If Part 1 of this trilogy was a weak collaboration, and Part 2 the prototype for later and better works, Part 3 of Shakespeare’s Henry VI gets to the meat of the War of the Roses. Weak, ineffectual Henry VI is the target of Richard, Duke of York. Tired of fawning to an indecisive monarch and convinced the king’s grandfather stole the crown from his own, York rises up in rebellion. He is soon killed, and only through the machinations of Queen Margaret is the Lancaster throne saved.
Temporarily. The sons of York take their father’s place and succeed in overthrowing Henry. However, through all this, we discover this is not a play about Henry VI. It’s about Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Yes, that Richard, later Richard III, the titular character of probably Shakespeare’s greatest historical play (next to Julius Caesar). Gloucester jumps off the page and likely dominates every performance of Henry VI, Part 3. It’s all there, waiting for Richard to take center stage in his own story: The deceit behind the backs of brothers Edward IV and George, Duke of Clarence, the bloodlust, the physical deformity reflecting an ugly inner person, and, of course, those snarky asides. When Richard steps into his own in this story, I could easily see Ian McKellan’s casual interpretation of Gloucester’s snide breaking of the fourth wall. McKellan did not create that. Gloucester demanded it, which made the character a natural for McKellan’s imagining of Richard III as set in a fascist England of the 1930’s. This guy is not the Darth Vader everyone paints him as.
He’s the emperor, deliberately evil and loving every moment of it.