Theater as ritual in Henry VI Part 3

In this second play on the Henry VI theme, Shakespeare experiments with a deliberately artificial scene structure. It’s a technique he’ll use again in Richard III. The effect is one of pictorial symmetry.

At the Battle of Towton, Henry takes a seat on a molehill and laments the crushing burden of kingship.

Would I were dead, if God’s good will were so,

For what is in this world but grief and woe?

O God! Methinks it were a happy life

To be no better than a homely swain,

To sit upon a hill as I do now....

His meditation is interrupted by a somber entrance.

Alarum. Enter a SON that hath killed his father at one door, and a FATHER that hath killed his son at another door[, with their bodies].

The son begins rifling the body for gold, but then recognizes who it is, and collapses in grief.

Who’s this? O God! It is my father’s face,

Whom in this conflict I unwares have killed.

Pardon me, God, I knew not what I did;

And pardon, father, for I knew not thee.

My tears shall wipe away these bloody marks,

And no more words till they have flowed their fill.

Henry comments on this sorrow; and then he is interrupted again, this time by the father, who is pulling off his enemy’s helmet.

But let me see: is this our foeman’s face?

Ah, no, no, no, it is mine only son!

Ah, boy, if any life be left in thee,

Throw up thine eye!

O, boy, thy father gave thee life too soon,

And hath bereft thee of thy life too late!

There follows an antiphonal exchange:


How will my mother for a father’s death

Take on with me and ne’er be satisfied!


How will my wife for slaughter of my son

Shed seas of tears and ne’er be satisfied!


How will the country for these woeful chances

Misthink the King and not be satisfied!


Was ever son so rued a father’s death?


Was ever father so bemoaned his son?


Was ever king so grieved for subjects’ woe?

There is no attempt to make this realistic. It’s a stage-managed encounter that emphasizes its own artificiality.

There is a similar approach later in the play, when the forces are gathering before the city of Coventry, just before the Battle of Barnet.

Enter Warwick, the Mayor of Coventry, two Messengers, and others, upon the walls.

They are looking for the armies of their allies. Before the allies arrive, Edward of York and Richard of Gloucester appear.

March. Flourish. Enter Edward, Richard, and Soldiers.

Words are exchanged; and then the Lancastrian allies begin to appear.

Enter Oxford, with Drum and Colors.


O, cheerful colors, see where Oxford comes!


Oxford, Oxford for Lancaster!

A few minutes later:

Enter Montague, with Drum and Colors.


Montague, Montague for Lancaster!

And then:

Enter Somerset, with Drum and Colors.


Somerset, Somerset for Lancaster!

And then, finally, the last army:

Enter Clarence, with Drum and Colors.


And lo, where George of Clarence sweeps along,

Of force enough to bid his brother battle,

With whom an upright zeal to right prevails

More than the nature of a brother’s love.—

Come, Clarence, come; thou wilt, if Warwick call.

But Clarence doesn’t declare for Lancaster; he rips off his red rose and throws it in Warwick’s face. Turncoat Clarence has turned coat again.

And again there’s no effort expended on trying to make this repetition-with-variation realistic or believable. It’s ritual, plain and simple: the resources of theater are deployed in plain sight to create a theatrical effect. There will be other scenes like it in the years to come.

My sources for the Wars of the Roses

I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the history behind the Wars of the Roses. It might be best for me to list the books I consulted on this. There may be better ones out there, but these are the ones I depended on. No question that these are secondary sources, which makes my own (probably error-laden) summary a tertiary source.

Dan Jones: The Wars of the Roses. Penguin Books, 2014.

Alison Weir: The Wars of the Roses. The Random House Publishing Group, 1995.

John Ashdown-Hill: The Wars of the Roses. Amberley Publishing, 2015.

I also checked various articles in Wikipedia and the online edition of Encyclopedia Britannica.

I would like my summary to be as clear and error-free as possible, so all feedback is appreciated.

The second war: King Edward IV

When we last saw Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou, they were headed for Scotland. After that, I said that Margaret continued on toward France, hoping to win King Lewis to Henry’s cause.

Of course, when I went back and refreshed my memory, I realized it was more complicated than that. I’d been engaging in a little amnesia combined with wishful thinking.

