Henry VI, Part 2 | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Henry VI, Part 2 | Act 2, Scene 3 | Summary

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Summary

King Henry and his retinue have returned to London and are now presiding over the trial of the duchess and her co-conspirators (Margery Jourdain, Southwell, Hume, and Bolingbroke). Henry sentences the duchess to banishment and the other four to death by burning (in Margery's case) or hanging.

Gloucester, overcome with sorrow at his wife's disgrace, asks permission to leave the court. King Henry seizes the opportunity to dismiss Gloucester as Lord Protector, though he emphasizes that this is not a punishment: Gloucester will be "no less beloved/Than when [he was] Protector to [the] king." Gloucester willingly gives up his protectorship and wishes Henry a peaceful reign. As Gloucester exits, Queen Margaret gloats over the fact that the Lord Protector is finally out of the picture.

The last order of business is the trial by combat between Horner and Peter. The two combatants enter the stage at opposite doors. Horner is drunk; Peter is so terrified that he starts bequeathing possessions to his fellow apprentices. Salisbury and York officiate over the fight; Peter wins, and the fatally wounded Horner confesses his treason just before dying. King Henry, who sees the outcome as a sign of divine justice, promises Peter a reward.

Analysis

This is the first trial over which King Henry presides in the trilogy, and its outcome does not reflect well upon him. All five of the guilty parties were involved in substantially the same crime, yet three different sentences are handed out. The duchess, a noblewoman who happens to be King Henry's aunt, is to be publicly shamed and then retire to the Isle of Man, where she will continue to be treated as a duchess. The three men of non-noble rank are to be hanged, the usual means of execution at this point in English history; the non-noble woman is to be burned at the stake.

This tiered system seems to suggest that justice is a function of rank and gender. Nobles, in the scheme presented here, are somehow more deserving of leniency than knights, gentry, and commoners; Henry makes this point explicit when he observes that the duchess is "more nobly born" than her conspirators. Moreover, women and men who commit the same crimes nonetheless receive different sentences, perhaps because a woman who summons spirits is a "witch," while a man who does the same is a "conjurer." Like Gloucester's heavy-handed response to Simpcox's hoax in Act 2, Scene 1, this moment of botched justice serves as an overture to the commoners' rebellion in Act 4.

Henry, however, sees no problem with the way justice is carried out, either in the duchess's trial or in the Horner/Thump duel later in this scene. He points out that the Bible ("God's book") prescribes the killing of witches—likely an allusion to the Book of Exodus, which decrees, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" (Ex 22:18). Similarly he sees Peter Thump's victory in the trial by combat as a vindication of divine justice. The king either ignores or fails to notice the decisive role played by drink: Horner was simply too tanked to fight effectively. (York, who is a little more astute, urges Peter to "thank God and the good wine" for his victory.) This episode, combined with Henry's total lack of interest in appointing a regent (Act 1, Scene 3), makes it hard to escape the conclusion that Henry is "checking out" of kingship, leaving God and his noblemen to sort out the details.

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