Likely the most influential writer in all of English literature and certainly the most important playwright of the English Renaissance, William Shakespeare was born in 1564 in the town of Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire, England. The son of a successful middle-class glove-maker, Shakespeare attended grammar school, but his formal education proceeded no further. In 1582, he married an older woman, Anne Hathaway, and he had three children with her. Around 1590 he left his family behind and traveled to London to work as an actor and playwright. Public and critical success quickly followed, and Shakespeare eventually became the most popular playwright in England and part owner of the Globe Theater. His career bridged the reigns of Elizabeth I (ruled 1558-1603) and James I (ruled 1603-1625); he was a favorite of both monarchs. Indeed, James granted Shakespeare's company the greatest possible compliment by endowing them with the status of king's players. Wealthy and renowned, Shakespeare retired to Stratford and died in 1616 at the age of 52. At the time of Shakespeare's death, such luminaries as Ben Jonson hailed him as the apogee of Renaissance theatre.
Shakespeare's works were collected and printed in various editions in the century following his death, and by the early eighteenth century his reputation as the greatest poet ever to write in English was well established. The unprecedented admiration garnered by his works led to a fierce curiosity about Shakespeare's life, but the paucity of surviving biographical information has left many details of Shakespeare's personal history shrouded in mystery. Some people have concluded from this fact that Shakespeare's plays in reality were written by someone else--Francis Bacon and the Earl of Oxford are the two most popular candidates--but the evidence for this claim is overwhelmingly circumstantial, and the theory is not taken seriously by many scholars.
In the absence of definitive proof to the contrary, Shakespeare must be viewed as the author of the 37 plays and 154 sonnets that bear his name. The legacy of this body of work is immense. A number of Shakespeare's plays seem to have transcended even the category of brilliance, becoming so influential as to affect profoundly the course of Western literature and culture ever after.
The date Henry VI, Part 2 (often noted simply as 2 Henry VI) was written is uncertain. Some editors think it was written before 1 Henry VI, probably in 1591, making this play one of Shakespeare's earliest stage plays. The play takes place after the French wars, when the English lost and regained most of the lands originally won by Henry V. During the wars, depicted in 1 Henry VI, factionalism between the various nobles brought about the death of England's champion warrior. Disagreements between Somerset and York led to a division of nobles into those who supported the red or white rose, setting the stage for the civil war known as the War of the Roses. At the end of 1 Henry VI, Suffolk captured Margaret, daughter of a bankrupt French lord; infatuated with her, Suffolk woos her for Henry and convinces Henry to marry her instead of a more politically motivated match.
2 Henry VI concerns the continued scheming in the court, first between Gloucester and Beaufort, then between York's faction and the other lords. The infighting between the lords and the popular uprising by Jack Cade show what happens to the nation when the king in power is too weak to rule effectively. The play charts the rise and fall of many lords and lesser figures within the kingdom.
Shakespeare probably made use of historical information gathered from contemporary chronicle histories of the 15th century and the struggles between the Yorks and the Lancasters in the War of the Roses. Particularly he is thought to have used Raphael Holingshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland for details of Cade's rebellion, modeled on the revolt by Wat Tyler in the Peasant's Rebellion of 1381.
Scholars agree that two different versions of this play existed in the early modern period. A version of the play was first published in 1594, and another longer version appeared in the First Folio in 1623. The relationship between these two texts has been a long-debated point in Shakespeare scholarship.
Some scholars have suggested that the first version was a reconstruction of the play prepared by actors, who remembered as much of the play as they could for publication. Or this first version may derive from a promptbook. Another scholar remarks that the 1594 version of this play may have been Shakespeare's early version, and the play published later included his revisions. Most editors agree that many people, from actors, scribes, publishers, and censors, had a hand in altering the play as it moved onto the stage or into print.
The Oxford editors, on whose work the Norton edition is based, decided to use the later, longer version of the play and incorporate some of the lengthy stage directions from the earlier version and, at several points, use samples of lines from both versions.