Magic circle. Center of an occult ritual performed in the duke of Gloucester’s house in London. Two priests and a witch draw the circle in which demons appear so that the duchess of Gloucester can advance her husband’s career through magical prophecies. As stage entertainment, this séance can thrill an audience with its necromancy, artificial thunder and lightning, demons rising from a trap door, and prophetic riddles. However, Shakespeare also invests the scene with irony and menace. This diabolical action occurs in the house of the honest and patriotic duke of Gloucester without his knowledge, suggesting that the corruption spreading through England touches even decent people. Moreover, the séance is part of a plot by the duke’s enemies, who will use the duchess’s magical practices against her husband.
*St. Albans. English town north of London. St. Albans is a setting at both the beginning and the end of this play and highlights the play’s main actions: the duke of Gloucester’s fall and the coming of civil war. First, while King Henry vacations in the town, the political conspiracy against the upright Gloucester bears fruit when he is publicly disgraced by his wife’s crime of witchcraft. Second, the Wars of the Roses begin in St. Albans with the first Battle of St. Albans. This fight occurs within the town rather than on an outlying battlefield, emphasizing the breakdown of law and order. The town’s sufferings foreshadow those of England itself.
*Jack Cade’s camp
*Jack Cade’s camp. Headquarters of a popular revolt against King Henry, which ended in London. Shakespeare transforms the historical Cade’s Revolt into a violent, anarchic affair, suggesting the fragility of England under Henry VI. Cade promises his followers a carnival England of social equality, commonly held property, and free-flowing wine and beer. However, his camp is a bloody tyranny in which men are killed for being literate or for failing to call Cade by his assumed title. The violence in Cade’s camp parodies and foreshadows the duke of York’s impending coup.
Although Shakespeare wrote for an earlier time, his concerns are so well staged and so poetically presented that they produce powerful echoes for a late twentieth-century audience whose knowledge of the Wars of the Roses is slight at best. Henry VI, Part Two is preoccupied with three issues of contemporary relevance: the definition of legitimate authority; the requirements for good government; and the role of the family.
England under Henry VI is in chaos. In part this chaos is the result of Henry VI's uncertainty about whether his right to the crown is legitimate. The duke of York certainly has a better claim based on blood (he traces his line back to a son of Edward I who was older than the son from whom Henry VI derives his claim), but Henry VI has a better claim based on power (his grandfather, Henry IV, overthrew Richard II).
In democratic countries power is derived from the ballot box, but there have been several occasions in recent times in Europe and elsewhere when charges of voter fraud or tampering with the ballot box have made it uncertain who is the legitimate leader. One need think only of events in the former Yugoslavia as an instance. In 1996, for example, Slobodan Milosevic used the Serbian Supreme Court to validate some election results that were favorable to him but questionable. More subtly, one can speculate on what form of the vote best represents the balance of power in a country. Proportional representation most accurately registers the patchwork of opinion in any given country, but that method has led Italy, for example, to change its government more than once a year since the end of the Second World War. From another perspective, one can ask whether a minority government should be allowed to rule in a democracy. Such a government was in power in Britain, for example, in 1979 and 1996. The question comes down to how one defines legitimate...
(The entire section is 1,788 words.)