Act 1, Scene 1
The play opens with the entrance of King Henry VI, accompanied by various lords. Suffolk enters from a separate direction, with York, Salisbury, and Warwick. Suffolk has just arrived from France, bringing Margaret to be the king’s wife. He presents her to the king, who welcomes her joyfully.
Suffolk hands to Duke Humphrey of Gloucester the peace treaty that Henry has contracted with the French King Charles as part of Henry’s marriage agreement. Gloucester begins to read it, but when he gets to the part that agrees to the handing over of the hitherto English-owned French territories of Anjou and Maine to Margaret’s father, René, King of Naples, he lets the paper fall in horror. Beaufort finishes reading it, and it becomes clear that not only are Anjou and Maine to be given up to Margaret’s father, but also, Margaret comes with no dowry. Henry even has to pay for her journey to England.
Henry, however, is perfectly happy with these terms and makes Suffolk a knight for bringing Margaret. He tells York that he is no longer regent of the French territories that have been handed back to the French.
Henry leaves with Margaret and Suffolk to arrange his new queen’s coronation. Gloucester remains behind with the other lords and they complain about the terms of Henry’s match. Gloucester laments the loss of England’s territories in France, hard-won by Henry V, Henry VI’s father and predecessor on the throne of England, and the other lords present. Gloucester says the marriage between Henry and Margaret brings shame on them all and on England. Salisbury adds that Anjou and Maine are key to control of the whole of Normandy. Warwick weeps, saying that he was responsible for winning Anjou and Maine for the English and that he cannot believe that they would be delivered up to the French so meekly. York curses Suffolk for making a poor deal and wonders at Henry’s willingness to marry without material gain. Gloucester is amazed that Suffolk has levied a tax on personal property to pay for the cost of bringing Margaret to England. Beaufort rebukes Gloucester, pointing out that Henry wanted to marry Margaret. Gloucester accuses Beaufort of having a personal grudge against him, predicts that England will lose France altogether, and leaves.
Beaufort denounces Gloucester to the other lords, saying he is an enemy of them all, and of the king. Until Henry has a son, Gloucester is next in line to the throne. Buckingham thinks that, as the king is now of an age at which he can rule in his own right, Gloucester is not needed as Protector (someone who governs the country while the monarch is too young to rule in his own right). Buckingham calls on his fellow lords to join with Suffolk and oust Gloucester. Beaufort agrees and leaves to seek Suffolk.
With Beaufort gone, Somerset takes the opportunity to turn Buckingham against him. Somerset believes that Beaufort is getting above his place and warns that if Gloucester is ousted, Beaufort will take his position as Protector. Buckingham promises Somerset that one or the other of them will be Protector. Buckingham and Somerset leave.
Salisbury worries about the state of England. He praises Gloucester as a good man and denounces Beaufort, Buckingham, and Somerset, for their selfish ambition. He takes comfort in his son, Warwick, who is respected by the nation. He also praises York for quashing a rebellion in Ireland and for his work governing the English territories in France as Henry’s regent. Salisbury wants York and Warwick to join with him in opposing Suffolk, Beaufort, Somerset and Buckingham, and supporting Gloucester, for the good of the nation. Warwick and York agree, though York reveals in an aside to the audience that he is acting out of self-interest (it later becomes clear that he means to be king). Warwick is determined to win Maine back for England.
Warwick and Salisbury leave. York, alone on stage, summarises England’s losses in France. Anjou and Maine have been given back; Paris has been lost; and Normandy is in danger of reverting to French rule. York already sees himself as the rightful king of England, saying that it is his kingdom that is being given away. He plans to make a show of supporting Salisbury and Warwick (“the Nevilles”), but then to seize the throne for himself, while Henry is distracted with his new queen and his lords with infighting. He justifies his actions by saying that Henry is unfit for kingship and has brought England low.
The first scene introduces the main theme of the play: the divisions and chaos that result from weak kingship. These divisions will result in the Wars of the Roses, a series of conflicts between two branches of the English royal family for the throne of England, which historically took place between 1455 and 1485.
The weak king at the center of these events is Henry VI, during whose historical reign (1422–1461) England lost most of the territories in France that had been won by his father, Henry V. Henry V is portrayed in Shakespeare’s history plays as a great military leader who brought England to a powerful and glorious position on the world stage. The reign of his son is shown as a tragic and shameful descent. Henry V’s ghostly presence hangs over the Henry VI trilogy of plays, providing an implicit foil (contrasting character) to his unworldly and weak son.
Henry VI’s marriage to Margaret is presented as a divisive and politically disastrous event, which is reinforced visually by having Suffolk bring her in by a separate door to that through which the king and his party enter. Henry has signed away Anjou and Maine, two important French territories, in exchange for her hand, and she brings no dowry: on the contrary, Henry has to meet the expense of bringing her from France himself. Characteristically, the unworldly Henry is oblivious to the political repercussions of this marriage. The audience will know from the prequel to this play, Henry VI, Part One, that Margaret was Suffolk’s choice (reinforced visually by his entrance with Margaret); that Margaret and Suffolk are attracted to one another and possibly engaged in an affair; and that Suffolk plans to use her for his own power-seeking ends. As well as being politically and financially without advantage, the marriage shows all the signs of being destructive to the king’s position and welfare.
