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SCENE SUMMARY WITH NOTES
ACT II, SCENE 1
The scene takes place in St. Albans. King Henry, Margaret, Gloucester, Cardinal Beaufort and Suffolk enter with falconers. The queen says that she has enjoyed the hawking and has not seen better sport in seven years. The king remarks that Gloucester’s falcon had flown the highest, and Suffolk mockingly implies that this is a sign of Gloucester’s desire to usurp King Henry.
Gloucester retorts by saying that it is only men with mean and ignoble minds who want to rise higher than a bird can soar. The Cardinal sarcastically says that he had thought the duke would be above the clouds. Gloucester replies it would be easy for a clergyman like the Cardinal to fly to heaven, which is higher than the clouds. An exchange of hot words occurs between Gloucester and Suffolk and the Cardinal. Gloucester condemns the Cardinal’s show of holiness, which hides his jealous heart. The king makes a request for peace. Although they subside, the nobles grumble at each other inwardly.
The king remarks that the winds have grown high, just like their tempers. He asks them to let him settle this dispute. Suddenly, a man enters and announces that a miracle has happened. A blind man at St. Alban’s shrine recovered his sight half an hour ago. The king praises God for giving light to those in darkness and comfort to those in despair. The Mayor of St. Albans enters with townspeople, including the previously blind man, Simpcox.
The king questions the man as to the details of his blindness and the cure. Simpcox replies that he was born blind at Berwick in the north, and that he was an ardent devotee of Saint Alban, who asked him in a dream to come to the holy shrine. The Cardinal observes that the man was lame also. Simpcox says that he fell from a plum tree while plucking plums for his wife. Gloucester tests him by asking the color of the cloak in his hand, to which Simpcox correctly replies (red), and the color of his gown, which is black. Then Gloucester asks him the names of those present, but Simpcox cannot answer.
Gloucester wonders why Simpcox cannot answer his question and why Saint Alban did not also restore Simpcox’s legs to a normal state. He then appeals to the masters of St. Albans to bring the beadle (parish officer) and a stool and a whip. When he is threatened with whipping, Simpcox gets up and runs away, and some of the townspeople cry out that another miracle has occurred.
Buckingham enters and tells the king that under the leadership of Eleanor, the Protector’s wife, a group of people has raised wicked spirits from hell and questioned them about the fate of the king. Gloucester, horrified at his wife’s shameful conduct, says sorrowfully that grief has vanquished all his powers. He assures everyone that he loves the king and the nation, and that if his wife has forgotten “honour and virtue,” he will “banish” her (get a separation from her) for dishonoring his name. The King decides to go back to London the next day to look into this business thoroughly and to see that justice is done.
The king and the queen are hawking (hunting with falcons and other birds of prey) at St. Albans. The scene exposes the hostility among the nobles and their animosity towards Gloucester.
Hawking at a river or brook was a royal sport. A stream was chosen with sedge or bushes along the banks and preferably with open ground for the horses on either side. Duck, and other minor wild fowl, were roused out of the cover with the help of spaniels and beaters with poles. Then they were pursued by the falcons. The prey could return to the safety of the cover or plunge into the stream.
The conversation of King Henry with the queen begins the scene, and Henry exclaims how God has given men and birds alike the desire to climb higher and higher: “To see how God in all his creatures works!/ Yea, man and birds are fain (fond) of climbing high.” The religious allusions throughout the scene are typical of Henry. In all his appearances, he lends a religious tone to the scene.
The verbal duel between the Cardinal and Gloucester shows the extent of the animosity existing between the two. The Cardinal’s words express his distrust of Gloucester: “Thy heaven is on earth; thine eyes and thoughts/ Beat on a crown, the treasure of thy heart.” For his part, Gloucester accuses the Cardinal of hiding the malice in his heart with an outer covering of holiness.
The exposure of Simpcox by Gloucester demonstrates the crafty workings of false miracles by the clergy of that time. The king is completely blind to such behavior on the part of the clergy, but Gloucester exposes the fraud of Simpcox and his wife. Just when Gloucester has achieved this triumph, the news of his wife’s evil deed arrives to mark the turn of the wheel of fortune and the beginning of his decline. Buckingham announces that Duchess Eleanor has led a group of suspicious characters in actions against the king. Gloucester’s grief at hearing of his wife’s crime is evident. This terrible blow is his “reward” for being an honest and sincere Protector.