Act Two of The Third Part of Henry the Sixth begins with the state of kings reversed from the beginning of the play as a whole. Where Henry had been forced to relinquish the future of the throne of England–allowing for the Yorkist line to ascend in exchange for his retaining the crown for his own lifetime–now, York is dead, killed by both Queen Margaret and Lord Clifford.
With this reversal, it’s no surprise that the opening line of Act Two, Scene One is an ironic parallel to the play’s opening. Young Edward Plantagenet asks his brother Richard “I wonder how our princely father scaped // Or whether he be scaped away or no” (II.i.1-2); this recalls Warwick the Kingmaker’s opening line of the play (“I wonder how the king escaped our hands” [I.i.1]).
York’s sons are concerned for their father’s safety, but not panicked. When there is a omen in the sky (three suns appear then join into one), neither worries of its meaning: Edward decides that on his shield he will now “bear // Upon my target three fair-shining suns” (II.i.39-40); Richard, meanwhile, is so unconcerned that he makes a bawdy joke in response to his brother’s decision, stating that he should put “three daughters” (II.i.41) on his shield. And it is into this jovial scene that a messenger arrives with a very accurate eyewitness account of their father’s death.
let’s face facts, eyewitnesses are not always the most dependable sources in Shakespeare
hmmm, maybe this needs to be a topic of discussion this month
While Edward doesn’t want to hear the details, Richard wants to “hear it all” (II.i.49) to fuel his anger and vengeance. Interestingly, this continues and intensifies Shakespeare’s contrasting of the two brothers.
Following the details, Edward is distraught, crying, “Never, O never, shall I see more joy” (II.i.78). Richard’s response is less sad than angry:
I cannot weep, for all my body’s moisture
Scarce serves to quench my furnace-burning heart...
To weep is to make less the depth of grief:
Tears then, for babes; blows and revenge for me!
— II.i.79-80, 85-86
Richard’s anger lashes out at all. He chides Edward for referring his inherited titles as the “dukedom and his chair” rather than “throne and kingdom” (II.i.90 and 93), and he nearly attacks a newly arrived Warwick for perceived cowardice (why is Warwick alive when York is dead?). His attack on Warwick has its intended effect, though: Warwick is now ready again to go to war and take the battle to the Queen. And it’s a good thing, too, as the Queen is heading toward them with a powerful and “puissant host” (II.i.207).
Act Two, Scene Two begins outside the walls of York, where the dead Duke’s head is “thrust out, above” the stage (II.ii opening stage direction). Henry, Margaret and their nobles appear, and Margaret asks Henry if York’s head on a stick “cheer (Henry’s) heart” (II.ii.4). Not so much. Henry rails against the sight, saying that it “irks (his) soul,” and begs God to “withhold revenge” since he has “(un)wittingly…infringed (his) vow” (II.ii.6, 7, and 8). Clifford chides Henry for his vow to disinherit his own son, a son who Margaret forces Henry to knight a handful of lines later.
When word arrives that Warwick and the Yorks are on their way (with “thirty thousand men” [II.ii.68]), Clifford tells Henry, “I would your highness would depart the field– // The queen hath best success when you are absent” (II.ii.73-74).
Henry is unable to leave before the Yorkist arrival, and Edward immediately calls for “perjured Henry” (II.ii.81) to beg forgiveness and immediately crown him as King. Henry doesn’t respond, but Margaret does, “Go rate thy minions, proud insulting boy!” (II.ii.84). Her use of “minions” is of note, here. While the usually accepted meaning is that of “favorite” (Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition on CD-ROM [v. 4.0]), another meaning is “mistress” (OED), tying in with her earlier derogatory description of Edward as “wanton” (I.iv.75).