The various lords’ reactions to the signing away of the French territories in exchange for Margaret function as a barometer of their characters and motivations. Suffolk arranged the deal for his own self-interest, so he is in favor of it; Beaufort defends it, sycophantically pointing out that it was the king’s wish, though in reality he sees it as an opportunity to gain power for himself. Buckingham and Somerset are less interested in the fate of the nation than in their personal dislike of Gloucester and Beaufort and in jockeying for the position of Protector. Salisbury occupies the moral high ground, concerned only for England’s welfare. He is seconded in this position by his son, Warwick, who later, however, will be revealed to have ambitions of his own. While York seems to support Salisbury and is genuinely shocked by England’s sad decline, he reveals in an aside to the audience (line 206) and in his subsequent soliloquy that he is only pursuing his own interests. He plans to wait until Henry is distracted with Margaret and Gloucester is quarreling with the lords so that he can seize the throne for himself.
Act 1, scene 2
Gloucester and his wife Eleanor are talking. Eleanor, observing her husband’s sadness, wants him to seize Henry’s crown for himself. Gloucester rebukes her for her evil ambition and swears that he will never do anything to hurt his nephew. He says he is troubled by a dream he had the previous night. He dreamed that his staff of office had been broken in two by Beaufort, and on the pieces were impaled the heads of Somerset and Suffolk. He wonders what it means. Eleanor is dismissive, telling him that she also had a dream, in which she was sitting on the throne in Westminster Abbey (where England’s monarchs are crowned) and being crowned queen by Henry and Margaret. Gloucester again scolds her for her treachery, pointing out that she is the second most powerful woman in the realm and should be content with that. Eleanor, offended, says in future she will not tell him her dreams. They reconcile.
A Messenger from the king enters and invites Gloucester to a hawking party at St Albans. Gloucester leaves and Eleanor says she will follow. In a soliloquy to the audience, she reveals that she is impatient with her husband’s lack of ambition and that if she were a man, she would not hesitate to kill to gain her ends.
Eleanor calls Sir John Hum and asks him about Margery Jourdayne, a witch, and Roger Bolingbroke, a conjuror. Hum says they have promised to raise a spirit from hell that will answer her questions about what the future holds for her. She plans to meet them when she returns from St Albans. She leaves.
Hum, in a soliloquy to the audience, reveals that not only is he being paid by Eleanor to arrange the meeting with the witch, but he is also being paid by Beaufort and Suffolk to entrap her in the treasonous activity of conspiring to supplant Henry and Margaret on the throne. If she is charged with treason, this will also bring down Gloucester, in accord with Beaufort and Suffolk’s plan.
Shakespeare mistrusted people whose motivation was money, as is plain from his portrayal of Hum. Hum is a mercenary whose only loyalty is to money and his own gain. He is happy to take Eleanor’s money in order to arrange a meeting with a witch and conjuror, who will summon a spirit to answer her questions about her aim of being queen; but he is also taking money from Beaufort and Suffolk to set a trap for Eleanor.
Beaufort and Suffolk aim to show that Eleanor is engaged in treasonous activity (conspiring to replace the rightful king and queen on the throne of England). In doing so, they will bring down Gloucester, her husband, by association.
Eleanor is blinded by her own greed and ambition to the fact that a trap is being set for her. While she plots against Henry and Margaret, Beaufort and Suffolk plot against her, through the agency of Hum, whom she believes to be her servant. This web of double-crossing and betrayal arises because of the weakness of the king. With no strong leader, England’s power base is up for grabs by unscrupulous persons.
Act 1, scene 3
Some citizens present petitions to Suffolk and Margaret, in the mistaken belief that he is Gloucester and will help them. A man called Peter presents a petition charging his master, Thomas Horner, with treason for saying that York is the rightful heir to the crown and Henry a usurper. Suffolk is interested and arranges for the man to present his petition formally. Margaret is annoyed that Gloucester has such power and tears up a petitioner’s request.
When the petitioners have gone, Margaret asks Suffolk why Gloucester still has authority over Henry. She reveals her disappointment with Henry, who, she says, compares poorly with Suffolk and is only interested in religious matters. Suffolk asks her to be patient, as he will arrange things to her liking. Margaret adds that she objects to Beaufort, Somerset, Buckingham, and York, who all seem to have more power than Henry. Suffolk says that Salisbury and Warwick are even more powerful. Margaret reserves special ire for Eleanor, whom she accuses of acting like an empress. She vows to be avenged on her. Suffolk assures Margaret that he has set a trap for Eleanor. He says they must appear to take Beaufort’s side in order to bring down Gloucester.
