We'll tell it to you straight: there's not a whole lot of humor in this one. The tone is pretty somber all the way through, and that makes sense, given what goes down in this play: Henry's nobles argue about everything; he's put through the ringer from both the nobles and the commoners; there's murder and death all over the place, so there's plenty of dark and foreboding moments to go around.
Seriously, folks: strap on your emotional seatbelts for this baby.
On top of that, Shakespeare really messes with our sympathies. Sometimes, we really do end up rooting for the most malicious and evil of the characters. Margaret is bloodthirsty and savage, but her never-give-up attitude and ninja-like guts are something we'll admit we kind of enjoy seeing her play out. Same goes for Cade when he's trying to get the crown: we're repulsed by his brutal actions, but we also admire him for his audacity, his wit, and his guts.
Almost everyone in this play has an angle or a ploy: Eleanor wants to be queen; Beaufort, Margaret, and Suffolk want to get rid of Gloucester; Cade and the commoners want to get rid of all the nobles; and York thinks the crown belongs on his head. With all this scheming going on, it's hard to keep anything straight, and our general code of ethics starts heading into breakdown territory.
We might call this a morally ambiguous tone, or we might just say we're drawn in by all the crazy stuff that goes down in this play. This carries over into the next installment (Henry VI, Part 3) as well.
Most literary critics refer to Henry VI, Part 2 as a history play. In fact, it's the third installment in a series of Shakespearean history plays now known as the "first tetralogy," which also includes Henry VI, Parts 1 and 3, and Richard III.
A history play is a genre that portrays English historical events that resonate with current political issues (current for Shakespeare's time), including matters of kingship, constitution, and rebellion.
If all this has you wanting to hit the snooze button, think again: Shakespeare spices up "history" with some good old-fashioned fiction. He's the master of focusing on the good stuff and blowing it out of proportion for dramatic effect. In Henry VI, Part 2, Shakespeare took the best bits of English history during the Wars of the Roses, condensed it, omitted the boring stuff, and fictionalized entire interactions to create a political drama that can keep you on the edge of your seat.
If you saw the title Henry VI, Part 2 and thought, "Hey, this looks like the second part of a series of plays about Henry VI," then we've got some serious news for you: you're totally right.
There's more to the story, though.
The titles of Shakespeare's plays weren't always this simple. If we were to pick up one of the first published editions of this play, we'd get a lot more information. Why is that? Well, Elizabethan publishers were always taking it upon themselves to add a little something extra to spice up title pages. The 1594 Quarto, for example, reads like this:
The First part of the Contention betwixt the two famous Houses of Yorke and Lancaster, with the death of the good Duke Humphrey: And the banishment and death of the Duke of Suffolke, and the Tragicall end of the proud Cardinall of VVinchester, vvith the notable Rebellion of Jacke Cade: And the Duke of Yorkes first claime vnto the Crowne.
(We have it on good authority that this will be the title of Fiona Apple's next album, by the way.)
Anyway, all that extra information could be useful, don't you think? From that title, we get a whole synopsis of the play. Humphrey (Gloucester) dies; Suffolk is banished; Winchester (Beaufort) comes to an end, or dies; Jack Cade rebels; and York tries to get the crown.
But some people think we also get the 411 on how Shakespeare wrote these plays from this long title. If it's true that Shakespeare penned (or should we say quilled?) this play before he wrote Henry VI, Part 1, then it would make sense that the first time this play was printed, it was known as "the first part." Translation: he hadn't written the prequel yet.
No one is sure yet whether Part 1 or Part 2 was written first, but this could be a big clue. Who knew you could learn so much about a play just by reading a title?
York may have won the battle, but he hasn't won the war. The play ends with a whole bunch of stuff left up in the air: York and his sons ride back to London to chase down Henry to take the crown once and for all. It leaves us asking:
If the ending had you searching for the rest of the story, then look no further than Henry VI, Part 3. That expectant feeling at the end of this round is exactly what Shakespeare was going for: he wanted to get his audience back again for the sequel. He did have a theater to fill, after all.
