The play, originally known as The first part of the contention betwixt the two famous houses of Yorke and Lancaster, was probably completed by 1591. Its dating is made in relation to its sequel, The true Tragedie of Richard Duke of Yorke (i.e. Henry VI, Part 3).
The play (as The first part of the contention) was printed as a quarto in 1594, probably based on an actor’s memory of it. A second quarto in 1600 was typeset from the first, and a third quarto in 1619 was typeset from the first and another source. The First Folio version, with its amended title, was probably typeset from Shakespeare’s manuscripts or a copy of them used in the theatre: it is a third longer than the quarto versions.
‘But then are we in order when we are most out
of order. Come, march forward.’
Henry VI, Part 2, IV ii
Brief synopsis of the play
The play sees the strengthening of the Duke of York’s power as he plots against Henry VI: the loyal Duke of Gloucester is implicated in the disastrous wars in France and later murdered, and the Duchess of Gloucester is banished. While York leaves to suppress a rising in Ireland, the rebel Jack Cade raises a mob to march on London: Shakespeare draws parallels with Cade’s rabble and the Wars of the Roses being waged by the nobility.