It took me a minute to find this one in The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works because the editors insist on calling it by the original title, The First Part of the Contention of the two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster with the Death of the Good Duke Humphrey. That title rolls right off the tongue, but I think I’ll keep calling it Henry VI Part Two. Also, I have to appreciate the spoiler right in the title.
Anyway, I wasn’t a fan of 1 Henry VI, but that was just an appetizer for the main course. Maybe it’s because the prequel was written later as a collaboration, or he just wanted to bash out something to cash in on the popularity of the original (possibly making 1 Henry VI the Phantom Menace of the Shakespearean oeuvre [okay, maybe it’s not nearly that bad]). Whatever the deal is, 2 Henry VI is closer to the Shakespeare we all know and love.
In Part One, things fall apart for England in the war in France, but here they fall apart in England as King Henry faces internal conspiracies and attempted usurpation - or rather, he gets swept away by conspiracies. In both parts of this story so far, Henry hasn’t really done much himself, except to act on bad or malicious advice, but that seems to be the point. Henry is a rather mediocre king, crowned as a child on his father’s death and, as a young man, still clearly in over his head. He says in Act 4 Scene 8 “Was never subject longed to be a king / As I do long and wish to be a subject,” but he was ready enough to dismiss Duke Humphrey of Gloucester, who had been ruling for him as Lord Protector, and rule in his own right instead.
Speaking of Gloucester, he resembles Lord Talbot from Part One in that he’s the only one in a position to save Henry’s fortunes, but as Talbot was abandoned in a hopeless battle, Gloucester is dismissed after false charges of corruption are brought against him and then, as the spoiler in the original title says, is assassinated. So, instead of having Gloucester to serve as his Metternich, Henry is left to the mercy of the other ambitious, conspiring nobles. I’m guessing that the play is not very historically accurate outside of a basic outline of events, but if Part Three is like the first two one could write a book on leadership by contrasting Henry to the other major characters. Call it, “The Art of Kingship: Don’t Be Like Henry VI.” Gloucester predicts what will happen as soon as he’s dismissed:
Ah, thus King Henry throws away his crutch
Before his legs be firm to bear his body.
Thus is the shepherd beaten from thy side,
And wolves are gnarling who shall gnaw thee first.
Ah, that my fear were false; ah, that it were!
For, good King Henry, thy decay I fear.
Gloucester was mostly thinking of the nobility, but there’s also a peasants’ rebellion led by Jack Cade, which Henry attempts to appease and entreat with, then flee from (albeit only after Saye urges him to leave London), until someone else solves the problem for him. In any case, by the time York’s rebellion actually begins, one has the sense that Henry has lost the Mandate of Heaven anyway.
Speaking of Cade, he’s only in a few scenes, but he’s probably my favourite character in the work. He’s obviously a peasant, but brazenly lies about his heritage to try claiming the throne. Here he attempts to introduce himself, with some interruption from one of his followers, a butcher:
CADE: My father was a Mortimer-
BUTCHER (to his fellows): He was an honest man and a good bricklayer.
CADE: My mother a Plantagenet-
BUTCHER (to his fellows): I knew her well, she was a midwife.
CADE: My wife descended from the Lacys-
BUTCHER (to his fellows): She was indeed a pedlar’s daughter and sold many laces.
Shakespeare’s comedy is hit-and-miss with me, but something about this made me laugh. I don’t know if the butcher is intentionally letting his fellow rebels in on Cade’s scam, or if he just doesn’t realise that he’s exposing the lie, or what. The butcher is also the character who delivers the famous line, “First thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers!” Cade does have his comic moments here or in his proud, stubborn philistinism, like when he asks a clerk taken prisoner “Dost thou use [letters] to write thy name? Or hast thou a mark to thyself like an honest plain-dealing man?” However, he’s so brazen in his lies, and bold in everything he does, it’s hard not to give him a little respect. After his followers are convinced to desert him, he spends several days in hiding until forced to scavenge an esquire’s garden for food; the owner finds him and Cade, too famished to fight well, is killed. “For I,” he says, “that never feared any, am vanquished by famine, not by valour.”
So, we’re still not quite up to the heights of Shakespeare’s tragedies, but we’re getting there. Stay tuned for Henry VI Part Three, or whatever the Oxford editors decide to call it.