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date: 21 October 2019

Richard Duke of York

The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare
Randall MartinRandall Martin, Will SharpeWill Sharpe, Anthony DaviesAnthony Davies

Richard Duke of York (3 Henry VI) 

Shakespeare’s darkest history play, detailing the worst civil chaos of the Wars of the Roses, was originally known and performed as The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York, with the Death of Good King Henry the Sixth, with the Whole Contention between the Two Houses Lancaster and York. This title derives from the first text of the play, published in octavo (small-format book) in 1595. The alternative title is almost certainly editorial and comes from the better-known version of the play, longer by about 1,000 lines, published in the 1623 First Folio. Like the titles of the other plays concerned with the events of Henry’s reign, 3 Henry VI was substituted when the Folio presented all the English histories in chronological order of their contents, even though Shakespeare did not compose the plays in this order. Richard Duke of York was apparently written in 1591 as the continuation of The First Part of the Contention, which dates from 1590–1 and was published in 1594. It followed the publication of the second edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles (see below) in 1587, and probably Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (printed 1590). It must have been written before September 1592, when the playwright Robert Greene parodied a line from Richard Duke of York (1.4.138) in an attack on Shakespeare in Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit, referring to his ‘Tiger’s heart wrapped in a player’s hide’. Richard Duke of York must also have been performed before an outbreak of the plague closed the theatres on 23 June. On 3 March in the same year the manager-owner of the Rose theatre, Philip Henslowe, records a ‘new’ performance of ‘Harry the VI’ in his diary. This probably refers to Part 1, which must have been performed by August 1592, when Thomas Nashe admired it in Piers Penniless his Supplication to the Devil. This would leave the period between March and June for Richard Duke of York and The First Part of the Contention to have been written and performed. But this period has struck some, but not all, scholars as unrealistically brief, in which case Shakespeare must have written Richard Duke of York before 1 Henry VI.


The play was attributed to Shakespeare prior to the 1623 Folio by the title page of the unauthorized Pavier quarto of 1619 (Q3). Beginning in the late 18th century, however, Shakespeare’s whole or part authorship began to be questioned. While the view that Shakespeare revised a play by Greene has been discounted, the Oxford editors leave open the possibility that certain scenes might not be wholly by Shakespeare. Some degree of collaboration in this or (more likely) the other Henry VI plays might explain Francis Meres’s failure to mention them in Palladis Tamia (1598), which lists other—but not all—known Shakespeare plays. Other recent editors, however, believe Shakespeare was the sole author. Richard Duke of York’s poetic tone and dramatic structure are the most unified of the trilogy, and its action integrally looks forward to Richard III.

Publication of the octavo text (O) of Richard Duke of York in 1595 was probably covered by the Stationers’ Register entry for The First Part of the Contention on 12 March 1594. A second edition based on O was published in 1600 (Q2), as was the Pavier edition (Q3) in 1619. O’s origins have been questioned since the 18th century. Edmond Malone first argued that it was written by Greene and later revised by Shakespeare as the Folio version. Alternatively, Dr Johnson and Edward Capell speculated that O was a report of the Folio made from memory or shorthand. Building on this idea, Peter Alexander demonstrated in 1929 that O was reconstructed from memory by actors (probably Pembroke’s Men, named on O’s title page). This remains the accepted explanation for O, notwithstanding corrective challenges to the universal applicability of memorial reporting. In 1928 Madeleine Doran suggested that O was also deliberately abridged for fewer players, though the most recent Oxford editor has shown that the personnel requirements of O and F are virtually identical. This edition revives Malone’s idea that O is a first version of the play which Shakespeare revised and expanded in the Folio text.

The Folio text, which is generally clear, is based on Shakespeare’s manuscript, since several missing, imprecise, or discretionary stage directions, and uncertainty over the historical figures represented by Montague, point to a draft in progress rather than a fair copy or finished state. Shakespeare’s hand is also indicated by the names of several real contemporary actors, whom he had in mind to play characters in 1.2 and 3.1.


