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Henry VI, Part 2 | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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



Meanwhile at Saint Albans, King Henry and Queen Margaret are enjoying a short vacation. They have just returned from a hawking excursion, accompanied by Gloucester, Suffolk, and the Cardinal. The cheerful and well-intentioned king remarks that falcons, like people, enjoy "climbing high." This opens the door for a snide comment from Suffolk, who points out that Gloucester seems to like climbing, too—so much so that he will not stop climbing until he has surpassed the crown. Suffolk, the Cardinal, and Queen Margaret gang up on Gloucester, accusing him more and more openly of harboring treacherous ambitions. Henry tries, and fails, to break up the fight. Out of earshot of the king, Gloucester and the Cardinal make plans to settle their differences via a sword fight.

A man from the nearby town rushes in and announces a miracle: a blind man has been restored to his sight. The man, named Simpcox, soon shows up, borne in a chair by a procession of other townspeople. The king is ready to believe the miracle, but Gloucester and the other nobles are less sure. When Simpcox claims to be lame (unable to walk), Gloucester proposes to cure him of this ailment as well. He calls for a beadle (a village officer) to whip Simpcox; lo and behold, Simpcox is "cured," running away at the first stroke of the whip. The nobles laugh at this ludicrous display, though King Henry finds it blasphemous and sinful.

Just then Buckingham arrives with the news of the duchess's arrest. Grief stricken by Buckingham's report, Gloucester tells the Cardinal he does not have the heart to duel him. Taunted by the queen, Gloucester says that if his wife has actually consorted with sorcerers he will freely give her up "as a prey to law and shame." Henry announces that the party will return to London tomorrow to deal with the "foul offenders."


King Henry continues to maintain a seemingly invincible faith in justice, both human and divine. As this scene reveals, the king lives in a very black-and-white moral universe, in which a poor man attempting to trick noblemen out of money is really a sinner trying God's patience. It is no surprise, then, that Henry's whole reaction to the Simpcox hoax is full of sanctimonious speeches. Hearing that Simpcox "hath received his sight," the king responds, "Now, God be praised, that to believing souls/Gives light in darkness, comfort in despair." In itself this is a nice sentiment, but it's undercut by the dramatic irony of Henry's own pervasive "blindness"—not only to Simpcox's trickery but also to the seditious squabbling of his noblemen and the broader problems plaguing his realm. Instead of attending to these issues, Henry is busy taking vacations in the countryside and delivering mini-sermons like this one:

Poor soul, God's goodness hath been great to thee.
Let never day nor night unhallowed pass,
But still remember what the Lord hath done.

To be fair there's no rule saying an English king can't be both pious and effective. Henry V, for example, was famed as a war hero and conqueror of France, but he (at least in Shakespeare's portrayal) was careful to ascribe his victories to God. After the famous battle of Agincourt, he gave orders for his troops to sing "Non nobis," a hymn that disavows human glory and praises God for His majesty. The difference is that Henry VI seems unable to venture into the hard-hitting realm of politics, even when his kingdom is at stake.

Meanwhile Gloucester's response to Simpcox is a bit disturbing in its own right. Unlike his nephew, Gloucester is not fooled for a moment by Simpcox's claims to have been blind, to have experienced a miracle, or to be unable to walk. Rather than letting the man go, however, Gloucester makes Simpcox squirm for a bit by proposing a painful test: if Simpcox really cannot walk, he will not be able to jump over a stool when whipped. After Simpcox is shown up for a fraud, the physical punishment and humiliation continue: both Simpcox and his wife are chased out of Saint Albans, with orders that they "be whipped through every market town/Till they come to Berwick, from whence they came." If this is the version of justice being meted out by the king's officials, it's no wonder so many commoners join Jack Cade's rebellion in Act 4.

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