The most important character of this play, first named The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York and the Good King Henry the Sixth may be neither the Duke of York nor Henry but instead York's son Richard. Richard is a hunchback; much of the play follows his efforts to continue his father's quest for the crown. Near the end of the play, Richard kills Henry and declares that he had no father or brothers, thus, announcing his separation from kinship networks that define the rest of the play.
Richard blames his isolation on his deformity, which makes a convenient excuse for his villainous behavior. Yet the relationship between deformity and the breakdown of the social order is more complex than Richard portrays it to be. Is Richard's physical form the cause of his vicious behavior, or is it an outward sign of his inner evil? Is his heartless ambition unique, or is he a manifestation of a social illness that extends beyond his single character?
The degradation of social ties, particularly those of family, are central to the surrounding story of each of the Henry VI plays. The struggle for the throne is played out among various branches of the descendants of Edward II; the Lancaster line followed Henry IV, the fourth son of Edward II, while the York line is descended from the third son of Edward II. York, the leader of the Yorkist house, claims that his line should have possessed the throne after Henry IV took the crown illegally from Richard II. This struggle between opposing wings of the same family has infected the familial tone of an entire nation.
Family bonds in the earlier Henry VI plays were the strongest ties between nobles, and they delineated the lines down which factions were formed. But in 3 Henry VI, family ties become fragile and threatened. The first breach of familial bonds comes when Henry agrees to pass the crown to York after his death. This act negates his son's right to the throne and makes the crown a piece of property, rather than a symbol of lineal succession. Later, Edward interprets a vision of three suns rising into one as proof that he, Richard, and George will succeed together; in fact, it seems to mean that, without their father to unite them, each will break out on his own until only one remains standing. George breaks with Edward to join Warwick, then rejoins his brothers, while Richard remains loyal only because he hopes to jockey Edward out of the throne eventually. As family bonds weaken, the social identities provided by networks of kinship and feudal loyalty disappear, giving birth to a kind of monstrous individualism.
These scenes of severed familial bonds are echoed in "mirror scenes," scenes separate from the main plot, which symbolically reflect some of the plays thematic concerns. Henry watches a battle from afar and sees two soldiers drag the bodies of soldiers they have killed away from the scene of the fight, hoping to find some loot on the bodies to steal. The first discovers he has accidentally killed his father, and the second, his own son. Both are horrified, as is their king, underscoring the social disintegration that occurs when the ties between father and son erode.
Once the ties of family are broken, nothing remains but the assertion of individual will. In his first soliloquy, Richard reveals his frustrations and his desires for the throne, along with a rough plan to get there. In quick succession, he counts the number of people before him in line to the throne, resigns himself to seek the pleasures of the court, despairs because of his deformity, and resolves to seek the crown by transforming himself into a smiling persona in order to achieve his end.
While Richard is one of the most violent and cruel personas among Shakespeare's cast of characters, he is nevertheless one of the most compelling. He draws us in through his soliloquies, in which he reveals charisma and a sharp wit, and he becomes the most finely drawn figure in the play by revealing his motivations and drives. He is no hero, but all the other characters are stick figures compared to him.
By the end of the play, Richard has announced his isolation from the titles of "son" or "brother," and while he kisses Edward's new baby, he likens himself to Judas. The court prepares to celebrate the new king, thinking the civil war is over, but the worst is yet to come. The previous chapters of the War of the Roses served to set branches of a family against each other; with no other enemies to fight, members of a single family will struggle among themselves, and vicious ambition will threaten to bring down the nation.
In Richard III, Richard succeeds in bringing about the death or downfall of both his brothers, and he manages to take the throne, but somehow he loses his charismatic power once he has achieved the crown. Challenged by Henry, Earl of Richmond, Richard loses the throne and his life, while Richmond ends the War of the Roses by uniting the red and white rose through marriage and originating the Tudor line. Elizabeth I, the reigning sovereign when this play was written, was an heir of Henry VII; Shakespeare's history plays show the faults of the Lancasters and Yorks, thus, indirectly championing the Tudor succession.