Henry VI, Part 3 | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Henry VI, Part 3 | Act 4, Scene 8 | Summary

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Summary

Back in London, Henry is assembled in council with Warwick, Montague, Clarence, Oxford, and Exeter. Warwick has received word of Edward's escape and of the powerful army Edward is leading to the capital. He urges the other lords to return to their home counties and levy troops to drive back Edward's forces. All but Henry and Exeter leave the stage.

King Henry proceeds to ask Exeter whether he thinks Edward's forces stand a chance of succeeding; after all Henry has the larger army. The real danger, Exeter replies, is that Edward will convince Henry's forces to defect. Henry scoffs at this notion: He has always treated his subjects well, so why would they betray him? Just then Edward and Richard burst into the room, accompanied by a squad of soldiers. Edward orders his troops to seize Henry and convey him to the Tower. Then, he says, his forces will make for Coventry, there to intercept Warwick.

Analysis

This is another of those "Henry doesn't get it" scenes, thrown in to remind readers and audiences that although Henry may be pure hearted, he is woefully out of touch with the political realities of his realm. The Yorkists have repeatedly raised armies numbering in the tens of thousands, yet Henry continues to profess a basic faith that the common people are on his side. The language he uses to express this belief will sound particularly familiar to readers of Part 2, where Henry makes constant appeals to divine justice without pausing to explore the fairness of his own actions.

In explaining why he is sure the commoners will not abandon him, the king recites a litany of kindnesses he has done for the people of England: "graces," in his words, that "challenge grace." He has, he insists, exercised "pity," "mildness," and "mercy" toward his subjects, neither taxing them excessively nor punishing them "though they much erred." Somehow it never occurs to Henry that his leniency is part of the problem here. Therefore, he reassures Exeter, his subjects will remain steadfast: "when the lion fawns upon the lamb,/The lamb will never cease to follow him." This is, perhaps, Henry's most tragic delusion—the belief that he can conduct himself in a meek and docile manner yet still be seen as a "lion" worthy of command.

Henry, it is true, has at least a vague sense that a ruler's authority stems not just from his pedigree but from his conduct; unfortunately for Henry, that conduct is judged by the people, who hold their kings to a different and more pragmatic standard than God might. The questions raised in this scene—What gives a king the right to rule? When is rebellion just?—are not definitively answered in the Henry VI trilogy; rather they are ongoing preoccupations for Shakespeare in all of his English histories. He revisits them in Richard III, this play's sequel, and in the later Richard II, whose title character insists on his right to rule even as he shows himself unfit to lead.

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