Henry VI, Part 2 | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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

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Summary

Off the coast of Kent, Suffolk and some English gentlemen have been captured by pirates while attempting to sail for France. The pirate leader, known as the Lieutenant, divvies up the captives among his officers. The ship's master and the first mate plan to ransom theirs, but Walter Whitmore, who claims Suffolk as his prize, plans to kill his prisoner as revenge for losing an eye.

In attempting to talk his way out of certain death, Suffolk makes the mistake of owning up to his identity. The Lieutenant—who happens to think very poorly of Suffolk for seducing Queen Margaret, murdering Gloucester, and generally ruining England—is now even less inclined to grant his captive mercy. Suffolk, undaunted, refuses to beg for his life and, after several haughty speeches, ultimately accepts his imminent death. He is led offstage by Whitmore, who comes back soon afterward with Suffolk's lifeless body and severed head. One of the gentlemen, released to seek ransom for the others, takes the corpse with him to demand vengeance from the king and queen.

Analysis

In Act 1, Scene 4 the spirit summoned by Hume and friends made three prophecies. One of them was that Suffolk would "by water ... die and take his end." Suffolk, who was not present for the duchess's occult ritual, happens to have received a similar prophecy in the form of a horoscope: "A cunning man," he says, "did calculate my birth/And told me that by water I should die." Consequently he is terrified to learn that his captor's name is Walter. True to his nature as a high-handed nobleman, he insists on trying to reduce the danger by pronouncing Walter's name Gualtier, after the French fashion. Suffolk's death was also foretold by Gloucester's dream in Act 1, Scene 2. To keep a running tally, two of three dream predictions and one of three ghost prophecies have now come true.

Even if Suffolk had played nice and begged to be ransomed, he probably wouldn't have escaped—the Lieutenant, who is running the show, seems to harbor a pretty serious grudge against him. Still Suffolk isn't exactly helping his case when he vaunts his noble status and mocks his captors for being commoners. In one of the most tone-deaf speeches in Shakespeare, Suffolk calls the Lieutenant an "obscure and lousy swain"; later he redoubles his efforts by calling him a "paltry, servile, abject drudge." When this doesn't work, the desperate Suffolk vaunts that "It is impossible that I should die/By such a lowly vassal as thyself." In Act 5 and throughout Part 3 Henry will make use of a similar—and similarly ineffective—line of thinking, attempting to "pull rank" as a means of preventing war and controlling his subjects.

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