The historical Henry VI (as opposed to the Shakespearean version) ruled England from 1422 to 1461 and again from 1470 to 1471. Shakespeare’s play was probably written in 1590 or 1591, 120 years after his death – long enough for the country Henry governed to have generated a settled view of his reign. Based on Shakespeare’s play, what conclusions had they reached?
The King’s most prominent characteristic on the evidence of this play is his capacity for kindness and forbearance. When in 2.3 the death of the poisonous Winchester fails to attract much sympathy, the King is the epitome of Christian charity: “Forbear to judge”, he exclaims, “for we are sinners all”. More damagingly, when Cade’s insurrection falters in Act Four, his rebels throw themselves on Henry’s mercy and are not disappointed: the King, he tells them, “will never be unkind: / And so, with thanks and pardon to you all, / I do dismiss you”: a generous if unwise decision, entirely in character.
The King’s Christian principles are central to his approach to governing. When for example he is presented with the imposter Simpcox, miraculously cured (so it seems) of his blindness, Henry’s reaction is in one sense admirable: “tell us here the circumstance,” he exclaims, “That we for thee may glorify the Lord”. Gloucester, by contrast, quickly spots that Simpcox is a fraud, and chases him away, armed with a whip. Other misjudgements inspired by admirable Christian values punctuate the play, weakening the King and undermining his authority.
Overall, the implicit judgement the play delivers is that, for all his personal qualities, Henry does not have the character to be King. At times, the way he’s presented is humiliating. Credulous and pliable, his character is exposed to the audience as lacking the detachment or scepticism he needs to repair a state in the process of falling apart. In 2.1, for example, when Winchester and Gloucester are quarrelling, Henry is clear “How irksome is this music [i.e., this argument] to my heart”. They fob him off: they were “Talking about hawking; nothing else,” says Gloucester, before the quarrel resumes in full view of the audience. The natural authority of a King of England, the playwright implies, is not to be found here.
Margaret’s judgement of her husband is for once worth repeating: “I would the college of the cardinals / Would choose him pope,” she says in 1.3, “and carry him to Rome”. And in fairness, Henry admits that he had no desire to occupy the throne: “Was never subject long’d to be a king”, he believes, “As I do long and wish to be a subject”. It takes him close to a half century to make good on his ambition to be separated from his crown. But he achieves it in the end.
Scene by Scene
Act One Scene One
Suffolk has brought Margaret of Anjou from France and presents her to her new husband, Henry VI.
The King is delighted with her, claiming to discern a “world of earthly blessings” in her beauty.
The price for her marriage returns Maine and Anjou to her father Reignier the King of Naples.
As a result, the Duke of York, the King’s uncle, will no longer serve as “regent” in those territories.
But Gloucester, another uncle, brother of Henry V, is horrified at the terms of the marriage.
He is joined by other nobles, including Warwick (“myself did win them both”) and Salisbury.
Gloucester, whom Winchester thinks “too hot”, departs before their “ancient bickerings” resume.
Winchester denounces Gloucester as “mine enemy” though he admits he is popular with the people.
Some nobles believe that the King, now married, no longer needs Gloucester as his protector.
Others believe that demoting Gloucester is a ruse to advance the career of “the haughty cardinal”.
Salisbury suggests that “for the public good” the nobles should oppose Winchester and Suffolk.
York, who lost his role in France, resolves to support Salisbury while scheming to “claim the crown”.
Act One Scene Two
Gloucester tells his wife of “my morning’s dream” – that his staff was broken in two by Winchester.
On the broken pieces of this “office-badge” were impaled the heads of Somerset and Suffolk.
His wife replies she dreamt she sat on the throne at Westminster, and Henry knelt before her.
Gloucester rebukes his wife, warning her of the dangers and “treachery” of thoughts like these.
Privately, Eleanor rejects her husband’s “humble” instincts, fantasising a path to the throne.
She calls upon her private priest to confirm he has arranged for her to meet a witch and sorcerer.
But privately, he reveals that Suffolk and Winchester have hired him to “undermine the duchess”.
Act One Scene Three
Peter, an armourer’s apprentice, complains that his master regards the King as a usurper.
Alone with Suffolk, Margaret grumbles that the King is too religious, and would be better as Pope.
