We cycle back to the second play in the Henry VI series: out of the three it is personally my favourite mainly due to the greater interaction between Henry VI (who is now more mature in age) and his wife Margaret of Anjou, who comes more into her own as a more interesting character. As with all history plays by Shakespeare, you can spend a lot of time cutting the play into pieces about what is historically accurate or not: I won’t do that in this review, and that’s not just because it’s part of one of the messiest periods of British history.
Like I said in my review of Henry VI, Part 1, Henry is quite the tragic figure in history and this play does nothing to dispel the image of a man seemingly still stuck in childlike innocence as men around him are imprisoned and dying. By contrast his wife and the wife of the Duke of Gloucester are entrenched in court politics and guile, doing unholy acts in order to obtain control and power in their lives. Their attempts to take control via immoral means – in this case, using magic or taking a lover – is very different to Henry’s ineffectual passivity as his nobles come to blows around him. He rarely makes significant decisions on his own: caught up in a childhood where he was constantly petted and judged now in adulthood his lords give him heavy counsel and he acts almost straight by the book.
In contrast to the actions of his superstar father, Shakespeare pains a picture of how Henry slowly accumulates an image of weakness. His attempts to do good have no effect if he is not an assertive and inspiring leader. Too wound up in the webs of his courtiers without knowing it, it’s not surprise that by the end of the play the Duke of York makes a history-changing declaration.
What stronger breast-plate than a heart untainted!
Thrice is he arm’d, that hath his quarrel just;
And he but naked, though lock’d up in steel,
Whose conscience with injustice is corrupted.
Forbear to judge, for we are sinners all.
Close up his eyes, and draw the curtain close;
And let us all to meditation.
My the time I reach the end of Henry VI, Part 2 I always feel a great sense of sadness, like in a different time and under different circumstances things might have ended differently for all parties. However, with Henry fleeing for his life and the political scene reset for Part 3 as things go this is The Two Towers of the Henry VI trilogy: as opposed to being some halfway house dud the play instead uses its position as the middle child of the plays to flesh out the situation which was set up in the first play and provide a strong grounding for the last play. Its means to do this was of course through strong character development and insightful political setups. The play might not be the most famous, dramatic or politically ambitious of all of Shakespeare’s history plays, but it most certainly is the most tense. Even from the beginning the drums of potential doom are ringing in our ears.
But Shakespeare takes his time with it, and for me that makes Henry VI, Part 2 well worth recommending. It’s no Game of Thrones, but he portrays the silent tension in the twilight of the Plantagenet era beautifully.
(photo credit: globeplayer.tv)