Henry VI, Part 2 | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Henry VI, Part 2 | Act 1, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

The play begins at the palace in London, where Henry is formally welcoming his bride Queen Margaret, to England. He is attended by several high-ranking noblemen: the dukes of Gloucester, Somerset, York, and Buckingham, the Marquess of Suffolk, the earls of Salisbury and Warwick, and Cardinal Beaufort. Suffolk, first to speak, announces that he has brought Queen Margaret to England and ceremonially "delivers" her to the king. King Henry greets his queen with a kiss, and the two newlyweds exchange some courtly compliments. The men kneel to salute Queen Margaret, then rise as a flourish of trumpets sounds.

Next Suffolk raises the matter of the peace with France, handing the treaty to Gloucester to read aloud. When Gloucester gets to the part where Maine and Anjou are to be released to French sovereignty, he claims to be suddenly ill and says he can read no further. Cardinal Beaufort finishes reading the treaty, and Henry promotes Suffolk to the rank of duke in thanks for his service. The king invites the courtiers to join him at Queen Margaret's coronation, but only Suffolk follows the royal couple offstage.

Gloucester now "unload[s] his grief" to the other noblemen, reminding them all of their sacrifices in the Hundred Years' War. He complains that their victories, including those won by the late King Henry V, will be "blott[ed] from books of memory" by this marriage. The Cardinal chides Gloucester and says France still belongs to England; Gloucester counters that it will be "impossible" to retain control of France without Anjou and Maine. Salisbury and Warwick agree; York further blames Suffolk for arranging King Henry's marriage to a bride "that brings no vantages."

As Gloucester continues his tirade, the Cardinal rebukes him for being too hotheaded. Gloucester decides to walk away before his "ancient bickerings" with the Cardinal start up again. Once the duke has left the stage, the Cardinal insinuates that Gloucester is trying to seize the crown for himself, since he is next in line if Henry dies. Buckingham takes the bait and offers to "hoise" Gloucester "from his seat." His cousin, Somerset, urges him to be cautious and bide his time. The Cardinal, Buckingham, and Somerset leave the stage, and Salisbury and Warwick express their distrust of all three.

York, the last to exit, gives a long monologue lamenting the loss of the French territories. He likens the English to a group of "pirates" who spend their plunder freely because it is not really theirs. York reveals that he now regards himself as the rightful ruler of England, so any loss to England is, for him, a personal matter. He pledges to watch and wait "till time do serve," then seize the crown for himself from the "bookish" Henry VI.

Analysis

Shakespeare begins Henry VI, Part 2 with a megadose of exposition. At the end of Part 1 Henry had agreed to marry Margaret of Anjou to cement the truce between England and France, whose generations-long conflict (the Hundred Years' War) was a main subject of that play. There have been a few title changes since Part 1: between then and now, the Earl of Suffolk has been promoted to marquess (a rank between earl and duke), setting him up for the dukedom he is granted in this scene. Cardinal Beaufort is the man who, throughout Part 1, was called the Bishop of Winchester. (In the earlier play his exact ecclesiastical rank was unclear until Act 5.)

There is no formal exchange of vows in this scene; that would have taken place offstage, when Suffolk stood in for Henry at the wedding ceremony in France. Nonetheless, King Henry and Queen Margaret address each other in extremely stilted terms—even by Shakespearean standards. Margaret says she has dreamed of being united with her royal husband and calls him her "alderliefest sovereign," using a rare Germanic word meaning "dearest of all." Henry responds in similarly high-flown phrases, claiming to be moved to tears by the beauty and graciousness of his bride. He describes her words as "yclad [i.e., clothed] with wisdom's majesty," using an adjective that would have sounded old-fashioned even to an Elizabethan. This mildly archaic language helps to establish the play's late-medieval setting, just as Edmund Spenser's "medievalisms" in The Faerie Queene (1596) help to conjure up a storybook world of knights and witches.

Right after the mini-wedding ceremony comes the reading of the treaty, which upsets Gloucester considerably. He is distraught because King Henry has given away Maine and Anjou, two strategic English holdings in France, as part of his dowry to Queen Margaret. For Gloucester, this adds insult to injury: previous kings have received large dowries from their brides' families, but now Henry is paying in hard-fought land for the privilege of marrying Margaret. In light of this it is fitting that the Cardinal—Gloucester's uncle and archenemy—should be the one to pick up the treaty and continue reading. Although the Cardinal and Gloucester are more civil to each other in this scene than they ever are in Part 1, their feud is far from over. Reading about the cession of Maine and Anjou is just one way the Cardinal manages to twist the knife.

Other political fault lines will develop in time, as the discontented murmurs of Buckingham and Somerset indicate. One character to watch right away, however, is Richard, Duke of York. In Part 1 York learned that his father and uncle had been implicated in a plot to claim the throne. He has apparently been studying his genealogy since then and is now prepared to assert the royal claim for himself. York's turn to a more openly combative stance is signaled by his contempt for King Henry, whom he calls "proud Lancaster" and dismisses as a "childish" usurper. York's description of Henry as "bookish" may seem like an odd insult, but it has important echoes later in the play: the king's overreliance on book learning makes him nearly the opposite of Jack Cade, whose rebellion in Act 4 takes a violently anti-intellectual turn.

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