“Were I man, a duke, and next of blood,/I would remove these tedious stumbling blocks/And smooth my way upon their headless necks.”

King Henry VI, Part Two

Act One

By Dennis Abrams


Let me start including this:  A list of characters:


King Henry VI of England and France

Queen Margaret, Henry’s wife

William de la Pole, Marquis (later Duke) of Suffolk; Margaret’s lover

Duke Humphrey of Gloucester, the King’s uncle and Protector

Duchess of Gloucester, Duke Humphrey’s wife

Cardinal Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester, Henry’s great-uncle

Dukes of Buckingham and Somerset

Old Lord Clifford and Young Clifford, his son.


Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York

York’s sons: Edward, Earl of March, and Richard, Earl of Salisbury

Earl of Warwick, Salisbury’s son


The combatants:  Thomas Horner and Peter Thump, Horner’s man

The conjurors:  the witch Margery Jordan, the conjuror Roger Bolingbroke and

Asnath, a spirit

Simon Simpcox, supposedly cured by the ‘miracle,’ and his Wife

The rebels:  the Kentishman Jack Cade (secretly supported by the Duke of York and pretending to be John Mortimer) and his supporters

Opponents of the rebels:  Clerk of Clatham, Sir Humphrey Stafford and his Brother; Lords Saye and Scales

Alexander Iden, from Kent, who kills Cade


Act One:  The action continues from Henry VI, Part One.  The English court is in an uproar as King Henry is introduced to his new bride, Margaret of Anjou, and it is learned she has no dowry and the English must renounce French land as part of the deal arranged by Suffolk.  Gloucester, the King’s Protector is appalled, and his enemies Winchester and Buckingham seize the opportunity to demand that he be removed from office.  In the meantime York, who wants the crown for himself, bides his time.  Gloucester’s equally ambitious wife dreams of supplanting the King and Queen, and is tricked by her enemies at court into consulting witches about her fortune:  York and Buckingham are lying in wait at the séance and arrest her.  Political unrest has also spread from the royal court to the commoners:  a small group petitions Queen Margaret and her lover Suffolk for aid – and are scornfully turned away.  Back in council, the political infighting and bickering continues:  Gloucester denies accusations of corruption while King Henry tries (and fails) to control the deepening row between York, Somerset, and their respective supporters.


I’ve got to say – this play takes off like a rocket.  Again, a ceremony (the arrival of Margaret) is interrupted by bad news – the negotiated loss of French territory – and the squabbling begins.  Loved the scene of the scheming wife of Gloucester, “Were I a man, a duke, and next of blood,/I would remove these tedious stumbling blocks/And smooth my way upon their headless necks./And, being a woman, I will not be slack/To play my part in fortune’s pageant.”  Loved the scene of Margaret and her lover Suffolk and her disappointment in Henry, “I would the college of the cardinals/Would choose him pope, and carry him to Rome,/And set the triple crown upon his head –/That were a state fit for his holiness.”  Loved the scene between Margaret and Gloucester’s wife Eleanor.  Loved the séance.  It was, I think, a pretty spectacular beginning – two strong women (now down to one apparently), infighting, a worthy but ineffectually weak king – this is going to be good.


From Garber:

“The degree to which the play is self-conscious about its own dramatic nature – what is usually called ‘metadrama’ – is underscored by its structure and composition, as a series of events unfold, each of which could be called a staged performance or a play-within-the-play.  The marriage of Henry and Margaret with which the play begins could be read as such a ‘show,’ since it is a cover for the real relationship between Margaret and Suffolk,  [MY NOTE:  And since Suffolk “married” her as Henry’s proxy…] and Henry’s appreciation of his new bride, focuses on her skill as a persuasive (and dissembling) performer:

Her sight did ravish, but her grace to speech,

Her words yclad with wisdom’s majesty,

Makes me from wond’ring fall to weeping joys,

Such is the fullness of my heart’s content.

