King Henry VI Part 2: Essay Q&A
1. Examine Shakespeare’s presentation of Jack Cade in the play and what this says about leadership.
The historical John or Jack Cade was the leader of a popular revolt in 1450 against the weak leadership of King Henry VI, the corruption of his advisers (in particular Suffolk), the breakdown of law, and the loss of England’s territories in France. Given the reasonableness of the rebels’ grievances, which are set out in a document called the Complaint of the Poor Commons of Kent, it is interesting that Shakespeare chooses to discredit Cade’s rebellion by portraying him in his play as the patsy (albeit an innocent one) of York. This has the effect of sidelining the grievances that gave rise to the revolt, discrediting Cade as a representative of the people, and labelling him as a tool of rich and powerful interests.
In fact, there is no historical evidence for such a link between Cade and York. However, York’s side in the Wars of the Roses did use Cade’s list of grievances for propaganda purposes, to discredit the king and his advisers.
Shakespeare presents Cade as an ignorant hater of England’s institutions and of learning, a destructive and envious class warrior with no altruistic or valid ideological aim. Shakespeare mistrusted the mob and would-be rulers and leaders who arose from it (such as Joan of Arc in Henry VI, Part 1).
Henry VI, Part 2 holds up as the ideal of leadership the selfless loyalty to king and country exemplified by Gloucester. The fact that the good but politically naïve Gloucester is entrapped and murdered by his courtier enemies is an indictment of Henry VI’s weak leadership. Henry fails to protect his ally, Gloucester, and gives free rein to the self-seeking nobles, leading to chaos in the nation and the civil dissent that enables opportunists like Cade to prosper.
2. Analyze the purpose of Margaret’s speech at 3.2.73-121 (“Be woe for me . . . dost live so long”), in response to Henry’s turning away from her in the wake of Gloucester’s murder.
Margaret’s extraordinary speech has been much discussed by critics and is wide open to interpretation by different theater directors. At first glance, the speech seems to have little relevance to its context. Prior to her speech, Henry has voiced his suspicion that Suffolk is responsible for the death of his beloved uncle and the Protector of the Realm, Gloucester. Margaret defends Suffolk and asks Henry to pity her, as she may be suspected by the people as being guilty of Gloucester’s death. Henry turns away from her, and she launches into the long speech in question, dramatizing her journey to England as a feat of courage and loving self-sacrifice that deserves Henry’s unswerving dedication.
Roger Warren, the editor of the Oxford World’s Classics edition of the play, published 2003 (reprint, 2008) calls Margaret’s speech “the most problematic” in the play. In his Introduction to the play, Warren quotes the critic L. C. Knights as proposing that Margaret’s rhetorical style is an indication of her insincerity. Warren says that if this were the case, then one of her motives would be to distract Henry from “his instinctive awareness of Suffolk’s complicity in the murder of Humphrey [Gloucester]” (p. 43).
Warren says another possible motivation behind the speech is “to express Margaret’s turbulent state of mind” (p. 43) because the plot against Gloucester is not turning out in the simple way she had imagined and she now fears losing both her lover and her control over the King.
Warren notes that the British theater director Peter Hall, in his production of the play as part of The Wars of the Roses in 1963, thought the purpose of the speech was to establish “the emotional, hysterical side of Margaret’s nature.”
Warren adds that another British theater director, Terry Hands, in a 1977 production, interpreted the speech as Margaret’s desperate attempt to bring Henry round from one of his bouts of mental illness by talking him out of his fit. The actress playing Margaret, Helen Mirren, repeatedly paused to give Henry a chance to react to her. This interpretation assumes that Margaret cares about Henry enough to try to remediate his condition.
However, the speech, though odd, is psychologically appropriate and completely credible. Henry’s realization that Suffolk is guilty of Gloucester’s death and that Margaret loves Suffolk is enough to make Henry turn from her. This prompts Margaret’s realization that she has lost Suffolk and her control over Henry. This in turn provokes a hysterical outpouring from Margaret that is partly revealing of her narcissism (“But woe for me, more wretched than he is” – line 73) and partly a desperate attempt to deflect Henry’s imputation of guilt to her and her lover Suffolk. Henry thinks about poor Gloucester killed by Suffolk and Margaret. But Margaret wants him to direct his pity towards her instead. She tries to paint herself not as evil and predatory, as Henry now sees her, but as a heroic victim who has dared all and risked her very heart in coming to England as Henry’s bride. Margaret is trying to imply that in rejecting her, Henry is the villain.
It is a brilliant piece of distraction, but it is doomed to failure. Henry’s eyes, once opened, can never be shut again.
3. Compare and contrast the deaths of Gloucester and of Beaufort.
There is a deliberate parallelism (the setting of similar elements of the plot side by side for the purpose of emphasizing similarity) and antithesis (the setting of opposite ideas side by side for the purpose of contrast) in the deaths of Gloucester (in Act, 3, scene 2) and Beaufort (in Act 3, scenes 2 and 3). The deaths are similar in that both men have had untimely and sudden deaths, both have a horrific appearance in death, and both bodies are set forth in their beds before the audience. But there the similarity ends. The rest is a contrast of opposites.