Henry enters with the hawking party. They are discussing whether York or Somerset should be regent of France. Henry says he does not care who is regent. Gloucester encourages the king to decide, and Margaret says if Henry is old enough to decide for himself, then Gloucester is not needed as Protector. Suffolk and Beaufort join Margaret in attacking Gloucester, accusing him of acting as king and of bringing the country to ruin. They go on to level at him a variety of crimes, including enriching his own household out of the public purse and being unreasonably cruel in exercising criminal justice. Margaret says that his crimes are enough to justify execution. Gloucester leaves in anger.
Margaret lets her fan drop, tells Eleanor to pick it up, and boxes her ear. Henry tells Eleanor it was unintentional, but Eleanor does not believe him and warns him against Margaret. Buckingham whispers to Beaufort that Eleanor is walking right into their trap.
Gloucester enters, having calmed down. He challenges his accusers to prove their charges against him in law. He states his loyalty to king and country, and tries to move the discussion back to affairs of state, suggesting York as regent of France. Suffolk objects. York accuses Suffolk of holding a personal grudge because he (York) refuses to flatter him. He adds that if he is appointed, Somerset will keep him in England without pay until France is utterly lost to the French.
Peter is brought in, along with his master, Horner, whom Peter has accused of treason in claiming that York should be king. Horner is under guard. Suffolk is pleased at this challenge to York, though York points out that no one has accused him of being a traitor. Suffolk tells Henry that Horner said that York was the rightful heir to the throne of England and that Henry is a usurper. Horner denies the charge. York asks Henry to punish him harshly. Horner defends himself, saying that Peter, his accuser, is his apprentice. When Horner corrected his mistake, Peter vowed he would get revenge.
Gloucester says that given the doubts raised by this accusation about York’s loyalty, Henry should appoint Somerset regent of France. He says that Horner and Peter must settle their dispute by hand-to-hand combat. Peter is worried that he will lose. Henry sends them off to prison pending the day of their fight.
Henry’s statement that he does not care whether York or Somerset is regent of France is typical of him. He probably intends it to mean that he is impartial, but it comes over as a dangerous indifference to affairs of state.
Margaret and Eleanor are alike: each wants more power; each is impatient with her husband because he is not ambitious enough for her. As there is only room for one first lady in the land, this leads them to hate one another, with Margaret even hitting Eleanor. There is both irony and psychological accuracy in the fact that each woman hates the other for the same qualities that she herself exemplifies.
Shakespeare had good knowledge of the law and a faith in its ability to deliver justice when properly applied. When law is mistreated, sidelined, disrespected, or taken into a person’s own hands in his plays, it is usually a sign that the social order has broken down and chaos reigns. Gloucester is an honorable man and thus believes that due process of law will prove him innocent of the charges that his enemies level against him. In this, he is naïve, as he has no idea that the corruption of the court is quite strong enough to pervert the course of justice.
Nevertheless, Gloucester’s own approach to the law lacks objectivity and rigor. His decision to let Horner and Peter decide their dispute in combat instead of in a court of law would have seemed primitive by the standards of Shakespeare’s day. Moreover, in delivering his view of the situation, Gloucester speaks as if he is the law (line 211), rather than just a man who is interpreting the law in an ad hoc way.
Suffolk, too, abuses the law, but in a more obvious way than the considered Gloucester. Suffolk is ready, for his own ends, to assume that Horner is guilty of treason in allegedly saying that York should be king, because this casts York’s loyalty into doubt. It is a case of guilt by association. This is not disinterested law, but self-interest on the part of Suffolk.
Act 1, scene 4
Margery Jourdayne, the witch, and Roger Bolingbroke, the conjuror, enter with Hum, Southwell, and two priests. Hum and Eleanor are allowed to watch from above while the witch and conjuror conduct a ceremony to raise a spirit. The spirit appears and delivers an ambiguous prophecy, “The Duke yet lives that Henry shall depose, / But him outlive, and die a violent death” (lines 30-31).
The spirit adds that Suffolk will die by water, and that Somerset should beware of castles. Southwell writes down the spirit’s words. Bolingbroke sends the spirit away.
Suddenly, York, Buckingham, Stafford, and a guard break in. York orders the guard to arrest Bolingbroke, Southwell, and Jourdayne and imprison them. Buckingham confiscates Southwell’s writings. Hum and Eleanor are taken prisoner by Stafford and led away.
York congratulates Buckingham on entrapping Eleanor and reads the spirit’s prophecies, but finds them hard to interpret. York says Henry, who is with Gloucester, must be told the news at once of Eleanor’s escapade and arrest. He anticipates that will bring Gloucester’s downfall. Buckingham leaves to deliver the news to Henry. York arranges for Salisbury and Warwick to dine with him the following night.
It was treason (under the Treason Act of 1351) at the time the play was set, and in Shakespeare’s time, to “compass [plan] or imagine the death” of the sovereign, his queen, or his son and heir. Thus Eleanor’s asking questions of a spirit about the prospect of her and her husband being king and queen is arguably treason. Moreover, practicing or participating in witchcraft was a crime, so Eleanor is guilty of this too. Gloucester, as Eleanor’s husband, will be held guilty by association.
The spirit’s prediction is ambiguous. The utterances of oracles were notoriously cryptic, and this is no exception. “Shall depose” and “die a violent death” could apply to York or Henry.