Henry VI Part 3 gives only a brief glimpse of Edward’s first 9 years as king. He tries to seduce and then agrees to marry Elizabeth Woodville. Clarence sneaks off to woo the Earl of Warwick’s daughter. Warwick himself, meeting with the King of France, is trying to negotiate a marriage between Edward and the French King’s sister-in-law, when a messenger arrives with the news that Edward has already married Elizabeth Woodville. The French King feels insulted, Warwick is humiliated, and Margaret of Anjou — who in the play has found refuge at the French court — is ecstatic at the division among her enemies. In a heartbeat, Warwick changes sides and agrees to help Margaret restore Henry VI to the throne.

And here again we see the playwrights hiding a confusing array of chess moves and creating the impression of a simple cause and effect. This is not a criticism: it’s what plays do.

But it can still be interesting to see how events actually played out.

After their defeat at Towton, Margaret and the Lancastrians fled to Scotland, where they enjoyed some modest support. Margaret sailed on to France and cut a deal with King Lewis to surrender Calais in return for money and soldiers. With these resources, she returned to the north of England and actually managed to take several castles. Edward marched north and took them back; some of them changed hands several times.

By now, Edward’s foreign policies were rapidly closing doors for Margaret, first in Scotland, then on the continent. Edward worked out a peace agreement with France that closed off French aid to the Lancastrians; Warwick hoped to cement it by arranging a marriage between Edward and a French princess. As it turned out, France and Burgundy, enemies of each other, were both interested in being friends with England, and the Duke of Burgundy was about to begin peace negotiations when a bedraggled Margaret, penniless and nearly friendless, showed up on his doorstep and begged for aid. She had endured a flight that sounds like something out of Sir Walter Scott, with kidnappings, highwaymen, and an escape in a rowboat.

Burgundy was noncommittal, but he did eventually give her a substantial amount of money, and she continued on to France and set up a kind of government in exile.

Back in England, Lancastrians continued to organize armies and cause trouble in the north, but Edward finally crushed them decisively at Hedgely Moor and Hexham. The “resistance” was at an end.

And then Edward, through his own impulsiveness, gave it a new lease on life. Despite the marriage offer from the King of France, Edward secretly married Elizabeth Woodville, who was part of the Lancastrian orbit and who brought no obvious advantages in trade or governance. The story was — and Shakespeare made great use of it — that Edward, a notorious womanizer, had tried to seduce her, had failed because of her sterling virtue, and was so besotted that he agreed to her demand that he marry her first.

Edward’s marriage raised the possibility of children and further erosion of the Lancastrian cause. It was further eroded when Henry VI, wandering as a fugitive in the north, was captured and imprisoned in the Tower.

Edward’s actions created ill-will in two of his chief allies: his brother Clarence and the Earl of Warwick. In the absence of children, Edward’s brother Clarence had been the designated heir to the throne; now that Edward was married, Clarence’s star dimmed. Edward made matters worse by denying Clarence permission to marry a daughter of the Earl of Warwick, while simultaneously arranging advantageous marriages for members of his wife’s family. And he embarrassed Warwick by receiving a diplomatic mission from France’s enemy the Duke of Burgundy, and ultimately agreeing to a marriage between his sister and the Duke. Warwick was in France negotiating with King Lewis at the time. His diplomatic efforts were in shambles, and he was humiliated.

The Earl of Warwick was the kind of person you shouldn’t humiliate.

Both Warwick and Clarence had had enough. When a popular uprising broke out in the north, Warwick secretly lent it aid, hoping to increase its scope and intensity. Edward rode north with his youngest brother, Richard of Gloucester, to quell the uprising; and Warwick sailed off to his base at Calais with his daughter and Clarence in tow. The two were married there against Edward’s wishes.

Warwick and Clarence returned to England at the head of an army and marched north to support the uprising. They defeated an attack by allies of Edward, and Edward himself was captured — leading to the unlikely situation, as Dan Jones points out, of having two kings of England held prisoner at the same time (Henry was still in the Tower).

Public order broke down, and it didn’t take long for Warwick to decide that holding Edward was more trouble than it was worth. So he freed Edward — a bit like the pointless episode in the play — and after supporting another failed rebellion, he and Clarence fled back to Calais. Warwick met with Margaret in France, and this, finally, is the point at which he agreed to help her and Henry.

