Study Guide

Henry VI Part 2 Monsters

By William Shakespeare

Monsters

Bring your flashlight along to read Henry VI, Part 2, because there are a whole lot of monsters on these pages... and they don't stay hidden in the closet. Here are just a couple examples of what we mean:

  • When Gloucester describes his dream to his wife, he pictures a monster with many heads: "And on the pieces of the broken wand / were placed the heads of Edmund Duke of Somerset / and William de la Pole, first duke of Suffolk" (1.2.28-31).
  • Eleanor thinks about headless people standing in her way when she tells us: "I would remove these tedious stumbling blocks / and smooth my way upon their headless necks" (1.2.66-67). 
  • Gloucester's dead body is described horrifically: "But see, his face is black and full of blood; / his eyeballs further out than when he lived, / staring full ghastly, like a strangled man" (3.2.173-175). Now, that is not something we would ever like to see.
  • Suffolk has a strange way of saying goodbye to Margaret: "Here could I breathe my soul into the air, / as mild and gentle as the cradle babe / dying with mother's dug between its lips" (3.2.406-408).

Um, okay. Monsters—or at least monstrosities—are everywhere in this play. It turns out that a lot of writers used monstrous imagery to represent nasty, violent deeds back in Shakespeare's day. Many of his fellow playwrights—like Dekker, Fletcher, Massinger, Marlowe, and Chapman—described how multi-headed or decapitated figures came back to haunt their characters when something bad was about to happen, or just did happen.

Most of the time, the monster figure was tied up with political issues; it wasn't just a way of freaking audiences out. Monsters were supposed to represent the idea of something horrific and violent. Whenever a monstrous image shows up in this play, it's when a political maneuver is taking place—for example, when Gloucester is being booted out by the nobles, when Eleanor is trying to become high and mighty, and when Henry is forcing Suffolk to leave because of his crimes.

The monster is a sign to us that someone is making a big political move. The fact that these political moves are associated with monsters—and therefore with violence and horror—lets us know that, at least in Shakespeare's mind, politics usually involves pain, suffering, and death for a lot of people. Even though this play is essentially about a family squabble, lots of innocent people end up brutally killed because of it. It's not a nice thought.

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