The first print appearance of this play, a "bad" quarto edition, announced its title as The First Part of the Contention betwixt the Two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster, with the death of the good Duke Humphrey and the banishment and death of the Duke of Suffolk, and the tragical end of the proud Cardinal of Winchester, with the notable rebellion of Jack Cade, and the Duke of York's first claim unto the crown. Some assert that this 1594 work was "later cleaned up and republished" (Anderson 281). This may have been the first play in the trilogy to have been written, Clark thinks in 1579 due to topical connections to Simier andAlençon's presence in England, the Queen's reaction to finding out about Leicester's marriage to Lettice Knollys, and other matters (Clark 316ff; cf. Ogburn and Ogburn 216). The play covers the ten-year period from Henry's marriage to Margaret in 1445 to the Battle of St. Albans in 1455 (Farina 135).
"Henry's saintly ineffectuality as both man and king is seen to be the cause of both personal and national disaster" (Wells 92). "Henry, in contrast with his illustrious father, is generally dismissed as a weakling. His political inefficiency and practical unfitness for the crown need no demonstration" (Goddard, I 29); however, "He is the only one of Shakespeare's kings whose public and private personalities are identical" (Goddard, I 30). "The common people, who figure hardly at all in Part One, are prominent in [this play], and are responsible for some of its most theatrically appealing episodes, all written mostly or entirely in prose" (Wells 93). Oxford's possible sympathy for the ill-used Thomas Stubbes may play a part here (Ogburn and Ogburn 412). In any case, the play would have alluded to touchy matters with Queen Elizabeth (Ogburn and Ogburn 380-381).
Suffolk presents Margaret of Anjou to Henry VI at court, and the King is pleased. An eighteen-month truce with France is announced, England will give Anjou and Maine to Margaret's father Reignier, and she brings no dowry to the marriage. Henry's uncle Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, is appalled at this royal rooking. Henry makes Suffolk a duke, and Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, is relieved of his duties as Regent of France.
Gloucester openly laments that all the expansionist work of his brothers -- Henry V and Bedford -- is being dashed. Winchester, now Cardinal Beaufort, politicks against Gloucester, Warwick for him, York against Suffolk. Buckingham sides with Beaufort on getting rid of Gloucester and Somerset warns against Beaufort's nasty ambition. But it shakes out ultimately like this: Beaufort, Buckingham, Suffolk, and Somerset vs. Gloucester, York, Salisbury, and Warwick. But this viper-pit also involves York's lust for the crown.
[T]he first three acts delineate the devious manner in which most of the characters shamelessly gang up to destroy the virtuous Duke Humphrey, the king's uncle and only good counselor near his person. So subtly and realistically is this process portrayed that one can only marvel at the author's seemingly instinctive and familiar grasp of the swirling political intrigues attaching to an inner royal court. (Farina 136)
Gloucester gets no peace even at home because his wife Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester, is also power-hungry in a Lady Macbeth sort of way, pushing her husband towards the crown. He tells her to abandon such ambition and tells of a dream he had: the heads of Suffolk and Somerset stuck on the broken halves of his Protector's wand. Eleanor interprets this as decapitation for anyone standing in Gloucester's way and tells her dream of Henry and Margaret kneeling before her. Gloucester chides her but is called away.
Eleanor calls upon a corrupt priest, Sir John Hume, to help her enlist the supernatural in her quest for the crown. He has already been hired by Suffolk and Beaufort to undermine the Gloucesters, and he tells Eleanor that a witch and a conjurer will put her in touch with a spirit.
Petitioners bring complaints to Margaret and Suffolk, mistaking him for the Lord Protector, Gloucester. One is against Suffolk, the other against a man claiming that York is the rightful king. Margaret tears the petitions and complains about being answerable to a Protector. She also thinks her husband Henry is a pious wimp. She hates several lords but especially Eleanor; Suffolk tells her they must join the lords in ousting Gloucester. "It was not a difficult matter for the dramatist to graft the behaviour and punishment of the Countess of Leicester upon the historical character of the Duchess of Gloucester" (Clark 319) -- that is, Queen Elizabeth's public boxing the ears of Lettice, the new wife of Leicester (see I.iii.139f) (Ogburn and Ogburn 189).
The King doesn't care much who becomes Regent of France: Somerset or York. When Gloucester says this is the King's decision, the lords and Margaret gang up on him. Margaret strikes Eleanor for not picking up her fan. The dispute about York brings about Somerset's being appointed Regent and a combat scheduled between the master and apprentice involved in the accusation.
The witch, the conjurer, and two priests gather with Eleanor to summon a spirit who claims that the King will outlive a duke who opposes him, Suffolk will die "By water" (I.iv.65), and Somerset should avoid castles. York and Buckingham arrive and arrest everyone.
The nobles are still bickering. A supposed miracle in town is announced -- a man named Simpcox has been cured of blindness at Saint Alban's shrine. Gloucester reveals the hoax when the man can identify colors he supposedly never saw before in his life. His lameness is "cured" when his whipping begins and he runs off. "These scenes of character obsession with the supernatural are drawn out by the Bard in lurid detail, and we should remember that Edward de Vere himself had a noted fascination, if not obsession with the occult" (Farina 136).
Buckingham reports on Eleanor's crime, and Gloucester is saddened but honorable. Henry will look into this issue in London.
The phrase "Medice teipsum" (II.i.53) may be punning on the name Catherine de' Medici; in any case, Latin and French phrases tend to show up in Shakespeare's early plays (Ogburn and Ogburn 318).
York gives his genealogy to Salisbury and Warwick. He wants the Suffolk and Winchester batch to "snare" Gloucester and glean the King's disapproval, at which point he may seize the throne. Warwick, the "king-maker," is behind York.
The King and others gather to banish Eleanor to the Isle of Man. The others involved are sentenced to die. Gloucester in dismay resigns his position as Protector, which pleases Margaret, and Henry allows him to accompany his wife into banishment.
The master and apprentice, the former arriving drunk, engage in their combat. The apprentice wins, and the master confesses treason before dying, which adds weight to the claim that York seeks the throne.
Three days of penance is required of Eleanor before her exile. On the way, she scornfully tells her husband that he is in danger. Her claims that he is safe because he is "loyal, true, and crimeless" (II.iv.63) -- an uncharacteristically lame notion on his part. Eleanor haughtily is led away to prison by Sir John Stanley.
At Parliament, Margaret takes advantage of Gloucester's being late by telling Henry that he's been acting insolently. Suffolk blames him for Eleanor's crime and others cast aspersions also. Henry remains unconvinced by all this though.
Somerset reports that France is lost now, and when Gloucester arrives, Suffolk has him arrested for treason. Henry is ineffectual. Gloucester defends himself convincingly and exposes the slimy motives of all the others, but is led away, and Henry does nothing to stop the injustice.
News arrives of murderous rebels in Ireland. Beaufort presumptuously appoints York to defend the English, and Suffolk seconds this. York soliloquizes, saying that he can use this kind of rebellion to his advantage. He will have forces at his command and has already gotten rebellious Jack Cade, passing for John Mortimer, to stir up trouble in England. Historically, it is unlikely that Cade was "an instrument" of the Duke of York (Asimov 597f).
The murderers confirm to Suffolk that they have killed Gloucester. When Henry summons him for his trial, Suffolk tells him the news. (The first prophesy is accomplished, with Henry outliving a key duke.) King Henry VI faints. Margaret declares him dead. Henry recovers and turns on Suffolk, and Margaret hypocritically laments his death and tests Henry's trust in her.
Warwick says that Suffolk and Beaufort are responsible for Gloucester's murder, and that the people are mobbing in rebellion. Gloucester's corpse is wheeled in, the grislyness confirming that this was murder most foul. Salisbury says the mob wants Suffolk dead. Henry, in a rare show of strength, banishes Suffolk. This feature may have been inspired by Elizabeth refusing to see Simier for several days when learning of the Papal-Spanish expedition to Ireland in 1579 (Clark 323).
Suffolk and Margaret declare their love before parting; Shakespeare invented this relationship which Farina suspects borrows from Oxford and Vavasour (Farina 137-138). A courtier, Vaux, reports that Beaufort is dying.
Henry, Salisbury, and Warwick are at Beaufort's deathbed. He admits his part in the murder of Gloucester, but when Henry instructs him to raise his hand "if thou think'st on heaven's bliss" (III.i.27), he does nothing and dies without repenting.
Suffolk, aboard ship, is insufferably arrogant with the naval personnel. The Lieutenant knows his crimes and orders his execution. Suffolk is led off, comparing himself with Cicero, Julius Caesar, and Pompey, before being beheaded.
