Henry VI, part 2The play we know as King Henry VI Part II was originally known as The First Part of the Contention betwixt the Two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster. It was the first half of a two-part play on the popular theme of the 'Wars of the Roses'. It was this two-part play that established Shakespeare's reputation as a major playwright in the 1590s.
Shakespeare also wrote a play on the major event before the Wars of the Roses: the expulsion of the English from France by Joan of Arc. This play, which may have been written before or after the two-part play, was grouped together by later editors with the two-parter to form a trilogy - Henry VI parts 1, 2, and 3.
This play begins with the marriage of King Henry VI of England to the young Margaret of Anjou. Margaret is the protégée (and possibly lover) of William de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, who aims to influence the king through her. The major obstacle to this pair is the regent of the crown, Duke Humphrey (Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester), who is immensely popular with the common people. Queen Margaret vies with his wife, Eleanor, for precedence at court. Eleanor is lured by an agent of Suffolk into dabbling in necromancy, and then apprehended, to the embarassment of Gloucester. Gloucester is then accused of treason and imprisoned, and afterwards assassinated by agents of Suffolk and the Queen. Meanwhile, as this struggle plays itself out, Richard, Duke of York, who has a tenuous claim to the throne, schemes to make himself king.
The Earl of Suffolk is banished for his role in Gloucester's death and killed by pirates, leaving Margaret without her mainstay. Meanwhile, Richard of York has gotten himself appointed commander of an army to suppress a revolt in Ireland. York enlists a former officer Jack Cade to lead a rebellion that threatens the whole kingdom, in order that he may bring his army from Ireland into England and seize the throne. As Cade's rebels are routed, York declares open war on the king, supported by his sons, Edward (King Edward IV of England) and Richard (King Richard III of England). (Shakespeare is building up to making Richard III one of his greatest villains, with little concern for historical veracity -- Richard, at this date, would have been a small child.)
The English nobility now take sides, and the Battle of St. Albans is fought. The Duke of Somerset is killed by the future Richard III. Young Lord Clifford, whose father has been killed by the Duke of York, vows revenge on the Yorkists, and allies himself with King Henry's other supporters. The play ends there, to be continued with Henry VI, part 3.
This play is one of Shakespeare's apprentice works. He shows himself adept as using the rhetoric developed by Christopher Marlowe, but the play is not much of an advance on Marlowe. The major exception comprises the scenes involving Jack Cade, written in lively prose.