King Henry VI Part 2 (Arden Shakespeare Third Series)

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William Shakespeare edited by Ronald Knowles

DOI: 10.5040/9781408160343.00000006
Acts: 5. Scenes: 24. Roles: Male (57) , Female (7) , Neutral (0)

Discussion of King Henry VI, Part 2 has been dominated by examinations of the providential pattern of God in history and the insurrectional eruption of rebels in society: of the high and the low forces of history. The play has also been viewed from the perspectives of Senecan poetics, feminism, the carnivalesque and burlesque.

This text uses the 1613 Folio as the control text. The play also appeared in a shorter, reconstructed form in three quartos entitled The Contention . . . The play was composed and performed before 1592, an issue that is linked to the dating of Henry VI, Part 1. The question of authorship — whether Shakespeare is the sole author, or collaborated, or revised an earlier play—is unresolved.

The English court is still fractious, and ill at ease with Henry’s marriage to Margaret of Anjou, which was arranged by Margaret’s very close confidant Suffolk. The Cardinal (Bishop of Winchester) and Buckingham are suspicious of the King’s Protector and uncle, Humphrey Duke of Gloucester, and they conspire with Margaret and Suffolk to disgrace him, tricking his wife Eleanor into meeting a witch. She is banished, and Henry takes away Gloucester’s Protectorate; the conspirators accuse him of treason and losing the remaining territories in France, and secretly plan to kill him.

Meanwhile York has persuaded Salisbury and Warwick of his claim to the throne, and told them he is biding his time. The King sends him to quell the rebellion in Ireland. York explains that he has persuaded a man called Jack Cade to pose as York’s dead ancestor and start a rebellion against Henry’s rule.

Henry discovers Gloucester’s murder and exiles Suffolk. The Cardinal dies raving; Suffolk is killed at sea. Cade’s violent insurrection swells, until the memory of Henry V quiets the rebels. York returns from Ireland with an army and two of his sons Edward and Richard, and fights the Lancastrians at St Albans. The King and Queen flee the battlefield; the Yorkists pursue them.