A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
Revised in 2010.©
Type of Work
.......Henry VI Part II is a history play about the struggle for power during the reign of a young English king.
.......Henry VI Part II was written between 1590 and 1592. It was published in 1623 as part of the First Folio, the first authorized collection of Shakespeare's plays.
.......Shakespeare based Henry VI Part II primarily on accounts in The Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (Holinshed’s Chronicles), by Raphael Holinshed (?-1580?), who began work on this history under the royal printer Reginald Wolfe. The first edition of the chronicles was published in 1577 in two volumes. Shakespeare also used The Union of Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancastre and York, by Edward Hall (?-1547).
.......The action takes place in England, beginning in 1445. The locales include London, including the palace, the streets, and various other places; Saint Albans, about 20 miles northwest of London; the county of Kent, along the English Channel in southeastern England; Blackheath, about six miles southeast of central London; Kenilworth Castle, in Warwickshire; and plains between Dartford, a borough east of central London, and Blackheath.
Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester: Uncle and protector of the king.
Cardinal Henry Beaufort: Bishop of Winchester, Self-seeking great-uncle of the king.
Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York: Leader of the House of York, symbolized by a White Rose. He believes he has a claim on the throne of England. He encourages commoners to rise up against the Crown. The resulting discord, he believes, will enable him to step in and seize the throne.
Edward, Richard: Richard’s sons. Richard is the famous villain of Shakespeare’s play Richard III.
Margaret of Anjou: Bride of King Henry and, thus, the new queen. She despises her husband and conspires with his enemies.
Duke of Suffolk (Willam de la Pole): Conniving Lancaster politician who deceives and manipulates the king.
Members of the Lancaster Faction: Duke of Somerset, Duke of Buckingham, Lord Say, Lord Clifford, Lord Clifford’s Son
Members of York the Faction: Earl of Salisbury, Earl of Warwick.
Eleanor Cobham (Nell): Duchess of Gloucester, wife of Humphrey.
Lord Scales: Governor of the Tower.
Jack Cade: Rabble-rousing commoner who preaches the overthrow of the nobility but, calling himself “Lord Mortimer," believes he deserves the throne.
Followers of Cade: Matthew Goffe, George Bevis, John Holland, Dick the Butcher, Smith the Weaver, Michael.
Warriors Opposing Cade: Sir Humphrey Stafford and His Brother, William Stafford.
Alexander Iden: Gentleman of Kent who kills Cade.
Two Gentlemen: Prisoners with Suffolk.
Walter Whitmore: Murderer of Suffolk.
Priests: John Hume, John Southwell
Asmath: Spirit raised by Bolingbroke.
Thomas Horner: Armourer.
Peter: Horner’s man.
First Neighbor, Second Neighbor, Third Neighbor: Neighbors of Thomas Horner.
Saunder Simpcox: An impostor who pretends that a miracle restored his sight.
Wife of Simpcox
Margery Jourdain: Witch.
Roger Bolingbroke: Conjurer.
Others: Sea Captain, Shipmaster, Master’s Mate, Clerk of Chatham, Mayor of Saint Albans, Wife of Simpcox, Two Murderers, Beadle (Church Official), Sheriff, Officers, Citizens, Prentices (Apprentices), Falconers, Guards, Soldiers, Messengers, Lords, Ladies, Attendants, Aldermen, Herald, Petitioners.
VI, of the House of Lancaster, became King of England as an infant on Sept.
1, 1422, after the death of his father, King Henry V. Henry VI reigned
from 1422 to 1461 and from 1470 to 1471. After serving merely as a figurehead
in his boyhood and adolescence, Henry began to rule on his own in 1437,
at age sixteen. Henry VI Part II continues the story begun in Henry
VI Part I, which ended with the marriage of Henry to Margaret of Anjou
in April 1445, when Henry was twenty-four.
.......After all, he has won the beautiful Margaret. What Henry does not know, however, is that Suffolk himself covets Margaret, who does not shy away from his leering eyes. What is more, Suffolk means to manipulate the boy king to gain more power for himself. But failing to see through Suffolk, the king makes him a duke.
.......The rivalry between the Houses of Lancaster and York continues. Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, is now convinced that he should sit on the throne. Whatever hastens history along–namely unseating the king–would be most welcome.