Rabblerouser Jack Cade announces at Blackheath that he is descended from the Mortimers and is rightful heir to the throne. His plans are commented on in asides by Dick the Butcher, who proposes, "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers" (IV.ii.76) -- "possibly quoted out of context more often than any line in the canon" (Farina 137). Sir Humphrey Stafford knows Cade is not Sir John Mortimer and tries to put down the rebellion but Cade revels in chaos. "The scenes in which he [Cade] appears paint a lamentable picture of the gullibility, folly, brutality and greed of the commons" (Wells 93). "Jack Cade is to Part Two what Joan of Arc was to Part One: all that is memorable" (Bloom 48). His scenes "carry several allusions to John Stubbes, who dared in 1579 to write a pamphlet called 'The Discovery of a Gaping Gulph, wherein England is like to be swallowed by another French match'" (Clark 324). The royal order that his right hand be chopped off may have been obliquely alluded to here (IV.ii.85f).
Stafford and his brother are slain in the fight and Cade dons Stafford's armor. Dick the Butcher suggests releasing all prisoners and Cade consents. Off to London!
Queen Margaret carries in Suffolk's head and laments. Instead of condemning the rebels to death, Henry wants to speak with Jack Cade. A messenger reports that the rebels are in Southwark (perhaps visiting the tavern where Chaucer and company launched their pilgrimage!), and that Cade is calling Henry a usurper and plans to have himself crowned. The rebels also are vowing the extermination of "All scholars, lawyers, courtiers, gentlemen" (IV.iv.36). The King agonizes: "O graceless men! they know not what they do" (IV.iv.38). Sound familiar?
Another messenger announces that the rebels have taken London Bridge. All are admonished to trust no one, but Lord Say trusts in his own innocence (which is what Gloucester had said).
A lord lends what aid he can to withstand the rebels who are wreaking havoc in London.
Cade declares himself Lord Mortimer, lord of the city. He orders that London Bridge and the Tower be burnt. "The London Stone that Cade strikes with his staff was a famous landmark in the city center, and was adjacent to Oxford House, one of de Vere's early town residences" (Farina 137).
Cade wants the Savoy and the Inns of Court destroyed and the burning of "all the records of the realm" (IV.vii.14). Lord Say is brought before Cade, who rants against literacy and commands Say's death. The accusation concerning Say's printing of books is anachronistic (Garber 114). "Lord Say's response is a spirited defense of humanist education" (Garber 115). Further allusions to John Stubbes' pamphlet may be arising here (IV.vii.35ff).
"Not only did de Vere speak Latin and cause printing to be used, he had been involved with the establishment of a grammar school at Earls Colne in his native Essex. Had de Vere been in London during Cade's insurrection, the 17th Earl probably would have found himself strung up before anyone else" (Farina 137). This is only one of many instances in the canon depicting "elitist distrust of the commons" (Anderson 243).
Buckingham and Clifford announce to the rebels that if they leave Cade they will have the King's pardon. The fickle mob does shift over, leaving Cade to comment, "Was ever feather so lightly blown to and fro as this multitude?" (IV.viii.55). He flees. A reward for his head is issued.
Henry briefly wishes he had been born a subject instead of King. He commends representative rebels for turning again to King and country. York has returned with an army from Ireland, supposedly to fight a traitorous Somerset.
Cade after five days hides in a garden in Kent belonging to minor landowner Iden, "a Kentish squire with pastoral aspirations" (Wells 93). At first Iden is generous, but Cade's murderous nature brings about a fight and Iden kills Cade. He drags his body to a dunghill and beheads Cade.
Buckingham asks York why his army is so large and positioned so close to the court, and is told that York regards Somerset as a danger to the King. York compares his anger with that of Ajax when he slew the livestock. Buckingham says that Somerset is already imprisoned in the Tower, so York dismisses his men. A reference to "Achilles' spear" (V.i.100) serves as "a proverbial representation of anything that could work equally well to help or hurt" (Asimov 612).
The King enters and then Iden, a moment later, with Cade's head. Henry knights him. Margaret and Somerset enter, so York realizes he's been lied to. He rails at Henry and when Somerset wants him arrested for treason, York, defended by his sons Edward and Richard, announces that he should be king.
Henry realizes that Warwick and the Nevilles support York and Salisbury declares his conviction that York is the rightful monarch. Henry calls for Buckingham and his supporters. The battle of Saint Alban's begins.
Warwick challenges Clifford but York succeeds in killing him. Clifford's son swears revenge against the Yorkists. York's son Richard (the future Richard III) kills Somerset. Margaret urges an indecisive Henry to flee.
Old Salisbury, aided thrice by young Richard, has done well in the fighting. The battle is not yet won, but the Yorkists are optimistic.