Henry VI, Part 1 | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Henry VI, Part 1 | Act 5, Scene 5 | Summary

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Summary

King Henry enters with Suffolk, Gloucester, and Exeter. He has heard all about Margaret from Suffolk and is now desperate to marry her. Suffolk reassures the young king that he is making a good choice: words cannot do justice to "that lovely dame." Henry asks Gloucester to "give consent/That Margaret may be England's royal queen."

Gloucester and Exeter object on two grounds. They remind Henry that he is already engaged to the Earl of Armagnac's daughter; moreover, they point out that Margaret's father, though technically a king, is neither rich nor powerful. Suffolk rebukes his fellow lords by insisting on Henry's right to choose the woman he loves most ("whom his Grace affects"). He sings Margaret's praises a final time, reminding listeners of her kingly parentage, her beauty, and her "valiant courage and undaunted spirit."

Henry, though he does not like the idea of breaking off his engagement with Armagnac's daughter, reluctantly orders Suffolk to arrange the marriage to Margaret, then bring her to England to live as queen. The king exits, and Gloucester warns his fellow lords that this change in plans will lead to "grief ... both at first and last." Suffolk, in a self-congratulatory closing soliloquy, announces his plan to "rule the King" through Margaret.

Analysis

Although the play bears his name, King Henry has appeared in only a handful of scenes by the end of Henry VI, Part 1. His characterization in these scenes, however, has been quite consistent: Henry is not a mature ruler but a child playing dress-up in regal robes. In this scene Henry's childlike qualities—his impulsiveness, his impatience, and his blind trust in the adults in his life—combine to override his reason. Suffolk is more than happy to exploit Henry's immaturity and vulnerability: in suggesting that Henry choose his wife based on his "affect[ions]" and not practical considerations, Suffolk essentially excuses Henry from the responsibility of acting like a king.

With the close of this scene, Suffolk has officially joined the dark side. In Act 5, Scene 3 Suffolk's intentions were not quite clear: loyalty to Henry and a sense of shame prevented him from wooing Margaret for himself, though not from stealing a kiss. Here he is completely frank about his desires:

Margaret shall now be queen, and rule the King,
But I will rule both her, the King, and realm.

Elsewhere in this soliloquy, Suffolk likens himself to Paris, the prince from Greek mythology who abducted Helen and thus precipitated the Trojan War. In making this comparison, Suffolk raises the possibility that his own actions will likewise result in war. Elizabethan playgoers, familiar with this chapter of English history, would have known that Margaret's installment as queen did indeed help to instigate the Wars of the Roses.

Historically, Margaret served as an informal regent during King Henry's bouts of mental illness, alienating the Yorkist faction and bringing about the Battle of Saint Albans (1455). In the Henry VI plays, Shakespeare glosses over the king's mental infirmity and presents him as the pious but naive victim of court politics. The effect, however, is the same: Margaret comes to power at her husband's expense, and Suffolk—briefly—enjoys great political influence as her paramour.

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