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Henry VI, Part 2 /

A Modern Perspective: Henry VI, Part 2

By Nina Levine

Henry VI, Part 2 presents a medieval past utterly devoid of nostalgia. There are no battlefield heroics, no patriotic rallying cries, no famous victories or imperial conquests. What the play offers instead is a chilling documentary of a nation’s descent into civil war. The action opens with aristocratic rancor over the king’s marriage to Margaret of Anjou and closes with armed conflict at St. Albans between the rival houses of York and Lancaster, marking the start of the Wars of the Roses. In the space between, Shakespeare probes the causes and consequences of civil dissension along a trajectory that extends from seditious rhetoric and political intrigue in the first half to open rebellion and civil warfare in the second. At the play’s center, and prologue to the butchery to follow, is the arrest and murder of the “good Duke Humphrey,” England’s lord protector. The sorrowful king likens Humphrey’s arrest to an animal’s being led “to the bloody slaughterhouse” (3.1.213), and for once Henry gets it right, invoking with grim accuracy the bloodbath of murder, revolt, and war to follow. With mangled corpses and decapitated heads to rival Titus Andronicus, 2 Henry VI is unusually brutal. Medieval England is not so far from ancient Rome, it seems, and political history not so far from popular revenge tragedy.

The capacity for sadistic violence and civil butchery is not limited to ambitious nobles or aspiring churchmen, however. What most unsettles modern audiences and critics is the play’s insistence on making women and commoners instrumental to the carnage. Queen Margaret is the first to threaten outright violence when she accuses Gloucester of crimes that, “If they were known, . . . Would make thee quickly hop without thy head” (1.3.139–40); and she again takes the lead at his arraignment, insisting that “This Gloucester should be quickly rid the world” (3.1.235). Eleanor, duchess of Gloucester, adopts a similarly bloody rhetoric as she imagines her path to the throne with a violence worthy of Lady Macbeth: “Were I a man, a duke, and next of blood, / I would remove these tedious stumbling blocks / And smooth my way upon their headless necks” (1.2.65–67). It is Jack Cade’s uprising, though, that unleashes the play’s most horrific scenes of mayhem. The land now runs with blood, a point of pride for Cade, who delights in the gruesome craft of his artisan rebels. “They fell before thee like sheep and oxen, and thou behaved’st thyself as if thou hadst been in thine own slaughterhouse” (4.3.3–5), Cade says of Dick the butcher’s handiwork. For Elizabethans, these rebellious artisans and unruly wives would have recalled popular emblems of disorder, signs of the causes and consequences of civil chaos. But stereotypes resist familiar political and moral formulations in 2 Henry VI. Pawns and players in the proliferating power struggles, women and commoners assume unusual prominence here, contributing to a new and complex political history that far exceeds predictable patterns or traditional expectations—for Elizabethans and perhaps for us.

One could argue, of course, that the story was in some sense ready-made, popularized by the Tudor chronicles of Edward Hall (1548) and Raphael Holinshed (1577, 1587). And it was in these well-known sources that Shakespeare found the portrait of the virtuous but weak king overruled by powerful barons and a “manly” queen. The young playwright would also have found a starting point in the royal marriage, which, according to Hall, “semed to many, bothe infortunate, and unprofitable to the realme of England.”1 Shakespeare goes beyond his sources, however, in portraying these costs in explicitly gendered terms, setting up an equation between the loss of empire and a loss of valor and manhood that cuts to the heart of English patriarchy. Just as the royal marriage renders the king fond and foolish—Margaret’s presence makes Henry “from wond’ring fall to weeping joys” (1.1.37)—so too does it emasculate the realm, as Gloucester sternly warns the court:

O peers of England, shameful is this league,

Fatal this marriage, cancelling your fame,

Blotting your names from books of memory,

Razing the characters of your renown,

Defacing monuments of conquered France,

Undoing all, as all had never been!


The shameful terms of Henry’s marriage soon become the play’s common refrain, on the tongues of commons and nobles alike, shorthand for England’s loss of territory, national unity, and manhood. As Cade bluntly puts it in Act 4, the losses have “gelded the commonwealth and made it an eunuch” (4.2.162–63).

