Henry VI, Part 1 | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Henry VI, Part 1 | Act 2, Scene 4 | Summary

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Summary

This scene, one of the best-known in Shakespeare, takes place in London's Old Temple Gardens. Richard Plantagenet, a disinherited descendant of the House of York, is quarreling with the Duke of Somerset over some unnamed legal issue. This is a fitting place for such a dispute: the gardens get their name from the neighboring Middle and Inner Temple, centers of legal activity in early modern England. Also present are the Earl of Warwick, the Earl of Suffolk, a gentleman named Vernon, and an unnamed Lawyer.

Plantagenet and Somerset ask the others for their opinion on the case, but neither Suffolk nor Warwick is willing to give a clear answer. Frustrated, Plantagenet plucks a white rose from one of the garden's rosebushes and instructs those who favor his cause to do the same. Somerset responds by plucking a red rose. One by one, the lords and gentlemen declare their allegiances by plucking roses: Warwick, Vernon, and the Lawyer join the "white" team, while Suffolk sides with Somerset on the "red" team.

Realizing he is outnumbered, Somerset tries a different tactic: insulting Plantagenet on the grounds of his rank. Plantagenet, as Somerset eagerly points out, is a mere yeoman (i.e., not a knight or a nobleman), since his father (the Earl of Cambridge) was executed for treason and the family line was legally suppressed. Having scored points against Plantagenet in this fashion, Somerset turns heel and exits, accompanied by Suffolk. Warwick consoles Richard with the thought that he may yet be restored to his hereditary titles. He promises to intercede on Plantagenet's behalf at the next parliament.

Analysis

The quarrel in the Temple Gardens is one of the most famous incidents leading up to the Wars of the Roses. It is the subject of Henry Albert Payne's mural Plucking the Red and White Roses (c. 1910), which adorns the East Corridor of the Palace of Westminster. This iconic painting, done in a late Pre-Raphaelite style, takes some liberties with costuming, but it gets the essentials right. Somerset wears a disgusted sneer and reaches for his sword; Plantagenet has a defiant, determined expression on his face and thrusts the white rose forward almost like a weapon.

As evocative as Shakespeare's dramatization may be, the Temple Garden dispute almost certainly did not happen in the way the play depicts it. In fact it may not have taken place at all: a curator for the British Parliament's art collection describes the scene as "an event that supposedly happened in the mid-15th century but in all likelihood was produced by Tudor propagandists and popularized by Shakespeare." If it did happen, historian John Ashdown-Hill suggests, the Temple Garden quarrel likely took place in the spring of 1455, mere months before the Wars of the Roses officially began.

Whatever its origins, the Temple Garden scene is a moment of crisis for the English nobility. What looks like an inconsequential tiff between Richard Plantagenet and the Duke of Somerset is, in fact, a thin fault line dividing the Houses of Lancaster and York. That fault line will deepen throughout the remainder of the trilogy, leading to betrayal in Part 1, civil war in Part 2, and regime change in Part 3.

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