2 Henry VI depicts the brutality set loose within the English kingdom when nobles are set against each other, when the commoners are divided against the nobles, and the King is too weak to assert his authority. King Henry VI, crowned while very young, never completely gains control of the kingdom; he's pushed around by his nobles, who each have a scheme of their own, and by Margaret, Henry's French wife. Henry is a pious man, mocked by Margaret for his weakness. In fact Margaret manages to nearly reverse their gender roles, urging the King to flee and commanding the army by the end of the play. Henry is powerless to stop her even from having an affair with Suffolk (though banishing Suffolk temporarily weakens her).
The play is marked by power struggles throughout. The scheming of the nobles first comes to a head when Gloucester, protector of the kingdom during Henry's youth, is ousted. When this honorable man is ousted from his office through the plots of Margaret, Suffolk, and Beaufort, no one remains to protect the King from York and his minions, who dominate the action thereafter.
Gloucester's violent death sets loose a chain of events ending in the deaths of Beaufort, Suffolk, Somerset, and other nobles. The failure of the monarchy is emphasized largely through the various forms of violence inflicted on human bodies. As the body of the kingdom is threatened by popular revolt and civil war, this suffering first registers in the death and destruction of actual bodies. Gloucester's death draws much attention to the state of his body; the unnaturalness of his bulging eyes and disordered features show signs of murder rather than peaceful death. However Beaufort's unnatural death which soon follows signifies his is a soul weighed down by sin.
Other bodies suffer throughout the play. Simpcox, who tries to fool the King into believing that his sight was restored, is revealed to be a liar, and beaten by Gloucester until he runs away. Suffolk is beheaded by pirates; his head is delivered to Margaret, who carries it around the court. Lord Saye and his son-in-law are beheaded and their heads are carried throughout the streets of the city. Jack Cade, head of the rebels, is beheaded and his head delivered to the king. Cade kills Stafford and his brother and drags their bodies behind his horse on the way to London. And others suffer the indignity of death in battle, including Somerset and Clifford.
Punishment too takes on a role in the play, as we see the sometimes irrational nature of so-called royal justice. Gloucester's wife, the Duchess, is banished for having dealt in the occult, but first she must endure the public humiliation of being led through the streets with written records of her crime pinned to her body. Violence is used to resolve the conflict between Peter and Horner. Peter has falsely accused Horner, his master, of treason, but rather than trying the case, Gloucester orders them to engage in single combat; whoever dies will be considered the guilty party. When the day of the fight arrives, the two men have been equipped with staffs with sandbags on the end, yet somehow Peter manages to kill the drunken Horner. Justice has certainly not been served by this battle; rather it is a parody of justice.
After Gloucester, who the people believe to be their champion, dies, the King loses control of the machinery of justice and violence. Henry does manage to banish Suffolk, removing a dangerous influence from the state, but he is unable to stop Jack Cade, a lower class rebel leader hired by York to stir up trouble. Cade's violent success confirms contemporary fears of the danger of mob rule. But Cade's interpretation is complicated. On one hand, he seems to be a champion of the people; yet before his appearance, the commoners seemed to genuinely believe in the power of the nobility to set things right, as evidenced by the petitioners, including Peter, who came to ask for Gloucester's help. However in that scene, the petitioners mistake Suffolk for Gloucester, and Margaret rips up the petitions; hence the nobles fail to exercise their political duties, and are more at fault than the commoners. Cade first appears when Gloucester, the only noble who cared about the commoners, has fallen, suggesting he is taking up the slack and keeping the commoners in the public eye. Yet he has also been hired by York as part of a scheme to test whether the people support the idea of another rightful heir to the throne.
Cade declares that his new kingdom will only honor workmen, so artisans or skilled laborers will fall in rank. His rhetoric echoes a tradition of popular radicalism, which stressed that there was as much nobility in the labor of an honest man as in the educated speeches of a gentleman. With references to this egalitarian tradition, Cade mobilizes the anger of the commoners against the nobles, directing most of his violence against those can who read or write.
Yet Cade contradicts these same egalitarian claims by insisting that he will someday be king, and from his mouth will come the new law of the land. His army seems to recognize his hypocrisy, but they don't mind it, as they are stirred on by their dislike of the nobles. And for their part, the nobles too show contempt for other classes. Suffolk is irritated that his captors don't release him when he reveals his identity, and he insists that no one so low could kill him -- of course they do.
Hence Henry's weakness creates risk for the kingdom, but not only from its most disenfranchised members among the common people. Though Cade is shown to be a despicable and vicious character, his death doesn't end the threat of civil war; the real danger to England lies in the ambition of the nobles of the court.
And there are schemes and plots to go around. Buckingham, Somerset and Suffolk plot against Gloucester; Somerset and York vie for power; York allies with Salisbury and Warwick against the other lords; Suffolk and Margaret want to bring all the other nobles down, so that they will be able to reign through the puppet figure of Henry. By the end of the play, enough people have been killed that the sole conflict has dwindled to the struggle between York and Henry. York, with a white rose as his emblem, stakes claim on the throne as the heir of the third son of Edward III. Meanwhile Henry, a Lancaster with a red rose as the emblem of his house, has been the hereditary heir to the throne, but he is the heir of the fourth son of Edward III. York believes a crime was committed when the Lancasters came to the throne and killed king Richard II, a crime which many of Shakespeare's contemporaries blamed for the bloody years of the fifteenth century.