The reason it took me so long to read this play was because after I read it the first time I felt that I had to go back and read it again to at least do it justice. As we all know Shakespeare is not the easiest author to read and moreso, being a playwright, it is a lot more difficult. Plays are not the easiest forms of literature to read because they are designed to be acted, which is a shame because a lot of plays that I would like to see, which includes Shakespeare and Bernard Shaw among others, are simply not performed. This play is an example of one that generally is not performed, though I do understand that the BBC did produce pretty much all of them for television (though I must admit that I was not all that thrilled with the early BBC productions).
The play begins sometime after the conclusion of the first play, but has a rather odd ending. It sounds to me like the Queen saying to the King, 'come, let us go'. As such it did not come across as much of a cliff hanger, though it is very clear that by the end of the play the War of the Roses had begun. In essence this play is the beginning of the War of the Roses rather than background as the first play was, which leads me to accept that this play (and the following) were written prior to the first.
There is quite a lot in this play and once again it seems that Shakespeare may have overextended himself, which is probably why the play was split into two. We also need to remember that this was when he was still starting out as a playwright, however it is also believed that it was not so much Shakespeare's handywork, but a collaboration of a group of people from which Shakespeare simply ended up taking all the credit (which is not surprising since he has come down as one of England's, and indeed history's, greatest playwrights).
The first part of this play has a lot of political intrigue. Henry marries Margaret but is still under the regency of Gloucester who does not want to let go of the regency (much to the queen's annoyance). It comes across clearly that Henry is not a strong king, and he knows that, and I guess that is where his fatal flaw lies. The weakness of the king, and the tenuousness of his claim to the throne, is what leads England on the path of civil war. It is clear that there is a lot of anger towards Henry at him giving up English territories to France (which were technically rightfully France's in the first place). However, there is a discussion about his rightful claim to the throne and this dispute goes back to the reign of Richard II who was removed by Henry Bollingbroke (who went on to become Henry IV). As such York, who is a descendant of Richard II, believes that he is the rightful heir to the throne and seeing that the current king is weak he begins to make his move.
In this first part we also see a movement to get rid of Gloucester, who is actually quite a capable and influential regent, though we note that he willingly gives up his position in favour of the king. It is not the king that actually wants him to give it up but rather the queen, who is obviously annoyed that she is not married to the absolute ruler of the kingdom. It is also interesting that she has connections with Suffolk, who appears to be on the side of the Yorkists, though it is also clear that if the Yorkists were to win, then she would no longer to queen (apparently).
The way they remove Gloucester involves entrapping his wife with a group of occultists who summon a spirit to give them a glimpse of the future. This in a way echoes what will happen in Macbeth as the spirit promises her rulership, but in such a vague way that it is not clear what happens. Not surprisingly the spirit turns out quite deceitful, and Gloucester's wife is caught and executed for witchcraft, but that also goes to undermine Gloucester's position as he is arrested and exiled due to his wife's connections with necromancy. Needless to say he does not survive.
The second part of this play has the Yorkists sent off to crush a rebellion in Ireland, but before they go they begin another rebellion in England. A man named John Cade raises an army of commoners and successfully marches on London. This is clearly the Yorkists testing to waters to see whether the population will rally around the king. In essence Cade is a scapegoat because if he succeeds, then the Yorkists will no doubt move in, remove him, and build on his success. However if he fails (which ends up happening as the population, at the last opportunity, turn and rally around the king) then the Yorkists are forwardend.
I want to finish off by pointing out that this play has another of Shakespeare's relatively unknown, and rather amusing lines: first of all we must kill all of the lawyers. Much of the Cade scenes (which comprise all of act 4) are rather comical, but that is because we are seeing a lot of commoners here, who were generally seen as an ignorant and bumbling lot. However killing the lawyers during a rebellion is not surprising because they, through their fine sounding arguments, can cause a lot of problems for the new government. So, obviously, they need to be removed. Further, this rebellion echoes modern politics as while modern politics are no where near as violent as this period, when there is an attempted takeover there is always that act of testing the water. However, unlike those days, a failed coup (as happened with Paul Keating) can result in the person moving to the back bench, licking his wounds, and preparing for the next assault at the leadership.