Henry VI, Part 2 | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Henry VI, Part 2 | Act 1, Scene 4 | Summary

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Summary

In the garden of the Gloucester residence, the witch Marjery Jourdain and the conjurer Bolingbroke are preparing a ritual, with the help of Sir John Hume and a priest named Southwell. The Duchess of Gloucester watches from the balcony. Amid much thunder and lightning, the magicians summon a spirit and proceed to ask it questions about the future of England's rulers.

When asked about King Henry, the spirit gives an ambiguous answer, but he does reveal that Suffolk will die by water and that Somerset should avoid castles. As the spirit speaks Southwell writes down the answers. At this point the spirit returns to hell (amid more thunder and lightning) just as York, Buckingham, and their guards burst onto the scene. The guards arrest all four participants in the ritual, along with the duchess, and confiscate their papers. Buckingham rides for Saint Albans to report the news to Gloucester and the king.

Analysis

In the course of being cross-examined by the magicians, the spirit confesses that "the duke yet lives that Henry shall depose,/But him outlive and die a violent death." This sentence has at least two possible meanings, with very different implications for Henry and the duke in question:

  1. A duke will both depose and outlive Henry, then die a violent death.
  2. A duke will depose Henry, but Henry will outlive the duke and die a violent death.

As it happens the second interpretation is closer to the mark. The unnamed duke is York, who is conveniently present for the latter half of this scene: in Part 3 York will depose Henry, but the king will outlive him, and both men will die violent deaths.

When he reads the spirit's answer during his raid on the Gloucester home, York immediately understands the double meaning of this speech (the technical term for this device is amphiboly). He exclaims, "Why, this is just Aio te Aeacida,/Romanos vincere posse," likening the text to a famously ambiguous Latin prophecy that could mean "You, Aeacides, can defeat the Romans" or "Aeacides, the Romans can defeat you."

At the end of this scene York scores a few bad-guy points for his treatment of the Duchess of Gloucester. Having already arrested her (thereby dooming her to exile at best and death at worst), York proceeds to take a few cheap shots at his enemy. In his orders to Buckingham, he mockingly calls the duchess a "lovely lady" and says the news of her arrest will make a "sorry breakfast" for her husband. Adding to the insult is York's air of casualness about the whole affair: as soon as Buckingham exits York summons a servant to invite Salisbury and Warwick to dinner, as though "raid Gloucester house for witchcraft" and "make dinner plans" are just two items on his to-do list.

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