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Henry VI, Part 2

1591

Henry VI, Part 2 (often written as 2 Henry VI) is a history play by William Shakespeare believed to have been written in 1591 and set during the lifetime of King Henry VI of England. Whereas 1 Henry VI deals primarily with the loss of England's French territories and the political machinations leading up to the Wars of the Roses, and 3 Henry VI deals with the horrors of that conflict, 2 Henry VI focuses on the King's inability to quell the bickering of his nobles, the death of his trusted adviser Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, the rise of the Duke of York and the inevitability of armed conflict. As such, the play culminates with the opening battle of the War, the First Battle of St Albans.

Although the Henry VI trilogy may not have been written in chronological order, the three plays are often grouped together with Richard III to form a tetralogy covering the entire Wars of the Roses saga, from the death of Henry V in 1422 to the rise to power of Henry VII in 1485. It was the success of this sequence of plays that firmly established Shakespeare's reputation as a playwright.

Henry VI, Part 2 has the largest cast of all Shakespeare's plays and is seen by many critics as the best of the Henry VI trilogy.

First page of The second Part of Henry the Sixt, with the death of the Good Duke Humfrey from the Fi...

Date and text

Date

On 12 March 1594, a play was entered in the Stationers' Register by the bookseller Thomas Millington and printed in quarto by Thomas Creede later that year as The First part of the Contention betwixt the two famous Houses of Yorke and Lancaster, with the death of the good Duke Humphrey: And the banishment and death of the Duke of Suffolke, and the Tragicall end of the proud Cardinall of VVinchester, vvith the notable Rebellion of Jacke Cade: And the Duke of Yorkes first claime vnto the Crowne. It has been theorised that The Contention is a reported text of a performance of what is today called Henry VI, Part II. If so, the play was written no later than 1594.

However, it has been suggested the play may have been written several years earlier. Robert Greene's pamphlet Greene's Groats-Worth of Wit (entered in the Stationers' Register on 20 September 1592) mocks Shakespeare as "an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his 'tiger's heart wrapped in a player's hide', supposes that he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you." This parody of 3 Henry VI, 1.4.138, where York refers to Margaret as a "tiger's heart wrapped in a woman's hide!", proves that 3 Henry VI was well known by September 1592, which means it must have been staged before 23 June, when the government closed the theatres to prevent the spread of plague. As it is known for certain that 3 Henry VI was a sequel to 2 Henry VI, it is certain that if 3 Henry VI was on stage by June 1592, so too was 2 Henry VI and that both were probably written in 1591 or 1592.

For a discussion of whether the three parts of the trilogy where composed in chronological order, see 1 Henry VI.

Title page of the first quarto (1594)

Text

The 1594 quarto text of The Contention was reprinted twice, in 1600 (in quarto) and 1619 (in folio). The 1600 text was printed by Valentine Simmes for Millington. The 1619 text was part of William Jaggard's False Folio, which was printed for Thomas Pavier. This text was printed together with a version of 3 Henry VI which had been printed in octavo in 1595 under the title The True Tragedie of Richard Duke of Yorke, and the death of good King Henrie the Sixt, with the Whole Contention betweene the two Houses, Lancaster and Yorke.[k] In the False Folio, the two plays were grouped under the general title The Whole Contention betweene the Two Famous Houses, Lancaster and Yorke, With the Tragicall ends of the good Duke Humfrey, Richard Duke of Yorke, and King Henrie the sixt. Also printed with The Whole Contention was Pericles, Prince of Tyre. The 1619 text of 2 Henry VI was not directly taken from The Contention however. The original text was edited to correct an error in York's outline of his genealogy in 2.2.

The text of the play that today forms 2 Henry VI was not published until the 1623 First Folio, under the title The second Part of Henry the Sixt, with the death of the Good Duke Humfrey.

When the play came to be called Part 2 is unclear, although most critics tend to assume it was the invention of John Heminges and Henry Condell, the editors of the First Folio, as there are no references to the play under the title Part 2, or any derivative thereof, before 1623.

Title page of The Whole Contention (1619)

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Published in 17/09/2018

Updated in 19/02/2021

All events in the topic Plays and work - Histories:


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