Act One, Scene One: The Wheel of Fortune Turns (or Timing Is Everything)

The Third Part of Henry the Sixth has one of those “with a BANG” beginnings, full of pomp.  There’s the throne on stage, and to an alarum (a trumpet call to arms) enter the Yorkists (Duke of York, his sons Edward and Richard [for history buffs, the next two Kings of England], other supportive nobles) and their soldiers.

This is the War of the Roses, remember.  It’s hard to tell your players without a program, so the uniforms help.  Is this where the Reduced Shakespeare Company got its idea of the Histories as a football game?

To help the audience: “They all wear white roses in their hats” (I.i opening stage direction).

The scene seemingly comes hot on the heels of the close of The Second Part’s concluding Battle of Saint Albans, at the end of which the Yorkists vowed to pursue to the King to London.  As the Yorkists regroup, they ponder the king’s escape and the fate of some of his followers: Clifford, Stafford, Buckingham, and Wiltshire have all be killed or wounded (though York’s account of Clifford’s death is different here than in the previous play: here he was “by the swords of common soldiers slain” [I.i.9], but in The Second PartYork kills Clifford” [V.iii.27 s.d.]).

hmmmm, could this evidence that The Third Part was composed before The Second Part?

While Edward and Montague recount their exploits, brandishing their bloody swords, “Crookback Richard” (I.i opening stage direction… and let the character assassination begin!) goes one better:  He holds Somerset’s severed head aloft and says, “Speak thou for me, and tell them what I did” (I.i.16).  This flourish impresses dear old dad, who proclaims, “Richard hath best deserved of all my sons (I.i.17).  And then in a demented display that recalls the toying with Saye’s and Cromer’s severed heads by Cade’s rebels, father then mockingly interviews the head, then son shakes it and throws it to the ground.

in comedy (or in this case, histories), timing is everything because…

After some convincing (some might say goading), York relents and sits upon the throne.

Who should arrive at that VERY moment?  King Henry and his Lancastrian supporters ([previously Young, now just Lord] Clifford, Northumberland, Westmorland, Exeter, and other nobles)… and “They all wear red roses in their hats” (I.i.49 s.d.).  Henry confers with his supporters, who all push for violently retaking the throne, to which Henry’s only suggestion is to “Be patient” (I.i.61).  He then demands that York relinquish the throne, to no avail.

The two argue over the merits of their rights to the throne.  Henry consistently gets his facts wrong (he claims York’s father was Duke of York [it was Richard, Duke of Cambridge]; he claims the Lord Protector lost France [it was Somerset]; he claims Henry IV won the throne by conquest [it was rebellion and usurpation]), all to the point that he realizes, “I know not what to say — my title’s weak” (I.i.135).

Though Clifford and Northumberland voice their eternal allegiance, Exeter feels York “is the lawful king” (I.i.151), so in a panicked attempt to keep the throne, Henry makes an offer:

My Lord of Warwick, hear me but one word:—
Let me for this my life-time reign as king.

Confirm the crown to me and to mine heirs,
And thou shalt reign in quiet while thou liv’st.

I am content: Richard Plantagenet,
Enjoy the kingdom after my decease.

— I.i.171-176

uh, Henry’s son?  yeah, Henry suddenly has an heir.  One not mentioned in The Second Part, though Prince Edward was born in 1453, two years before the Battle of Saint Albans

Henry is willing to disinherit his own son, so long as he himself is allowed to be king until he dies; Richard and his sons are now the heirs to the throne.

Such selfishness is too much for Clifford, Westmorland, and Northumberland all abandon Henry, and announce their intention to join the Queen.  With King and York “reconciled” (I.i.205), York and his followers (and their soldiers) return to their homes, leaving Henry and Exeter alone.  … but not for long.

flashback: in comedy (or in this case, histories), timing is everything because…

Enter Margaret and Prince Edward.  Henry tries to “steal away,” but Margaret stops him, “Nay, go not from me — I will follow thee” (I.i.213 and 214).  Again, Henry can only counsel “patien(ce)” (I.i.215) to a queen that will hear none of it.  While Henry is the King of Appeasement and Patience, Margaret is the Queen of Action: She “divorce(s)” (I.i.248) Henry from both table and bed; she will “leave” Henry (I.i.256); and she foresees that

The northern lords that have forsworn thy colors
Will follow mine, if once they see them spread --
And spread they shall be, to thy foul disgrace
And utter ruin of the house of York.

— I.i.252-255

now, am I going too far ahead in the month to our usual sophomoric bawdy entry, or does the whole ‘colors spreading’ thing feel just a little sexual… especially coming from Margaret

Meet Margaret, Warrior Princess, er, Queen.

Margaret and Edward abandon husband and father, leaving Henry with not recourse (in his own mind, at least) than to “write… and entreat” his nobles to rejoin his cause.

Henry is pathetic, and it’s a pathetic end to the first scene of the final play to use him as a title character.

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