Henry VI, Part 2  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Henry VI, Part 2 or The Second Part of Henry the Sixt (often written as 2 Henry VI) is a history play by William Shakespeare believed to have been written in 1591, and set during the lifetime of King Henry VI of England. Whereas 1 Henry VI deals primarily with the loss of England's French territories and the political machinations leading up to the Wars of the Roses, and 3 Henry VI deals with the horrors of that conflict, 2 Henry VI focuses on the King's inability to quell the bickering of his nobles, the death of his trusted adviser Duke Humphrey of Gloucester, the rise of the Duke of York and the inevitability of armed conflict. As such, the play culminates with the opening battle of the War, the First Battle of St Albans.

Although the Henry VI trilogy may not have been written in chronological order, the three plays are often grouped together with Richard III to form a tetralogy covering the entire Wars of the Roses saga, from the death of Henry V in 1422 to the rise to power of Henry VII in 1485. It was the success of this sequence of plays which firmly established Shakespeare's reputation as a playwright.

Henry VI, Part 2 has the largest cast of all Shakespeare's plays, and is seen by many critics as the best of the Henry VI trilogy.


The play begins with the marriage of King Henry VI of England to the young Margaret of Anjou. Margaret is the protégée (and possibly lover) of William de la Pole, 4th Earl of Suffolk, who aims to influence the king through her. The major obstacle to Suffolk and Margaret's plan is the Protector of the crown, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, who is immensely popular with the common people and deeply trusted by the King. Gloucester's position however is undermined by the fact that his own wife also has designs on the throne, and as such, she has been duped by an agent of Suffolk into dabbling in necromancy. She summons a spirit and demands it reveal the future to her, but its prophecies are vague and before the ritual is finished, she is interrupted and arrested. At court she is then banished, greatly to the embarrassment of Gloucester. This done, Suffolk then allies himself with Cardinal Beaufort of Winchester and the Duke of Somerset in determining to bring about Gloucester's ruin. Suffolk accuses Gloucester of treason and has him imprisoned, but before Gloucester can be tried, Suffolk sends two assassins to kill him. Meanwhile, as this struggle plays itself out, Richard, 3rd Duke of York, reveals his claim to the throne (he is descended from Edward III's third son, whereas Henry is descended from the fourth son) to the Earls of Salisbury and Warwick, who pledge to support him.

The Earl of Suffolk is subsequently banished for his role in Gloucester's death, whilst Winchester contracts a fever and dies cursing God. Margaret is horrified at Suffolk's banishment, and vows to see to it that he can soon return, but he is killed by pirates shortly after departing England, and his head sent back to the distraught Margaret. Meanwhile, York has been appointed as commander of an army to suppress a revolt in Ireland. Prior to leaving, York enlists a former officer of his, Jack Cade, to stage a popular rebellion so as to ascertain if the common people would support York himself should he make an open move for power. With York in Ireland and thus free from accusations of being involved in the uprising, Cade goes about his task. At first, the rebellion is successful, and he sets himself up as Mayor of London, but his rebellion is put down when Lord Clifford (a supporter of Henry) persuades the common people who make up Cade's army, to abandon the cause. Cade himself is subsequently killed several days later by a man into whose garden he climbs looking for food.

Meanwhile, York returns to England with his army, claiming that his intent is to protect the King from the duplicitous Somerset. When the King refuses to accept this, York openly states his claim to the throne, supported by his sons, Edward (the future King Edward IV) and Richard (the future King Richard III). The English nobility now take sides, some supporting the House of York, others supporting Henry and the House of Lancaster. A battle is fought at St Albans which sees the Duke of Somerset killed by Richard, and Lord Clifford by York. With the conflict lost, Margaret persuades the distraught King to flee the battlefield and head to London. She is joined in her efforts by Young Clifford, who has vowed revenge on the Yorkists for the death of his father. The play ends with the Yorkists setting out in pursuit of Henry, Margaret and Clifford.


Shakespeare's primary source for 2 Henry VI was Edward Hall's The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and York (1548). Also, as with most of Shakespeare's chronicle histories, Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (1577; 2nd edition 1587) was also consulted. Holinshed based much of his Wars of the Roses information in the Chronicles on Hall's information in Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families, even to the point of reproducing large portions of it verbatim. However, there are enough differences between Hall and Holinshed to establish that Shakespeare must have consulted both of them.

For example, in his 2003 edition of 2 Henry VI for The Oxford Shakespeare, Roger Warren argues that the marked contrast between Henry and Margaret, so much a recurring theme in the play, comes directly from Hall, who presents Henry as a gentle, almost saint-like, victim of circumstances, and Margaret as a highly intelligent manipulator and egotist. Shakespeare must also have used Hall to establish York's claim to the throne (outlined in 2.2), as in the corresponding section in Holinshed, there is a mistake in the genealogy which adds an extra generation to York's lineage. On the other hand however, the meeting between Buckingham and York prior to the Battle of St Albans (dramatised in 5.1) is found only in Holinshed. Additionally, only Holinshed contains information about the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 which Shakespeare used as his basis for the scenes of Cade's rebellion throughout Act 4 (for example, details such as having people killed because they could read, and promises of setting up a state with no money come directly from Holinshed). Jack Cade is based on the leader of the revolt, Wat Tyler, whose depiction in Thomas Walsingham's Chronicon Angliae formed the basis of Holinshed's material.

Another piece of information represented differently in Hall and Holinshed is Henry's reaction to the Cade rebellion. In Hall, Henry pardons everyone who surrenders and lets them all return home unpunished, and this is how Shakespeare presents it in the play. In Holinshed however, Henry arranges a court and has several of the leaders executed (as he did in reality). Another historical parallel found in Holinshed is that Henry is presented as unstable, constantly on the brink of madness, something which is not in Hall, who presents a gentle but ineffective King (again, Shakespeare follows Hall here).

Shakespeare's largest departure from Hall and Holinshed is in his conflation of the Cade rebellion, York's return from Ireland and the Battle of St Albans into one continuous sequence. Both Hall and Holinshed present these events as covering a four year period (as they did in reality), but in the play they are presented as one leading directly, and immediately, to the other. Shakespeare also altered the timeline in relation to the conflict between Margaret and Eleanor. In reality, they never met, as Eleanor was banished for practising witchcraft four years prior to Margaret's arrival, yet in the play they are political and personal rivals.

Another source for Shakespeare was Richard Grafton's A Chronicle at Large (1569). Like Holinshed, Grafton reproduces large passages of unedited material from Hall, but some sections are exclusive to Grafton, showing Shakespeare must also have consulted him. The false miracle for example (dramatised in 2.1) is found only in Grafton, not in Hall or Holinshed (although a similar scene is also outlined in John Foxe's Acts and Monuments, Book of Martyrs (1563), with which Shakespeare may have been familiar).

Another minor source may have been William Baldwin's Mirror for Magistrates (1559; 2nd edition, 1578), a series of poems spoken by deceased, controversial historical figures, who have come forward to speak of their life and death, and to warn contemporary society not to make the same mistakes as they did. One such figure is Margaret of Anjou, and Roger Warren argues that Shakespeare may have taken the inspiration for Margaret's sorrowful departure from Suffolk (which is found nowhere in Hall, Holinshed or Grafton) from this poem. Another minor source could have been Robert Fabyan's New Chronicles of England and France (1516). This is possible insofar as in Fabyan, the Cade rebellion, York's return from Ireland and the Battle of St Alban's are depicted very much as they are in the play; they form one contiguous sequence.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Henry VI, Part 2" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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