Henry VI, Part 2 (often written as 2 Henry VI) is a history play by William Shakespeare believed to have been written in 1591, and set during the lifetime of King Henry VI of England. Whereas 1 Henry VI deals primarily with the loss of England's French territories and the political machinations leading up to the Wars of the Roses, and 3 Henry VI deals with the horrors of that conflict, 2 Henry VI focuses on the King's inability to quell the bickering of his nobles, the death of his trusted adviser Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, the rise of the Duke of York and the inevitability of armed conflict. As such, the play culminates with the opening battle of the War, the First Battle of St Albans.
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Although the Henry VI trilogy may not have been written in chronological order, the three plays are often grouped together with Richard III to form a tetralogy covering the entire Wars of the Roses saga, from the death of Henry V in 1422 to the rise to power of Henry VII in 1485. It was the success of this sequence of plays that firmly established Shakespeare's reputation as a playwright.
Henry VI, Part 2 has the largest cast of all Shakespeare's plays,[a] and is seen by many critics as the best of the Henry VI trilogy.
The play begins with the marriage of King Henry VI of England to the young Margaret of Anjou. Margaret is the protégée (and probably lover) of William de la Pole, 4th Earl of Suffolk, who aims to influence the king through her. The major obstacle to Suffolk and Margaret's plan is the Lord Protector; Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, who is extremely popular with the common people and deeply trusted by the King. Gloucester's wife, however, has designs on the throne, and has been led by an agent of Suffolk to dabble in necromancy. She summons a spirit and demands it reveal the future to her, but its prophecies are vague and before the ritual is finished, she is interrupted and arrested. At court she is then banished, greatly to the embarrassment of Gloucester. Suffolk then conspires with Cardinal Beaufort and the Duke of Somerset to bring about Gloucester's ruin. Suffolk accuses Gloucester of treason and has him imprisoned, but before Gloucester can be tried, Suffolk sends two assassins to kill him. Meanwhile, Richard, 3rd Duke of York, reveals his claim to the throne[i] to the Earls of Salisbury and Warwick, who pledge to support him.
Suffolk is banished for his role in Gloucester's death, whilst Winchester contracts a fever and dies, cursing God. Margaret, horrified at Suffolk's banishment, vows to ensure his return, but he is killed by pirates shortly after leaving England, and his head sent back to the distraught Margaret. Meanwhile, York has been appointed commander of an army to suppress a revolt in Ireland. Before leaving, he enlists a former officer of his, Jack Cade, to stage a popular revolt in order to ascertain whether the common people would support York should he make an open move for power. At first, the rebellion is successful, and Cade sets himself up as Mayor of London, but his rebellion is put down when Lord Clifford (a supporter of Henry) persuades the common people, who make up Cade's army, to abandon the cause. Cade is killed several days later by Alexander Iden, a Kentish gentleman, into whose garden he climbs looking for food.
York returns to England with his army, claiming that he intends to protect the King from the duplicitous Somerset. York vows to disband his forces if Somerset is arrested and charged with treason. Buckingham swears that Somerset is already a prisoner in the tower, but when Somerset enters ("at liberty"), accompanied by the Queen, York holds Buckingham's vow broken, and announces his claim to the throne, supported by his sons, Edward and Richard. The English nobility take sides, some supporting the House of York, others supporting Henry and the House of Lancaster. A battle is fought at St Albans in which the Duke of Somerset is killed by Richard, and Lord Clifford by York. With the battle lost, Margaret persuades the distraught King to flee the battlefield and head to London. She is joined by Young Clifford, who vows revenge on the Yorkists for the death of his father. The play ends with York, Edward, Richard, Warwick and Salisbury setting out in pursuit of Henry, Margaret and Clifford.