|When such strings jar, what hope of harmony?|
Act 2, scene 1, line 64
Smooth runs the water where the brook is deep
Act 3, scene 1, line 53
Henry VI, Part 2 presents a kind of story that was popular before Shakespeare began writing, tracing the fall of powerful individuals to their untimely deaths. The first to go is the Duke of Gloucester, Lord Protector of England and the most powerful man in the kingdom, who is murdered after his wife goes into exile.
Next to meet a bad end is the Duke of Suffolk, the queen's lover, who rules England through her. After Suffolk conspires with the cardinal of Winchester to kill Gloucester, he is banished and assassinated. The cardinal dies raving of his own guilt.
Ultimately, the king's weakness lies behind these events. Preferring spiritual contemplation, he has left others to contend for power. Now his liberty is at risk as Jack Cade, and then the Duke of York, rise against him. The play leaves us in suspense about Henry's fate by ending with the start of the Wars of the Roses—a conflict setting the white rose of the Duke of York against the red rose of King Henry, of the House of Lancaster.
Scholars suggest that Shakespeare wrote this play in 1590-91. A version was published as a quarto in 1594. Sources include Edward Hall's Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and York, Robert Fabyan's Chronicle, and other works.
Adapted from the Folger Library Shakespeare edition, edited by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. © 2008 Folger Shakespeare Library
Stuart Hampton-Reeves and Carol Chillington Rutter. The Henry VI Plays. Shakespeare in Performance series. New York: Palgrave, 2006.
Jean E. Howard and Phyllis Rackin. Engendering a Nation: A Feminist Account of Shakespeare’s English Histories. New York: Routledge, 1997.
Nina S. Levine. Women's Matters: Politics, Gender, and Nation in Shakespeare's Early History Plays. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1998.
John Julius Norwich. Shakespeare’s Kings: The Great Plays and the History of England in the Middle Ages, 1337-1485. New York: Scribner, 1999.
Thomas Pendleton, ed. Henry VI: Critical Essays. New York: Routledge, 2001.
Peter Saccio. Shakespeare's English Kings: History, Chronicle, and Drama. 2nd edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Studio of Sir Joshua Reynolds. The death of Cardinal Beaufort. Oil on board, ca. 1790?
Past Exhibitions: Designs from Fancy, Henry VI, Part 2
Inside the Collection
Folios and Quartos from the Collection: Henry VI, Part 2