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Sources of the Play

The only real source of the Second Part of King Henry VI is the earlier play, The First Part of the Contention betwixt the two famous Houses of York and Lancaster, of which imperfect and slightly varying printed editions appeared in 1594, 1600, and 1619. The reviser, Shakespeare, worked with a manuscript text probably superior in a number of passages to that produced by the printers of 1594.

The First Part of the Contention is itself based upon the story of the chroniclers Halle and Holinshed, whose narratives are here so nearly identical that it is hardly important to determine which was employed by the original dramatist.[1] For the episode of Gloucester and the impostor Simpcox a dialogue of Sir Thomas More (1580) may have been used; the story was repeated by the chronicler Grafton (1568) and the martyrologist Foxe (1576), but is not found in Halle or Holinshed.

In revising the play Shakespeare's method was exceedingly painstaking. The 1594 version of the Contention contains only about 1250 metrical lines,[2] which in 2 Henry VI are supplemented by some 2000 lines of new or largely revised material. But there seems to be no evidence that the reviser made use of new source matter. He merely elaborated out of his own fancy scenes and speeches with which the basic play presented him. He added no new character or important dramatic incident, and can hardly be shown to have made any first-hand study of the historical sources.

Thus the consideration of Shakespeare's additions does not really involve a study of the sources of the play (apart from the Contention); it involves almost solely the question of the spirit in which Shakespeare improvised new speeches to fit the scenario furnished by the old play. This matter will be discussed in Appendix C.

The simpler and generally clearer tone of the Contention is well illustrated in the scenes depicting Suffolk's death and that of Cade. The 147 lines of 2 Henry VI IV. i are expanded from the following 78 lines of the Contention.

'Alarmes within, and the chambers be discharged, like as it were a fight at sea. And then enter the Captaine of the ship and the Maister, and the Maisters Mate, & the Duke of Suffolke disguised, and others with him, and Water Whickmore.

Cap. Bring forward these prisoners that scorn'd to yeeld,
Vnlade their goods with speed and sincke their ship,
Here Maister, this prisoner I giue to you.
This other, the Maisters Mate shall haue,
And Water Whickmore thou shalt haue this man,
And let them paie their ransomes ere they passe.

Suffolke. Water! He starteth.

Water. How now, what doest feare me?
Thou shalt haue better cause anon.

Suf. It is thy name affrights me, not thy selfe.
I do remember well, a cunning Wyssard told me,
That by Water I should die:
Yet let not that make thee bloudie minded.
Thy name being rightly sounded,
Is Gualter, not Water.

VVater. Gualter or Water, als one to me,
I am the man must bring thee to thy death.

Suf. I am a Gentleman looke on my Ring,
Ransome me at what thou wilt, it shalbe paid.

VVater. I lost mine eye in boording of the ship,
And therefore ere I marchantlike sell blood for gold,
Then cast me headlong downe into the sea.

2. Priso. But what shall our ransomes be?

Mai. A hundreth pounds a piece, either paie that or die.

2. Priso. Then saue our liues, it shall be paid.

VVater. Come sirrha, thy life shall be the ransome I will haue.

Suff. Staie villaine, thy prisoner is a Prince,
The Duke of Suffolke, William de la Poull.

Cap. The Duke of Suffolke folded vp in rags.

Suf. I sir, but these rags are no part of the Duke,
Ioue sometime went disguisde, and why not I?

Cap. I but Ioue was neuer slaine as thou shalt be.

Suf. Base Iadie groome, King Henries blood
The honourable blood of Lancaster,
Cannot be shead by such a lowly swaine,
I am sent Ambassador for the Queene to France,
I charge thee waffe me crosse the channell safe.

Cap. Ile waffe thee to thy death, go Water take him hence,
And on our long boates side, chop off his head.

Suf. Thou darste not for thine owne.

Cap. Yes Poull.

Suffolke. Poull.

Cap. I Poull, puddle, kennell, sinke and durt,
Ile stop that yawning mouth of thine,
Those lips of thine that so oft haue kist the
Queene, shall sweepe the ground, and thou that
Smildste at good Duke Humphreys death,
Shalt liue no longer to infect the earth.

