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King Henry VI
He is the son of Henry V, whom he succeeded at the age of nine months, in 1422. While he was a minor, England was ruled by a council, and his uncle, Duke Humphrey of Gloucester, was the Protector. His reign was not a peaceful one: it was a period of war with France and within the kingdom. It was also a time of dynastic strife. King Henry is portrayed as a pious young man, who knows what is right, but is unable to prevent what is wrong.
After the death of Gloucester, his religious inclinations make him blind to the realities of life. His tendency to judge and accept men’s actions as “the will of God” makes him known as a good man, but not a great man. He constantly looks to heaven for miracles. He considers the restoration of Simon Simpcox’s eyesight and the news that the Cade rebellion has been suppressed as “miracles.” He faces a very complex political problem and is himself in an ethical dilemma. Immediately after Duchess Eleanor’s execution, Henry, prompted by his wife, asks Gloucester, who is a sort of “father figure” to him, to resign. The action is very bold; he no longer supports the duke publicly although he makes notable expressions of grief.
On hearing the news of the duke’s death, the king faints. He loved the duke, but was unable to prevent his murder. Suffolk is merely banished for the crime. King Henry’s pious nature appears comic and inadequate at certain times. After the loss of the French territories, he says, “God’s will be done.” In the final scene, when he witnesses Richard’s savage slaughter of Somerset, he cannot tear himself away from the impending danger. The king is portrayed as a good man but as an inefficient ruler, which he himself realizes in the end. He is an innocent man who loses his illusions very quickly. His role is too insignificant to be that of a true hero.
She marries Henry VI by proxy at Nancy in 1445, with Suffolk as the king’s representative. In the play she is introduced in the first scene. King Henry is quite taken with her beauty and happy that she is his wife. The lords bless her as “England’s happiness,” but the welfare of her husband’s nation is not among her priorities. Her alliance with Suffolk is soon hinted at. After her formal entry in Scene 1, she becomes the dominant character of Scene 3. The fact that she enters with Suffolk is very important. She forcibly takes the supplications addressed to Gloucester from the petitioners and starts reading them. This shows her imposing nature and ambition.
The queen’s animosity towards Gloucester grows quickly. Her real attack on the duke begins when she, on the pretext of showing her concern for the king’s safety, warns Henry that he should be careful, or else the duke will deprive him of his throne and life. She tries to create a bad impression of the duke in Henry’s mind. She points out to the king the popularity of Gloucester among the commoners and suggests that it is better to throw him out when the time is favorable.
The farewell scene between Suffolk and the queen is notable. The intensity of sorrow at the time of parting, as well as the loving and emotional conversation between them, reveals the adulterous relationship that the queen has had with Suffolk.
The audience can observe the vast change that comes over the political sphere of England with Margaret’s entry. Her faithless nature is shown at the end of the play when she is seen in an alliance with Somerset. When confronted with young Clifford’s wrath, the queen urges the king to flee quickly. She laments the king’s slowness and passive nature during their very last scene together: “What are you made of? You’ll nor fight nor fly./ Now is it manhood, wisdom, and defence . . . ” Her attitude towards Henry never changes.
The Duke of Gloucester
“Good Duke Humphrey” of Lancaster, the youngest son of Henry IV, claimed the throne after the death of his brother, Henry V. But he had to defer to Bedford and accept the title of “Protector of England.” He was the constant enemy of his uncle, Cardinal Beaufort, and Suffolk. After the death of Bedford, he became heir presumptive to the crown. The play begins with King Henry’s marriage by proxy to Queen Margaret, the daughter of René, with Suffolk in attendance. Gloucester is angry about this marriage when he learns that it entails the surrender of Anjou and Maine, “the keys of Normandy,” which Henry V had won.
In the play Gloucester is portrayed as the Protector, as well as a father figure to the king. His honesty and humility are revealed when he asks his ambitious wife to banish all treacherous thoughts from her mind. When the Cardinal, Somerset and Buckingham accuse him of exorbitant expenditure of the public treasury, strict execution laws, and public torture, he boldly argues that these are false allegations against him. It is Gloucester who advises the king to employ the feudal ritual of trial by combat during the confrontation between Jack Horner and Peter. Simpcox’s faked miracle is likewise exposed by the duke.
Gloucester’s disregard for conventional justice serves to make him more vulnerable to York’s charge that he has devised strange tortures for offenders. He aims at exposing men’s true colors. Just when Gloucester achieves an administrative triumph, the news of his wife’s misdeeds arrives to mark the beginning of his decline. The news shatters the duke, who is left in a state of agony. When the king orders him to surrender his staff and protectorship, he gladly does so, but he warns King Henry that he is making a mistake. After Gloucester’s death, the people take the law into their own hands.
Gloucester’s love for his wife is displayed in her final scene. Eleanor warns her husband about the dangers that lay ahead of him, but in his self-righteousness, he ignores her pleas and warnings. He leaves her finally without any gesture of physical affection. When Suffolk arrests him, Gloucester says that nobody can accuse him of treason when he is not guilty. In the end, however, he sees that he is not supported by the king. Sadly, he says that if his death would make the lords happy and do good for the country, then he is content to die. He is happy to leave this world where “virtue is choked with foul ambition.” The duke is portrayed as a sincere, honest and determined man with a keen sense of observation, but who is strangely blind to the dangers that surround him. He is better at protecting the king and country than at protecting himself.
Eleanor is the third daughter of Sir Reginald Cobham of Sterborough, Surrey, and the wife of Gloucester, whom she married in 1428. In the play, she is introduced in the second scene when she asks the reason for her husband’s sorrow and disappointment. She then tells of a dream in which Henry and Margaret knelt down before her. This shows how ambitious she is, unlike her virtuous husband. She further says that, had she been a man, she would have easily removed the king from the throne. Her conversation with Hume also suggests the fact that she is already in conspiracy with others to bring about the downfall of the king. She even rewards Hume for giving her valuable “advice.”
The duchess also nurtures in her mind an old grudge against the queen, for some disgrace she once caused her. She is a firm believer in supernatural powers and resorts to magic and witchcraft in order to achieve her goals. She is so consumed by ambition for the crown and the desire to displace Margaret that she does not care about preserving the name of her respectable husband. Her treacherous actions are punished severely in the end. In her last scene, the proud duchess is seen as a miserable woman lamenting her fate. She laments that, in spite of being the Lord Protector’s wife, she is harassed and made a laughing stock by every idle follower. Her husband can do nothing but watch her with tearful eyes. The downfall of Duchess Eleanor is part of a prolonged attack on Duke Humphrey from several sides.