Study Guide

Henry VI Part 2 Themes

  • Justice and Judgment

    All rise, because the court is now in session. Seriously, reading Henry VI, Part 2 is like reading one big courtroom drama: characters get tried and judged left and right, and everyone is concerned (or pretends to be concerned) with justice.

    There are real courtroom scenes, like the ones involving Eleanor and the witches or Peter and Horner, and there are also figurative courtroom scenes with characters dishing out their own forms of justice. There may even be a little bit of divine retribution going on here behind the scenes, in the sense that every character who has ever sinned or committed a crime gets what's coming to him or her.

    Since we're dealing with characters who don't hesitate to stab their friends and families in the backs, literally and figuratively, a whole lot of justice—and injustice—is dished out in this play. Is justice ever really served? Who decides what justice, how, and who gets to judge here?

    Questions About Justice and Judgment

    1. Is anyone's death truly just? Is it just when Beaufort dies (without making a religious sign) after he helps kill Gloucester? Is it just when Gloucester is murdered?
    2. Does anyone who deserves to be punished escape justice in this play? Why do some characters seem to be on the receiving end of divine justice, while others do not?
    3. Is there any difference between justice and revenge in Henry VI, Part 2? Are characters just using the idea of justice to further their own agendas?
    4. Why are we given scenes of formal justice in court? How do these scenes comment on the larger plot of the play?

    Chew on This

    Margaret is the only character who is not judged for her actions. She is not held accountable for her hand in murdering Gloucester.

    Justice isn't really served in this play. Eleanor is punished, and Beaufort dies, but on the whole, people do not answer for their wrongdoings.

  • Society and Class

    Oh, boy: we've got kings, queens, nobles, and commoners all thrown together on one stage, and everybody wants a bigger piece of the pie than they already have. Did someone say class issues?

    Class comes up pretty often in Henry VI, Part 2, but nowhere more clearly than in the scenes with John Cade and his crew. Cade's rebellion hinges on the issue of republicanism: he's against the monarchy, and he's fighting to get power away from the king and into the hands of the people.

    Equal rights and representation in the government: sounds legit, right? What if we told you that Cade also wants to have literate people murdered? And that he wants free access to any woman, anytime? And that he goes around killing anyone who gets in his way? And that he starts talking about what will happen when he's king?

    Yeah, some wires got crossed somewhere. Turns out the class issues facing this society are pretty complex, and there may be no easy answers.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. What is Cade's beef with grammar, reading, and writing? How does education contribute to his notion of class?
    2. How does Cade's sudden high-class mentality comment on the whole class system? Are the classes distinguishable if someone can easily jump from one to the next?
    3. Why is no one convinced that Cade is actually Mortimer?
    4. What role does the rebellion play in Henry VI, Part 2? How does Henry respond to it? Are the issues of class taken seriously by the nobles?

    Chew on This

    Jack Cade is more interested in being king than he is in changing the social class system.

    While Henry VI, Part 2 seems to celebrate social upheaval, it also ridicules ambitious attempts to cross class boundaries.

  • Religion

    Let's face it: in Henry VI, Part 2, the big King H doesn't really care about too many things. When his country needs a regent in France, he openly admits he's out of his league. When Margaret and Suffolk try to convince him to bump Gloucester out of his Protector position, he doesn't seem to have an opinion.

    But what Henry does care about is religion. There are a couple of reasons for this. First and foremost, Henry is a pretty decent guy. He cares about doing the right thing, and he looks to religion for guidance. Henry thinks that God has a plan and that God is in charge of deciding what's right and what's wrong, as well as what's just and what's unjust.

    This creates some problems. Henry is hesitant to make decisions on his own because he doesn't know exactly what God's plan is. Henry has a hard time functioning in his own political world because he is not as treacherous, manipulative, and unjust as most of the people surrounding him. Margaret, Suffolk, and Beaufort respect no rules; how is Henry supposed to compete with them if his primary goal is to be a good person? No wonder he doesn't really want to be king.

