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...
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