Act Summaries

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Last Updated on January 6, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1023

Act I
At the court, the marriage of King Henry VI and Margaret, daughter of the duke of Anjou, is announced and the terms of the peace agreement with France is read out. Neither pleases the nobles. The nobles squabble among themselves about who will have power in a country ruled by a weak king. In the next scene, the duchess of Gloucester reveals her ambitions for her husband, Lord Protector and heir to the throne. She intends to summon a witch to predict future events. When she does so, Buckingham and York arrest her and plan the downfall of her husband. In a scene involving the common people, a petitioner accuses his master of arguing that the duke of York is the rightful heir to the throne. When the case is brought before the king, he asks for a ruling from Gloucester, who judges that the master and his servant must fight in single combat to decide the truth. Gloucester also decides that Somerset will be regent in France rather than York.

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Act II
This act opens with a falconing scene full of allusions to the high-flying ambitions of the nobility. To the assembled nobles and the king and queen, a commoner named Saunder Simpcox, and his wife enter claiming that his sight has been restored by a miracle worked by Saint Albon. The king believes their story; Gloucester cleverly reveals their deception and sentences them to be whipped. Buckingham enters and announces the arrest of the duchess of Gloucester for consorting with witches and plotting the downfall of the king. The king banishes her for life, orders the other conspirators to be executed, and strips Gloucester of his role as Lord Protector. The duke of Gloucester speaks with his wife as she goes to her banishment; she predicts his downfall at the hands of his enemies. In a brief scene in between the announcement of the duchess's crime and her punishment, York explains to Salisbury and his son, Warwick, why his claim to the throne is superior to the king's. They swear allegiance to York. Meanwhile Gloucester is summoned to appear at the next session of Parliament

In Parliament, the queen, Suffolk, Winchester, Buckingham, and York outline the supposed faults in Gloucester that should lead the king to arrest him. The queen argues that Gloucester is an ambitious man and therefore dangerous. Suffolk speaks of Gloucester as deceitful and suggests he may have had a role in the duchess of Gloucester's plot against the king. Winchester, York, and Buckingham also make note of Gloucester's alleged offences, but the king defends Gloucester. Somerset, the regent in France, enters to announce that all the English lands in France have been lost. Gloucester enters and is arrested by Suffolk for high treason. The king makes no effort to save Gloucester even though he thinks him loyal, but leaves the stage distracted with grief. The queen, Suffolk, York, and Winchester decide to kill Gloucester before he even comes to trial. A messenger enters to announce that a dangerous rebellion has broken out in Ireland; the nobles decide to send York to quell the uprising. York sees this as an opportunity to win the crown and mentions the workers' uprising led by Jack Cade that will soon occur and which he has incited. Two murderers, on the orders of Suffolk and Winchester, kill Gloucester and try to make it look like a natural death. Warwick examines Gloucester's body, explains why it is clear that he was murdered, and accuses Suffolk and Winchester of the crime. Suffolk and Warwick fight. Salisbury enters to announce that the common people want Suffolk to be banished or put to death for the murder of Gloucester, whom they loved. In response, the king banishes Suffolk from England. Vaux enters to announce that Winchester is near death from a sudden illness. On his deathbed, Winchester admits to the king, Salisbury, and Warwick that he is guilty of Gloucester's murder.

Act IV
Suffolk is captured by pirates and executed. Cade and his men enter. Before he fights the king's men led by Sir Humphrey Stafford and his brother, Cade awards himself a knighthood and names himself Sir John Mortimer (a legitimate claimant to the throne). The two sides fight; Cade's is victorious. The king and queen accompanied by Buckingham and Lord Say are told of the rebels' progress and demands; the queen bemoans the death of Suffolk, whose head is brought in. The rebels' successes continue so that the king has to retreat to Killingworth. The rebels, led by an increasingly power-mad Cade, capture Lord Say and his son-in-law and execute both. Buckingham and Lord Clifford parley with Cade and his men. Cade's men go over to the king's side, persuaded by the promise of a pardon and patriotic talk of the need to fight in France not in England. Cade flees, goes into hiding, and is killed by a landowner, Alexander Iden, who finds him stealing food from his garden. In the meantime, York has returned from Ireland with an army and demanded that the traitorous Somerset be arrested. The king sends Buckingham to parley with York and orders Somerset to be confined in the Tower of London.

Act V
Camped at Saint Albons, York is temporarily appeased at Buckingham's news that Somerset has been imprisoned in the Tower. Then the queen enters accompanied by Somerset, who is clearly free. In a rage, York asserts his right to the throne. Somerset arrests him for treason, and the nobles line up in support of one group or the other. The Cliffords side with the king; York's sons, Edward and Richard, support their father as do Warwick and Salisbury. The two sides fight at the battle of Saint Albons. York and his supporters win. Old Clifford is slain by York; young Clifford (who discovers his father's body) swears brutal vengeance on York and his family. Richard, son of York and the future Richard III, kills Somerset. The king and queen flee back to London. York and his allies follow in hot pursuit intent on capturing the king before he can hold a parliament and declare them traitors.

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