Henry VI, Part 2 (1591) by William Shakespeare

A welcome escalation from the more languid “Henry VI, Part 1”, with vastly more at play. “Part 1” lacked anyone as compelling as Jack Cade, Richard of York (the elder), or Queen Margaret, and the issues Shakespeare here raises of the nature of justice, the role of religion in politics, what constitutes weak or strong rule, they’re all explored memorably and with depth. There are also iconic lines like “First thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers”.

In all the ways I felt Joan of Arc was underused and undersold in “Part 1”, I feel Jack Cade, the commoner-turned-knight-turned-rebel-leader adds a welcome new point of view. Characterising the commoners with a depth, validating their reactions and views on the actions of the nobles, makes the endless bickering and politicking of the lords and ladies feel of much higher stakes, providing roundness and grounding to their powerplays that ground it far beyond the sort of “the connection between a ruler and their land” abstractions seen as far back (chronologically) as “Richard II”.

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The titular king makes for a great examination of what makes a good ruler. He lacks so many negative traits of his predecessors – aggressive vanity, cruelty, unchecked ambition, pettiness, and so on. As his father did, he understands the role of tradition, even those that may seem purely arbitrary to many. He is tied to religion more than some of his predecessors. He lacks even the predilection to really understand some of the sins of his court. Does that make him a good king? Perhaps a morally “good” one, but can a king be judged the same as a normal man – must a king be somewhat cruel, to safeguard his court and citizens? Shakespeare explores such issues effortlessly and with nuance but, welcomely, without being overly prescriptive.

While sloppier and less cohesive than some of its chronological precursors, “Henry VI, Part 1” is a vast improvement on its immediate predecessor. I give it four lawyers, and a removed head.

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