The profoundly unpolitical Henry fails to see that her affection is not for him.  Meantime her arrival has triggered latent dissension at court.  York, who will claim the crown as rightly his, joins Gloucester in the appeal to written history, in a gesture of acknowledgment of the play’s textual sources:

I never read but England’s kings have had

Large sums of gold and dowries with their wives –

And our King Henry gives away his own,

To match with her that brings no vantages.

A simmering dispute between the Protector, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, and Cardinal Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester flares up, and once Gloucester has left the stage ‘in a rage’ the Cardinal expresses his distrust of the ‘dangerous Protector,’ to well liked by ‘the common people.’  The moment the Cardinal departs we hear similar cautionary words about him, with the difference that where as Gloucester, the ‘good Duke,’ is too popular with the cheering commons, the ‘haughty Cardinal’ exhibits ‘insolence…more intolerable’ than any of the princes in the land.  In fact, everyone in court – the Cardinal, Buckingham, Somerset, would like to be Protector, although the King is of age to rule.  Good sense and patriotic values are exhibited by Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury, and his son the Earl of Warwick, who will acquire in these plays the sobriquet of ‘King-maker’ (accorded him by another Elizabethan dramatist, Samuel Daniel, in his epic poem The Civil Wars Between the Two Houses of Lancaster and York 1595) as he superintends the ascendancy of Henry, then York, then Henry once again.  Warwick is introduced to the audience – still in this first expository scene – by his father’s words of praise:

Warwick, my son, the comfort of my age,

Thy deeds, they plainness, and thy housekeeping

Hath won thee greatest favour of the commons,

Excepting none but good Duke Humphrey.

(Paragraph giving away too much of the plot omitted – keep in mind, though, that it is Warwick who will have the last words of the play.)

At the close of the first scene…we are a long way from the end of this unfolding drama of political reversals and conflict between princes and commons.  Instead a telltale soliloquy by Richard, Duke of York, lays out his claims, and his plans:

A day will come when York shall claim his own,

And therefore I will take the Nevilles’ parts,

And make a show of love to proud Duke Humphrey,

And when I spy advantage, claim the crown,

For that’s the golden mask I seek to hit.

Nor shall proud Lancaster usurp my right,

Nor hold the sceptre in his childish fist,

Nor wear the diadem upon his head

Whose church-like humours fit not for a crown.

Then, York, be still awhile, till time do serve.

Watch thou, and wake when others be asleep,

To pry into the secrets of state –


And force perforce I’ll make him yield the crown,

Whose bookish rule hath pulled fair England down.

York’s grievances against King Henry are two:  Henry is not the rightful heir, and he is a weak monarch, with ‘church-like humours’ and ‘bookish rule.’  Henry is too ‘bookish,’ or studious or contemplative; Jack Cade’s rebellion…will mark the other side of this spectrum, condemning anyone who can read and write.  York’s jibe of ‘childish’ is likewise intentional, given all the foregoing discussion about who should be Protector.  As Queen Margaret will ask pointedly of Gloucester in act 1, scene 3, if the King is ‘old enough’ to speak for himself, ‘what needs your grace/To be protector…?’  But Margaret herself makes the same complaint against Henry that York does, comparing him unfavorably to the dashing Suffolk (William de la Pole), who came to court her on the king’s behalf:

I thought King Henry had resembled thee

In courage, courtship, and proportion.

But all his mind is bent to holiness,

To number Ave-Maries on his beads.

His champions are the prophets and apostles,

His weapons holy saws of sacred writ,

His study is his tilt-yard, and his loves

Are brazen images of canonized saints.

I would the college of the cardinals

Would choose him Pope, and carry him to Rome,

And set the triple-crown upon his head –

That was a state fit for his holiness.

Writing in post-Reformation England, Shakespeare could expect these references to Rome and the Pope, like those to the ‘imperious churchman’ Beaufort, to strike a negative chord with the audience, although of course the historical Henry VI ruled over an England where Catholicism was the unchallenged religion of the king and his land.  In effect, Margaret’s portrait of Henry paints him as unmanly, preferring prayer before combat and rule. Holiness, like childishness, is a disability:

My lord of Suffolk, say, is this the guise?

