I’ll be honest with you; Henry VI Part Two was a bit dry. In Part One I had the excitement Joan of Arc added to the play, and Part Three was an epic battle royale, but Part Two didn’t really have anything that gripped me. If you’re considering reading them, I might even recommend you skip Part Two entirely.
Worried you’ll miss something important? Here are the highlights:
- Henry VI marries Margaret
- York declares himself the rightful king
- Henry VI flees
After Margaret and Henry are married, the play then almost immediately turns to intense bickering, plotting and manipulating – typical Shakespeare, right? Margaret spends her time trying to get Henry VI to act more like a king and less like a spineless child (reminiscent of Lady Macbeth’s “are you a man or a mouse” speech to Macbeth – except Lady M had much better results). Everyone else fights and plots to get the crown – even Gloucester’s wife gets in on the fun! Too bad Gloucester is murdered in Act III. Suffolk gets banished for that (don’t weep for him, he did it), but not before he and Margaret have a chance to declare their love for each other (awww). Then after a crazy plot twist involving pirates, Suffolk has his head chopped off. York can’t contain himself any longer and he declares himself the rightful king. Everybody fights. Henry runs away and York declares victory.
Henry VI Part Three is far more interesting. Henry VI adopts the “peace and love, man” philosophy of a 1960’s hippie and gives the inheritance of the crown to York’s son, Edward, if everyone will promise to just stop killing each other. Everyone agrees except Margaret, who instead raises an army to overturn her son’s disinheritance and starts killing people. As it turns out, Richard and Edward (York’s sons) were planning on killing Henry VI anyway, so it turned out it was a good thing that Margaret had a little Joan of Arc in her. What can I say? We French women know how to fight.
The bulk of Part Three consists of playing out epic battle scenes on stage between York and Margaret’s armies. It’s awesome. It also shows Margaret doing absolutely everything she can to keep Henry on the throne and therefore her son next in line, while Henry himself does a solid job of getting captured, rescued, and captured again. Ultimately the bad guys win – Henry, his son Edward, and Margaret are all killed, and Edward (York’s son) is the King. Shakespeare sets the stage with a little foreshadowing that Richard will attempt to take the throne for himself, and that’s the end of that.
One thing I truly love about Shakespeare’s take on these events is the immense power and influence he gives to his female characters. At a time when women weren’t even allowed to be the actors on the stage, they were still the strongest characters represented there. This is true in many of Shakespeare’s plays, although the only other one which comes to mind at the moment is Macbeth (I’m sorry! Please don’t take away my English minor!). Of course, ‘power corrupts’ is another theme we often see represented in Shakespeare’s works. It follows then, that Shakespeare’s strongest female characters are also often the most villainous. This, in turn, is in keeping with the old school belief that women were evil temptresses sent by Satan to tempt Good Men away from the path of God. Hey, it’s a dirty job but someone’s gotta do it!
Henry VI is not Shakespeare’s best, but the historical context surrounding the play is just fascinating. The battle between the Houses of York and Lancaster for the crown of England is one of the best real-life soap operas history has to offer. The War of the Roses reflects how quickly and thoroughly power can corrupt, and how messy hereditary lines of succession can be. Having read all the plays in Shakespeare’s first tetralogy, I’m really excited to continue on to the Henriad plays.