Act Four, Scene One: Murdered by Pirates is Good (yeah, I know they’re not pirates, but I couldn’t resist)

Act Four, Scene One of The Second Part of Henry the Sixth takes place on a ship, one that has just boarded the ship taking Suffolk off to banishment.  The captain of the ship disperses the three prisoners (including a disguised Suffolk) to his cohorts (so that they may be ransomed).  Suffolk is ready to pay his ransom for release until he hears the name of his captor: Walter Whitmore.  When he hears the name, however, he “starts” such that Whitmore asks, “What does thee affright?” (both IV.i.33).  Suffolk’s answer is simple:

Thy name affrights me, in whose sound is death.
A cunning man did calculate my birth,
And told me that by Water I should die

— IV.i.34-36

Why is this important? According to Asimov, “‘Walter’ was, in medieval times, frequently pronounced “Water,” so that a common shortened form was Wat, as in Wat Tyler.  The common use of Wat as a first name is reflected in the common use of Watson as a surname” (Asimov, Isaac. Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare. New York: Doubleday, 1970; page II-601).

OK, fine… so what?  Obviously, a fortune-teller or an astrologer (“cunning man” who “calculate[s]… birth[dates]”) had told Suffolk earlier that he would die by water.  Remember, too, that when Suffolk heard what the spirit had proclaimed during Duchess Eleanor’s session, he said in an aside: “By water must the Duke of Suffolk die? // It must be so, or else the devil doth lie” (II.i.185-186).  He believes the original prophecy and he remembers the spirit’s prediction, and now he is scared.

Suffolk attempts to buy his way out of his fate by revealing his identity: “a prince, // The Duke of Suffolk” (IV.i.47-48).  Neither Whitmore nor the Captain is impressed.  Suffolk, afraid of Whitmore, insults and verbally attacks the Captain as a “swain” and “base slave” (IV.i.51 and 68, respectively).  The Captain responds by calling him not by his title, but by his name (Pole), then recounting his crimes: smiling at Gloucester’s death (IV.i.76), marrying off Henry to “the daughter of a worthless king” (IV.i.81), and selling Anjou and Main to France (IV.i.86).

Suffolk tries another tack by saying that he is a messenger of the queen of France, and thus protected and should be allowed to travel across the English Channel.  When Whitmore doesn’t accept that line of reasoning, “fear” again grips Suffolk (IV.i.119), but not so much that he begs for his life.  No, too proud for that, he is arrogant to the end:

No, rather let my head
Stoop to the block than these knees bow to any
Save to the God of heaven, and to my king;
And sooner dance upon a bloody pole
Than stand uncovered to the vulgar groom.

— IV.i.126-130

It’s not the wisest strategy for Suffolk, and Whitmore takes him away, even as Suffolk blathers on how his “death may never be forgot” (IV.i.135 s.d.).

When we see him next, less than ten lines later, Whitmore enters “with Suffolk’s head and body” (IV.i.143), and the two are no longer together.  Suffolk, true to the prophecy, is dead by Walter/water, and dead by the water (they’re on a ship, remember).

It’s a “barbarous and bloody spectacle” (IV.i.146), and it concludes yet another portion of the original title’s subtitle: “and the Banishment and Death of the Duke of Suffolk.”

Tomorrow, another portion of the subtitle… “the Notable Rebellion of Jack Cade.”