298. King Henry VI, Part 2 by William Shakespeare, c. 1591

Murder, witchcraft, treason, infidelity, madness, and civil war. And it’s not just the peasants that are revolting.

Starting where Part One ended, Suffolk returns to England with the new Queen, Margaret of Anjou, who he has wedded (and likely bedded) as King Henry’s proxy. But she brings with her no dowry, on the contrary Suffolk has handed back Maine and Anjou to Margaret’s father, Reignier King of Naples as part of the peace agreement with France, much to the dismay of Gloucester and the fury of Richard, Duke of York and the other earls.

But in Gloucester’s absence, Cardinal Winchester and Earls Somerset and Buckingham soon turn their jealousies to removing him from the role of Protector of the Realm, each hoping to gain that position for themselves. But York has even higher ambitions : he seeks nothing less than the crown of England, being the heir of Edward III (through the female line) from Edward’s third son, while Henry is descended through the male line of the fourth son. The issue of which is the proper line of succession fuels York’s ambition and will burst into flame as the War of the Roses.

York :  “Then will I raise aloft the milk-white rose with whose sweet smell the air shall be perfumed,

And in my standard bear the arms of York to grapple with the house of Lancaster;

And perforce I’ll make him yield the crown, whose bookish rule hath pulled fair England down” 

Act 1, Scene 1, l. 251-256

Gloucester’s wife Eleanor has the high ambitions for her husband as the Earls believe he seeks, and she is not above using witchcraft to secure his advancement. She has also made an enemy of Queen Margaret with her airs and graces as if she herself was queen, making more enemies for poor Gloucester in the process. She is arrested and banished to seclusion. The King refuses to believe ill of Gloucester but is too weak of purpose when the Earls and Margaret call for his downfall. Meanwhile, rebellion in Ireland leads the Earls to provide York with an army which he will ultimately use for his own purposes.

Gloucester is murdered while under arrest, and finally Henry recognizes and acts on Suffolk’s treachery, banishing him from the Kingdom despite Margaret’s protestations. Cardinal Winchester inexplicably goes mad on his death bed, seemingly tormented by guilt over Gloucester’s death.

Most of Act 4 is taken up with the Peasant’s Revolt led by John Cade, a buffoonish but dangerous figure engaged by York to stir up trouble at home while he is away in Ireland. Cade enjoys a number of successes and even makes claims to the throne (in an ironic mockery of York) until his followers are enticed with pardons to leave him and go back to their homes, and then won over more thoroughly with the call to invade and retake France in the name of Henry the Fifth.

I wanted to grab Henry and shake him until he is willing to use his royal authority to save Gloucester rather than turn away and allow the ambitious Earls to act as they will. But in his own words he is simply not the stuff from which kings are made

Henry : “Was never subject longed to be a King as I do long and wish to be a subject?”

Act 4, Scene 9, l. 5-6

But York, and even Cade, would soon trade places with him. York soon arrives with his army to do just that, and the opposing forces meet to do battle at St Albans. Henry and Margaret escape to London, with York, Salisbury and Warwick on their heels. More to come in Part Three.

Personal rating : 5/10

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