Henry VI, Part 2 is set during the English Wars of the Roses. This play dramatizes the York vs. Lancaster (Henry's side) debate that begins in Henry VI, Part 1, after Henry Bolingbroke (a Lancaster) has usurped the throne from Richard II (a York).
From a historical standpoint, this was all going down in the 15th century. Shakespeare makes it seem like the events all happened one after the other, but in reality, they were spread out over many years. The play ends with York making his way to London to bump Henry off the throne, and this paves the way for the action in Henry VI, Part 3.
We stay in England in this play, mainly hanging out in London, St. Edmund's, Kent, and St. Albans. Sure, there's a quick trip to York's and Gloucester's homes, and there's a lot of talk about some French lands being lost, but we stay pretty local for most of the play. Maybe Shakespeare was trying to show us that all of these nobles are in the same country. Foreigners might be the enemy in other plays, but in this war, it's England fighting England, and no one has the hometown advantage.
If you're reading Henry VI Part 2, then you've probably already read Henry VI, Part 1,so Shakespeare's Elizabethan language might be getting a little easier to manage by now. Also, the play offers some really interesting and accessible ideas about power, ambition, and weakness. We might not have access to a sparkling crown, but we know what it's like to want something really badly, so it's not too hard to figure out what these are feeling.
Still, the sheer number of characters constantly strolling on and off stage makes the play a little tricky to follow at times.
This play has Shakespeare's largest cast, so it's a chore to follow who's who. Never fear: we're here to help. You probably noticed that a lot of characters in this play have multiple names, or the same name, which can make things pretty confusing. Let's talk about why that is.
Here's the deal: members of the English nobility were named after the land their families controlled. For example, Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York is often called "York."
Think of it this way. Let's say your name's "Sam" and you were born in Oakland but you own all the land in San Francisco because you inherited it from your dad. Your official name is "Sam of Oakland, Duke of San Francisco," and your friends call you either "Oakland" or "San Francisco" for short. (No one, however, calls you Frisco, because no one ever calls anything Frisco.)
If you're having trouble keeping up with who's who, check out this character circle. It'll tell you who hangs out with whom, and who just de-friended someone on Facebook.
Shakespeare wrote a lot of history plays about kings, all of whom had pretty similar names. He didn't write in order: he wrote the Henry VI trilogy before he wrote Henry V, for example. Want to see how it all went down historically? Here's a handy little timeline for you:
Now, Shakespeare didn't write plays about all of those dudes; he just wrote about the Richards and Henrys. That means that in historical order (not the order in which they were written), the timeline looks like this: Richard II → Henry IV, Part 1 → Henry IV, Part 2 → Henry V → Henry VI, Part 1→ Henry VI, Part 2→ Henry VI, Part 3→ Richard III.
Henry VI, Part 2, like Shakespeare's other plays, is written in a combination of verse (poetry) and prose (how we talk every day). Usually, upper class characters like Henry, Warwick, or York speak in verse, while the commoners (Jack Cade and gang) use prose to get their thoughts across. It's one of the ways Shakespeare differentiates his characters: we can often tell their social statuses just from how they talk.
An "iamb" is an unaccented syllable followed by an accented one (one of those pairs is called a "foot"). "Penta" means "five," and "meter" refers to a regular rhythmic pattern. So "iambic pentameter" is a kind of rhythmic pattern that consists of five iambs (or feet) per line. It's the most common rhythm in English poetry, and it sounds like five heartbeats: ba-DUM, ba-DUM, ba-DUM, ba-DUM, ba-DUM.
Let's try it out on these lines from Henry VI, Part 2:
The GAUdy, BLAbbing, AND reMORseful DAY
Is CREPT inTO the BOSom OF the SEA. (4.1.1-2)
Every second syllable is accented, and there are five of these feet, so this is classic iambic pentameter. Since these lines have no rhyme scheme ("day" and "sea" don't rhyme), we call it "unrhymed iambic pentameter," which is also known as "blank verse."
Now, blank verse is a pretty formal way to speak (have you ever met anyone who speaks that way?), so it's usually reserved for nobles and formal situations.