Gloucester makes a good death, repenting his sins (3.2.4), as a virtuous and God-fearing man was expected to do at the time when the play was written and at the time when it is set. In fact, Gloucester is so penitent that the sheer force of his goodness makes his murderers repent too (3.3.3). Warwick takes the place of a coroner, investigating the dubious circumstances of Gloucester’s death. He concludes that he was murdered. Gloucester’s ghastly appearance, described by Warwick, reflects the shocking and unjust nature of his death, with his staring eyes and splayed hands. His face is full of blood and it seems as if he “tugged for life” (3.2.173): in the right way of things, he is supposed to be living and is only dead because of the violent act of the murderers.
Beaufort is another matter altogether. He is a Cardinal and should be a model of religious probity. But he makes a terrible death, as Vaux says, “Blaspheming God and cursing men on earth” (3.2.376). While wicked men did away with Gloucester, there is no such agent in Beaufort’s death: he appears to be the victim of a sudden “grievous sickness” (3.2.374), which, as it has no obvious physical cause or symptoms, could be a spiritual sickness of the soul. This interpretation is supported by Vaux’s description of his talking “as if Duke Humphrey’s ghost / Were by his side” (3.2.377-8). He is haunted by his evil deed in having Gloucester killed. His guilt prompts him to calls and talks to an imaginary Henry, also, as he has harmed the king by having Lord Protector Gloucester murdered. Vaux accurately remarks on “The secrets of his overcharged soul” (3.2.381): Beaufort has a guilty conscience, and a Christian of Shakespeare’s time would have had no doubt that his soul was bound for hell.
4. How historically accurate is Henry VI, Part 2?
Shakespeare sticks fairly closely to the historical events but he does alter the timing of them at some points for dramatic effect, and he also includes some unhistorical elements. Although Suffolk in his years of power was supported by Queen Margaret, they were not lovers, as Shakespeare has them. Gloucester was indeed arrested for treason and imprisoned, and he died within a few days, but modern historians believe he may have died of a stroke or heart attack. There is no evidence that he was murdered, as in the play; however, Shakespeare’s sources reported that Gloucester was murdered, and people in Shakespeare’s time believed it, so in that sense Shakespeare was just following the conventional interpretation of events.
Shakespeare makes the Cade rebels more lawless than they were, and in fact, the Duke of York had no part in encouraging the rebellion to test the unpopularity of the King. This was Shakespeare’s invention. Nor did York get the backing of Warwick and Salisbury in his ambition to capture the crown, although from 1453 on they did become his allies.
Shakespeare moves the fall of the Duchess of Gloucester forward (in history it happened in 1441) so that Queen Margaret can be a part of it (in fact, she did not arrive in England until 1444), so the rivalry between the two women in the play is Shakespeare’s invention.
There was no actual plot amongst the nobles to ensnare Gloucester by trapping his wife in a witchcraft scandal (although she did dabble in such things and was convicted of them).
Perhaps most interesting of Shakespeare’s unhistorical elements is his introduction of Richard, son of the Duke of York and the future Richard III, into the play. In the play, he takes part in the Battle of St. Albans, killing Somerset. Shakespeare already characterizes him as he will appear in the later play: “foul indigested lump, /As crooked in thy manners as thy shape!” says Clifford (Act 5, scene 1). In reality, Richard was two years old in 1455, the year of the battle. But Shakespeare wanted to introduce him in this play to familiarize his audience with a character who plays such a large role in Henry VI part 3 and Richard III.
5. What does York’s first speech reveal about his character and ambition?
The dramatic structure of Act 1 scene I reveals the importance of York to the plot. He is present from the beginning but says almost nothing until all the characters eventually exit, leaving him alone on stage to speak a soliloquy in which he reveals his intentions. This shows plainly that York is not at this time free to speak his mind or pursue his goals openly. His soliloquy shows how fervently he believes that he is the rightful king of England. He regards the loss of the French territories personally, as if those regions are his own property. He also shows a shrewd assessment of Henry’s character (which also guides the audience in how to view Henry), regarding him as “childish,” “bookish,” and with “church-like humors”—in other words, the English king is better suited by temperament to be a priest or a monk than a king. York also shows his mastery of political intrigue. He will feign support for Gloucester until such time as opportunity presents itself for him. He is impatient but he also knows how to wait. He will continue to observe the political situation. He guesses that Henry will be preoccupied with his new bride, and that Gloucester and the other nobles will soon fall to quarreling, and this will give him an opportunity. He plans an alliance with Salisbury and his son Warwick. He shows himself to be a good judge of character and of the situation he is in, since his strategy will later prove to be successful. Unlike the other nobles like Suffolk and Somerset, who pursue power for its own sake, York shows genuine concern for his country, which has fallen into instability as a result of Henry VI’s weakness and unfitness to rule.