This is a play full of political scandal, murder, witches, and commoner revolution. It showcases a weak king who cannot control his warring nobility, which leads to the War of the Roses.
The play opens with Henry marrying Margaret, and not all his nobles are happy about this. Margaret is relatively poor, has no serious political connections that would be to England’s advantage, and Henry conceded French territory to win her. Unknown to Henry, Margaret is the lover of the Earl of Suffolk, who is using her to gain influence over the king. Richard Plantagenet has ambitions to be king, and many nobles feel Gloucester should retire now that Henry has been crowned.
Henry’s court is seriously at odds with itself.
Step up Gloucester, young Henry’s trusted advisor. He is the main threat to Suffolk’s plans, and is watchful of the ambitious Suffolk. Unfortunately for Gloucester, his own wife wants him to take the crown, but he is too loyal to countenance that. She, however, enlists a witch to prophesy, but is arrested as witchcraft is against the law.
Margaret and Suffolk, along with Cardinal Beaufort, beg Gloucester to retire, but he refuses. His wife’s arrest and banishment does humiliate him, but then he himself is arrested on (trumped-up) charges of treason. In parallel, Richard gains the support of the Earls of Salisbury and Warwick, in his claim to the throne.
Henry sees through the charges, but Gloucester is murdered by the terrible trio before Henry can release him. Henry sees through the plot, and becomes furious. Beaufort sickens and dies, and Henry banishes Suffolk. Suffolk is later beheaded at sea by pirates, and the head returned to Margaret.
The peasants are revolting, and they are also causing an insurrection (:D). Incited by Richard’s machinations, a commoner named Jack Cade has been hired to foment rebellion. The pretext is lack of education i.e. the general public not being taught how to read and write. Before Cade’s army gains too much momentum, Henry’s Lord Clifford convinces the army to lay down their arms. Cade is later killed in a fight.
York however seizes his moment. He had been given an army to quell rebellion in Ireland. He returns from Ireland demanding Somerset be charged with treason. When he sees him free, he then reveals his claim to the throne, and the nobility rally to their favourites. The War of the Roses has begun!
Richard meets Henry in battle in the Field at St Alban’s, and wins. Somerset and Clifford are killed. Henry retreats to London, with Margaret and young Lord Clifford, looking for reinforcements and support.
Henry VI: He is weak. Valuing peace and disdaining war, he is exactly the wrong man on the throne in these turbulent times. His indecisiveness and piety are his greatest failings, in this context, as he essentially relies on advice from Gloucester in order to rule, and is too hesitant to be ruthless.
Margaret: The queen is coming into her own now. Strong-minded, passionate, determined, she is one of Shakespeare’s most formidable women. She is dismissive of her husband, and is fully aware and part of the ruthlessness of court politics. She loves power, which she wields through Henry. She doesn’t care what she needs to do in order to get and keep power.
Richard: He is showing his cunning side. Building up support throughout the play, and a powerful army, he is shrewd and calculating, and ruthless. The complete opposite to Henry.
Suffolk: Ambitious, conniving, and determined, he orders assassins to kill Gloucester, but somehow loses control of the situation and is banished.
Gloucester: He is devoted to Henry, and has no designs on usurping power for himself. He is a principled man, and when his enemies cannot find any flaws in him to disgrace him, they resolve to have him killed.
Jack Cade: A former officer of Richard’s, he undertakes a rebellion on Richard’s behalf, with the professed aim of bettering the lower classes, and getting them a presence in the government of the country.
Weakness: Henry is an ineffective King, whose lack of character is seen as the root cause of the chaos in England. He cannot make decisions, he is dominated by stronger personalities, and he is unwilling to go to war.
Religion: This is really the only thing Henry truly cares about. God has a plan, and Henry needs to follow it. His faith in faith is naïve though, for example in the story of the blind man (which Gloucester proves to be false). He waits on God to show him what to do, but this passivity is his undoing.
Ambition: Everyone is out to get their own piece of power – Margaret and Suffolk, Richard, and even Jack Cade. Cue murder, lies, treachery, betrayal – nothing is sacred except getting, holding and wielding power.
- Most scholars believe that this is Shakespeare’s first play, the one that started the ball rolling, written about 1590.
- This play has the largest cast of all of Shakespeare’s plays.
Famous Everyday Phrase Coined/Popularised:
“Dead as a doornail”
“Bandit” (in the play “bandetto”)
“Mum’s the word”