Now that we've gone over the verse, let's tackle the prose. Characters who don't get to speak in verse just talk. For example, take Cade's lines when he's talking to his men:
Be brave, then, for your captain is brave, and
vows reformation. There shall be in England seven
halfpenny loaves sold for a penny. The three-hooped
pot shall have ten hoops, and I will make it
felony to drink small beer. All the realm shall be in
common, and in Cheapside shall my palfrey go to
grass. And when I am king, as king I will be— (4.2.63-69)
See how there is no pattern to the lines? That's because he's just talking, without a meter to it. That's called prose. Cade is lower class, so he speaks in a more casual style than the nobles.
What's the deal with that staff Gloucester carries around? It's not for fun; it's symbolic of his position as Lord Protector of Henry and of England.
Gloucester was given the title "Protector" when Henry was first crowned because Henry was a little baby at the time. Since babies can't rule countries very well, Gloucester's job was basically to be king without actually being called king. Now that Henry's all grown up, a lot of characters are making it known that they think Gloucester's role has become unnecessary.
Now, we don't know about you, but we can imagine that being the kind-of king for a couple of decades might be a cushy job you wouldn't exactly want to give up. We're not sure exactly how Gloucester sees thing, but we do know that he's having dreams. He tells his wife all about it:
Me thought this staff, mine office badge in court,
Was broke in twain—by whom I have forgot,
But, as I think, it was by th' Cardinal—
And on the pieces of the broken wand
Were placed the heads of Edmund Duke of
And William de la Pole, first duke of Suffolk.
This was my dream. What it doth bode God knows. (1.2.25-32)
Is it just us, or does it seem like Gloucester's dream is a warning? In fact, this dream is exactly what happens to him: he's forced to give up his position as Protector at the hands of Cardinal Beaufort and Suffolk (and Margaret). Gloucester doesn't know for sure what's going to happen, but he's uncomfortable enough to shut his wife down when she talks about the possibility of becoming queen.
Anyway, we can tell from this passage that Gloucester's staff is just as important as the title of Protector itself—in fact, the staff becomes synonymous with the position. Later, Henry tells Gloucester, "Give up thy staff. Henry will to himself / Protector be" (2.3.25-26). Did you notice how he says "staff' instead of "title"? That's how symbolic the staff has become.
It's a little weird that a fancy stick is all that distinguishes Protector Gloucester from plain old non-Protector Gloucester. At the end of the day, the differences in status between different characters in this play are kind of imaginary: it all comes down to just a stick or a shiny crown on somebody's head, and those things can be taken away pretty easily. That kind of puts things into perspective, doesn't it?
Bring your flashlight along to read Henry VI, Part 2, because there are a whole lot of monsters on these pages... and they don't stay hidden in the closet. Here are just a couple examples of what we mean:
Um, okay. Monsters—or at least monstrosities—are everywhere in this play. It turns out that a lot of writers used monstrous imagery to represent nasty, violent deeds back in Shakespeare's day. Many of his fellow playwrights—like Dekker, Fletcher, Massinger, Marlowe, and Chapman—described how multi-headed or decapitated figures came back to haunt their characters when something bad was about to happen, or just did happen.
Most of the time, the monster figure was tied up with political issues; it wasn't just a way of freaking audiences out. Monsters were supposed to represent the idea of something horrific and violent. Whenever a monstrous image shows up in this play, it's when a political maneuver is taking place—for example, when Gloucester is being booted out by the nobles, when Eleanor is trying to become high and mighty, and when Henry is forcing Suffolk to leave because of his crimes.
The monster is a sign to us that someone is making a big political move. The fact that these political moves are associated with monsters—and therefore with violence and horror—lets us know that, at least in Shakespeare's mind, politics usually involves pain, suffering, and death for a lot of people. Even though this play is essentially about a family squabble, lots of innocent people end up brutally killed because of it. It's not a nice thought.
We know that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, so why are the characters in this play fighting about roses so much?
