I have a confession, friends: I knew that Richard would become King in Richard III, but I apparently had no clue which Richard would do so. I honestly thought it was the father, so I was rather shocked when he was killed in the very beginning of the play. I also knew that Richard III was hunchbacked in some way, but Shakespeare tends to take a bit of license so I thought he might change his appearance in Richard III. Why are there so many Richards and Henrys running about? I now have no clue who Benedict Cumberbatch plays in the new Hollow Crown series.
Ah, well, onward and off-ward we go!
The play begins where Henry VI Part 2 left off: Henry and Margaret are fleeing the Yorkists after the battle at St Albans. The Yorkists reach the parliamentary chambers before Henry and his group and Richard promptly sits himself upon the throne. When Henry et al enter the room a verbal battle ensues, which is cut off by Warwick threatening violence upon any who would defy Richard’s claim.
Backed into a corner, Henry agrees to let Richard’s line be successors to the crown so long as they let him continue to rule for the rest of his natural life. Margaret is understandably upset that Henry would disinherit their son and leaves with Henry’s supporters (who are also upset that Henry was so easily cowed), declaring war on the Yorkists.
Margaret and her forces attack York’s castle and win the battle, forcing the Yorkists to flee and capturing Richard. Clifford, wanting revenge for his father’s death at the end of the previous play, kills Richard’s 12-year-old son Rutland during the battle. Margaret and Clifford then taunt Richard, giving him a handkerchief covered in his young son’s blood and forcing him to wear a paper crown before killing him. After this battle, Henry returns to London and, at Margaret’s urging, revokes his vow to let the Plantagenet line gain the crown after his death.
Richard has three remaining sons: Edward (the eldest), George, and Richard (the youngest). They, with Warwick (whose army was defeated at the Second Battle of St Albans) and Warwick’s brother Montague, regroup. They win the following Battle of Towton and Clifford is killed. Edward is proclaimed king while George takes on the title of Duke of Clarence and Richard becomes the Duke of Gloucester. Richard then reveals to the audience that he plans to take the throne from his brothers (keep in mind that both Edward and George come before him in succession), though he doesn’t yet have a plan.
Following the Battle of Towton, Margaret and her son travel to France to beg the King to aid their cause. Warwick had been likewise dispatched to France, but he goes to brook an alliance with the French and gain the hand of Lady Bona, the King’s sister, for Edward. Just as the French King has agreed to the marriage a messenger comes with news that Edward’s already married the recently-widowed Lady Grey. Warwick, feeling he’s been made a fool, vows to support Henry and fight against Edward. The French King, likewise angry, agrees to send troops to England with Margaret and Warwick. As a sign of good faith, Warwick promises his daughter Anne to Prince Edward (Margaret and Henry’s son). Due to Edward’s ill-though-out marriage George Plantagenet also vows to help the Lancastrian cause (and as a result gets the hand of another of Warwick’s daughters). Warwick invades England with his French and English troops and takes Edward prisoner. Henry re-assumes the crown and appoints both Warwick and George as Lords Protectors of the realm.
But because this play likes to flip flop every other scene, Edward is soon rescued from captivity by Richard, Hastings, and Stanley. Edward reorganizes and confronts Warwick’s army at the Battle of Barnet. George betrays Warwick and the Lancastrians and rejoins Edward’s side and the Yorkists win the battle. Both Warwick and Montague are killed, so Oxford and Somerset assume command of the forces. Margaret and Prince Edward’s army joins the battle. Meanwhile, Henry is then captured by Yorkists and imprisoned in the Tower of London.
Edward and his forces meet the Lancastrian/French forces in the Battle of Tewkesbury. The Yorkists win and capture Margaret, Prince Edward, Somerset, and Oxford. Somerset is executed and Oxford imprisoned for life. Margaret, meanwhile, is banished and then forced to watch Edward, George, and Richard stab her son to death. Richard then goes to the Tower and kills Henry, who foretells Richard’s future actions and the subsequent chaos in store for us in Richard III. Unaware of Richard’s scheming, Edward orders celebrations after the birth of his son thinking that the civil war is over and the crown firmly set upon his head.
In Part 1 we had the fall of chivalry; in Part 2 we had the fall of good government with the death of Gloucester; in Part 3 we have family bonds. Family bonds and their disintegration, specifically in Henry VI Part 3 but really throughout the Henry VI plays, move the entire story forward. It’s a dispute about family bonds (who’s the rightful successor for Richard II?) that leads the Yorkists to fight against the Lancastrians. Similarly, it’s familial bonds (Henry VI’s disinheriting his son) that cause Margaret to fight against the Yorkists after Henry agrees to a peaceful truce. It’s also familial bonds (Clifford’s love for his father and desire to see him avenged) that lead to Rutland’s death.
We can see this interest in familial bonds in Act 2 Scene 5, where Henry watches the aftermath of battle and sees a father realize he’s slain his son and a different son realize he’s slain his father. Civil war itself is a deformity of familial bonds, and this scene highlights just how out of whack social order, even natural order, goes when these bonds are either disregarded or severed.
But nowhere is the idea of familial bonds more important within these plays than with Richard, brother to Edward and George. At the end of the play in Act 5 Scene 6 where Richard kills Henry he states that
I have no brother, I am like no brother;
And this word ‘love,’ which graybeards call divine,
Be resident in men like one another
And not in me: I am myself alone.
Richard denounces his familial bonds, and in Richard III we’ll see just how far he’s willing to go against his family to get what he wants. (Spoiler: it’s pretty far.) He’s also physically deformed, but the question is raised as to which came first: the deformity of body or the deformity of soul? It’s not Richard’s physical deformity that make him a monster, it’s his actions; specifically, it’s his going against his familial bonds to usurp the throne for himself. So, does his physical deformity cause him to be a pariah or is his physical state just a mirror for his soul?
Beyond this play is the role that familial bonds have played since Richard II, where the source of the conflict in Henry VI Part 3 occurred: Henry IV usurped the crown from Richard II, who was then murdered as a result. Whether by Henry IV’s hand or just due to Henry IV’s actions, Richard died. So this degradation of familial bonds traces back to that moment.
Aren’t you glad I misread “Henry VI” as “Henry IV” before I started this blog now? Imagine if we had to skip!
Did you catch the following bit in Act 4 Scene 6?
King Henry VI: Come hither, England’s hope.
Lays his hand on his head
If secret powers
Suggest but truth to my divining thoughts,
This pretty lad will prove our country’s bliss.
His looks are full of peaceful majesty,
His head by nature framed to wear a crown,
His hand to wield a sceptre, and himself
Likely in time to bless a regal throne.
Make much of him, my lords, for this is he
Must help you more than you are hurt by me.
That baby, my friends, is the Earl of Richmond, future King Henry VII and the start of the Tudor line (ie.: the lineage of Elizabeth I). Shakespeare basically calls the child England’s savior.