Shakespeare achieves great dramatic effect by condensing all of this into two scenes that appear to happen one after the other; but in fact there were 6 years between Edward’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville and Warwick’s agreement with Margaret of Anjou.

The rest of the story played out much as the play gives it. Warwick and Clarence invaded; Clarence changed sides again, and his brother Edward forgave him, at least for the time being; Edward defeated Warwick at the brutal battle of Barnet, and Warwick himself was killed. It was Easter Sunday, and that same day, Margaret landed in England with her army and with her son Edward. Edward tracked them down and destroyed this final remnant of Lancastrian power at Tewkesbury. Margaret’s fire-breathing son Edward was killed in that battle, and Margaret was captured and imprisoned.

Edward returned in triumph to London. That night, Henry VI, imprisoned in the Tower, died either at the behest of, or at the hands of, Edward’s brother Richard of Gloucester.

Edward’s wife Elizabeth, in sanctuary at Westminster while Warwick was at large, had given birth to a son, named Edward; he was destined to become the next King, Edward V.


The first war: Henry VI

I originally tried to write this as a single post, but I’ve had to split it in two. There are just too many twists and turns.

Henry VI Parts 2 and 3 are complicated enough. The reality was even worse. Looking at the historical record can highlight the playwrights’ selection and telescoping of historical events.

Apart from that telescoping and condensing, Shakespeare (and company) make two significant changes, both of which affect the characterization of Richard Duke of York. The first and most important is that they have Richard declare his desire for the throne from the very beginning. Warwick and Salisbury are convinced by his arguments that he’s the rightful king, and fight to bring that about.

In fact, there is no evidence that Richard of York claimed the throne until some time later, and when he did so, Warwick and Salisbury were, at least initially, appalled.

The second change is that the play omits any mention of the Madness of King Henry. Henry VI fell into a catatonic state in 1453 and remained unresponsive for over a year. During this time he had to be fed and cleaned by others, and he was unable to give any sign of recognition. It was because of this that Richard of York was appointed Protector of the Realm, and it was in his role as Protector that he filled administrative posts with his adherents.

During this period Margaret gave birth to her son, Prince Edward — timing that led to speculation about her son’s father. Was he really Henry’s son? or was he fathered by the Duke of Somerset? She had become pregnant before Henry shut down, which argues in favor of Prince Edward’s legitimacy; but it was a useful rumor for her enemies, and they made extensive use of it.

When Prince Edward was first presented to Henry, the king was unable to respond. But when Henry recovered his senses (in January 1455), he did acknowledge Prince Edward as his son, and he terminated York’s appointment as Protector. This is what gave Margaret and Somerset the opportunity to rebuild their own power base and begin isolating York from court. When York was summoned to a special meeting of the council, York — remembering the fate of Humphrey Duke of Gloucester, for whom a similar summons meant arrest, imprisonment, and death — took up arms. Hence the Battle of St Albans.

The play leaves out most of this: Henry’s incapacity is never shown and York’s Protectorship is never mentioned. The York character in the play doesn’t need fresh motivation for raising an army: he’s been angling for the throne from the beginning, and is only waiting for the right moment to declare himself openly. But in actual fact, even with an army at his back, the historical Richard of York still made no public demand for the throne, not before the Battle of St Albans and not after it. His intention was to force the removal of “the King’s evil councillors” — especially the Duke of Somerset.

(Another minor change: in the play, Richard of York has an angry confrontation with the King and the court party just before the battle. York calls for his two sons to appear. Edward and Richard enter, full of spit and ready to fight; from his first appearance on stage it’s clear that son Richard is a stone-cold killer. But in reality, Edward was elsewhere and Richard was only three years old. Shakespeare never hesitates to play games with ages and dates when it increases the intensity or speed of the action.)

In the play, Richard of York is victorious at the Battle of St Albans that follows his confrontation with the court. The Duke of Somerset is dead, and York marches to London to take the throne. He is met at Westminster by Henry, who calls him a traitor but ultimately compromises: he will name York as his heir (disinheriting his own son) if York will allow him to remain in power for life. Margaret’s outraged reaction to this surrender leads immediately to the Battle of Wakefield, where York and his son Rutland are killed.

