Read the full text of Henry VI Part 3 with a side-by-side translation HERE.
George Lucas wasn't the first one to start a franchise in the middle of things—or in medias res, if you want to get all fancy about it. Star Wars was so popular that Lucas just had to go back and give us the prequel for the original three films. Some critics think Shakespeare did the same thing: he wrote Henry VI, Parts 2 and 3 first, and after they were such crowd pleasers, he went back and did a Part 1.
Nowadays, we group Henry VI, Part 3 with other history plays known as the "first tetralogy," beginning with Henry VI, Part 1, and ending with Henry VI, Part 3 and Richard III. This tetralogy is all about the Wars of the Roses (c. 1455-1485), a series of English civil wars fought between two branches of the Royal House of Plantagenet: the Lancasters (whose heraldic symbol was the red rose) and the Yorks (whose heraldic symbol was the white rose).
As Henry VI, Part 3 opens, York and his posse have just beaten the Lancastrian King Henry VI in one battle, and they all head back to London for another battle… of words. There's a big argument about who deserves the crown more, and it's not decided for sure until the end of the play. There's a lot of fighting in between, of course, to settle the score.
If all this has you wanting to hit the snooze button, think again. Shakespeare spices up "history" with a little fiction. He's the master of focusing on the juicy stuff and blowing it out of proportion for dramatic effect. In Henry VI, Part 3, Shakespeare took the best bits of action during the Wars of the Roses, condensed them, cut all the boring stuff, and fictionalized entire interactions to create something totally entertaining.
This is one of Shakespeare's earliest plays, but in it you'll find:
If you've hung around Shakespeare long enough, you might recognize that those elements crop up in some of his other plays. Anybody remember Lady Macbeth (a ruthless woman after power), King Lear (a weak king totally over his life), or Iago (a villain mastermind we love to hate)? They all get their start here, if you're on the lookout for them.
Okay, Henry VI, Part 3 may not be as mind-blowingly awesome as some of Shakespeare's later plays, but Shakespeare is kind of like pizza: even when he's not at his best, he's still pretty awesome. Think of this as a draft for some major literary masterpieces. As drafts go, we're totally not complaining.
We're guessing you've never been an actual contender for a crown. Sure, we've all dreamed about it, but few of us know what it really feels like to be in the running.
Henry VI, Part 3 shows us that contending for a crown isn't just about you; it's about your whole family. This play takes domestic backstabbing, treachery, and murder to a whole new level. All anyone seems to do is kill or be killed. We'll tell you right now that the body count in this baby is pretty high; young Shakespeare wasn't afraid to put some blood and guts stage center.
But underneath the endless cycle of bloody vengeance—a cycle that nearly destroys England, by the way—is a desire for a legacy that's worth something. All the characters search for this in their own way: Margaret wants her son to have the crown; Henry is intimidated by his dad's and grandpa's legacies; Edward is pleased that his heir is a son so he can pass the torch; and Richard, unsurprisingly, is after his own legacy and will push anyone out of his path who messes with it.
We all know what it's like to want to carve out a name for ourselves in something. Maybe you want to be a star athlete or a professional musician. Maybe you're one of those people who just get math or English and want to excel in it. Maybe you'd like to be remembered for making some really mean cookies, or maybe you can sketch like no one else.
Chances are that you have your own thing that is just yours. What if someone took that away from you? Wouldn't you find it hard to give up? And wouldn't you want to get back whatever was stolen? When it comes down to it, the characters in Henry VI, Part 3 are all doing the same thing.
Only they're playing with a crown.
So You Think You Can Be a 16th-Century Playwright?
Check out PBS's cool online game and channel your inner dramatic artist.
Read Henry VI, Part 3 Online
You can catch up with the backstory from the other plays in the history series too.
Wars of the Roses
Interactive timeline for history buffs out there.
Why was everyone fighting over flowers anyway? Find out on Luminarium.
Age of Kings
An episode of BBC's miniseries about Shakespeare's history plays from Richard II to Richard III.
As Seen on BBC
The last part of the BBC's Henry VI marathon.
Play with History
An article by scholar Michael Hattaway about Shakespeare's history plays.
Will the Real Henry Please Stand Up?
Read all about the monarch Shakespeare based his play on.
The Reduced Shakespeare Company performs all the histories in just three minutes—while playing football.
Hear Ye, Hear Ye
A complete audiobook of Henry VI, Part 3.
A painting showing Clifford murdering Rutland.
Margaret of Anjou made everyone call her Queen Bee.
The first printing of the play—1595 octavo edition.
Kingmaker No More
Warwick dies in battle after working so hard to make York/Edward/Henry king.
Fathers and Sons
Henry watches on as fathers and sons kill one another.
Death Becomes Him
The York team gives Margaret a taste of her own medicine by killing her son.
Who wants the crown? He'd rather be alone.