Chaos and Disorder
King Henry VI part 3: Theme Analysis
The theme of chaos and disorder continues from Henry VI, part 2. In that play, the realm was in disarray because of the weakness of the king. In particular, Henry VI’s loss of the French territories that his father, Henry V, had won, produced continual plotting and jockeying for power amongst the English nobles. Eventually, this broke out in open rebellion by the Duke of York, who wanted to win the crown for himself. Henry VI Part 2 ends with the first battle of St. Albans, in which the Yorkists triumph.
Henry VI, part 3 begins where the earlier play left off, and during this play England sinks even deeper into chaos. The play is made up mostly of battles and the topsy-turvy fortunes of both sides. Henry VI continues to be a weak and inadequate king, unsuited for the position he holds. Even though the Lancastrians—the King’s forces—triumph at the battle of Wakefield and the Duke of York is killed (this is the first battle shown in the play), the Yorkist faction remains formidable and many-headed—the Duke of York has three surviving sons—and the kingdom remains unstable. Had the king been stronger, he might have been able to assert control at this point, but the combination of the able Edward, soon to become Edward IV, and the powerful lord Warwick is too much for him and his ruthless Queen Margaret to withstand. Besides, the king has exasperated even his own supporters by disinheriting his son in favor of the Yorkist line.
Power shifts dramatically at the Battle of Towton, in which Edward and Warwick are victorious. However, even though Edward is in a powerful position at this point, having been crowned king, the chaos goes on because of his radical misjudgment regarding his marriage. In insisting on marrying a commoner, Lady Grey, he seems motivated by lust as much as anything else (he first tries to seduce her and only makes her queen when she resists his advances), and succeeds in alienating not only the king of France but also Warwick, whom he had sent to France on a diplomatic mission to arrange marriage between Edward and the king’s sister. This major blunder on Edward’s part ensures that the chaos in England continues, because now Warwick takes up arms against him. A remarkable series of events then follows, which must have bewildered many people at the time: Edward is taken by surprise and captured without a fight; he is stripped of the crown, which Warwick places on the head of Henry, who up to that point had been a prisoner in the Tower. Henry is as inept as he ever was, so Warwick and Clarence rule in his name. But even this arrangement produces no stability because Edward escapes, and another round of battles begins. The chaos ends only after the battles of Barnet and Tewksbury, both of which produce victories for Edward. He is then free to reign in peace only because anyone who would be likely to disturb the peace on the Lancastrian side (Henry VI, Warwick) is already dead.
The cycle of battles and killing between the houses of Lancaster and York is motivated as much by feelings of personal revenge as well as the weightier matters of who is to rule England. The personal feuds relevant to the play begin at the end of Henry VI, part 2, at the Battle of St. Albans, in which the Duke of York kills Lord Clifford. Clifford’s son carries his dead father off the battlefield and vows revenge on his killer. When Henry VI, part 3 begins, a prominent theme in the early part of the play is Clifford’s lust for revenge. Another lord, Northumberland, is also present in the first scene of the play; he too has seen his father killed by York and seeks personal revenge. Clifford gets his desire, killing York and also, in a savage fit of vengeance against an entire family, killing the boy Rutland, York’s youngest son. These killings of course only produce another round of vengeance: Edward, Richard, and George, York’s three surviving sons, must be revenged on the “bloody Clifford.” They achieve their goal at the Battle of Towton, although none of them has the pleasure of killing Clifford themselves; he is killed in the battle by persons unknown. That brings the cycle of personal, familial vengeance to a close. Although there are vengeful feelings in Edward IV against Warwick after Warwick switches sides and opposes the new king, this is not quite the same as the vicious, tit-for-tat killings that mark the feuds of the houses of York and Lancaster.
Ruthless political ambition is a prominent theme in the play. The goal is power. Almost no one, King Henry VI excepted, is immune to the lure of ambition and power: Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, who is easily persuaded by his sons to break his oath to Henry and continue the quest for the crown; Queen Margaret, the power behind the throne; York’s son Edward, later Edward IV, who stamps out all challenges to his grip on power. The preeminent example, however, is that of Richard, York’s son who later becomes the Duke of Gloucester. Whereas his father and brother at least make some appeal to principle in their quest for the throne, Richard is motivated solely by personal ambition. He will do whatever it takes, including murder and deceit, to work his way into a position from which he can seize the throne. In Henry VI, part 3, this is still a long way off, but Richard shows his intent clearly in almost every speech he makes, and also in his actions, when he kills King Henry. The full extent of Richard’s ruthless ambition will be told in Richard III.