Study Guide

Henry VI Part 3 Duty

By William Shakespeare


What title hast thou, traitor, to the crown?
Thy father was, as thou art, Duke of York;
Thy grandfather, Roger Mortimer, Earl of March.
I am the son of Henry the Fifth,
Who made the Dauphin and the French to stoop
And seized upon their towns and provinces. (1.1.107-112)

Henry believes he deserves the crown because his grandpa and dad were kings. It goes further than that, though: he also feels he owes it to these guys to hold on to that crown and keep ruling, even if he doesn't really want to. He feels he owes it to his family to keep that crown.

An oath is of no moment, being not took
Before a true and lawful magistrate
That hath authority over him that swears.
Henry had none, but did usurp the place.
Then, seeing 'twas he that made you to depose,
Your oath, my lord, is vain and frivolous. (1.2.22-27)

Richard is always one to champion loose ethics. Sure, you made an oath to Henry, he tells his dad, but oaths can be broken. Richard's speech shows us that he's willing to compromise his duties at any point if it will benefit him to do so.

Shall we go throw away our coats of steel
And wrap our bodies in black mourning gowns,
Numbering our Ave Marys with our beads?
Or shall we on the helmets of our foes
Tell our devotion with revengeful arms? (2.1.162-166)

Here, Richard talks to Warwick and Edward about what they should do with Henry. He believes that since Henry's men killed his dad (York), the brothers should fight Henry with everything they have. Even though he has a loose morality, he seems to care about his dad's legacy. He wants to make his dad proud and continue to fight, instead of just giving in. Or at least that's what he wants his brothers to think; it could be that Richard is already planning to get the crown himself and is just using his dad as way to motivate his brothers to keep the crown long enough for Richard to claim it.

I'll leave my son my virtuous deeds behind,
And would my father had left me no more;
For all the rest is held at such a rate
As brings a thousandfold more care to keep
Than in possession and jot of pleasure. (2.2.49-53)

By this point, Henry doesn't want the crown with all the baggage it brings. He wishes his dad hadn't left it to him, because it's too much responsibility. Henry's debating between his duty to his dad and his duty to himself. On the one hand, he wants to make his dad's battles meaningful; on the other hand, he's sick of fighting and wants to do his own thing.

No, for we were subjects but while you were king. (3.1.80)

Henry is taken aback because he believes he is the rightful king, but the gamekeeper and others believe that Edward is the rightful king. This debate highlights the tension we feel everywhere in the play about duty and loyalty. For Henry, the conflict is between father and self; but for the common people, the conflict is between two would-be kings. The question for people is: should they support Edward, or should they support Henry? It looks like Edward's the winner... but it's not clear how long that will last.

While proud ambitious Edward, Duke of York,
Usurps the regal title and the seat
Of England's true-anointed lawful king.
This is the cause that I, poor Margaret,
With this my son, Prince Edward, Henry's heir,
Am come to crave thy just and lawful aid;
And if thou fail us, all our hope is done. (3.3.30-36)

Margaret goes to France for help partly because she is French and thinks she can drum up some support there. When she gets there, pretty much all she talks about is duty. She tells Lewis that he should support her because Henry is the rightful king, not because she is French. According to Margaret, even foreign governments owe allegiance to each other.

Warwick, although my head still wear the crown,
I here resign my government to thee,
For thou art fortunate in all thy deeds. (4.6.23-25)

When Henry resigns as king, he gives up his duties to his family, his country, and his legacy in order to live a private life. It's not something you see every day, and Henry's speech tells us that he's passing the crown along—literally. Before, he was debating between his duties; now, he's chosen to do what he wants, and he's no longer going to worry about his obligation to his country, his dad, or his son.

I will not ruinate my father's house,
Who gave his blood to lime the stones together
And set up Lancaster. Why, trowest thou, Warwick,
That Clarence is so harsh, so blunt, unnatural,
To bend the fatal instruments of war... (5.1.84-88)

George doesn't agree with Edward's hasty marriage, so he switches sides. Even so, George eventually decides that fighting against his brother would damage his father's legacy more than Edward's marriage did. He's torn, just like Henry, between father's legacy and his own desires, but—unlike Henry—he chooses his duty to his father.

Even now forsake me; and of all my lands
Is nothing left me but my body's length.
Why, what is pomp, rule, reign, but earth and dust?
And, live we how we can, yet die we must. (5.2.26-29)

Right before he dies, Warwick thinks back on his life. He realizes that a lot of the duties that he held dear no longer seem to matter now that he's seeing things from death's door. He thinks it doesn't matter who has the crown or who they fight for. It's as if these duties are based on illusions; does that make them seem less important than they did at the beginning of the play?

Lascivious Edward, and thou perjured George,
And thou misshapen Dick, I tell you all
I am your better, traitors as you are,
And thou usurp'st my father's right and mine. (5.5.34-37)

Even when he's captured in battle, Prince Edward passionately defends his right to the crown. He's got more guts than his dad had, anyway. This little speech shows us that Prince Edward's not torn between his duties; he knows exactly what he's supposed to do and does it. It's as simple as that. But he also winds up dead, so it's not a total victory, and let's be real: it's not as if Prince Edward doesn't want the crown. He'd love to be king; whatever he says, it's personal desire—and not duty, specifically—that makes him vie for the crown like this.