They discuss their mutual dislike of their fellow-nobles, and express resentment at their power.
Margaret’s particular dislike is for Eleanor, but Suffolk reassures her that he has set a trap for her.
The King arrives with his nobles, discussing who should become Regent of France, York or Somerset.
Gloucester is rebuked by Margaret, Suffolk, Somerset et al on various confected pretexts.
Margaret drops her fan and orders Eleanor to pick it up, then boxes her ear as she does so.
Gloucester believes York should be made Regent, but York fears Somerset will again undermine him.
The apprentice returns with his master, accused of favouring York as “rightful heir” to the crown.
Gloucester recommends apprentice and master fight a “single combat” to determine the issue.
Act One Scene Four
The witch and sorcerer arrive in Eleanor’s garden ready to predict the future as she has requested.
Henry will die a violent death, Suffolk will die by water, and Somerset should avoid castles.
Events are abruptly interrupted with the arrival of York and Buckingham to arrest Eleanor.
Buckingham volunteers to tell Gloucester of his wife’s arrest while York looks to future alliances.
Act Two Scene One
With Margaret’s support, Suffolk and Winchester criticise Gloucester for his alleged ambition.
The King maintains a pious detachment, and discourages his wife from making matters worse.
Gloucester and Winchester arrange to meet that evening to resolve the argument “with my sword”.
Henry rebukes them for arguing but they deceive him, telling him they were “talking of hawking”.
Suddenly a blind man is brought before the King with his sight restored, though still lame.
Gloucester asks him to identify various colours, which he does, revealing his blindness was a hoax.
Now in order to heal his lameness, Gloucester orders a whip, and the hoaxer quickly disappears.
Buckingham arrives with news of Eleanor’s arrest, leaving Gloucester defenceless and vulnerable.
Act Two Scene Two
York explains to Warwick and Salisbury the validity (as he sees it) of his claim to the throne.
Following Richard II’s murder, he explains, his right to the crown precedes that of Henry VI.
Warwick and Salisbury are convinced, and resolve to wait for Henry to be deposed before acting.
Act Two Scene Three
The King condemns Eleanor’s sorcerers to death, and Eleanor herself to penance and banishment.
Gloucester resigns his position as Protector, wishing “honourable peace attend thy throne”.
The armourer and his apprentice Peter reappear for their Trial by Combat, the former drunk.
Peter triumphs, which Henry takes as evidence of God’s justice as he condemns the loser to death.
Act Two Scene Four
Gloucester encounters Eleanor doing her penance on London’s streets and counsels patience.
But Eleanor rebukes Gloucester and warns him that his enemies at court are plotting against him.
But Gloucester is confident that he will remain safe so long as he is “loyal, true and crimeless”.
Act Three Scene One
Margaret denounces Gloucester in his absence, calling him disloyal (“unbowed”) and “rancorous”.
She claims she fears he will satisfy his ambition by rousing ordinary citizens to “make commotion”.
Suffolk agrees Gloucester is “full of deep deceit” and Winchester that he dispensed justice unfairly.
York claims he embezzled money meant for the army, and Buckingham says there is worse to come.
Henry thinks Gloucester “virtuous” and “mild”, but Margaret says this disguise is “dangerous”.
Somerset announces the final loss of English territories in France – a blow to York’s ambitions.
Gloucester arrives to learn of his impending arrest, but denies that he embezzled army funds.
Rejecting claims he implemented a harsh justice system, he is handed over to Winchester.
Though the King believes him innocent, Gloucester tells him disloyalty is endemic in England.
He is taken away, leaving Henry to affirm his “honour, truth and loyalty” despite his arrest.
The King surrenders to “sad unhelpful tears”, admitting he “can do nought but wail”, and leaves.
Margaret wants Gloucester “quickly rid the world” and Winchester will “provide the executioner”.
Urgent news from Ireland reveals rebels have risen up and “put the Englishmen unto the sword”.
Winchester pledges to take care of Gloucester, and calls on York to lead the English army in Ireland.
York reflects he now has his own army, admitting “You put sharp weapons in a madman’s hands”.
He’ll use the “headstrong” John Cade to cause chaos at home before returning to take the throne.
