“Henry VI, Part II,” from The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works, by W. Shakespeare.

My Copy: 9780199267170

If you’re wondering where the hell Henry VI, Part I went as a review, I haven’t done it yet.

When tackling this reading-and-reviewing Shakespeare thing, I had a tough job to do. I was initially going to try and get the plays reviewed in chronological order by historical event. However, with the myriad of names and short-forms for these royalty plays, that would’ve taken quite a bit of time and energy.

Besides, this one’s not really Henry VI, Part II, anyway. That’s the accepted short form of it. I think the site would crash if I used the full title as my own: The First Part of the Contention of the two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster with the Death of the Good Duke Humphrey. Even The True Tragedy of Richard, Duke of York, and the Good King Henry the Sixth (the other accepted folio title) might’ve been too much.

A large part of me wished I’d gone in historical chronological order, just to see how things got to this crazy point. And it is an odd play, very complex with a lot of decapitations and death. Makes me wonder how Part III is going to play out.

Til then, I’ll just work with this one.

Henry VI, Part II has more than double the characters in what I’ve reviewed before. Henry VI is a young man, and seemingly a good man, who is not in control completely because he is too young after his great warrior father, Henry V, has passed. His power’s mostly in the hands of Duke Humphrey of Gloucester, the Lord Protector, until Henry has more experience and wisdom under his belt.

Naturally, this is a very tenuous position for a king to be in, and those around him, fewer and fewer of whom can be trusted.

We get the impression that Henry VI was weak and not as interested in exercising power and authority. His decision to part with two hard-won provinces and give them back to the French as part of a marriage deal with a French woman of no dowry is appalling to most of his court. What Henry thinks about this is hard to say. Margaret is now queen through proxy marriage to the Duke of Suffolk, who charmed her on Henry’s behalf. However, Margaret isn’t impressed with her husband when she meets him in the beginning. She and Suffolk have a bit of an affair through the course of the play.

This is only the first part of the first act, and it’s a crazy, crazy bunch of scheming, twists, and turns. The men–and women–who believe young Henry’s time is over are taking sides and hatching plots. Some of them are more outrageous than others, and some are sad, such as the murder of Gloucester.

And that’s not much of a spoiler if it’s in the freaking title, so don’t go nuts on me.

There are also a few comedic moments, that might be a touch distracting to the events, but maybe give the audience (like me) a breather from all the name-dropping. There’s a man who claimed he was healed from blindness, and chastised for his lies in a witty way. There’s also the posturing of some peasants who go to murder some intellectuals for the crime of confusing people by making them try to learn how to read (among others). There is some comedy in how the rebellion ends, and some more tragedy.

And I lost count of the decapitated bodies, mentioned or paraded on the stage–and the Queen actually cradles and talks to a head (but I’ll let you read more about that yourself–hee hee)! That part made me wonder most of all if Henry was totally clueless about the woman he married, or didn’t care…hard to say.

I can’t wait to read Part I, because I’d love to know how the key figures came about to this point. What is interesting in this part is how it’s about the reign of King Henry VI, but there is very little in the play regarding him personally. He certainly speaks, and trusts, but the play is largely about the backstabbing and scheming of others. Even Margaret mentions she’s annoyed by his goodness and piousness, wondering how such a man could become king.

If the intention was to portray Henry as weak, Shakespeare did well. He’s trusting to people and sees the betrayal all over, but doesn’t seem able to lift a hand (or voice) to stop any of it, especially after Gloucester’s death. I felt sorry for him in a way, especially since Shakespeare’s history shows what’s to come down the line with the reign of Richard III. I don’t know what’s supposed to happen to him (there’s a Part III lurking about), but I doubt it’ll be a good ending.

Maybe it’s my inner history nerd, but even with the myriad of names and alliances I just didn’t understand (remember, American, not British History upbringing here), there’s enough to get the idea. Shakespeare’s characters speak pretty well for themselves, and it’s clear that Henry’s more of a background figure in his own reign. I have a feeling when I’ve finally reviewed this whole book, I’ll read these plays again in order of events. It’ll be delicious…especially when I get to watch The Hollow Crown series to cap it off (hee hee).

So, one tragedy down, and I’m not bummed out yet. My attention’s actually increased. Maybe it’s because of my historical interest, which was lacking in high school, or perhaps because I’m seeing the wit and mental muscles of Shakespeare get a good stretch on the page before the marathon of historical works to come.

But here’s some “Quotables” I found that ring a bell (or just sound good):

CARDINAL BEAUFORT: Duke Humphrey has done a miracle today.

SUFFOLK: True: made the lame leap and fly away.

GLOUCESTER: But you have done more miracles than I–You made, in a day, my lord, whole towns to fly.

–Act 2, Scene 1

KING HENRY: My lord of Gloucester, ’tis my special hope / That you will clear yourself from all suspense. / My conscience tells me you are innocent.

GLOUCESTER: Ah, gracious lord, these days are dangerous. / Virtue is choked with foul ambition, / And charity chased hence by rancour’s hand. / Foul subornation is predominant, / And equity exiled your highness’ land. / I know their complot is to have my life, / And if my death might make this island happy / And prove the period of their tyranny, / I would expend it with all willingness. / But mine is made the prologue to their play, / For thousands more that yet suspect no peril / Will not conclude their plotted tragedy.

–Act 3, Scene 1

WARWICK: So bad a death argues a monstrous life.

–Act 3, Scene 3

Happy reading. Sorry I didn’t post yesterday as planned–internet was down and my post was stuck in editing limbo.


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