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Henry VI Part II
A Study Guide
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Table of Contents

Type of Work       Composition and Publication      Sources      Settings      Characters      Historical Background      Plot Summary      Tone      Conflict
Foreshadowing      Climax      Themes      Figures of Speech      Memorable Quotations     
Dramatic Irony      Historical Irony      Henry VI: Saintly Scholar
War of the Roses     
Houses of Lancaster and York      Questions and Essay Topics      Complete Text      Henry VI Part I      Henry VI Part III


Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings
...© 2003

Revised in 2010, 2011 .©
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Type of Work

Henry VI Part II is a history play about the struggle for power during the reign of a young English king. 

Composition and Publication

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. The latest edition of The New Oxford Shakespearepublished by Oxford University Press and edited by Gary Taylor, John Jowett , Terri Bourus, and Gabriel Egan  maintains that Shakespeare co-wrote the play with Christopher Marlowe.

Sources

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).

Settings

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. 

Characters

King Henry VI: Saintly but weak monarch of the House of Lancaster, symbolized by a Red Rose. 
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. 
Vaux: Messenger. 
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 (Robin, Will, and Tom): 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.

Historical Background

Henry 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. 

The play focuses primarily on the following: (1) an attempt by schemers in the Lancaster faction to oust Henry’s uncle and protector, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, in order to gain control of the weak king; (2) a struggle by supporters of the House of York to replace Henry with a man they believe is the rightful king, Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York; (3) an uprising against the Crown led by a commoner, Jack Cade, who is joined by aristocrats as well as other commoners.

Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2003

After hostilities in France end (as recounted in Henry VI Part I), young King Henry VI receives his bride, Margaret of Anjou, in England. But the new queen comes at a high price, thanks to the devious Earl of Suffolk. He has signed a treaty ceding the dukedoms of Anjou and Maine to Margaret’s father, the King of Naples. Although the agreement dismays Henry’s protector, the good Duke of Gloucester, it pleases Henry.
 
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; 
Lay not thy hands on me; forbear, I say: 
Their touch affrights me as a serpent’s sting. 
Thou baleful messenger, out of my sight! 
Upon thy eye-balls murderous tyranny 
Sits in grim majesty, to fright the world. (3.2.51-56) 
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.

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Conflict

The main conflict is between the king and his enemies, the Lancaster faction. The king's own wife, Margaret of Anjouwho despises her husbandconspires against her husband with a Lancastrian, the Duke of Suffolk. To get at the king, his enemies first bring down his uncle and protector, the Duke of Gloucester, after falsely implicating his wife as a sorceress. But the plan of the king's enemies backfires when the king supporters come to his aid. However, the central conflict remains unresolved, and war breaks out at the end of the play between the Lancastrian enemies of the king and his Yorkist supporters.

Tone

The tone is bitter and rancorous as enemies vie for power, using deceit, treachery, rebellion, and murder as their weapons.

Foreshadowing

The Duchess of Gloucester warns her husband, the duke, that the "axe of death" hangs over his head and will soon fall. Gloucester does not believe her and says,

Ah, Nell! forbear: thou aimest all awry; 
I must offend before I be attainted; 
And had I twenty times so many foes,  
And each of them had twenty times their power, 
All these could not procure me any scath, 
So long as I am loyal, true, and crimeless.  (2.4.62-67) 
Nevertheless, two murderers hired by Suffolk later strangle Gloucester.

Themes

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. 
Ambition preys on the weak. Self-seekers, including Henry’s own wife, attempt to manipulate the king in order to further their own ends. 
Weak leaders invite upheaval. Henry VI is an upright but weak king who is easily manipulated. His failure to assert his authority is in part responsible for the discord during his reign.
Treachery’s weapon is deceit. As the Yorkists and Lancastrians fight over the throne, they both use deceit to manipulate the king.  Henry’s own wife, Queen Margaret of Anjou, conspires with the Duke of Suffolk, a Lancastrian, to gain control of Henry and his kingly powers. Richard Plantagenet, the leader of the House of York, foments rebellion against the king among the commoners. The uprising will enable Plantagenet to step in at the right time with his army to quell the rebellion and then seize the throne.  When Plantagenet returns from Ireland at the head of an army, Buckingham, the king’s messenger, asks why Richard had raised so great an army without the king’s permission, then brought “thy force so near to court”? (5.1.25). Speaking to himself, Richard reveals his true feelings:

