Act 2, scene 1
Henry, Margaret, Gloucester, Beaufort, and Suffolk have just returned from hawking. Henry marvels at how high Gloucester’s falcon flew, and Suffolk makes a sarcastic remark suggesting that Gloucester likes to fly high (meaning that he is ambitious). Gloucester chooses to interpret the discussion as meaning that a man should aspire to a higher spiritual state. Henry is also thinking of everlasting bliss in heaven. But Beaufort accuses Gloucester of worldly ambition. Gloucester wonders at Beaufort’s non-spiritual malice and says Suffolk is insolent. Margaret joins in the attack on Gloucester, accusing him of ambition. Henry only begs for peace.
Beaufort threatens to use his sword against Gloucester. Beaufort and Gloucester arrange to fight it out that evening. Henry asks what they are talking about, but the two men make out it is only hawking. Henry realizes that they are angry with each other and begs again for peace.
A man rushes in, claiming that a miracle has happened at St Alban’s shrine: a man who has been blind from birth has had his sight restored. The Mayor of St Albans and other townspeople enter in procession, carrying the man, who is called Simpcox, in a chair. Simpcox’s wife accompanies him. Henry is delighted by what he automatically assumes is a miracle, though Gloucester is skeptical. The courtiers question Simpcox, who claims that he has been blind from birth and that he is also a cripple due to a fall from a tree. Gloucester asks the man what color a cloak is, and the man correctly replies that it is red. Gloucester asks what color his gown is, and the man replies that it is as black as jet. Henry realizes that there is no miracle and the man is a charlatan; as Suffolk points out, Simpcox cannot have seen jet in his life. Gloucester accuses Simpcox of being a liar, since he cannot instantly know the names of all colors from being blind his whole life.
Gloucester says that if Simpcox were to regain the use of his legs, that would be a miracle, and Simpcox agrees. Gloucester orders a beadle (parish official) to whip Simpcox, who runs away. The men follow him, sarcastically proclaiming a miracle.
The king is shocked by the fraudulent miracle, but Margaret treats it as a joke. Simpcox’s wife explains that they only did it out of need for money.
Buckingham enters with the news that Eleanor has been dealing with witches and conjurors in an attempt to predict the death of Henry and members of his Council. Beaufort tells Gloucester that he is unlikely to be able to meet his appointment to fight that evening. Gloucester voices sorrow at the news of his wife’s crimes, and says he has no strength to fight. Henry comments on mankind’s wickedness, and Margaret warns Gloucester that he could be implicated in his wife’s guilt. Gloucester says that if Eleanor proves guilty, he is prepared to banish her from his company. Henry plans to leave for London the following day to bring the guilty to justice.
The hawk flying high is a frequent metaphor in Shakespeare for ambition. The metaphor has crept into modern usage in the word “high-flyer,’ meaning someone who achieves much in their chosen field. While Henry’s remark on Gloucester’s high-flying falcon is probably innocent and meant literally, Suffolk twists it into a metaphor to imbue it with sinister meaning, accusing Gloucester of personal ambition.
Henry’s line, “blessed are the peacemakers on earth,” (line 34) echoes Christ’s words in the Sermon on the Mount, “blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9). To invoke Christ’s words to calm a quarrel between the nobles is typical of Henry’s spiritual but unworldly approach to kingship.
Throughout the scene, Henry comes across as a religious-minded man, eager to believe in the miracle of Simpcox. In the Oxford World’s Classics edition of the play (2003, reprint, 2008) the editor, Roger Warren, notes the critic Harold Hobson’s description of the moment when the king realizes the miracle is a sham, in a 1963 production at Stratford-upon-Avon, England: “as the fraud is exposed, the King’s face is stricken. We see a man’s faith, which is all in all to him, momentarily destroyed” (p. 156). The undignified ending to the miracle fraud, with Simpcox leaping over a stool and running from the beadle’s whips, seems to herald the forthcoming destruction of Henry’s world. Margaret’s contrasting response to the revelation is telling: she simply laughs, showing her more cynical but altogether more pragmatic view of life.
The revelation of Eleanor’s traitorous acts defeats Gloucester from within. Beaufort will not now need to fight him, as he is fatally weakened by shock and grief. The sense is that he will not long hold onto his position as Protector.
Act 2, scene 2
York enters with Salisbury and Warwick. York explains to them why he thinks he has a better claim to the English throne than Henry. The argument comes down to the fact that he is descended from King Edward III’s third son, Lionel, Duke of Clarence, whereas Henry is descended from Edward III’s fourth son, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. Salisbury and Warwick are convinced and hail York as rightful king of England. York says he is not king until he is crowned, and asks Salisbury and Warwick to be patient and play a silent waiting game. They must ignore the pride of Suffolk, Beaufort, Somerset, and Buckingham, as these nobles are in the process of ensnaring Gloucester. York believes they will be executed for their pains, which will remove them from his path.
Warwick predicts that one day, he will make York the king of England. York promises in return to make Warwick the second most powerful man in the kingdom.
In having York present a complex argument justifying his claim to the throne, Shakespeare shows him to be not merely a power-hungry usurper but someone who genuinely feels he is the rightful king of England. York is a descendant of Edward III’s third son, where Henry is descended from Edward’s fourth son. In hearing this explanation, Shakespeare’s audience would have believed that York did have a justifiable claim to the throne. This was an important propaganda point of the play, as Elizabeth I, the queen at the time Shakespeare wrote the play, was a descendant of both the House of York (represented by York) and the House of Lancaster (represented by Henry).
