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Henry VI, Part 2 /

Reading Shakespeare’s Language: Henry VI, Part 2

By Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine
Editors of the Folger Shakespeare Library Editions

For many people today, reading Shakespeare’s language can be a problem—but it is a problem that can be solved.1 Those who have studied Latin (or even French or German or Spanish) and those who are used to reading poetry will have little difficulty understanding the language of poetic drama. Others, however, need to develop the skills of untangling unusual sentence structures and of recognizing and understanding poetic compressions, omissions, and wordplay. And even those skilled in reading unusual sentence structures may have occasional trouble with Shakespeare’s words. More than four hundred years of “static”— caused by changes in language and in life—intervene between his speaking and our hearing. Most of his vocabulary is still in use, but a few of his words are no longer used, and many of his words now have meanings quite different from those they had in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In the theater, most of these difficulties are solved for us by actors who study the language and articulate it for us so that the essential meaning is heard—or, when combined with stage action, is at least felt. When we are reading on our own, we must do what each actor does: go over the lines (often with a dictionary close at hand) until the puzzles are solved and the lines yield up their poetry and the characters speak in words and phrases that are, suddenly, rewarding and wonderfully memorable.

Shakespeare’s Words

As you begin to read the opening scenes of a play from Shakespeare’s time, you may notice occasional unfamiliar words. Some are unfamiliar simply because we no longer use them. In the early scenes of Henry VI, Part 2, for example, one finds the words alderliefest (i.e., “very dear”), yclad (i.e., “clothed”), hoise (i.e., “remove”), and Methought (i.e., “it seemed to me”). Words of this kind will become familiar the more early plays you read.

In Henry VI, Part 2, as in all of Shakespeare’s writing, more problematic are the words that are still in use but that now have different meanings. In the opening scenes of Henry VI, Part 2, for example, the word depart is used where we would say “departure,” conference where we would say “conversation,” vantage where we would say “profit,” and starved where we would say “died.” Such words, too, will become familiar as you continue to read Shakespeare’s language.

Some words and phrases are strange not because of the “static” introduced by changes in language over the past centuries but because these are expressions that Shakespeare is using to build a dramatic world that has its own space, time, and history. In the opening scene of Henry VI, Part 2, for example, the dramatist quickly establishes that the action will be played out by those occupying the most elevated strata of late medieval European political culture. King Henry’s “procurator,” who now “rules the roast,” has just “espoused” the king’s bride before “the Kings of France and Sicil, / The Dukes of Orleance, Calaber, Britaigne, and Alanson,” a “courtly company,” to the “overjoy” and “wond’ring” of the royal couple, whose marriage validates “the articles of contracted peace” between two kingdoms. Such words and the world they create will become increasingly familiar as you get further into the play.

Shakespeare’s Sentences

In an English sentence, meaning is quite dependent on the place given each word. “The dog bit the boy” and “The boy bit the dog” mean very different things, even though the individual words are the same. Because English places such importance on the positions of words in sentences, on the way words are arranged, unusual arrangements can puzzle a reader. Shakespeare frequently shifts his sentences away from “normal” English arrangements—often to create the rhythm he seeks, sometimes to use a line’s poetic rhythm to emphasize a particular word, sometimes to give a character his or her own speech patterns or to allow the character to speak in a special way. When we attend a good performance of the play, the actors will have worked out the sentence structures and will articulate the sentences so that the meaning is clear. When reading the play, we need to do as the actor does: that is, when puzzled by a character’s speech, check to see if words are being presented in an unusual sequence.

Often Shakespeare rearranges subjects and verbs (i.e., instead of “He goes” we find “Goes he”). In Henry VI, Part 2, “And so says York” provides such a construction (1.1.215), as does Gloucester’s “on the pieces of the broken wand / Were placed the heads” (1.2.28–29). The “normal” order would be “York says” and “the heads were placed.” Shakespeare also frequently places the object before the subject and verb (i.e., instead of “I hit him,” we might find “Him I hit”). Warwick provides one example of this inversion when he says “Those provinces these arms of mine did conquer” (1.1.126) and another example when he says “Main chance, father, you meant” (1.1.221). The “normal” order would be “these arms did conquer those provinces” and “you meant main chance.”

