Friends, Henry VI Part 2 was much…bloodier than I expected. I’m not complaining, mind you; I was just surprised. There’s been a lot of fighting and wars and death over the past six weeks, I know, but thus far it’s been about valor and law and such. This time we get rebellion and desecration of the dead (if you count putting two male relative’s heads on pikes and parading them about whilst making them kiss as desecration, that is).
So, onward we go! Plots are thickening, monarchs are in peril, and people are about to die.
Our dear Henry gets hitched to Margaret, daughter of Reignier, but she’s kinda already Suffolk’s lover. Awkward. Of course, Suffolk intends to manipulate Henry through Margaret, essentially getting the girl and power in one fell swoop. But one tiny issue: Gloucester, the Lord Protector, won’t be so easily swayed and Henry trusts him rather implicitly; he’s also really popular with the commoners, which comes into play later.
To get passed this little complication Suffolk devises a plot. Gloucester’s wife, the Duchess, wants to be queen so Suffolk has someone tempt her into using necromancy to gain the throne. Through the help of two men and one woman she raises a spirit who begins to foretell the future. Before the ritual is complete, however, the band is interrupted by York and Buckingham and arrested. Henry banishes the Duchess and condemns the rest to death. Gloucester is embarrassed and sad, of course, but he remains staunchly loyal to the King.
Somerset, Cardinal Beaufort, Suffolk, and Margaret decide that Gloucester must die. Suffolk accuses Gloucester of treason, for which Henry has to have him imprisoned though he doesn’t want to, and has two assassins kill him before his trial. Henry is heartbroken and banishes Suffolk for Gloucester’s death, which upsets Margaret greatly. The Queen vows to somehow get Suffolk back to England, but Suffolk is killed by pirates so the only part of him that returns to England is his head (which she walks around court with, because that’s a sign of a well-hinged person). Meanwhile, Beaufort becomes fevered and dies cursing God. (It’s heavily implied here that Gloucester’s ghost torments and kills Beaufort.)
Meanwhile, because Henry can’t catch a break, York continues his underhanded campaign for the crown and sways Salisbury and Warwick to his side before Henry sends him to Ireland to subdue rebels. He also sets Jack Cade to inspire a rebellion and state that he, Jack, is the true heir to the throne through his Mortimer blood (which, of course, is a lie but is true in York’s case). Through this, York can see whether the commoners would support his claim to the throne. Using the death of Gloucester as a spark, Jack gets the commoners into a frenzy and they proceed to revolt.
The rebellion is rather successful and Jack makes himself the mayor of London. (This is when the whole “heads on pikes” thing happens.) Lord Clifford, however, is able to sway the people to his and the King’s side and Jack flees, though he dies several days later in a fight.
York returns to England with a force behind him. He calls out Somerset as a traitor and is tricked by Buckingham into believing that Somerset has already been imprisoned. York disperses his men but becomes enraged when he sees Somerset walking with the Queen, quite obviously not imprisoned. York states his claim to the throne and is supported by his sons, Salisbury, and Warwick. The nobility take sides, supporting either the house of York or the house of Lancaster (Henry’s line). They battle at St Albans and both Somerset and Clifford are killed.
Margaret convinces Henry to flee the battle (he was rather ineffectual and not fighting, anyways) and they head to London joined by Clifford’s son. York, his sons, Salisbury, and Warwick make chase.
And thus we’re left with baited breath until next week and Henry VI Part 3.
I feel like the subtitle of this play should be All Hell Breaks Loose in England. We have the beginning of the War of the Roses, pitting the House of York against the House of Lancaster, and a king who doesn’t seem to command authority; Henry VI is definitely not Henry V. All the nobles are working towards their own ends, and poor Henry never really grew into his title. He’s strong in religious faith but little else.
It’s ironic that the machinations in the House of Lancaster that remove Gloucester from his office are the very source of their eventual downfall; Gloucester was Henry’s main shield against York’s designs upon the crown, and with Gloucester gone the House of Lancaster is set to fall.
There’s a correlation to be drawn between the state of the kingdom and the state of physical bodies in the play. As things begin to unravel we see a parallel in how bodies, specifically those of the dead, are described. With Gloucester’s death the kingdom begins to crumble (he was the glue that held things together, in large part) and we get a detailed description of his body: bulging eyes, face dark with blood; it’s unnatural and grotesque. Beaufort’s death also seems violent and unnatural, as if an outside force is working upon him. But it’s not an outside force; it’s Beaufort’s own guilt that’s weighing upon his soul, so he’s being attacked from within in a way. Just as England is with the rebellion led by Jack Cade.
Suffolk is beheaded and Margaret carries his head around court (because that’s not creepy or anything); Lord Saye and his son-in-law killed and their heads impaled on pikes and carried about town (and made to kiss*); Cade drags the bodies of Stafford and his brother behind his horse. All this shows that, just as bodies are being ripped apart in increasingly violent ways, so is England.
(*A note here: I’ll always endeavor to stay on topic with Shakespeare, but I want to make certain you know that pointing out that Lord Saye and his son-and-law’s heads are forced to kiss is not a condemnation of same-sex relationships. Here, I’m pointing out that the bodies of these men are being played with by people, and that’s the desecration. It’d be the same if I dug up a body, attached it to strings, and made it dance a jig like a marionette; jigs are not themselves bad, but my actions in digging up a body and playing with it are.)
Basically, the King’s inability to rule his kingdom leads to rebellion in both the nobility and commoners. There is an order that must be adhered to for the machine of government to work, and Henry’s weakness throws everything into chaos.
Let’s discuss the Globe Theatre for a moment. In the last few weeks we’ve seen a lot of battles and scenes with large crowds, which suggests that Shakespeare wrote his plays with a larger stage in mind. While the actual dimensions of the theater aren’t known, we can surmise that the diameter of the entire theater was about 100 feet. That’s not that big, if you think about it. But here’s the thing: seats went up, not out. The stage itself took up a large portion of the diameter, measuring about 40 feet x 25 feet and raised about 5 feet from the pit. The pit was standing-room and admission there was relatively cheap (the cheapest seats were actually on the stage). From there, the sides of the theater went vertically up three levels.
So you see, not only was the stage large but all spectators were relatively close to the stage no matter where they sat. This meant that you got both a large stage and the ability to create a more intimate feeling. Much better than theater experiences today, where you can kind of see the actors in the nosebleed seats and closer seats will cost you an arm and a leg (or your first born, in the case of Hamilton).