Study Guide

Henry VI Part 2 Religion

By William Shakespeare

Religion

KING HENRY
O Lord, that lends me life,
Lend me a heart replete with thankfulness!
For thou hast given me in this beauteous face
A world of earthly blessings to my soul,
If sympathy of love unite our thoughts. (1.1.22-26)

When Margaret is first presented to her husband and the court, Henry thanks God for his new wife. He shows that he believes God chose his wife and her to him. (We're not totally sure what the Big Guy would think of Margaret, to be honest.) Basically, Henry's beliefs seem to absolve him of any responsibility. After all, who would argue with God?

MARGARET
But all his mind is bent to holiness,
To number Ave Marys on his beads;
His champions are the prophets and apostles,
His weapons holy saws of sacred writ,
His study is his tiltyard, and his loves
Are brazen images of canonized saints. (1.3.57-62)

Margaret mocks Henry's overzealous habits to Suffolk. She wishes her husband were more like Suffolk, and she gets tired of Henry's religious behavior. We wonder whether Margaret has a problem with her husband's religion, or whether she just doesn't like the fact that it prevents him from focusing on the crown and ruling with an iron fist.

GLOUCESTER
What, cardinal, is your priesthood grown
   peremptory?
Tantaene animis caelestibus irae?
Churchmen so hot? Good uncle, hide such malice.
With such holiness, can you do it? (2.1.23-27)

While pretending to discuss hunting, Gloucester and Beaufort swap insults. Gloucester comes up with this Latin phrase, meaning: is there much anger in heavenly minds? The Protector calls Beaufort's church role (he's a cardinal) into question by asking whether or not he's behaving in a religious manner. Umm, this is Beaufort, so the answer is a resounding no.

KING HENRY
Now, God be praised, that to believing souls
Gives light in darkness, comfort in despair. (2.1.73-74)

Immediately after hearing about the "miracle" of Simpcox gaining his sight, Henry turns to praise God. His beliefs seem to run deep; they are always on his mind. But maybe this is not such a good thing: Henry believes so easily that he is totally fooled by Simpcox's story, even though Gloucester senses right away that it's a scam.

KING HENRY
Stand forth, Dame Eleanor Cobham, Gloucester's
   wife.
In sight of God and us, your guilt is great.
Receive the sentence of the law for sins
Such as by God's book are adjudged to death. (2.3.1-5)

Henry takes a back seat for pretty much every political action in the play, except for sentencing Eleanor and cohort after they have conjured witches. It's no coincidence that Henry feels comfortable dishing out punishment for this crime, specifically. Witchcraft goes directly against his religious beliefs, so that may be why it's so black and white to him. Still, we think it's a little strange that Henry feels so comfortable passing judgment here when he feels so uncomfortable passing judgment elsewhere. It almost seems like Henry deliberately tries not to think for himself.

PETER
I thank you all. Drink, and pray for me, I pray
you, for I think I have taken my last draught in this
world. Here, Robin, an if I die, I give thee my
apron.—And, Will, thou shalt have my hammer.—
And here, Tom, take all the money that I have. He
distributes his possessions.
O Lord, bless me, I
pray God, for I am never able to deal with my
master. He hath learnt me so much fence already. (2.3.74-81)

Peter asks for prayer because he's forced to fight Horner but has no idea how to fence. Horner is drunk during the fight, and Peter ends up winning. Henry thinks this is a sign that God has proven Peter's innocence. Is that the case? Or was Horner just drunk? It's strange that Henry only considers one of these possibilities.

KING HENRY
Peace to his soul, if God's good pleasure be!—
Lord Card'nal, if thou think'st on heaven's bliss,
Hold up thy hand; make signal of thy hope.
                                                            The Cardinal dies
.
He dies and makes no sign. O, God forgive him! (3.3.26-29)

Henry notices that Cardinal Beaufort dies without making a religious symbol. It's moving to Henry—and concerning to him, too. He decides to pray for the Beaufort, even though Beaufort helped murder Henry's friend and innocent confidant, Gloucester. It looks like Henry prefers to forgive than to judge.

KING HENRY
Forbear to judge, for we are sinners all.
Close up his eyes and draw the curtain close,
And let us all to meditation. (3.3.31-33)

After Warwick says Cardinal Beaufort must have been the worst guy ever, Henry defends him by saying that we've all done stuff we're not proud of. (Beaufort more than most, though, right?) It's characteristic that Henry focuses on forgiveness and understanding even here, after he's witnessed the death of a murderer.

KING HENRY
I'll send some holy bishop to entreat,
For God forbid so many simple souls
Should perish by the sword! And I myself,
Rather than bloody war shall cut them short. (4.4.9-12)

Here, Henry is answering Buckingham about what to do about the rebels. He doesn't want to fight (even though the rebels helped destroy his country); instead, he wants to save them all. Again, that's a nice thing to do, but it's debatable whether that's the right thing for a king to do. (There's no right answer.) Do you think Henry's religious beliefs about forgiveness and sinners get in the way of ruling his nation? Maybe the problems in the country run so deep that judgment and punishment won't save things, and Henry is right that what's needed is understanding? Or is it too late for that, as far as these rebels go?

SAYE
Ah, countrymen, if when you make your prayers,
God should be so obdurate as yourselves,
How would it fare with your departed souls?
And therefore yet relent, and save my life. (4.7.114-117)

Henry isn't the only religious one in the play: Lord Saye tells the commoners that they won't be able to live with themselves if they kill him unjustly. It doesn't do any good: he dies anyway. It does get us thinking about what is "just" and what isn't, though. Lord Saye talks about God judging souls, so what would God have to say about any of the nobles' behavior? How about the behavior of the rebels?

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