This is a remarkably simplified and telescoped version of what happened. The Battle of St Albans occurred in 1455, and York did afterwards march on London, but he didn’t meet Henry there: he already had Henry in custody after the battle. When they arrived in London, York placed Henry rather than himself on the throne. There was a long and twisty road to travel yet before the opposing forces met at Wakefield.

With Henry back on the throne, and peace proclaiming olives of endless age, Margaret assumed leadership of the court party. She and York sniped at each other and maneuvered for influence. Henry lapsed again into catatonia and York was again made Protector; and Henry recovered again and York lost his office again. He left the court and returned to his base in the north.

We still haven’t gotten to Wakefield. Queen Margaret began mobilizing a new army against York. In 1459, she called for a special meeting of Parliament: the invitation didn’t include the Yorkists. It was too much like what happened to Duke Humphrey, and too much like what had happened 4 years earlier, leading up to the Battle at St Albans. York put out a call to Warwick and his other allies to join forces at Ludlow. Queen Margaret and the Lancastrian army rushed to meet them there. The Lancastrians met a contingent of the Yorkist army at Blore Heath, where the Lancastrians were roundly beaten. But it wasn’t decisive, and both armies continued converging on Ludlow. When they were finally drawn up in opposing camps, the Yorkists realized the odds were against them and the leaders fled — York to Ireland with his son Rutland, Warwick and York’s oldest son Edward to Calais. Their leaderless army surrendered, and Ludlow was sacked and pillaged.

When York fled, he left behind his wife, the Duchess Cicely, and her two youngest sons: false fleeting Clarence and crookback Richard. Those nicknames are a little premature, though: at this point Clarence was 12 and Richard was 9. (No tossing of Somerset’s head to the stage by the rapacious Richard after St Albans.) They were taken into protective custody by the Lancastrians and allowed to live with a relative; later Cicely, concerned that they might become hostages, sent them off to the continent.

York and his allies were down but not out: they were still planning a return. The next year Warwick invaded England from his base at Calais, bringing with him the 18-year-old Edward, York’s son. They entered London to cheering crowds, who had grown tired and bitter at Margaret’s mismanagement and favoritism. Warwick and Edward then moved against the Lancastrian army, which was gathering at Northampton. The Battle of Northampton was a great victory for the Yorkists, and they were able once again to “capture” Henry. But they assured Henry that he was in no danger from them; their first action upon finding him was to kneel before him and swear fealty.

In October 1560, following this victory — five years after St Albans — York finally returned from Ireland and appeared before Parliament to argue his claim to the throne. Parliament didn’t give in right away; even the Earl of Warwick was shocked by the claim. (So no long genealogies thrashed out in the Temple rose garden. But more on that when we come to Henry VI Part 1.) There was a long and torturous process of negotiation and bureaucratic wrangling before Parliament finally announced their compromise: York was to be heir to the throne, but Henry would remain King for the rest of his life. Note, however, that he was still in the custody of the Yorkists.

Margaret refused to accept the compromise and marched south, gathering forces as she went. York marched north to meet her: and they met at Wakefield.

So we finally got there.

With a stroke of his pen, Shakespeare (or whoever laid out the plot) eliminated 5 years from the story and created a direct path of cause and effect: St Albans to York’s claim to the throne to Margaret’s armed response to Wakefield. The Battle of St Albans ends Henry VI Part 2, and York’s appearance before Parliament begins Henry VI Part 3. Wakefield follows immediately after, and York is dead before the end of the first act. As the play indicates, Wakefield ended badly for the Yorkists, with both Richard Duke of York and his son the Earl of Rutland dead. (Rutland is shown as a child, trying to escape the battle with his tutor; but he was 17 and a fighter at the time of the battle. Shakespeare was never averse to juggling dates and ages to achieve a more dramatic effect.)

