|Henry VI by Renold Elstrack (1570).|
Henry VI Part II is the second of William Shakespeare's 'Wars of the Roses' plays in terms of order of action, following Henry VI Part I, however it's not entirely agreed Part II was written after Part I - it has been suggested that Part II was written first. What is agreed, however, is that all of the Henry VI plays were written before 1592.
In Part I we left Henry VI agreeing to marry Margaret of Anjou and the Earl of Suffolk ending the play with the ominous words,
Margaret shall now be queen, and rule the king;
But I will rule both her, the king and realm.
Henry VI Part II opens with a speech from Suffolk to Henry VI in which he formally presents Margaret to Henry:
As by your high imperial majesty
I had in charge at my depart for France,
As procurator to your excellence,
To marry Princess Margaret for your grace,
So, in the famous ancient city, Tours,
In presence of the Kings of France and Sicil,
The Dukes of Orleans, Calaber, Bretagne and Alencon,
Seven earls, twelve barons and twenty reverend bishops,
I have perform'd my task and was espoused:
And humbly now upon my bended knee,
In sight of England and her lordly peers,
Deliver up my title in the queen
To your most gracious hands, that are the substance
Of that great shadow I did represent;
The happiest gift that ever marquess gave,
The fairest queen that ever king received.
Peace is established with France after England lost a great deal of territories, however, as the Protector Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester discovers in the treaty there is more to be lost. Words fail him and so the Cardinal (Beaufort) goes on to read,
... It is further agreed between them,
that the duchies of Anjou and Maine shall be
released and delivered over to the king her father,
and she sent over of the King of England's own
proper cost and charges, without having any dowry.
Gloucester then leaves the court with a dismal prophecy: "I prophesied France will be lost ere long." Here the internal plotting and squabbling begins: Beaufort, Buckingham and Somerset plot to oust Gloucester whilst York, Salisbury and Warwick discuss curbing the powers of Suffolk and Beaufort. York (Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York) at this time believes he has rights to the throne (this assertion I attempted to explain in my post on Henry VI Part I), and he (alone) expresses his frustration at Henry VI for his ineptitude, his monologue ending,
And, force perforce, I'll make him yield the crown,
Whose bookish rule hath pull'd fair England down.
As of now, however, he is unable to proceed so aligns himself with Warwick and Salisbury.
Meanwhile Gloucester too is frustrated, and he tells his wife (Duchess Eleanor of Gloucester) of his fears. She expresses her ambitions, telling him of a dream in which she is crowned queen -
... But list to me, my Humphrey, my sweet duke:
Methought I sat in seat of majesty
In the cathedral church of Westminster,
And in that chair where kings and queens are crown'd;
Where Henry and dame Margaret kneel'd to me
And on my head did set the diadem.
He does not share her ambition though this does not stop her. Eleanor is one of my favourite female characters in Shakespeare, drawn to the dark arts she consults seers and spiritualists, and she dabbles in the occult, something she will soon pay for; she is later caught with Roger Bolingbroke and Margery Jourdayne, a conjurer and a witch. The spirits have said of the king,
The duke yet lives that Henry shall depose;
But him outlive, and die a violent death.
By water shall he die, and take his end.
And of Somerset,
Let him shun castles;
Safer shall he be upon the sandy plains
Than where castles mounted stand.
Have done, for more I hardly can endure.
Here York catches them and Eleanor is arrested. Suffolk and Margaret meanwhile conspire to weaken both York (who, they learn, desires the crown) and Gloucester, Margaret having previously insulted Gloucester by asking what his purpose is, and Eleanor (before her arrest), treating her poorly and even slapping her.
The internal strife yet worsens and Gloucester resigns as Protector and bids a teary goodbye to his wife, now banished, however Suffolk continues his plan to oust him entirely from the court and so arrests him, accusing him of treason. Henry VI, ineffectual, mourns this news and hopes, despite the unlikelihood of Gloucester receiving a fair trial, that he will be proved innocent. He is, however, brutally murdered; Suffolk is thus banished and later beheaded by pirates. As this goes on a rebellion in Ireland is staged whilst the court are in the midst of attempting to claim back lands lost in France. York, of course, enjoys the chaos and he is given an army to defend Ireland from the rebels: this army will allow him to realise his personal plan to dethrone Henry VI.
It is only towards the end that things begin to come together: York, sure of his claim and sure support, returns to England with his army on the pretext that he is to protect the king from Somerset, but he soon reveals his intentions and accuses Henry of being a weak and unfit king. He calls forward his sons Edward (who will become Edward IV) and Richard (who will become Richard III), and his allies Salisbury and Warwick who declare their allegiance to the House of York. Henry VI and Margaret, after a battle in St. Albans (Hertfordshire), flee to London, to be followed by York and his allies. The play ends with Warwick -
After them! nay, before them, if we can.
Now, by my faith, lords, 'twas a glorious day:
Saint Alban's battle won by famous York
Shall be eternized in all age to come.
Sound drums and trumpets, and to London all:
And more such days as these to us befall!
Henry VI Part II is a particularly complex play I thought, though I did very much enjoy reading it. It is, by its subject matter, a chaotic play and Henry VI appears almost to dither, unable to keep his court in order let alone the country. This is, I suppose, his tragedy - he is unsuited to being a king. Queen Margaret, her cold hardness and scheming, on the other hand, made her an effective (though not a good) queen. The play is full of lies and double-crossings, and does require a degree of concentration, but I very much loved and admired it. I'm very excited to read Henry VI Part III, which I'll get to this evening I hope! I absolutely adore Shakespeare's histories, I don't know why so many don't!