Richard Duke of York’s two documentary sources are Edward Halle’s Union of the Two Noble and Illustrious Families of Lancaster and York (1548), and the compilation edited by Raphael Holinshed, Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (2nd edn. 1587). Halle is traditionally regarded as the dominant—and more ideologically conservative—influence, but recent scholarship has shifted the balance towards Holinshed. The Folio text sometimes stages Holinshed’s version of events, whereas the octavo prefers Halle (e.g. 5.4–5). Sir Thomas More’s History of King Richard III, included by both chronicles, influences Gloucester’s soliloquies (the one in 3.2 being the longest in the canon). Shakespeare alludes several times to Gorboduc (1561), as well as The Mirror for Magistrates, Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, and Marlowe’s Tamburlaine. The Folio’s expanded version of Margaret’s Tewkesbury oration in 5.4 draws on Arthur Brooke’s The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet (1562). Shakespeare’s portrayal of York’s torment in 1.4 seems to allude to Passion scenes dramatized in various mystery cycles.



The victorious Yorkists seize the throne and are confronted by Henry and his supporters. They dispute each other’s title to the crown. Under threat, Henry agrees to disinherit his son Prince Edward in favour of York and his heirs on condition that York ceases the civil war and allows Henry to remain King for his lifetime. Margaret denounces Henry’s decision and vows to defend her son’s rights, marching against York.


York’s sons Edward and Richard persuade him to break his oath and seize the crown immediately.


At the battle of Wakefield, Clifford pitilessly murders York’s young son Rutland.


York is captured and derisively set on a molehill by Margaret and Clifford. He passionately deplores their torment before they kill him.


Edward and Richard learn of their father’s death, while Warwick and Montague report a further Yorkist defeat. They rally to proclaim Edward Duke of York and future King.


Henry spurns Clifford’s counsel for revenge. He dubs his son Prince Edward a knight. The Yorkists and Lancastrians exchange a violent parley.


At the battle of Towton, an exhausted Warwick is spurred to revenge his brother’s death. A single combat between Clifford and Richard is broken off by Warwick’s arrival.


Sent away from the battlefield by Margaret, Henry contrasts the fulfilling natural simplicity of the shepherd’s life with the emotional stresses and empty ostentation of kingship. He laments the country’s destruction by civil war, joined by a grieving son who has killed his father in battle, and a father who has killed his only son. Margaret, Prince Edward, and Exeter flee with Henry to Scotland.


Clifford faints and dies from his wounds, while the Yorkists verbally abuse his body. Edward heads to London to be crowned.


Returning secretly to England, Henry is captured and turned in by two gamekeepers.


Edward sexually blackmails Elizabeth, Lady Grey, a widow petitioning for repossession of her husband’s lands. She insists upon marriage, to which he agrees. His choice of a commoner astonishes George, newly elevated Duke of Clarence, and Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Henry is reported captured and sent to the Tower. Alone on stage, Gloucester reveals his contempt for Edward and burning ambitions for the crown. Freed from ethical responsibility by his physical deformities, Gloucester turns to role-playing and Machiavellian policy to achieve his goals.


Margaret seeks the French King’s aid. Warwick begins to negotiate the marriage of the King’s sister Lady Bona to Edward. But letters arrive announcing Edward’s marriage to Lady Grey, buoying Margaret and humiliating Warwick, who switches loyalties and vows to depose Edward.


Clarence, Gloucester, and others sneer at Edward’s impolitic marriage. Clarence and Somerset leave Edward to join Warwick.


At night Warwick and Clarence surprise Edward in his camp-tent. Warwick uncrowns him and sends him under arrest to the Archbishop of York.


Queen Elizabeth laments Edward’s capture and takes sanctuary to protect her unborn child.


Richard, Hastings, and Stanley rescue Edward while he is hunting and depart for Flanders to seek aid.