For the play’s audiences, then and now, Gloucester’s rhetoric registers more than outrage over Suffolk’s sale of Maine and Anjou to France. It also defines the nation’s past as a patriotic story of glorious conquest and reminds us of history’s role as a model for present and future generations. Writing in 1592, in a passage scholars believe makes reference to Shakespeare’s Henry VI plays, Thomas Nashe made similar claims about history plays. Celebrating “our forefathers valiant acts,” these plays offered a “rare exercise of vertue,” Nashe declared, and sharp “reproofe to these degenerate effeminate dayes of ours.”2 For Nashe, English history is a decidedly masculine narrative of valiant conquest, and his remarks, like those of Gloucester and Cade, powerfully underscore 2 Henry VI’s failure to deliver this narrative on stage. Hardly a dramatic weakness, this failure is absolutely central to the play’s theme of loss and degeneration. In the wake of England’s defeat in France, the heroic exists only in the collective memory, in the national mythology invoked by the name of Henry V. Gloucester himself sounds these plangent notes at the start of his peroration—“Did he so often lodge in open field, / In winter’s cold and summer’s parching heat, / To conquer France, his true inheritance?” (1.1.85–87)—memorializing the former king as the apotheosis of the chivalric warrior and a spur to England’s peers to unite in the recovery of the nation’s former glory.

If Shakespeare’s audiences looked to the past for lessons about the present, as Nashe and Gloucester suggest, what instruction would they have taken from this brutal story of conspiracy, treason, murder, and revolt? Or, as viewers today might ask, what are the play’s politics? Not surprisingly, the question has prompted much critical debate between those who see 2 Henry VI as a conservative staging of English history, designed to solidify the power and legitimacy of the Tudor state, and those who argue for a more radical position that questions as much as it affirms political orthodoxies. In replaying the horrors of civil dissension, the play certainly recalls official Tudor exhortations against disobedience and rebellion, printed in homilies and pronounced from church pulpits. Over the course of her reign, Queen Elizabeth had herself been forced to confront aristocratic revolts, assassination attempts, and numerous conspiracies, and fears of unrest troubled audiences in the early 1590s, when 2 Henry VI was first performed. So too did the threat of artisan disturbances, which sporadically erupted in Elizabethan London, often directed against alien workers. As recently as the summer of 1592, in fact, riots had broken out when clothworkers attempted to break into a Southwark prison, and some critics speculate that Shakespeare’s staging of Cade’s rebellion targets this protest.

But while the play’s call for law and order supports government policy, its lessons apply with equal force to rulers and subjects. The portrait of the “bookish” king who brings ruin to his realm recalls the cautionary tales collected in the popular Mirror for Magistrates (1559), whose stories of “the fall of princes” reassured readers that vice would be punished and virtue rewarded, in the hereafter if not the here and now. With the possible exception of Cardinal Beaufort’s sudden demise, however, 2 Henry VI offers no such assurances. Concerned more with historical causation than didactic moralizing, the play eschews traditional providential history for a more radical model of political history.3 The pious Henry may be fond of invoking the heavens, for example, yet his prayers and prophecies seem powerless and off the mark. The “miracle” of Simpcox, praised by the king as God’s work, turns out to be a hoax, and Horner’s death by combat remains an ambiguous verdict at best, despite Henry’s certainty that “God in justice” (2.3.104) has prevailed. In place of a divinely ordered universe, Shakespeare details a secular world of political complexity reinforced by an episodic dramatic structure whose open-ended conclusion refuses to mete out justice—unless we take Henry’s losses at St. Albans as a sign of divine punishment, as he himself seems to. “Can we outrun the heavens?” (5.2.74), the king asks Margaret in the play’s final moments, ready to cede the kingdom to the Yorkist rebels. But even this tragedy must wait for its conclusion in another play.

