Henry VI, Part 2 | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Henry VI, Part 2 | Act 3, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

King Henry has convened a parliament at Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk. He enters with Queen Margaret at his side; Suffolk, the Cardinal, York, Buckingham, Salisbury, and Warwick are also in attendance. The king marvels that Gloucester has not yet arrived, and Queen Margaret seizes the opportunity to suggest that Gloucester is growing insolent and rebellious. Suffolk adds his own criticisms of Gloucester and is quickly joined by the Cardinal, York, and Buckingham. Henry thanks the lords for their concern but protests that Gloucester is "as innocent ... as is the sucking lamb or harmless dove."

Somerset arrives, bearing word that England has lost all remaining territories in France. Moments later Gloucester enters and is immediately arrested for treason by Suffolk. York accuses Gloucester of various crimes, including embezzlement of the royal treasury and collaboration with the French. King Henry expresses his hope that Gloucester's name will quickly be cleared of these charges, but Gloucester grimly expects to be done in by false witnesses. The Cardinal's men seize Gloucester and escort him offstage.

King Henry, overcome by this spectacle, leaves the rest of the parliament in the hands of his noblemen. In a tearful monologue he acknowledges the conspiracy against Gloucester but denies that he has the power to stop it. He leaves the stage along with several noblemen; Queen Margaret, Suffolk, York, and the Cardinal remain. Pretending to be concerned for Henry's safety, they plot to kill Gloucester before he can be brought to trial.

A post (i.e., a messenger) comes to tell the queen and nobles that the Irish have rebelled. The Cardinal demands that someone go and put down the revolt. Somerset, who has been standing off to one side, now quarrels with York about his handling of the French regency, but Queen Margaret restrains them, and the Cardinal appoints York to quash the Irish uprising. Alone on stage York reiterates his plan to seize the crown. To this end, he announces, he has enlisted the help of Jack Cade to stir up unrest in England. If the rebellion fails York will be able to escape; if it succeeds York will return from Ireland with his army to finish the job.

Analysis

Gloucester has fallen far in the second act of the play: in Scene 3 he gave up his title of Lord Protector amid angry calls for his resignation. Then in Scene 4 Gloucester watched his wife march away to her exile. In this scene Gloucester's enemies tighten the noose even further. They begin by rehearsing the vicious claims against him, many of which were first introduced in Act 1, Scene 3. To these earlier complaints—French bribery, squandering of England's resources, and excessive cruelty in criminal sentencing—they now add the fact of the duchess's banishment. Suffolk goes so far as to declare that Gloucester must have "suborn[ed]" (i.e., induced) the duchess to "[begin] her devilish practices." This allegation is tinged with sexism, since it suggests that the duchess could not have acted on her own initiative.

King Henry, meanwhile, is as helpless in this scene as one might expect, given how easily he has been manipulated in Acts 1 and 2 (and, indeed, the entirety of Part 1). Taking advantage of the king's weakness and emotionality, Suffolk and company arrange for Gloucester to be escorted away under the watch of Cardinal Beaufort's guards. (This is hardly the safest place for Gloucester to be, given his long history of conflict with the Cardinal.) Gloucester is probably right to suspect that, if his trial proceeds, false testimony will be manufactured to confirm his treason. The trial never takes place, however: instead Gloucester dies offstage at the beginning of the next scene.

The rebellion in Ireland, reported near the end of this scene, gives York the opportunity he has been waiting for. Now he can raise a large army without attracting suspicion, only to turn his soldiers against King Henry when the time is right. There is another advantage to York's decision to head the counterinsurgency: it keeps him clear of England (and thus clear of suspicion) during the Jack Cade revolt. This will allow him to swoop in when the rebellion is in its final stages, picking whichever side of the conflict best serves his interests.

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