The earliest quarto of the play may have been a "pirated memory version" (Ogburn and Ogburn 318).
"But the most remarkable thing about this childlike and saintly king is that he nearly succeeded in accomplishing what the astute and 'practical' men around him were powerless to effect: an understanding between the warring factions of Lancaster and York. Had it not been for that Amazon, Margaret of Lancaster, and that fiend in human shape, the younger Richard of York, he would have" (Goddard, I 31).
Despite the 1600 quarto edition, Clark dates this play to 1580, with Henry VI representing Elizabeth -- particularly in her "leniency and vacillation" (Clark 396). "In 3 Henry VI there is a steady reminder to Elizabeth of Henry's inveterate temporizing in crises when he should have acted" (Ogburn and Ogburn 319). Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, and his sons may have representing Mary Stuart (Clark esp. 395). The elder Ogburns add that the play served therefore as a warning to Elizabeth about conspiracy and her potentially fatal "lenity" (Ogburn and Ogburn 299).
Although Henry escaped, the Yorkists have triumphed in the Battle of St. Albans and Richard presents the head of Somerset (although historically Richard would have been three years old in 1455). York takes the throne, and when the King, Margaret, and others enter, Northumberland and young Clifford vow to have revenge against York for the deaths of their fathers. Henry tries to calm them, reminding them that the Londoners support York. The King again comes across as weak. He reminds all of his being Henry V's son, but York reminds all that France was lost in this generation. In an aside, Henry admits that the crown was gained by usurpation from Richard II; but he will commit to war in defense of his kingship.
The word "poltroon" is used only once by Shakespeare, here (I.i.62) -- and the term was used by Elizabeth in a rage at Leicester at roughly the same time as Oxfordianism claims the play was written (Ogburn and Ogburn 308).
Exeter goes over to the Yorkist side and Warwick demands that Henry give up the crown. Henry bargains with York -- he'll retain the crown for his lifetime, but it will pass to York and his sons as heirs. Northumberland, Clifford, and Westmoreland are disgusted with Henry, but matters seem resolved. Margaret pitches a fit at Henry and their son Edward is naturally disappointed.
Passages in this scene (I.i.70-73, 192-200) convey the message to the Queen herself that "Elizabeth risks too much when she avoids punishing conspirators" (Ogburn and Ogburn 319).
York's sons have been arguing over who should try to persuade him to break his vow with Henry. Margaret has raised an army from among northern families and, although outnumbered, the Yorkists are confident.
York's son Rutland and his tutor try to flee but Clifford captures them and murders the boy.
York's uncles are dead and Margaret's army victorious. He is taken captive by Clifford and Northumberland. Margaret cruelly mocks York, giving him a handkerchief soaked in his son's blood and placing on him a paper crown. York curses Margaret: "O tiger's heart wrapp'd in a woman's hide!" (I.iv.137) -- the bit paraphrased in the 1592 Greene's Groatsworth of Wit as "tiger's heart wrapped in a player's hide," which Stratfordians still insist refers to Shakespeare rather than Shakspere (Anderson 208-209). In any case, York is killed by Margaret and Clifford. Oxford may have been thinking of Catherine de' Medici (Clark 399).
The sons of York, before learning of their father's death, witness a sign: three suns that join together. When a messenger announces the death of York, Edward anguishes and Richard rages. Warwick has tried to raise an army against Margaret, who intends to nullify the succession deal Henry had made. The York sons will sally towards the throne.
Margaret revels in the sight of York's severed head, but Henry laments. When news of the rebellion hits, Margaret and Clifford try to whisk Henry away. The Yorks enter and Edward demands the crown. Anything Henry might say is drowned out by the exchange of insults by the others. All prepare for battle.
"Into the mouth of Clifford then , in my opinion, did Oxford put his warning to Queen Elizabeth" (Clark 402), especially about "too much lenity" (Ogburn and Ogburn 319).
Clifford kills Warwick's brother and Yorkists vow revenge.
Richard chases Clifford.
Margaret and Clifford have persuaded Henry to leave the battlefield. He meditates on the peaceful life of a peasant. "The speech as a whole is a full and classic expression of the pastoral ideal which Shakespeare was to examine in more detail in a very different play, As You Like It" (Wells 98). "His speech on the Simple Life ... seems expressly conceived as a companion piece to that of Hery IV on Sleep and that of Henry V on Ceremony" (Goddard, I 30).
