder of Rutland and its echoes throughout the play — tend to disappear into the dizzying plot turns and twists. By the time it was over, I really felt that it was this play that suffered from “middle chapter syndrome”, killing off masses of characters from the previous two plays and setting up the epic Richard III, which looms over this play like a thunderhead.

While I found this play to be one of the lesser of the histories, I have to disagree with the critics as to why. They usually talk about the amount of action on stage, citing classical tendencies to have action off-stage. I actually think the battles work pretty well (I mean, it was the War of the Roses, not the Polite Chat of the Roses). The action also sets up one of the play’s few iconic moments when Henry VI laments the father killing his son and the son killing his father. It also enhances the play’s running them of violence begetting violence and England descending into a chaotic state of barbarism in the absence of a strong king. No, I think the play’s weakness is the one I identify above: trying to squeeze too many historical turns into too short a time.

That having been said, I still am finding the histories easier to follow than some of the comedies and therefore, as a group, more enjoyable. And I’m so excited about the next one that I’ve already started Richard III, whose opening soliloquy is already one of the best of the canon.

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