Act Three

Get yer roses here, folks.  Can’t tell your characters without roses!

Act Three of The First Part of Henry the Sixth begins with a meeting of the English nobles, including — for the first time in the play — our title character, the “young King Henry” (III.i.1 s.d.).  Exeter, Gloucester, and Winchester are in attendance, as are Somerset and Suffolk (with red roses), and Warwick and Richard Plantagenet (with white roses).

The starting stage direction ends with “Gloucester offers to put up a bill; Winchester snatches it, tears it” (III.i.1 s.d.).  Obviously, the King’s presence is not enough to prevent their squabbles.  In fact, they spend the first 65 lines of the scene, sparring back and forth before Henry says his first words:

Uncles of Gloucester and of Winchester,
The special watchmen of our English weal,
I would prevail, if prayers might prevail,
To join your hearts in love and amity.

— III.i.66-69

These are the first words we hear from the king.  He’s begging them to play nice.  Not very authoritative.  And before we can see if his words will have any effect on them, the meeting is interrupted by the sounds of chaos outside and the Mayor of London informing them that

The bishop and the Duke of Gloucester's men,
Forbidden late to carry any weapon,
Have fill'd their pockets full of pebble stones
And banding themselves in contrary parts
Do pelt so fast at one another's pate
That many have their giddy brains knock'd out

— III.i.81-86

If it weren’t so bloody, it’d be pretty damn funny… especially when the brawl outside spills over into the room everyone is in.  King Henry tries to stop the riot, but no one listens to him; he finally orders his uncle, “Pray, uncle Gloucester, mitigate this strife” (III.i.91).  The boy is king, but he has no power.  The skirmish continues, Gloucester attempts to bring it to an end unsuccessfully (as Winchester will not).  It is only after Henry rebukes Winchester that the Bishop takes Gloucester’s hand, and the skirmish is over.  For now.

Only then can the matter of Plantagenet’s reinstatement be brought before the king.  Gloucester, idealistic to a fault, lobbies for Plantagenet, and King Henry grants the request to make him Duke of York.  All the nobles, save Somerset, show pleasure for this, but even he keeps his thoughts to himself (or at least to an aside).  As this scene–at 205 lines, the longest in the play–ends, Exeter is left alone on stage, and he can see that all of this is just “feigned ashes of forged love” (III.i.194), and not enough to avert the prophecy “That ‘Henry born at Monmouth should win all, // And Henry born at Windsor should lose all'” (III.i.202-203).

The rest of Act Three all takes place on the war plains of France (and in some texts, our Scenes Two through Six are combined into a single scene).  Scene Two depicts Joan la Pucelle leading a French attack team as they sneak into the city of Rouen.  Scene Three has the Dauphin and his nobles waiting for Joan to signal with a torch that she has cleared the way for them to enter the town as conquerors.  In Scene Four, the shortest in the play at only 5 lines, Talbot curses France and Joan, “that witch, that damned sorceress” (III.iv.3).  In Scene Five, the French taunt the English from the walls of the city.  Like Mortimer an act before, Bedford, the Regent of France and the uncle to the young king, dies.  By the time Scene Six ends, the English have retaken the city.  In Scene Seven, the French nobles call for a parley with Burgundy, during which Joan, in one of the play’s most beautiful and poetic speeches, convinces him to re-join the French cause… and even Burgundy isn’t sure that he hasn’t been “bewitched” (III.vii.58).

In the eighth and final scene of Act Three, King Henry and his nobles all arrive in France and meet with Talbot.  Henry thanks Talbot for his service and makes him Earl of Shrewsbury.  When the others leave, Vernon and Basset quarrel over their respective sides in the (for now) Skirmish of the Roses.  And what we see here is indicative of what will bring down the king: while there is a greater foe, these politicians still fight amongst themselves.

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