King Henry VI, sitting alone while the battle of Towton rages, compares the combat to the waves of an ocean pushed in one direction by the tide and pushed in the other by fierce wind. The tide and the wind are so equally matched that sometimes one prevails, and then the other, and the ocean itself is caught between these mighty forces: “Now sways it this way . . . / Now sways it that way,” as tide and wind struggle for victory. Henry perceives that the battle under way—indeed, the “fell war” itself—is like this ocean, caught in “equal poise”—that is, caught between equally weighted forces, “Both tugging to be victors, breast to breast, / Yet neither conqueror nor conquerèd” (2.5.5–12).
Henry’s image of the war could serve as a capsule description of Henry VI, Part 3 itself, a play that from beginning to end is dominated by the struggle between two powerful military forces, neither of which can achieve victory more than momentarily. Until the very end of the play, “now sways it this way . . . , now sways it that way,” as Yorkists and Lancastrians strive for the crown and throne of England. The conflict between these two families, both descended from a common great-great-grandfather, began during the reign of Richard II. Half a century later, during the reign of Henry VI, it moved toward civil war. Now, in Henry VI, Part 3, Henry’s long reign becomes intermittent as his cousin Richard, duke of York, challenges him for the crown and then York’s son Edward sporadically succeeds in seizing it. The play itself focuses on four major battles that lead finally to a Yorkist victory, but only after attacks and counterattacks, defections, imprisonments, and murders, each side mirroring the other’s cruelty, its moments of exultation, and its moments of despair. By play’s end, the civil war has been won by the Yorkists, but the struggle for the crown simply moves inside the York family as Richard plots against his brother and his nephew, obstacles to his own dream of becoming king.
As we watch the crown pass back and forth between Henry VI and Edward IV, much of our attention is caught by three powerful characters—the earl of Warwick, Queen Margaret, and Richard, duke of Gloucester. Warwick is the power behind the Yorkist challenge to Henry VI, until Edward IV behaves so badly that Warwick shifts his allegiance to Henry. Once having returned to Henry’s side, Warwick becomes de facto Lancastrian king, and his death, in effect, marks the end of that family’s rule. Margaret is as powerful as Warwick, first as his opponent and then as his ally, raising her own army in England and later leading an army from France, all in her ultimately futile attempt to save the throne of England for her son Prince Edward. Historically, her son’s slaughter by the Yorkists destroys Margaret, but ShakespeareI wisely saves her in order to bring her back for a powerful role in Richard III.
While Warwick and Margaret dominate much of the action in Henry VI, Part 3, Richard, duke of Gloucester, becomes increasingly the focus of our attention. His energy, his self-awareness, his understandable bitterness about his (perhaps historically nonexistent) deformity and his mother’s (and others’) responses to that deformity, and his determination to use his acting abilities to advance himself politically—these characteristics make him as attractive as his cruelty, ruthlessness, and inability to care about anyone else make him repellent. By the blood-soaked conclusion of Henry VI, Part 3, the forces set in motion by the death of King Edward III and the inheritance of the throne of England by the eleven-year-old Richard II have almost played themselves out. These forces are finally exhausted when, at the battle of Bosworth Field, Richard III is defeated by Henry Tudor, earl of Richmond. As Richmond stands in triumph at the end of Richard III, holding the crown that he will wear as Henry VII, he gives us a summary of the action presented in Henry VI, Part 3:
England hath long been mad and scarred herself:
The brother blindly shed the brother’s blood;
The father rashly slaughtered his own son;
The son, compelled, been butcher to the sire.
All this divided York and Lancaster,
Divided, in their dire division.
(Richard III, 5.5.23–28)
As Henry VI, Part 3 ends, it is hard to imagine a time in which hostilities cease and “Richmond and Elizabeth, / The true succeeders of each royal house, / By God’s fair ordinance [will] conjoin together” (Richard III, 5.5.29–31). This moment lies in the future, in Richard III, Shakespeare’s final play about these painful years.