Part II of Henry the Sixth

Shakespeare is responsible for a lot of phrases and even words that we use in the English language today.  “Weird,” for example, is from Macbeth.  It is a little known fact that he also invented the word “Gleeks,” in Part I of Henry the Sixth.  I kid you not, Talbot is hunting for more Frenchmen to kill and he exclaims: “Now where’s the Bastard’s braves, and Charles his gleeks?”

Granted, the meaning of the word has changed in recent years...

But Part II of Henry the Sixth apparently introduced the world to “license to kill.”

And now you understand how intense this play gets.

18 months have passed since the events of the First Part, peace has been established with France through Henry’s marriage to Margaret, and the court is still split into factions.  York, Suffolk, and Cardinal Beaufort all have devised plots to seize the crown, but on top of that is the fact that France turned out to be England’s Vietnam (funnily enough, Vietnam will turn out to be France’s Vietnam).  Even Gloster – apparently the only upstanding man at Henry VI’s court – is upset that Henrys V’s exploits were in vain.  But in the midst of this political intrigue, Gloster’s wife Eleanor gathers some friends together to summon a Spirit that will foretell the future.

"... no, YOU'RE moving it!"

This is a splendid opportunity for everyone evil in Henry’s court to initiate the fall of noble Gloster.  His wife is arrested, though not executed on account of her being noble-born.  It’s interesting how much this play deals with the role of class in society.  For the exact same offense, any common person would be – and is – hung or burned alive.  But sweet Nelly lucks out, and only has to wander the streets for three days before being exiled.  Keep in mind how they treated Joan of Arc in the previous play.  But this leaves her husband suspect and shamed, and he is forced to resign his position of Lord Protector under accusations that he is attempting to usurp the crown.

I should note that Gloster is the actually only thing standing between the naive King and his power-hungry subjects.  However, neither Gloster nor Henry know that there is an active conspiracy to kill them.  Margaret is being manipulated (and possibly diddled) by Suffolk, who is now a Duke.  Though he successfully pays a pair of assassins to strangle Gloster in his sleep, Suffolk is found out, exiled, and eventually killed by pirates.  Cardinal Beaufort dies raving in his sleep.  But York is a man with a plan.  A fairly convoluted plan, in fact. “My brain, more busy than the labouring spider, Weaves tedious snares to trap mine enemies” he says at one point.  In the second act, he calls a meeting of lesser conspirators, and provides a convoluted explanation of how he is the rightful heir to the throne.

"If you ignore certain facts, it looks like I deserve to be your ruler!"

But his true crazy comes out once the Irish rebel.  Yes, the Irish, crazy as ever, give him a legitimate excuse to raise an army.  Gleefully embracing this good fortune, he shares with the audience another tidbit of his master plan: he has enlisted a fucking crazy guy to tear up Britain and sew discord while he’s gone.  This crazy guy is named John Cade.

“In Ireland have I seen this stubborn Cade Oppose himself against a troop of kerns And fought so long, till that his thighs with darts Were almost like a sharp-quill’d porpentine”

And yes, by porpentine, he means porcupine.  This guy was was so chock full of arrows that he looked like a fucking porcupine.  No word on whether Angel Dust existed in Shakespeare’s time, but either way we know this guy means business.

So, while York is out and about building a military power, John Cade and his friend Dick the Butcher start tearing up the countryside like the biker gang in Mad Max (Cade gives the Butcher that “license to kill”).  Their exploits border on black humor, but after he starts taking severed heads and kissing them together, it goes a bit beyond gruesome.  The Butcher suggests that, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” But Cade takes that a step further and decides to kill anybody that knows how to read.  Through this method, Cade is able to raise an army of commoners that feel they deserve more than their poor lot.  The horde gets all the way to London, and seems nearly unstoppable, but a Lord named Old Clifford shows up and saves the day using words instead of violence!  He reminds the commoners that Henry V was a serious badass on top of being a friend of the common man, and they should therefore follow Henry’s son: the King.  The mob finally sides with Clifford – after running back and forth across the street every time someone makes a good argument- and Cade is forced to run away.  After starving for five days, he is pitifully killed by a nobleman that finds him rummaging through his garden.

The rabblement, by the way, is enlisted in Henry VI’s army as penance.  Dick the Butcher is presumably among them.  So that’s good, because York has conveniently returned to England with his army under the guise of saving the King from some potential usurper.  He is, of course, lying.

Long story short: York kills a bunch of people including Old Clifford, the Earl of Salisbury is his biggest supporter, and King Henry is forced to retreat back to London with the Queen.  End of play.

"How depressing."

But wait, I thought Henry VI was supposed to be the protagonist?  Has he actually done anything in this play?  No.  No, he hasn’t.  But he innocently embodies everything else we are taught to consider morally good.

And as we all know, good guys finish last in politics.

He even faints when he learns of Gloster’s death.  Shortly after, though, he gets mad for the first time.  Suffolk – the man he rightly suspects of having Gloster killed – tries to comfort him.  Henry flips a shit: “Hide not thy poison with such sugar’d words: lay not they hands on me; forbear, I say; Their touch affrights me as a serpent’s sting.  Thou baleful messenger, out of my sight!” And then things get interesting.  Margaret defends Suffolk as innocent, presumably because she is in love with the sneaky bastard, and then accuses Henry of loving Gloster more than her  (Later on, when she learns of Suffolk’s death, he passive-aggressively returns the accusation).  When Suffolk accepts his exile without a word of defense for himself, she then berates him for being a “coward woman, and soft-hearted wretch!” It seems like both of the men she loves are turning out to be complete wusses.

Strange, I had her pegged as someone who went for the bad boys...

But even though she has a deal of self consciousness and more than a little materialism in her character, she actually gets shit done.  With her infidelity out of the picture, Margaret’s interests now lie entirely with her husband – the good guy.  And if the good guy in the story has any chance of surviving, his morally ambiguous wife is the only person left alive who can keep that crown on his head (oh, and the Young Clifford, but he only just showed up).

So here, early on in his career, Shakespeare has showed us a world where it does not pay to be purely good, and pure evil is rewarded.  He isn’t valuing one over the other, but simply letting those two powers play it out on the stage.  Or, as Gloster once phrased it:

“Ah, Gracious lord, these days are dangerous! Virtue is choked with foul ambition, And charity chased hence by rancour’s hand; Foul subordination is predominant And equity exiled your highness’ land”

Pure good has no way of surviving in this world choked with evil, and I am excited where humanity stands in Part 3 of Henry the Sixth

One Response to “Part II of Henry the Sixth”
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  1. […] horrifying and poignant for Shakespeare to show onstage, it is a return to the pitch black humor of Jack Cade of Henry […]

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