Act Three Scene Two
Gloucester’s murderers, their task complete with some remorse, report back to Suffolk for payment.
Unaware, Henry tells his nobles to treat Gloucester equably as his anticipated trial is about to begin.
When Gloucester’s death is announced, the King faints, then orders Suffolk “out of my sight!”
Margaret is consumed in self-pity, bitterly regretting she ever came to England to marry Henry.
Warwick reports Gloucester was murdered by Suffolk and Winchester, as riots begin to break out.
Examining his face, Warwick confirms his analysis of how and by whom Gloucester met his end.
While Henry offers pious regret for the death, Suffolk and Warwick are suddenly at daggers drawn.
Salisbury describes Suffolk as a serpent, and conveys the people’s desire for Suffolk to be banished.
Henry says Suffolk is to be exiled, and has three days to leave, despite Margaret’s pleading.
Margaret, consumed with grief at Suffolk’s exile, pledges to persuade the King to allow his return.
News arrives that Winchester is dying, hallucinating and giving away the “secrets of his … soul”.
Suffolk finally takes his leave, heading for France, “And take,” says Margaret, “my heart with thee”.
Act Three Scene Three
Henry, Warwick and Salisbury observe Winchester’s death as evidence of a “monstrous life”.
Act Four Scene One
Suffolk has been taken prisoner by a pirate whose name was once prophesied would be his killer.
He protests he is a duke, but his plight worsens when his identity and past actions are revealed.
Suffolk cannot believe that he should be killed by “such a lowly vassal” but he is too proud to beg.
Act Four Scene Two
Cade, York’s instrument and scapegoat, marshals his men at Blackheath, seething with resentments.
He claims exalted ancestry and personal qualities, before outlining a manifesto to attract the crowd.
There will be plenty for all he announces as a clerk is condemned to be hanged for his literacy skills.
The aristocratic Stafford brothers arrive, denouncing the rebels as “the filth and scum of Kent”.
After the rebels give a confused account of recent events, the Staffords pronounce them traitors.
Act Four Scene Three
The Staffords have been killed in the uprising and Cade takes Sir Humphrey’s brigandine or armour.
The butcher calls on him to “break open the gaols”, and Cade assures him that is the plan.
Act Four Scene Four
While the Queen tearfully cradles Suffolk’s head, Henry agrees to “parley with Jack Cade”.
But news arrives that the rebels are in London, with Cade denouncing the King as a usurper.
By now the rebels have taken London Bridge, with Henry left with little but “mine innocence”.
Act Four Scene Five
Having taken the Bridge, anxiety spreads to the Tower of London, which is itself under attack.
Act Four Scene Six
Cade pronounces himself Lord Mortimer, then leads an assault on London Bridge and the Tower.
Act Four Scene Seven
Lord Say falls into Cade’s hands, where he is accused of setting up a school and owning a paper-mill.
Condemned to be murdered by Cade, he argues that his contribution to learning has been beneficial.
But he is taken away to be beheaded regardless, and his head brought back for Cade to ridicule.
Act Four Scene Eight
Cade’s men are addressed by two nobles and are easily won over by their patriotic appeal to them.
Cade berates the “base peasants” with threats of aristocratic exploitation – and they cheer him.
Lord Clifford re-words his patriotic appeal, calling on them to “Spare England, your native coast”.
Cade despairs of his followers and flees, pursued by the reward of a thousand crowns for his head.
Act Four Scene Nine
Henry, who came to the throne at nine months of age, wishes he had never become King
News arrives that Cade has fled but that his men have surrendered, and Henry forgives them.
A message comes from York that he is on his way from Ireland to arrest the “traitor” Somerset.
Act Four Scene Ten
Cade, apparently delirious, reveals he has been on the run for five days and “am ready to famish”.
Alexander Iden, whose garden Cade is exploring for food, revels in his contentment unawares.
Cade surprises and insults Iden, then engages him in a sword fight, but is defeated and dies.
As he dies Cade reveals his identity, leaving Iden to carry his head “in triumph to the king”.
Act Five Scene One
York returns from Ireland bent to wrestle the crown from “feeble Henry” and ready to dissemble.
He tells Buckingham, and then Henry, that his army intends to “remove Somerset from the king”.
Iden appears with Cade’s head, and receives as payment a knighthood and a thousand marks.
Somerset’s appearance despite Henry’s attempts to hide him gives York all the pretext he needs.
York says Henry is not fit to be King, and claims the throne for himself amid accusations of treachery.
He calls in aid his two sons, the future Edward IV and Richard III, alongside Warwick and Salisbury.
Warwick renounces his oath to Henry, and the encounter breaks up in mutual threats and insults.
Act Five Scene Two
York kills Old Clifford, whose body is discovered by his son, while Somerset is killed by Richard.
Margaret encourages the King to head for London where he is well-regarded and may yet be safe.
Act Five Scene Three
York’s son Richard saved Salisbury’s life in the battle, leaving the Yorkists to head “to London all”.
The opening scene has three aims: to reinforce a feeling among the nobility that the young King is weak and therefore vulnerable – not least to their own various ambitions to seize the crown; to underline the sense of division among the governing class, with ancient grudges (Gloucester’s with Winchester, York’s with Somerset) revived from “Henry VI Part One”; and finally, to reveal the private ambitions of one character in particular, Richard Plantagenet, the Duke of York, who was favoured by the young King in Part One, but evidently now feels no obligation to him.
York discloses his private ambitions in the soliloquy he delivers at the end of the scene: he means to keep a low profile and pretend loyalty (“make a show of love”) to Gloucester, while he bides his time and waits for the right moment to “claim the crown”. This is one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, but this technique – of enabling the play’s least trustworthy character to level with the audience about his Machiavellian schemes – becomes a common feature of Shakespeare’s great work. More on this at https://www.bardology.org/themes/shakespeares-vices/. This technique is revisited in 1.2, in the person of the double-dealing priest John Hume.
Hume’s representation is a reminder – a generation after the English Reformation, which saw the break with Rome – of three unattractive characteristics associated with Catholicism in some of Shakespeare’s earliest History Plays: Hume is presented as superstitious, arranging for Eleanor to meet a witch and a sorcerer; second, he is double-dealing and not to be trusted, a confidant of Eleanor but in practice in the pay of her enemies; and finally, he is materialistic and easily bought if the bribe is sweet enough. One of his pay-masters in this play, the Cardinal Bishop of Winchester, is presented in just these terms in “Henry VI Part One”.
When Peter the armourer’s apprentice accuses his master in 1.3 of favouring York as an aspirant to the throne – essentially an act of treachery, since the throne is already occupied – Gloucester’s “doom” (or judgement) is that accuser and accused should undergo Trial by Ordeal by Combat to establish who is telling the truth. This ritual, in which an argument was settled by a fight, was used in Medieval Europe to establish the facts in a dispute, and to identify the guilty party. How effective it was in achieving these aims may be imagined, but its appearance here implies that justice in Henry’s England is at times a random matter, often driven by personal motives.
Post-Reformation England thought of sorcerers, witches and the like as relics of superstitious Catholic practices, and they were regarded with considerable suspicion: think of the witches in “Macbeth”. Yet just as those witches tell the truth about the future, so does the sorcerer here. He predicts that Suffolk will die by water, and so he does; and they advise Somerset to avoid castles – a reference it seems to “an alehouse’s paltry sign, / The Castle in Saint Alban’s”, where Somerset will be killed in Act Five. It is at least curious that Shakespeare makes no attempt to suggest that sorcerers actually mislead – though they may be dangerous company in other respects.
The trip to St Albans described in 2.1 reveals a kingdom mired in dishonesty and deceit. First Gloucester and Winchester lie to the King about their quarrel, pretending they were “talking about hawking” when in practice they were arranging to duel later that day – presumably to the death. The audience, once again, knows what they are discussing, though the King is deceived. The appearance of Simpcox – evidently lying about his various disabilities – implies that dishonesty is endemic in England, from top to bottom.
Justice in Henry’s England is less than even-handed, as 2.3 shows. First, Eleanor’s sorcerers are condemned to death while Eleanor escapes more lightly – “for you are more nobly born” as the King explains. Then the armourer and his apprentice are brought in for their Trial by Combat: effectively a fight in which the loser is condemned to death. The armourer (whom many may feel is an entirely innocent party) is led away to his execution, a verdict on events the King believes “God in justice hath revealed to us”.
When in 1.3 Suffolk says he has “limed a bush” for Eleanor, he is referring to a primitive way of capturing birds, where lime, a highly adhesive substance, was spread over a branch on which a bird was likely to land. The metaphor means, therefore, to entangle or capture: a vivid image. Curiously, the same figure recurs in 2.4 from Eleanor’s own lips, when she warns her husband Gloucester that his enemies “Have all limed bushes to betray thy wings / And … they’ll tangle thee”. Readers may feel that images of hunting and killing are highly appropriate in the circumstances of this play.
The play as a whole is full of images drawn from the natural world, specifically from animals, as 3.1 illustrates: Suffolk, for example, accuses Gloucester of deceit, adding “The fox barks not when he would steal a lamb”; Henry replies that Gloucester is as innocent as “the sucking lamb or harmless dove”; Margaret explores the King’s image, refuting the image of a dove since Gloucester is “disposed as the hateful raven” and “inclined as is the ravenous wolf”. Next, York hearing of the loss of France, believes that “caterpillars eat my leaves away”. As he is about to be taken away, Gloucester tells the King that “wolves are gnarling who shall gnaw thee first”, and after his removal, Margaret compares him to a “snake roll’d in a flowering bank”. Such images – this is not an exhaustive list – evoke cruelty and violence, appropriate to a play in which animalistic appetites for power are central to events: an animal kingdom, perhaps.
Once Gloucester is arrested and the King has abandoned any pretence at authority, his nobles quickly agree on one policy: the murder of the blameless Protector. Thereafter, division in the governing class returns, as York is appointed to lead the English army in Ireland, thus handing him a military force of his own with which to advance his own ambitions as outlined in 1.1. Shakespeare’s subtext (as the Introduction suggested) is that Henry VI, though pious, even saintly, was unfit for government, surrounded as he was by a venal governing class from which the only altruistic and honourable public servant has now been removed.
Class conflict is front and centre in Act Four. In 4.1, Suffolk refuses to accept that he will be killed by a man of low class like Whitmore: a telling if eccentric preoccupation when death is so close. In 4.2, the artisan rebels, led by Jack Cade, and described by Sir Humphrey Stafford as “filth and scum”, are presented by Shakespeare as comically ill-informed and surreally ambitious in their demands: “I will make it a felony”, says Cade, “to drink small beer”, and moments later he consigns a clerk to death for his literacy skills. In 4.3, after the Staffords have been killed, Cade takes possession of Sir Humphrey’s brigandine (or protective jacket), as if to suggest his new status. In 4.6, Cade declares himself to be Lord Mortimer – using any other name is to be discouraged – and in 4.7 he condemns Lord Say to be beheaded and sees the crime carried out. In 4.8 he is outmanoeuvred by aristocrats somewhat more devious even than himself in front of a crowd of his followers presented by the author as easy to manipulate. Finally, in 4.10 Cade, out-thought and out-fought, is killed by an aristocrat after five days without food while his former followers are cheering the King to the echo. The author’s sympathies throughout this sequence are not with Cade, and respect for “the commons” is not easy to spot.
An interesting grammatical point arises in two speeches in 4.7. First, when the rebel Jack Cade speaks to Lord Say (“Well, he shall be beheaded …”), he addresses him in the familiar and (in this case) insulting “thee / thou” form, using this informal form 18 times in a relatively brief speech: “Ah, thou say, thou serge, nay thou buckram lord,” etc. The intention is to demean and humiliate the aristocrat in front of the rebels. By contrast, Lord Say’s response employs the respectful “you” form of the pronoun (“Unless you be possess’d with devilish spirits, / You cannot but forbear to murder me …”), hoping to curry favour with Cade’s followers. It doesn’t work, but the use of pronouns shows how the world has turned upside down, its values inverted and its hierarchies abandoned.
Henry is routinely the victim of bad faith among his nobles, who deceive him as a matter of course. When once he tries to do the same to them – his attempt to hide Somerset from York in 5.1 – the plan goes wrong and he is immediately rumbled. It is perhaps demeaning to describe Henry as hapless, but it is the right word: unlucky because out of his depth.
The appearance of “Edward and Richard” around a hundred lines into 5.1 serves to remind the reader that Henry VI’s days are numbered, since Edward is Edward IV and Richard the notorious Richard III. The former will be responsible for the murder of Henry, and the latter not only for the killing of his older brother’s two sons but also for the death of their younger brother Clarence. As a result, the older Richard Plantagenet, elevated to his present eminence by Henry VI, has fathered two sons who will kill, among others, the king, a third son and two grandsons.
Selfless and altruistic, he remains the king’s humble servant until he is arraigned and then murdered while Henry wrings his hands. The first of a series of older men, often counsellors, to be created by Shakespeare – including Gonzalo in “The Tempest” and Gloucester in “King Lear”. In a play in which individual morality is painted by the author in primary colours, Gloucester for all his shortcomings is on the side of the angels.
Shakespeare was writing around 150 years after the event. In late Tudor England, Henry VI was revered as a pious, saintly monarch, and so he is presented here. But there’s also something humiliating in his presentation, given that he is also weak and ineffectual, unfit for purpose. When England needed a strong centre, its monarch was credulous and easily deceived, and the plain way in which Henry is shown to be misled by his nobles in full view of the audience is a reminder that in Shakespeare’s view, monarchs must be strong before they are just.
Self-serving and dishonest, she is carrying on an affair with the King’s adviser under her husband’s nose, evidently of the view that she owes nothing much to the kingdom or the king, and when Gloucester is murdered, she is concerned only for herself and her reputation. The first in a lengthy series of female deceivers to flow from Shakespeare’s pen, including Lady Macbeth and Cleopatra.
Shakespeare was writing in an age in which ill-feeling against Catholicism was virulent (war with Spain was at its height), and it shows in the presentation of the Cardinal Bishop of Winchester. Cruel, sadistic, greedy, dishonest and power-hungry, Beaufort is given few redeeming features by his creator, and his epitaph (essentially, nobody who was so reluctant to die can have lived a good life) is a fitting full stop to the life presented in this play and its prequel.
Suffolk emerges at the end of the prequel as the means by whom Margaret of Anjou wins the hand of the English King. His intentions there are to control the King through the affections of the Queen, and certainly the second part of this is achieved. In the end his ambitions are too lofty and his part in the murder of Gloucester is rewarded with an exile that sees him murdered. His reluctance to be killed by a man his social inferior is a surreal reflection of his warped values.
- Who complains that he will no longer be able to act as regent in Maine and Anjou?
- What blood relation is Gloucester to the King?
- Give the name of the priest who is double-crossing Eleanor of Gloucester.
- Which item does Margaret drop for Eleanor to pick up for her?
- When Henry rebukes Gloucester and Winchester, what do they claim they’re discussing?
- What does the King do immediately he discovers Gloucester has died?
- How long is Suffolk given to leave the country?
- What does Cade steal from Humphrey Stafford after he is killed?
- Which London landmark is taken by the rebels during their insurrection?
- Give the name of the killer of Jack Cade.
Act Four seems at first to present some of the most radical scenes in Shakespeare. Conflating various historical events including the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, these scenes suggest that the “commons” might be quite easily persuaded to rise from their slumber to threaten the governing class. It’s a theme Shakespeare revisits later in his career in “Julius Caesar” (1599), where, after Caesar’s assassination, the Roman lower orders go on the rampage, and murder Cinna the poet in an essentially motiveless attack.
In the end though it’s probably simplistic to gloss Shakespeare’s presentation of the “commons” in this play as threatening. On the contrary, they’re presented overall as weak-willed and easily led. When Lord Clifford and Jack Cade compete in 4.8 for their loyalty and confidence, the “commons” are so weak that even Cade despairs of them: “Was ever feather so lightly blown to and fro as this multitude?” he asks, and he finds himself abandoned to his fate.
Logic dictates that having risen up mutinously against the crown, the “commons” should expect some redress, very possibly on the scaffold. Happily for them, in 4.9, they meet in the King a judge and jury as weak as themselves, and they are forgiven. Weakness and vacillation are endemic in this kingdom, the play suggests, and its prospects are bleak.