Henry VI, Part 2 is a political play, rather than a drama of human interaction or development. It tells of England's collapse into the anarchy and civil strife of the Wars of the Roses due to selfish ambitions unleashed by the weakness of a young and indecisive ruler. As part of the minor Tetralogy of History Plays, this work also furthers the underlying themes of inexorable tragedy caused by the usurpation of the crown by the Lancaster family and of the eventual retribution delivered to that dynasty. In 2 Henry VI these concerns are developed in two episodes. The first occupying Acts 1-3, involves the political downfall and eventual murder of Duke Humphrey of Gloucester, who is presented as a just and prudent statesman whose leadership might have preserved the kingdom. The second is an account of the final steps the Duke of York takes towards his own seizure of the crown.
This episode begins with a popular rebellion led by York's agent. Jack Cade, a comical affair providing relief after the relentless unfolding of Gloucester s fate It turns vicious, however, illustrating the evil of anarchy unloosed by the murder of' good Duke Humphrey' York capitalizes on the uprising to advance his own claim and brings the nation to civil war at the first battle of St Albans, with which the play closes.
Shakespeare was dramatizing history in the Henry VI plays but he was not at all averse to altering actual events for dramatic purposes, although Part 2 uses less such distortion than Part 1. The greatest misrepresentation is the depiction of York's ambition, presented as a carefully deliberated plot by a determined usurper. Historically, York, who had nothing to do with the outbreak of Cade's rebellion, made no attempt to seize the crown until very shortly before the war broke out. Prior to that time, he does not seem to have contemplated doing so; he had fiercely competed with the Duke of Somerset for power as a minister under King Henry, but he attempted to rule himself only when it became clear that Margaret's influence on Somerset's behalf was too great to be finally overcome and that Somerset planned to destroy his own power altogether. In order to emphasize the rivalry of the Lancaster and York families, and to stress the evils of aristocratic ambition, Shakespeare humanized the confused political process that had in fact uncoiled in the 1440s and 1450s by making a convincing schemer of York. Much exciting history has simply been eliminated-most notably, York's capable assumption of the regency in 1453-1454, when the king fell helplessly insane and was unable to speak.
The story of Gloucester's fate is tightened and given a melodramatic sense of inevitability by compressing many events, widely separated historically, into a swiftly flowing narrative. The tale of the Duchess of Gloucester's sorcery and exile is historical, but it occurred four years before the arrival of Queen Margaret. The two women are made contemporary, thereby involving Margaret in Gloucester's fall, and the episode is made to contribute directly to that fall, which it did not actually do. Similarly, the exile and death of Suffolk are moved back by several years and are thereby associated directly with Gloucester's death. Thus six years of aristocratic manoeuvnngs are collapsed into a matter of months in order to heighten the drama of Gloucester's fall and clearly establish it as the spark for the events that follow.
Though the play's point is made by its sequence of events, Shakespeare created a number of believable, humanly distinct characters to execute them, marking a great improvement on the masses of quarrelling nobles in 1 Henry VI. King Henry himself—enthralled by religion well-meaning but ineffectual—is moving towards the pathetic, almost tragic figure he becomes in 3 Henry VI. Also striking are Queen Margaret and at the same time inspire sympathy as lovers in their farewell scene (3.2). One sees that Shakespeare is developing the capacity to produce such great later characters as the villains Iago and Richard in and the lovers Romeo and Juliet.
Richard III, in fact, makes his first appearance late in this play. His role is unimportant, and he is present simply as a harbinger of the next two dramas in the tetralogy, but he is a cleanly drawn figure, sardonically epigrammatic. Another minor figure, Buckingham, sounds an aristocratic note of peremptory command, and two men who will figure prominently in the next play, Warwick and Clifford, are strongly delineated minor characters in this one.
Given this range of characters and events, the poetic style in 2 Henry VI is necessarily varied. The speeches of Cade and his rebels are comically gross, while Margaret and Suffolk's farewells draw on the tradition of courtly love. The vicious repartee of the feuding nobles differs from the high poetry of the pirate Lieutenant. In contrast with 1 Henry VI, Shakespeare here shows his increasing mastery of the difficult task of writing credible speech in verse.
Shakespeare's willful manipulation of his historical sources is successful on the whole but does misfire in some instances. Most notable in this respect are two episodes taken from widely separated accounts in the sources and used to illustrate the good judgment of the Duke of Gloucester. The incident involving Homer's reported remarks about York's ambition provides an occasion for the Duke to exercise prudence. He withholds office from York pending resolution of the matter. However, the resolution never comes; the dying Horner admits that he had made the incriminating comment, but no note is made of the obvious implications concerning York's loyalty and the matter is never again referred to; the playwright has left his audience dangling. In the other incident, Gloucester cleverly exposes the impostor Simpcox. Here, the scene is dramatically complete and quite amusing, but it is too trivial to stand up to the more important events with which it is juxtaposed.
Henry VI, Part 2, although it marks a considerable advance on Part 1, is still plainly the work of a young, less than masterly, playwright. Moreover, it suffers from its position in a sequence of plays. Much of the early exposition is intended to provide a link to the action of 1 Henry VI, and several dramatically unnecessary characters, such as Richard and Young Clifford, appear in Act 5, where they foreshadow 3 Henry VI. Nevertheless, it is an exciting play, composed of varied and interesting scenes that generate two plausible climaxes, and it is full of the promise of greater things to come.
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