BB: Henry VI Part 1, Act II

Season’s greetings from snowed-in Montreal, and welcome Brawlers to this second episode of Henry VI, part 1!

Artwork - Stephanie E.M. Coleman
Artwork – Stephanie E.M. Coleman

Listen to the podcast – here

The action picks up where we left off at the end of our last show. As we start act II, the English army is gathered outside of Orleans, having just been driven off by Joan of Arc and the Dauphin’s forces. They accuse the French forces of consorting with witches and demons but believe that if they place their trust in God, their next attack will be successful. Talbot orders a coordinated attack from multiple fronts. His night attack catches the French forces unawares. They accuse Joan la Pucelle of delivering only temporary gains but she berates them for their lack of patience as they run off to gather their forces for battle.

Thanks to their surprise attack, the English rout the French by the start of scene 2. However, Talbot calls off the chase in order to secure his forces’ hold on the city. As the English commanders discuss preparation for Salisbury’s funeral, a messenger arrives with an invitation from the Countess of Auvergne. She wishes to set her eyes on the man who fills the French with such terror. While chivalry compels him to accept her invitation, he whispers something to one of his captains which suggests he suspects some sort of trap.

Sure enough, our suspicions our confirmed at the very start of scene 3 when the Countess speaks of a plot which will make her as famous as Tomryris: Tomyris had the Persian Emperor Cyrus beheaded (and then stuck it in a wineskin filled with blood). When Talbot arrives, the Countess of Auvergne is surprised to discover that he’s a dwarf of a man, not the awe-inspiring Hercules or Hector she imagined. insulted by his hostess, Talbot makes to leave but she informs him that he is now her prisoner. However, Talbot blows in his horn and a bunch of his soldiers show up, ready to fight. She apologizes and offers to treat them as honoured guests.

The play finally shifts back to England in act II, scene 4. This is possibly the most famous scene of this play and marks the ‘official’ start of the War of the Roses, where the two camps are formalized. Richard Plantagenet, the Earl of Somerset, and a few other lords are consulting with some lawyers at the Temple-Garden in London. (The Temple-Garden was the center for the study of law in London at that time.) Each – Plantagenet (Yorkist) and Somerset (Lancastrian) is essentially pleading their case to with the lawyers there as to which of them has the greater right to the throne. As the lawyers seem unable (or unwilling) pronounce a clear judgement, they take matters into their own hands. Plantagenet asks that any who believe his interpretation of the law (that he should be king) should show their allegiance by plucking a white rose out of one of the rose bushes in the garden. In response, Somerset asks that any who would support his claim to the throne should pick a red rose instead. Vernon, one of the lawyers, tries to prevent an escalation by having them swear that they two claimants will let the majority carry the day but their contest quickly devolves into threats of violence. In particular the grounds of their disagreement is this: Richard Plantagenet feels that he has the stronger case because his line is closer to the throne; however, Somerset points out that Plantagenet’s father, the Earl of Cambridge, was executed for treason and stripped of all of his titles. In the end, they both vow to gather their forces and fight it out.

We follow Richard Plantagenet as he makes his way to the Tower of London, in act II, scene 5, where he is to visit with his dying uncle. We are introduced to the character of Mortimer, who appears only in this scene. (For those of you who have read Henry VI part 1, this is the same Mortimer who betrays the Lancastrian King Henry IV and joins with the rebels.) Despite having only the one scene in the play, he is a very important character: it is through Mortimer’s death-bed confessions that Plantagenet learns exactly how closely related to the throne he is. As Richard II had no sons, Mortimer was next in line to inherit the throne at his death. However, Richard II was deposed by the man who would become Henry IV. Mortimer declares Richard Plantagenet his closest heir which makes him the next rightful heir. Mortimer then dies.

The rose plucking scene in this act is a true work of genius.

This is a history play. We expect a certain degree of fidelity to the history on which it’s based. The siege of Orleans, Joan of Arc, Winchester and Gloucester’s feud, Mortimer’s long imprisonment in the tower: these all happened. Sure, Shakespeare compresses the action in the play (they didn’t happen in the two hours or so which it takes to stage the two first acts of the play) but the basics and the timeline remain more or less intact. Shakespeare also goes to great lengths to show how the wars in France are connected to and undermined by the division at home. It’s a convincing if accelerated chronicle of the events which gave England the shape it has to this day.

What makes this rose picking scene amazing, however, is that it never happened!

Before this play, the title The War of the Roses was applied to the prolonged and ongoing conflict which defined Henry VI’s reign because the two main houses involved sported roses in their family heraldry. Shakespeare’s stroke of brilliance was taking these iconic emblems and transforming them into literal markers of allegiance. That done, he can let his poetic imagination loose on all of the possibilities imagining these emblems as real roses makes available.

The play doesn’t provide us with any stage direction to this effect, but I can just imagine how striking it would have been to have these two factions take shape: Plantagenet picks a white rose and places it in one of his button holes. Somerset responds by taking a red rose and doing the same. From that point forward, there can be no undecided nobles, no neutral players. No one can remain indifferent and even the lawyers are forced to pick sides. (Vernon and the nameless lawyer, incidentally, pick white roses.) England and its aristocracy is split down the middle.

With the simple act of picking flowers the battle lines are drawn and the players and their loyalties displayed for everyone to see.

Shakespeare not only manages to dramatize what is essentially a legal dispute, he gives the audience all of the information it needs to understand the basic nature of the rift: one side claims their decent from the line of kings which was overthrown by Henry VI’s ancestor Henry Bolingbroke, the other disavows that claims based on the fact that the ancestor through which the other claims descent was hanged as a traitor. In about 130 lines Shakespeare shows us the teams, their reasons for fighting, how we’ll recognise them, and a taste of how bad things are likely to get.

Not to mention, the scene contains some absolute gems in the exchanges between Richard Plantagenet and Somerset, many of which revolve around the figure of these literal roses: thorns, cankers, white cheeks turning red, white roses stained red with the blood of the vanquished, the purity of white as absence of colour. Here’s just a short sample:

Here in my scabbard, meditating that / Shall dye your white rose [of York] in a bloody red.
Meantime your cheeks do counterfeit our roses; / For pale they look with fear, as witnessing / The truth on our side.
No, Plantagenet, ‘Tis not for fear but anger that thy cheeks / Blush for pure shame to counterfeit our [red Lancastrian] roses, / And yet thy tongue will not confess thy error.

Now that’s good stuff, even by Shakespearean standards.

Next week: Act III where we will be reunited with our old friends Winchester and Gloucester!

You won’t want to miss it!

Our bonus sonnet – sonnet 21 – is read this week by Sonneteer Esther Viragh.

(Podcast recorded and edited by Daniel J. Rowe. Show notes by Eric Jean.)

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