Study Guide

Henry VI Part 2 Weakness

By William Shakespeare

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I never read but England's kings have had
Large sums of gold and dowries with their wives;
And our King Henry gives away his own
To match with her that brings no vantages. (1.1.134-137)

York is shocked that Henry would give up lands to get Margaret. That's not something an English king should do—didn't Henry get the memo? York's comment tells the other nobles just how weak and selfish Henry is. Plus, it slams Margaret in the process. Win, win?

And force perforce I'll make him yield the crown,
Whose bookish rule hath pulled fair England down. (1.1.270-271)

Now York talks directly to us—the audience. With no one else on stage, he lays out his plan of attack. We'd like to focus on the fact that he calls Henry "bookish." York highlights the fact that the king is better fit to study or read than he is to rule. Check out the way he describes getting the crown. York doesn't say "fight" or "battle," but simply "make him yield," as if it's that simple. With Henry, it might be. One question we have: why is it better for a king to be warlike than to be "bookish"? What does this tell us about society in this play?

Is this the fashions in the court of England?
Is this the government of Britain's isle
And this the royalty of Albion's king?
What shall King Henry be a pupil still
Under the surly Gloucester's governance? (1.3.45-49)

Even Henry's wife thinks he's weak: Margaret describes Henry as a student in Gloucester's class, meaning that Henry still can't think for himself and needs guidance. He's so weak that he can't even control his nobles. It seems like Shakespeare goes out of his way to include lines from different characters about Henry. The nobles might be fighting with each other, but they agree on one thing: the fact that Henry is weak.

For my part, noble lords, I care not which;
Or Somerset or York, all's one to me. (1.3.104-105)

At least no one can accuse Henry of lying: he openly admits he doesn't care who is regent. He's not interested in reigning, but then he gets surprised when someone challenges his crown. It's his by divine right... isn't it?

Henry my lord is cold in great affairs,
Too full of foolish pity; and Gloucester's show
Beguiles him, as the mournful crocodile
With sorrow snares relenting passengers, (3.1.226-229)

Telling Suffolk and Beaufort that Gloucester should be dead regardless of what he's done, Margaret paints us an unflattering picture of her hubby: Henry gets easily trapped in a crocodile's teeth, she claims. Well, she should know, we guess. Who's the real crocodile here: Gloucester, or Margaret and company?

Suffolk's imperial tongue is stern and rough,
Used to command, untaught to plead for favor.
Far be it we should honor such as these
With humble suit (4.1.129-132).

On the brink of death, Suffolk tells Whitmore that he won't be weak or beg for mercy. He'll stay strong until the end. He shows us how most men in the play think: they have to be courageous and tough until the end. His valor makes us compare him to Henry in our minds. Maybe the problem isn't that Henry is bookish or religious; it could just be that he won't stand up for himself, even when he's got right on his side.

Was ever king that joyed an earthly throne
And could command no more content than I?
No sooner was I crept out of my cradle
But I was made a king at nine months old.
Was never subject longed to be a king
As I do long and wish to be a subject. (4.9.1-6)

Henry doesn't want to be king, and he complains about not being happy with his life. He's pretty honest about himself and his own abilities. Are we sympathetic toward him because he admits he's not the right guy for the job? He knows he's weak, but he sits back and does nothing. Does this make us annoyed with him all the more?

Kent from me, she hath lost her best man, and
exhort all the world to be cowards; for I, that never
feared any, am vanquished by famine, not by valor. (4.10.75-77)

Cade's dying wish is to be remembered as more than a coward. He wants people to remember his rebellious streak—and the fact that he led an army to the king's door. Still, he is weak from not eating; acting strong can only get you so far on an empty stomach.

I am far better born than is the King,
More like a king, more kingly in my thoughts.
But I must make fair weather yet awhile,
Till Henry be more weak and I more strong. (5.1.29-32)

York pretends he's not going to steal the kingdom; he's just going to remove Somerset. These words might just be part of his game, but they also reveal what he believes about himself compared to Henry. York admits he's better than Henry, and that it's just a matter of time until Henry's forces are weakened. Too bad for Henry that this happens immediately after York's little speech.

Three times bestrid him. Thrice led him off,
Persuaded him from any further act;
But still, where danger was, still there I met him,
And like rich hangings in a homely house,
So was his will in his old feeble body. (5.3.10-14)

Richard says that Salisbury is weak in body but not in mind. Salisbury might be physically weak due to age, but he sure knows how to fight. His comments show us that weakness is not just about brute strength.

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