I am far better born than is the king, 
More like a king, more kingly in my thoughts; 
But I must make fair weather yet awhile, 
Till Henry be more weak, and I more strong. (5.1.31-34)
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 hither 
Is to remove proud Somerset from the king,
Seditious to his Grace and to the state. (5.1.38-40)
Jealousy 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 much 
As that proud dame, the Lord Protector’s wife:
She sweeps it through the court with troops of ladies, 
More like an empress than Duke Humphrey’s wife. 
Strangers in court do take her for the queen: 
She bears a duke’s revenues on her back, 
And in her heart she scorns our poverty. 
Shall I not live to be aveng’d on her? (1.3.58-65)
Sinfulness 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, 
To number Ave-Maries2 on his beads;3
His champions are the prophets and apostles; 
His weapons holy saws4 of sacred writ; 
His study is his tilt-yard,5 and his loves 
Are brazen images of canoniz’d saints. 
I would the college of the cardinals 
Would choose him pope, and carry him to Rome,
And set the triple crown6 upon his head: 
That were a state fit for his holiness. (1.3.38-46) 
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.

Figures of Speech

Following are examples of figures of speech in the play. For definitions of figures of speech, see Literary Terms.

Alliteration

My sword should shed hot blood, mine eyes no tears. (1.1.107)

Pirates may make cheap pennyworths of their pillage (1.1.211)

The business asketh silent secrecy. 
Dame Eleanor gives gold to bring the witch: 
Gold cannot come amiss, were she a devil. (1.2.94-96)

Contemptuous base-born callot as she is, 
She vaunted ’mongst her minions t’other day 
The very train of her worst wearing gown 
Was better worth than all my father’s lands, (1.3.66-69)

Anaphora
Warwick, my son, the comfort of my age, 
Thy deeds, thy plainness, and thy house-keeping, 
Have won the greatest favour of the commons. (1.1.179-181)

While as the silly owner of the goods 
Weeps over them, and wrings his hapless hands, 
And shakes his head, and trembling stands aloof,  
While all is shar’d and all is borne away, 
Ready to starve and dare not touch his own: 
So York must sit and fret and bite his tongue 
While his own lands are bargain’d for and sold. (1.1.214-220)

His champions are the prophets and apostles;   
His weapons holy saws of sacred writ; 
His study is his tilt-yard. . . . (1.3.40-42)

It is great sin to swear unto a sin, 
But greater sin to keep a sinful oath. 
Who can be bound by any solemn vow  
To do a murderous deed, to rob a man, 
To force a spotless virgin’s chastity, 
To reave the orphan of his patrimony, 
To wring the widow from her custom’d right,  
And have no other reason for this wrong 
But that he was bound by a solemn oath? (5.1.190-198)

Apostrophe
Ring, bells, aloud; burn, bonfires, clear and bright, 
To entertain great England’s lawful king. (5.1.5-6)
The speaker addresses bells and bonfires.
Metaphor
Thus droops this lofty pine and hangs his sprays; 
Thus Eleanor’s pride dies in her youngest days. (2.3.48-49)
Humphrey is compared to a tree.

Small curs are not regarded when they grin; 
But great men tremble when the lion roars. (3.1.20-21)
Comparison of humans to animals

Now ’tis the spring, and weeds are shallow-rooted; 
Suffer them now, and they’ll o’ergrow the garden. (3.1.33-34)
Implied comparison of humans to weeds

My lords, at once: the care you have of us, 
To mow down thorns that would annoy our foot, 
Is worthy praise. (3.1.68-70)
Comparison of problems to thorns

         [M}y heart is drown’d with grief, 
Whose flood begins to flow within mine eyes, (3.1.202-204)
Comparison of tears of grief to a flood

[L]et my words stab him, as he hath me. (4.1.68)
Comparison of words to a stabbing instrument

Paradox
       [D]ark shall be my light, and night my day. (2.4.44)
Personification
Pride went before, ambition follows him. (1.1.169)
Pride and ambition become persons.