Aside from the apparent validity of York’s claim, he also has a Machiavellian side. The term “Machiavellian,” meaning cunning, devious, and underhand, comes from the political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli, 1469-1527, who advised leaders to adopt such methods in gaining and hanging onto power. His writings are widely thought to have influenced Shakespeare. York is Machiavellian in that he allows the self-seeking Suffolk, Beaufort, Somerset, and Buckingham to pursue the destruction of Gloucester, as in doing so they will ensure that they themselves are executed. This will remove them, as well as Gloucester, as obstacles to York’s own ambition.
Warwick’s prediction that he will make York king comes true, as the historical Earl of Warwick became known as Warwick the Kingmaker.
York’s and Warwick’s prophecies about England’s fate and their own roles recall Eleanor’s attempts to extract prophecies from the witch and conjuror. Eleanor’s motivation, like York and Warwick’s, was ambition. However, Eleanor’s injudicious dabbling with the occult led her into a trap, while York and Warwick’s prophecies will result in success and fulfilment. Perhaps the difference is that York and Warwick’s prophecies are not hopeful fantasies but emanate from their own carefully considered plotting. Eleanor becomes a victim of fate, whereas York and Warwick are making their own fate. Their prophecies are based on knowledge of, and confidence in, their own capabilities.
Act 2, scene 3
Henry and his court are passing sentence on Eleanor and her accomplices in witchcraft. Henry asks Eleanor to step forward. He says her crimes are worthy of death, in God’s eyes. He sentences Jourdayne to be burned as a witch and Bolingbroke, Hum, and Southwell to hanging. Out of respect for Eleanor’s noble rank, he sentences her to banishment, to live with Sir John Stanley on the Isle of Man. Eleanor says she welcomes the sentence and would be willing to die. Gloucester tells her he cannot excuse her crimes, but as she is taken away, he says the dishonor will kill him.
Henry asks Gloucester to give him his staff of office before he leaves, as he now plans to rule in his own right. He tells Gloucester that he still loves him. Margaret says the king is old enough to rule in his own right. Gloucester willingly lays his staff at Henry’s feet. Margaret rejoices that Henry is king, that she is queen, that Gloucester is powerless, and that Eleanor is banished.
York reminds Henry that this is the day when Peter is due to fight his master, Horner, over the question of Horner’s alleged treasonous claim that York should be king. Horner and Peter enter with various friends. Horner is drunk. Peter refuses to take the offered drinks. He thinks he is going to die, and makes bequests of his few possessions. Horner announces that he never meant any ill to York, Henry, or Margaret. He and Peter fight, and Peter knocks him down. Horner begs Peter not to finish him off, confessing to treason apparently to try to stop the fight, but then dies. York jokingly tells Peter that Peter won because Horner was drunk, not necessarily because Horner was a traitor.
Henry says that Horner’s death proves he was a traitor and that Peter is innocent. He asks Peter to follow him to collect his reward for bringing the traitor to justice.
There is pathos in Gloucester’s departure from office and from the king’s side, both for Gloucester’s sake, because he is a good man entrapped by wicked people, and for the king’s sake, as he is now surrounded by ruthless people and without a protector.
The combat between Horner and Peter, over Peter’s allegation that Horner is a traitor for saying York should be king, carries heavy dramatic irony (dramatic irony is a literary device where the audience or reader knows more than one or more of the characters, lending another layer of meaning to the events of the plot). The irony lies in the fact that York, who professes to be shocked by Horner’s alleged treachery and who has demanded justice for the king, is himself planning to be king. Horner may or may not be a traitor, but York certainly is. Yet York appears here as the defender of the king and the purveyor of justice, but in reality he is acting to depose the king and replace him on the throne, the most extreme act of the traitor.
Act 2, scene 4
Gloucester waits with his men on the road where Eleanor is expected to pass on her way to her banishment. They are dressed in mourning cloaks, as if Eleanor had died. Gloucester is grief-stricken and feels keen sympathy for Eleanor, who will scarcely be able to tolerate such public shame.
Eleanor enters under guard. She is barefoot, dressed in the sheet of the penitent, and has a list of her crimes pinned to her back.
Eleanor greets her husband and laments that he must share her public shame. She predicts that Gloucester will be executed as a result of the plotting of Suffolk and (she implies) his lover, Margaret. She also names York, and Beaufort as laying plots against Gloucester. But Gloucester is certain that his innocence will protect him from harm. He advises Eleanor to bear her lot patiently, as the public’s interest in the scandal will soon die down.
A Herald enters and summons Gloucester to Parliament. He remarks that his consent to convene Parliament was not sought. He tearfully says goodbye to Eleanor and begs the Sheriff not to punish her beyond the king’s sentence. He also asks Sir John Stanley, who is to keep her under house arrest, to treat her well, in the hope that Gloucester may live to reward him.
Gloucester leaves. Eleanor, left alone with Stanley and the Sheriff, says the prospect of death is her only comfort. Stanley promises that he will treat her like a duchess and as Gloucester’s wife. He invites her to throw off her penitential sheet and dress for the journey. Eleanor says her shame will not be shifted with the sheet but will always be with her. She asks him to lead the way to prison.
Eleanor knows that goodness and honesty are no protection against ruthless ambition, and she correctly names Gloucester’s enemies who are plotting against him. Gloucester dismisses his wife’s warnings. He is convinced that his innocence (in the sense of lack of guilt) will protect him. In this, he is an innocent (in the sense of politically naïve), in the same mold as the king.
Now that Gloucester is brought low, Eleanor has named his enemies, and the king is left alone and vulnerable, the stage is set for a coup.