Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 975
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 Salisbury and Warwick because they will be useful to him when he makes his claim to the throne. The plot he hatches of using Jack Cade to foment rebellion against the king is based on the deception of the rebels. York is a Machiavellian villain, a character type that crops up frequently in drama of this period. For York, the end justifies the means. He is fully conscious of his own villainy, which he communicates to the audience, disclosing his plans and his motives.
King Henry is a virtuous man, pious and dutiful, but these virtues are not enough. He seems unable to understand that the terms of his marriage weaken his kingdom. He willingly surrenders hard-won territories in France. He remains blind to the true nature of his queen, who diminishes him personally with her scorn for his passive religiosity and with her relationship with Suffolk. Henry recognizes the cardinal’s malice against Gloster and is not fooled by the queen, Suffolk, York, and the cardinal when they band together and declare Gloster to be personally ambitious to the point of treason, but he is quite helpless to save Gloster. He is unwilling or unable to exert his authority and impotently rails against what he rightly sees as a tragedy.
It is not only the nobility that is affected by the lack of a strong ruler. The populace is also in disorder. Saunder Simpcox, the imposter who falsely claims that his sight is miraculously restored to him, shows that honesty and right values are distorted. Although Gloster shrewdly sees the truth of the matter and deals with it swiftly, the king, as usual, is helpless.
The Jack Cade rebellion occurs after Gloster’s death, and the king is without genuine support. The whole episode is full of cynicism. The commoners lack faith in all leadership and authority. They have no illusions about Cade, seeing through his false claims to noble birth. Cade’s ambitions are absurd, his logic clearly false, his promises beyond all that is possible. He is a caricature. Underlying this grotesque veneer is a more sinister truth. Cade and his rebels have might but no judgment, and they abuse whatever power they gain. Their rebellion violates the established political and moral orders. Ironically, it is a vision of an England that has vanished, the strong England of Henry V’s time, that brings the rabble to its senses. Alexander Iden, who ultimately kills Cade, represents the right values. He lives a serene life, content with his lot. The Cade rebellion is a precursor of the civil war to come and illustrates William Shakespeare’s contention that society consists of interdependent strata arranged in a hierarchy. If the harmony of this structure is perverted at any level, all levels will suffer the consequences.
As a drama, Henry VI, Part II is superior to Henry VI, Part I. Its characterizations are more subtle. There are a number of well-executed comparisons and parallels. The self-serving rebellions of Cade and of York help to provide a dramatic unity and coherence that do not occur in the linear, historical narrative. The verse is generally better in terms both of metrical fluency and of imagery. There is some fine prose dialogue in the Cade scenes, in which the abuse of language parallels the abuse of political power. This early play does not achieve the stature of Shakespeare’s later history plays, but it is worthy of attention.
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