King Henry VI Part 2: Novel Summary: Act 3, Scene 1 - 4
Act 3, scene 1
Henry’s court assembles at the Parliament. Henry wonders why Gloucester has not come. Margaret replies that he has become proud and insolent, and has lost all sense of duty to the monarch. She says he is ambitious for the throne, and since the people love him, he would have support. She asks Henry to ban Gloucester from the Council and the court. Suffolk agrees with her, saying that Gloucester put his wife up to plotting against Henry. Beaufort adds that Gloucester has corrupted the criminal justice system and withheld English soldiers’ pay in France, causing a revolt. Buckingham says these are the least of Gloucester’s crimes.
Henry defends Gloucester, saying he is too virtuous ever to think of harming Henry. Margaret insists that Gloucester is no more than a hypocrite, seeming to be good when in truth he is malicious.
Somerset enters with the news that all of England’s territories in France are lost. Henry hears the news with resignation, and York, with disappointment for his own ambition (if he gains the throne of England, he will also rule any English-owned territories in France).
Gloucester arrives, apologizing for his lateness. Suffolk says he is arresting him for treason, accusing him of taking bribes from the French to withhold the English soldiers’ pay, so that France was lost. Gloucester not only denies this charge, but adds that he has paid the soldiers out of his own pocket without being reimbursed.
Then York accuses Gloucester of inventing harsh tortures for criminals, resulting in tyranny. Gloucester says on the contrary, he was known for being over-merciful. Suffolk is not interested in hearing Gloucester’s defense, but arrests him and hands him over to Beaufort. Henry says that he hopes Gloucester can clear himself, as he believes him innocent.
Gloucester says that Beaufort, Suffolk, Buckingham, and York are treacherous men who aim to have him executed, adding that he would willingly give his life if he thought England would be better for it. He says that they will not stop at removing him (implying that Henry will be next). He adds that Margaret is involved in the plotting.
Beaufort orders his men to take Gloucester away and guard him. As he leaves, Gloucester laments that Henry has thrown away his protector before he is mature enough to stand alone.
Henry, grief-stricken at Gloucester’s departure, announces that he is leaving the Parliament and that the lords must do as they think best, as if he were present. He feels that Gloucester is innocent and harmless and cannot understand why the lords and Margaret would seek to destroy him. He says he will go off and cry over the accusations against Gloucester. Henry leaves with Salisbury and Warwick.
Margaret tells the lords that Henry is full of foolish pity and that he is taken in by Gloucester. She thinks Gloucester should die. Beaufort agrees, but says it must be by the law. Suffolk admits that they have little proof to justify Gloucester’s execution under the law, but argues that he should die for what he is likely to do (“Before his chops be stained with crimson blood” – line 259). Suffolk says he must kill Gloucester to protect the king from the evil that Gloucester intends to do him. Beaufort offers to arrange Gloucester’s murder, and Suffolk agrees. Margaret and York add their support.
A messenger enters with the news of a revolt in Ireland in which Englishmen are being killed. York recommends that Somerset be sent there as regent, adding sarcastically that he has already been successful in France (recalling Somerset’s announcement earlier in the scene that England has lost her French territories). Somerset replies that York would have made a worse job of it if he had been regent. York says it is obvious that Somerset has not lifted a finger to defend England’s interests in France as he has no battle scars.
Beaufort orders York to take an army to Ireland and quash the rebellion. York accepts the commission. Beaufort promises again to deal with Gloucester. York tells Suffolk that he expects his soldiers to be delivered to Bristol, whence he will take them to Ireland.
York, left alone on stage, tries to banish the fears that hold him back from claiming what he feels is his right: the throne of England. He is glad that the lords are going to give him an army, as this was all he lacked in order to fulfill his ambition to be king. While he is in Ireland, he plans to stir up civil dissent through the agency of John Cade, a man from Kent. Cade will wage war against the king to try to claim the throne under the name of John Mortimer (Mortimer being the family line through which York claims the throne). By this means, York means to sound out public support for his own claim to the throne. If Cade is captured, York is confident that Cade will not betray his (York’s) part in the plot, even under torture. If Cade is victorious, York means to lead his men from Ireland to claim the throne. Gloucester will be dead by then, and Henry deposed.
In this scene, Henry shows his unfitness to rule, in that he believes Gloucester is innocent but nevertheless allows the self-seeking lords to arrest and imprison him on the slimmest of pretexts. Paralyzed by grief over Gloucester’s arrest, Henry leaves the Parliament, the central decision-making body, to go home and weep, instructing the lords to decide matters among themselves as they please. This is political suicide and it is tempting to conclude that Henry deserves to fall victim to the wolfish lords.
