Like the first play of the Henry VI trilogy, this play contains a large cast of characters. The time span covered in the second play is much shorter than that covered in the first, but the second play’s action sprawls, covering a wide range of events. The depiction of a number of nobles, many of them hypocritical and self-serving, who group and regroup, deceive and dissemble, creates a potentially bewildering situation for the reader, requiring close attention. There are many threads of the narrative that are carried over from Henry VI, Part I (pr. 1592, pb. 1623), and a prior reading of that play enhances understanding of this one. More consistently than the preceding play, however, Henry VI, Part II explores its major thematic material: the consequences throughout the realm of an ineffectual monarch.
The animosity between the duke of Gloster and Cardinal Beaufort is one of the basic conflicts in the first part of the play. This conflict divides the other nobles into factions. Gloster, who was the Protector of the Realm since the infant Henry became king, displays genuine concern for the welfare of the realm rather than self-interest. He refuses to join in his wife’s ambitious hopes for his advancement. All he wants is to guide the young, unworldly king and protect him from harmful influences that would adversely affect England. Gloster’s downfall lies in his assumption that he commands the loyalty of many of the other nobles,...
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