Henry VI Part 1: Act II, scenes 4-5

Next we see a creative – and somewhat on the nose – portrayal of the start of the War of the Roses, a bloody fight for the throne that would last for decades. I will post about the complex family relationships that fueled the War in a blog tomorrow, but for now we will see the groundwork as Shakespeare laid it.

Key words, people, and phrases

Richard Plantagenet: represents the York claim to the throne. He was descended from two of Edward III’s sons, and so had a strong claim to the throne of England.

Earl of Somerset: represents the Lancastarian line, which includes Henry VI.

Daw: a foolish bird

Peevish: silly, childish, thoughtless

Yeoman: not a gentleman

Edmund Mortimer: Richard Plantagenet’s uncle who attempted to seize the throne for himself and was imprisoned in the tower.

Scene 4 Summary

Richard, Somerset, Suffolk, Warwick, Vernon, and a lawyer walk out into a garden, explaining that they were too loud in the law library to stay, so they decided to discuss the legality of Richard’s claim outside in the garden. Definitely for noise reasons and not so they would be conveniently positioned next to some roses. While the specifics of the argument are not stated in the scene, it is safe to assume that it involves the succession and Richard’s arguably superior claim to the throne.

Richard and Somerset press the others in their company to take sides. No one is willing to openly choose sides because the argument alone could be considered treasonous, so Richard proposes a silent test. Those who agree with Richard are to pluck a white rose and those who agree with Somerset a red. This visual metaphor is so on the nose it is almost painful. Anyway, Suffolk chooses red – the side of the King’s family – everyone else chooses white.

Somerset and Suffolk point out that Richard is not even a nobleman because he and his family were stripped of all titles when his father committed treason. Warwick defends Richard with his mother’s lineage, since her family descends from the third son, and Henry’s from the fourth. After the others depart, Warwick promises that Richard’s rightful title will be restored at the next session of parliament.

Scene 5 Summary

Just in case you don’t know the entire family history of Richard Plantagenet and his family, here’s a scene explaining the whole backstory. Edward Mortimer, Richard’s uncle, laments how his years have been wasted in the tower and how his poor nephew has been forced to deal with the consequences of his actions. In reality, Edmund was placed on house arrest under Henry IV, released by Henry V, and died in Ireland at the age of 34. However, in this play he has been imprisoned for decades and is very old.

Richard arrives to see his elderly, dying uncle and asks him why Richard’s father was beheaded. Edmund explains that Henry IV’s usurpation of the throne from Richard II did not sit well with many people, especially in the North. They felt that since Edmund was descended from Lionel, the next oldest son of Edward III, he was the rightful heir. (I know this is complex, but I will clarify more tomorrow) Richard II was descended from the first son, and Henry IV from the fourth son. Unfortunately for Edmund, his coup failed and he was imprisoned. Later, Richard’s father tried to raise an army to install Edmund on the throne, but he also failed and was beheaded.

Edmund cautions Richard against being to rash as he tries to establish his family’s claim. Edmund then dies and Richard inherits all of his lands, name, and fortunes. It is now critical for Richard to restore his title because what good is this inheritance if he is a nobody. Plus, he’s the new Edmund, the rightful heir to the throne.

Discussion Questions and Activities 

  1. Keep expanding that family tree and try to understand how inheritance claims shaped the War of the Roses.
  2. Start keeping track of how is on which side.
  3. Try to think of heavy handed metaphors for other historical conflicts!
  4. Research the conditions of Tower imprisonment, particularly for nobles.

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