A chronicle play in five
acts, first performed in 1589-92 in a two-part play with Henry VI, Part
3 under the combined title The Whole Contention between the two Famous
Houses, Lancaster and Yorke. Henry VI, Part 2 was first published in quarto
in 1594 and was printed from revised fair copies in the First Folio of
1623. It is the second in a sequence of four history plays (the others
being Henry VI, Part 1, Henry VI, Part 3, and Richard III) known collectively
as the "first tetralogy," treating the Wars of the Roses between
the houses of Lancaster and York. Shakespeare's primary sources for the
play were the chronicles of Edward Hall and Raphael Holinshed.
Picking up from the closing action of Part
I, Henry enters the court with his various lords. Suffolk has returned
from France with Margaret, whom he presents to the king as his new wife.
He also brings a peace treaty from France, which Gloucester reads. He
falters when he comes to a passage about the French keeping the territories
of Anjou and Maine in return for Margaret.
Henry, elevates Suffolk from an earl to a
duke, whilst Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, is unhappy with Margaret's
lack of dowry, and much less with Henry giving up two fiefs to France,
once hard-won by Henry V and by the other lords in recent French wars,
he prophecies the imminent loss of France and leaves.
Beaufort speaks against Gloucester who is
perhaps the only honest supporter of Henry at this point; suggesting to
Buckingham and Somerset that they plot to oust him, initially discrediting
him by setting up Gloucester's wife having her arrested for witchcraft.
Salisbury and Warwick talk with York about trying to suppress the influence
of Suffolk and Beaufort, two ambitious and prideful nobles. Meanwhile,
York lurks in the background, convinced of his legitimate claim to Henry's
throne. York, left alone, speaks of his belief in his claim to the throne
and his frustration that Henry willingly allows lands that are rightfully
his own to be returned to the French. Yet he can't make his claims yet;
he plans to side with Warwick and Salisbury.
Gloucester speaks to his wife, the Duchess.
He had a dream that his staff of office was broken, but she dreamed that
she was about to be crowned queen. He urges her not to speak of her excessive
ambition, since she is already the second woman of the kingdom, behind
Margaret. Hume enters, and the Duchess and Hume discuss her desire to
hire a witch and conjurer to summon spirits to ask about the future of
Petitioners come to the court to ask for
Gloucester's help. They encounter Suffolk and Margaret and believe Suffolk
is Gloucester. One petitioner, Peter, accuses his boss of saying York
is the rightful king, and Suffolk sees he has found a way to weaken York.
Henry and his court enter, discussing who should be the regent of English
forces in France. Gloucester suggests York, but after hearing Peter accusing
his master Horner and casting doubt on York, he instead recommends Somerset.
Margaret insults Gloucester and asks him why he is still protector of
the kingdom; she also insults the Duchess. Gloucester suggests that justice
will be best served by single combat between Peter and Horner.
The Duchess welcomes the Witch and the conjurer,
Bolingbroke. They summon a spirit and ask it Margaret's questions about
Henry's rule. The spirit gives ambiguous replies, then York, Suffolk,
and Somerset enter and arrest the Duchess for dabbling in the occult.
Henry and his queen and lords are hunting.
Gloucester and Beaufort bicker. They meet a poor man who claims to have
had his sight restored by miracle, but Gloucester seeing he is lying and
chases him away, "curing" his lameness, too. Then, Buckingham
arrives with news of the Duchess' arrest.
Richard speaks to Warwick and Salisbury,
explaining the complex family tree that makes him the rightful heir to
the throne than Henry. Both men believe him, call him the true king, and
Henry and his lords judge the Duchess and
her sorcerers. She is banished and ordered to do penance by being led
through the streets of London before departing. Gloucester gives up his
staff and his office. Then, Peter and Horner enter for their combat. Peter
thinks he can't fight, but he is able to defeat and kill Horner, who arrives
drunk. Later, Gloucester waits in the street to see the Duchess paraded
through the streets. She warns him that the lords are out to get him,
but he says he has always been honourable and, thus, is above blame. He
bids farewell to his wife.
