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Henry VI, Part 2

Creation of the play

Henry VI, Part 2 was probably created by 1591. The play was first published in 1594. However, a line from Henry VI, Part 3 was parodied by Robert Greene in Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit, published in 1592. It is agreed that Henry VI, Part 3 was created as a sequel to Henry VI, Part 2, helping to date the latter. Some think that Henry VI, Part 2 was created before Henry VI, Part 1, which according to Henslowe’s Diary may have been performed at the Rose in 1592. Other evidence suggests that Henry VI, Part 2 had been performed by 1591. It is thought that Robert Greene, among others, may have helped Shakespeare to develop the plot as well as writing some of the dialogue in Henry VI, Part 2.

King Henry VI. John Stow, The Chronicles of England
King Henry VI. John Stow, The Chronicles of England, [1580]. British Library, 807.c.30, p. 617. Larger image

Early performances

Henry VI, Part 2 was probably first performed by Lord Strange’s Men by 1591. The title-page of the 1600 quarto of Henry VI, Part 3 states that the play was ‘sundry times acted by the Right Honourable the Earle of Pembrooke his seruantes’. The Earl of Pembroke’s Men were formed as an offshoot of Lord Strange’s Men, thus linking the latter to the earlier play Henry VI, Part 2. There are no certain records of performances of Henry VI, Part 2 before the Restoration in 1660.

Publication in quarto and folio

Henry VI, Part 2 appeared in five editions before 1642.

  • First quarto, 1594. Thought to have been printed from a memorial reconstruction of the play. The title of the play was given as The First Part of the Contention Betwixt the Two Famous Houses of Yorke and Lancaster. (Copy from the Bodleian Library.)
  • Second quarto, 1600. Printed from the first quarto. (Copy from the Bodleian Library.)
  • Third Quarto, undated but published in 1619. Apparently printed from the first quarto, but with reference either to the foul papers of the memorial reconstruction or to the prompt-book. The Duke of York’s genealogy was corrected (act 2, scene 2), and 11 new lines were added to the play. In this edition Henry VI, Part 2 was printed together with Henry VI, Part 3 under the general title The Whole Contention Betweene the Two Famous Houses, Lancaster and Yorke. This was the first edition to attribute the play to Shakespeare.
  • First folio, 1623. Thought to have been printed either from Shakespeare’s manuscript or a scribal copy of it used in the theatre. The text is a third longer than that of the first quarto. The play was given the title The Second Part of Henry the Sixt.
  • Second folio, 1632. Printed from the first folio.

The First Part of the Contention Betwixt the Two Famous Houses of Yorke and Lancaster was entered by Thomas Millington on the Stationers’ Register on 12 March 1594. The first quarto was printed by Thomas Creede for Millington the same year. The second quarto was printed by Valentine Simmes, again for Millington, in 1600. On 19 April 1602, Millington transferred his copyright in Henry VI, part 2 and Henry VI, Part 3 to Thomas Pavier.

The third quarto, with the general title The Whole Contention Betweene the Two Famous Houses, Lancaster and Yorke, was printed by William Jaggard for Thomas Pavier. The volume also includes Pericles. Henry VI, Part 2 was among the group of 10 plays printed by Jaggard for Pavier in 1619. These were apparently intended to form a collection of plays attributed to Shakespeare. The King’s Men may have protested against Pavier’s intentions, for the Lord Chamberlain subsequently wrote to the Stationers’ Company demanding that no more plays belonging to them should be printed except with their consent.

British Library copies of Henry VI, Part 2 contains detailed bibliographic descriptions of all the quarto copies of the play.

Shakespeare’s sources

Shakespeare used several sources for Henry VI, Part 2.

  • Raphael Holinshed, The Third Volume of Chronicles (1587). Holinshed was a primary source for Shakespeare.
  • Edward Hall, The Union of the Two Noble and Illustrate Famelies of Lancastre and Yorke (1548). Shakespeare also used Hall’s chronicle as a primary source.