Suffolk admits that there are few grounds to proceed against Gloucester in law. His argument that they should move against Gloucester for what he is likely to do rather than what he has done casually discards a central tenet of English law – that a person is innocent until proven guilty. He invokes the metaphor of the fox being set to guard a flock of sheep (an old adage that has passed into modern usage with a different prey animal as “the fox guarding the chicken coop” or with a different predator as “the wolf guarding the flock”). As it is a fox’s nature to prey on lambs, so the farmer has a duty to kill the fox pre-emptively, before it has had a chance to do harm. Suffolk likens Gloucester to a fox, thereby removing his human rights and putting him on the same disposable level as a vermin animal. And crucially, Suffolk says that Gloucester intends ill to the king and country. As such, Gloucester must die, not for what he has done, but for what he may do.
This argument has modern resonance in these days when governments have passed laws to allow terror suspects to be detained for long periods without trial and to allow routine surveillance of citizens who are not charged, convicted, or even sometimes suspected of a crime. The rationale is prevention of crime.
Commentators on the justice system have decried these pre-emptive acts, as they cast aside the ancient presumption of innocence and instead presume guilt. Shakespeare had considerable knowledge of the law and consistently favors adherence to due process of law. He mistrusts attempts to pervert judicial processes, as Suffolk is doing here. Suffolk marks himself out as someone whose case is not supported by truth and so must resort to deception and underhand means.
While Suffolk, Beaufort, and Margaret plot Gloucester’s downfall, they are oblivious to the fact that York is using them to remove Gloucester and at the same time plotting against them through the agency of Cade and his rebellion. An effect is created of a literary version of Chinese boxes (a set of boxes of graduated size, each fitting inside the next larger box). The deceivers (Suffolk and Beaufort) are themselves deceived by another deceiver (York), who stands outside their circle and sees more of the picture than they do. The impression given is of a world of intrigue where little is what it seems and few people have the full picture.
Act 3, scene 2
The scene opens with hired killers running from their murder of Gloucester. The first murderer tells the second to go to Suffolk and tell him the deed is done. The second murderer is haunted by guilt, since Gloucester made a good death, repenting his sins (as a God-fearing person is supposed to do before death). Suffolk enters, checks that the men have done everything as he told them, and sends them to his house to collect payment.
Henry, Margaret, Beaufort, and Somerset enter. Henry asks Suffolk to bring in Gloucester to face trial. Henry cautions the lords to condemn Gloucester no more than the evidence allows. Margaret says she prays that Gloucester is acquitted. Suffolk returns, feigning horror, with the news that Gloucester has been found dead in his bed. Margaret feigns shock. Henry faints. Suffolk tries to comfort him, but Henry has an intense reaction of repugnance and orders Suffolk out of his sight. Then Henry recalls Suffolk, challenging him to kill him, like the evil basilisk monster of myth, which could kill a person who looked at it with its glance. Henry feels he may find comfort in death.
Margaret defends Suffolk to Henry, pointing out that while Gloucester was no friend to Suffolk, Suffolk still laments his death. Margaret says Henry should pity her, as it was well known that she and Gloucester disliked each other and people might think she ordered his death. Henry turns away from her and continues to lament Gloucester’s death. Margaret becomes increasingly hysterical, trying to force Henry to think about her and not Gloucester. She says she has braved near-shipwreck to come to England and marry Henry, yet he does not care about her and wishes her dead.
Warwick and Salisbury enter with an angry crowd of people. The people suspect that Gloucester was murdered on the orders of Suffolk and Beaufort. Henry says he does not know how Gloucester died and invites him to examine the body and give his view. Warwick leaves to do so.
Left alone, Henry says in a soliloquy that he believes Gloucester was murdered. Warwick enters and draws some curtains, revealing Gloucester dead in his bed. Warwick has concluded that Gloucester was murdered. He says he has seen the bodies of people who have died in timely fashion and their faces look bloodless and pale. Gloucester’s face, in contrast, looks full of blood, his eyes are starting out of his head, and his hands are spread apart, as if he died fighting for his life.
Suffolk protests that he and Beaufort had Gloucester under their protection and that they are no murderers. Warwick replies that both of them were Gloucester’s enemies.
Beaufort leaves, assisted by Somerset (it could be that he feels ill). Margaret asks Warwick if he really suspects Suffolk and Beaufort of Gloucester’s murder. Warwick says they are the obvious suspects. Suffolk denies that he murdered Gloucester, but threatens to kill Warwick for slandering him. Warwick warns Margaret that she is bringing royalty into disrepute by supporting Suffolk. Suffolk and Warwick engage in a slanging match, each accusing the other of being a bastard. They go off, apparently intending to fight.
