Henry VI, Part 2 | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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

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Summary

On a street in London, Gloucester and his attendants await the duchess, who has endured three days of penance prior to her banishment. The duchess arrives in the garb of a penitent: barefoot and wearing a plain white garment. One of Gloucester's servants offers to break into the procession and free the duchess, but Gloucester tells his men to let her pass.

The duchess stops to speak with Gloucester. She complains that the "giddy multitude" are mocking her and urges him to hide himself, rather than face the shame that has befallen their house. Gloucester urges his wife to endure her trial patiently, but she rails at him for not protecting her from their enemies. She prophesies that Gloucester will likewise fail to protect himself from "the ax of death"; that is, the violent end Suffolk and his other foes are preparing for him.

A Herald appears to announce that a Parliament will be convened next month at Bury St. Edmunds. Gloucester is caught off guard by the news but says he will be sure to attend. He then turns to the duchess's keepers and bids them treat her well. Sir John Stanley, whose job it is to escort the duchess to the Isle of Man, says she will be treated kindly now that her penance is done. The duchess, however, is inconsolable: her shame, she says, will haunt her for the rest of her life.

Analysis

Gloucester is heartbroken by the disgrace that has befallen his wife, but he does nothing to intervene. Instead he remains firm in his belief that he has done the right thing in letting the law take its course. (In this regard he is not unlike his nephew King Henry, who consistently equates the law's justice with God's.) Gloucester is surely stung, however, by the duchess's observation that "he stood by whilst ... his forlorn duchess/Was made a wonder and a pointing-stock."

One thing nevertheless fails to sink in for Gloucester: the possibility that he will be killed by the "ax of death" the duchess sees hanging over his head. In a brave but misguided speech, he claims that

I must offend before I be attainted;
And had I twenty times so many foes,
And each of them had twenty times their power,
All these could not procure me any scathe
So long as I am loyal, true, and crimeless.

If Gloucester means this in a purely figurative sense—that his soul, his honor, and more cannot be "scathed" by his enemies—then he is certainly correct. He will indeed remain loyal to King Henry until the end. If, however, Gloucester truly believes his enemies will wait until he commits a crime to "attaint" him (i.e., arrest him for treason and confiscate his goods), he is sorely mistaken.

The duchess's sudden remorse may seem like an odd trait for a character who, a few scenes ago, wanted to behead King Henry and use his "headless neck" as a stepping stone. It is worth noting, however, that the duchess does not regret her desire for power itself, nor the steps she took to realize that desire. What the duchess repents—what she claims she will rue until her dying day—is the shame that results from being caught. This attitude aligns her with Joan la Pucelle (in Part 1) and Queen Margaret (in this play, but especially in Part 3). All three women defy contemporary gender norms by seeking power without remorse or restraint, and all three are branded as villains for doing so.

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