1/ Compared to Part 1, Part 2 does sound a lot more like Shakespeare. For example, look at the metaphor used by the Duke of York when he bemoans the King giving away Anjou and Maine for his marriage to Margaret:
“YORK […] Pirates may make cheap pennyworths of their pillage,
And purchase friends, and give to courtesans,
Still reveling like lords till all be gone;
While as the silly owner of the goods
Weeps over them and wrings his hapless hands,
And shakes his head and trembling stands aloof,
While all is shared and all is borne away,
Ready to sterve and dare not touch his own…”
(Act 1 scene 1)
When Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester, tells her husband about her dream of them being King and Queen, he chides her. She later thinks to herself:
“DUCHESS […] While Gloucester bears this base and humble mind.
Were I a man, a duke, and next of blood,
I would remove these tedious stumbling-blocks
And smooth my way upon their headless necks;
And, being a woman, I will not be slack
To play my part in Fortune’s pageant…”
(Act 1 scene 2)
Does she not make you think of Lady Macbeth?
The first few scenes also show that some of the themes that occupy Shakespeare’s mind throughout his career have been there from the beginning: political forces, power, ambition, truth, slander, and so on.
Jonathan Bate writes in The Genius of Shakespeare:
“His own political position cannot be inferred from the drama; what can, however, be inferred is that he was a great deal more interested in political forces than Marlowe was.” (Ch.4)
2/ There are two main debates among scholars about Part 1.
The first is about authorship: the consensus is that it’s a collaboration, I have no doubt. It is imbalanced, there are clearly different hands involved, and Part 2 is significantly better. The questions are how much was Shakespeare’s; who the other playwrights were; whether they wrote different scenes in isolation or, like modern TV writers, sat in the same room and bounced ideas off each other until nobody knew who came up with what…
I personally think Shakespeare wrote parts of Act 2 and Act 4. Edward Burns, the editor of the third series Arden King Henry VI, Part 1, also thinks so.
The second debate is about whether Part 1 was the first play in a 4-part cycle, or a prequel quickly produced after the success of the other plays. Edward Burns thinks it’s the latter, but I have to read arguments from different sides before I can come back to this point.
3/ In the blog post about Part 1, I complained about Joan la Pucelle as a character, and I also thought Margaret wasn’t interesting. It’s not the case with the female characters in Part 2: they’re full of life.
The scene of the Duke of Gloucester with his wife Eleanor, now being punished, is very good.
“DUCHESS […] Ah, Humphrey, can I bear this shameful yoke?
Trowest thou that e’er I’ll look upon the world
To count them happy that enjoys the sun?
No, dark shall be my light and night my day;
To think upon my pomp shall be my hell…”
(Act 2 scene 4)
I like the bird metaphors:
“DUCHESS […] And York, that impious Beaufort, that false priest,
Have all limbed bushes to betray thy wings;
And fly thou how thou canst, they’ll tangle thee.
But fear not thou, until thy foot be snared,
Nor never seek prevention of thy foes.”
Gloucester’s response is naïve.
Margaret is also full of life:
“QUEEN Not all these lords do vex me half so much
As that proud dame, the Lord Protector’s wife:
She sweeps it through the court with troops of ladies,
More like an empress than Duke Humphrey’s wife.
Strangers in court do take her for the Queen:
She bears a duke’s revenues on her back,
And in her heart she scorns our poverty.
Shall I not live to be avenged on her?...”
(Act 1 scene 3)
Much more interesting than Margaret in Part 1. But perhaps I’m being unfair: after all, Margaret here is a queen, whereas in Part 1, she was a poor king’s daughter, taken prisoner by Suffolk.
4/ I like the metaphors. Part 2, as I said, sounds a lot more like Shakespeare.
For example, when Margaret tries to poison the King’s mind about Gloucester, she says:
“QUEEN […] Now ’tis the spring, and weeds are shallow-rooted;
Suffer them now, and they’ll o’ergrow the garden,
And choke the herbs for want of husbandry…”
(Act 3 scene 1)
Her slander is followed and echoed by Suffolk’s. Note the metaphor:
“SUFFOLK […] The fox barks not when he would steal the lamb…”
In his response, the King combines both the garden metaphor and the animal metaphor:
“KING My lords, at once: the care you have of us,
To mow down thorns that would annoy our foot,
Is worthy praise: but, shall I speak my conscience,
Our kinsman Gloucester is as innocent
From meaning treason to our royal person
As is the sucking lamb or harmless dove…”
Margaret follows up with the same imagery:
“QUEEN Ah, that’s more dangerous than this fond alliance!
Seems he a dove? His feathers are but borrowed,
For he’s disposèd as the hateful raven.
Is he a lamb? His skin is surely lent him,
For he’s inclined as is the ravenous wolves.
Who cannot steal a shape, that means deceit?
Take heed, my lord: the welfare of us all
Hangs on the cutting short that fraudful man.”
Clever, scheming woman. I like the way Shakespeare depicts the various factions setting aside their conflicts for the moment and joining forces to get rid of a common enemy—the most honourable man at court—throwing out all sorts of allegations about him that they themselves know to be untrue. It is fascinating.