Henry sees a son who has accidentally killed his father and a father who has accidentally killed his son. The battle is going badly, so Henry is urged to flee.
Clifford has an arrow in his neck and offers a soliloquy (II.vi). "These words are not meant for dramatic value in the play, but for the ear of Queen Elizabeth; she recognized the warning in them and immediately put an end to that policy of tolerance and leniency which, culminating towards the end of 1580, came near to ending her rule" (Clark 407; cf. Ogburn and Ogburn 306). Concerning the phrase "measure for measure" (II.vi.55), "This was the feudal lord's principle, and it was bred in the Earl of Oxford" (Ogburn and Ogburn 325).
Clifford dies. Warwick replaces York's head with Clifford's on the castle gate. After the coronation, Warwick will arrange a marriage between Edward and the sister of the French queen. Edward makes his brothers dukes.
Two gamekeepers capture a disguised Henry and lead him away. Margaret and his son have sought help in France.
Lady Grey wants Edward to restore to her the lands of her late husband who was killed in the battle of St. Alban's, fighting for the Yorkists. Edward wants to marry her. Henry's capture is announced, and Richard privately hopes that Edward has no sons so that it is easier for him to inherit the throne. "Richard's rise to dominance over his brothers culminates in the soliloquy, the longest uninterrupted speech in the whole canon, in which, like his father before him, he expresses his determination to encompass the crown.... His power, he claims, lies in his self-control; he is the master actor" (Wells 100).
Margaret asks aid from the French King Lewis, but Warwick wants to arrange the marriage, and Lewis sides with the stronger king, Edward. But when a messenger announces Edward's marriage to Lady Grey, Warwick abandons the Yorkists and sides with Margaret. The French will also lend soldiers.
A young John de Vere, the 13th Earl of Oxford and the 17th Earl's great-great-grandfather appears in this scene, exchanging with Warwick partisan announements. He is "a convinced Lancastrian and one of the few fated to survive the Wars of the Roses" (Asimov 656). Here he is not quite nineteen, having been born in 1443 (Clark 408).
The York brothers are contentious. George, Duke of Clarence, warns Edward of the consequences of snubbing the French in the marriage matter. George and Richard are jealous because Edward has arranged marriages for his new wife's brother and son. George intends to marry into the Warwick family and Somerset follows him as battle is prepared for again. Richard remains with Edward out of lust for the throne.
"Is there an allusion in these lines to the projected marriage of Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Alençon, which was a question in England in 1580 of the greatest importance?" (Clark 409).
George, Duke of Clarence, and Somerset join Warwick.
Warwick, Clarence, Somerset, Oxford, and some French soldiers enter Edward's camp. The watchmen, Richard, and Hastings are outnumbered and run. Warwick seizes the crown from Edward and plans to restore Henry at London.
Lady Grey, now Queen Elizabeth, asks her brother Rivers to help her escape. She is pregnant and knows that Edward has been taken prisoner. Note the implicit warnings about trust (e.g., IV.iv.30), possibly directed to Shakespeare's own Queen Elizabeth at about 1580 (Ogburn and Ogburn 306, 319).
Richard of Gloucester meets Lord Hastings and Sir William Stanley and hopes to save his brother. Edward and his huntsman are to go to Flanders
Henry is rescued but the obviously capable Warwick will govern with Clarence as Protector so that Henry can have his retired life. Edward is declared a traitor. Henry asks that Margaret and his son be sent for, then notices young Henry, Earl of Richmond, whom he senses will be king. News comes that Edward York has escaped. Richmond is sent for safety to Brittany.
Edward, Richard, and Hastings with their soldiers are locked out of the city of York. The mayor is fooled into thinking them loyal to Henry and lets them enter. Sir John Montgomery says he will help Edward regain the crown.
"This was the same Montgomery whose devotion to Edward's cause was rewarded by a grant of the Earl of Oxford's estate of Castle Hedingham in Essex" (Clark 411). The Earl's estates were restored to him in 1485 after Bosworth (Clark 412).
Warwick announces at the London palace that Edward is on the march. They seize Henry and imprison him in the Tower, then march towards Coventry to fight Warwick.