Henry holds a meeting of the lords outside
London, and Somerset enters to report that all the French lands have been
lost. Gloucester arrives late, and Suffolk arrests him for treason. The
lords all accuse him of wrongdoing. Henry says he hopes Gloucester can
prove his innocence, but Gloucester says the lords have all plotted against
him, and he will not be able to defend himself. Taking Gloucester away,
and Henry mourns his inability to defend an innocent Gloucester against
the plots of the lords , but the king still orders that he go to trial..
He departs; the other lords discuss how they shall come up with an excuse
to kill Gloucester. A messenger arrives with news of rebellions in Ireland;
York is sent to quell a revolt; and given an army. Left alone onstage,
York revels in the turn of events; all he had lacked was an army and now
he has one. While he is in Ireland, he has hired Jack Cade to raise trouble
in England, to say he is a York with a claim to the throne, to see what
the public response to such a gesture is. If it's positive, York will
return and take over himself. If Cade succeeds, York has an army at his
back to use against Henry when he returns from Ireland. In the meantime,
Gloucester is murdered at Suffolk's behest.
At his home, Henry and his lords arrive for
his trial, but Suffolk announces that Gloucester has died. Henry is distraught.
Warwick and Salisbury enter with reports of unsettled commoners, who suspect
Gloucester was murdered. Examining the body, they decide that Gloucester
died in struggle and was murdered. The commoners ask for the death or
banishment of Suffolk. Henry grants their wish, and he orders Suffolk
to leave the country. Left alone, Margaret and Suffolk declare their feelings
for each other. She says she will try to have him returned or will be
banished, too. He says he can't live without her and wants to stay. She
sends him away.
Meanwhile, Beaufort has become ill, raving
in his bed. He dies miserably, signifying bad behaviour during his life.
Suffolk is captured at sea but refuses to plead for his life. He insists
he can't be killed by such lowly men, but Suffolk is beheaded.
Cade speaks to his army of commoners, claiming
to be the heir to the throne and promising many changes in a 'New England'.
He promises to honour only workmen, not artisans or people who can read.
Stafford and his brother arrive with an army to convince Cade and his
men to lay down their arms, but the two armies come to blows. Stafford
and his brother are killed, and Cade drags their bodies to London.
Margaret holds Suffolk's disembodied head
and mourns him. Henry listens to reports of Cade's attack, and he determines
to leave the city temporarily. Cade attacks London, hunting for and killing
Lord Saye, who Cade accuses of ruining England with literacy. Cade's rabble
asks Cade to create new, spoken laws. Cade wreaks havoc on London, until
Buckingham and Clifford arrive, reminding the commoners of the honourable
rule of Henry V, offering pardons to all who abandon Cade. Soon, the rabble
abandons Cade, who flees. Henry forgives the commoners and receives word
that York's army marches from Ireland, demanding the imprisonment of Somerset,
who York claims is a traitor. Meanwhile, Cade After a five-day flight
without food, is starving in the countryside; he steals food from Alexander
Iden's garden. Iden arrives, and Cade threatens him. The two come to blows,
and Cade is killed.
York marches near London with his army. Buckingham
arrives to ask about his intentions. York claims he only wants Somerset
imprisoned. Buckingham says he has been, so York dismisses his army. The
king does so, but Margaret frees him just as quickly, York, later seeing
the freed Somerset can contain himself no longer; he accuses Henry of
being a weak, unfit king, and declares himself the rightful heir to the
throne. Somerset orders York's arrest. York refuses to budge and asks
for his sons Edward and Richard and Salisbury and Warwick to speak on
his behalf. Salisbury and Warwick declare their allegiance to York. Henry
agrees there is nothing left to do but fight.
Richard fights with Somerset at the Battle
of St. Albans and kills him. Then, he fights with Clifford and kills him.
York's army is winning, so Margaret urges Henry to flee back to London,
where he has support. After the battle, York declares victory, but his
enemy has fled. Therefore, he, with Edward and Richard, Salisbury and
Warwick, prepare to enter London leading into Henry VI, Part III.