Using Alice's Adventures in Wonderland as a Looking Glass for Henry VI, Part 3
Alice from Lewis Carroll’s quirky Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland captures the measure of punishment in Shakespeare’s Henry VI Henriad when she tells the Cheshire Cat, “They’re dreadfully fond of beheading here; the great wonder is that there’s anyone left alive (chapter 8). A literal head count of heads seen on stage numbers seven, with at least two more ordered decapitations the audience doesn’t see. Heads quite literally roll in the bloody feud between the houses York and Lancaster. It is not surprising, then, that Margaret’s shouts of “Off with his head” (Shakespeare 1.4.185) engender an association to the Queen of Hearts’ realm in Carroll’s quirky story. Unlike the Queen of Hearts, Margaret is not the sole arbiter of this form of punishment in Shakespeare’s plays. Almost everyone shares in the decapitation revelry, ordering a decapitation, participating in a decapitation, or entering or delivering a head to their lord. Suffolk, Lord Saye, Sir James, Cromer, Cade, an unnamed person from battle, and York (formerly Richard Plantagenet) all suffer as victims of this fate (Clifford and Somerset’s decapitations are ordered but their heads are not necessarily seen on stage). This list of decapitated men reflects the fluctuating spectrum of loyalties throughout the plays. Allegiances shift as power shifts, and some nobles are better than others at reading the signs and knowing when to switch strategies.
In Henry VI, Part 3, some, such as Warwick, realize what Carroll’s playing card gardeners explain that “This here ought to have been a red rose-tree and we put a white one in by mistake, and if the Queen was to find out, we should all have our heads cut off, you know. So you see […] we’re doing our best, afore she comes” to paint the roses red (Carroll chapter 8). Warwick follows which way the wind blows and in doing so earns his description as a “proud setter-upper and puller-downer of kings (3.3.165). Having served the house of Lancaster and secretly aligned himself with York in the first two installments of Henry VI before openly declaring his allegiance to the white rose, Warwick switches allegiance back to the house of Lancaster in Henry VI, Part 3. He accidentally planted the white rose in power when he “was the chief that raised [York] to the crown” and now that he sees his error he wants to “be chief to bring [York] down again” (3.3.274-275) and restore the red rose to power. Warwick’s strategic flip-flopping epitomizes King Henry’s characterizations of the noblemen vying for power and their supporters as “obeying with [the] wind when [it] blow[s]/Commanded always by a greater gust” (3.1.85-86).
Warwick is not alone in his duplicity. As a power vacuum emerges and nobles become more open in their support for each other, tempers flare. Warnings and threats abound as factions become more divisive. Somerset’s warning to “Prick not your finger as you pluck [the rose] off,/Lest, bleeding, you do paint the white rose red,/and fall on my side so against your will” (Henry VI, Part 1, 2.4.49-51) conjures the image of unwittingly painting a rose red. There is none of the subtlety bordering on flattery formerly espoused when speaking with each other. Instead of “be[ing] thou politic” (Henry VI, Part 2, 2.5.101) and noticing that the monarch is close behind listening, and so altering speech (Carroll chapter 8) to avoid detection as they did previously, they behave like those at the Queen of Hearts’ croquet match, “all play[ing] at once […] quarrelling all the while, and fighting” until everyone is in “a furious passion, […] and shouting ‘Off with his head!’ or ‘Off with her head!’ about once in a minute” (Carroll chapter 8). The nobles’ constant backpedaling crescendos to a cacophony—a cacophony that frequently involved beheading, if not death in general.
Viewing the Henry VI Henriad through the lens of the Queen of Hearts’ croquet match in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a marvelously innocuous way to highlight the nature of the War of the Roses.
Though this focuses on using only the croquet match for connecting Henry VI to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, http://www.alice-in-wonderland.net/resources/analysis/interpretive-essays/the-truth-about-alice/
goes into detail about other parallels. For the purpose of this project, Through the Looking Glass was not included, though it features the White Queen vs. the Red Queen.