Henry VI, Part 2 | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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

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Summary

Now that the rebels have won their first major battle, things are looking pretty grim at the palace in London. King Henry comes onstage carrying a message from the rebels, and Queen Margaret enters bearing the head of the late Suffolk. Also present are the Duke of Buckingham, who acts as the king's adviser; and Lord Saye, whom Cade and his rebels have pledged to kill for selling out English interests in France.

In a series of asides Queen Margaret laments Suffolk's death, while King Henry reads over the rebels' petition. As the king is deciding on a response, a messenger runs in to declare that the rebels have reached Southwark after overcoming the Staffords' army. King Henry urges Lord Saye to join him in Killingworth until the rebellion has been put down, but Saye declines, saying his presence would put the king in danger. A second messenger arrives and announces that Cade's rebels have seized London Bridge. With no time to lose, King Henry, Queen Margaret, and Buckingham leave immediately.

Analysis

Queen Margaret, who is ordinarily portrayed as a cold-blooded schemer, does a very poor job here of hiding her feelings for Suffolk; this adds to the impression that their affair was a genuine romance and not merely a "political alliance with benefits." Even the mild and gullible Henry vaguely suspects that something was up between the queen and Suffolk: "I fear me, love, if that I had been dead,/Thou wouldst not have mourned so much for me." The queen quickly smooths things over by saying that of course she wouldn't have mourned like this for Henry: the king's death would have killed her outright, rather than leaving her alive to grieve.

In his response to the rebellion Henry is more merciful—or perhaps, although this is less likely, more pragmatic—than he was in sentencing the conjurers in Act 2, Scene 3. He dreads the loss of life that will result if the rebellion continues, even if it is ultimately suppressed by his armies: "God forbid so many simple souls/Should perish by the sword!" This apparent change of tune offers some insight into King Henry's odd notion of justice: people who engage in witchcraft are placing themselves beyond the reach of God's mercy or the king's, but the rebels (who are killing people left and right) are merely "simple souls" misled by a charismatic leader.

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