York’s son Edward became the new Duke of York and took up his father’s cause. He met Margaret’s army at Mortimer’s Cross and defeated them in a terrible massacre. (A footnote: the Lancastrian army was led by Jasper Tudor and his father Owen Tudor; Owen was captured by the Yorkists and later beheaded. Why is this significant? Because Owen had children with Katherine, the Queen Dowager, widow of Henry V — she of “de bilbow” and “de fingres”. His sons — one of them Jasper — were half-brothers of King Henry VI. Owen’s grandson Henry Tudor, the young Earl of Richmond, later became King Henry VII, partly on the basis of this extremely tenuous connection. But that needs to wait for another play.)

Shakespeare puts Edward at Mortimer’s Cross, but not for a battle, which is never mentioned: he dramatizes Edward’s witnessing the appearance of three suns in the sky, a phenomenon explained in more recent times as the effect of ice crystals. In the play, his brother Richard (the Crookback) stands beside him, having fought valiantly in his and their father’s cause. It’s a great scene, made even better by directors who bring in brother George as well, so the three sons see the miracle of the three suns. Too bad the two younger brothers were still in France.

Meanwhile Warwick had attacked the Queen’s army at a second Battle of St Albans and lost, running away to fight another day. In the play he appears at Mortimer’s Cross after the three suns and narrates the tale of his defeat; and Richard makes various insulting remarks about his retreat. Warwick notes almost as an afterthought that one result of the retreat is that Henry, who’d been under Yorkist control all this time, was left behind on the battlefield and was now back with the Queen.

On the basis of his victory at Mortimer’s Cross, Edward marched to London once again and entered the city in triumph. This time he was proclaimed king by the citizens of London and then by Parliament: he was now King Edward IV.

He raised another army and went after Henry and Margaret, who were camped near the town of Towton. The Battle of Towton was bloody and snowbound, picturesque in its horror — one of the bloodiest in English history, at least in terms of the rate of slaughter. (The casualties have been compared to those of the Battle of the Somme.) Shakespeare spreads the action across several scenes filled with alarums and excursions. This is the battle where Henry wishes he were a shepherd and watches the grief of a son who has killed his father in battle and a father who has killed his son. More about that in another post.

The battle put paid, at least for the time being, to the Lancastrian cause. Margaret and Henry fled to Scotland and Margaret continued on to France, where she hoped to enlist the French king Lewis in Henry’s cause.

I’m not complaining about the changes made in the play. In fact I think they’re a brilliant arrangement, driving home the intensity of the conflict and the horrors of civil war, while keeping the actual movement of chess pieces to a minimum. I just think it’s interesting and useful to explore what actually happened, as a way of highlighting the patterns in the play.

In the next post: the second War of the Roses.

Shakespeare and French names

Shakespeare was a practitioner of the traditional English habit of Anglicizing foreign names. This usually gets lost in modern editions, where the editors have “corrected” them. In the original printed texts, the French king’s name is spelled Lewis, and that’s how it was pronounced. Calais was spelled and pronounced Callice, Rousillon was Rosillion, Orleans was Orleance, Rouen was Roan, and believe it or not, Dauphin was Dolphin.

As far as I know, there are only two recent editions of Shakespeare that try to preserve the original spelling of these names, because they tell us something about the pronunciation and line scansion. One is the one-volume Riverside Shakespeare, with the text edited by G Blakekmore Evans; and the individual volumes in the New Folger Shakespeare, with texts edited by Paul Werstine.

It’s a dilemma for productions — or at least it could be, if the director is as obsessed with details as I am. Do you pronounce the names as they were originally written, and risk sounding ignorant? or give them correct French pronunciation and risk throwing off the rhythm? The Folger notes that Dauphin should be pronounced with the accent on the first syllable: DAW-fin. At the very least it will make some of the puns work better.

The Hollow Crown, Season 2, Episodes 1 and 2

The three Henry VI plays have sometimes been done as a full set, but it seems to be more common to compress the three plays into two, or even one. Many years ago I saw an effective one-part adaptation on stage that made Margaret the central character. Most recently the two-part approach was taken by the BBC series The Hollow Crown.

The episodes of The Hollow Crown were presented according to historical chronology, so the plays Shakespeare wrote first — the Henry VI plays and Richard III — were done as part of the second season. I’m approaching them in the same order Shakespeare did.

