Henry VI Part 2 abbreviated

Life changes abruptly for the young Henry VI, now that he’s married to the beautiful Margaret of Anjou.  His wife Margaret was the daughter of Reignier, a well-connected, but relatively poor French nobleman.  With little if any courtship, Henry VI and Margaret were married right at the end of the last play.  William de la Pole, known here as Suffolk, the dashing and charismatic Englishman with ambitious plans, had successfully promoted Margaret to become the young king’s queen.  The married Suffolk had two motives in mind as he was promoting Margaret. He had just met her, had fallen for her, and wanted to keep her nearby.  He also felt he would have more influence over public policy if she became the king’s wife.  At the time of their marriage she naively believed that the English king would be as charming as Suffolk.  At the time Suffolk was promoting Margaret, the king’s uncle Humphrey was pressing his own case, reminding the king that he had earlier agreed to marry the daughter of the earl of Armagnac, another French nobleman.  Having cut some political deals, Suffolk prevailed, overriding the protests of the king’s uncle Humphrey. 

This play opens on a contentious note when Suffolk presents Henry VI’s young queen to a group of English nobility.  Humphrey immediately offers a stinging rebuke of the marriage, “arranged” for the young king, a rebuke supported by Salisbury, Warwick and York, all nobles and all major players in this play.  Humphrey, generally referred to in the play as Gloucester, had been appointed by the king’s father (Henry V) to become the boy’s Protector in the event of his death.  He therefore became the young king’s Protector when the boy became king, the young Henry VI at the time being eight months old. 

Humphrey, generally referred to as Gloucester, is in particular upset with Suffolk whom he says “hath given the Duchy of Anjou and Maine unto the poor King Reignier.” (Pride, Act 1, Scene 1) This aggressive political-power-play gets heated. The young king is pious and naïve.  He has dismissed Richard Plantagenet, the Duke of York, as his Regent of France, York being the leader of the white rose contingent.  He replaced him with Somerset, one of the young king’s uncles through John of Gaunt’s Beaufort line and the leader of the red rose contingent.  York and Somerset had been at each other’s throat in the last play. 

Gloucester’s wife is the Duchess. She, the queen, Suffolk, Winchester (the Cardinal), York and Somerset are talented and ambitious people, and each has an agenda.  Gloucester being, as we say, the king’s only living uncle in the Legitimate line, is next in line to be king, and prospective to-be-kings are always easy targets.  Major constituencies develop; the king, Gloucester and Somerset being one; Suffolk, the queen and Cardinal Winchester another. York does all he can to build support in his effort to in due course be named king.  Salisbury and his son Warwick are the two Nevilles York is recruiting; both in the words of Suffolk being “no simple peers.” (Statesmanship, Act 1, Scene 1) The Nevilles are major players in the Beaufort line.  Correctly figuring that he has the support of these two Nevilles, York further develops his strategy to gain the crown, saying to himself “A day will come when York shall claim his own.”  (Resentment, Act 1, Scene 1) The queen and the Duchess are ferociously competitive, this being a tough crowd all the way around.  The War of the Roses, the conflict that quietly began in a London garden in Part 1 between Somerset and York, continues to grow. 

John Hume, a priest, in the “employ” of Suffolk and the Cardinal, arranges for Margery Jourdain, a witch, and Bolingbroke, a conjurer, to visit the Duchess in her garden. These two have “mystical powers” and are there to help the Duchess gain more insight into her future. (Deviousness, Act 1, Scene 2) The two of them cause a “Spirit” to rise from the earth. The Spirit then offers prophecies about the king and about Suffolk and Somerset.  She pays Hume as he is about to leave, saying “Here, Hume, take this reward: make merry, man.” York and Buckingham enter and have her arrested.  Buckingham then fatefully tells the king, queen and Cardinal about the Duchess and her indiscretions with conjurers and the like.  As with soothsayers and witches in other plays, Shakespeare has the Spirit accurately and mysteriously foretell happenings.  The Duchess will find herself in big trouble.  Part of the problem for the Duchess is Queen Margaret, who lets her good friend Suffolk know how disappointed she is with her husband (the king) and with some of those around him.  When Suffolk tries to comfort her, she says “Not all these lords do vex me half so much as that proud dame the Lord Protector’s wife (the Duchess).” (Disillusionment, Act 1, Scene 3)

The wily York invites Salisbury and his son Warwick to dinner where he provides them with a powerful refresher course in family history, convincing them that through his mother’s line he justifiably should be king. York’s wife is Cicely, Salisbury’s sister and Warwick’s aunt. (History, Act 2, Scene 2) These two Nevilles agree to York’s argument and pledge him their allegiance. (Legitimacy, Act 2, Scene 2)

Meanwhile, for consorting with witches and conjurers, the king banishes the Duchess of Gloucester to the Isle of Man. In protest, Gloucester resigns his role as the king’s Protector, the king now becoming his own Protector.  The Duchess is shamefully led through the streets.  She prophetically warns her husband of the dangerous-for-him motives of some members of the King’s Council, a threat he naively dismisses. (Resignation, Act 2, Scene 4) He disappointingly puts up little fight to protest his wife’s banishment.  Gloucester is like his grandfather’s brother York, back in the times of Richard II; his playing by the book, supporting his country’s monarch, regardless of other issues. 