Edward’s demand of the throne, however, takes a backseat to revenge when Clifford reveals himself. The remainder of the scene descends into the pre-battle smack-talk, first between Clifford and Richard, then between Prince Edward and Richard (who questions the legitimacy of the boy’s birth), and finally between Edward Plantagenet and Margaret (as the former berates the latter as a whore who has ruined both England and Henry). But pre-battle smack-talk must give way to the actual battle, and thus Scene Three begins.
On the battlefield, Warwick enters “Forespent with toil” (II.iii.1), and he pauses for a rest. He is immediately joined by Edward and George, who bemoan the situation (“Edward’s sun is clouded” [II.iii.7]). Richard enters as well, but he doesn’t say anything about losing; the warrior only wants to know why Warwick isn’t revenging his brother’s death at the hands of [guess who? you guessed it] Clifford. Again, it seems Warwick just needs prompting… because suddenly he’s ready to rejoin the battle. Warwick and Edward both kneel and pray to God for help. Richard, no surprise, does not pray. And they head back into the battle.
Scene Four finds Richard finding Clifford, and the two do battle. According to the stage directions, Clifford gets the better of it, as Warwick “comes and rescues Richard” (II.iv.11 s.d.). The short scene ends with Richard in pursuit.
Scene Five finds Henry sitting on a “molehill” (II.v.14… like the spot of York’s death in I.iv.68), overlooking the battle. The philosophical king ponders the meaning of all this, and wonders what his life would be like if he wasn’t a king: “a happy life // To be no better than a homely swain” (II.v.22). He concludes that it would be better to be a shepherd than a prince for whom “care, mistrust, and treason waits” (II.v.54).
From his vantage point on the hill, Henry watches as a Lancastrian Soldier carries “a dead Yorkist Soldier in his arms” (II.v.54 s.d.), a soldier through whose clothes the Lancastrian Soldier will search for money (even through he knows that “ere night” [II.v.59] he may be dead as well giving up both his and the dead soldier’s money). But when the Lancastrian Soldier removes the dead man’s helmet, he makes a horrible discovery: “O God! It is my father’s face // Whom in this conflict I, unwares, have killed” (II.v.61-62). Henry is horrified by what he sees…. but it only gets worse.
Henry sees “another Soldier with a dead man in his arms” (II.v.78 s.d.) come onto the stage. When this Soldier, too, removes his victim’s helmet, he finds his “only son” (II.v.83), a death resulting from
this miserable age.
What stratagems, how fell, how butcherly,
Erroneous, mutinous, and unnatural,
This deadly quarrel daily doth beget!
This forces Henry to realize his own culpability in all this: “O that my death would stay these ruthful deeds!” (II.v.95). But even this realization is for naught: when his son and wife arrive to tell him to flee the field, he does, “Not that (he) fear(s) to stay, but love to go // Whither the queen intends” (II.v.138-139). Henry is so pathetic that he will allow the War of the Roses to continue, just so that he might feel some affection from Queen Margaret.
In the sixth and final scene of Act Two, Clifford enters onto the field of battle, “wounded with an arrow in his neck” (II.vi opening s.d.); he is a man on his last legs. And in his last moments of consciousness, he comes to the same realization as Henry in the previous scene: All this is Henry’s fault. Then he collapses.
At the same moment, Edward, George, Richard and Warwick (and their followers) enter. They find him, attempt to revive him to kill him, attempt to taunt him to stir him, but nothing works. Clifford is dead. The Yorkists have been robbed of revenge. Warwick, the Kingmaker, always the pragmatist, is ready to move on: a triumphant march to London where Edward will “crowned as England’s royal king” (II.vi.88). In the meantime, Warwick will go to France to arrange for a marriage to the French princess, Lady Bonne. Edward agrees not only to the coronation and marriage, but promises to “never… undertake the thing // Wherein (Warwick’s) counsel and consent is wanting” (II.vi.101-102). Before the scene ends, Edward also names Richard Duke of Gloucester, and George Duke of Clarence.
And with fortunes again reversed, and the Yorkists on top, the second act ends.