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Henry VI, Part 2 | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Henry VI, Part 2 | Context


English Politics

Like the other plays in the First Tetralogy (the Henry VI trilogy plus Richard III), Henry VI, Part 2 dramatizes the strife and turbulence of English politics during the 15th century. In Part 1 Shakespeare had portrayed England's final attempt to reclaim France during the Hundred Years War (1337–1453); Part 2 opens with the enactment of the Truce of Tours (1444), a pause in hostilities that was formalized by King Henry's marriage to Margaret of Anjou (the play's Queen Margaret). The conclusion of the Hundred Years' War—France's eventual repulsion of the English—is not dramatized directly in Part 2, but it is reported by messengers midway through the play. The defeat does, however, lead to further infighting among Henry's noblemen: the dukes of York and Somerset, each of whom has served as Henry's regent in France, blame each other for England's loss of French territory. In Act 3, Scene 1 enemies of the Duke of Gloucester accuse him of mismanaging the war effort and call for his arrest as a traitor.

Long before the Hundred Years' War ended, the Truce of Tours was a source of discontent in England, driving a further wedge between Henry's supporters and his detractors. The truce's most powerful opponent was the Duke of Gloucester, who predicts in the opening scene of Part 2 that England will lose its French possessions altogether. Historically, as in the play, Gloucester was correct: the French regrouped and, once hostilities resumed in 1449, drove the English out for good. Gloucester, however, did not live long enough to witness this development: he died under suspicious circumstances in 1447, leading to widespread allegations that he had been murdered. Especially disastrous—both from a strategic viewpoint and for Henry's image as a king—was the promise to return the county of Maine to French sovereignty. Henry's order that Maine be surrendered was met with an almost mutinous refusal by the English troops stationed there, who abandoned the province in 1448.

Henry's reign was further complicated by a popular revolt in 1450. Known as Jack Cade's Rebellion, the uprising was mainly a response to oppressive tax policies, though the mishandling of the foreign wars likely played a part as well. Shakespeare takes some significant liberties in portraying this rebellion, the events of which unfold over a sequence of rapid-fire scenes in Act 4. In the play, for example, Jack Cade and his associates are illiterate tradesmen, when in fact the revolt was primarily fueled by the property-holding middle classes. The historical Henry, like his Shakespearean counterpart, finally managed to quell the uprising by offering amnesty to the rebels, provided they would abandon Cade and return to being loyal subjects. Cade himself died soon after the dispersal of his army, though not before he had dealt a serious blow to Henry's credibility as a ruler.

Eventually the combination of civil unrest and factional violence led to the outbreak of a full-scale civil war, known as the Wars of the Roses (1455–85). The party lines had largely been drawn in Part 1, with the Duke of York quietly positioning himself as a rival claimant to the throne, but the divisions are deepened in Part 2 with two distinct factions coming into focus: the Yorkists and the Lancastrians. The first battle of this war, fought at Saint Albans in 1455, was a major victory for the Yorkists, putting Henry and his supporters on the defensive; in Henry VI, Part 2 this battle is the central event of Act 5 and the arguable climax of the play. Nearly the whole of Part 3—and much of Richard III—will be concerned with the war and its immediate aftermath.

Source Material

As with Parts 1 and 3, Shakespeare based his depiction of the events in Part 2 on the chronicle histories of Edward Hall and Raphael Holinshed. Hall's work, The Union of the Two Noble and Illustrate Famelies of Lancastre and Yorke (2nd ed., 1550), provides an overview of the feud between those two royal houses from the time of Henry IV onward, ending (in its expanded 1550 form) with the death of Henry VIII. Holinshed's The Firste Volume of the Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande (2nd ed., 1587) is even broader in scope, narrating the history of the British Isles from pre-Roman times onward. Holinshed's history of the Wars of the Roses era was largely based on Hall's, though as Henry Summerson points out in the Oxford Handbook to Holinshed's Chronicles (2012), the later historian often "adapt[ed] and amplifi[ed]" the earlier.

Although Shakespeare draws directly from the chroniclers in many cases, he often reworks timelines to serve the pacing of his plays and sometimes constructs a composite character from multiple historical figures. As Marjorie Garber points out in Shakespeare After All (2004), Cade's uprising in Act 4 is a synthesis of two different events reported in Holinshed: the rebellion of 1450 and the Peasant's Revolt of 1381. Cade himself, in Shakespeare's rendition, combines traits of the historical Jack Cade (of the 1450 rebellion) and Wat Tyler (who led the 1381 revolt). His plan to "kill all the lawyers," for example, actually comes from Tyler—who, as Garber notes, wished to "put to death all lawyers, escheaters, and other which by any office had to do with the law."

