Patience: NOT the Guns N Roses song

One of my dad’s proverbs is “patience is a virtue.”  I’ve tried to teach that to my sons as well; but it’s hard when one is (I am) impatient by nature.

Why do I mention this?

In The Third Part of Henry the Sixth, there are a number of occasions when characters call for patience.  Let’s take a look at these snapshots from within the play, and try to see if we can uncover some kind of patient philosophy (in this play at least).

First, though, it might help to get some words defined right off the bat.  “Patience,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition on CD-ROM (v. 4.0) is “The practice or quality of being patient.”


The adjective “patient,” however, is a little slipperier in its meaning.  It can mean

  1. Bearing or enduring (pain, affliction, trouble, or evil of any kind) with composure, without discontent or complaint; having the quality or capacity of so bearing; exercising or possessing patience.
  2. Longsuffering, forbearing
  3. Calmly expectant; not hasty or impetuous
  4. Continuing or able to continue a course of action without being daunted by difficulties or hindrances
  5. plus one more meaning we’ll get to in a moment…

In the opening scene, when Henry and his followers find Richard Duke of York sitting in the throne, he says, “Be patient, gentle Earl of Westmorland” (I.i.61).  Here, Henry’s most likely using the word in its first meaning, as to endure the evil of York.  Regardless, Westmorland responds by telling his king that “Patience is for poltroons” (I.i.62), or cowards, such as York.  Later in the same scene, after Henry has disinherited his son, and Margaret has discovered him trying to leave, he tells his wife, “Be patient, gentle queen, and I will stay” (I.i.215).  In this instance, Henry might be using that same first meaning (referring to his own “evil” of disinheriting Edward), but more likely (because of his follow-up “and I will stay”) is the third meaning–not hasty or not impetuous.  Margaret responds, “Who can be patient in such extremes?” (I.i.216), and her meaning can mirror his or any of the above meanings.

Later, with York in captivity, Margaret taunts him regarding the murder of his son Rutland.  When York fails to respond to her mockery, she asks, “Why art thou patient, man?  Thou shouldst be mad, // And I, to make thee mad, do mock thee thus” (I.iv.90-91).  Here, Margaret is most definitely using the word in its first meaning; the fourth option is a possibility, though, with his stoic silence his “course of action.”

When Margaret goes to France to seek help from Louis XI, the French monarch cautions her, “Renowned queen, with patience calm the storm” (III.iii.38); here, the most likely meaning is the first one, of enduring “the storm.”  Margaret can only respond, “They more we stay, the stronger grows our foe” (III.iii.40).  In her mind, time is of the essence, and she doesn’t want to be told to be “not hasty.”  Later in the same scene, word arrives that Edward has married Lady Grey, thus negating Warwick’s negotiations to arrange a marriage between Edward and Louis’ sister-in-law; Louis, outraged, says, “And now to smoothe your forgery and his, // Sends me a paper to persuade me patience” (III.iii.175-176).  Now, it is Louis who questions the call to be “calm.”

Near the end of the play, when the Lancastrian supporters have been routed at Tewkesbury then captured, Somerset, upon learning his fate–beheading–states that he now “stoops with patience to my fortune” (V.v.6).  He is sent off, bearing trouble without complaint–a perfect example of the first meaning.

[there’s a third king, as well, but we’ll get to him later…]

So we have two kings (Henry and Louis) preaching patience, as well as a man heading off to execution.

They preach patience both for their subjects and themselves.  And while patience can be a virtue, let’s take a look at that elusive fifth meaning from the OED:

  1. Undergoing the action of another; passive

Passive.  Passivity.  Is that what we want in our leaders?  Henry has been a passive object for everyone else to use as their pawn, and what has that brought England?  War and strife and death.  Can we say that patience leads to ineffectual leadership?  No.  Coolheadedness is a good thing.  Passivity, however, is another.  Passivity leads to ineffectual leaders.  (and do you really think Shakespeare is going to present a French king in good light as a leader in an English history?)

On the other hand, effective leaders act, they lead.  Warwick is decisive; he immediately heads to France when Edward is crowned; he turns on Edward just as quickly.  There are moments in the play when he doesn’t act, but those are always out of fatigue rather than irresolution.  As for Queen Margaret… well, no one can accuse her of passivity; for the last two plays, she has been a dervish of activity and manipulation.

And Richard?  He works patience from both sides of the fence: he can wait for an opportunity, but then he seizes upon it.  Waved off on killing Margaret?  Then he’s immediately off to London to kill Henry (without waiting for orders or permission, mind you).  And he’s not just “not passive.”  He’s a catalyst.  When others around him are wavering, he is the one that convinces them to take action (but we’ll talk more about that later this month).

So, passivity ineffective, action effective…. we’ll leave good and bad out of the equation.


Oh, yeah, that OTHER patient king…

After Richard and Hastings deliver Edward from captivity, Edward, no longer king but only Duke of York, says that he is content with his state “till God please to send the rest” (IV.viii.47), and later says that he will wait to become king again: “When we grow stronger, then we’ll make our claim” (IV.viii.59).  Only at Richard’s urging,

And fearless minds climb soonest unto crowns.
Brother, we will proclaim you out of hand,
The bruit thereof will bring you many friends.

— IV.viii.62-64

does Edward agree to take action.  Edward is not a good leader; it’s his father’s cause that his allies followed, everyone else has doubts of his leadership and character (wanton, a greyhound chasing a rabbit, lustful, ambitious, false, sportful).

Nope, Edward is not an active or effective leader, either.

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