Henry VI Part III, or Two Ways to Fail at Kingship

So, at last we come to Henry VI Part III, or The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York and the Good King Henry the Sixth, even though Richard’s brother Edward seems like a more central character than Richard, and historians would contest how much of it is true, but whatever; far be it from me to question the Bard or Oxford’s editors, and The Historically Dubious Tragedy… isn’t as catchy a title, anyway.

In any case, I mentioned that Part II is a study in bad kingship, and Part III continues that theme with two examples of bad kingship. Starting with Henry VI, he seems like a nice guy; I’m sure he’d have made a fine constitutional monarch. Unfortunately, he’s a sad sack. The Duke of York literally sits right down on Henry’s throne and demands that Henry recognise him as the legitimate king, and the two compromise because Henry agrees to disinherit his son Edward and name York as his heir in exchange for York allowing him to live out the rest of his reign as king. Of course, this doesn’t solve the problem at all; his wife, Queen Margaret, understandably protests and she and Edward go off to gather support, and very quickly we’re back at the civil war game.

I hate to say it, but Henry’s like the Jeb Bush of this contest. Later on York’s supporters, now led by York’s heir, confusingly also named Edward, are arguing with Henry’s (or rather, Margaret and Prince Edward’s) supporters; Margaret tells Henry to be quiet, and Henry objects, “I prithee give no limits to my tongue / I am a king, and privileged to speak.” Everyone else just keeps talking over him, anyway, and he doesn’t say another word for the entire scene. Later on, the Duke of Exeter tells Henry that he fears that Edward (York, not Henry’s son) will seduce their supporters to change sides. Henry says of his subjects:

My pity hath been balm to heal their wounds,
My mildness hath allayed their swelling griefs,
My mercy dried their water-flowing tears.
I have not been desirous of their wealth,
Nor much oppressed them with great subsidies,
Nor forward of revenge, though they much erred.
Then why should they love Edward more than me?
No, Exeter, these graces challenge grace;
And when the lion fawns upon the lamb,
The lamb will never cease to follow him.

“[T]hey love Edward more than” you, Henry, because you don’t inspire them. He gives a monologue at one point about how he wished he could have been born a commoner, which reminded me somewhat of a comment J.R.R. Tolkien once made, that he would like a king whose main interest was something like stamp-collecting. Now, I know what Tolkien was getting at, but Henry VI is an example of why stamp collectors don’t make good kings.

On the other hand, we have Edward, who inherits the claims of his father, the Duke of York, and who provides an example of the opposite problem; he wants and enjoys the powers of kingship too much. It is, of course, ultimately his party that starts the civil war, though Henry provided the opening. We don’t see a lot of what Edward does in power, but he’s clearly not above abusing his position. He meets with Lady Gray, who asks him to give her late husband’s estate to her and her children, which had been confiscated because he had fought for York. He offers to grant her request if she fulfill “an easy task,” that is, “to love a king.” She at first assumes he means the loyalty of subject to sovereign until he clarifies, “To tell thee plain, I aim to lie with thee.” She answers “To tell you plain, I had rather lie in prison.” He offers her marriage, and it’s clear that she’s not going to get her estate back unless she agrees.

Now, after they’ve been married a while, her attitude totally changes and she comes across about as dedicated to his cause as Queen Margaret is to Henry and Prince Edward’s. While Edward was wooing her (sort of), though, he’d already sent Warwick as an emissary to arrange a marriage between him and the daughter of the King of France, and thus threw his own ambassador under a bus and insulted the French King. When Edward’s brothers point this out to him, his only defense boils down to emphasising that he’s the king and can do what he wants, even if it means creating two powerful enemies due to an arbitrary exercise of power.

The original title called him “Good King Henry the Sixth,” and I suppose he was good. At one point he disguises himself as a monk, but that disguise seems so fitting that he’d have probably been happiest just joining a monastery for real. One of the main advantages of monarchy is that it keeps the jackals away from absolute power, but poor Henry is just too nice to do that.

On a final note, I think 3 Henry VI is the best of this trilogy. The first part felt more hit-and-miss from one scene to another, though I did enjoy it. The second was more focused on Henry, which is good, but I like that the third part gives us Edward as a foil for Henry, which makes it feel more thematically coherent than the other two parts.

In any case, up next in this series will be a comedy or two, but there will be a couple other reviews in the meantime, both memoirs, one on the War Between the States, and one from the business world.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.