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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 Study Guide Henry VI Part III Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
Revised in 2010, 2011, 2018 .©
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 New Oxford Shakespeare:
the Complete Works
(Oxford University Press, 2016 and 2017, edited by Gary
Taylor, John Jowett , Terri Bourus,
and Gabriel Egan)
maintains that a contemporary of Shakespeare,
playwright Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593),
contributed generously to—not
only Henry VI Part II but also
Henry VI Part I and Henry VI Part
III. The Oxford book bases its belief on
an analysis of word patterns in the plays of
both authors. In other words, the book says,
specific words or phrases in Marlowe's works
also appear in Shakespeare's works. But The
New Oxford does not provide indisputable
evidence that Marlowe was a Shakespeare source
for the Henry VI plays. Thus the book's
findings should be regarded as speculation
only, not fact.
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 (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.
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.
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.
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.
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main conflict is between the king and his
enemies, the Lancaster faction. The king's own
wife, Margaret of Anjou—who
despises her husband—conspires
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 is bitter and rancorous as enemies vie for
power, using deceit, treachery, rebellion, and
murder as their weapons.
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;Nevertheless, two murderers hired by Suffolk later strangle Gloucester.
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. For definitions of figures of speech, see Literary Terms.
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)
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. (3.2.232-235)
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.
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.