When Margaret and the others plan Gloucester’s death, the conversation is full of animal imagery: crocodile, snake, eagle, chicken, kite, fox. And when the news comes that Gloucester is dead, the King also evokes animals in his speech: raven, wren, serpent, basilisk. The animal metaphors recur throughout the entire play.
Margaret’s long speech in response to the King is fantastic. Queen Margaret is perhaps Shakespeare’s first great female character. She is scheming, ruthless, manipulative—more like Iago or Edmund than Lady Macbeth, Goneril, or Regan.
I especially like this bit:
“QUEEN […] What did I then, but cursed the gentle gusts
And he that loosed them forth their brazen caves,
And bid them blow towards England’s blessèd shore,
Or turn our stern upon a dreadful rock?
Yet Aeolus would not be a murderer,
But left that hateful office unto thee.
The pretty vaulting sea refused to drown me,
Knowing that thou wouldst have me drowned on shore
With tears as salt as sea, through thy unkindness;
The splitting rocks cow’red in the sinking sands,
And would not dash me with their ragged sides,
Because thy flinty heart, more hard than they,
Might in thy palace perish Margaret…”
(Act 3 scene 2)
Shakespeare is a master of rhetoric.
I also like that Shakespeare gives Margaret and Suffolk a tender parting scene. From the earlier plays, he depicts a wide range of voices and perspectives, and portrays all the characters with depth and complexity. Even a ruthless villain like Margaret has a tender side.
5/ The language in this play cannot compare to the language in Richard II or the 2 parts of Henry IV, of course, but the imagery is so much better than in Part 1.
“LIEUTENANT The gaudy, blabbing and remorseful day
Is crept into bosom of the sea,
And now loud-howling wolves arouse the jades
That drag the tragic melancholy night;
Who, with their drowsy, slow, and flagging wings
Clip dead men’s graves, and from their misty jaws
Breathe foul contagious darkness in the air…”
(Act 4 scene 1)
That is when the ship carrying Suffolk is attacked.
6/ Besides Margaret, Jack Cade is another great creation. In The Genius of Shakespeare, Jonathan Bate discusses Jack Cade as something new, original—especially compared to Marlowe.
It’s true that it’s something new Shakespeare did that Marlowe didn’t do; I haven’t read enough contemporary plays to know if it’s something original to Shakespeare at the time. But I’ve always loved that Shakespeare contains everything, high and low: not just all classes and all kinds of people, but both high, sophisticated language and common language, puns, and smutty jokes. His mind encompasses everything.
(Tolstoy hates this, calling it vulgarity).
Jack Cade doesn’t appear in many scenes, but he’s a compelling and memorable character.
“CADE […] Dost thou use it to write thy name? Or hast thou a mark to thyself, like an honest plain-dealing man?”
(Act 4 scene 2)
Would anyone in the audience at the time have identified with Cade?
The clerk can write.
“CADE Away with him, I say! Hang him with his pen and ink-horn about his neck.”
For those of you who haven’t read the play, or have read it but don’t remember, this scene contains the famous line “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”
Later, the scene of Jack Cade and his gang throwing false accusations at Lord Say is a nice echo of the people at court making false allegations about Gloucester.
Jonathan Bate draws my attention to something interesting in Cade’s speech to Lord Say:
“CADE […] Thou hast most traitorously corrupted the youth of the realm in erecting a grammar school: and whereas before, our forefathers had no other books but the score and the tally, thou hast caused printing to be used, and contrary to the King, his crown and dignity, thou hast built a paper-mill…”
(Act 4 scene 7)
Bate writes in The Genius of Shakespeare:
“There is some purposeful anachronism at work here: the first printing-press in England was established by William Caxton in 1477, twenty-seven years after Cade’s rebellion, and the first paper-mill was new at the time of the play (it was built in 1588). The Lord Say may have established a grammar school (that at Sevenoaks in Cade’s native Kent), but the great expansion of grammar schools belongs to the mid-sixteenth century. The corruption which Cade alludes to is really the enfranchisement from which Shakespeare benefited in his own youth. His father signed his name with a mark and almost certainly did not go to school. Shakespeare owed his reading, his writing, his ticket out of Stratford, and his new profession as a dramatist to exactly those innovations which Cade condemns: education and print.” (Ch.4)
Is that not fascinating?
Tony Tanner also points out that Shakespeare’s Jack Cade is different from Jack Cade in the sources. He explains the differences, and says:
“At this point in his pattern, having shown all English law and order gone to the grave with Humphrey, Shakespeare hardly wants the sudden appearance of a reasonable, civilized, and literate mob-leader, with a manifest respect for law and letters. […] So Shakespeare turned back to the Wat Tyler rebellion of 1381, and took just what he needed for his plan—the killing of the lawyers, the destruction of the Savoy and the Inns of Court, and the burning of the records of the realm.” (Introduction)
My only complaint about the Cade plot is that the resolution isn’t very satisfying.
7/ The entire tragedy of the King is summed up in these lines:
“KING Was ever king that joyed an earthly throne,
And could command no more content than I?
No sooner was I crept out of my cradle
But I was made a king, at nine months old.
Was never subject longed to be a king
As I do long and wish to be a subject.”
(Act 4 scene 9)
He’s a good man, a moral man, but being king isn’t his thing.
I like the way Shakespeare explores politics and examines different kinds of kings in his history plays.
“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”
(Henry IV, Part 2)
This is an excellent play.