The ASC Theatre Camp 2014 sessions feature a fantastic selection of plays by Shakespeare, including Measure for Measure, The Tempest, All’s Well That Ends Well, Henry VI, Part 3, and one anonymous play, Fair Em the Miller’s Daughter. Lia Razak, the ASC Theatre Camp Session 2 dramaturg and an ASC Education Artist, is an avid fan of Shakespeare’s Henry VI trilogy, which portrays the bloody battles and family feuds of the Wars of the Roses.
Lia Razak is a Philadelphia native who graduated with honors from New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study with a BA in Shakespeare and Education. She currently works as the American Shakespeare Center’s archivist and an Education Artist , and she started with the ASC as an education intern during the 2012 Actors’ Renaissance Season. During that time, she chronicled rehearsals and research extensively on the ASC Interns’ Blog. We hope you will enjoy her insightful and enthusiastic appraisal of one of the shows of Session 2, Henry VI, Part 3.
Why You Should Love Henry VI, Part 3
I know that a play named The Third Part of Henry the Sixth does not necessarily inspire excitement in the average Shakespearean. The show is not one of the “biggies” (though it should be), always getting passed over for the Hamlets and the Macbeths and the Romeo & Juliets, and therefore remaining unfamiliar to high school and undergraduate classes across the land. Plus, the title implies the play’s place within an overall narrative, perhaps one that would make no sense without its two preceding parts. Moreover, it’s a history play, and not even one of the “good” ones like Henry V or Richard III, so one could be safe in assuming that instead of encompassing the immortal themes that make the rest of Shakespeare so compelling – love, death, jealousy, betrayal, musical clowns in funny hats, what have you – we are instead going to be mired down in pointless and needlessly complicated arguments over the nitty-gritty of the royal succession in 15th century England. Right?
Here following are my top reasons why everybody should love Henry VI, Part 3 because seriously, this play is amazing.
- Queen Margaret: Who’s Margaret, you might ask? Oh, nobody – just the best female character in the entirety of the Shakespearean canon. Margaret is what would happen if you gave Rosalind’s line load to Lady Macbeth. She is smart, ruthless, and more than a match for all of the men around her. They just cannot handle her fierceness, which is probably why they call her a “tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide.” But Margaret’s ferocity is not just implied, or seen – it is heard. By that I mean to say that Margaret gets to talk. A lot. She is no Ophelia, whose importance is largely symbolic (173 lines to Hamlet’s 1,506). Margaret appears and gets to talk (at length) in the play’s most important, male-dominated scenes. She also might get a bit stabby at points (more on that later).
- Richard: Richard, hunchback Duke of Gloucester, did not just spring fully formed from the pen of Shakespeare onto the pages of Richard III. He appears for the first time in Henry VI, Part 2, but he really gets his bearings in Henry VI, Part 3. Do you really think the great opening lines of Richard’s title play (“Now is the winter of our discontent/ Made glorious summer by this sun of York”) came about without any preparation? Richard starts scheming for the throne long before he is in a position to steal it from his brother Edward, that “sun of York,” and much of the fun of Henry VI, Part 3 is watching Richard’s character development. Why does Richard hate his sibling so much? What was his relationship like with his dad… oh, is that where all those mommy issues came from? Added bonus: you get to watch him square off against Margaret, and trust me, that is a battle you want to see.
- Fights: Henry VI, Part 3 takes place smack dab in the middle of the War of the Roses, so yes – there is a lot of squabbling over the nitty-gritty questions of the royal succession in 15th century England. But do you know how they handled those questions? They fought. It was not called “The War of the Roses” because it took place in a courtroom – we are talking large-scale battles here, with some of the most brutal combat sequences in all of Shakespeare. When you have characters like Margaret and Richard fighting it out for power, you are not going to get clean, gentlemanly fights. These are knockdown, drag-out brawls, and nothing is off-limits, including (but not limited to): severed heads bandied about stage, the multiple (on stage!) deaths-by-stabbing of children, and the highly poetical and horribly cruel torture and murder of the Duke of York. I can imagine Shakespeare’s actors getting together to read through their cue scripts for their first rehearsal for this show and saying, “Wow, Will, don’t you think that’s a bit… much? No? All right… how many broadswords do we have? We’re probably going to need to make another head-in-a-bag.”
- Epic: Yes, Henry VI, Part 3 cannot hide the fact that it is the third part in a series. This series is known as the first tetralogy, and it encompasses all three parts of Henry VI and ends with Richard III, so Henry VI, Part 3, is definitely right in the middle. What you are in the middle of, however, is an epic. Shakespeare’s take on the War of the Roses in his first tetralogy finds easy modern day parallels in things like George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. The Starks and the Lannisters find their beginnings in the fight between the Yorks and the Lancasters. (The aural similarity in those family names is no coincidence). Richard would give Tyrion a run for his money, while Cersei and Margaret would probably find themselves getting along quite well (each while simultaneously plotting the other’s downfall). Shakespeare’s grand scale in 3 Henry VI is easily on the same scale as Martin’s, or as Tolkien’s in the Lord of the Ring series – and lest we forget, where does all the awesome stuff happen in those stories? The third book – that’s where Sauron gets destroyed, where climactic weddings (both Red and Royal) take place, and where the long-simmering broil between York and Lancaster finally erupts into a storm of swords.
- Poetry: Henry VI, Part 3 is one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays (dated as early as 1591), but the sophistication and beauty of his language is already apparent. This play has rhetorically sophisticated passages, full of sound and fury, signifying all sorts of things. From King Henry’s bemoaning of his kingly state, wishing he could be a common shepherd, “so minutes, hours, days, months, and years / pass over to the end they were created / would bring white hairs, unto a quiet grave,” to Margaret’s indignation at Henry’s disinheriting of their son, Prince Edward (“Hads’t thou but loved him half so well as I / Or felt that pain which I did for him once / Or nourished him, as I did with my blood / Thou wouldst have left thy dearest heart-blood there / rather than have made that savage Duke thine heir”), to any of Richard’s scheming soliloquies on how he will “add colors to the chameleon / change shapes with Proteus, for advantages / and set the murderous Machiavel to school” in his wicked pursuit of power, Henry VI, Part 3 is chock full of delightful passages ripe for exploration.
Basically, do not let Henry VI, Part 3’s title fool you. It is a match for anything in the Shakespearean canon no matter how you stack it, but especially on the stage. Great characters, great language, an epic plot, and some gloriously nasty fights await you within these pages – I, for one, simply cannot wait to make them alive.