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Theatre / Henry VI Part 2

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As the play is Older Than Steam and based on historical events, and as most twists in Shakespeare's plots are now widely known, all spoilers on this page are unmarked.
Small curs are not regarded when they grin;
But great men tremble when the lion roars;
Queen Margaret, III.i

A history play principally penned by William Shakespeare, Henry VI Part 2 is the second of three plays describing the end of The Hundred Years War and the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses. In this installment, King Henry VI meets his manipulative wife Margaret; the trusted Duke of Gloucester is assassinated; the people stage a rebellion; and Richard, Duke of York, plots to take control of the throne. The other plays in the series are Henry VI Part 1 and Henry VI Part 3.

We begin with the marriage of Henry to Margaret — however, Suffolk's plan to dominate the King may be scuppered by the Duke of Gloucester: popular, honest and trusted by the king. He conspires with other members of the court to disgrace and then murder Gloucester, but he is himself exiled and killed for the crime.

Meanwhile, the Duke of York stakes his claim to the throne (which is at least as good as Henry's), and the Duke of Salisbury and The Earl of Warwick pledge their support. York is given the command of a Royal Army to suppress a rebellion in Ireland, but before he embarks, he arranges a rebellion against the crown by a former officer of his, Jack Cade. (This is the context of Dick the Butcher's immortal line, "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers!") Cade claims to be descended from the same line as York — this will test the public's reaction to the claim, and also provide York with an excuse to return to England at the head of an army.

Cade captures London, but proves himself to be a tyrant and Lord Clifford is able to persuade the commoners to abandon him in favour of King Henry. York returns with his army and, finding his thunder stolen by Clifford, declares that he wishes to protect the King from the treachery of Lord Somerset. When Henry rejects this, York openly declares his claim to the throne and, supported by his sons Edward and Richard, fights and wins a battle against the Royal forces. England's nobility choose sides as the King flees alongside Margaret and Young Clifford, whose father was killed in the battle.

While this play is traditionally credited mostly to Shakespeare's authorship, scholarly analysis since the 1980s has led to theories that Shakespeare collaborated with his contemporary Christopher Marlowe much more extensively on its writing than was previously believed. These theories were deemed compelling enough that the publishers of the 2016 edition of New Oxford Shakespeare credited Marlowe as a co-author.

This play provides examples of:

  • Age Lift: Richard of Gloucester is portrayed as a grown man, he was two years of age at the time in real life.
  • Anti-Hero: Many. Not many real heroes.
  • The Butcher: Dick the Butcher, whose title is a pun
  • Cassandra Truth: Several people, including the witch Margery Jourdain.
  • A Child Shall Lead Them: Henry mentions he was crowned at nine months old. Averted in that it's made clear that the ensuing power vacuum caused incredible civil strife.
  • The Clan: Several, but especially the House of York.
  • Decapitation Presentation: There are lots of disembodied heads floating around in this play, and although this action is not mentioned explicitly in the stage directions many directors do it anyway, 'cause it looks awesome terrifying.
  • Decoy Leader: Cade, who is standing in for Richard of York
  • Everyone Is Related: Expected, given that almost every major character is of noble blood and there's not that much to go around.
  • Evil Lawyer Joke: Dick the Butcher's declaration in Part II that "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers." But not actually. Dick is a villainous bastard and Jack Cade — who is leading the rebellion — is portrayed as a clueless malcontent (he wants to abolish schools and writing among other things). In context, Shakespeare seems to be suggesting that getting rid of all the lawyers will ruin society rather than improve it. However, the phrase works so well as an Evil Lawyer Joke that it has persisted in that form through Popcultural Osmosis
  • Feuding Families: York and Lancaster.
  • Finishing Each Other's Sentences: One performance of part 2 has the pirates finish Suffolk's last speech.
  • God Save Us from the Queen!: Margaret is quite happy to go into battle in place of her husband (in Part 3, she personally supervises the death of Richard of York).
  • Handicapped Badass: Richard Gloucester's pretty good in battle, in spite of his crooked back, gimp arm, and short leg. Let's not even talk about the fact that historically, he would only have been 2 1/2 years old at the time of the Battle of St. Albans... Look at that toddler swing that battleaxe!
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Jack Cade. He was not this much of a buffoon and manipulator, or deceiver (he did take the Mortimer name, but only to express solidarity). If anybody deserved vilification, it was Lord Say.
  • Non-Action Guy: Henry VI, a bookish and pious ruler when England really needed a strong warrior.
  • Obfuscating Disability: Humphrey Gloucester proves that a man who claims to have been divinely cured of blindness is a charlatan.
  • Persecuted Intellectuals: Dick The Butcher's line "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers" can be interpreted as a standard Evil Lawyer Joke; however, the implication is that without lawyers, there would be nobody who knows any law to get in the way of Jack Cade's autocratic rule.
  • Prophecy Twist: All three prophecies by Margaret Jourdain's evil spirit.
  • Sarcastic Devotee: Dick the Butcher, who counters every statement Cade makes with a joke, but is still the greatest fighter in his rebellion
  • Sinister Minister: The Bishop of Winchester, later Cardinal of Winchester, is half brother to the Duke of Gloucester and openly wars with him for control of the crown.
  • Start of Darkness: Richard Gloucester, on his way to becoming Richard III.
  • Turn Coat: Warwick once.