Jack Cade as he appears in Henry VI, Part 2 is thus a fusion of two historical figures, pieced out with the contents of Shakespeare's imagination; he is thus a much more fully developed character in the play than in the chronicle histories. This can be seen most clearly in Act 4, Scene 10, whose dialogue is a mixture of quotations from Hall and Shakespearean inventions; the playwright's contributions give Cade a tragicomic quality he largely lacks in the chronicles. The touchy, mean-spirited nature of Iden's remarks in this scene is likewise original to Shakespeare.

Textual History

Henry VI, Part 2 was written about the same time as the first installment of the trilogy, Henry VI, Part 1. The work's date of composition is still disputed, but a date of 1591 is commonly cited, placing Part 2 right in the middle of the range of dates proposed for Part 1 (1589–92). Moreover, although scholars generally agree that the three plays of the trilogy were roughly contemporary, they continue to debate the exact order in which the works were composed. Curators of the British Library's Shakespeare in Quarto collection, for example, describe Part 3 as a "sequel" to Parts 1 and 2; Garber, in contrast, argues that Part 1 was written last.

Another ongoing topic of scholarly discussion is the extent to which Shakespeare collaborated with other playwrights in producing the Henry VI plays. Christopher Marlowe, an Elizabethan tragedian best known for Doctor Faustus and Tamburlaine the Great, has been named as a possible collaborator since at least the early twentieth century, with the editors of the Cambridge Complete Works advancing this viewpoint in 1936. As of 2016 the New Oxford Shakespeare lists Marlowe as a coauthor for these three plays, though the exact extent of his involvement remains uncertain.

Whatever the trilogy's provenance or order of composition, Part 2 was first published in quarto form—smaller, cheaper, and more portable than a folio—in 1594. This version was titled The First Part of the Contention Betwixt the Two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster; the implied Second Part of the Contention is the play now known as Henry VI, Part 3. A second quarto appeared in 1600; a third, dated to 1619, included both Part 2 and Part 3 of the trilogy under the title The Whole Contention, with minor additions and corrections to Part 2. The most complete early version—and the basis for most modern editions of the play—is the First Folio (1623), which is substantially longer than any of the quarto editions.

Stage and Screen Productions

Early performance records of Henry VI, Part 2 are lacking, but the play likely premiered in 1591 with Lord Strange's Men. It was adapted by British dramatist John Crowne during the Restoration as The Misery of Civil War (1681), which combines portions of Part 2 and Part 3. Some 18th-century adaptations, including Theophilus Cibber's Henry VI (1723), took a similar piecemeal approach, pulling material from multiple plays in an attempt to create a shorter but still cohesive version of the trilogy's grand narrative; early 19th-century versions, like Edmund Kean's Richard Duke of York (1817), largely followed suit. Only in the Victorian era did productions more faithful to Shakespeare's text regain the stage, beginning with an 1864 Surrey Theatre revival starring James Anderson.

As with the rest of the Henry VI trilogy, stagings of Part 2 are a relative rarity in modern times. James Cooray Smith of the New Statesman (2016) argues that the First Tetralogy plays (the Henry VI trilogy plus Richard III) "work less effectively" than Shakespeare's other English histories "when asked to standalone. Not only do they work better as a cycle, but they depend on the others within their own tetralogy to a greater extent than Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V do." To judge by their work, 20th- and 21st-century directors have largely shared Smith's belief, since the Henry VI plays are typically produced as a group.

The trilogy's great length, however, means that modern productions are almost always heavily abridged. Notable 20th-century stagings of this type include The Wars of the Roses (1963, dirs. Peter Hall and John Barton) and Adrian Noble's The Plantagenets (1988). The standout character in these productions is often held to be Queen Margaret, who, though she plays only a minor role in Part 1, rises to power in Part 2 and is the dominant figure of the Lancastrian faction in Part 3. She reappears briefly in Richard III, isolated and embittered in the wake of her husband's death. As the only character to appear in all four parts of the First Tetralogy, Margaret is seen as lending a kind of continuity to a series punctuated by murder, intergenerational strife, and regime change.

The material of Henry VI, Part 2 also plays a central role in Dominic Cooke's highly acclaimed television miniseries The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses (2016). This adaptation condenses the Henry VI plays into the first two parts of a trilogy, with Richard III as the third and final installment. Some critics have complained that Cooke's version disrupts the pacing of Shakespeare's plays and robs them of important historical context. Michael Billington of The Guardian (2016), for example, lamented Cooke's decision to omit the entirety of Jack Cade's rebellion from Act 4; the uprising, he argued, was "important because it shows how mutiny spreads like a cancer through the kingdom." Others, including reviewer Sam Wollaston (2016), enjoyed the trilogy's faster pacing, likening Cooke's work to the popular TV series Game of Thrones. Remarking on the substantial cuts to Shakespeare's script, Wollaston conceded that "there will probably be complaints from a stuffy old scholar or two. Not from me, though: I haven't even thought about that remote control."

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