For modern critics, 2 Henry VI is politically provocative not only because it demystifies royal power and privilege but because it explores an alternative model of governance in the idealized commonwealth represented in the play by Humphrey, duke of Gloucester. Though hardly democratic by our standards, Gloucester’s humanist values show a progressive concern for equity and justice that involves commoners as well as elites. Gloucester’s trust in the legal system is absolute if not politically naive, so confident is he that an unbiased judiciary will safeguard the innocent. “I must offend before I be attainted” (2.4.60), he assures his wife, even as she is being taken off, under guard, to a life of exile. As his enemies complain, the good duke is much beloved by “the common people” (1.1.165), and it is worth noting that commoners first enter 2 Henry VI not as a rioting rabble but as “poor” petitioners seeking redress from the lord protector. Like Gloucester, the petitioners hold much faith in the equity of due process, so much so that they seem unafraid to come forward with complaints against their social betters—witness the petition against Suffolk on behalf of the “whole township” for “enclosing the commons of Melford” (1.3.26, 23–24). The complaint about enclosures is especially resonant here, not simply because it names Suffolk but because it indicts him as a direct contributor to the abject social conditions that will ignite in open rebellion later in the play.4 When the inexperienced petitioners deliver their complaints to the wrong man, mistaking Suffolk for the Lord Protector, the calls for redress go unanswered. Indeed, the results are lamentably predictable: all charges are dismissed except the apprentice’s complaint against his master’s treason, which Margaret and Suffolk will exploit to undermine York’s rising power within the court.

For self-serving nobles such as Suffolk and Margaret, as for the upstart Cade, the law represents an expedient means to power, and treason charges are the weapon of choice. The case against Eleanor Cobham establishes the model. As a participant in treasonous necromancy, the ambitious duchess is certainly complicit in her downfall, but she is also a victim of what we might call political entrapment. Suffolk admits as much when he assures the queen that he has “limed a bush for [the Duchess]” (1.3.91), an assurance confirmed by the double-dealing Hume’s report that the cardinal and Suffolk, “knowing Dame Eleanor’s aspiring humor, / Have hirèd me to undermine the Duchess / And buzz these conjurations in her brain” (1.2.100–102). As York slyly observes, the scene of Eleanor’s arrest is a “pretty plot, well chosen to build upon” (1.4.60), and in the end it is the machiavellian York, rather than Suffolk and the cardinal, whose careful plotting will “reap the harvest” (3.1.386).5 Immediately following Eleanor’s sentencing is the equally unsettling scene of Horner’s treason trial, and again political ambitions compromise our sense of justice. Fought before a crowd of prentices and neighbors, the lowly combat between the drunken armorer and his fearful apprentice seems a mockery of chivalric justice despite Horner’s dying confession and the king’s confidence that truth has prevailed. York’s more pointed comment—“Fellow, thank God and the good wine in thy master’s way” (2.3.98–99)—may be closer to the mark.

The most egregious abuse of judicial process comes with Gloucester’s hastily convened treason trial in Act 3 and marks the play’s turning point. Led by Suffolk and Margaret, the scheming nobles operate here under the pretense of protecting the king from “treason’s secret knife” (3.1.175), but the scene is as much a referendum on Henry’s power as it is on Gloucester’s. Predictably, the king abdicates his authority early in the proceedings, instructing the court to do “what to your wisdoms seemeth best” (196). Henry excuses his own failure to act by casting himself as an “unhelpful” victim along with his uncle, claiming that he cannot do Gloucester “good, / So mighty are his vowèd enemies” (219, 220–21). Henry then leaves the stage and the court to its bloody work. Seemingly unconstrained by law, the nobles agree at once that Gloucester must die, although the cardinal cynically reminds them that they lack “a color for his death. / ’Tis meet he be condemned by course of law” (238–39). They have “but trivial argument” (243), Suffolk admits, but, not to be hindered by a lack of evidence, the conspirators quickly find their way to a logic that bypasses legal procedure altogether. Sanctifying murder as a form of “meritorious” execution, they determine to kill Gloucester not for crimes he has done but for what he might do. “No, let him die in that he is a fox, / By nature proved an enemy to the flock” (272, 259–60), Suffolk resolves, as if this argument were legally or morally defensible.

