"Although the title by which the play is today best known, Henry VI Part 2 -- which corresponds to the title that appears in the First Folio as The Second Part of Henry the Sixt -- suggests that the play is the second in a series, this play and Henry VI Part 3 were almost certainly written before Part 1."
So says Marjorie Garber in Shakespeare After All (103). For our purposes in the Will Shakespeare Experience, I am not much interested in researching her evidence or argument for this "almost certainly," but my own readings reject it. Whereas my struggles with 1 Henry VI were to find handles in what I called "note card" organization, that is the relentless data from Hall and Holinshed's historical chronicles, 2 Henry VI seems for many reasons more drama than mere history, and drama, as we know selects, simplifies, organizes, and concentrates in order to produce meaning.
Or, to put it another way, in the E.M. Forster/Gilbert Findlay distinction between "story" and "plot," story is chronology -- this happened and this happened and this happened -- whereas plot includes cause and effect or motivation-before this could happen, this happened, and then this happened, and therefore this happened. We are only at 2 Henry VI, prefaced by Suffolk's little 1 Henry VI postscript about arranging the marriage of Margaret of Anjou to King Henry, then seducing her and as a result controlling England, and followed by, I presume, the fall of Henry (I haven't read it yet) and the conflagration of Richard III.
But 2 Henry VI does have a central protagonist, though neither "hero" nor "villain," in Richard of York. It has his contrasting predecessor, The Good Duke Humphrey of Gloucester. It has a complex array of antagonists: Suffolk, of course, and the Cardinal, Buckingham and Somerset, and even York's allies, Salisbury and Warwick, and his surprising instrument Jack Cade, are not lined up as simple members of the red team or the white team. Then there is a thematic conflict between the nobility and the commoners, both a class war and, at times, a parodic commentary (Cade, Simpcox, Peter Thump, Dick the Butcher, and even Walter "pronounced Water" Whitmore) on the behaviors of authority.
The Cade rebellion is a black comedy in itself. Margaret and, to a lesser extent, Eleanor seem more complex than the Countess of Auvergne or the inconsistently presented la Pucelle. The perverse romantic plot between Margaret and Suffolk is developed as drama far more subtly than what I understands history supports. Even the style perks up to dramatic effect. For instance, I noticed more "notable passages," and when Clifford speaks in blank verse but Cade replies in prose, it alerted me to the statistic that of 2 Henry VI's 3,162 lines, 448 are prose, 2,562 are blank verse, and 122 are pentameter rhymes, whereas Part 1 has 2,677 lines, 2379 in blank verse and 314 pentameter rhymes, but no prose at all (Love's Labour's Lost had 1,086 lines of prose, whereas Titus Andronicus had but 43). [Statistics from Hardin Craig, ed, The Complete Works..., 1951, p. 39]
In 1 Henry VI the conflict was between the English, Lord John Talbot, champion, and the effete and arrogant French, Joan la Pucelle savior, then toast. The York/Lancaster conflict was curiously introduced in symbolic form in the red rose-white rose scene, then sort of realized by the misdistribution of military jurisdiction in France: foot soldiers to York, cavalry to Lancastrian Somerset, that leads to the undersupported Talbot's death. We arrived at a thesis of chivalric order overwhelmed by political divisiveness. Talbot is "hero" pretty much by assertion.
In 2 Henry VI, let us start with Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York. "Edward the Third, my lords, had seven sons" (II.ii.10) [sorry, guys, I gotta get that line in], in which York explains to Salisbury and Warwick his rightful claim to the throne through number 3 son, Lionel, Duke of Clarence's daughter Phillippa who married Edmond Mortimer, Earl of March yadda yadda to Anne Mortimer, married to Richard, Earl of Cambridge, our Richard Plantagenet's parents, whereas we know that the Henrys, IV, V, and now VI, are son number 4 John of Gaunt's boys, and these Lancasters usurped the throne from the number one Son's son Richard II. Aseverybodyknows.
We first meet York in Act 1, when he joins Gloucester, Salisbury, and Warwick in denouncing the pusillanimous marriage treaty Suffolk has negotiated for King Henry, giving away Henry V's conquests, Anjou, Maine, and a player to be named later, for the hand of Margaret of Anjou. York's first words, "For Suffolk's duke, may he be suffocate,/ That dims the honor of this warlike isle! (I.i.124-5) give us a little wordplay, a harbinger of the extra-dramatic Shakespeare who will not only give us drama, but spice much of it with a little wit besides. York, solus, analyzes the loss of France, where he would be regent, and concludes:
"A day will come when York shall claim his own,
And therefore I will take the Nevils' [Salisbury and Warwick] parts,
And make a show of love to proud Duke Humphrey,
And when I spy advantage, claim the crown,
For that's the golden mark I seek to hit....
Then, York, be still awhile, till time do serve.
Watch thou, and wake when others be asleep
To pry into the secrets of the state." (I.i.239-43, 248-49)
So here, at the beginning, we have York revealing his plans, lie low, suck up, watch out, then seize the day. Notice he tells only us, the audience (did we have soliloquy in Part 1?), so we are alerted to evaluate York's subsequent actions through our awareness of his revealed intents. Dramatic irony. I am put in mind of Prince Hal's early "I know you all, and will a while uphold/ The unyok'd humor of your idleness" soliloquy in 1 Henry IV (I.ii.195-6) in which the protagonist reveals to the audience that what follows will be a show, until such time he is free to exercise his power.