The first two episodes of Season 2 comprise the three parts of Henry VI. Apart from a ruthless hacking of lines — something I would expect and even appreciate in any film version — there are three key changes that were made to fit the plays into the reduced format.

First, the characters of Somerset and Suffolk are combined. This could have been a good strategy, but I think it was mishandled. Having combined the two roles, and giving Suffolk’s best lines (and his affair with Margaret) to Somerset, the producers left Suffolk in. To do what, exactly? The actor who plays him has nothing left to do.

This causes a jagged edge in the scene where Henry banishes Suffolk after the murder of Gloucester. It’s a great scene in the play: Suffolk has a tearful goodbye scene with Margaret, then goes on board a ship, is captured by pirates, and executed.

But in The Hollow Crown, it’s Somerset who’s the prime mover against Gloucester, and the person who should be banished. But he can’t be banished, because he’s needed in the rest of the story. So…. Henry banishes both of them, Somerset and Suffolk (even though Suffolk has done almost nothing, against Gloucester or otherwise)…. and then, two minutes later, in response to a plea from Margaret, says Oh, never mind, I didn’t mean it. The banishment — one of the few courageous actions Henry takes — has no consequences. It becomes a red herring, like the kidnapping of Edward of York in the original. (Incidentally, that kidnapping is thankfully omitted from the film.)

To someone not familiar with the play, this may not matter; the oddness of Henry’s motivation may not be apparent. (Why is he so furious at Suffolk, for example, and not Cardinal Beaufort?) And it does set the stage for York’s blistering condemnation of Henry and his announcement that he is claiming the throne. But it felt like a kludge to me.

And there’s another problem. Because he wasn’t banished, Suffolk doesn’t get on a ship and doesn’t die. But they have to get rid of him somehow. So they stick him in the battle of St Albans long enough to be killed. The character has become pointless and so has his death.

…. Except for another problem. Having cut Lord Clifford from the script, and his death scene at St Albans, Young Clifford has nobody to stand over to rage and weep and vow revenge. So he does it while standing over…. Suffolk’s body. Which makes no sense at all. Unless they somehow want us to think Suffolk is Young Clifford’s father.

So I like the idea of merging Suffolk into Somerset, but I don’t think the writers and producers thought it through enough. It’s almost as if they were winging it. “Let’s combine the two characters. Great! But wait, Suffolk gets banished. No problem: we’ll banish both of them. Oh, wait: he gets banished and killed. No problem: we’ll stick him in St Albans in place of Lord Clifford. Oh, wait: Young Clifford has to vow revenge for something. No problem: we’ll pretend Suffolk was his father, since his corpse is conveniently lying there.”

I don’t have any better ideas for how this should be handled. I just don’t think this aspect of the film worked as well as it should have.

The second thing they do to streamline the story is remove Jack Cade’s rebellion. I’m really sorry to see him go, but something has to give, and since the rebellion has no long-range effect on the story — it’s mostly a self-contained episode — it might as well be Cade.

The third thing they do is to cut the Battle of Barnet from the part of the script based on Henry VI Part 3. Shakespeare has already reduced the complicated ins and outs of the War of the Roses to four key battles; The Hollow Crown combines Barnet with Tewkesbury and has both Warwick and Edward of Lancaster killed there.

They did, however — and I’m glad they did — leave in the Son Who Hath Killed His Father and the Father Who Hath Killed His Son. Although it’s a little disconcerting to see Henry crawling around the edges of the battle, hiding behind trees, this part is well done.

There are a couple of concessions to history in the adaptation. For one, Joan of Arc is portrayed in a more traditional way, as a heroine with spiritual visions. That’s closer to history, but it’s not what Shakespeare (or Marlowe) wrote: in Henry VI Part 1, she’s a seductive witch, someone who communes with demons and sleeps with so many men she doesn’t know who got her pregnant. (OK, I’m stretching that last point a bit. Her desperate plea for mercy on account of pregnancy, and her naming of several different men as the father, are omitted from the film. It’s not clear even in the play that she’s trying to tell the truth.)

For another, Richard Crookback is shown initially as someone too young to participate in the various battles. He cowers in a barn while he watches Clifford kill his younger brother Rutland; he has no weapon and probably wouldn’t know how to use it if he had one. This is a gesture in the direction of the fact that Richard was 8 years old when the Battle of Wakefield was fought, which is when the 17-year-old Rutland was killed.

