The Plays We Overlook: Henry VI Part Two

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Heavens to betsy! No sooner do I announce that I’m going to write a series of posts on Shakespeare’s neglected plays, starting with the Henry VI trilogy, than these three plays get more attention than they have in decades. First, the Balkan productions at the World Shakespeare Festival were hits, sometimes revelatory (click for reviews of Part One, Part Two, and Part Three). And then Simon Schama claimed that they helped form the English national character in the first part of his recent BBC documentary, Simon Schama’s Shakespeare.

Like most nonscholars, Schama is really only interested in Part Two for Cade’s Rebellion (and like most, he misattributes that famous line, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,” to Cade instead of Cade’s sidekick Dick the Butcher). Jack Cade is indeed an interesting and complex character—more complex than Schama gives him credit for being. But Cade’s Rebellion is hardly the proto-proletarian uprising Schama seems to think. It is only one part of the broad picture of English society Shakespeare presents through incidents including those of Eleanor and the conjurors, Thomas Horner the armourer and his man Peter, the “blind” impostor Simpcox, the unfortunate clerk of Chartham whose heinous crime was literacy, and Cade’s conqueror, the downright strange Alexander Iden. It is that picture of England, all of these elements playing off each other, that is this neglected play’s true interest.

Moreover, it’s rarely noted that Cade is an agent provocateur, not a real revolutionary but a rabblerousing tool of Richard, Duke of York, who gloats over his hireling:

And, for a minister of my intent,
I have seduc’d a headstrong Kentishman,
John Cade of Ashford,
To make commotion, as full well he can
(Act 3 Scene 1 Lines 355-358)

Thus the rabble (unlike the much more independent, though still manipulable, Citizens of Coriolanus) are pawns in the elite’s struggle to fill the power vacuum created by Henry VI’s fecklessness. In Part One it was hard to tell the players in that struggle even with a scorecard; here they come into clearer view. There’s Henry himself—a holy fool, or just a fool? There’s Queen Margaret, brazenly carrying on her affair with Suffolk under the King’s nose. And there is York, whose soliloquies addressed to the audience mark him as a clear precursor to his better-known son, the future Richard III. That’s this play’s other great interest: unlike Part One (which, let’s remember, is now generally thought to have been a “prequel” not wholly by Shakespeare), Part Two brings the Wars of the Roses to vivid life.

“Let’s kill all the lawyers”? Let’s kill lazy citation of that line, and appreciate Part Two for what it is: the beginning of the run-up to Shakespeare’s first great fusion of history, tragedy, and comedy—Richard III.

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Author:James Cappio

James Cappio has taught philosophy in the Ivy League, practiced law on Wall Street, and now works as an independent writer and editor. Inspired by P.G. Wodehouse’s example to read all of Shakespeare's works within one year (2009–2010), he has been blogging about his passion ever since at shakesyear.wordpress.com.

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