Henry VI, Part 2 | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Henry VI, Part 2 | Act 5, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

Buckingham meets York in a field southeast of London and demands to know why he has raised an army against King Henry. York protests that he wants only to remove the "seditious" Somerset; when Buckingham swears that Somerset has already been imprisoned, York promises to dismiss his troops and submit once more to the king's authority.

King Henry enters and begins to sound out York's intentions. He is interrupted by the arrival of Alexander Iden, who brings the head of Jack Cade. As thanks for slaying the rebel leader, Henry knights Iden and awards him a thousand marks (gold coins). Somerset, who is not imprisoned after all, comes onstage with Queen Margaret. Seeing his enemy walk free, York explodes with anger: he calls Henry a double-crossing usurper and declares himself king. Somerset attempts to arrest him, but York summons his sons to speak on his behalf.

While an attendant is off seeking the boys, York proceeds to insult Queen Margaret as a "blood-bespotted Neapolitan" and an "outcast of Naples." York's sons, Edward and Richard, enter the stage, followed by Lord Clifford and his son ("Young Clifford"), who remain loyal to King Henry. Learning of York's attempt to seize the throne, Clifford calls for the "traitor" to be executed on the spot, but York's sons promise to defend their father.

Into this quarrel come Salisbury and Warwick, who pledged their loyalty to York in Act 2, Scene 2. King Henry is startled by the earls' refusal to bow and asks where their sense of duty has gone ("O, where is faith? O, where is loyalty?"). Salisbury answers that his oath of loyalty is not binding since the throne does not lawfully belong to Henry. The king's supporters and York's exchange angry threats before finally promising to meet one another on the battlefield.

Analysis

With this scene the Wars of the Roses officially begin. Since at least the beginning of Part 1 the feud between Yorkists (the "white team") and Lancastrians (the "red team") has been simmering on the edge of violence. Once York publicly declares his ambitions of kingship, however, a direct military confrontation is inevitable. York and his supporters will not retract their claim; nor will the iron-willed Queen Margaret allow the Lancastrians to lose their grip on the throne.

Meanwhile the idealistic King Henry is shocked that his subjects could ever be purposely disloyal. Henry's misgivings about York were evident in Act 4; nonetheless he now tries to blame York's attempted seizure of the throne on madness ("a bedlam and ambitious humor")—as if York has raised an army and marched on the king's castle because of an odd whim or a fit of anger. He applies similar reasoning to the renegades Salisbury and Warwick, whom he deems "mad" and "brainsick" respectively. Henry, as earlier acts have shown, has a paramount faith in God's justice and the fairness of law. Thus the idea of a deliberate, methodically planned rebellion is a critical blow to his worldview.

York's son Richard, who appears for the first time in this scene, will be a major figure in Henry VI, Part 3 and the title character in Richard III (the final play in the First Tetralogy). In Part 3 Richard rises to power alongside his brothers as King Henry and his supporters are overthrown; in Richard III he murders his way to the front of the line and inherits the throne from his elder brother Edward IV. He then rules England as a tyrant before his eventual overthrow at the Battle of Bosworth Field.

The historical Richard was reputed to be hunchbacked and otherwise deformed; whether or not these traits are realized on the stage they explain why Clifford the elder calls Richard a "heap of wrath, foul indigested lump/As crooked in thy manners as thy shape!" Young Clifford uses a similar insult at the end of the scene, calling Richard a "foul stigmatic" (i.e., misshapen person). In later plays the physical deformities mocked by the Cliffords will make Richard an outcast at the royal court, despite his high position as Duke of Gloucester. This scornful behavior galvanizes Richard's decision to "prove a villain," since everyone treats him like one anyway.

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