Coming off the heels of 1 Henry VI, the next play, 2 Henry VI, struck me as wonderfully written. I hadn’t found much to stand out in 1 Henry VI. But from the beginning, the analogies, the rhythm of the poetry, and the play on words impressed me in the second play. As the action progressed, I could picture the actors and their reactions. I really enjoyed 2 Henry VI, and in fact I read it twice this month just so I’d feel I understood it fully.
1 Henry VI provided the backdrop for the War of the Roses, capturing the 20 years or so after Henry V’s death and the establishment of the Duke of Gloucester (Lord Humphrey) as the Lord Protector of England, since Henry VI was only an infant at his father’s death. At the end of the play, Lord Suffolk in France has arranged for Margaret of Anjou to marry the now-grown King Henry VI.
Then, 2 Henry VI begins right where the first play left off, with Suffolk arriving in England to deliver Princess Margaret to the King. From the first scene, there is tension as the Lord Protector reads the treaty arrangement that gives Margaret (who is French) to England: two of the recently conquered territories in France have been returned to French rule as a result of the marriage arrangements.
2 Henry VI is about conflicting interests, about secrets among leaders, and especially about what it means to be a leader as chaos begins to erupt around King Henry’s throne. It’s obvious that King Henry VI depends on his Lord Protector (who is his uncle) and others to guide him as king. Although he is technically of age, he is a weak and inefficient leader, although he trusts all his close counselors. This blind trust leads to the beginning of his downfall as friends are executed and his supposed friends instigate uprisings against him. I have not yet read 3 Henry VI, but I can see where it will go.
*Possible “spoilers” below*
Trying to capture all the intricate complications of the play in a few paragraphs may make it seem a bit confusing, but here’s my attempt. In the very beginning, the King’s Lord Protector (Gloucester) becomes disheartened when he discovers that Suffolk and Henry VI have traded away land in France1. Add to this Gloucester’s wife Eleanor who, somewhat like Lady Macbeth, summons spirits as she plans for Gloucester to overtake the kingdom (despite Gloucester’s claims that he does not want the kingdom). Unsurprisingly, Eleanor is named a traitor and Gloucester is also jailed for trial, despite the King’s trust in him.
The Duke of York (Richard Plantagenet of 1 Henry VI) acts dutifully to the king, but unlike the dutiful Gloucester, York meets with others in secret to plan his way to claim the throne, specifically organizing an uprising against the King. I must admit that I really liked the Duke of York, despite his back-stabbing ways and violent temper. Since I know what will happen in Richard III (although I’m not familiar, yet, with 3 Henry VI), I felt I was kind of on his side, even though I know York’s son Richard (who will be Richard III) is a horrible evil man…. Why did I like him so much? Probably because he was the charismatic leader that Henry VI was not.
In short, the play is complicated at first, but as one reads it, it begins to settle down in to ordered chaos. Henry VI is quite naïve about the dissension in his kingdom. I think the turning point of the play is Act III, when Henry VI’s wishes are dishonored. In scene ii, he arrives, expecting to be witness to his friend and protector Gloucester at his trial, only to find that his supposed friends (the other Lords) have secretly killed Gloucester before he could be tried.
I felt rather bad for Gloucester. He married a power-hungry woman and then is murdered before he can defend himself. He seems to have been true in his dedication to the King: he didn’t want the power for himself. And King Henry believes him, as he should! Consider the King’s reaction to the jailing of Gloucester in the scene previous:
For what’s more miserable than discontent? –
Ah, uncle Humphrey! in thy face I see
The map of honour, truth and loyalty. (III.i.201-203)
Gloucester’s death is the turning point when the king loses control of his kingdom: before, he had a trusted advisor to assist him (Gloucester had ruled for him for the duration of his life to this point). Without his right-hand man, the king becomes even more powerless, and the chaos will only continue, as York’s soliloquy in III.i indicates.
My brain more busy than the laboring spider
weaves tedious snares to trap mine enemies. … (III.i.339-340)
There are so many enjoyable things about 2 Henry VI, especially in the second half. I loved Margaret’s obsessive love for Suffolk (especially Act IV, scene iv, where she keeps mourning over Suffolk’s head in the king’s presence). And John Cade’s uprising was also quite amusing: I loved the scene when Cade argued with the king’s soldiers and the crowd was easily swayed (IV.vii). It was particularly interesting to note Shakespeare’s difference in writing the speech of the commoner Cade versus the poetic responses of the Buckingham and Clifford.
Although I don’t intend at this point to revisit the Henry VI plays in the foreseeable future, I’m really looking forward to see how Shakespeare brings the chaotic drama to an end in 3 Henry VI( or, at least, to the end before the beginning of Richard III begins chaos anew). Gloucester, before he dies, mentions to the King a hint at what will come:
And if my death might make this island happy
And prove the period of their tyranny,
I would expend it with all willingness;
But mine is made the prologue to their play,
For thousands more, that yet suspect no peril,
Will not conclude their plotted tragedy. (III.i.148-153)
Another post for Allie’s Shakespeare Month.
- One French territory lost is Maine, and the puns on that word continue for the duration of the play. Things like this gem. “Salibury: Then let’s make haste away, and look unto the main. / Warwick: 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.” I.i.208-213. ↩