Study Guide

King Henry VI in Henry VI Part 2

By William Shakespeare

King Henry VI

At all times, King Henry VI is a noble and sweet guy. He values peace and hates achieving it through war; he's super hesitant to fight when York wants to duke it out; he's full of thought-provoking words rather than damning and threatening ones. These are all great attributes to have as a person… but at least in this society, these are not necessarily great attributes to have as a king under threat.

Henry is humble, but this means that he's weak when it comes to defending his throne.

Henry lets his nobles and his wife take advantage of him at every turn. He can't even make simple decisions without turning to Gloucester for advice. Basically, he's just a figurehead: instead of ruling, Henry just wants to chuck it all and go off to pray. He's very religious, and that bothers Margaret. She even mocks her husband's beliefs to Suffolk: "all his mind is bent to holiness, / to number Ave Marys on his beads" (1.3.57-58).

Holy Cow

Henry's faith becomes a big topic in the play. Margaret can't understand why he cares more about praying than ruling; Gloucester gets annoyed that he believes in a miracles and would rather ask God to judge Peter and Horner than actually decide for himself.

Henry's religious remarks constantly fall on deaf ears; nobody around him cares for much besides power.

Why does Shakespeare go on and on about this guy's religion? It could just be historical: the real King Henry VI was supposedly quite pious. It might be Shakespeare's way of showing how Henry is different than the nobles around him. While others around him are exploiting and killing each other in order to gain more power, Henry's just not into that kind of nastiness—he's too busy thanking God for the (supposedly) good things in his life, like Margaret and miracles.

What we do know is that Henry's nobles think the king's focus on religion is evidence of his weakness. Henry doesn't seem to make decisions for himself; he either relies on religion or simply fails to decide when big issues come up. York comments on how Henry's "bookish rule hath pulled fair England down" (1.1.271). He's sick of Henry ruining the country by sitting around and doing nothing; he thinks Henry is better suited to a library than a throne. Ouch.

We've got to admit that Henry does seem to rely a lot on God to make his decisions for him. When Simpcox first claims to have experienced a miracle, Henry exclaims, "Now, God be praised, that to believing souls / gives light in darkness, comfort in despair" (2.1.73-74). Later, he doesn't want to sentence Horner and Peter himself, so he tells everyone, "I' God's name, see the lists and all things fit. / Here let them end it, and God defend the right!" (2.3.56-57).

What's up with that? Why doesn't Henry just make his own decisions? Well, it seems like Henry acts this way because he believes God is controlling his life (and everyone else's too). When York brings the battle to him, Henry asks, "Can we outrun the heavens?" (5.2.74). It's as though he's just a puppet in God's master plan. In fact, Henry doesn't like to act on his own at all.

A Weak King?

A lot of people think Henry is a weak king. After all, he seems too scared to fight, and he can't keep his nobles under control. It seems like a lot of his problems could be avoided if he were a stronger king—"stronger" in this context meaning more conniving and more violent.

A lot of scary stuff goes down in this play, and Henry manages to survive it, but his battle isn't over yet. He's already tried to fight off the French (and lost) in Henry VI, Part 1, and he's fought against his own men in this play, but next time we see him, he'll be going one-on-one with York in Henry VI, Part 3.

Now, it's clear that Henry's survived this long because he's got some powerful people around him—Margaret, Gloucester, Suffolk, and others—making some big decisions behind the king's back. It's true that he's not really in control of his situation, and it doesn't seem like sheer faith is going to get him out of it. But does this make him a weak king?

That depends on your definition of kingship. In this play, the people who have power—and the people who want it—are almost uniformly nasty (some more than others). Power and politics seem to draw in some the most selfish, scheming, violent people in the kingdom. In order to win against people like this, Henry would have to be a lot more selfish, scheming, and violent himself. But is this a good thing? Why should a king have to be like that?

If we just see Henry as a weak king, we'll miss part of Shakespeare's message. If good, decent people can't survive in this play's world of politics, then something might be wrong with that world. Sure, we might want Henry to have a little more backbone, but would it really be a good thing if he were just like Margaret or Suffolk?

The closer we look at this play, the less it seems to be about one supposedly weak king, and the more it seems to be about the scary, complicated world of politics.

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