September Books 2) Henry VI Part 2

2) The Second Part of King Henry the Sixth, by William Shakespeare

Where Part 1 is really the story of Talbot, Part 2 is much more about Richard, Duke of York as he rises to power. I actually felt it wasn’t as successful as a play as Part 1, though the narrative is at least closed a bit more clearly; there are too many characters who are introduced just in order to be killed off for historical accuracy (Lord Say being the most heinous, but there are a lot of others too).

I’ve settled into a pattern of reading each Act and then listening to it before going on to the next, so as to appreciate what was presumably the original structure. Two of the five acts here stand out as particularly self-contained. Act 1 has the mini-plot of the Duchess of Gloucester rivalling the Queen for influence (in a scene which scrapes through the Bechdel test by the smallest margin imaginable, the two squabble over a dropped fan). The Duchess is then expelled from political life when she is found to be consorting with necromancers. I thought it was rather bold of Shakespeare to insert this into what is after all supposed to be a history play, but found to my surprise that it is perfectly true.

In the second and third acts, Henry VI’s key advisers remove each other from the scene by various sinister means, and York is sent off to Ireland to quell the natives. He is therefore absent from the fourth act, which is entirely about the rise and fall of Jack Cade’s rebellion. It’s a rather fascinating sequence of ten scenes (none of the other acts has more than four); I wasn’t sure whether to read it as biting social commentary of slapstick satire, and no doubt both were in the author’s mind as he wrote. (The only well-known line from this play – “Let’s kill all the lawyers!” – is certainly in the slapstick category.) Cade is certainly a fraud, but a convincing one whose social theory is not far from much later discourse including the Diggers and Karl Marx, and he meets his doom with a certain gutsy pride.

And in the last act, York returns from Ireland and wins the Battle of St Albans. Obviously one of the things that interests me is the portrayal of Ireland as a place of strife where a bright English lordling might yet make a name for himself. (York was certainly not the first to do so; the last was probably Arthur James Balfour. Or possibly Winston Churchill if we stretch the definition a bit. But definitely not Michael Ancram.) We are told pretty clearly that York owes his victory to the Irish mercenaries, but they get no voice (unlike the various members of Cade’s London mob).

More crucially, we don’t get a terribly good sense of why overthrowing King Henry is a Good Idea. It’s a bit odd that York only decides to make a fuss about his superior genealogical claim in the second act of the second play of this sequence; and then it is only mentioned once afterwards. The disastrous losses of territory in France happen off-scene and are referred to only briefly. Henry (again David Tennant, in the Arkadin version) is clearly a poor leader, torn between his own deeply-felt ethics and bowing to the loudest voice in the court, but that is never explicitly given as a reason to oppose him. And although Shakespeare obviously wants York to be the hero, it’s a bit nasty of him to sit back and let his rivals destroy each other in the first half of the play. So I guess I find myself more sympathetic to the notion that this was the first of the three Henry VI’s to be adapted from Holinshed, as the narrative and characterisation are forced to accommodate the historical data.

Shout-outs to two other Who-related performers in the Arkangel performance: Isla Blair as the necromantic Duchess (she was the seductive French countess in part 1) and David Troughton as the future Richard III (apart from his Old and New Who appearances, I’ve also been enjoying hoim recently in A Very Peculiar Practice).
Henry VI, Part I | Henry VI, Part II | Henry VI, Part III | Richard III | Comedy of Errors | Titus Andronicus | Taming of the Shrew | Two Gentlemen of Verona | Love’s Labour’s Lost | Romeo and Juliet | Richard II | A Midsummer Night’s Dream | King John | The Merchant of Venice | Henry IV, Part I | Henry IV, Part II | Henry V | Julius Caesar | Much Ado About Nothing | As You Like It | Merry Wives of Windsor | Hamlet | Twelfth Night | Troilus and Cressida | All’s Well That Ends Well | Measure for Measure | Othello | King Lear | Macbeth | Antony and Cleopatra | Coriolanus | Timon of Athens | Pericles | Cymbeline | The Winter’s Tale | The Tempest | Henry VIII | The Two Noble Kinsmen | Edward III | Sir Thomas More (fragment)

One thought on “September Books 2) Henry VI Part 2

  1. I suspect that strictly speaking this problem is mere algebra rather than yer actual number theory…

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