Act 2, scene 1
In York, Richard and Edward enter with their armies. They do not know the fate of their father. They look up and see three suns in the sky that seem to join and kiss. (Known as a “sundog,” this is an atmospheric phenomenon in which bright spots of light appear on either side of the sun.) Edward thinks it a very strange sight, but then turns it to his advantage, comparing the three suns to York’s three sons who will unite and rule.
A messenger arrives with the news that York is dead. He explains what happened. Edward is grief-stricken and wants to die. He will never experience joy again. Richard does not weep; he is too angry to do so. He vows revenge, and he also tells Edward to seek the throne.
Warwick and Montague enter, with their army. Edward and Richard tell them the news about the death of their father, but Warwick already knows. Warwick then gives them more news: after he heard in London of York’s death, he took an army to St. Albans to intercept the queen, who was going to the parliament to cancel the decree by which York’s heirs would inherit the throne after Henry’s death. But Warwick’s forces were defeated and fled.
Warwick adds that the Duke of Norfolk and George, York’s son (now Duke of Clarence), have arrived with soldiers, and he, Warwick, despite the failure at St. Albans, intends to help the Yorkists overthrow the king. He says the supporters of Henry have mustered about thirty thousand men in London. Warwick and his friends amount to twenty-five thousand, and he says they should march on London. Warwick vows to help Edward, now Duke of York, to become king.
A messenger arrives and says that the queen is on her way with an army, and the Duke of Norfolk wants to consult with Warwick. Another battle is about to start.
In this play, the historical events of 1460 to 1471 are condensed, so major events seem to follow each other swiftly and some important details have to be omitted.
When this scene begins, it appears to be taking place shortly after the battle of Wakefield at the end of December 1460. In truth it must be about eight weeks after that battle. In the meantime, the new Duke of York, eighteen-year-old Edward, decisively won the battle of Mortimer’s Cross on February 2, 1461, against a faction of the Lancastrian forces. (Shakespeare does not mention this battle.) The second battle of St. Albans described by Warwick in this scene took place two weeks after that, with the disappointing results for the Yorkists that Warwick describes.
In this scene young Edward has not yet emerged as a leader, and it is Warwick who is the most formidable of the Yorkists. In the fifteenth century, whoever held the title of Earl of Warwick was considered the most senior earl in England.
Act 2, scene 2
Outside York, a fresh battle is brewing. The Queen, with the reluctant King, Clifford, Northumberland, and Prince Edward, enter. The king does not want to seek revenge against the Yorkists, but Clifford urges him otherwise. He says it is a shameful thing to disinherit the young prince. Henry is not convinced. He says he will leave behind his good deeds for his son, and he wished his own father had left him no more. In other words, he would much preferred it if he had never become king.
The queen tells him to get his spirits up and knight his son, as he has promised. Henry gets his son to kneel and then formally makes him a knight, telling him to use his sword only for right.
A messenger arrives with the news that Warwick and York, thirty thousand strong, are approaching, and everywhere they go the people proclaim York king.
Edward, Warwick and their forces enter for a parley. Edward tells Henry to set the crown on his, Edward’s head, or face the consequences in battle. Edward insists that he was decreed the heir, and that Henry has since broken his oath with a new act of parliament that names Henry’s son as the heir to the throne.
Clifford and Richard exchange taunts. Richard is eager for battle because he wants to kill Clifford, the killer of his father and brother. Then Warwick demands an answer of the king. The queen replies for him, mocking Warwick. Henry tries to get a word in, but no one listens to him. Edward and Warwick again demand an answer to their demands, and the Prince speaks up, refuting Warwick’s claim to be in the right. Then Richard and Margaret exchange vicious personal insults, then Edward piles on, insulting Margaret further and blaming her for the current situation. Had she not been so prideful and aggressive, Edward says, they would have pitied the king and not made any claim to the throne. George backs him up, and Edward says he wishes to parley no longer; it is time for battle.
The battle about to be joined is the historical battle of Towton, in Yorkshire, that took place on March 28 and 29, 1461. Historically, Edward had already been crowned Edward IV at Westminster on March 4, but for dramatic purposes, Shakespeare delays this so he can make the battle decide the kingship.
The dramatist is careful to nurture the quarrel between Richard and Clifford, which is reaching a showdown, and to maintain Richard’s constant desire for blood, battle, and revenge. Likewise, the king is once more represented as being impotent in affairs of state. He comes with the royal forces only reluctantly, and he grieves to see the head of old York still displayed on the city gate. Margaret is unrelentingly fierce. No one is willing to back down, so a fight is inevitable.
Act 2, scene 3
As the battle rages, Warwick seeks rest for a few moments. Edward enters and then George, both in despair. It appears that the battle is lost. But then Richard enters, running. He tells Warwick that Warwick’s brother has been killed, and that has he died he called on Warwick to avenge him. This news restores Warwick’s strength and he resolves to join the battle again and never to flee. Inspired by his words, Edward and George are ready to join the fray again.