Inversions are not the only unusual sentence structures in Shakespeare’s language. Often in his sentences words that would normally appear together are separated from each other. Frequently such separation creates a particular rhythm, stresses a particular word, or draws attention to a needed piece of information. Take, for example, Gloucester’s “Suffolk, the new-made duke that rules the roast, / Hath given the duchy of Anjou and Maine / Unto the poor King Reignier” (1.1.114–16). Here the subject (“Suffolk”) is separated from its verb (“Hath given”) by an appositive (“the new-made duke”) that includes the adjectival clause “that rules the roast.” As Gloucester’s purpose is to attack Suffolk’s new foreign policy, he, the senior member of the royal family, pauses after naming his opponent in order to ridicule the upstart’s rank and power. Or take Queen Margaret’s first address to King Henry:

Great king of England and my gracious lord,

The mutual conference that my mind hath had

By day, by night, waking and in my dreams,

In courtly company or at my beads,

With you, mine alderliefest sovereign,

Makes me the bolder to salute my king.


In Margaret’s greeting, the subject “conference” is separated from its verb “makes” by a long adjectival clause (“that my mind hath had . . . with you, mine alderliefest sovereign”) that swells to include a string of antithetical phrases: “By day, by night,” “waking and in my dreams,” “In courtly company or at my beads.” With these phrases Margaret presents herself, fallaciously as will later appear, as the new bride so devoted to her husband that no matter where she is or what she is doing, she never stops imagining that she is with him.

Often in Henry VI, Part 2, rather than separating basic sentence elements, Shakespeare simply holds them back, delaying them until other material to which he wants to give greater emphasis has been presented. He provides Gloucester with this kind of construction in these lines: “Brave peers of England, pillars of the state, / To you Duke Humphrey must unload his grief” (1.1.80–81). The delay in the appearance of the subject and verb (“Duke Humphrey must unload”) throws the emphasis on Gloucester’s complimentary characterization of his auditors—“Brave peers of England, pillars of the state”—which is placed first. Such emphatic compliment is appropriate to Gloucester’s purpose, which is to woo the “peers” or “nobles” to follow him and not Suffolk; to that end he assures them first of the high esteem in which he holds them. Suffolk’s speech that opens the play holds back its essential elements far longer:

As by your high imperial Majesty

I had in charge at my depart for France,

As procurator to your Excellence,

To marry Princess Margaret for your Grace,

So, in the famous ancient city Tours,

In presence of the Kings of France and Sicil,

The Dukes of Orleance, Calaber, Britaigne, and


Seven earls, twelve barons, and twenty reverend


I have performed my task and was espoused[.]


In this case, the subject and verb (“I have performed”) do not appear until the ninth line of the speech. The preceding eight lines lay the emphasis on Suffolk’s attempt to forestall any objections to a marriage that was already the subject of controversy in Henry VI, Part 1. Thus he first cites the indisputable royal authority according to which he acted as King Henry’s proxy in marrying Queen Margaret: “As by your high imperial Majesty / I had in charge . . . / To marry Princess Margaret for your Grace.” Then his emphasis falls on the grandeur of the wedding ceremony itself: “in the famous ancient city Tours, / In presence of the Kings of France and Sicil, / The Dukes of Orleance, Calaber, Britaigne, and Alanson, / Seven earls, twelve barons, and twenty reverend bishops”—an important consideration, because a chief objection to Margaret as King Henry’s bride is her abject poverty. When Suffolk finally provides the sentence’s essential elements, he has already defended himself rhetorically against objections he knows are arrayed against him.

Finally, in Shakespeare’s plays, sentences are sometimes complicated not because of unusual structures or interruptions but because the dramatist omits words that English sentences normally require. (In conversation, we, too, often omit words. We say, “Heard from him yet?” and our hearer supplies the missing “Have you.”) Shakespeare captures the same conversational tone in the play’s early exchange between Salisbury and his son Warwick. When Salisbury asks Warwick why he is weeping, “But wherefore weeps Warwick, my valiant son?” Warwick answers “For grief that they are past recovery” (1.1.120–21). Had Warwick answered in a full sentence, he might have said “[I weep] for [the] grief [I feel] that they are past recovery.” Ellipsis, or the omission of words not strictly necessary to the sense, can appear not just in informal conversational exchanges but also in highly formal speeches, the formality of which it highlights. Take, for example, Gloucester’s use of it in “O peers of England, shameful is this league, / Fatal this marriage” (1.1.103–4). Strictly speaking, his second line should read “Fatal [is] this marriage,” but the omission of the verb, which the reader can supply from the first line (“Shameful is this league”), calls attention to the parallelism between the lines and thereby enhances the speech’s formality and seriousness.