The King’s Council convenes at the Parliament building, and Gloucester arrives late.  Before Gloucester’s arrival, Suffolk, Winchester and York had claimed among other accusations that Gloucester has unjustly profiteered as the king’s Protector. The queen suggests to the king that Gloucester represents a threat, he being, as we’ve said, next in line to be king. (Wife to Husband, Act 3, Scene 1) When Gloucester does arrive, Suffolk says “I do arrest thee of high treason here.”  The often weak king offers Gloucester surprisingly little support, saying “‘tis my special hope that you will clear yourself,” Gloucester having supported the king time-after-time, being his only living uncle in the Legitimate line.  Gloucester gallantly lashes out at the council and at Winchester, Suffolk, Buckingham, and York in particular, telling the king “I know their conspiracy is to have my life.” (Disillusionment, Act 3, Scene 1) Gloucester is taken away and soon murdered. The Duchess was on target with her warnings.  The king mourns Gloucester’s death. (Grief, Act 3, Scene 1)  The queen cries out at the king “Is all thy comfort shut in Gloucester’s tomb.” (Resentment, Act 3, Scene 2) Having seen the strangled Gloucester on his death bed, Warwick verbally attacks Suffolk. Warwick becomes a major player in the future histories.  The “common people,” those in the streets, led by Salisbury and Warwick, claim mightily that Suffolk and the Cardinal (Winchester) are guilty of Gloucester’s murder.  The king banishes Suffolk.  Suffolk and the queen, long having had an intimate relationship, have a tender moment before he has to leave the country. (Love, Act 3, Scene 2.1)  (Love, Act 3, Scene 2.2) Winchester soon dies, acknowledging his guilt, sort of.  Suffolk is killed at sea. (Resentment, Act 4, Scene 1)

At about this point he king learns that the Irish are once again rebelling and asks York to lead an effort to quell them. York accepts the assignment, using the opportunity to form a plan to advance his personal objectives, figuring he can best position himself by leading the king’s forces in Ireland. (Deviousness, Act 3, Scene 1) While in Ireland, York engineers a plan to have one Jack Cade create some distractions in London.  Cade’s “rebellion” becomes a class issue; the lettered versus the craftsmen.  It’s here where Dick the butcher famously says “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”  It’s here where Shakespeare adds a little lightness, offsetting the deaths of Gloucester, Suffolk and the Cardinal. 

Lord Say, a loyal-to-the-king noble, soon enters.  Lord Say unrealistically believes that he himself can quell Cade’s rebellion.  Jack Cade captures him and has him taken away. (Pleading, Act 4, Scene 7) Later, Buckingham and Clifford offer to pardon Cade if he’ll stop his rebellion, a pardon he rejects.  Cade flees.  A starving Jack Cade soon enters Alexander Iden’s garden looking for something to eat.  Not knowing who he is, Iden challenges him; they fight; a weak and famished Cade loses quickly and dies.  Meanwhile York returns from Ireland with his army and with plans to challenge the king.  He boldly confronts the king directly, suggesting he replace him. (Proposal, Act 5, Scene 1)

At St. Albans, Somerset enters and attempts to arrest York.  The action is quick here. It’s the site of the only actual battle in the War of the Roses. Old Clifford enters, Old Clifford being a nobleman very loyal to the king.  Salisbury and Warwick let the king know that they support York’s cause, infuriating the king.  Old Clifford and York fight; Old Clifford falls and dies.  Richard, one of York’s sons, fights with Somerset, York’s long time red-rose-bearing nemesis.  Somerset is killed.  These two deaths, Old Clifford and Somerset, set the stage, so to speak, for furious action in the next play between Young Clifford and Richard, York’s fourth son.  

Young Clifford pledges that he will avenge his father’s death by getting even when “I meet an infant of the house of York.” (Revenge, Act 5, Scene 2) The king, queen and Young Clifford, having lost at St. Albans, quickly head for London.  The play ends with Warwick, Salisbury, York and his son Richard planning to intercept the king and others as they flee to London.  But they fail to catch up with the king and his wife.


Copyright © 2010 Abbreviated Shakespeare

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