And finally, the Henry VI plays never mention the one or two times when Henry sank into madness and catatonia. The Hollow Crown at least suggests this by having Henry wander almost naked over the fields and almost babbling as he’s imprisoned in the Tower. He’s even given a recognition scene, and a bit of a “return to normalcy,” when his son Edward of Lancaster visits him in the Tower: perhaps a token of the moment when the historical Henry, recovering from his first bout of madness, acknowledges Edward as his son.

I like the series, despite my criticism about the handling of Suffolk. The cast is wonderful, the photography is beautiful, the storyline is clear, and the pace is rapid. Sophie Okonedo (Margaret) and Benedict Cumberbatch (Richard of Gloucester) stand out, but everyone is good. I’m looking forward to seeing the third episode and its treatment of Richard III. I’m going to take a little break first, though.

Was there a raised platform on stage in 3 Henry VI?

The Elizabethans performed their plays on a mostly bare stage. In most theaters there were two columns holding up the roof over the stage; these could be used as trees to hide behind or for other effects. There was a raised gallery at the back of the stage; a number of scenes are described as having characters “aloft” or “on the walls.” (Sometimes the characters aloft interact with characters on the main stage, as Dame Eleanor does with Margery Jourdain.)

But there are a few aspects of staging that suggest there was also a raised platform on the main stage, with one or more steps leading up to it. In the first scene of Henry VI Part 3, York hesitates before and then ascends a platform holding the throne. Later he is standing on a “molehill” when he is killed. It might seem literal-minded to suggest the molehill was actually a raised area, but it gives an opportunity for the kind of visual “repetition and contrast” that can, when done well, send a thrill through an audience: when he is killed, York is literally standing in the same place where he took the throne. And later, at the battle of Towton, Henry sits on another molehill — an unusual number of molehills in one play! — while he observes the carnage of war. The son who killed his father on one side, the father who killed his son on the other, Henry on a raised platform in the center….? It’s possible. The triptych nature of the scene, the formal symmetry of its verse, almost calls out for something like that.

If something like that were used, it doesn’t seem likely it was a permanent structure. The “bare stage” idea needs to be qualified a bit: there is evidence that tables and benches and thrones and beds and the Mouth of Hell were brought out on stage as needed; and sometimes also maybe pageant-like pavilions, as Leslie Hotson suggested many years ago. And maybe a one-or-two-step raised platform for certain plays.

The Wars of the Roses, according to Part 3

The dynastic conflict between York and Lancaster is full of twists and turns. In Henry VI Part 3 Shakespeare has simplified and focused the action to increase the dramatic impact — and yet even so, the play can be confusing. Who’s fighting, who wins, who just kidnapped who, and what comes next?

Using the play itself as an outline, here’s a summary.

At the Battle of St Albans, Richard Duke of York is victorious and rushes to London to proclaim himself king. He takes the throne in Parliament. Henry VI confronts him there, but he’s weak and vacillating and ultimately names Richard as his heir. This has the unfortunate side effect of disinheriting Henry’s own son Prince Edward. (Actually, there’s an implication, both in the play and in history, that Edward is not his son. But more about that later.)

The nobles who have championed Henry’s cause are disgusted by his abject surrender and abandon him. They will henceforth follow Queen Margaret, who is fighting madly to save her husband’s throne and save the kingdom for her son.

Richard agrees to leave Henry as king during Henry’s lifetime, as long as Richard and his sons inherit the throne after that. But Edward and Richard, sons of York — way too many Edwards and Richards in this story — convince him to take the field again and claim the crown here and now.

And so York’s army and Margaret’s army meet at the Battle of Wakefield. Result: York’s son Edmund Earl of Rutland, shown here as a child, is murdered, and York himself is captured by Margaret and killed after a horrific scene of taunting and humiliation. His head is nailed up over the gates of York. (From a visual standpoint, with the rapid comings and goings on the Elizabethan stage, it was likely to stay there brooding over the action until it was taken down several scenes later.)