Well, when York tells us he's going to "raise aloft the milk-white rose" (1.1.266), he's not actually talking about flowers; he's talking about the House of York. The Wars of the Roses, a long series of battles between the houses of Lancaster and York, are the backdrop for the Henry VI trilogy. These people didn't fight with roses (if only); the images on their coats of arms were roses. The Lancasters had a red rose, while the Yorks had a white rose.
That's how the war got its name.
The main argument between the Lancasters and Yorks was over who should be king and who had the right to rule. Countless people died while the crown was handed back and forth between York and Lancaster men. It was a tough time for England.
But why write about the Wars of the Roses at all? What's the big deal?
Well, Shakespeare's audiences couldn't read about historical figures in the library or online—they went to the theater to learn about kings and queens of years past. So, in one sense, Shakespeare is giving his audience a history lesson.
On the other hand, Queen Elizabeth I had passed a law that no one could write about current political affairs, so Shakespeare used the past to comment on the present. He wrote about old historical figures and situations that were similar to ones happening around him. That way, he could comment on current events without actually seeming to; he could always just say, "Hey, this is history. I'm not doing anything wrong."
Everyone knows that a monarch's crown is never just a fancy, bedazzled hat that looks good with a matching golden wand and throne. It's more than that: it's a visual symbol of power. In this play, the crown is parodied and passed around like a turkey on Thanksgiving.
When York tells us of his plan to kick Henry out, he says, "when I spy advantage, claim the crown" (1.1.253). He gets that the crown isn't a piece of metal with some jewels that a king wears out to fancy parties—it's symbolic of his power and authority. Did you notice how the characters use the word "crown" to mean being king? That's because it's not just about the headwear.
The crown was a seriously important symbol in Elizabethan England. To show a king giving up his crown onstage was pretty dangerous, since monarchs did not like plays that depicted this kind of thing. The thinking went like this: if the audience sees a king give up his crown on stage, they'll start to imagine how the real-life queen might give up hers.
It just goes to show you how powerful the stage was thought to be. If monarchs were afraid to let people even see an actor pretending to give up a crown on stage, then writing history plays back in the day seems like it was pretty serious business.
Henry marries Margaret and loses lands in France, but the real problems are happening at home. The nobles are bickering with one another over 1) whether Gloucester should be Protector; 2) who should be Regent in France; and 3) whose fault it is that the French lands are gone. Oh, and did we mention that York wants to be king?
Yep, there's trouble brewing in England, all right, and just about everyone goes out of their way to tell us that the other nobles are prideful, ambitious, and totally at fault.
It's all good in the hood for Gloucester: he's Protector, and he has the trust of the king. But when his wife has dreams about becoming queen and starts dabbling in a little witchcraft to find out what's up, things start going downhill for the duke—his wife is arrested and banished, and he's arrested soon afterwards. Who cares if he's guilty of anything? He's just getting in the way of Suffolk, Beaufort, and Margaret's plans for the kingdom.
After the terrifying trio (Suffolk, Beaufort, and Margaret) arranges to have Gloucester knocked off, Henry starts asking questions. Eventually, Beaufort can't take the guilt, and he dies with a load on his conscience. Suffolk, meanwhile, is banished and beheaded. Back in England, the commoners also start questioning what happened to Gloucester. This is no ordinary Q&A: under the leadership of Jack Cade, the commoners revolt.
Things are in shambles for Henry. Cade and his crew are getting stronger and gaining more ground in the city. York hired Cade to stir up trouble, and boy, is it working. Cade revolts against literacy (of all things) and wants to release prisoners from the Tower.
But things are short-lived for the commoner-turned-leader, as he quickly realizes that his crowd is a fickle bunch, ready to blindly follow anyone with a persuasive speech. He flees and is killed. Meanwhile, York preps his army to fight Henry. He thinks he deserves to be king, and he's convinced some other nobles to fight alongside him.
York challenges Henry to a fight for the crown, and things don't go down very well for the king, as several of his supporters are killed by York and his army. Henry is too scared to fight and doesn't want to run, but he's left with few options. Margaret convinces him to hightail it back to London, where he has loyal supporters. Well, that's what he does, and York declares victory.
