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henry vi, part 2

23 november 2015

Henry VI, Part 2 is an obscure but energetic play that shows Shakespeare tackling some big issues and broad historical themes. It's a puzzle why it's not better-known or more performed. It's somewhat episodic and lacks a true starring role, but ensemble companies tend to like plays with lots of good parts, and audiences don't mind episodes if they're good ones.

If the Henry VI plays are obscure, it's probably because their king is, and he's not much of a dramatic character except as a study of hapless weakness. The puzzle is perhaps why Shakespeare would write three plays about his reign at all. He doesn't appear very much in his own Part 1, and though he's on stage a lot in Part 2, he spends a lot of it wringing his hands and wishing he weren't king. The role can be very effective – the young David Warner was very celebrated in the part – but Henry is not very dynamic.

The most famous character in Part 2 is a Kentish peasant rebel named Jack Cade. Cade is a historical figure in the tradition of Wat Tyler and other insurgents. Such guys had serious grievances and were taken very seriously by the governments they opposed. They were ultimately put down with a lot of bloodshed, but they belie depictions of the Middle Ages as placid organic communal times with settled hierarchies.

Predictably, Shakespeare makes Cade into a cynical bully who promises all things to all men, is bestially ignorant, and resents learning even more than he resents riches and power. He is the archetype of the socialist as thuggish fool. He apes his betters, but he's no better than an ape, and his transgression of his natural state leads to the futility of his uprising. Cade offers just more evidence of Shakespeare's inherent conservatism, an instinct that kept the Bard's plays on the stage under a couple of headstrong English monarchs.

Or one could conclude that Shakespeare didn't write some, most, or all of the play, and the comments and opinions are not necessarily Stratfordian. I read 2HVI most recently in the 1952 edition by J. Dover Wilson. Wilson constructs an elaborate, almost line-by-line scheme assigning certain parts of the play to Shakespeare and others to a raft of possible collaborators. The basic idea is that Shakespeare took a received play-text (published in 1594 as "The First Part of the Contention") and gave it a once-over. Where good lines – elegant verse, attractive similes, funny prose – appear, they are the work of Shakespeare, and the crap ("wretched verse, imposs. for Sh." 190) is the work of somebody else.

Wilson's identifications are almost goofily precise, and he himself apologizes for "the inevitable dogmatism of the sections on 'Authorship'" (liii). And to get back to Cade, Wilson considers the character of the rebel to be a creation of Shakespeare's "comic genius" (174) – thus aligning himself to some extent with Shakespeare's views on peasant rebellion, I think. The depiction of Cade is certainly clever, and whether you find it comic or sneering depends on your own political starting-point.

Wilson's notes are now curiosities, but point to a certain earlier trend in Shakespearean editing that devoted great energy and undeniable taste to making Shakespeare an even greater writer by denying that he could ever write a bad line. 21st-century textual thought tends to take plays as plays (and the Quarto "Contention" as a separate play from the Folio 2HVI). The theater is inextricably collaborative, after all: for all we know Richard Burbage provided all the good bits of "To be or not to be".

There are other good characters and scenes in this violent, patchy play. Queen Margaret, enamored of Pole, Duke of Suffolk (whose name is the source of a number of puns), is vividly erotic. Good Duke Humphrey (who wasn't that good in Part 1, but that play may be quite separate in conception and equally collaborative) is a stirring part for an actor, a Protector way more sinned against than sinning. Richard Duke of York is a cunning usurper, and his son Richard appears in time to kill somebody named Somerset and put himself on the usurper career path that would take him to his own play a few years later. (Richard III was in fact only three years old when Somerset was killed, historically, but hey, he was a scary guy.)

Shakespeare, William. The Second Part of King Henry VI. 1594, 1623. Edited by John Dover Wilson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1952.