From Ireland thus comes York to claim his right,
And pluck the crown from feeble Henry’s head:
Ring, bells, aloud; burn, bonfires, clear and bright,
To entertain great England’s lawful king.
Ah! sancta majestas, who would not buy thee dear?
Let them obey that know not how to rule;
This hand was made to handle naught but gold.
I cannot give due action to my words,
Except a sword or sceptre balance it:
A sceptre shall it have, have I a soul,
On which I’ll toss the flower-de-luce of France.
— Henry VI, Part II, Act V, Scene I
Remembering that Henry VI, Part I was written after what would later be known as Parts II and III, I was curious to know if this was originally Part I. Turns out, the original full title was The First Part of the Contention of the Two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster. The time of the play is from Henry VI’s marriage in 1445 to Margaret of Anjou to the First Battle of St. Albans in 1455. This battle is significant, for it marks the first open conflict of the Wars of the Roses.
As I’ve previously discussed now time and again, Shakespeare is leveling all of England’s problems contemporary to his own time at Elizabeth I, outright saying that she is the continued symptom of a much larger problem. And that problem was put in play by usurpers of the throne. As a closeted Catholic, he is accusing Elizabeth of tyranny and heresy. He’s saying the realm’s turmoil is continued punishment of God for His own anointed having been removed from the throne. Elizabeth is said to have famously declared, “Know ye not that I am Richard?” And yet, it is Richard II who last sat upon the throne anointed, the usurpation by Henry IV being what set this all into motion. For the Bard, Elizabeth is all of the throne’s occupants since: the good, the bad, and the ugly… save one. Henry V is singled out as the exemplar by which Elizabeth should be measured and found wanting. That said, the plays we’ve previously discussed in The Hollow Crown cycle were all later works. This play is, in fact, the first volley against the queen. The usurper’s line (Lancaster) is to be usurped by the remnant (York) of the rightful line (Plantagenet), creating the civil war that led to yet another usurper (Tudor) who was of Lancastrian blood, cousin to Plantagenet, who would wed the line of York.
So, was Shakespeare right? Ultimately, probably not, and it doesn’t matter. What matters is he felt Elizabeth had much to answer for, and the sins of the fathers would weigh heavily upon her head. Such was his ire that we are gifted with some of the best drama the world has ever known… and the Henry VI plays. As much as I don’t like to criticize Shakespeare, the fact that even in his genius, head and shoulders above the rest of us, he’s still a mere mortal, and not all of his plays are going to hit home with his audiences. As much as I was unimpressed with Part I, the same holds true for Part II, only this time without the added distraction of his anger towards Joan of Arc. As with the first part, I found I appreciated this work far better having completed it than I did as I was slogging through it. Sometimes that happens. I’ve been spoiled by the two Henry IV plays and Henry V, you see, which as stated, were written later. We look at the story chronologically as we’ve done thus far, and with Joan out of the picture, the Hundred Years War is coming to an end as lands taken by England are returned to France. In many cases, these lands are won back on the field of battle, the people having been inspired in the wake of Joan to rise up and become a proud nation once more. Shakespeare shows two such lands being returned for Henry to marry Margaret of Anjou, who also comes to him without a dowry. It’s a bad deal for England, and pretty much everyone knows it, save for Henry. Henry is such the peacemaker that he readily accepts simply to have Margaret at his side. As we saw in Part I, the Earl of Suffolk, here promoted to marquess, has captured Margaret, who is the daughter of a bankrupt French lord, which is why she has no dowry. Suffolk’s infatuation with her leads them into collusion behind the backs of Henry and his lords.
Courtly intrigue begins between the Duke of Gloucester and Cardinal Beaufort, representing the Yorkist line and Henry’s supporters respectively. The strife between these lines leads to chaos in Act IV when Jack Cade leads a populist uprising against the government in absence of a strong king. Ultimately, the Duke of York — Richard Plantagenet — claims first victory against Henry’s forces. Both claim heritage from Edward III, but York’s line is an older one, thus offering a stronger claim. He is supported by Salisbury and Warwick for a time, hiring Cade to make similar claims to stir the pot specifically to see how such claims would be received by the populace. York is supported by his sons, Edward and Richard. Edward will be crowned Edward IV when his father deposes Henry but dies in battle. Richard, the hunchback, will seize the throne upon Edward’s death, crowned Richard III, ultimately becoming one of the Bard’s greatest villains.
As one might imagine, if the Bard is going to level accusations at Elizabeth, then the play has to feature prominent themes that even the lowest of the audience would grasp. Indeed, that’s the idea, for the support of the common man can topple crowns. That’s one theme by itself that Shakespeare hoped to make Elizabeth aware, because she wasn’t already paranoid enough without such ideas.
Another idea is that of moral goodness vs. a strong hand of leadership. The two are not always compatible, as recognized by the meek hand of Henry VI. For one of a religious bent, it seems odd to me that Shakespeare seems to be suggesting that one who follows the peaceful tenets of Christ cannot be worthy enough to sit upon the throne of England. That’s the trouble with artists: it’s difficult to pin them down. It’s not like we can just go ask for clarification all these centuries later. Regardless, we see here that a weak hand leads to chaos as the people willingly follow a brute thug like Cade.
One thing Shakespeare repeatedly suggests is the idea of women in power as a bad idea. A usurper on the throne is bad enough. A woman too? For the Bard, surely this is the End Times. Both Margaret of Anjou and Gloucester’s wife Eleanor are scheming for power here, and both fall as a result despite both being married to good and gentle husbands. It’s almost cartoonish how paralleled they are in this manner. Eleanor is one of Shakespeare’s precursors to Lady Macbeth, scheming with evil spirits on her husband’s behalf.
Speaking of evil spirits, we have the spirit of Asnath summoned forth by the conjurer Bolingbroke. Keep in mind, Bolingbroke is also the family name of Henry IV, and thus also of Henry V and our current Henry VI. I honestly have no idea of there’s a connection or not. It may just be that Bolingbroke is as common a name as Smith at this point. Regardless, Asnath’s predictions all come true. Suffolk dies at sea, Somerset dies in battle, and the king is deposed by a duke and yet will outlive the duke.
I couldn’t help but notice a Biblical twist with Iden’s Garden. Alexander Iden maintains an idyllic garden. All is seemingly at peace, and he is content… until Cade invades it and eats of forbidden fruit. Cade would defy his host despite overtures of peace, and he ultimately dies for his trouble. Iden then takes the head back to Henry, whom we know to be the peaceful representative of God on Earth for this story, which is presumably what Elizabeth was to her people, especially as both queen and head of the Church of England. One more subtle reminder that perceived morality isn’t enough to keep the throne, for now we know what happened to Henry and to his usurper.
The war continues in Part III…