By Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine
Editors of the Folger Shakespeare Library Editions
Henry VI, Part 2 puts onstage a kind of story that was very popular in the years before Shakespeare began writing, a story of the fall, one after another, of men and women from positions of great power to their untimely deaths. Such a pattern in this play was obvious to the publishers who first put a version of it into print in 1594. They chose not to call the play by the name of its king, as did the First Folio, and as we do. Instead they gave it the title The First part of the Contention betwixt the two famous Houses of Yorke and Lancaster, with the death of the good Duke Humphrey: And the banishment and death of the Duke of Suffolke, and the Tragicall end of the proud Cardinall of Winchester, with the notable Rebellion of Iacke Cade: and the Duke of Yorkes first claime vnto the Crowne. This title, typical of the time in its length, indicates a reading of the play as the beginning or “First part” of a succession of catastrophes.
The first of those catastrophes afflicts “the good Duke Humphrey,” or the Duke of Gloucester, who at the beginning of the play is Lord Protector of England and therefore the most powerful man in the kingdom—the one on whom King Henry relies absolutely to dispense justice to all his subjects. Gloucester will be murdered, but only after his beloved Duchess has herself fallen, sent into exile through her own ambitions and the conspiracy of their enemies. After Gloucester’s murder, as the title goes on to say, comes “the banishment and death of the Duke of Suffolke.” Another of the most powerful men in England, Suffolk was the noble who arranged King Henry’s marriage to Queen Margaret and who, as the queen’s lover, ruled England through the influence he exerted over the queen, who in turn prevailed over the king. But when Suffolk conspired with the “Cardinall of Winchester” to kill Gloucester, Suffolk was banished and in his newly vulnerable state became the victim of assassination. “The Tragicall end of the proud Cardinall of Winchester” seems almost the result of Gloucester’s murder, as the Cardinal dies raving about his guilt and the punishment waiting for him in the next world.
The play shows that the fall of these English nobles and their ability to prey on each other come about through the weakness of their king. Uninterested in politics, King Henry sought a life of spiritual contemplation; almost all of his speeches reveal in their allusions to the Bible his otherworldly interests. Largely absent from deliberations of the affairs of state, King Henry left his royal family and aristocrats free to contend for power. However, as the conclusion of the long title of the 1594 quarto reveals, Henry’s own liberty is thereby also put at risk, as first Jack Cade and then the Duke of York openly rise up against him. Henry VI, Part 2 keeps its audience in suspense about the ultimate fate of the king by ending as it does at the beginning of the Wars of the Roses, which set the white rose of the Duke of York against the red rose of King Henry of the House of Lancaster. The outcome of these wars will be presented in Henry VI, Part 3.
After you have read the play, we invite you to turn to “Henry VI, Part 2: A Modern Perspective,” by Nina Levine of the University of South Carolina.