Act One, Scene One of The Second Part of Henry the Sixth ended (yesterday) with a soliloquy by York outlining his ambitious goal: the throne of England. After he exits, enter Humphrey Duke of Gloucester and his wife Eleanor, who questions him on his gloom. She asks what he sees on “the sullen earth” (I.ii.5), and wonders if it is “King Henry’s diadem, // Enchased with all the honors of the world” (I.ii.7-8); and if it is the crown he sees, then her advice is to “gaze on… until (his) head be circled with the same” (I.ii.9-10). She goes on to tell how she’ll help him achieve the crown through her support.
Gloucester, horrified by the thought, tells her to “Banish the canker of ambitious thoughts” (I.ii.18), then recounts to her the cause of his gloom: a nightmare in which the staff (the symbol of his position in the court) is broken and onto each part were impaled the heads of Suffolk and Somerset. Eleanor dismisses the dream, and offers up one of her own, one in which she is “in seat of majesty… Where Henry and Dame Margaret kneeled to (her), // And on (her) head did sit the diadem” (I.ii.36, 39-40). But her husband is still disgusted by the concept, and he “chide(s)” her for being “presumptuous” and “ill-nurtured,” and for “hammering treachery” (I.ii.41, 42, 42, and 47, respectively).
After he leaves her alone onstage, she shares her thoughts and they most definitely sound like a dry run for speeches later in Shakespeare’s career, speeches that belong to another noblewoman with kingly ambitions for her husband:
Follow I must; I cannot go before,
While Gloucester bears this base and humble mind.
Were I a man, a duke, and next of blood,
I would remove these tedious stumbling-blocks
And smooth my way upon their headless necks;
And, being a woman, I will not be slack
To play my part in Fortune’s pageant.
Compare with Lady Macbeth as she calls upon her spirits to remove her womanhood and make her the man:
Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts! unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top full
Of direst cruelty; make thick my blood,
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief!
— Macbeth: I.v.39-49
Pretty compelling, eh? (‘specially when we factor in the supernatural elements of each play)
Before she leaves the stage, she calls for Hume, an ally and priest; she asks if he has “yet conferred / With Marjorie Jordan, the cunning witch of Eye, // (and) With Roger Bolingbroke, the conjurer” (I.i.74-76). He has, and they’ve promised to raise a “spirit” (I.ii.79) to answer all her questions of the future. But when she leaves him alone onstage, we learn he’s no ally at all, but a double agent working for “Suffolk and the cardinal” (I.ii.101) and against both Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, with the goal of “Humphrey’s fall” (I.ii.106).
Interesting word she uses. In Shakespeare’s day, “cullion” did mean a “despicable, or vile fellow; a rascal” (Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition on CD-ROM [v. 4.0]), but this was the secondary meaning. The primary meaning? “A testicle” (OED). Classy lady, that Queen Margaret…
Next, we see some of the common people’s support for Gloucester that Cardinal Winchester noted earlier (I.i.156), as petitioners ready themselves to deliver their petitions to him. But Gloucester doesn’t happen by, Suffolk and Queen Margaret do, and they are the absolute wrong audience for these petitions: the first is against “the Cardinal’s man” (I.iii.18), the second against Suffolk himself “for enclosing the commons of … (a) township” (I.iii.22-23,26), and the last against someone who claimed that “the Duke of York was rightful heir to the crown” (I.iii.28-29). She calls the petitioners “base cullions” (I.iii.43), tears their petitions, and sends them on their way.
After she sends the commons packing, she’s alone with Suffolk, in whom she confides her disappointment in Henry, whom she assumed would have
In courage, courtship, and proportion:
But all his mind is bent to holiness,
To number Ave-Maries on his beads;
His champions are the prophets and apostles;
His weapons holy saws of sacred writ;
His study is his tilt-yard, and his loves
Are brazen images of canoniz’d saints.
I would the college of the cardinals
Would choose him pope, and carry him to Rome,
And set the triple crown upon his head:
That were a state fit for his holiness.
She doesn’t want a celibate priest, she insinuates, but a real man (in “courage, courtship, and proportion”… and it doesn’t take too great a leap of scholarship to go from her use of “cullion” to take her use of “proportion” to mean “relation existing between things or magnitudes as to size” [OED], and here I most certainly do NOT mean the relative heights of the men (if you know what I mean, nudge nudge wink wink). Suffolk understands completely and asks her to be “patient” until he can “work (her) full content” (I.iii.68, 70).
With such an assistant, she is more than willing to outline those she wants to destroy: Gloucester, Winchester, Somerset, Buckingham, York, and (especially) Duchess Eleanor; it’s amazing that she explicitly names each and every one of her targets, but she does. Suffolk notes that he has already laid a trap for Gloucester and his wife, and “this late complaint” (I.iii.100) of the petitioners will “make but little for (York’s) benefit” (I.iii.101), and he outlines his plan: “So one by one we’ll weed them all at last, // And you yourself shall steer the happy helm” (I.iii.102-103).
Into this conversation come Henry and his nobles, discussing the regency of France; the candidates are York and Somerset, and while the post is an honor, it seems that each is more than willing (eager, in fact) for the other to take the post. Remember, the war in France is not going well, and having this on the resume may not be the best for later political advancement. This squabble, however, expands to Gloucester’s Protectorship as both Margaret and Suffolk (no surprise) call for his resignation; Winchester, Somerset and Buckingham waste no time piling on. When Gloucester walks off to cool off, Queen Margaret drops her glove, and “accidentally” mistakes Duchess Eleanor for a servant and “box(es the Duchess) on the ear” (I.iii.141 ff s.d.) when Eleanor fails to pick up the glove. Eleanor storms off, just as Gloucester returns, his “choler being overblown” (I.iii.155); and with this cooler head, he attempts to move the subject back to the original one, the regency of France, and he puts his support behind York.
But Suffolk wants to “show some reason” (I.iii.166) why York isn’t the right man for the job. And surprise, surprise, the earlier petitioner (the third one) arrives on the scene. The petitioner restates his claim that the man in question supported York’s claim to the throne; the accused denies the charge. The fallout is simple: Somerset is named the French Regent, and the petitioner and the accused will settle the matter in “single combat” (I.iii.211). York’s reputation is sullied, and now there’s (greater) suspicion that he has designs on the crown.
And as we know from Act One, Scene One… that’s true
In Scene Four, the last of the first act, we see Eleanor’s conjuration ambush. We meet the witch Marjorie Jordan and the conjurer Roger Bolingbroke, and we see their handiwork, as they bring forth Asnath, a spirit. Asnath, in true oracular form, answers Eleanor’s questions in the most ambiguous manner: to a question of the King’s fate, the answer is “The duke yet lives that Henry shall depose, // But him outlive, and die a violent death” (I.iv.30-31). Huh? Who’s being deposed? Who’s outliving whom? Who dies a violent death? Damn oracles.
As the spirit disappears (to thunder and lightning, no less), York and Buckingham break in and arrest Bolingbroke, Jordan, Hume, and the Duchess. York sends Buckingham to deliver the news of the arrest to Henry and Gloucester, who are at Saint Albans (keep that name in the memory bank). And the first act ends. There’s not a great bit of action (though the witchcraft was a nice touch), but a great amount of intrigue. It bodes well for the rest of the play.
did anyone else catch that it was York that arrested the witch? hmmmm, he’s making a habit of this: Joan la Pucelle in The First Part, Marjorie Jordan here… any bets on The Third Part?