What I love about this play: Pirates! Witches! Popular rebellion! More severed heads than any other play in Shakespeare, including Titus! What’s not to love?
This is probably the cheeriest installment of the first tetralogy, although that isn’t necessarily saying much; Shakespeare’s first cycle of history plays is a story about a world spiraling farther and farther into chaos, and conflicts that are growing more and more insular. The international war of Part 1 has been replaced by feuding factions of English nobles; later, the focus will narrow to a single family torn apart by treason and violence; and finally, at the very end of Richard III, to Richard’s inward war with himself. The bitterest moments are in the future, though; there’s trouble enough in Part 2, but there’s also time, as yet, for the carnival mood of the Jack Cade scenes, and a few moments of slapstick as Gloucester exposes the con man Simpcox, and the combat between Peter and Horner, in which there is lots of drinking and a victorious underdog. (This is also the one installment of the first tetralogy in which the commoners play a major role; like Shakespeare’s later histories, it feels like it’s about England instead of about the nobility.)
And then there’s Suffolk and the pirates! This is the first appearance in Shakespeare of the Plot Device Pirates – that convenient band of buccaneers that shows up whenever the playwright has written himself into a corner. (See also Hamlet and Pericles.) Poor Suffolk just can’t get over the fact that he’s about to “die by vile bezonians,” although in fact the pirates are surprisingly erudite, and socially conscious enough to blame the ambitious nobleman for most of the kingdom’s ills.
Favorite memory: Seeing this live in Stratford, Ontario. They did all three parts (condensed into two plays, but I’m counting it as three on my life list). What I remember most about that production are the Cade scenes – all that riot and energy, and rebels tossing loaves of bread at each other, and you get that the rebellion is a holiday for people who haven’t had many chances at liberty in their lives.