This scene shows just a temporary respite from the battle. It is significant that a chain effect takes place: Richard, ever the warrior, rouses Warwick, who in turn rouses Edward and George. To Warwick, Edward vows to “chain my soul to thine,” an important line because it shows how large a contribution Warwick makes to the success of the Yorkist cause. He is the king-maker. The fortunes of Edward and Warwick, however, will not be bound together in friendship for very long.
Act 2, scene 4
Richard enters at one side and then Clifford at the other. Richard says he has sought him out deliberately, and he cannot escape Richard’s vengeance. Clifford replies that he exults that he killed York and Rutland, and now he plans to kill Richard. They fight. Warwick enters, and Clifford flees. Warwick is about to pursue him, but Richard stops him, since he, Richard, wants to be the one who hunts Clifford down.
The long-brewing fight between “bloody Clifford” and the fierce and ruthless Richard takes place but so far is inconclusive.
Act 2, scene 5
The battle continues but King Henry has wandered off somewhere alone to soliloquize on his situation. Margaret and Clifford have told him they will do better if he is not around.
He says that the tide of battle flows one way and then another, with both sides apparently evenly matched. He sits down and says that God will determine the victor.
Then he bemoans his own life, so full of woe. It would be a happier life to be a simple shepherd, spending his minutes, hours, and days on regular activities such as tending the flock, taking rest, amusing himself. Every year would have the same rhythm, dictated by nature and the seasons until he grew old and died a quiet death. That would be an ideal life, he says, much better than that of a king living in fear of his subjects’ treachery.
A man enters who has unknowingly killed his own father in the battle. He is dragging the dead body, hoping to steal the man’s money. With horror he looks on the man’s face and sees it is his father. He is grief-stricken and asks God for forgiveness, because he did not know what he was doing.
Henry, who has observed the man, breaks out in sympathy for him and says he will weep with him.
Another man enters, this time a father who has unwittingly killed his own son. He carries the dead body, intending to rob the corpse. But then he looks on the man’s face and sees it is his own son. Like the other man, he is overcome with grief for his mistake.
Henry shares his grief and calls to heaven for pity, saying he wishes his own death could halt the war. As the son wonders how his mother will be comforted when she hears the news, and the father wonders the same about his wife, Henry wonders how his country can be comforted. He grieves for the distress of his subjects.
After father and son exit, the queen, Prince Edward, and Exeter enter. The battle is lost, and the prince and the queen tells Henry he must flee to Berwick, a town on the Scottish border, which he agrees to do.
Henry cuts a pathetic figure in this scene. He is a king who is so useless in battle that even his own commanders want him out of their way. However, it is not unusual in Shakespeare for kings to lament their cares and long for a simpler life, as Henry does here in his long speech at the beginning of the scene. There is a famous example in Henry V, when the king expresses similar thoughts before the battle of Agincourt.
The two soldiers who unwittingly kill their father or son are examples of what is sometimes today referred to as the “fog of war,” the confusion that reigns during a battle, which can produce casualties from “friendly fire,” i.e., when troops from one side accidentally kill one or more of their own. Shakespeare had good historical reason for including this incident. The battle at Towton on March 29, 1461, was not only the biggest battle fought in the Wars of the Roses, involving at least fifty thousand men, it was fought in a blinding snowstorm. Legends sprung up that during the battle men unknowingly killed their own fathers or sons.
Act 2, scene 6
Clifford enters. He is mortally wounded, with an arrow in his neck. He knows he is one of Henry’s strongest men, and he fears that without him, and as the Yorkists gather more supporters in the wake of their victory, Henry will be overthrown. He wishes that Henry had been a stronger king, like his father and grandfather, because then York would never have rebelled and there would not be all these deaths in war. He knows he is dying and that he can expect no pity from his enemies, since he showed none to them. He faints.
Edward, Warwick, Richard and their cohorts enter, victorious. Edward wonders where Clifford is, and Warwick says he must be dead. At that point, Clifford groans and dies, and the others discover him. Warwick realizes he is dead, but Richard thinks he is only faking, to avoid being taunted by his enemies. They mock him, but when he does not respond, even Richard accepts that he is dead, much to Richard’s disgust, since he wanted to kill Clifford himself. Warwick orders that Clifford’s head be cut off and placed on the gate of the city, to replace the head of old York. Warwick says they must now head to London to crown Edward, and afterwards Warwick will go to France to arrange for a marriage between Edward and Lady Bona, the sister-in-law of the French king. This will cement a new alliance between England and France. Edward agrees to this proposal. He also makes Richard Duke of Gloucester and George Duke of Clarence.
The Yorkist triumph appears to be complete here. The king’s forces have been decisively beaten, and the arch-enemy Clifford is dead. Nothing, it would appear, stands in the way of Edward, Duke of York, even though the king and queen are still at large. But all is not over. The clue comes in the speech made by Warwick at the end of this scene. He seems to take charge. He says what they are going to do next, and he announces that he will then go to France to arrange a suitable marriage for Edward. Edward at this point is only eighteen years old, inexperienced in leadership, while Warwick is the senior lord, a very powerful figure. Edward acknowledges how important Warwick is to him: “For in thy shoulder do I build my seat, / And never will I undertake the thing / Wherein thy counsel and consent is lacking.” It will not take long, however, before Edward seems to forget that he ever said such a thing.