York’s son Edward now assumes the title Duke of York and the Yorkist claim to the throne. He is supported by his brothers Richard and Clarence. Brief mention is made of a second battle at St Albans, lost by their ally Warwick, but it plays no major role in the action; and the brothers meet up with Warwick at Mortimer’s Cross, where Edward actually fought another battle never mentioned in the play. They merge their forces to meet the Queen at the Battle of Towton. This is by far the longest battle scene in the play, fitting for a battle that was reputed to be one of the bloodiest ever fought on English soil. King Henry watches it from a distance and laments his unfitness. Result: Margaret’s army is vanquished and flees; Henry disappears into Scotland.

But not for long. He can’t stay away from his country, and visiting in disguise, he’s captured by two hunters in the next scene. So now Edward assumes the crown as King Edward IV; names his brother Richard Duke of Gloucester and George Duke of Clarence; and Henry is his prisoner.

The play compresses about 10 years of Edward’s reign into a single scene, and what it shows is of Edward’s character is not promising. The Earl of Warwick has gone off to France to negotiate a marriage between Edward and the French king’s sister. But Edward is unable to keep his pants zipped, and he’s soon pursuing Lady Elizabeth Woodville, a widow, who wants her husband’s estate back. She can have it, Edward says, if she agrees to sleep with him. She refuses. Edward is so besotted at this point that he decides to marry her — even though she’s a commoner, and even though he’s already sent Warwick off to woo a French princess on his behalf.

Edward’s brothers Richard and Clarence are disgusted with him — Clarence especially so because Edward refuses to arrange a suitable marriage for him. He decides to shift his allegiance, with the added benefit of being able to marry a daughter of the Earl of Warwick. Richard bides his time: he’s supporting Edward for now, but his real goal, like his father’s before him, is to obtain the crown for himself.

When Warwick arrives in the French court, he finds Queen Margaret already there seeking an alliance. Moments later — compressing the action again — a messenger arrives with the news that Edward is already married to Elizabeth Woodville. Margaret is overjoyed, Warwick humiliated, the French king furious at the insult. The upshot is that Warwick agrees to help Margaret regain the throne for her husband, who is still a prisoner in London. When Clarence shows up, he agrees to join them against his brother.

Warwick returns to England with a French army and kidnaps Edward out of his tent. Henry is freed from prison and reassumes the kingship. This is one of the side alleys that make the play seem more complicated (to readers, at least) than it is: the kidnapping of Edward is a nonstarter as far as the plot is concerned, because a scene or two later he’s rescued by his brother Richard and his close adherents, and we’re more or less back to square one.

Edward and Richard gather their forces together, and Clarence decides it’s time to switch sides back again. They meet Warwick, now leading a Lancastrian army, at the battle of Barnet. Warwick is killed, the Yorkists win, and Henry VI is back in the tower.

Queen Margaret lands in England with yet another French army. Edward — whose wife Elizabeth is now pregnant with their first child — takes up arms again and defeats Margaret, definitively this time, at the Battle of Tewkesbury. As her army retreats, Margaret is forced to watch as Edward, Richard, and Clarence, one after another, stab her son, the erstwhile Prince Edward son of Henry, sixth of that name. She begs them to kill her too, but they refuse to show her that much kindness: her fate is banishment.

Richard, the “foul, indigested lump,” leaves quietly to go back to London. He has a date in the Tower with King Henry, and after listening to Henry rail against him for a few minutes, cuts him off in midsentence with two blows of the knife. He then utters one of the most chilling soliloquies in Shakespeare, certainly in early Shakespeare.

I have no brother, I am like no brother;
And this word “love,” which greybeards call divine,
Be resident in men like one another
And not in me. I am myself alone.

And thus, according to Shakespeare, the first War of the Roses comes to an end. It will flare up again twenty years later when the remnant of the Lancastrian faction rises up to take the throne back by force from the evil crookback Richard.

Staging note

Given the multiplicity of characters and factions, it might be useful on stage to have actors actually wearing the rose associated with their character. Historically, it’s an anachronism; while there is evidence that the Yorkists used a white rose as an emblem on occasion, there’s no contemporary evidence that the Lancastrians used a red one. That seems to be a Tudor invention. But as a visual cue, it could be invaluable for an audience. The Folger Shakespeare edition notes this in editorial stage directions.