King Henry VI, Second Part: Some Questions are Answered
The struggles between the “usurping” red-rose-themed Lancaster and the white-rose-aligned York branches of the Plantagenet family continue in Shakespeare’s King Henry VI, Second Part. I found Part One was more comedy than history. Part Two is simple tragedy.
Like Part One there is a dearth of heroes, with the Duke of Gloster being the only one (even his wife plots against the king). But he is dealt with quickly and surely, leaving buffoons and conspirators to live the rest of the story.
When we last left our characters (at the end of King Henry VI, First Part), the fair young princess Margaret was being whisked from her father’s small-time (but because of a marriage contract with the young king of England, greatly enhanced) kingdom, and evil Lord Suffolk, who had certain affection for the young queen, was conniving to control the boy king and dominate the ruler’s new bride.
I hope you lost no sleep worrying about the young innocent queen. Because she is far from helpless and not very innocent. She is a lion, apologies to the specie, in all the worst senses. She plots with Suffolk against the king’s most important ally and eventually has him murdered, and, in the end, when Suffolk is banished, she clearly shows an unseemly attachment to the disgraced and soon-to-be-murdered Suffolk.
The king, however, gets my sympathy. One more example why royalty is a bad idea: He was, in Shakespeare’s world, forced to fill a role in which he did not fit. Henry VI is not created to reign as a monarch but to live simply as a reclusive, kind, thoughtful philosopher. In Part One of the thrice-divided life of King Henry VI, his youthful age promotes a wrestling match all around him, as the nobles (I use that word loosely) choke and scratch and poke and punch one another trying to bring down the competition for power. Now in the Second Part of the king’s life, it is his personality that allows the struggles to continue. He wants everyone to be friends. “Why can’t we just get along?” seems his life philosophy, but no one else even wants to acknowledge the question.
At the end of the play, a bloody rebellion of commoners led by Jack Cade has collapsed and a rebellion of York-allied nobles has just begun. We’ll have to wait to see how it ends, but I don’t hold much hope for the king’s cause—if he ever claims one—or for his life. Being a weak king seems to assure a brief term limit.
This play of complicated alliances, whispered conspiracies and bloody rebellions leaves me with the thought: Everyone wants to be king, and that doesn’t create peace, stable government, or hold on to power overseas.
Quotes I liked (for various reasons):
York: Pirates may make cheap pennyworths of their pillage, and purchase friends, and give to courtezans, still reveling like lords till all be gone; while as the silly owner of the goods weeps over them, and wrings his hapless hands, and shakes his head, and trembling stands aloof, while all is shar’d, and all is borne away, ready to starve, and dare not touch his own….
Gloster: Banish the canker of ambitious thoughts!
King Henry: To see how God in all his creatures works! Yea, man and birds are fain [archaic for: prefer] of climbing high.
Gloster: ‘Tis but a base ignoble mind that mounts no higher than a bird can soar.
King Henry: [Heaven]: The treasury of everlasting joy!
Gloster: The envious people gazing on thy face, with envious looks laughing at thy shame, that erst did follow they proud chariot wheels, when thou didst ride in triumph through he streets.
Duchess of Gloster: See how the giddy multitude do point and nod their heads, and throw their eyes on thee.
Gloster: Thy greatest help is quiet.
Gloster: The world may laugh again.
Duchess of Gloster: Death, at whose name I oft have been afear’d because I wish’d this world’s eternity.
Queen: Smooth runs the water where the brook is deep.
Suffolk: For things are often spoke and seldom meant.
King: What stronger breastplate than a heart untainted! Thrice is he arm’d that hath his quarrel just, and he but naked, though lock’d up in steel, whose conscience with injustice is corrupted.
Suffolk: Small things make base men proud. (I would add, we’re all by nature base men.)
Cade (during his rebellion and like a good politician): I thank you, good people: there shall be no money; all shall eat and drink on my score; and I will apparel them all in one livery, that they may agree like brothers, and worship me their lord. Dick: The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers. Cade: Nay, that I mean to do. Is not this a lamentable thing, that of the skin of an innocent lamb should be made parchment? That parchment, being scribbled o’er, should undo man? Some say the bee stings: but I say, ’tis the bee’s wax; for I did but seal once to a thing, and I was never mine own man since.
Cade: He can speak French; and therefore his is a traitor.
King: O graceless men! They know not what they do.
Cade: Exhort all the world to be cowards; for I, that never feared any, am vanquished by famine, not by valor.
York: Let them obey that know not how to rule.
York: Thus war hath given thee peace, for thou art still.
Next Up: King Henry VI, Third Part.