Is this the fashions in the court of England?

Is the government of Britain’s isle,

And this the royalty of Albion’s king?

From her first arrival, then, Margaret dominates the King.  Gloucester’s wife, Eleanor Cobham, will combine the two kinds of mastery into one dismissive phrase when she warns Henry against his wife’s subversive plans:  ‘Good King, look to’t in time!/She’ll pamper thee and dandle thee like a baby./Though in this place most master wear no breeches.’  In Henry’s court the woman wears the pants, or breeches, and the husband, though king in name, is treated like a child.  These are themes that will recur in 3 Henry VI, where Margaret is said to wear the breeches instead of the petticoat.  Such terms of infantilization and unmanning will also be deployed, for example, in Lady Macbeth’s language and attitude toward her husband.  But the question of the strong, ruthless woman married to a husband married to a husband whose ambition is limited by his scruples is also, strikingly, invoked by Eleanor in her discussion of her own marriage to Gloucester, ‘the good Duke Humphrey.’

The first scene of the play had presented politicians and their ambitious plots.  Scene 2 deliberately juxtaposes another, contrasting mode of prediction and prognostication, that of dream.  Gloucester has had ‘troublous dreams this night’ in which he saw his Protector’s staff of office broken in two (‘by whom I have forgot/But, as I think, it was by th’ Cardinal!’), and on the pieces of the broken wand were impaled the heads of the Dukes of Somerset and Suffolk.  The dream is predictive, and like all such dreams in these plays, it comes true…(skipping plot points).  Eleanor underrates and misinterprets her husband’s dream (‘Tut, this was nothing but an argument/That he that breaks a stick of Gloucester’s grove/Shall lose his head for his presumption.’) and goes on to tell her own, which significantly, she describes as a ‘morning’s dream,’ in contrast to her husband’s.  A well-attuned contemporary audience would understand the difference, derived from medieval dream lore:  Eleanor’s is, in effect, a conscious wish, rather than an uncanny prediction.  She has ‘dreamed’ that she sat on the throne, and that ‘Henry and Dame Margaret’ came and kneeled to her, and put the crown on her head.  For Eleanor wants her husband to be King rather than Protector:

Put forth thy hand, reach at the glorious gold.

What, is’t too short?  I’ll lengthen it with mine…

When he demurs, protesting his loyalty to the King, she reacts with dismissive scorn:

Follow I must; I cannot go before

While Gloucester bears this base and humble mind.

Were I man, a duke, and next of blood,

I would remove these tedious stumbling blocks

And smooth my way upon their headless necks.

And, being a woman, I will not be slack

To play my part in fortune’s pageant.

‘Were I man”:  As always, it is useful to keep in mind that women’s parts on the early modern public stage were played by boys.  The ‘manliness’ of these strong female characters, who often dominate their milder men, is given an extra dramatic piquancy by this circumstance.  ‘Pageant’ is another theater word from the period, denoting not only a play but often an older, medieval ‘mystery’ play; here to be designed, and cast, by Fortune. ‘[B]eing a woman,’ Eleanor has her own plans and plots, and in the next moment she is commissioning her clerk to gather ‘Margery Jordan, the cunning witch,’ and ‘Roger Bolingbroke, the conjuror,’ who will raise a spirit through necromancy.

The two scenes of prediction, the ‘dream’ scene in act 1, scene 2, and the spectacular ceremony of black magic in act 1, scene 4, reinforce each other as ways of telling the future that are alternative to chronicle history and its plots and complots.  They thus stand in important contrast not only to the opening scene but also to the long genealogical account of Edward III and his seven sons, another famous set piece in this play, offered by York in act 2, scene 2, as justification for his claims to the crown, an explanation that Salisbury has said he longs ‘to hear…out at full,’ and that Warwick praises for its straightforward clarity (‘What plain proceedings is more plain than this?’) before he offers his own historical prediction:

My heart assures me that the Earl of Warwick

Shall one day make the duke of York a king.


The next reading:  King Henry VI, Part Two, Act Two

My next posting:  Thursday night/Friday morning


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