    At the same time, we can't just say that Henry is good and Margaret, Suffolk, and Beaufort are bad. Henry may want to be a good person, but his faith is totally naive. He believes the story about the blind man, for example, even though Gloucester proves that the whole thing was a scam. Henry may be a decent guy, but he's almost totally passive, leaving everything in God's (or his nobles') hands. How would things be different if he stood up for himself and his beliefs for once?

    Questions About Religion

    1. Why is religion so important to Henry? What does it offer him that his nobles do not?
    2. When does Henry use his religion to make decisions? Is he more likely to turn to God in a good or a bad moment? Why?
    3. How do other characters talk about Henry's beliefs? Why is his religion an issue with his wife?

    Chew on This

    Henry uses his religion as an escape from the real world. He never has to make a decision if he thinks God is in charge of everything.

    Margaret thinks Henry's religion is pointless.

  • Loyalty

    Are you loyal to a king? To a country? To your relatives? To the law? To justice? To God?

    One of the basic issues Henry VI, Part 2 investigates is how you go about determining who or what deserves your loyalty. When different systems (like government, religion, and family) compete with each other for your allegiance, how do you choose sides?

    Different characters offer different answers to this question. Gloucester is loyal to Henry, but not to his followers. Margaret, Suffolk, and Beaufort think of themselves as above it all and are loyal only to themselves. Warwick and Salisbury are loyal to their ideal of kingship and not to one specific king. And York throws a wrench into the whole system when he makes a play for the crown. Who or what is he loyal to?

    Who's right, and who's wrong? As usual, Shakespeare leaves this for us to decide.

    Questions About Loyalty

    1. Who do the subjects owe their loyalty to—the current king, or the man they think should be king? Who are the commoners loyal to?
    2. Are Warwick and Salisbury committing treason by giving their loyalty to York instead of Henry? If York is right that he should be king, are Clifford and Buckingham committing treason by supporting Henry over York?
    3. Which character in the play is the most loyal? Why?
    4. How is loyalty defined in the play? Are Margaret, Suffolk, and Beaufort loyal when they murder Gloucester? Where does loyalty end and ruthlessness begin?

    Chew on This

    One of Henry's biggest problems is that he thinks he deserves loyalty without having to give it back to his subjects.

    Although Warwick and Salisbury plot against Henry, they are loyal because they support York even under threat of treason.

  • Gender

    Where would the characters in Henry VI, Part 2 be without gender stereotypes to make their insults really sting? Seriously: did you notice that people are always throwing around comments about this guy not being man enough to something, or that guy being so cowardly he must be a woman?

    We get a lot of examples of what the characters think of men and women just by listening to how they offend each other. According to the play, men should be strong, scary, and powerful, while women should to be quiet, calm, and obedient. But in reality, how many characters actually live up to this model?

    Questions About Gender

    1. How are women portrayed in Henry VI, Part 2? Do Eleanor and Margaret share similar traits?
    2. Does anyone fit the expectations for his or her gender? In what ways does the play invite us to criticize character's masculinity or femininity?
    3. Is there room for women in the world of Henry VI, Part 2? Eleanor is banished, and Margaret is told to butt out of politics. Do these women find other ways of getting involved in politics? If so, are they successful?
    4. What happens to the men who are strong, brutal, and forceful in Henry VI, Part 2? Are all of them praised? Are all of them successful?

    Chew on This

    Henry and Margaret switch gender roles: Henry is more feminine, and Margaret is more masculine.

    Gender expectations in Henry VI, Part 2 are unrealistic, and no character lives up to them.

  • Ambition

    Maybe we should have called it over-ambition, because some of the characters in Henry VI, Part 2 are off the charts. Seriously, when multiple innocent heads start rolling just so that certain characters can get what they want, you know there's a problem.

    Most of the characters in the play are overachievers, and we're not talking about those annoying but ultimately harmless teacher's-pet types. Nope—these are people who are willing to lie, cheat, kill, and double-cross anyone to get what they want. And what is it they want? More power, of course.