.......Meanwhile, the Lancaster faction plots to oust Gloucester. Although Gloucester is next in line to the throne, he does not seek it. He wants only to fulfill his duties as Lord Protector of Henry. But because he stands as a barrier between the Lancasters and their grab for power, they know they must get rid of him if they hope to succeed. They have an ally in Margaret. No delicate flower, she is strong-willed and ambitious, and she seeks to dominate her weakling husband, whom she despises. Therefore, anything that further emasculates the king–in particular, the removal of Gloucester–would work to her advantage. The plotters decide to use Gloucester’s fickle wife, Eleanor, to bring him down. Because her husband would become king if anything happened to Henry, she dreams of wearing a crown and sitting in “the seat of majesty" (1.2.38). Gloucester scolds her for such thoughts, but she nevertheless continues to entertain them. Then the plot against Gloucester unfolds:
.......John Hume, a priest, comes to Eleanor’s house to tell her that “a spirit rais’d from depth of under ground" (1.2.83) will be summoned to foretell a glorious future for her. Eager to peer into the beyond, she welcomes to her garden a conjurer named Roger Bolingbroke and a witch named Margery Jourdain to perform the necessary ceremonies to rouse the spirit. After it appears and makes predictions amid lightning and thunder, enemies of Gloucester burst in and arrest her for sorcery. They had arranged the snare, and it worked perfectly. Eleanor is tried and sentenced to be banished to the Isle of Man after three days of public penance. She is to walk through the streets barefoot, dressed only in a sheet and carrying a taper in her hand. Gloucester’s shame and grief overcome him. He asks to resign and the king relieves him of his protectorship. Margaret is jubilant. Now, she thinks, an opening is clear for her and Suffolk to rule behind the scenes.
.......Commoners, meanwhile, become involved in the quarrel over who should be king. Thomas Horner, an armorer, tells his apprentice, Peter, that the crown rightfully belongs to the Duke of York. At least that is what Peter maintains. Horner denies the story. They argue and fight a duel. When Peter wins and Horner confesses to treason before dying, the king rewards Peter.
.......The distraught Gloucester watches in a street as his wife carries out her penance. She warns him that he, too, will become the victim of plotters. In fact, Margaret and Suffolk, along with the Duke of York and Cardinal Beaufort (Bishop of Winchester) are conspiring against him at that moment. Gloucester has resigned, true. But the conspirators want him completely out of reach of the king. When he is summoned to Parliament, they accuse him of treason, imprison him, and plot his murder.
.......A rebellion stirs in Ireland. Winchester, with Suffolk’s blessing, urges York to invade Ireland at the head of an army to quell the rebellion. (With York also out of the way, Winchester and Suffolk think, they will have the kingdom to themselves.) York rejoices at the opportunity to lead an army. Before embarking, he encourages a commoner named Jack Cade to foment discord at home. York will then have an excuse to return from Ireland with his army to seize power.
.......Meanwhile, two murderers hired by Suffolk strangle Gloucester. When Suffolk tells the king that Gloucester has died in bed, Henry faints. Pretending innocence, Suffolk tries to comfort the king. But Henry is onto him and says:
Hide not thy poison with such sugar’d words;.......The Earl of Warwick informs the king of the reaction of the House of Commons: The legislators believe Gloucester was murdered and demand revenge. After Warwick examines Gloucester’s body, he says Gloucester’s “face is black and full of blood, / His eye-balls further out than when he liv’d" (3.2.177-178). Warwick then accuses Suffolk and Winchester of the murder. Suffolk is banished. Winchester suddenly takes ill and dies. After Suffolk sets sail for France, English pirates capture him off the coast of Kent. Suffolk identifies himself, hoping to gain release. But the pirates, blaming him for England’s troubles, kill him. They then send a memento of Suffolk to the queen: Suffolk’s head.
.......Meanwhile, rabble-rousing Jack Cade has gained a following among his fellow commoners. They mean to overthrow the nobility and make everyone equal. One of his followers, Dick the Butcher, suggests a top priority for the mob: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers" (4.2.41). Cade agrees. But while espousing “democracy," Cade–calling himself Lord Mortimer–has come to believe that he rightfully deserves the throne. The rabble enter London as Cade shouts, “Kill and knock down!" (4.8.3). The Duke of Buckingham confronts them and offers a pardon to all who go home and keep the peace. The Duke of Clifford follows up by plying the rebels with patriotic words: “Who loves the king and will embrace his pardon, / Fling up his cap, and say ‘God save his majesty!’ "(4.8.13-14).