Shakespeare’s Wordplay

Shakespeare plays with language so often and so variously that entire books are written on the topic. Here we will mention only two kinds of wordplay: similes and puns. A simile is a play on words in which one object or idea is expressed as if it were something else, something with which it is said to share common features. While the same definition applies to metaphor, in a simile the comparison is made explicit through the use of some overt indicator such as “like” or “as” or “so.” For instance, when the Duchess of Gloucester asks the Duke “Why droops my lord like over-ripened corn?” she uses a simile that compares the Duke’s attitude or bearing to that of stalks of wheat that, having stood in the fields long after the kernels atop them have ripened, are bent over by the weight of the kernels.

When York delivers his long soliloquy at the end of 1.1, disclosing his ambitions to ascend the English throne and mourning the loss of English possessions in France, he is given what can be termed an epic simile. In this figure, commonly found in epic poetry, the simile is so fully developed that it creates its own focus of interest, beyond its immediate context in the larger work. The presence of such a simile in York’s speech may be designed to suggest that the struggle for the English throne presented in this play has an importance comparable to the wars presented in Homer’s Iliad or Virgil’s Aeneid:

Pirates may make cheap pennyworths of their


And purchase friends, and give to courtesans,

Still reveling like lords till all be gone;

Whileas the silly owner of the goods

Weeps over them, and wrings his hapless hands,

And shakes his head, and trembling stands aloof,

While all is shared and all is borne away,

Ready to starve, and dare not touch his own.

So York must sit and fret and bite his tongue

While his own lands are bargained for and sold.


York begins by detailing the plight of a hypothetical victim of pirates at such length that he seems to have abandoned any attention to his own present situation. Finally, though, he does come back to his own grief—“So York must sit and fret and bite his tongue”—but not before he has engaged his audience’s sympathies for an imaginary victim, “the silly [helpless, pitiable] owner of the goods.”

A pun is a play on words that sound approximately the same but that have different meanings, or on a single word that has more than one meaning. The first kind of pun figures prominently in Henry VI, Part 2. When, in 1.4, the conjurers Roger Bolingbroke and John Southwell summon up a spirit to answer questions that the Duchess of Gloucester has supplied, the spirit answers one of the questions with a pun:


What fates await the Duke of Suffolk?


By water shall he die and take his end.


We might therefore expect that Suffolk will drown. However, Suffolk is alert to puns on the word water, and is alarmed when he falls into the hands of one Walter Whitmore, whose Christian name, in Elizabethan pronunciation, is indistinguishable from water:

Thy name affrights me, in whose sound is death.

A cunning man did calculate my birth

And told me that by water I should die.


When Whitmore assassinates Suffolk, the prophecy is fulfilled and the pun made.

The play also offers less dire puns, like York’s compliment to Buckingham on the latter’s conspiracy to bring down the Duchess of Gloucester: “A pretty plot, well chosen to build upon!” (1.4.60). Here the pun is on “plot,” which can mean both a scheme and a piece of ground. In another example, as Salisbury is leaving the stage at the end of the opening scene, in which the English learn that Suffolk has given away Anjou and Maine, Salisbury says “Then let’s make haste away and look unto the main” (1.1.217). The word main in his speech means “the chief matter in hand, or the main chance”; he alludes to the proverb “Have an eye to the main chance.” In responding to Salisbury, Warwick begins to pun elaborately on the word main, going so far as to explain the pun in the course of making it:

Unto the main? O father, Maine is lost!

That Maine which by main force Warwick did win

And would have kept so long as breath did last!

Main chance, father, you meant; but I meant Maine,

Which I will win from France or else be slain.


Implied Stage Action

Finally, in reading Shakespeare’s plays we should always remember that what we are reading is a performance script. The dialogue is written to be spoken by actors who, at the same time, are moving, gesturing, picking up objects, weeping, shaking their fists. Some stage action is described in what are called “stage directions”; some is signaled within the dialogue itself. We must learn to be alert to such signals as we stage the play in our imaginations.