Indeed, by the time we have "Edward the Third, my lords..." York sways the above noted Nevils to his claim: "And Nevil [Warwick], this I so assure myself,/ Richard shall live to make the Earl of Warwick/ The greatest man in England but the king." (II.ii.80-2). His ambition is now partially revealed, though we also know that manipulating the Nevils is part of his strategy. More dramatic irony. The array of obstacles that York faces is vast. King Henry possesses the crown, though possession by the "bookish," pious ("all his mind is bent to holiness"), cuckolded Henry is probably less than nine-tenths of the law. Somerset, Buckingham, and especially the Cardinal are the king's party, though they are corrupted with ambition and political intrigue, overt in their anti-Gloucester plots. Suffolk is the play's real villain, ambitious and violent, though despised by the commoners, and he is aligned with the scheming Queen, contemptuous of her husband.
Different from these, Gloucester stands most in York's way. We discussed Talbot as the last, anachronistic representative of chivalry in a raw political state. Gloucester, to me, seems more a representative of order and ethics, a humane practitioner of doing the right thing. He is a Good Man, and thus he is the one beloved by the commoners (thus, his murderer, Suffolk, is hacked to death with a rusty sword rather than ransomed by his commoner captors). When Eleanor, the Duchess, warns Gloucester that Suffolk and York and the impious Beauford, the Cardinal, are all conspiring to destroy him, his defense is pure: "All these could not procure me any scathe/ So long as I am loyal, true, and crimeless" (II.iv.61-2). King Henry's defense, "The Duke is virtuous, mild, and too well given/ To dream on evil or to work my downfall" (II.iv.72-73), is a way of unintentionally saying "naïve."
Soon we have the trial by combat of Horner the armorer and Peter Thump, who has accused his master of treason for asserting York has rightful claim to the throne. The drunken Horner is killed (death by sandbag), thus "proving" his treason. I don't quite know what to make of this, though of course the scene (II.iii) immediately follows Richard's own above claim to the throne (II.ii), so King Henry's condemnation of the little drunken armorer is absurdly trivial. The audience may note that York himself seems to be the referee in this little dumb show. Next York is one among his arch enemies in court, the Queen, the Cardinal, and Suffolk, in conspiring to bring down Gloucester, each threatened and jealous of Gloucester's ethics as well as his power, so Gloucester is arrested for treason. Gloucester at last realizes "Virtue is chok'd with foul ambition" (III.i.143) and wonderfully provides a proverb to describe such political throat-cutting: "A staff is quickly found to beat a dog" (III.i.171). The machiavellian York joins with the Gang of Three to plot the murder of Gloucester, then is able to escape complicity in the eyes of the commons, as they send him to Ireland, with an army, to quell the Irish rebellion. "Please, Br'er Somerset, don't throw me in that briar-bog.' Whereupon York offers us with his second soliloquy:
"Now, York, or never, steel thy fearful thoughts,
And change misdoubt to resolution,
Be that thou hop'st to be....
My brain, more busy than the laboring spider,
Weaves tedious snares to trap mine enemies.
Well, nobles, well, 'tis politicly done,
To send me packing with a host of men:
I fear me you but warm the starved snake,
Who, cherish'd in your breasts, will sting your hearts." (III.i.331-3, 339-44)
It was an army he lacked, and his rivals gave one to him. Meanwhile he has seduced a headstrong Kentishman, Jack Cade, to make a "commotion."
"Why then from Ireland come I with my strength,
And reap the harvest which that rascal sow'd.
For Humphrey being dead, as he shall be,
And Henry put apart, the next for me." (III.i.380-33)
For me, this sets the stage for drama as well as history. Gloucester is dead. CSI proves he was murdered, rather than died in bed in the way the murderers posed his corpse. Suffolk is exiled, and has a passionate parting with his Queen/paramour. The Cardinal goes mad, confesses, and dies. Pirates/commoners capture the despised Suffolk and chop of his head, which later the Queen carries lugubriously around the court (Henry is a little jealous). Cade indeed raises a commotion, is rhetorically defeated by Clifford and, while eating herbs in Alexander Iden's garden (apparently historically accurate, though the garden of Iden/Eden connection is tempting), Iden captures him, and "there cut[s] off thy most ungracious head." Chaos.
Who will ride to the rescue of England? Why "From Ireland thus comes York to claim his right,/ And pluck the crown from feeble Henry's head" (That is two deposed "heads" within five lines.) "Ring bell, aloud, burn bonfires clear and bright/ To entertain great England's lawful king!/ Ah, sancta majestas! Who would not buy thee dear?/ Let them obey that knows not how to rule" (V.i.1-6). So the drama has been played. York and his sons, Edward and "foul indigested lump" Richard lead their army, while poor King Henry laments "O where is loyalty?/ If it be banish'd from the frosty head,/ Where shall it find a harbor in the earth." (V.i.166-68). The drama ends with York's triumph at the battle of Saint Albans, and Warwick declares victory: "And more such days as these to us befall! (V.iii.33). Only History knows how many more "falls" are yet to come.Gilbert