    Titlepage. Edward Hall, The Union of the Two Noble and Illustrate Famelies of Lancaster & Yorke
    Titlepage. Edward Hall, The Union of the Two Noble and Illustrate Famelies of Lancaster & Yorke, 1548. British Library, C.122.h.4. Larger image

  • Richard Grafton, A Chronicle at Large and Meere History of the Affayres of Englande (1569). Shakespeare made some use of Grafton’s chronicle.
  • John Foxe, Actes and Monuments (1583). Shakespeare drew on Foxe for the Simpcox miracle scene (act 2, scene 1).
  • Robert Fabyan, Chronicle (1516). Shakespeare occasionally used Fabyan’s chronicle.
  • John Hardyng, The Chronicle of Iohn Hardyng (1543). Shakespeare also made occasional use of Hardyng’s chronicle.

Story of the play

Note: the links below will take you to the page in the quarto where each act begins, according to standard modern editions. (The quartos themselves have no act divisions.) The quarto shown for each play is always the earliest in the Library's collection - unless it is a 'bad' quarto in which case it is the earliest 'good' quarto.

Henry VI, Part 2 is set in England in the mid 15th century, at the beginning of the Wars of the Roses.

(Act 1) The French Princess Margaret arrives in England to marry King Henry VI. He is still under the tutelage of his uncle the Duke of Gloucester, and his nobles are vying with one another for influence. Gloucester expresses his discontent with the marriage treaty, arranged by the Duke of Suffolk, by which Anjou and Maine (part of Henry V’s conquests) will be surrendered. Alone, the Duke of York deplores the French losses and declares his intention to rebel against the King. Gloucester’s wife, Eleanor, has ambitions for the throne which he does not share. The new Queen turns to Suffolk with complaints against her husband and the great nobles of the court. Suffolk promises to support her. Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester commands the witch Margery Jourdain to conjure up spirits so she can learn the future. The ceremony is interrupted by York, who arrests Eleanor and her confederates.

(Act 2) While the King and Queen and their court are out hawking, Suffolk and Gloucester quarrel. News is brought of a miracle at Saint Alban’s shrine, and the blind man Simpcox whose sight was restored is brought before the King. Gloucester reveals the miracle as a fraud. York justifies his claim to the throne to the Earl of Salisbury and his son the Earl of Warwick, who give him their support. Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester is tried and sentenced to banishment. Gloucester resigns as Protector of England. He and Eleanor take leave of one another as she is paraded through the streets in penance.

(Act 3) The King and Queen attend Parliament. The Duke of Somerset announces the loss of all the French territories. When Gloucester arrives, Suffolk arrests him for high treason. The King weeps as he is unable to help him, while the Queen rejoices at his fall. York is appointed to deal with rebels in Ireland. Alone, he decides to support a rebellion in Kent by John Cade. Suffolk arranges the murder of Gloucester. When the King learns his uncle is dead he faints. Queen Margaret berates him for his love of Gloucester. Warwick tells the King that Gloucester was murdered by Suffolk. King Henry banishes Suffolk. Alone together, Queen Margaret and Suffolk reveal that they are lovers as they express their sorrow at parting.

(Act 4) Suffolk is murdered as he leaves the coast of England. In Kent, John Cade assembles his army of rebels. They kill Sir Humphrey Stafford, sent to oppose them. The Queen mourns Suffolk’s death. News of Cade’s rebellion reaches the court. When Cade arrives at London, his followers kill those who come out of the city to oppose them. The Duke of Buckingham, with the Cliffords, ends Cade’s rebellion. Cade, fleeing, is killed.

(Act 5) York arrives in England at the head of an Irish army. He demands the removal of the Duke of Somerset from the court and the King. When Buckingham tells him that Somerset has been sent to the Tower, York dismisses his army. John Cade’s head is brought to the King. The Queen enters with Somerset, who arrests York for high treason. York calls his sons and his supporters to his aid, declares himself the rightful King and leaves prepared to fight for the throne. He and his followers win the Battle of St Albans, at which he kills Somerset and the elder Clifford. The successful York prepares to pursue King Henry to London.


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