Edward surprises Warwick. Clarence changes back to Edward's side. Warwick will meet Edward not at Coventry but at Barnet.
"Valiant Oxford" (V.i.1) emerges as a hope for the future toward the end of Part III, even more so than Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond (Queen Elizabeth's grandfather).... In addition to historical feats of valor performed by the 13th Earl, Shakespeare gives him credit for things he did not do, such as being present at the Battle of Tewkesbury where he is supposedly taken prisoner. (Farina 143)
He wasn't at Dorset either (Anderson 5). So at the very least, "The special praise that is meted out to the thirteenth Earl of Oxford in this drama deserves attention" (Clark 414).
Edward drags a wounded Warwick forth. Somerset and Oxford tell Warwick of Margaret's return from France with an army and of Montague's death, just before he also dies.
Edward is triumphant but must still face Margaret's forces.
Margaret appoints Oxford and Somerset to the positions of honor held earlier by Warwick and Montague. They begin the battle with Edward.
Margaret, Oxford, and Somerset have been taken prisoner by Edward and Richard. Oxford is sent to Hames Castle, Somerset executed.
That is strange. Opposition leaders, if taken alive, were generally executed as traitors after the battle. Why was this not the case with Oxford? Actually, it was because Oxford was not at Tewkesbury. He had fought well at Barnet but then went to France. It was not till 1473, two years after Twekesbury, which had been fought without him, that he attempted a reinvasion of England and a revival of the ruined Lancastrian cause. (Asimov 674)Of course, Oxfordians have the obvious explanation: that the 17th Earl was reminding Elizabeth of the part his family had played, and here exaggerating it (Ogburn and Ogburn 322). Prince Edward, Henry and Margaret's son, is escorted in. Edward York, Richard, and Clarence all stab him to death. Margaret faints. This is also a Shakespearean dramatic embellishment: "Queen Margaret was not taken at Tewkesbry, and even if her son were assassinated, she would not have been able to witness it" (Asimov 676).
Richard tells Clarence he's off to the Tower for important business. Margaret is led away and Edward is informed of Richard's bloody mission.
Richard and Henry walk on the walls of the Tower and Henry suspects the worst. Richard stabs the King, who warns of strife to come. Henry references evil omens at the time of Richard's birth. Richard stabs again and soliloquizes about poisoning Edward's mind against Clarence -- his next step on the road to the throne. "The butchery of King Henry VI, in the Tower of London, is carried out by Richard with commendable gusto" (Bloom 49). "'I am myself alone' is the triumphant -- and despairing -- cry of the Machiavel" (Garber 121); "It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that in this phrase a new mode of Shakespearean character is born" (Garber 127).
King Edward York lists the ambitious dead and has his brothers kiss his small son. Richard, aside, remarks that his is a Judas kiss. Edward sends Margaret back to France, announces revels, and looks forward to a "lasting joy" (V.vii.46). "To rhyme 'joy' and 'annoy' is a small stroke of genius; to insert the vain 'I hope' as a qualification of the last line takes away all that the proud assertion seems to claim" (Garber 130). But the last five lines indicate that the play was written before Oxford was sent to the Tower in 1581 (Ogburn and Ogburn 325).
"He [Henry] was only forty-nine years old at the time of his death and he had been King virtually all his life without ever having held the power of the kingship for a moment. He had been ruled and guided by others, harried and chivied from this point to that, weak-minded at best, out of his mind altogether at times, and after his long misery he probably welcomed death at last.
It is of course asking too much of coincidence to suppose Henry's death was natural. No one doubts that King Edward had ordered the ex-King quietly murdered and one can grasp the reasons for it. As long as Henry lived he would be the center for Lancastrian uprisings, and Edward had had enough of that now. Henry VI was therefore killed for the same reasons that Richard II was killed, and, before him, Edward II. (Asimov 677)
"Richard III, whether in its strengths or its limitations, owes its energy and brilliance to the laboratory of the three parts of Henry VI. That is justification enough for Shakespeare's immersion in the Wars of the Roses" (Bloom 50).
"Mr. Looney ... remarks that Shakespeare's expression of partiality for Oxford is more guarded in Richard III than in 3 Henry VI, because, he believes, it is a later and more mature work. I think that it followed immediately, but was given a more careful revision when it was first published in 1597" (Clark 415).