Henry VI, Part 3 (Pelican Shakespeare)  - Stephen Orgel, William Montgomery, William Shakespeare What follows are the collective observations of the entire trilogy:

1 Henry VI -- 2.5 to 3 stars
2 Henry VI -- 3+ stars
3 Henry VI -- 4 stars

I don't have much to say about part 1 of Shakespeare's Henry VI. It's not a bad play; it's just not the Bard at his best. It has its moments but the impression I carry away from it is that Shakespeare either didn't care all that much about the project or he never found the time to polish it. (Interestingly, it was written several years after parts 2 and 3.)

Parts 2 and 3 are more interesting because here we witness the accelerating collapse of the English kingdom so laboriously erected by Henry IV and V. The causes are the usual, of course: overweening ambition/pride and the weakness of men (& women). The first is represented in the characters of Richard, Duke of York; his son & namesake, the future Richard III; and Queen Margaret, Henry VI's wife. The latter is represented in Henry VI, Henry V's son, crowned king at 9 months of age.

As a one-time actor, I would love to play either Richard (in the spirit of the original milieu, I'd even want to take on Margaret). Particularly Richard III, the original Raskolnikov or Nietszchean Superman - a man unbound by normal constraint. As he says:

"I have no brother, I am like no brother;
And this word 'love,' which greybeards call divine,
Be resident in men like one another
And not in me: I am myself alone." (3 Henry VI, Act 5, sc. 6)

The father reflects a more conflicted man: Where Richard's son is wholly for himself, York does exhibit some concern for England, exemplified in his willingness to allow Henry to reign as king while naming York and his sons heirs in order to spare the kingdom further bloodshed. Alas, this concern is buried under his sons' blandishments, esp. Richard's:

"How sweet a thing it is to wear a crown,
Within whose circuit is Elysium,
And all that poets feign of bliss and joy." (3 Henry VI, Act 1, sc. 1)

Compare this with Henry IV's lament: "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown." (2 Henry IV, Act 3, sc. 1) or Henry VI's frequent complaints about royal responsibilities like:

"Gives not the hawthorn bush a sweeter shade
To shepherds, looking on their silly sheep,
Than doth a rich embroider'd canopy
To kings, that fear their subjects' treachery." (3 Henry VI, Act 2, sc. 5)

Henry VI is an interesting character, too. Historically, the real Henry, in addition to a weak personality, was also subject to fits of insanity that helped make his reign a disaster. Shakespeare's Henry is always in command of his faculties but retains the weakness of character. Not that he's venal or a coward (though both his supporters and foes would accuse him of the latter). He's quite a good man, striving to be just and ensure peace, much like his grandfather. Unlike that previous Henry, ours lacks judgment and the will to create conditions for a lasting peace. He has great insight into the tragedies afflicting his realm but sink into self-pity and the sanctuary of piety to avoid acting. Which is the tragedy of the play - it's not that ambitions rule most men; it's that England's shepherd was unable to herd them. (In Shakespeare's day, a telling comment upon the succeeding "golden age" of the Tudor's who followed Henry and Richard but till relevant as our own day continues to struggle with these very issues.)

Or you could just read it because it's a great story.