    Questions About Ambition

    1. Why are the characters so ambitious in the first place? Is there something in the kingdom that encourages or perpetuates the nobles' ambition?
    2. What is the difference between York's ambition and Margaret's and Suffolk's ambition? Is it okay to just steal the crown when you think you'd make a better king?
    3. What is the difference between the nobles' ambition and commoners' ambition? Why do the commoners rebel? What do they want that's different from what the nobles want?
    4. Are there any "ambitious" characters in Henry VI, Part 2 who don't get greedy or go too far in order to get what they want?

    Chew on This

    The commoners are more justified in their ambition because they want equality, not sovereignty.

    By the end of Henry VI, Part 2, we find that ambition is a necessary—if destructive—force that drives the plot and characters.

  • Weakness

    Let's face it: there wouldn't be much to Henry VI, Part 2 if Henry were a strong king like his father or grandfather. What do we get here? Well, we get a guy who doesn't want to fight (but doesn't want to run away, either), who can't keep his nobles and commoners under control, who is easily fooled by religious scammers, and who leaves most of his decisions to God. Or to his wife. Or to York. Or... well, you get the idea.

    Oh, yeah: Henry also admits that he would rather be a subject instead of a king.

    As you can imagine, this causes a lot of trouble in Henry's kingdom. But would things be different if Henry were a stronger, more forceful king? That's possible, but it may be more complicated than that. Henry's a pretty decent guy, so would it actually be better if he were more like the nasty characters who put their ambitions before everything—and everyone—else? If Henry weren't surrounded by such nasty people, would things in his kingdom be pretty much okay? Is it just Henry's fault that things go wrong?

    They say that the people most fit to rule are those who least want to. If that's true, what does that tell us about Henry and his weaknesses?

    Questions About Weakness

    1. Henry is weak in warfare, but is he strong in other areas? Do people respect him or listen to his ideas?
    2. Would York have acted on his claim to the throne if Henry had more control over the country? Does Henry's weakness have anything to do with York's bid for the crown?
    3. Why does everyone remind us of Henry's weakness? Are they right about him, or are they just unable to understand him? What do the nobles think about Henry? The commoners?

    Chew on This

    If Henry were stronger, no nobles or commoners would have revolted in his kingdom.

    Henry's weakness has nothing to do with everyone else's lust for power and glory. Even strong kings have to fight off opposition.

  • Lies and Deceit

    Pants are on fire all over the place in Henry VI, Part 2. People lie so much in this play that it starts to seem like everything anybody ever says is just some form of deception.

    There's the type of deception that's really just political "spin," like when Margaret, Suffolk, and Beaufort push for Gloucester to give up his title because Henry doesn't need him any more. Really, we all know they just hate Gloucester and want the power for themselves, and pretty much everyone else knows it, too.

    But then there's the type of slow, calculated deception that a lot of the characters do in private as they scheme for more and more power. If you're wondering what characters like Margaret and York do in their free time, we'll fill you in: they sit around trying to figure out how to manipulate everyone into doing what they want. Take York, for example: he quietly controls everyone around him until he's got 'em right where he wants 'em. He's practically yelling, "Dance for me, puppets, dance!"

    This play's world isn't a pretty place for people who tell the truth.

    Questions About Lies and Deceit

    1. Is it okay for York to lie to everyone around him when it's for a noble cause? When do his actions compare and contrast with those of Margaret, Suffolk, and Cardinal Beaufort?
    2. Why is it difficult to remain truthful in the play? What happens when Gloucester and Lord Saye tell the truth? Does it matter?
    3. How do characters in this play discuss deception? Which characters avoid deception completely?
    4. Why does Margaret lie about Gloucester's death when everyone knows she was involved? What is she trying to prove by claiming she had nothing to do with it?

    Chew on This

    York's deception is worse than other characters' because he pretends to be fighting for the king when he is actually raising up his own army to fight Henry.

    Characters have to lie in Henry VI, Part 2 because the world is full of deceit and trickery.