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, whom he believes share his own right-minded support of the king. Gloster, virtuous and loyal, is betrayed by everyone. Even those who have respect for him have their own agenda to pursue. His shortsightedness is a flaw, a failure in responsibility, because it has the tragic consequence of leaving the inadequate king and England itself vulnerable to the destructive effects of others’ self-interest.
The duke of York is the contrast to Gloster. His fortunes wax as Gloster’s wane. His cynicism is the opposite of Gloster’s naïve goodness. York supports factions and chooses friends solely on consideration of who will serve his purpose best. York sides with Gloster against the cardinal at first because York believes it will help his cause, but later he allies himself with the cardinal and even his old enemies the dukes of Somerset and Suffolk in the plot to get rid of Gloster. He enjoins the support of the earls of...
(The entire section is 975 words.)