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Henry VI, Part 3

Creation of the play

Henry VI, Part 3 must have been created by 1592. The play was first published in 1595. However, a line from Henry VI, Part 3 was parodied by Robert Greene in Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit, published in 1592. It is agreed that Henry VI, Part 3 was created as a sequel to Henry VI, Part 2 which has been dated to 1591. Opinion is divided on whether Shakespeare wrote Henry VI, Part 3 alone or with others. Suggested collaborators include George Peele, Robert Greene, and Christopher Marlowe.

King Henry VI. John Stow, The Chronicles of England
King Henry VI. John Stow, The Chronicles of England, [1580]. British Library, 807.c.30, p. 617. Larger image

Early performances

The title-page of the 1600 quarto of Henry VI, Part 3 states that the play was ‘sundry times acted by the Right Honourable the Earle of Pembrooke his seruantes’. It is thus likely that the play was first performed by the Earl of Pembroke’s Men at the Rose before June 1592, when the Privy Council forbade performances because of the plague. There are no records of performances of Henry VI, Part 3 before the Restoration in 1660.

Publication in quarto and folio

Henry VI, Part 3 appeared in six editions before 1642.

  • First octavo, 1595. Thought to have been printed from a memorial reconstruction of the play. It has also been suggested that it was printed from a transcript made by an early actor for his friends. The title of the play was given as The True Tragedie of Richard Duke of York, and the Death of Good King Henrie the Sixt. (Copy from the Bodleian Library.)
  • Second quarto, 1600. The quarto is not an exact reprint of the octavo, for dozens of irregularly divided verse lines were regularised.
  • Third quarto, undated but published in 1619. Probably printed from the second quarto, although it has been suggested that the octavo was used. Many editorial changes were made, and 1 new line added to the play. In this edition Henry VI, Part 3 was printed together with Henry VI, Part 2 under the general title The Whole Contention Betweene the Two Famous Houses, Lancaster and Yorke. This was the first edition to attribute the play to Shakespeare.
  • First folio, 1623. Usually thought to have been printed from Shakespeare’s foul papers. The folio text is about a third longer than the first octavo, although the stage directions are less full. The play was given the title The Third Part of Henry the Sixt.
  • Second folio, 1632. Printed from the first folio.

The True Tragedie of Richard Duke of York, and the Death of Good King Henrie the Sixt was first printed by Peter Short for Thomas Millington in octavo in 1594. A second quarto edition was printed by William White for Millington in 1600. On 19 April 1602, Millington transferred his copyright in Henry VI, part 2 and Henry VI, Part 3 to Thomas Pavier.

The third quarto, with the general title The Whole Contention Betweene the Two Famous Houses, Lancaster and Yorke, was printed by William Jaggard for Thomas Pavier. The volume also includes Pericles. Henry VI, Part 3 was among the group of 10 plays printed by Jaggard for Pavier in 1619. These were apparently intended to form a collection of plays attributed to Shakespeare. The King’s Men may have protested against Pavier’s intentions, for the Lord Chamberlain subsequently wrote to the Stationers’ Company demanding that no more plays belonging to them should be printed except with their consent.

British Library copies of Henry VI, Part 3 contains detailed bibliographic descriptions of all the quarto copies of the play.

Shakespeare’s sources

Shakespeare made significant use of two sources for Henry VI, Part 3.

  • Raphael Holinshed, The Third Volume of Chronicles (1587). Shakespeare made use of Holinshed in particular for a number of scenes in act 1.
  • Edward Hall, The Union of the Two Noble and Illustrate Famelies of Lancastre and Yorke (1548). Hall may have been Shakespeare’s principal source for the play.

Story of the play

Note: the links below will take you to the page in the quarto where each act begins, according to standard modern editions. (The quartos themselves have no act divisions.) The quarto shown for each play is always the earliest in the Library's collection - unless it is a 'bad' quarto in which case it is the earliest 'good' quarto.

Henry VI, Part 3 is set in England during the mid 15th century, at the height of the Wars of the Roses.

(Act 1) Richard Duke of York has just won a battle against King Henry VI, but the King has escaped. York’s sons Edward and Richard, and the Earl of Warwick declare their continued support for him. King Henry enters Parliament to find York seated on the throne. Under pressure, particularly from Warwick, he agrees to disinherit his own son and appoint York as his heir. King Henry’s supporters, including Clifford, abandon him. Queen Margaret turns furiously on her husband before leaving with her son to join their army. York is persuaded by his sons to pursue the crown. As the opposing armies of York and Lancaster meet, Lord Clifford comes upon York’s youngest son the Earl of Rutland and kills him. The Lancastrians win the Battle of Wakefield. York is taken prisoner, and Queen Margaret torments him before she and Clifford kill him.

(Act 2) Edward and Richard learn of their father’s capture and death. Warwick arrives with news of his defeat by the Lancastrians at the Battle of St Albans and the escape of King Henry. He promises his support for Edward, now Duke of York, in his bid for the throne. King Henry and Queen Margaret arrive at York, where Henry knights his son Prince Edward. Edward of York demands the crown, but Queen Margaret and Clifford oppose him. A battle follows, which the Yorkists at first seem to lose. In the midst of the fighting, King Henry finds himself alone and wishes for the quiet life of a shepherd. Clifford is killed during the battle, which the Yorkists win. Edward, now King, creates Richard Duke of Gloucester before they set out in triumph for London.

(Act 3) King Henry, who had fled to Scotland, returns in secret to England. He is captured by two gamekeepers. The widowed Lady Grey appeals to King Edward for the repossession of her dead husband’s lands. King Edward offers to grant her suit if she will become his mistress. When she refuses, he offers to make her his Queen. Alone, Richard of Gloucester reveals his ambition for the throne and the Machiavellian means he will use to gain it. Queen Margaret goes to France to beg help from King Lewis to restore King Henry. Warwick arrives to ask for the hand of the King’s sister on behalf of King Edward. During his negotiations, letters arrive to tell him that King Edward has married Lady Grey. Furious at his humiliation, Warwick switches his allegiance to King Henry. King Lewis promises to help King Henry.

John Barrymore as Richard of Gloucester, 'Ay, Edward will use women honourably'
Listen  Henry VI, Part 3, Act 3, Scene 2. British Library Sound Archive, 1928

(Act 4) Richard of Gloucester and George, Duke of Clarence criticise their brother King Edward’s marriage to Lady Grey. Clarence and the Duke of Somerset join Warwick against King Edward. Warwick captures King Edward, but he is rescued by Richard of Gloucester. King Henry, restored to his throne, appoints Warwick and Clarence as Protectors of the realm so that he can lead a life of prayer. King Edward is proclaimed at York. He and his troops capture King Henry.

(Act 5) King Edward and Richard of Gloucester confront Warwick at Coventry. Warwick is joined there by the Duke of Somerset and other nobles, but Clarence returns to his brother King Edward. Warwick leaves Coventry for Barnet. During the Battle of Barnet, he is wounded and dies. The Yorkists win the battle. King Edward wins the Battle of Tewkesbury, and takes prisoner Queen Margaret and Prince Edward. King Edward, Richard of Gloucester, and Clarence stab and kill the prince. Queen Margaret begs them to kill her too, but she is taken away to prison. King Henry is imprisoned in the Tower, where Richard of Gloucester murders him. King Edward mounts the throne again. Queen Margaret is sent back to France in exchange for a ransom.


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