Justice for Gloucester’s murder is unusual in the world of 2 Henry VI in that it comes at all. It is also unusual in that it comes from below, originating with the commons in collaboration with Warwick and Salisbury. Although the commons initially rise up in anger at the news of the murder, Warwick restores calm with an appeal to due process, persuading them to “hear the order of his death” (3.2.133). The evidence, observed and reported by Warwick, offers convincing proof of death by strangulation—protruding eyeballs, dilated nostrils, hair stuck to sheets, and hands spread wide in signs of struggle. When the king fails to render judgment, or even to voice convincing outrage, the commons (now offstage) clamor for justice, sending “word” to the king that unless Suffolk is condemned to death or banishment, “They will by violence tear him from your palace / And torture him with grievous ling’ring death” (252, 255–56). It may be argued that the threat of violence qualifies the commons’ moral authority, particularly as it anticipates Cade’s bloody tactics. Yet the weight of forensic evidence, combined with the request itself, identifies their intentions as just, properly motivated by “love and loyalty” (259) rather than by lawless vengeance. Shakespeare is careful to keep the noisy commons offstage, mediating their words through Salisbury and thus avoiding the spectacle of the populace directly confronting the king. Further affirming the rightness of the common judgment, the king accedes to their demands, confiding that he himself did “purpose as they do entreat” (292). The commons thus provide the moral touchstone in this crucial scene. In the face of weak and corrupt nobles, justice in 2 Henry VI rests on the commons’ participation in due process, and the play seems to endorse their course of action both as judicious and effective and as a powerful affirmation of Gloucester’s own political ideals.

This endorsement of participatory justice at the play’s center does not go uncontested, to be sure. As we have seen, opposing arguments come from the corrupt nobility, whose contempt for equity and justice is matched by their contempt for the so-called lower orders. But another, more troublesome, counterargument comes from the commons themselves, in the form of Cade’s revolt in Act 4. At first the rebels’ agenda seems cheerfully if not comically utopian, as Cade offers to right aristocratic wrongs through a fantastical program of social and economic leveling: “All the realm shall be in common. . . . There shall be no money; all shall eat . . . on my score; and I will apparel them all in one livery, that they may agree like brothers” (4.2.67–74). Cade’s methods, however, make a mockery of his own ideals and the abuses of the ruling elite. His first official act—the ruling that sentences the Clerk of Chartham to hang simply because “he can write and read and cast account” (83–84)—stands as a travesty of English law in line with the play’s earlier trials. With the summary trial and execution of Lord Saye, who like Gloucester sought justice for the poor, the rebels become the horrific mirror image of the nobles they set out to reform. Unlike the contentious aristocrats, however, Cade makes no pretense to give a lawful “color” to his rulings but instead directs his radical reformation against judicial process itself, with particular animus against literacy and record keeping: “Burn all the records of the realm. My mouth shall be the Parliament of England” (4.7.13–14), he gleefully proclaims, setting himself up as sole judge and arbiter.

How then to align the Cade episode with the sympathetic presentation of commoners earlier in the play? Does the disturbance demonstrate that the disenfranchised are incapable of sustaining the kind of participatory politics idealized at the play’s center and instead need to be governed with a strong hand? Or, as many critics argue, does it rather show the terrible costs of aristocratic misrule and the dangers of excluding the commons from political process? As York’s “substitute” (3.1.376), seduced by the duke “to make commotion” (363), the lowly Cade is both a pawn to be sacrificed in the dynastic power play and a clownish burlesque of his social betters. But the play’s bold staging of popular revolt is more than a parodic mirror of aristocratic injustices. It is also a provocative response to those injustices. Cade’s comrades see through his pretensions from the start, mocking his ambitions in pointed asides, yet they willingly fight for his platform and accept him as their spokesman. For though instigated by the ambitious York and led by the maniacal Cade, the uprising appears to gather its force and considerable following from genuine injustices and grievances. As critics point out, Cade’s articulation of popular grievances derives its authority in part from a tradition of egalitarian complaint extending back to the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. But the immediate power of Cade’s complaints may stem from their particularity, from Shakespeare’s choice to embed specific contemporary grievances within the utopian appeal to a classless commonwealth. Complaints about enclosures, the causes and conditions of poverty, and the lack of redress for the disenfranchised—indeed, many of the same grievances voiced by the humble petitioners earlier in the play—all had a contemporary currency for Shakespeare’s audiences that would have resonated beyond their voicing by their discredited spokesman, and beyond the boundaries of the stage.