.......A verbal joust ensues between Clifford and Cade. Clifford wins and the mob turns against Cade. Cade flees to the countryside, where he is killed trying to steal food from a garden. York returns from Ireland at the head of his army. Although he wants the crown, he shrinks from demanding it. Instead, he requests that the Duke of Somerset, a Lancaster and an old adversary, be arrested and sent to the Tower. The king approves the request. However, when the king fails to make good his word and Somerset remains free, the angry York declares himself the true king. His sons Richard and Edward stand beside him to defend his claim, as do the Dukes of Warwick and Salisbury.
.......Clifford sides with the king. Thus, the War of the Roses–between the House of York and the House of Lancaster–begins. In a battle at St. Albans, York wins after he kills Clifford and his son Richard kills Somerset. York then marches on London after the king calls for Parliament to convene.
The struggle for power
divides a kingdom. The House of Lancaster, to which Henry VI belongs,
and the House of York vie for power. The Yorkists believe they were cheated
out of the throne in 1399, when Henry Bolingbroke became king as Henry
IV. Within the House of Lancaster, there is also division. The Duke of
Suffolk conspires with the queen to oust Henry’s protector so that they
can exert more control over the young king.
I am far better born than is the king,Then, speaking loudly enough for Buckingham to hear, he pretends that his sole purpose is to protect the king:
The cause why I have brought this army hitherJealousy promotes treachery. Queen Margaret envies anyone who stands in her way of achieving power, including Buckingham, Somerset, and Richard Plantagenet. Most of all, however, she resents Eleanor Cobham (the Duchess of Gloucester), the wife of the king’s lord protector, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. The queen, commiserating with Suffolk, says of Eleanor:
Not all these lords do vox1 me half so muchSinfulness eschews saintliness. Devious, disloyal Queen Margaret despises her husband. One quality of his that especially irritates her is his piety. She tells Suffolk that
[A]ll his mind is bent to holiness,Climax
.......The climax of the play occurs when the plotters murder Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, the king's uncle and protector. Without him, the kingdom falls into disarray, precipitating the deaths of various noblemen and ultimately leading to Yorkist Richard Plantagenet's attempt to seize power.
Following are examples of figures of speech in the play.
My sword should shed hot blood, mine eyes no tears. (1.1.107)Anaphora
Warwick, my son, the comfort of my age,Apostrophe
Ring, bells, aloud; burn, bonfires, clear and bright,Metaphor
Thus droops this lofty pine and hangs his sprays;Paradox
[D]ark shall be my light, and night my day. (2.4.44)Personification
Pride went before, ambition follows him. (1.1.169)Simile
Why droops my lord, like over-ripen’d corn . . . ? (1.2.3)Memorable Quotations
.......Among the more memorable lines in Henry VI Part II are the following:
Small things make base men proud. (4.1.121)Dramatic Irony
.......Dramatic irony is a literary device in which the author allows the audience to know what a character does not know. In Henry VI Part II, the audience is well aware that Queen Margaret and Suffolk are plotting against the king. The king himself, however, is not aware of their schemes.
.......Henry VI, though a good man, was one of England's weakest rulers. Ironically, his father, the warrior king Henry V, was one of England's strongest and most beloved monarchs. Henry VI may have inherited his father's throne, but not his genes. Perhaps even more ironic, though, is that Henry VI was king of England for approximately 40 years, a term of office far longer than that of all but a few English monarchs.
depicts Henry VI as weak and ineffectual, as he was in real life. However,
the historical Henry did possess some praiseworthy qualities, notably his
piety as a devout Catholic and his love of learning and education. He exhibited
the latter quality when he established Eton College in 1440 as the King's
College of Our Lady of Eton Beside Windsor, providing scholarships
for deserving boys who enrolled. Henry also founded Cambridge University's
King's College to enable Eton boys to continue their education. Both Eton
and King's College continue operation today as two of England's most respected
Thrice is he armed that hath his quarrel just,
And he but naked, though lock'd up in steel
Whose conscience with injustice is corrupted.(Act III, Scene II, Lines 232-235)
.......Henry Bolingbroke's ascendancy to the English throne as Henry IV was the germinal event that triggered the War of the Roses (1455-1485) between the House of Lancaster–founded by Bolingbroke's father, John of Gaunt–and the House of York. For additional information on the War of the Roses, click here.
Lineage of the Houses of Lancaster and York
of Lancaster: Henry IV ("Bolingbroke," son of the Duke of Lancaster),
1399-1413. Age at death: 47. Henry V (son of Henry IV), 1413-1422. Age
at death: 34. Henry VI (son of Henry V, deposed), 1422-1471. Age at death:
1. vox: Vex.
Study Questions and Essay Topics
1. Which character in the
play is the most admirable? Which is the least admirable?