KING HENRY THE SIXTH, PART TWO

By William Shakespeare
Written in 1591

Comments by Bob Corbett
December 2010

General Note: In January 2009 I decided that Iíd like to go back and read all the plays of William Shakespeare, perhaps one a month if that works out. I hadnít read a Shakespeare play since 1959, 50 years ago! But I had read nearly all of them in college. I wanted to go back, start with something not too serious or challenging, and work my way through the whole corpus. Thus I began with The Two Gentlemen of Verona. At this time I have no idea how the project will go, nor if it will actually lead me through the entire corpus of Shakespeareís plays. However, I will keep a separate page listing each play Iíve read with links to any comments I would make of that particular play. See: List of Shakespeareís playís Iíve read and commented on

COMMENTS ON
HENRY THE SIXTH, PART TWO

The war in France is over and Henry has married Margaret, the daughter of King Charles of France. But things are far from being in a settled condition. There is an astonishing amount of intrigue going on, and other relatives in the royal family are plotting and aiming to depose the young Henry and to take over the monarchy.

Perhaps the sole loyal powerful person is the Protector himself, Gloucester, but early on in the play the plotters manage to imprison and murder him. Henry is alone and at the mercy of the sharks, who include even his wife!

What mainly saves Henry in the end, or at least saves him for the time being, is that those who would depose him are all wary of each other and at cross purposes half the time. They are somewhat united in the desire to be rid of Henry VI, but they are divided on how to also overcome one another.

This allows a setting for Shakespeare to do some marvelous writing of suspense and create very believable bad guys and gals galore. He also seems to have some fun in playing up the unpreparedness of Henry for his kingship. Itís sort of funny in a way. All around him are people rather clearly and plainly out to get him and he seems to never want to believe evil of anyone, doesnít know who to trust, so he sort of just bows out of it all and letís things take their course. He would have been an easy target, but the enemies are so busy killing each other off that they never get around to Henry.

While Gloucester, himself, is loyal, his wife is one of the leading plotters. She tries to convince her husband that he should really be king and Charles must go, but he is loyal to his Charles, his nephew, and she is plotting against her husbandís wishes, but for what she thinks are his real interests. He asks her to follow him Ė literally Ė and she, in an aside to herself, denies her willingness to do this:

Follow I must; I cannot go before,
While Gloucester bears this base and humble mind,
Were I a man, a duke, and next of blood,
I would removed these tedious stumbling-blocks
And smooth my way upon their headless necks;
And, being a woman, I will not be slack
To play my part in Fortuneís pageant.

However, she is the first to go. Feared and duped by other plotters, she is tricked into consorting with some double-dealing figures of the nether world, imprisoned and murdered.

The queen is also a major plotter. She is acting on behalf of her father, King of France, to help him recover some of his land and power, and she keeps feeding Henry lines to try to make him mistrust Gloucester, but she keeps failing. She warns him that Gloucesterís seeming loyalty (which is actually true) is a ruse.

Smooth runs the water
Where the brook is deep
The fox barks not when he would steal the lamb.

But Henry will simply not believe anything bad about his uncle, Gloucester, the Protector.

My lords, at once: the care you have of us,
To mow down thorns that would annoy our foot,
Is worthy of praise: but, shall I speak my conscience,
Our kinsman Gloucester is as innocent
From meaning treason to our royal person
As is the suckling lamb or harmless dove.
The Duke is virtuous, mild, and too well given
To dream on evil, or to work my downfall.

The plotting goes on and despite the King, Gloucester is killed, and then the plotters begin eliminating one another. The stage is being set for what will actually play out in Henry VI, part 3, the ruinous War of the Roses, but at this stage a number of current players will be eliminated.

There is comic relief too, in the figure of Cade who raises an attack on the nobility in general, the king in particular, whom at first he was going to defend. He is based on an historical character, but Shakespeare seems to use him for comic relief, and, indeed, some comic relief is called for. The play is just an unending mess and mass of plots, dishonesties, betrayals and murders.

Yet it made good reading. I didnít previously know, or at least remember, the details of who did what to whom, and the play read like a gripping who-done-it, or how-will-they-do-it and who-will-do-it-to-whom-next, and finally, always there in the background is the question will the spacey king survive it all. He sort of reminds me of the little girl in the Browning poem who walks along seeing all the misery of the city and noting only that God is in the heavens and allís right with the world.

Alas, I know enough of the history of whatís to come to know that my coming Shakespeare read of Henry VI, Part 3, will not bode so well for the young king.

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu

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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu