Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 573
In Henry VI, Part III, which belongs to William Shakespeare’s tetralogy of history plays dealing with the political upheaval that followed Henry Bolingbroke’s overthrow and murder of Richard II, England continues to suffer the evils of civil strife and social disorder arising from the war between the houses of York and Lancaster. Shakespeare’s general purposes in this series of plays are to reassert the power of Providence, to glorify England, and to suggest the nature of its salvation; only with the restitution of the rightful heir to the throne at the end of Richard III (pr. c. 1592-1593, pb. 1597) will England be able to bind its wounds and enjoy peace once again.
Henry VI, Part III is a powerful study of disorder and chaos; the play interweaves a cohesive body of imagery and symbolism with the action of its plot to create a strong unity of impression centering on the theme of anarchy and disunity. Chaos prevails on all levels of society, from the state, to the family, to the individual. At the highest level of authority and social organization—the throne—anarchy replaces traditional rule. The king, who must be the center of political strength and embody the sanctity of social duty, oath, and custom, is instead the essence of weakness; Henry not only yields the right of succession to York but also abdicates eventually in favor of Warwick and Clarence. Whenever he attempts to intervene in events, his weak voice is quickly silenced; finally he is silenced permanently, and his murder represents the ultimate overturning of political order and rejection of the divine right upon which his rule was founded. Contrasted to Henry, the representative of rightful power, is Richard, who in this play becomes the epitome of total anarchy. Richard murders the prince, the king, and his brother Clarence, boasting later, “Why, I can smile, and murder whiles I smile”; he scornfully disregards any form of moral obligation and eventually falls victim to unreasoning fears and nightmares.
The primary social bond, that of the family, is likewise in a state of dissolution. Again, the malady begins at the level of the king; Henry disinherits his own son, the rightful heir, thus causing his wife Margaret to cut herself off from him, sundering their marital bond. York’s three sons become hopelessly divided by their conflicting ambitions. In act 2, scene 5, Shakespeare shows, by means of the morality tableau, that the same family breakdown prevails among the common people as well. Simultaneously with its presentation of political and social chaos, the play dramatizes the disruption that is occurring in individuals’ morality. Hatred, ambition, lust, and greed are the keynotes, while duty, trust, tradition, and self-restraint are increasingly rare.
Henry VI, Part III thus depicts a society in the throes of anarchy and war, a society where kings surrender their duties, fathers and sons murder each other, and brothers vie for power at any cost. Nevertheless, the play contains an occasional feeble ray of light, such as Henry’s weak protests against the cruelty of the usurpers, his pleas for pity for the war’s victims, and his ineffectual calls for an end to the conflict and a restoration of peace and order. These scattered flickers, dim as they are, along with several prophecies planted throughout the play, foreshadow the coming hope, the resolution of conflict, and the return of peace and rightful authority which will follow in Richard III.