Suffolke. This villain being but Captain of a Pinnais,
Threatens more plagues then mightie Abradas,
The great Masadonian Pyrate,
Thy words addes fury and not remorse in me.

Cap. I but my deeds shall staie thy fury soone.

Suffolke. Hast not thou waited at my Trencher,
When we haue feasted with Queene Margret?
Hast not thou kist thy hand and held my stirrope?
And barehead plodded by my footecloth Mule,
And thought thee happie when I smilde on thee?
This hand hath writ in thy defence,
Then shall I charme thee, hold thy lauish toong.

Cap. Away with him, Water, I say, and off with his hed.

1. Priso. Good my Lord, intreat him mildly for your life.

Suffolke. First let this necke stoupe to the axes edge,
Before this knee do bow to any,
Saue to the God of heauen and to my King:
Suffolkes imperiall toong cannot pleade
To such a Iadie groome.

Water. Come, come, why do we let him speake,
I long to haue his head for raunsome of mine eye.

Suffolk. A Swordar and bandeto slaue,
Murthered sweete Tully.
Brutus bastard-hand stabde Iulius Caesar,
And Suffolke dies by Pyrates on the seas.

Exet Suffolke, and VVater.

Cap. Off with his head, and send it to the Queene,
And ransomelesse this prisoner shall go free,
To see it safe deliuered vnto her.
Come lets goe. Exet omnes.'

The scene of Jack Cade's death, corresponding to 2 Henry VI IV. x, is in the Contention less than half as long. It is almost altogether in prose, and quite lacks the conceits and efforts at 'fine writing' which the reviser affects.

‘Enter Iacke Cade at one doore, and at the other, maister Alexander Eyden and his men, and Iack Cade lies downe picking of hearbes and eating them.

Eyden. Good Lord how pleasant is this country life,
This litle land my father left me here,
With my contented minde serues me as well,
As all the pleasures in the Court can yeeld,
Nor would I change this pleasure for the Court.

Cade. Sounes, heres the Lord of the soyle, Stand villaine, thou wilt betraie mee to the King, and get a thousand crownes for my head, but ere thou goest, ile make thee eate yron like an Astridge, and swallow my sword like a great pinne.

Eyden. Why sawcy companion, why should I betray thee?
Ist not inough that thou hast broke my hedges,
And enterd into my ground without the leaue of me the owner,
But thou wilt braue me too.

Cade. Braue thee and beard thee too, by the best blood of the Realme, looke on me well, I haue eate no meate this fiue dayes, yet and I do not leaue thee and thy fiue men as dead as a doore nayle, I pray God I may neuer eate grasse more.

Eyden. Nay, it neuer shall be saide whilst the world doth stand, that Alexander Eyden an Esquire of Kent, tooke oddes to combat with a famisht man, looke on me, my limmes are equall vnto thine, and euery way as big, then hand to hand, ile combat thee. Sirrha fetch me weopons, and stand you all aside.

Cade. Now sword, if thou doest not hew this burly-bond churle into chines of beefe, I beseech God thou maist fal into some smiths hand, and be turnd to hob- nailes.

Eyden. Come on thy way.

(They fight, and Cade fals downe.

Cade. Oh villaine, thou hast slaine the floure of Kent for chiualrie, but it is famine & not thee that has done it, for come ten thousand diuels, and giue me but the ten meales that I wanted this fiue daies, and ile fight with you all, and so a poxe rot thee, for Iacke Cade must die. (He dies.

Eyden. Iack Cade, & was it that monstrous Rebell which I haue slaine. Oh sword ile honour thee for this, and in my chamber shalt thou hang as a monument to after age, for this great seruice thou hast done to me. Ile drag him hence, and with my sword cut off his head and beare it to the King. (Exet.'


  1. Cf. W. G. Boswell-Stone, Shakespeare's Holinshed, pp. xi, xii, where passages apparently derived from Holinshed rather than Halle are cited. Compare, on the other hand, the note on II. iii. 13 in this edition, which points to Halle rather than Holinshed as authority.
  2. Eked out by about 700 lines of prose or corrupted verse.