Act Three, Scene One: The Bottom is Reached for Humphrey

Act Three, Scene One of The Second Part of Henry the Sixth presents the parliament at Bury Saint Edmunds to which Gloucester was summoned at the end of Act Two.  It begins with King Henry “mus(ing)” (III.i.1) why his uncle is late.

could it be the short notice he received?  dramatically possible but historically inaccurate (surprise surprise… but that and others will be a later topic)

Queen Margaret pounces on this, saying that this is out of character, then recounts that of late his character has changed; the Duke is now “proud (and) peremptory” (III.i.8).  Then she posits a reason for the change: Gloucester “is near (Henry) in descent, // And, should (Henry) fall, he is the next will mount” the throne (III.i.21-22).  She fears for her husband (“a woman’s fear” [III.i.36]) because there are “dangers in the duke” (III.i.25).  She admits that she may be wrong, and calls upon Suffolk, Buckingham and York to refute her claims, otherwise Henry should “conclude (her) words effectual” (III.i.41).

Suffolk concludes that Eleanor’s witchcraft was actually Gloucester’s fault: either she began her “devilish practices” because of the Duke’s “subornation” (III.i.46 and 45, respectively), or his mere position as the “successive heir… did instigate the bedlam brainsick duchess” (III.i.49, 51).  Wow, that’s stretch: because Gloucester was next in line, that incited Eleanor to learn witchcraft.

Winchester (unsolicited) accuses Gloucester of devising “strange deaths” (III.i.59) for criminal offenses; York even accuses Gloucester of raising taxes for the war, while the money never made it to the front.  Buckingham closes the dog-pile with the ominous statement that “these are petty faults to faults unknown” (III.i.64).

in other words, I can’t top your crimes, but I’m sure there are worse… just give me a minute, I’ll come up with something REALLY nasty.

Henry tries to argue against this, comparing Gloucester to a “lamb or the harmless dove” (III.i.71).  Margaret attacks both notions with the same argument: Gloucester is not what he seems to be.  Hot on the heels of her argument, Somerset (Regent of France) arrives with horrible news: all the French territories have been lost.  Henry shrugs off the news with a simple “God’s will be done” (III.i.86).  York in an aside registers his disappointment; after all, if he were to become King of England, he might also have a “hope” (III.i.87) of being King of France.

Gloucester arrives, and Suffolk immediately arrests him for “high treason” (III.i.97).  York recounts the “crimes” the other nobles have brought up earlier in the scene, and when Gloucester explains and denies all, Suffolk responds,

My lord, these faults are easy, quickly answered:
But mightier crimes are laid unto your charge,
Whereof you cannot easily purge yourself.

— III.i.133-135

But he doesn’t name those charges, using a strategy from the Buckingham playbook.

King Henry finally speaks and admits, “My conscience tells me you are innocent” (III.i.141).  In a long speech, Gloucester attempts warn Henry about these “dangerous times” (III.i.142), to which the nobles appeal to Henry to disbelieve the former Lord Protector.  Appeals turn to direct order, and then to direct action as Buckingham tells Winchester, “Lord Cardinal, he is your prisoner” (III.i.187).  The King has no control, and he realizes it as they take Gloucester away and he begins to leave himself: “My lords, what to your wisdoms seemeth best // Do or undo, as if ourself were here” (III.i.195-196).  He leaves, bemoaning innocent Gloucester’s arrest; he does nothing to stop it, but he can’t stop whining about it.

Upon his exit, the Queen leads the charge in plotting Gloucester’s death.  The nobles argue over the merits and legalities, and Winchester takes command and will “provide his executioner” (III.i.276).

After they agree to the plan, a messenger arrives with news of an Irish rebellion, to which they will send York to lead the English forces (though York mocking says that they should send Somerset since he had such great success in France).  Of course, it’s neither Henry or Queen Margaret who approves this assignment; Suffolk states, “Why, our authority is (Henry’s) consent” (III.i.316).  The Cabal is complete.

With promises of soldiers, York remains onstage while the others leave.  In a scene-ending soliloquy, York reveals his plan:  He will return from Ireland with an army (“a mighty band” [III.i.348]), and in the meantime, he will foment rebellion in England, using a man by the name of John Cade.  York with have Cade assume the guise of the late John Mortimer and raise in the “commons’ mind” (III.i.374) the idea and supremacy of the Yorkist claim.  If Cade is captured and tortured, York loses nothing; he gains public support.  If Cade succeeds in his rebellion, York will return from Ireland with an army to defeat him, and he will look magnanimous and gain public support.  Either way he wins.

He leaves the stage, and the scene ends.  And that’s where we’ll leave off today.  Scene Two begins with a depiction of Gloucester’s murder by smothering.

At this point in the play, we’ve had the subtitles “With the Death of the Good Duke Humphrey” and the seeds of “With the Notable Rebellion of Jack Cade” … but more on that tomorrow.