- King Henry VI
- Queen Margaret
- Duke of Gloster, Henry’s Uncle
- Cardinal Beaufort
- Eleanor, Gloster’s Wife
- Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York
- Earl of Salisbury, York’s ally
- Earl of Warwick, York’s ally
- Duke of Somerset, King’s ally
- Duke of Suffolk, King’s ally
- Duke of Buckingham, King’s ally
- Clifford and his son, Young Clifford, King’s allies
- Jack Cade, Rebel
The Play’s the Thing: Suffolk arrives in London with Margaret for Henry’s wife. Henry thinks she’s super attractive and is very pleased with his new bride. Suffolk also brings the terms of peace with France which require Henry to give up his claims to Anjou and Maine. While Henry is convinced Margaret is worth it, the other lords think its a very shabby trade, especially as Margaret brings no dowry and Henry actually had to pay for her trip over to England. Gloster and the Cardinal get into a tiff, and after Gloster leaves, the Cardinal airs his worries that Gloster is too well liked by the public, especially as he’s the heir-apparent. He makes plans with several of the dukes to join with Suffolk in ousting Gloster. Alone, York plots his eventual overthrow of Henry. Eleanor, Gloster’s wife, desperately wants her husband to take the throne. She sets up a meeting with a witch and a conjurer to find out her husband’s fate through a guy who is being paid off by the Cardinal and Suffolk to help bring about the downfall of Gloster. Margaret complains to Suffolk that her husband is a disappointment and way too pious and bookish and not awesomely manly like Suffolk, that the Duchess of Gloster is too uppity, and Margaret doesn’t have enough power. Suffolk reassures her that he’ll fix it all. Henry then shows up who is having to decide whether Somerset or York should be made regent of what’s left of his lands in France. Due to some political maneuvering that involves a peasant saying that he thinks York is the rightful King of England, Somerset is made regent. Eleanor meets with the witch and conjurer, who summon up a spirit who gives prophecies about the fate of Henry, Gloster, Suffolk, and Somerset. York and Buckingham then show up and arrest her for treason.
Henry, Margaret, and a bunch of lords are falcon hunting. Gloster and the Cardinal continue to engage in their power struggle. There’s then a bit with a con man pretending to be a blind man who’s miraculously gained his sight. Buckingham then arrives with news of the arrest of Eleanor. Meanwhile, in London, York meets with Salisbury and Warwick who both agree that York’s claim to the throne is better than Henry’s (there’s some complicated family history going on here). In the hall of justice, Henry sentences Eleanor’s cohortss to death and banishes Eleanor for her crimes and has Gloster give up his role as protector, deeming himself old enough to rule independently. Gloster willingly gives it up. Gloster and Eleanor have a final meeting before she leaves, in which he maintains his loyalty to Henry.
Henry is headed to meet with Parliament and mulling the fact that Gloster hasn’t shown up yet. Suffolk, Margaret, the Cardinal, and York attempt to convince Henry that Gloster is conspiring to take the crown, but Henry refuses to believe it. Somerset then arrives to let Henry know he has lost of all of his holdings in France. Gloster arrives shortly afterwards and is accused by the various dukes of taking bribes from France and conspiring to allow England to lose. Although Henry doesn’t believe Gloster was traitorous, he allows him to be arrested. Margaret then plots with Suffolk, the Cardinal, and York to have Gloster killed. Suffolk confers with some murderers (literally described as Murderer 1 and 2) and makes sure they know what to do. Henry arrives to talk with Gloster about these treason accusations. Suffolk heads off to fetch him and then reports that Gloster is dead. Henry faints and when he awakens Margaret rants about why he won’t look at her or talk to her even though she went through a lot of crap to get to England and marry him. Warwick and Salisbury arrive with the news that because news of Gloster’s supposed murder at the hands of the Cardinal and Suffolk the commoners are in an uproar. Henry doesn’t know if it’s actually a murder. Warwick does some Elizabethan CSI work and decides Gloster was strangled. He then has it out with the Suffolk and they head out to sword fight only to return shortly afterwards with Salisbury who brings news from the commons that they want Suffolk executed or they’ll break into the palace and kill Suffolk themselves. Henry banishes Suffolk, despite Margaret’s pleas that he let him stay. Margaret and Suffolk have a sad goodbye with kissage until a messenger arrives with the news that the Cardinal is on his deathbed. Suffolk and Margaret then exchange some more “my life is nothing without you”s and then he leaves. Henry then goes to the Cardinal’s deathbed who is hallucinating and seeing what he takes to be the ghost of Gloster. The Cardinal reveals he was involved in the plot to kill Gloster with poison and then dies.
