Henry VI, Part 3 (1591) by William Shakespeare

A powerful, disturbing escalation of, but logical conclusion to, Shakespeare’s “Henry VI” trilogy. Where “Henry VI, Part 1” was tension and “Henry VI, part 2” was quarrelling, “Henry VI, Part 3” is outright, ceaseless violence.

Taken in a vacuum, the play isn’t especially riveting, as it glides from outburst of violence to outburst of violence, with the dialogue in between sometimes feeling like little more than connective tissue. It’s a very odd structure for a Shakespearean play, which usually eschew big setpieces, let alone this many. But as a “sequel” to the preceding “Henry VI” plays, and a precursor to the legendary “Richard III”, it works very well indeed. The endless brutality and violence might feel like empty spectacle on its own, but coming after the preceding history plays, it feels like the logical conclusion to the established characters and state of the times.

Reaching back to Bolingbroke’s usurping of the throne in “Richard II”, it feels like the “natural” order of monarchy was irrevocably broken, and the unchecked violent usurping of a throne could only lead to more and more violent and depraved imitations of that fateful event. Of course, it’s not over yet, as Richard III will sink to even lower depths, but the sheer scale of warfare in this play is alarming and disturbing, as is the lack of any sort of moral figure to latch onto (”Richard III” has Richmond if nothing else, and even if that’s one of the more overt propaganda-like stances of that play).

Just how far the depravity of the nobles descends is surprising. Shakespeare returns to the example of sons killing fathers and fathers killing sons, the unnatural evil of patricide and filicide a stand-in for the horrors and senselessness of unchecked war fought for increasingly murky reasons. There’s not as much story here as “Henry VI, Part 2”, but to me it feels like the chaos and thinness of the play is intentional – there’s little here but the most repulsive, violent, base actions of humans.

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I can’t say I enjoyed this play as much as the previous one, or found it as well-crafted, but the aspects I didn’t enjoy – the amount of repetition, the focus on battles, the comparative lack of unique characters – all work to push the ideas of the play, so it does feel cohesive and of singular vision. It’s a powerful play, but I feel like I admire it more than I like it. It delivers a very strong conclusion to this set of three plays, and I love how much it followed through on what the earlier plays suggested, but it lacks a lot of what I like best in Shakespeare’s plays. I give it three father’s corpses, and a paper crown.

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