King Henry VI, Part II
Henry VI — king of England
Humphrey — the Duke of Gloucester; Henry's uncle, regent until Henry is old enough to rule
Duke of Somerset — Somerset stands for the red rose, against York and those who wear the white rose
Duke of Buckingham — a lord who joins Somerset, Suffolk, Beaufort, and Margaret to plot against Gloucester
Beaufort — head of the English church. In King Henry VI, Part I he was called Winchester
Duke of York — called Richard of Plantagenet in the earlier play; he is heir to Edward III's third son, while Henry is heir to Edward III's fourth son
Duke of Suffolk — a lord of the court
Earl of Salisbury — a lord of the court; Salisbury supports York
Earl of Warwick — a lord of the court; Warwick supports York
Margaret, Queen to King Henry — also referred to as Margaret of Anjou
Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester
John Hume — a priest and procurer of conjurers and witches
Peter Thump — a working man
Thomas Horner — an armourer; accused by Peter of treason
Margery Jordan — a witch; hired by the duchess, she helps raise a spirit
Roger Bolingbroke — a conjurer
Simpcox — a poor man who pretends he has been blind since birth
Jack Cade — hired by York to cause trouble in England while York is away
Walter Whitmore — one of the Captain's men; he kills Suffolk
Rebels — common people led by Jack Cade
Butcher — one of Jack Cade's men
Weaver — another of Jack Cade's men
The Staffords — two nobles of the court who challenge Jack Cade; Stafford and his brother die, and their bodies are dragged behind Cade's horse to London
Lord Say — sought and killed by Jack Cade
Sergeant — husband of the woman the Butcher rapes
Lord Clifford — a lord of the court who convinces Jack Cade's troops to surrender
Alexander Iden — a noble who kills Cade
Edward — York's son; he will be the next king of England
Richard — York's son; he will become Richard III
Some editors think King Henry VI, Part II was written before King Henry VI, Part I, probably in 1591, making it one of Shakespeare's earliest plays. It takes place after the French wars, when the English lost and regained most of the lands originally won by Henry V. During the wars, depicted in King Henry VI, Part I, disagreements between Somerset and York led to the creation of two factions, those who supported the red rose and those who supported the white, setting the stage for the civil wars known as the Wars of the Roses.
Shakespeare no doubt used Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland for details of Cade's rebellion, modeling it on the revolt by Wat Tyler in the Peasant's Rebellion of 1381 during the reign of Richard II.
King Henry VI, Part II concerns the continued power struggles between Gloucester and Beaufort, and York and Somerset. This infighting and the popular uprising by Jack Cade show what happens when a king is too weak to rule. The play charts the rise and fall of many lords and lesser figures within the kingdom.
A version of the play was first published in 1594, while a longer version appeared in the First Folio in 1623. The relationship between these two texts has been a long-debated point in Shakespeare scholarship.
One well-known quote from the play is: “The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.”
Some scholars have suggested that the shorter version was a reconstruction of the play prepared by actors, who remembered as much of the play as they could for publication. Others think the 1594 version may have been an early draft, and the later published play a more polished version. Most editors agree that actors, scribes, publishers, and censors all had a hand in altering the play as it moved onto the stage. The Oxford editors decided to use the later, longer version of the play, but incorporated lengthy stage directions and lines from the earlier version.
The action picks up from the end of Part I. Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester is unhappy with Margaret's lack of dowry and with Henry's giving up territory in France. Suffolk, who introduced Margaret to Henry in the hopes of controlling her, and thus the king, sets plots into motion against Gloucester. He sets up Gloucester's wife to be arrested for witchcraft. Meanwhile, York bides his time, convinced of the legitimacy of his claim to the throne.
Gloucester is eventually arrested on trumped-up charges. During Gloucester's trial, York is sent to Ireland to put down a revolt. While in Ireland, York encourages Jack Cade to muster support among the common folk for York to depose Henry. If Cade succeeds, York has an army at his back to use against Henry when he returns from Ireland.
Gloucester is murdered at Suffolk's behest. Henry banishes Suffolk. En route to France, Suffolk is captured by pirates and summarily put to death.
Cade's rebellion gathers support, and he marches on London leaving brutality and havoc in his wake, with Henry retreating before him. Buckingham confronts his force with an army and extends pardons to all who abandon Cade. After a five-day flight without food, Cade is killed while foraging in a private garden. In the wake of Cade's failed uprising, York returns from Ireland and demands that the king arrest Somerset before York's men lay down their arms.
The king does so, but Margaret, now queen but Suffolk's lover, frees him almost immediately. York declares war on King Henry, determined to take the crown by force if necessary. At the Battle of St. Albans, Richard, son of York, slays Somerset. The Yorkists then set out in pursuit of the fleeing Henry and Margaret.
It is Henry's weakness as a king and leader that is the focus of the play. If Henry were stronger, he would not have agreed to the imprisonment of an innocent man. Yet Henry seems powerless to resist his nobles and his wife. Suffolk arrests Gloucester, Beaufort orders him taken away, and the others all accuse him. And though the nobles agree that they have no real proof of wrongdoing, they agree he should be killed immediately, without a trial. Similar to Cade's rampage through the countryside, the nobles play out their own version of mob rule, removing their enemies from office and killing them without reason.