In the end, the rebellious commons relent in the face of the king’s offer of mercy, abandoning Cade’s platform for Clifford’s shameless invocation of Henry V and a battlefield camaraderie that might “gentle [their] condition” (Henry V 4.3.65). “Is Cade the son of Henry the Fifth,” he asks; “Will [Cade] conduct you through the heart of France / And make the meanest of you earls and dukes?” (4.8.35, 37–38). Clifford’s burnished rhetoric restores order with the empty promise to return to a heroic past, to recover England’s losses and manhood on foreign fields. It also sets the tone for the play’s final act, dominated by York’s own fondness for heroic discourse and for the widening gulf between rhetoric and reality opened up by the bad faith of civil war. According to plan, York returns with his army from Ireland “to claim his right / And pluck the crown from feeble Henry’s head” (5.1.1–2). And unlike feeble Henry, whose hand is suited more to “a palmer’s staff” than to “an awful princely scepter” (98–99), York comes fully armed, reprising the role of warrior prince as if he and not Henry VI were the true inheritor to Henry V. York also dusts off the complaint about the royal marriage, deftly turning the gendered discourse of English patriotism against the Lancastrian queen. “O, blood-bespotted Neapolitan, / Outcast of Naples, England’s bloody scourge!” (5.1.119–20), he exclaims to Margaret, as if to shore up the legitimacy of his claim by naming the queen as the outsider—female and foreign and barbaric—responsible for all the bloodshed to come. In the ensuing battle at St. Albans, the Yorkists win the day. And Warwick, flush with victory, closes the play by sounding notes of heroic greatness, brimming with promise for a glorious future:

Saint Albans battle won by famous York

Shall be eternized in all age to come.—

Sound drum and trumpets, and to London all;

And more such days as these to us befall!


But the war has only just begun, and as Gloucester foretold before his death, “thousands more, that yet suspect no peril, / Will not conclude their plotted tragedy” (3.1.153–54). The only battlefield Cade’s followers will ever see is the blood-soaked ground of England’s civil war.

That 2 Henry VI ends with a beginning full of possibility and dread is in part a sequel effect: Shakespeare will, after all, continue the story of the Wars of the Roses in Henry VI, Part 3. But the play’s open-endedness also suggests something about staging history—about the difficulty of confining a sprawling and contentious past within a tidy dramatic pattern, and about the inconclusiveness of historical narrative itself. On Shakespeare’s stage, English history becomes an ongoing story, played before audiences asked to witness the trauma of a past that is part of their present.

  1. Edward Hall, The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancastre and Yorke (1548), in Geoffrey Bullough, ed., Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1960), 3:103.
  2. Thomas Nashe, Pierce Penilesse his Supplication to the Divell (1592), in E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage (1923; reprint, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1951), 4:238.
  3. Historians usually associate this new form of political history with the influence of the Italian historians Machiavelli and Guicciardini; see F. J. Levy, Tudor Historical Thought (San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1967), pp. 237–85, and Phyllis Rackin, Stages of History: Shakespeare’s English Chronicles (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990), pp. 44–46.
  4. The practice of enclosure—landlords appropriating common arable lands for pasture—was frequently blamed for rising poverty and social unrest in sixteenth-century England. See the discussions of enclosure and 2 Henry VI in James R. Siemon, “Landlord Not King: Agrarian Change and Interarticulation,” and William C. Carroll, “ ‘The Nursery of Beggary’: Enclosure, Vagrancy, and Sedition in the Tudor-Stuart Period,” both in Enclosure Acts: Sexuality, Property, and Culture in Early Modern England, ed. Richard Burt and John Michael Archer (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994), pp. 17–33, 34–47.
  5. Even as dramatists such as Shakespeare and Marlowe freely adopted a machiavellian tradition of political history, they also registered fears about its negative consequences through the popular figure of the ruthlessly ambitious stage-Machiavel, represented here by Richard, duke of York.