A crowd is heard shouting “Down with Suffolk!” Suffolk and Warwick enter, their weapons drawn against each other. Henry rebukes them for fighting in his royal presence. Salisbury brings Henry a message from the people: they want him to execute or banish Suffolk because they believe he ordered the death of Gloucester. They see Suffolk as an evil serpent that will kill Henry too. They say that they will defend the king against Suffolk, even against Henry’s will. The people shout that they want an answer from the king, or they will break into the palace.
Henry sends Salisbury to tell the people that he had already resolved to get rid of Suffolk, whom he believes to be a danger. He says Suffolk will be gone within three days. Margaret pleads for Suffolk, but Henry is unmoved. He banishes Suffolk on pain of death. Henry leaves with Warwick. Margaret curses Henry, but Suffolk tells her to stop and let him say goodbye. She is angry with Suffolk for not cursing Henry too. Suffolk at first says cursing is pointless, but then he does curse them. Now, a weeping Margaret tells him to stop. As she kisses him goodbye, she vows that she will have him recalled or join him in banishment. Suffolk says he sees no point in living if they are not to be together.
Vaux enters with the news that Beaufort is dying and seems haunted by the ghost of Gloucester. Margaret sends Vaux to tell the king.
Suffolk wants to stay with Margaret, even if this means his death. Margaret tells him to leave for France and promises to find him. They kiss and leave separately.
How a person died was considered important in Shakespeare’s time. A good man was expected to die a good death, repenting his sins in readiness to meet God, whereas an evil man who was unrepentant at his death would be bound for hell. Gloucester fits the mold of the good man, to such an extent that his murderer feels guilt for killing him.
The murder of Gloucester acts as a catalyst that awakens Henry to the evil of his advisers. He faints, and then, as he revives, Suffolk moves to comfort him. Henry’s brief loss of consciousness has had the effect of awakening him from a spiritual sleep. He has a visceral response of disgust at Suffolk, likening him to a “serpent” (line 47), the age-old Christian symbol of the devil, and a “basilisk” (line 52), a mythical serpent thought to kill anyone who looked at it with its glance.
Henry’s judgment on Suffolk is accurate. It is as if Henry has had a veil removed from before his eyes and now sees people clearly for what they are.
When Margaret defends Suffolk to Henry, it is probable that Henry begins to see her, too, for what she is: as loyal and loving to Suffolk, not to her royal husband. When she asks for Henry’s pity, he turns away from her and continues to lament Gloucester’s death (line 72).
This is an important moment of maturation for Henry. It is as if Gloucester’s murder has opened his eyes to a truth that he could not see while Gloucester was alive. Perhaps Gloucester protected Henry from the truth as well as protecting the realm.
Margaret’s long speech at lines 73-121 (“Be woe for me . . . dost live so long”) is open to several interpretations. It is possible to understand it as a piece of psychological warfare against Henry, designed to deflect him from his realization that Suffolk is guilty of playing a part in Gloucester’s murder and that Margaret loves Suffolk rather than him. She tries to paint herself as a heroic victim who has dared all for love but who has been deserted by Henry, rather than as a predatory plotter and adulterer who has betrayed him (which is closer to the truth). While the speech is a tour de force of rhetoric and self-dramatization, it fails utterly to distract Henry from his now settled (and correct) view of Suffolk as an evil conspirator to murder and of Margaret as his probable co-conspirator and lover.
For the first time in the play, Henry acts decisively, banishing Suffolk. However, an Elizabethan audience would have thought execution a safer option, and one that the Tudor monarchs consistently favored. And given Margaret’s vow to find her lover wherever he goes, the audience knows that this particular confederacy is not at an end. Henry is endangering himself through his merciful tendencies.
Act 3, scene 3
Henry, Salisbury and Warwick enter. A dying Beaufort is revealed in his bed, raving and terrified of his impending death. Henry reflects that dreading death is the sign of an evil life. Beaufort is raving about Gloucester, the murder of whom seems to be preying his conscience. He even says he will confess.
Beaufort’s terrible death is Shakespeare’s verdict on his evil nature. Beaufort raves and desperately tries to bribe death to let him live “and feel no pain”—whether this is physical or spiritual pain or some inter-relationship of the two, he is clearly being tortured by his bad conscience about his part in the virtuous Gloucester’s murder. Henry reflects, “Ah, what a sign it is of evil life / Where death’s approach is seen so terrible” (3.3.5-6). This utterance is typical of Henry, who has a spiritual wisdom and insight that the churchman Beaufort (ironically) completely lacks.