Study Guide

Henry VI Part 2

By William Shakespeare

Henry VI Part 2 Introduction

Read the full text of Henry VI Part 2 with a side-by-side translation HERE.


This is where it all started, folks.

Do you remember the first time you ever wrote something? Maybe it was a short story for a class, or a diary entry, or an oddly specific wish list for Santa Claus. Well, what if it was preserved for all the world to see, 400 years from now? That's kind of what we're doing when we pick up a copy of Henry VI, Part 2. Some scholars think this is the first play Shakespeare ever wrote.

It's tricky to say for sure, but most scholars think this play was written way back in 1590-1591, when Shakespeare was 26 years old. That's a decade before he would get to heavy hitters like Hamlet or Othello, and at this point, Shakespeare was still growing as a writer. It's almost like his play was a work in progress: many people think he actually went back and revised his first version of Henry VI, Part 2 to make it even better, later in his career.

Nowadays, we group Henry VI, Part 2 with other history plays known as the "first tetralogy," beginning with Henry VI, Part 1, and ending with Henry VI, Part 3 and Richard III. This tetralogy is all about the Wars of the Roses (c. 1455-1485), a series of English civil wars fought between two branches of the Royal House of Plantagenet: the Lancasters (whose heraldic symbol was the red rose) and the Yorks (whose heraldic symbol was the white rose).

When Henry VI, Part 2 opens, Henry and his English nobles have just finished fighting with France. For those keeping score at home, here's what that means: 1) Henry has to give up two important pieces of land in France, and 2) Henry has chosen to marry Margaret, a poor girl with no political advantages. Why? Because she's hot. This doesn't sit well with his nobles, who begin bickering about it in the very first scene. The play looks at what happens after the honeymoon period is over, and how it all affects Henry's right-hand man Gloucester.

If all this has you wanting to hit the snooze button, think again: Shakespeare totally spices up "history" with a little fiction. Plus, there's a bloody rebellion over grammar, prophecies from witches, and a wannabe king fighting for the crown.

Shakespeare did have a theater to fill, after all.

What is Henry VI Part 2 About and Why Should I Care?

Man, Shakespeare and those Henrys.

What makes this Henry special? Well, everyone loves a political scandal, and Henry VI, Part 2 is chock full of them. That's right: not one, not two, but a boatload of political scandals. Stop us if you've heard this one before:

  • A rising political star starts up a fling with someone else's wife. 
  • An honest man is murdered so that he won't be in the way of his enemy's agenda. 
  • A strong and assertive man tries to take down the ruler to gain power for himself. 
  • A group of people revolts against oppressive leaders.

Hmm… sounds familiar, doesn't it? Shakespeare pulled out all the stops with this play. Reading Henry VI, Part 2 is almost like reading the all the big newspaper headlines from the last decade. And underlying all the politics and backstabbing, there are a bunch of fascinating characters who have some big, totally conflicting desires... and they're all out to get what they want.

Margaret and Suffolk want to rule England... but then again, so do Gloucester and York. The actual king, Henry VI, just wants to be a good guy. Everybody wants a few pieces of France. And then there are the commoners, led by Jack Cade, who are pushing for equality... or are they?

No one can deny that politics can be baffling, corrupt, and downright nasty, but it's here to stay... and Shakespeare is here to help us figure it all out. Before Primary Colors, before Wag the Dog, even before All the King's Men, Shakespeare was rockin' the world of political drama with his Henry VI trilogy. Not much has changed since the 16th century, so if you want to see how it all goes down when power's at play, pick up this oldie and watch the heads roll.

Henry VI Part 2 Resources

Websites

So You Think You Can Be a 16th-Century Playwright?
Check out PBS's cool online game, where you can channel your inner dramatic artist.

Read Henry VI, Part 2 Online
You can catch up with the backstory from the other plays in the history series, too.

Flower Power Struggle
Why was everyone fighting over flowers anyway? Find out on Luminarium.

Movie or TV Productions

Bloody War
BBC's take on the history play, with action packed battles.

Articles and Interviews

Play with History
An article by scholar Michael Hattaway about Shakespeare's history plays.

Will the Real Henry Please Stand Up?
Read all about the monarch Shakespeare based his play on.

Video

Football Histories
The Reduced Shakespeare Company performs all histories in 3 minutes—playing football.

Audio

Hear Ye, Hear Ye
A complete audiobook of Henry VI, Part 2.

Images

Queen Bee
Margaret of Anjou made everyone call her Queen Bee.

First Time in Print
The first printing of the play—1594 quarto edition.

Under Her Spell
Eleanor faces the punishment for her crime.

Bed Time
We're betting there are no sweet dreams for Cardinal Beaufort after getting rid of Gloucester.

Fate Fixer
The conjurer and witch answer all Eleanor's questions. Well, three of them, anyway.