By William Shakespeare
Written in 1591

Comments by Bob Corbett
January 2011

General Note: In January 2009 I decided that I’d like to go back and read all the plays of William Shakespeare, perhaps one a month if that works out. I hadn’t read a Shakespeare play since 1959, 50 years ago! But I had read nearly all of them in college. I wanted to go back, start with something not too serious or challenging, and work my way through the whole corpus. Thus I began with The Two Gentlemen of Verona. At this time I have no idea how the project will go, nor if it will actually lead me through the entire corpus of Shakespeare’s plays. However, I will keep a separate page listing each play I’ve read with links to any comments I would make of that particular play. See: List of Shakespeare’s play’s I’ve read and commented on


This part three of the Henry VI plays begins many years after the time of Henry VI part two. Henry is still on the ropes and has escaped those after him and is hiding out in the north. But the forces of the House of York are formidable and it’s not clear how Henry can survive.

The Yorks simply take over London and declare Edward the king and Henry, still the “official” king, simply stays in hiding. No doubt about it, he is a real wimp and has to have been a miserable king. He makes a deal with Edward and the Yorks – he will remain king, as least in name, and move away to his property in the north of England. Edward will take over as “protector” and officially run England until Henry’s death, then Edward can become king. The deal is sealed by each offering his “word.” One knows, of course, that the “word” of an English noble is about as worthless as a three dollar bill.

Edward is no great shakes as a human being, but seemingly a strong, if unofficial, king. Sad, but perhaps Edward is more a model of the sorts of people who tend to hold political power than is wimpish, but decent Henry.

In any case Edward’s brothers and family urge him to consolidate his power by marrying the daughter of “Lewis” who is now king of France. That “Lewis” threw me for a few minutes. I’d never heard of a King Lewis. Then I had a great laugh at myself as I said the name aloud rather than just reading it, and saw immediately the Louis of France whom I know quite well.

While Warwick has gone to France to negotiate this marriage, and Margaret, Henry’s French wife, has gone there to oppose it, two things happen at just about the same time:

The King of France is advised by his advisors that the power lays with Edward and the Yorks, so it makes sense to give his sister in marriage to Edward.

Edward, on his part, falls in love, or at least in lust with Lady Grey and marries her on the spot.

When word gets to France, Louis is outraged, the honor of his family smirched. Warwick is also outraged, his honor shamed as well. They both switch their allegiance back to Henry, but it will be Queen Margaret who will lead the French army that will be sent to put Henry back into power.

The wimp, as I have come to think of Henry, remains walking around his gardens dreamily enjoying nature. He isn’t even embarrassed by his cowardice.

Ah, what a life were this! how sweet! how lovely!
Gives not the hawthorn-bush a sweeter shade
Than doth a rich embroidered canopy
To kings that fear their subjects’ treachery?
O, yes, it doth! a thousand-fold it doth!
And to conclude, the shepherd’s homely curds,
His cold thin drink out of his leather bottle,
His wonted sleep under a fresh tree’s shade,
All which secure and sweetly he enjoys,
Is far beyond a prince’s delicates,
His viands sparkling in a golden cup,
His body couched in a curious bed,
Where care, mistrust, and treason waits on him.

The Yorks don’t seem to be taking the French force, led by Margaret, to be much of a threat. However, Clarence does and challenges his brothers to be careful about their nonchalance.

A little fire is quickly trodden out
Which being suffered, rivers cannot quench.

And truly the French seem to be advancing and making a threat. But, good old Edward, who doesn’t hesitate to break his word, decides the easiest way to secure himself in his new kingship and even advance the date of his formal ascension to the throne, is to break his deal with Henry, imprison him in the tower and eventually, when needed, kill him. Without Henry alive there is little doubt that Edward’s claim to the throne would be stronger.

You are the fount that makes small brooks to flow.
Now stops thy spring; my sea shall suck them dry
And swell so much the higher by their ebb.
Hence with him to the Tower. Let him not speak.

And so it plays out. Eventually Margaret and the French and those few Englishmen still loyal to Henry are defeated, Henry killed and the House of York, with Edward as their king, begin a new dynasty – at least for a while.

Again, as in so many of the history plays, Shakespeare has given us an exciting, even gripping, though definitely aggravating tale. Knowing that, in the main, it is actual history, is something on Shakespeare’s side. He can’t be much condemned for seeming to take sides, history has done that. He just has to be responsible for telling the tale in an exciting and stage-worthy manner. I’m not sure how the play would work on the stage. There are many seeming battle scenes and such. But, the tale plays out very well for me in words. I was gripped all the way through and, while frustrated with Henry’s cowardice and abandonment of his people, I could see where it was all headed, and could just shake my head and say – ah me, history seems to tell this story over and over in different ways.

Henry VI, part 3, is a very worthwhile read.

Bob Corbett



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Bob Corbett