The Roughly Chronological Re-Read Week 3: Henry VI (Part 2)

Date: Probably 1591.


First read: 2005-ish.


Productions seen: No full productions, just scenes at drama school.


Productions worked on: As above.


Edition I’m using: Signet Classics. I don’t think I’ve ever had a Signet before.


Cheating by having one book for all three plays. Don't tell anyone.




  • There are people who believe that this is Shakespeare’s very first play. While it’s clearly an early work, I find it hard to believe that it could be the first. The language and characterisation are much better developed than Comedy of Errors or Two Gents.
  • It was suggested to me when I started this project that the Henry VIs should be read in story order, but in light of the argument mentioned above I preferred to go 2-3-1. I’ve tried to put Part 1 out of my mind for the purposes of the Re-read.
  • Back when I first started reading Shakespeare I assumed that as I grew more familiar with his work I would be able to keep track of which geographically-titled nobleman was which without any problems. Twelve years later and much more familiar with his works, I still get mixed up and have to go back and remind myself which Poles and post-Plantagenets are which.  I am seriously considering pressing all my ornaments into service for Part 3.
  • Bloody hell Shakespeare, we’re not hanging about, are we? By the end of Act 1, Scene 1 we’ve got the meeting of the royal spouses, Suffolk going from marquess to duke, strops thrown about the king’s marriage and the loss of Anjou and Maine, the Cardinal throwing shade at Gloucester, Somerset throwing shade at the Cardinal, Buckingham and Somerset plotting for one of them to be Protector, Warwick plotting to get Maine back, and York soliloquising at great length about how he’s going to be king. That’s one scene.
  • This pattern of characters bitching about each other and plotting everyone else’s downfall continues for the rest of the play (with an odd diversion in Act 4, of which more in a moment). Some absolutely beautiful smack is talked, which was a breath of fresh air after Comedy of Errors. But it’s somewhat hard going, with very little breathing space between events and length speeches. Shakespeare still isn’t on top of his pacing at this point.
  • Speaking of which, can we talk about Act 4? Imagine if Game of Thrones had decided to show nothing but the Faith Militant causing trouble in King’s Landing for a season, with only a couple of brief appearances from the characters in whom you’ve already become interested. It’s not without merit, it’s still entertaining stuff and piqued my interest in historical terms, it’s just… couldn’t we have built up to this? Structurally, I feel the lack of an introductory scene for Cade. We’re told in Act 3, Scene 1 that York has Cade on his side, and I find myself wishing that this had been shown.
  • Characterisation is starting to get interesting. Not universally so, but to a greater extent than in the last two plays. I found myself quite attached to Gloucester, and the scene where he parts with his wife was surprisingly touching, especially in view of their proto-Macbeth first scene together. I also thought that the writing of Henry struck a delicate balance between capturing his weakness as a monarch and his strength as a man of faith. I’m fond of characters who may be hopeless cases within their worlds but who clearly could have thrived in a different environment.
  • I tried hard to forget having read Part 1 before. I’m convinced that if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have picked up on the relationship between Margaret and Suffolk until quite late on. Their affair has always appealed to the teen-goth-in-search-of-heartache in me, and I think I’d mentally filled in more romantic/lustful intrigue than they actually have. Nevertheless, the scene where they part gave me a little pang of sadness, even though they’re both pretty terrible people. (I don’t care how terrible she is. I will love Queen Margaret in all her incarnations until I die. But I will save my remarks on her until we’re done with the Henry VIs and I’m free to comment on her entire arc.)
  • While I knew that there was witchcraft/necromancy in this play, I’d never really taken note of the date before – if it was first performed in 1591, that puts it smack in the middle of the North Berwick witch trials. I don’t know how aware a London audience would have been of the trials, but since Newes from Scotland, the contemporary account of the “witches”, was printed in London it doesn’t seem terribly unlikely that they were. I wonder whether it might have added a certain immediacy, more than a century after the real Margery Jourdemayne’s death.
  • Lots of differences between the editions on this one – I had the Signet, Mark had the Arden, and we found quite a few inverted lines, different attributions and a couple of characters with slightly altered names.
  • To sum up, this is far from a perfect play but I’m certainly happy to have moved on to the sometimes unnecessarily loquacious and unambiguously stabby. Since next week is Part 3 and we’ve got Titus Andronicus coming up after that, I should be kept happy for a little while.

7 responses to “The Roughly Chronological Re-Read Week 3: Henry VI (Part 2)”

  1. I somewhat wish the Folio hadn’t categorized each play as either comedy, tragedy, or history. Shakespeare has no genre, and certainly 2 Henry VI is more about politics than history. But more than that, it is about the young playwright finding his own voice in an overtly dramatic setting. I’ve never read Marlowe, except in quoted passages from Harold Bloom, so take this with a grain of parroted salt, but Shakespeare had yet to exorcise his popular contemporary, and it shows in the language, which infests the characters and deprives them of their (usual) greatest strength: an abundance of originality and identifiable passion. What passion, hidden or otherwise, is there in the characters of this play?