Barren winter, with his wrathful nipping cold (2.4.5) 
Winter becomes a person.

Simile
Why droops my lord, like over-ripen’d corn . . . ? (1.2.3)
Comparison of the lord to corn

Our kinsman Gloucester is as innocent 
From meaning treason to our royal person, 
As is the sucking lamb or harmless dove. (3.1.71-73)
Comparison of Gloucester to a lamb and a dove

    [A]rt thou, like the adder, waxen deaf? 
Be poisonous too and kill thy forlorn queen. (3.2.82-83)
Comparison of a human to a snake

My brain, more busy than the labouring spider, 
Weaves tedious snares to trap mine enemies. (3.1.344-345)
Comparison of the act of thinking to the labor of a spider


Memorable Quotations

Among the more memorable lines in Henry VI Part II are the following: 

Small things make base men proud. (4.1.121)
Suffolk is insulting a captain who defends the king. 

True nobility is exempt from fear. (4.1.134)
Defiantly, Suffolk praises himself before his beheading.

I will make it felony to drink small beer. (4.2.40)
In this hyperbole, Jack Cade makes a promise in an attempt to rally support for his rebellion. 

The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers. (4.2.43)
Dick the Butcher utters this line to Cade as the commoners make plans to bring down the government.

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.

Historical Irony

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.

Henry VI: Saintly Scholar

Shakespeare 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 educational institutions. 
As for Henry's famous saintliness, Edward Hall, a historian who graduated from Eton and King's College, described it in a history that Shakespeare used as one of his sources for the play. Hall (also spelled Halle) wrote:

    He did abhor of his own nature, all the vices, as well of the body as of the soul; and from his very infancy he was of honest conversation and pure integrity; no knower of evil, and a keeper of all goodness; a despiser of all things which were wont to cause the minds of mortal men to slide or appair. Besides this, patience was so radicate in his heart that of all the injuries to him committed (which were no small number) he never asked vengeance nor punishment, but for that rendered to Almighty God, his Creator, hearty thanks, thinking that by this trouble and adversity his sins were to him forgotten and forgiven (qtd. in G.B. Harrison, ed. Shakespeare: The Complete Works. New York: Harcourt, 1952, page 143).
Shakespeare sums up the king's moral and political approach toward injustice in the following lines spoken by Henry: 
    What stronger breastplate than a heart untainted!
    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. (3.2.232-235)
War of the Roses

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 Lancasterfounded by Bolingbroke's father, John of Gauntand the House of York. For additional information on the War of the Roses, click here.

Lineage of the Houses of Lancaster and York

House 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: 49. 
House of York: Edward IV (son of duke of York), 1461-1483. Age at death: 41. Edward V (son of Edward IV), 1483. Age at death: 13. Richard III ("Crookback," brother of Edward IV) 1483-1485. Age at death: 35.

Notes
  1. vox: Vex. 
  2. Ave-Maries: Hail Marys, or Ave Marias. A Hail Mary is a Catholic prayer praising Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Jesus himself. It also asks Mary to pray for the person reciting the prayer.
  3. beads: String of beads, called a rosary, resembling a necklace. Catholics finger the beads of a rosary to count the number of Hail Marys and other prayersincluding Our Fathers (Lord’s Prayers)they have recited. 
  4. holy saws: Sayings from the Bible. 
  5. His study is his tilt-yard: A tilt-yard was a fenced-in area where knights jousted. This yard was referred to as the lists. In this passage, Queen Margaret mockingly says her husband, the king, would rather read books than don armor and joust. 
  6. triple crown: The tiara worn by the pope. It has three crowns.

Study Questions and Essay Topics

  1. Which character in the play is the most admirable? Which is the least admirable?
  2. Write an essay that uses Henry VI Part II to demonstrate how ruthless politicians maneuver to get their way.
  3. Write a psychological profile of King Henry VI or his wife, Margaret.
  4. Do King Henry’s loyalists support him because they like him or because they believe he is the rightful king?
  5. In monarchies, rulership passes to a son or daughter of the king and queen. Is a monarchy a flawed system of government? Or does it have its merits?
  6. Does Richard Plantagenet have a legitimate claim to the throne?