Having lost France in its entirety, England is in turmoil. The people’s discontent is brewing, and the peers of the realm pounce upon the weakness of their king Henry VI, plotting against him and each other to further their own agendas. In fact, the seemingly unassuming Richard Duke of York even has his mind set on winning the throne for himself.
This play (originally titled The First Part of the Contention of the Two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster just to confuse things) is quite a different animal from Part 1. The second part is an entirely domestic affair, although the shadow of the failed French wars lingers over everything going on, and the play has enough to chew on without going abroad for material. Too much to chew on, perhaps, for it lacks the sleek narrative flow of its predecessor (which, in all fairness, was written a couple of years later).
Characters abound as Shakespeare tries to cram in everyone who had any significant part to play in the War of the Roses and its surrounding occurrences. People like Lord Scales (the master of the Tower of London) and Alexander Iden (who earns the king’s gratitude in a specific way) and others have one or two scenes apiece, making 2 Henry VI a little bit scattershot, the very epitome of the confusing history play, where numbers of people show up all of a sudden without much context or explanation. On the one hand, this displays an uncommon degree of verisimilitude on Shakespeare’s part, since he’s not playing as fast and loose with historical accuracy as he would later in his career, but on the other hand, one could perhaps wish he had combined certain characters to reduce the number of bewildering cameos. I consider myself possessed of a tolerable knowledge of English history, but I’ve still had to read and watch 2 Henry VI a few times to make sense of it.
Compounding the problem of this wild-grown garden of personages is the fact that it takes quite a while before anything resembling a central character emerges. The title character is feebler than ever, a mere pawn in the power games played around him, and while York is constantly in the background pulling strings, he is not actually on stage that much (something that changes in Part 3). However, once York tasks commoner Jack Cade with starting a rebellion, Cade becomes the sole focus of the dramatics.
Cade and his ignorant, easily swayed followers (mainly butchers, weavers and other craftsmen) become the colourful character roster the play sorely needs. The one performance I’ve seen of 2 Henry VI (the BBC one from 1983) makes this rabble army tremendously annoying goons you just want to see punished severely this instant, not for their rebellion, but for their knuckle dragging apishness. In the text of the play, Cade and company are still repulsive enough in their hatred of anything above their own atavistic level (for instance, they kill a man just for being able to write his own name), but they’re also quite entertaining. Cade himself is a vicious, remorseless killer and iconoclast, horrifying in his brutish passion for violence and destruction, but he is also a buffoon. His pretentions and ludicrous claims of noble blood have his own people making continual fun of him behind his back. This mixture of frightening monster and blithering idiot makes Cade unforgettable even apart from the strangely 20th Century-sounding communist dictatorship he promises his adherents if they will help put him on the throne.
While Cade is far and away the most vivid character in the play, we’re also introduced to someone who will become more electrifying yet: York’s son Richard, who will of course go on to star in his own play, Richard III, as the vilest bastard in all of Shakespeare’s work (with possible competition from Iago). Richard doesn’t show much of his evil in 2 Henry VI, but it’s good to “see” him. He, like his father, becomes more prominent in the next play in the sequence.
There is much murder and mayhem in the pages of 2 Henry VI, so one can’t fault its liveliness. It’s an action packed play, a sprawling historical pageant where you can’t complain about the spectacle, drama, dialogue, juicy scheming or even humour, but whose overall construction would have been more elegant if Shakespeare had done his usual thing, suiting history to his story rather than the other way around. Maybe one can excuse him, since 2 Henry VI was one of his earliest plays. Also, while it does have a proper ending, it does feel like its main job is setting the stage for Part 3, which deals with the War of the Roses proper.
For all the play’s flaws and perhaps youthful inexperience, the verse is smooth and gorgeous, containing a classic line or two (“First thing we’ll do let’s kill all the lawyers), as well as stage directions which are too detailed for me to believe they were written by Shakespeare himself. There is no shortage of dramatic speeches and intense emotion in the unsurpassed language that is so characteristic of Shakespeare’s work.
Still a fine play, it’s just that we know that old Shakes could do so much better.
Rating: 7 of 10.