The middle play of the Henry VI trilogy is all about the jostling for power that takes place in the run-up to civil war and in its early days. Some bits of the first half were the kind of Shakespeare I like least, in which the Earl of Whatsit and the Duke of Wherever go on and on in I'm-especially-good-at-expostulating fashion.
Act IV, though, was something completely different. John Cade first appears on the stage in Act IV, ushering in a sequence that reminded me of nothing so much as, again, the Coen Brothers. It's not unusual for Shakespeare to sprinkle funny scenes into a tragedy, like this bit in Macbeth where the porter complains about the way that drinking boosts desire and impairs performance. In my experience, though, those episodes are usually extraneous and are often excised. (I have that example at the ready because I still remember my astonishment on discovering it. As a high school senior I read Act III at home in my dad's Complete Works, and then learned the next day that the porter's scene had been edited right out of my English text. Bowdlerization! I couldn't believe it!)
John Cade is like nothing I remember seeing in Shakespeare: every bit as bumbling as Dogberry and his ilk, but loaded for bear with an army of commoners at his back. His scenes are hilarious, but it's black, black humor. Although these events date from more than 500 years ago, they spark timely questions given our current political climate -- in particular, what equips a person to govern? Shakespeare derides the idea that an unlettered man could lead. (2 Henry VI is the source of the quote "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers"; it's a proposal from one of Cade's followers, all of whom view education with suspicion.) On the other hand, in scenes reminiscent of modern-day debates about the "liberal elite," Henry is described as overly fond of books and is clearly ineffectual. He is too passive, the grasping Richard too vulpine.
Shakespeare doesn't offer an easy answer to the questions he raises. Henry's uncle, the good Lord Protector who has served in that office since Henry was a baby, yields up his staff of authority. His wife is worried; he dismisses her fears. He tells her "And had I twenty times so many foes, / And each of them had twenty times their power, / All these could not procure me any scathe / So long as I am loyal, true, and crimeless." His reward for decades of faithful service? He is murdered in his bed. It's a troubled place, 15th-century England.