Out in the ocean, a some sailors have captured Suffolk and behead him at sea. They send the head back to Henry (this is important mostly because there’s a scene later where Margaret cuddles with his head). Meanwhile, in Blackheath, Jack Cade is stirring up the commoners, claiming he is a rightful heir to the throne, and promising them everything they want so they’ll go with him against the king. This involves a lot of bashing of anyone with even a little education (they kill a guy who can actually sign his name rather than just make a mark). Unknown to the commoners, Cade is raising this rebellion as requested by the Duke of York, who is currently fighting rebels in Ireland. Cade’s rebels are wreaking havoc everywhere. Henry doesn’t want to kill all the simple folk who are following because they don’t know better (hello, condescending royalty). Henry receives news that Cade has arrived at London bridge. Cade tells his followers to burn London bridge and attack the Tower if they can. Cade and the commoners are really going nuts destroying everything and killing anyone they don’t like when Buckingham and Clifford show up. There’s some rhetoric between the two sides, with Buckingham and Clifford offering pardon from the king to all the commoners, and every time either side makes a speech, the crowd sides with them. Cade finally flees, Henry puts a bounty on his head, and pardons all the commoners. Then a messenger arrives with news that York is marching towards them with his army, newly arrived from Ireland, supposedly only to remove Somerset from his position of influence with the King. Meanwhile, Cade is killed by a lowly esquire named Iden who heads off to bring the head to Henry.
York arrives in England with his army with visions of nabbing the crown dancing in his head. He meets with Buckingham and although he gets super angry, he covers it and says he’s only using the army to ensure Somerset is removed from power. Buckingham tells York that Somerset is imprisoned and York sends a messenger to “disband” his army. Iden then shows up Cade’s head and is knighted by Henry and given the reward. Margaret shows up afterward all chummy with Somerset which pisses off York who is then arrested for treason. There’s some maneuvering around ransoms and then York heads back to his army to fight the King’s side. There’s some sword fighting and York kills Clifford. Henry and Margaret flee to London to rally their supporters. York gloats over his victory and then prepares to head to London where hopefully the winning streak will continue. CLIFFHANGER.
Heroes and Villains: While no one is particularly likable in this play, it’s time to pull out the fascinating villain card which in this case goes to York. He plays multiple alliances to get where he wants and is always maneuvering to align things best for his planned attempt at the crown including organizing the rebellion led by Cade.
- “rules the roast” (I.i)
- “play’d me false” (III.i)
- “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” (IV.ii)
Insults with Style: “pernicious blood-sucker of sleeping men!” (III.ii)
Speech to Know: There are several awesome speeches in this play, but York has some of the best as he has several soliloquies in which he plots his overthrow of Henry.
“Now, York, or never, steel thy fearful thoughts,
And change misdoubt to resolution:
Be that thou hopest to be, or what thou art
Resign to death; it is not worth the enjoying:
Let pale-faced fear keep with the mean-born man,
And find no harbor in a royal heart.
Faster than spring-time showers comes thought on thought,
And not a thought but thinks on dignity.
My brain more busy than the laboring spider
Weaves tedious snares to trap mine enemies.
Well, nobles, well, ’tis politicly done,
To send me packing with an host of men:
I fear me you but warm the starved snake,
Who, cherish’d in your breasts, will sting your hearts.
‘Twas men I lack’d, and you will give them me:
I take it kindly; yet be well assured
You put sharp weapons in a madman’s hands.
Whiles I in Ireland nourish a mighty band,
I will stir up in England some black storm
Shall blow ten thousand souls to heaven or hell;
And this fell tempest shall not cease to rage
Until the golden circuit on my head,
Like to the glorious sun’s transparent beams,
Do calm the fury of this mad-bred flaw.” (III.i)
View from the Pit: Henry VI Part 2 is way, way, way more interesting than Part 1. While it’s still about the political maneuvering (with some dashes of sword fighting to add some action), there are so many different plots going on that it’s just more fun to read. With the multiple political intrigues going on from York’s plot to overthrow Henry, to Margaret and Suffolk’s affair and attempts to control Henry, to Jack Cade’s rebellion with the commoners, there’s a lot of politics going on and it’s all fascinating. Henry is still nowhere near as cool as Henry V, but he’s more the centre around which the plot rotates rather than an integral character. He’s a decent guy and you feel bad for this devout guy who genuinely wants to do good for his people and is thwarted by the people around him but he’s not the main event like Henry V was. Instead, that mantle is taken up by York who is the far more interesting character to watch as he slowly brings his plans to claim the throne into place.