Henry VI, Part 2
Henry IV, Part 2, picks up some of the themes that are later managed with more dexterity in Richard II (which, while earlier in historical chronology, is a much later product). In particular, Henry’s inability to rein in the divisions of his nobles — the same issue that drove a wedge into Richard’s kingship between Mowbray and Bolingbroke — brings on wave after wave of civil chaos. It climaxes in the opening battle of the Wars of the Roses, namely the First Battle of St. Albans.
The Jack Cade rebellion is an almost independent episode in the middle of the play. Like Spartacus, his narrative has occasionally been coopted as a support for nineteenth-century communist, socialist, or variably populist uprisings. Shakespeare’s explanation is more cynical: he suggests that the Duke of York has instigated it from behind the scenes as a way of discerning whether the populace would be open to the possibility of deposing the king. Nothing like that is really apparent from the historical record. Cade’s identity is not entirely clear, and his cause for revolution seems to have rested more on immediate contemporary conditions. Nevertheless, the account here is an interesting case study in how the popular imagination recasts the narratives of problematic events.
Despite its chaos and ill-defined conclusion, this is often seen as the best part of the trilogy of Henry VI plays. For all that, it is occasionally tedious, and doesn’t offer the best of Shakespeare’s verse.
Productions of all the Henry VI plays are relatively scarce, and usually only produced by companies that are doing a larger sequence of plays; accordingly there are but few to watch and compare, but there are a few.