Henry VI, Part 3 (often abbreviated to 3 Henry VI) was written around 1591 and is the third in a series of four history plays (the first tetralogy) covering the civil wars of the 15th century between the rival Plantagenet houses of Lancaster and York, now known as the Wars of the Roses.
3 Henry VI is a violent play of battles, betrayals and murder that charts the descent of the country into the horrors of civil war, as familial and social bonds are replaced by self-interest. It starts after the First Battle of St Albans: Richard, Duke of York sits on the royal throne and King Henry is forced into an agreement that he can remain King if the rule passes to the Yorkist line after his death. Henry’s wife, Margaret of Anjou, and supporters, abandon him in disgust and declare war on the Yorkists. Margaret leads the Lancastrians to victory in the Battle of Wakefield, during which Clifford murders York’s 12-year-old son, Rutland, and Margaret and Clifford taunt York, making him wear a paper crown and wiping his face with a handkerchief soaked in Rutland’s blood, before killing him too. Henry revokes his agreement with York. The Yorkists regroup and win a victory at the Battle of Towton, after which, Edward is proclaimed King and his brothers, George and Richard, Dukes of Clarence and Gloucester respectively. After more battles, more betrayals and defections, Henry is imprisoned in the Tower of London, where he is murdered by Gloucester.
The engraved frontispiece of this book depicts the penultimate scene of the play as Richard, Duke of Gloucester stabs Henry VI.
3 Henry VI and Richard III
Richard III follows 3 Henry VI in the sequence of plays and as such, 3 Henry VI is an important play for understanding the development of Richard’s character and the events leading up to the later play. Digitised here are a key soliloquy of Richard’s from Act III, and the scene from Act V where Richard murders Henry.
In the soliloquy (the longest in the whole Shakespearean canon), Richard, who has been newly made Duke of Gloucester, shares with the audience the horrid misfortunes of his life, describing his own body with a rhetoric of deformity and monstrosity and the way society has disabled him as a result. He also reveals his ambition for the throne and his intention to use his cunning and dissembling nature to grasp it, claiming ‘I can … set the murth’rous Machiavel to school.’ Laurence Olivier and Ian McKellen both took lines from this soliloquy in 3 Henry VI and inserted them into Richard’s opening speech in their film versions of Richard III.
In the scene in which Richard kills Henry, he claims to have ‘neither pity, love, nor fear’, and offers a wilful cause for his evil in his invocation: ‘since the heav’ns have shap’d my body so, / Let hell make crook’d my mind to answer it.’ Before he dies, Henry prophesises the doom of the country under Richard.
Publishing Shakespeare in the 18th century: the Tonson-Walker affair
This edition from 1734 was printed by Jacob Tonson – the most significant publisher of his time in England – in a flurry of cheap individual editions of the plays as part of a printing war with rival Robert Walker. In 1710, Tonson and his family were granted the sole rights to print Shakespeare’s works by Queen Anne in the first modern copyright statute. Tonson printed several major editions of the complete works – including those by Nicholas Rowe, Alexander Pope and Samuel Johnson – and played a major role in increasing Shakespeare’s popularity and status in the 18th century. In 1734, the bookseller Walker started producing and selling pirate editions of Shakespeare’s plays. When threats of legal action didn’t deter him, Tonson simply flooded the market with large numbers of even cheaper editions of every play Walker printed. One of the results of the Tonson-Walker affair was that copies of Shakespeare’s plays became readily available to a much wider public audience.