Henry is released from the Tower and appoints Warwick and Clarence joint protectors. Henry prophesies that the young Richmond—future Henry VII—will one day become king.


The Yorkists land in England ostensibly to claim Edward’s dukedom at York. The Mayor is intimidated into granting them entry into the city, and Edward is proclaimed King.


Warwick and Clarence take leave of Henry, who is captured with Exeter by Edward and Gloucester and sent to the Tower.


The Yorkists confront Warwick at Coventry. Oxford, Montague, and Somerset arrive to support him, but Clarence switches sides back to his brothers.


During the battle of Barnet, a fatally wounded Warwick dies after learning of Montague’s death.


Edward marches towards Tewkesbury to meet Margaret.


Margaret rallies her dispirited troops.


Edward defeats her and captures Prince Edward, who is impetuously killed by Edward, Gloucester, and Clarence. Gloucester rushes away to the Tower. Margaret curses the others over her son’s body.


Gloucester visits Henry, who intuits his son is dead and prophesies Gloucester’s future slaughter by recalling the evil omens of his birth. Gloucester kills him but continues Henry’s story of his destiny, vowing to kill his brothers and everyone else who stands in his way.


Edward relishes the fall of his enemies and, with Queen Elizabeth, delights in their new infant prince. Gloucester gives the child a Judas kiss. Edward banishes Queen Margaret to France, and announces Yorkist celebrations.

Critical history:

Richard Duke of York has often been better appreciated on the stage than in academic criticism because much of its dramatic interest centres on intense battle scenes, which materialize its discursive themes of civil war’s destruction of familial and social bonds. Nineteenth-century commentators, preoccupied with heroic character, had little use for Henry’s pacifism and viewed Margaret simply as a she-wolf. But German Romantic critics situated the play in the wider context of Shakespeare’s histories as part of a national epic. E. M. W. Tillyard’s influential Shakespeare’s History Plays (1944) adopted this interpretation but emphasized the providential triumph of the Tudors, foreshadowed by Henry’s prophecy over Richmond in 4.7. But Tillyard and others depressed critical interest in Richard Duke of York by claiming that Shakespeare was uninspired when writing it. The modern stage has dispelled this view, while revisionist critics have observed how little Richard Duke of York supports Tillyard’s unifying vision of controlling providential order. More apparent is an early modern focus on the dangers of divided succession and dynastic factionalism, and the vision of an amoral universe of power-seeking individuals associated with the new philosophy of Niccolò Machiavelli that explicitly inspires Gloucester. Feminist critics have also learnt from stage performances, investigating the multiple social dimensions in Margaret’s role as militant mother upholding her son’s rights against a disordered patriarchy.

Stage history:

