Henry VI Part II, Act 3: Death and Departures

The hopes of many in King Henry’s court are dashed in Act 3, beginning with Richard the Duke of York and Somerset’s news that all of France is lost.

“Cold news for me: for I had hope of France As firmly as I hope for fertile England. Thus are my blossoms blasted in the bud And caterpillars eat my leaves away.” Richard, Duke of York in Henry VI Part II, Act 3 Scene 1

York confronts the Duke of Somerset over his inaction and ineptitude in France a little later in Act 3 Scene 1:

“I rather would have lost my life betimes Than bring a burden of dishonour home By staying there so long till all were lost. Show me one scar charactered on thy skin: Men’s flesh preserved so whole do seldom win.”

The shame and disgrace of Somerset’s failed expedition to France led Cardinal Beaufort, the uncle who had supported him, to gradually retire from politics in real life and focus on his religious responsibilities five years before the arrest of his rival Duke Humphrey of Gloucester (see the English Monarchs site here for more information). This is not shown in Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part II, where instead he plots to kill Gloucester with Suffolk, York, and Margaret, but it does remind me of Eleanor’s final words that closed Act 2:

“My shame will not be shifted with my sheet (the outfit she was forced to walk the streets in, prior to her banishment): No, it will hang upon my richest robes And show itself, attire me how I can.” Henry VI Part II, Act 2 Scene 4

Gloucester is arrested in Act 3 Scene 1 to the distress of Henry. In some of the last words we hear him speak, Gloucester warns his nephew:

“Ah, gracious lord, these days are dangerous: Virtue is choked with foul ambition And charity chased hence by rancour’s hand: Foul subornation is predominant And equity exiled your highness’ land.”

This speech is why the Henry VI trilogy continues to have the power to resonate with audiences to this day. In his introduction to his adaptation of the plays with John Barton published in 1970, Peter Hall said, “I realised that the mechanism of power had not changed in centuries. We also were in the middle of a blood-soaked century. I was convinced that a presentation of one of the bloodiest and most hypocritical periods in history would teach many lessons to the present.”

Gloucester is arrested and, in the play, assassinated. (Historians today believe he had a stroke, but at the time, Suffolk was suspected of his death. No one knows for certain. You can see where he is buried in Saint Albans Cathedral here.)

Henry is inconsolable at the news of his uncle’s death. He mourns as so many do when forced to face the rest of their lives without a loved one:

“That is to see how deep my grave is made, For with his soul fled all my worldly solace: For seeing him, I see my life in death.” Henry in King Henry VI Part II, Act 3 Scene 2

In Act 3 of Henry VI Part II Suffolk is banished, York is sent to put down unrest in Ireland, and Cardinal Beaufort dies, as they happened in real life, though over a longer span of time.

York’s soliloquy that ends Act 3 Scene 1 contradicts historical facts (especially in respect to York’s involvement with John Cade), but it’s a powerful speech given by an important character before his departure that could help many:

“Now, York, or never, steel thy fearful thoughts, And change misdoubt to resolution: Be that thou hop’st to be…”

In Shakespeare as in real life, bad guys get some of the best lines. This is true in Suffolk’s goodbyes to Margaret in Act 3 Scene 2 that would make many women swoon:

“‘Tis not the land I care for, wert thou thence: A wilderness is populous enough, So Suffolk had thy heavenly company: For where thou art, there is the world itself, With every several pleasure in the world: And where thou art not, desolation. I can no more: live thou to joy thy life: Myself no joy in naught but that thou liv’st.”

In the final scene of Act 3, Cardinal Beaufort wrestles with death and his conscience, offering England’s treasure for the prolonging of his life. “Ah, what a sign it is of evil life,” King Henry laments, “Where death’s approach is seen so terrible.”

There will be a great deal of dying in Henry VI from now on.

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Filed under Plays, Shakespeare's Histories

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