York still doesn't have the crown, though, and if he's going to get it, he's going to have to beat Henry back to London. Challenge accepted.
Not everyone's excited about Henry's marriage to Margaret. For one thing, it comes at a hefty price: England has to give up some lands in France. This starts some grumbling in the palace between the nobles: on one side, we've got Cardinal Beaufort, Buckingham, Somerset, and Suffolk, and on the other side, we've got Salisbury, Warwick, and York.
And then there's Gloucester, the thorn in everyone's side: he's a problem because he's got so much power over Henry and England. Even his wife, Eleanor, thinks she should become queen.
Eleanor has dreamt of becoming queen, and she wants to talk to some conjurers and witches to see if it's true. Her excitement over the thunder, lighting, and prophecies they tell her is short-lived: she's arrested by York, Suffolk, and Somerset for witchcraft. She is publicly shamed and banished, while the rest of the gang involved is killed.
Gloucester mourns over his wife's predicament. He wants to help her, but he knows she's done wrong. It doesn't matter much, anyway, because Gloucester's own enemies arrest him for treason and take him before the king. Still, Henry believes that Gloucester is innocent and will allow him a trial to prove it.
Suffolk, Cardinal Beaufort, and Margaret all conspire to kill Gloucester. It doesn't matter that he's not guilty of anything—they just want him gone. They hire some murderers, who faithfully carry out the deed.
Henry learns of Gloucester's death and mourns for his friend. Warwick points out that Gloucester died under suspicious circumstances, and he eventually accuses Suffolk and Beaufort of his death. Henry is grief-stricken. The people start to revolt, demanding to know who killed Gloucester and why. Henry can't seem to control the people, his nobles, or even his wife.
York has hired Jack Cade, a commoner, to stir up trouble in London while he's away. Cade will claim to be Mortimer, a noble in line for the throne. (Mortimer is actually dead, so no one will know he's not the real deal.) Cade raises an army of commoners by saying that when he rules, every man will have a say, and people won't get arrested for being illiterate. He takes down Henry's armies on London Bridge and at the Tower, and he keeps going strong until he realizes that his men are as fickle as can be. He's got nothing left to do but run away.
Cade is captured and killed when he won't back down. York starts storming his way to London with his army, but he's stopped by Henry's men, who demand to know what he's up to. At first, York lies and says he just wants to kill the traitor Somerset. But he loses his cool pretty quickly and starts fighting Henry's men right then and there. He kills Clifford, and Richard kills Somerset.
Seeing that he is losing, Henry flees to London, where he has more support. York declares victory and promises to meet Henry in London to finish the war.
Henry marries Margaret and is forced to give up some French lands for her. A bunch of the nobles complain about this and blame each other for causing the problem. Still, the real problem (according to the nobles) is Gloucester: he was appointed Protector way back when Henry was a baby and needed help ruling, but Henry doesn't need him now.
The nobles conspire against Gloucester. His wife makes it pretty easy for them when she gets a little too ambitious and dabbles in some good old-fashioned witchcraft. She's arrested, and Gloucester is shamed.
Gloucester is bummed about his wife's banishment, but he knows she was guilty of the crime. Suffolk, Margaret, and Beaufort try to think of some excuse to off Gloucester and then just decide to kill him without any pretext. Sure, they could await his trial, but they can't think of any charges that will stick. (We wonder why…)
Once Gloucester is murdered, Henry mourns for his friend. Meanwhile, York has been working behind the scenes on his own plan: he's hired Jack Cade to start a rebellion, and that's exactly what Cade does—with some pretty bloody and chaotic results.
The rebellion is in full swing, with nobles taken down left, right, and center. Cade promises there will be no more reading and writing. Power to the people? Well, it's all fun and games until Cade realizes that his army will follow anyone with a rousing speech. That freaks him out, so he flees... and is killed.
None of this seems to matter to York, who just picks up right where his comrade left off. He uses Henry's divided kingdom to his advantage by fighting Henry and (what's left of) Henry's men. Henry flees, afraid for his life. York wins the battle and hurries back to London to try to defeat Henry there, too. This time, it's for the crown.