Introduction: Henry VI, Part 2

January 16, 2011 in Introduction

On March 12, 1594, a quarto play was entered in the Stationers’ Register by bookseller Thomas Millington, and printed by Thomas Creede later that year, under the title The First part of the Contention betwixt the two famous Houses of Yorke and Lancaster, with the death of the good Duke Humphrey: And the banishment and death of the Duke of Suffolke, and the Tragicall end of the proud Cardinal of Winchester, with the notable Rebellion of Jack Cade: and the Duke of Yorke’s first claim unto the Crowne. A revised version of this play appears in the First Folio in 1623 under the different title of The second part of Henry VI. The Quarto version may be either an early draft of the Folio script or a reported text provided by actors (or both) – either form explains improvements in the Folio and its correction of Quarto errors.

The full Quarto title covers major elements of the plot but does not identify the central relationship between the weak, if well-meaning King Henry VI and his extraordinarily dynamic French Queen Margaret of Anjou, whose concerns govern much of the action: particularly her competition for court influence with Duke Humphrey and his wife Eleanor, both of whom she destroys with the aid of her lover the Earl of Suffolk, only to lose him by murder on his way to exile. Following the chronicles of Hall and Holinshed, the play’s ultimate political concern is the king’s failure to control the rise of Richard, Duke of York, whose family’s claims to the throne, usurped by the Lancastrians, are justified by primogeniture and the incompetent king’s loss of France. The play ends with the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses at the Battle of St. Albans, won by followers of the White Rose of York.

The play was clearly designed as the first of a two-play sequence but there are many striking episodes in the progression of Queen Margaret’s tense conspiracy with the Earl of Suffolk, which involves the witchcraft conjuration that destroys Duchess Eleanor as prelude to the discrediting and murder of her husband, Duke Humphrey. Involvement in this plot evokes the hysterical death scene of the Machiavellian Cardinal of Winchester. The sardonic anti-establishment activities of the rebel Cade are disruptions sponsored by the Yorkists. All are phases in a conflicted society’s progress towards self-destruction. However, for centuries the play survived in fragments and adaptations, emerging separately only in the mid-nineteenth century, but still reinforced later as a part of combined performances with Parts 1 and 3 in the twentieth century. Its full recognition was greatly aided by its inclusion in The Wars of the Roses staged by Hall and Barton to celebrate the fourth centennial of Shakespeare’s birth, with Peggy Ashcroft brilliantly exploiting the mercurial role of Queen Margaret as its supreme creation.

Contributed by Hugh Macrae Richmond

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