Henry VI, Part 2 | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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

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Summary

Back at the Gloucester residence, the Duchess of Gloucester (Eleanor, or "Nell" to her friends) asks her husband why he has been so moody lately. She asks if he is haunted by ambitious thoughts and offers, seemingly out of the blue, to help him seize the English crown. Gloucester rebukes his wife and protests that he would rather die than harm King Henry. He says he has merely been bothered by "troublous dreams."

"What dreamed my lord?" the duchess asks. Gloucester, in reply, describes a not-quite-nightmare in which his staff of office (the Lord Protector's symbol) was broken in two, and the heads of Somerset and Suffolk were placed on the broken pieces. The duchess says that in her dream, she was crowned queen of England. Gloucester angrily asks why his wife is unsatisfied with being the second most powerful woman in the realm. What she seems to be proposing, he sternly reminds her, is an act of treason.

A messenger enters and requests the duke's presence at Saint Albans, where King Henry and Queen Margaret are hawking (i.e., hunting with falcons). Gloucester leaves right away; the duchess says she will join them shortly. Once Gloucester has left, she calls to Sir John Hume, who has acted as her go-between in hiring a witch and a conjurer. Hume assures her that the magicians will be glad to help, and the duchess thanks him by giving him gold.

Once he has the stage to himself, Hume reveals that he is acting as a double agent on behalf of Cardinal Beaufort and the Duke of Suffolk. These two "crafty knaves" have hired him to implicate the duchess in occult activities: if she is found out, the penalty will be banishment or perhaps even execution. Either way, being arrested for witchcraft will spell an end to the duchess's political career, which is exactly what Hume's employers want.

Analysis

The Duchess of Gloucester is a new character in Part 2, and she wastes no time in hopping aboard the villain train. In her first soliloquy she describes King Henry and Queen Margaret as mere annoyances, obstacles in her path to the throne. She tells the audience that things would be very different if she—and not her big softy of a husband—were Duke of Gloucester:

Were I a man, a duke, and next of blood,
I would remove these tedious stumbling blocks
And smooth my way upon their headless necks

This speech is the Shakespearean equivalent of "Poor Unfortunate Souls" from The Little Mermaid: like Ursula, the duchess lays out her evil intentions just about as soon as she gets on stage. She reveals herself to be ambitious and unprincipled—almost the opposite, in fact, of her upstanding husband. With this in mind it's not very hard to see why the Cardinal and Suffolk have settled on her as the weak point in the Gloucester household: blinded by her desire for the crown, she will play right into their hands by attempting to summon an evil spirit. (Incidentally, this is the same move that marks Joan la Pucelle as an irredeemable villain in Part 1.) Getting the duchess out of the picture, however, is only the first step in the plan: once she has been exiled, the Cardinal and Suffolk will proceed to undermine Gloucester politically and eventually arrange his murder.

Gloucester himself, meanwhile, is innocent to the point of naiveté. He has no idea what his dream means ("What it doth bode God knows") and is not willing to venture a prophetic interpretation. The part where his staff is broken in two proves prescient rather quickly: by the middle of Act 2 Gloucester is no longer Lord Protector. He relinquishes his staff voluntarily rather than having it seized by violence as the dream seems to imply, but he does so only after his wife is disgraced and the royal court has turned against him. The bit about Somerset and Suffolk losing their heads also proves accurate, but only much later in the play.

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