    The titular Henry VI, paradoxically, has originality in his very lack of passion. He is lukewarm and ineffective, never responding much to his surroundings or to those around him. We see him at his clearest at the close of Act III: “Forbear to judge, for we are sinners all. / Close up his eyes and draw the curtain close; / And let us all to meditation.” Sure enough, Henry VI doesn’t do anything in this play BUT hesitate and meditate. I believe in a more mature Shakespeare, this would make for an extraordinarily compelling individual, yet here, his forbearing meditation doesn’t lead him to any great insight or conviction. It leads him instead to recede dully into the background.

    One character has the abundance of passion I seek, although he is drenched in too thick an irony, a point I will return to in a moment. This is Jack Cade, introduced in Act IV as a leader of a populist revolt. He is a horrid murderer and a wannabe humanist, fairly desirable qualities in a populist. “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 a man?” This is convincing rhetoric, to be sure, but it is not enough to foster any sympathy towards Cade, or his rebels, as they murder a lawyer here and a clerk there, for being able to read, and for educating youth. Political irony this thick is hard to take, as is Warwick’s rather funny “What plain proceedings is more plain than this?”, which follows York’s convoluted claim to the throne, a full 36 lines’ worth of family history that necessitated me drawing the damned Plantagenet family tree just to keep track of it all.

    I want to briefly return to the question I started this critique with, not to answer it, but to link language and characterization, which is so evidently important in Shakespeare. Harsh though this is, I hold strongly that in aping an overwrought mode of speech (presumably from Marlowe, but perhaps simply from the vogue of the times), the characters don’t exist much outside of their actions. They merely “do” things, just to advance the plot, without the inner or inter-personal reflection and conflict that makes the later plays so wonderful. Yes, a lot happens here: sex, cheating, murder, rebellion, etc etc. It is all very politically intriguing. But it does not lead to interesting personalities.

    • I’m inclined to agree about the unhelpful categorisation, though I’ve found myself more acutely aware of it when working on the comedies, oddly enough – I think it often leads to people neglecting the harsh nature of Elizabethan humour or looking for a kind of happy ending that isn’t necessarily intended. I’m also sure that it leads to the histories being overlooked because people fear the h-word, which is unfortunate.

      I also agree with you regarding the characterisation of Henry, and I find him much less interesting as a character in his own right than as a sort of sketch for the figures who would follow. I have a similar feeling about Margaret, though I think she’s much better drawn than Henry and her desires and objectives are somewhat clearer. Yes, she’s petty and vengeful and incredibly impatient with Henry, but I find that credible enough – though I find myself wishing I’d recorded my thoughts on the play the first time I read it, since this time round it’s impossible not to be influenced by what I know of the rest of her story.

      The language does owe a far greater debt to Marlowe than the later plays, this is also true, and there were certainly times when I found myself wondering how the same scenes might have been handled by mature Shakespeare. In particular, Margaret’s mega-speech following the death of Gloucester, when she’s relying on high velocity ranting to distract Henry – the intention isn’t unclear, it’s just not handled as elegantly as it could be. There’s greater superfluity, the imagery is less precise and less powerful, and you’re right, that *does* make these characters pale in comparison to their later counterparts. But I still enjoy their intrigue even if it’s a little under-developed. If everyone’s lust for power seems taken for granted, I wonder if that’s just the play being a product of its era – with Elizabeth getting old, the Tudor dynasty on its last legs and no named heir, there must have been a lot of people watching this play and wondering whether similar power struggles would play out amongst the claimants to the throne when she died. That doesn’t excuse the lack of substance on Shakespeare’s part, of course, but it may explain it.

  2. Excuse the double-posting, but without the ability to format text, or at least put a heading or two in bold, I don’t want to overburden my already long comment.

    We’re three plays in, and so far, I’ve been nothing but hotly contrary to the original post! 😀 Your “Two Gents has some witty humor!” to my “This play isn’t worth shit!” Your “Comedy of Errors is just repetitive slapstick!” to my “It is not that early of a play, and it shows expert stagecraft.” Your “2 Henry VI shows the start of great characterization” to my “These characters ain’t worth shit!”

    I wish I had more interesting things to say that would lead to a discussion. I always want to respond directly to your post, but I find that I can’t fit those thoughts into my own critique. But I’m happy to see thoughtful discussion of Shakespeare, even if it doesn’t jive with my views. I imagine if we all of us (OP, commenters) got together IRL, we’d have some lively discussion, but via WordPress comments, it’s a little hard. =/

    Oh well. This is a wonderful project, and I can’t wait for more words, words, words from us all!

    • Oh, post as many times as you need, I don’t mind!

      Ha, I do love a bit of disagreement. I take your point about there being moments of decent stagecraft in Comedy of Errors, but for me it’s not enough to make me forget the horrible clunky exposition, the endless repetition of jokes or the fact that I almost ragequit when their mother turned up. I really do need to see it at some point – hopefully I’ll cross paths with a production featuring a decent cast that gives me hope for some expert physical comedy and it’ll help me to ignore the bits that make me want to give Shakespeare a slap.

      Regarding the characters in HVI pt2, I can only howl in despair at the idea that they ain’t worth shit! They’re not as fully fleshed out as his later creations, but the glimpses of what’s to come are starting to show by this point and they’re tantalising. There’ll be a bit about the development between Parts 2 and 3 in the post coming later today, so I won’t delve further into this point just now, but I look forward to further chat on the matter.

      I know what you mean about the difficulty of doing this via comments. I’d much rather host these chats in the pub…

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