Often the dialogue offers a clear indication of the action that is to accompany it. For example, at 1.1.67, King Henry orders Suffolk to go down on his knees: “Lord Marquess, kneel down.” It seems certain that Suffolk kneels immediately because the king goes on to reward him with a new title: “We here create thee the first Duke of Suffolk” (68). Because such gifts of titles were awarded to kneeling subjects, we feel confident in adding to the play’s text the stage direction “Suffolk kneels,” putting it in half-square brackets as we do all additions to the First Folio’s text. When the king then turns away from Suffolk to address York and then others among his nobles, we also feel confident that Suffolk ought not to remain on his knees; we therefore print another stage direction—“Suffolk rises”—at 1.1.69 (again in half-square brackets), so that the newly created duke is in a position to exit, as he does a few lines later.

Occasionally, in Henry VI, Part 2, signals to the reader are not quite so clear. For example, at 1.1.46, Gloucester begins to read aloud the peace treaty between France and England, and then stops reading in mid-sentence at line 55. When King Henry asks him what’s the matter (“Uncle, how now?”), Gloucester replies “Some sudden qualm hath struck me at the heart / And dimmed mine eyes, that I can read no further” (56, 58–59). Then the king asks the Cardinal to “read on” and the Cardinal obeys (60–66). There is no precise indication in the First Folio text about how the paper which the actor playing Gloucester appears to read passes from his hand to the hand of the actor playing the Cardinal. Does Gloucester, finding himself unable to continue, yield it to Suffolk or to the king, who in turn passes it to the Cardinal? Or does Gloucester just drop it when overcome by his qualm, leaving it on the stage for the Cardinal to retrieve? We have chosen the latter alternative and have printed at line 55 the stage direction “He drops the paper.” We have also added the stage direction “[the Cardinal] picks up the paper and reads” just before the speech in which he finishes reading the treaty. We have chosen this alternative as the more dramatic; it was also the one chosen by those responsible for the very different version of this play printed in 1594. (See “An Introduction to This Text.”) The 1594 version provides the stage direction “Duke Humphrey lets it fall” at the point that he stops reading the treaty, although it offers no further stage direction when the Cardinal starts reading it. But since there is no good reason to think that the First Folio version of the play, which our edition presents, was necessarily performed in the same way as the 1594 version, we are much less confident in adding stage directions for the dropping and picking up of the treaty than in other cases where we have put in directions. Here, as in other ambiguous moments, we as editors can do nothing beyond making the choice that seems best to us, then printing stage directions and, by putting those directions in square brackets, leaving it to readers, directors, and actors to interpret the matter as they will.

Practice in reading the language of stage action repays one many times over when one reaches scenes heavily dependent on stage business. Act 5 opens with such a scene. It begins with the entry of the Duke of York, wearing the white rose and accompanied by an army of Irish soldiers, attendants, drummers, and standard bearers. They are met by Buckingham, wearing the red rose. York decides to disguise the real reason for his warlike approach; Buckingham in turn lies about Somerset’s location. York, pretending to be satisfied, dismisses his soldiers and walks arm in arm with Buckingham. The king enters and is reassured by the friendliness displayed by the two men. Iden then enters with the head of Jack Cade, kneels, and is made a knight by the king. When Margaret and Somerset enter, York seizes on Buckingham’s lie and announces the truth about his own intentions. York sends for his sons; Buckingham, in turn, exits to fetch Clifford for the king; York’s sons enter followed by Lord Clifford and his son, Clifford kneels to Henry, and an attendant exits to bring Salisbury and Warwick to York. When Salisbury refuses to kneel to Henry, the king realizes that these nobles have turned against him. By the end of the scene, the lines have been clearly drawn between Henry’s faction and that of York, with much of the action having taken place in the series of entrances, exits, kneelings, and failures to kneel—actions that the reader of the scene must stage in imagination. Only if our imaginations can hold the players in proper position onstage, as the red roses line up against the white, can we receive the full impact of this decisive moment in the Wars of the Roses.

It is immensely rewarding to work carefully with Shakespeare’s language—with the words, the sentences, the wordplay, and the implied stage action—as readers for the past four centuries have discovered. It may be more pleasurable to attend a good performance of a play—though not everyone has thought so. But the joy of being able to stage a Shakespeare play in one’s imagination, to return to passages that continue to yield further meanings (or further questions) the more one reads them—these are pleasures that, for many, rival (or at least augment) those of the performed text, and certainly make it worth considerable effort to “break the code” of Elizabethan poetic drama and let free the remarkable language that makes up a Shakespeare text.

  1. For our use of the name Shakespeare in this essay, see our appendix “Authorship of Henry VI, Part 2.”