Richard Duke of York was probably first written for and performed by Lord Strange’s Men, and then certainly staged by Pembroke’s Men after they came into existence in May 1591. There is no further stage evidence until John Crowne’s Royalist adaptation, The Misery of Civil-War (1680, staged 1681), whose sensationalizing climax is the battle of Towton (2.2–6). From this point until the beginning of the 20th century, Richard Duke of York was performed in England only in inferior adaptations. Much of its final act and Gloucester’s soliloquies were cannibalized by Colley Cibber’s hugely successful and long-lived Tragical History of King Richard the Third (1700). In Germany and Austria, however, strong interest in Shakespeare’s histories among 19th-century critics stimulated many innovative productions. F. R. Benson mounted Richard Duke of York at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1906, when all three Henry VI plays were first performed as a cycle (another idea borrowed from Germany). Benson’s exuberant Gloucester was matched by his wife Constance’s Margaret, played with ‘unflagging force and spirit’ despite heavy cuts. Sir Barry Jackson and Douglas Seale’s Birmingham Repertory Theatre production in 1952 launched the play’s modern stage life. Seale successfully alternated attention between still and lucid passages of formal verse, and energetic clashing armies. Barbara Jeffrey’s fully humanized interpretation as Queen Margaret drew new attention to the role’s tragic grandeur, as did Barbara Jefford’s when the production reappeared at the Old Vic in 1957. Their moving performances were surpassed only by Dame Peggy Ashcroft’s ‘revelation’ in Peter Hall and John Barton’s Wars of the Roses for the RSC in 1963–4. The condensed Edward IV began with Cade’s rebellion and continued into Richard Duke of York. Barton also added hundreds of lines of Shakespearian pastiche to clarify personal motives and story-lines. Richard Duke of York was performed unadapted in Terry Hands’s well-received 1977 production of the whole trilogy. In 1986 Michael Bogdanov and Michael Pennington reverted to Barton’s condensed format—minus his invented lines—for their eclectic ‘post-Falklands’ production, The Wars of the Roses, for the English Shakespeare Company, which toured internationally between 1987 and 1989 (and is preserved on videotape). Adrian Noble followed their abridgement in The Plantagenets in 1988, but with more traditional spectacle in the second play, ‘House of York’. Katie Mitchell’s stand-alone production at the RSC’s Other Place in 1994, ‘Henry VI: The Battle for the Throne’, underlined the play’s religious ritual and natural imagery to heighten its anti-war themes. In America, Pat Patton, recalling the experiences of Vietnam, chose Noble’s ‘House of York’ for his stirring Oregon Shakespeare Festival production in 1992. Previous productions of Richard Duke of York at Ashland in 1955, 1966, and 1977 employed strong ensemble acting and Shakespeare’s full script. Michael Boyd’s haunting, semi-abstract realization of the three plays for the RSC (2000), part of the ‘This England’ history cycle, won enormous critical acclaim. Boyd’s trilogy was revived in 2006 for the company’s Complete Works Festival in which he also directed the other five parts of the First and Second Tetralogies, staging the entire sequence together in 2007–8 as ‘The Histories’. Edward Hall’s gory, all male, abattoir-set Rose Rage (2001) was, like the Henry VI chapter in his father Peter’s Wars of the Roses (RSC 1963–4), a two-part adaptation of the three plays.

Randall Martin, rev. Will Sharpe

On the screen:

BBC TV broadcast the play as an episode in the series An Age of Kings (1960), but it appeared more memorably in 1965 when the BBC transmitted the RSC’s The Wars of the Roses (1965). No mere recording of the stage production, the action was filmed by twelve cameras on an extended acting area. Inspired by Brecht’s self-conscious approach to theatricality, Jane Howell directed an equally playful and moving production for BBC television, first broadcast in 1983. Battle scenes were effectively varied in appearance, and speeches personalized by being spoken directly to the camera.

Anthony Davies

Recent major editions

Michael Hattaway (New Cambridge, 1993);Find this resource:

Randall Martin (Oxford, 2001);Find this resource:

John D. Cox and Eric Rasmussen (Arden 3rd series, 2001)Find this resource:

Some representative criticism

Berry, Edward I., Patterns of Decay: Shakespeare’s Early Histories (1975)Find this resource:

Brockbank, J. P., ‘The Frame of Disorder: Henry VI’, in John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris (eds.), Early Shakespeare (1961)Find this resource:

Jones, Emrys, The Origins of Shakespeare (1977)Find this resource:

Liebler, Naomi Conn, ‘King of the Hill: Ritual and Play in the Shaping of 3 Henry VI’, in John W. Velz (ed.), Shakespeare’s Histories: A Quest for Form and Genre (1996)Find this resource:

Potter, Lois, ‘Recycling the Early Histories: “The Wars of the Roses” and “The Plantagenets”’, Shakespeare Survey, 43 (1991)Find this resource:

Rackin, Phyllis, Stages of History: Shakespeare’s English Chronicles (1990)Find this resource:

Swander, Homer D., ‘The Redisovery of Henry VI’, Shakespeare Quarterly 29 (1978)Find this resource: