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SCENE SUMMARY WITH NOTES
ACT IV, SCENE 1
This scene begins with a fight at sea off the coast of Kent. An alarm is heard and a captain enters with the master (owner) of the ship, the master’s mate, and a man called Walter Whitmore. The Duke of Suffolk (in disguise) and two gentlemen have been taken prisoner, and they also enter. The captain asks that the men they have captured be brought forward.
The prisoners then begin negotiating with their captors. The two gentlemen persuade their captors to let them be ransomed (rather than killed) for a high price. However, because Whitmore has lost an eye while fighting with Suffolk, he wants Suffolk to die. The captain tells Whitmore not to be so rash, and Suffolk says that he is a gentleman, who can pay any ransom, no matter what the price. Whitmore then introduces himself to Suffolk as Walter Whitmore. Suffolk is shocked to hear this name, “Walter,” because he remembers the prophecy that said that “by water (he) should die.” (“Walter” resembles “water.”) Whitmore declares that his name has never been dishonored before. Suffolk, dressed in rags, reveals that he is actually the Duke of Suffolk. Whitmore and the captain at first do not believe him, but Suffolk insists that a nobleman such as himself must not be killed by “such a jady groom.”
He recounts past incidents when he was honored and waited on while he was feasting with the queen on board. The captain says that Suffolk is like a street gutter, or an open drain that infects the “silver spring where England drinks.” He wants Suffolk’s mouth to be blocked forever for swallowing “the treasure of the realm.” The captain mentions Suffolk’s adulterous love for the queen and involvement in Gloucester’s murder as reasons why Suffolk should die. He curses Suffolk for arranging the marriage between Margaret and Henry, and he mentions the territories that England lost to France in the bargain. The captain adds that much of England is now in political turmoil because of Suffolk’s treachery.
The proud Suffolk is enraged and repeats that he does not want to die at the hands of a lowly captain. Suffolk tells them that he is going as the queen’s messenger to France and requests that they transport him safely across the channel, but Whitmore threatens to kill him. Suffolk says that he is accustomed not to pleading with servants, but to giving orders. Finally, the captain orders him to be taken away.
Suffolk cites examples of great men being killed by base-born fellows: Julius Caesar was stabbed by Brutus, and Pompey the Great was killed by “savage islanders” on reaching the Egyptian coast. Whitmore and the others take Suffolk away. The captain takes away the others, except the first gentleman. Whitmore re-enters with the dead body of Suffolk and says that they should let Queen Margaret, Suffolk’s mistress, bury him. The first gentleman laments that this is indeed a bloody spectacle. He decides to take Suffolk’s body to the king and to ask for vengeance.
The most important villain of the play, Suffolk, is killed in this scene, marking the anticlimax.
When Suffolk hears “Walter” Whitmore pronounced as “Water” Whitmore, he is startled because he recalls how once “a cunning man” had predicted that he would die by water. This is a reference to the prophecy, which the spirit made to Bolingbroke in Act I, Scene 4. He then boasts that he is the great Duke of Suffolk, William de la Pole, and speaks of the noble Lancaster line. Suffolk further claims that he is a close relative of King Henry because his mother was the king’s distant cousin.
The captain, however, exposes Suffolk’s major crimes: his greed for money and power, his love affair with the queen, and his active participation in the murder of Duke Humphrey. Suffolk is identified with the ambitious Sylla (or Sulla). Lucius Cornelius Sylla (138-78 B.C.) conducted a civil war against Marius, became dictator and carried out the first great proscription in Roman history. References are also made to the murder of the guiltless Richard II. The misfortunes of the house of York are consistently attributed to the usurpation of Henry IV and the murder of Richard II.
Suffolk scornfully says that if he were a god, he would shoot thunder upon these servile men. He condemns the captain by saying that base men become proud even by small things. Even while being taken away to be killed, Suffolk continues to speak in a bold and boastful manner. When it becomes clear to him that his death is near, he compares himself to historical figures (Caesar and Pompey). Suffolk tries to assert that just as Caesar and Pompey were killed by lower people, he is also going to be killed by these base-born fellows.