Henry VI, Part 2

(Shakespeare)
   Henry VI, Part 2, is the second play in William Shakespeare’s tetralogy (i.e., four-play series) depicting the characters and events of the WARS OF THE ROSES.
   If the traditional belief that the four plays were written in chronological order is correct, Henry VI, Part 2, may be dated to late 1590. Extending from the 1440s to the Battle of ST. ALBANS in 1455, Henry VI, Part 2, reinforces the main theme of the tetralogy, which is the inexorable tragedy that England must suffer because of the Lancastrian usurpation of 1399, an act that disrupted the divine order of things (see Richard II, Deposition of). By compressing and rearranging the actual chronology of events in the 1440s and 1450s, Shakespeare portrays the ambitious house of YORK as the agency by which retribution is visited upon the house of LANCASTER. As he does in HENRY VI, PART 1, Shakespeare in this play distorts and omits actual historical events to serve his dramatic purposes. Shakespeare’s greatest misrepresentation is his depiction of Richard PLANTAGENET, duke of York, as plotting deliberately to seize the throne of his Lancastrian cousin, HENRY VI. Although the real York claimed the Crown in 1460, he did so only after years of seeking to govern as Henry’s chief minister and only after the sustained opposition of Queen MARGARET OF ANJOU (whom Shakespeare depicts as a strong-willed villain) effectively blocked all other paths to power. In the play, York is portrayed as instigating JACK CADE’S REBELLION, although the involvement of the real duke in that 1450 uprising is highly questionable. In his sharply drawn depiction of York’s ambition, Shakespeare ignores Henry VI’s mental breakdowns in the 1450s (see Henry VI, Illness of); the king is portrayed as well-meaning but weak and ineffectual. The playwright is also silent about York’s two periods of relatively effective rule during Henry’s bouts of illness in 1454 (see First Protectorate) and 1455 (see Second Protectorate).
   The play is also notable as the first appearance of York’s sons Edward (see Edward IV, King of England) and Richard (see Richard III, King of England). The latter, who will become the central character of the last play in the tetralogy (see Richard III) and one of the great villains in the Shakespearean canon, is depicted in Henry VI, Part 2, as ruthlessly slaying Edmund BEAUFORT, duke of Somerset, at the Battle of St. Albans, which was fought when the real Richard was only two. Although he is only a minor character in this play, the ready wit and enthusiastic evil that Shakespeare’s Richard will display in the two remaining plays of the series are foreshadowed by the words he speaks over the dead Somerset.
   Sword, hold thy temper; heart, be wrathful still:
   Priests pray for enemies, but princes kill. (5.2.70–71)
   See also Henry VI, Part 3; Shakespeare and the Wars of the Roses; The Union of the Two Noble and Illustrious Families of Lancaster and York (Hall)
   Further Reading: Norwich, John Julius, Shakespeare’s Kings (New York: Scribner, 1999); Saccio, Peter, Shakespeare’s English Kings, 2d ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); the text of Henry VI, Part 2 can be found online at http://shakespeare.about.com/arts/shakespeare/library/bl2kh6scenes.htm.

Encyclopedia of the Wars of the Roses. . 2001.

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