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Free Study Guide-Henry VI, Part 2 by William Shakespeare-Free Book Notes
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PLOT STRUCTURE ANALYSIS

Henry VI, Part 2 is a major play. It offers a descriptive account of aristocratic sedition (words and actions intended to make the people rebel against the ruling authority) and also gives a clear portrait of the relationship between the king and his Protector, the Duke of Gloucester. It is concerned with the nature of history, the role of conscience and the relation between law and justice. It also shows the fear the Tudor regime had of a popular uprising, led in this instance by Jack Cade.

The play explores a complex web of petty jealousies and private sorrows. It is actually a demonstration of the internal strife and seditious conflict among the nobility that damaged England’s power and authority abroad. Unlike the reigns of Henry V and Richard III, that of Henry VI was not a peaceful one, and it was not dominated by the ability and personality of its monarch. It was a period of wars between nations and within the kingdom.

It was also a time of dynastic strife, between the House of York and that of Lancaster. When the wars between the two nations of England and France had stopped, the minds of men were still not quiet. They were bent on taking revenge not against foreign enemies, but against their own countrymen. The reign, then, was a pattern of disorder, and everyone was interested in personal growth and ambition rather than reforming the country.


Henry VI, Part 2 begins with a marriage, the traditional end of a comedy. The grand tableau of the meeting of king and queen in the first scene is jolted into confusion. Suffolk brings home to England the contention (the articles of contracted peace) after the proxy marriage. Gloucester drops the paper containing the bad tidings of the loss of the French towns and his old enemy, Winchester, picks it up and continues to read. The scene ends with the king’s defense of Suffolk. Henry instructs Suffolk to agree to any condition in his negotiations that will secure the hand of Margaret.

The strain prevalent among the political bodies is visible even at the beginning, and York and Gloucester are in complete agreement over the blow to England’s authority caused by the loss of France. After the exit of the king and the queen, Gloucester again laments the loss of France, but in the end the old rivalry between him and his uncle, Cardinal Beaufort, is renewed. Gloucester speaks for England’s honor, but York says he sees kingdoms as commodities and is interested only in private gain. The “canker of ambitious thoughts” has spread from the nation of England to all its factions.

Eleanor, Humphrey’s wife, is consumed by ambition for the crown and desires to be the queen. Her treacherous ambitions, motives and the effects of her actions are portrayed very clearly. But the tragedy is that she is condemned for the crime she intended to commit, but did not commit. She resorts to witchcraft to fulfill her ambitions. She is arrested because magic is considered a threat to the monarchy and a treasonable activity. Her downfall marks the beginning of the subsequent tragedies to follow.

The queen is equally concerned to remove the duke’s title as Protector of her husband. The fall of the Duke is a turning point in the main action. Immediately after Duchess Eleanor has been sentenced, Henry asks Duke Humphrey (Gloucester) to resign his protectorship. Gloucester had acted as father as well as Protector to the infant monarch. By surrendering his staff, however, Gloucester hands over the administration of the realm to a monarch who is not capable of ruling. When Gloucester is arrested, the king listens passively to the charges against him. That scene ends with York’s soliloquy in which he reveals how he is ready to turn his policies into power. When he learns of Gloucester’s death, he faints. After regaining consciousness, he does not praise the dead man but calls Suffolk a “basilisk” (mythical reptile) whose looks can kill.

When Somerset enters to announce that the king has lost all the French territories, the king dismisses the news as “God’s will.” Suffolk seizes on the news as a pretext for arresting Gloucester. News about the rebellion in Ireland also comes, and York is dispatched with an army, which he can use to move against the king.

Domestic distress also plays an important part in this play. Shakespeare moves inwards to the consciousness of his characters. The audience sees two scenes of separation, in which Gloucester bids farewell to his wife and in the parting of Queen Margaret and Suffolk. Gloucester feels pity for his wife, paraded barefoot in the street. Eleanor warns her husband of the political strife that lay ahead of him. Without even embracing his wife, he leaves hastily when a messenger summons him to the Parliament.

After Suffolk’s banishment, both the queen and Suffolk fling curses at the departed king, and then they express their sincere love to each other. More successful is the queen’s speech in Act III, Scene 2 in which she blames her husband for the death of their love. She tries to remind him of the emotion she felt as the ship brought her to England for her marriage. Her self-dramatization and emotions expose her wiles to the audience and make them notice the vast change that she has brought into the political life of the country.

The play ends with an apocalypse (a revelation about the future). Old Clifford, the last of a gallery of fathers, is succeeded by the new generation. The words of young Clifford reveal the disastrous effects the civil war has brought about. The audience becomes aware that these sufferings have sprung from aristocratic sedition. The play ends with a celebration of York’s victory, and the trumpets sound to start the invasion of the king’s Parliament by the victor.

The play is only partly about the personality of the king. The first part is about the contention existing between the two houses of York and Lancaster, the death of Gloucester, the banishment and death of the Duke of Suffolk, the tragic end of the proud Cardinal Beaufort, the notable rebellion of Jack Cade, the Duke of York’s first claim to the throne and his victory. All this leads to a central theme: the power and the authority of the monarchy. The political climax occurs when York triumphs over the king. The idea “right versus might” is given importance. All political controversies end.

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