Study Guide

Henry VI Part 3 Fate and Free Will

By William Shakespeare

Fate and Free Will

Three glorious suns, each one a perfect sun,
Not separated with the racking clouds,
But severed in a pale clear-shining sky.
See, see, they join, embrace, and seem to kiss,
As if they vowed some league inviolable.
Now are they but one lamp, one light, one sun;
In this the heaven figures some event. (2.1.26-32)

We'll admit that it's kind of random when Richard and Edward see three suns while on the battlefield. They each have different interpretations of it, but they agree that it's a sign. If heaven is sending them signs, things must be fated or predestined in some way, at least as they see it.

In God's name, lead. Your king's name be obeyed,
And what God will, that let your king perform.
And what he will, I humbly yield unto. (3.1.98-100)

Henry lets the gamekeepers arrest him because he thinks it's all part of a larger plan. He seems to think that his actions are either irrelevant or predestined. He calmly reacts to everything around him, never really enacting a plan of his own, unless he thinks it is divinely sanctioned. Hmm… sounds like he believes in fate of some kind.

I'll play the orator as well as Nestor,
Deceive more slily than Ulysses could,
And, like a Sinon, take another Troy.
I can add colors to the chameleon,
Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,
And set the murderous Machiavel to school.
Can I do this and cannot get a crown?
Tut, were it farther off, I'll pluck it down. (3.2.190-197)

Richard behaves like a saint to disguise his bad behavior. As Richard himself points out, this is classic "Machiavellian" behavior. Niccolò Machiavelli's The Prince (1532) was a "how-to" guide for rulers about holding on to power. Machiavelli argued that being a successful leader has nothing to do with being a nice person or doing the right thing. Instead, it's about being inventive, manipulative, charismatic, crafty, and willful. Why does this matter? Well, when Shakespeare portrays Richard as a "Machiavel," he's suggesting that Richard behaves according to his own free will.

What fates impose, that men must needs abide;
It boots not to resist both wind and tide. (4.3.60-61)

Remember when Henry was captured? He just went along with it because he thought there was a larger plan at work. Same story, different king: now Edward's the one who's captured, and he doesn't fight, either—he's perfectly happy to leave it all up to fate, as well. This seems like a pattern. Maybe these characters are aware they are just pawns in a history play. In other words, it doesn't seem to matter how they react, because the end result will be the same.

By living low where fortune cannot hurt me,
And that the people of this blessèd land
May not be punished with my thwarting stars,
Warwick, although my head still wear the crown,
I here resign my government to thee,
For thou art fortunate in all thy deeds. (4.4.20-25)

It might seem like an act of free will when Henry hands over his crown to Warwick, but look at what he says about it: he doesn't want the people in his kingdom to suffer because of his "thwarting start." In other words, he thinks Warwick has a better fate than him. Okay, maybe, but that leaves us with just one question: if it's all down to good fortune, how come Warwick ends up dead?

Your grace hath still been famed for virtuous
And now may seem as wise as virtuous
By spying and avoiding fortune's malice,
For few men rightly temper with the stars. (4.4.26-29)

When Henry hands over his crown and kingdom, Warwick doesn't say, "Gee, thanks, man." Nope, he takes the fate route as well: he claims that Henry is acting in accordance with a larger plan for their lives, and anyone who messes with fate gets taken out.

This pretty lad will prove our country's bliss.
His looks are full of peaceful majesty,
His head by nature framed to wear a crown,
His hand to wield a scepter, and himself
Likely in time to bless a regal throne. (4.6.72-76)

Henry's in prison, and there's a war going on for his power, so he stops to talk to a young boy. Wait, what? Henry's encounter with Richmond seems far-fetched and out of place in some ways. Now, Richmond's eventual crowning is not news to the audience; they have the advantage of historical hindsight, and they know exactly where the play is headed. Still, this passage is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, the play's (and Henry's) foreknowledge suggests that events might be unfolding according to providential design.

Thanks, brave Montgomery, and thanks unto you all.
If fortune serve me, I'll requite this kindness.
Now, for this night let's harbor here in York. (4.7.77-79)

Again, Edward uses "fortune" as his guide. He tells his men it's not up to him whether he repays them and becomes king; it's down to fate. That might sound like a cop-out, but Shakespeare's audience believed in the divine right of kings. That is, they believed that God chose the king, and a king's reign carried out God's plans. We wouldn't be surprised if Edward actually believed that, too.

And thus I prophesy: that many a thousand
Which now mistrust no parcel of my fear,
And many an old man's sigh, and many a widow's
And many an orphan's water-standing eye,
Men for their sons, wives for their husbands,
And orphans for their parents' timeless death,
Shall rue the hour that ever thou wast born. (5.6.38-44)

Everything Henry tells Richard comes true, and Shakespeare's audience knew it: they would have seen Richard's reign as a dark and evil period. So, Henry's prophecy is creepy to Richard, but it also serves a larger purpose—it helps the audience understand that what is happening, and who will rule, may all be part of a larger cosmic design.

For I will buzz abroad such prophecies
That Edward shall be fearful of his life;
And then to purge his fear, I'll be thy death.
King Henry and the prince his son are gone.
Clarence, thy turn is next, and then the rest,
Counting myself but bad till I be best.
I'll throw thy body in another room,
And triumph, Henry, in thy day of doom. (5.6.87-94)

Richard can't hear about his fate and just let it go; he turns the whole dark future he's just heard about on its head. He actively lays out his step-by-step plan of how to get the crown. If he's willfully deciding how to become king, then there would seem to be no fate controlling him—as least as far as he's concerned. The events in Richard III may prove him wrong.