Introduction & Overview of King Henry VI, Part 2

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King Henry VI, Part 2 Summary & Study Guide Description

King Henry VI, Part 2 Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

This detailed literature summary also contains Further Study on King Henry VI, Part 2 by William Shakespeare.

Although Shakespeare wrote for an earlier time, his concerns are so well staged and so poetically presented that they produce powerful echoes for a late twentieth-century audience whose knowledge of the Wars of the Roses is slight at best. Henry VI, Part Two is preoccupied with three issues of contemporary relevance: the definition of legitimate authority; the requirements for good government; and the role of the family.

England under Henry VI is in chaos. In part this chaos is the result of Henry VI's uncertainty about whether his right to the crown is legitimate. The duke of York certainly has a better claim based on blood (he traces his line back to a son of Edward III who was older than the son from whom Henry VI derives his claim), but Henry VI has a better claim based on power (his grandfather, Henry IV, overthrew Richard II).

In democratic countries power is derived from the ballot box, but there have been several occasions in recent times in Europe and elsewhere when charges of voter fraud or tampering with the ballot box have made it uncertain who is the legitimate leader. One need think only of events in the former Yugoslavia as an instance. In 1996, for example, Slobodan Milosevic used the Serbian Supreme Court to validate some election results that were favorable to him but questionable. More subtly, one can speculate on what form of the vote best represents the balance of power in a country. Proportional representation most accurately registers the patchwork of opinion in any given country, but that method has led Italy, for example, to change its government more than once a year since the end of the Second World War. From another perspective, one can ask whether a minority government should be allowed to rule in a democracy. Such a government was in power in Britain, for example, in 1979 and 1996. The question comes down to how one defines legitimate authority. That question applies as much to modern democracies or republics as to fifteenth-century monarchies.

England under Henry VI is in chaos for another reason, however. Henry VI governs poorly. He is unable to exert the authority that he has as king. For example, when Suffolk arrests Gloucester on trumpedup charges (III.i.95-222), the king does nothing to stop the arrest even though he knows that Gloucester is loyal. Instead, he simply leaves the stage in tears, unable to cope. Later, in III.ii.236-41, when Warwick and Winchester duel in his presence, the king merely issues the mildest of rebukes. When it comes to decisions, the king simply agrees to what his influential subjects want (III.i.316-17). As a monarch, Shakespeare's Henry VI fails to make the effective decisions that result in good government. Modern democracies and republics are faced by the same need for effective decision making, but that need has not always been fulfilled. John Major in Britain has not, many feel, been as effective as Margaret Thatcher in making the sort of consistent decisions that Prime Ministers are expected to make. In the United States, polls have indicated that people feel that the House of Representatives and the Senate sometimes create gridlock rather than pass legislation, and that President Clinton, like other presidents before him, has sometimes failed to steer a clear course for the nation. The same sorts of criticisms were leveled at earlier presidents such as Grant, Wilson, Hoover, and Coolidge.

Besides the question of how power is derived and used, Henry VI, Part Two devotes much time to the role of family. On the one hand, the prominence of family causes unflattering comparisons: Henry VI is in no way a match for his father, Henry V (perhaps the most beloved monarch in English history). On the other, it becomes a means to perpetuate revenge. Henry VI, Part Three has, as a major theme, the importance of vengeance in a society where the idea of legal justice has yet to be fully developed. The end of Henry VI, Part Two foreshadows that theme in the death of old Clifford at York's hands and the bloodthirsty cry of revenge from his son. Young Clifford will be merciless: Henceforth I will not have to do with pity. Meet I an infant of the house of York, Into as many gobbets will I cut it As wild Medea young Absyrtus did; In cruelty will I seek out my fame. (V.ii.56-60)

Although such a statement is an extreme one, any audience watching this play can probably think of examples of these two issues: the difficulty of the son living up to the father's expectations, and the families that feud with one another long after the initial cause of conflict has been forgotten.

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