Henry VI, Part 1 | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Henry VI, Part 1 | Act 2, Scene 5 | Summary

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Summary

Galled by his treatment in the Temple Gardens, Richard Plantagenet goes to the Tower of London to visit his aged uncle Edmund Mortimer, who has been imprisoned there for many years. Before Plantagenet arrives, Mortimer gives a gloomy monologue about the ravages of old age. He is cheered a little by news of his nephew's visit, though he remarks to himself that Plantagenet has suffered much by being "obscured, deprived of honor and inheritance." Plantagenet enters the room and, after exchanging pleasantries with his uncle, asks Mortimer for the truth about his father's death. Mortimer replies that Plantagenet's father was killed for his role in an uprising, the goal of which was to install Mortimer as the next king of England. His claim, Mortimer says, was a legitimate one, but the forces of Henry IV (and later Henry V) proved too strong. Thus it befell that the titles of Duke of York and Earl of Cambridge were suppressed, rather than passed down the Mortimer family line.

Sensing his imminent death, Mortimer urges Plantagenet to be discreet in his dealings with the House of Lancaster. He bestows his blessing upon his nephew, then expires peacefully. Plantagenet is not overly saddened by his uncle's passing: the old man, he reasons, has spent much of his life in captivity and is now finally free.

Analysis

Act 2, Scene 4 showed the immediate state of the dispute between York and Lancaster. In this scene Shakespeare "zooms out" and gives the audience the backstory. The antagonists in Mortimer's narrative—Henry IV and Henry V—are members of the House of Lancaster, descended from John of Gaunt. Mortimer, in contrast, claims descent from Lionel, Duke of Clarence, John's older brother. According to the system of male-preference primogeniture, this puts Mortimer and his descendants before the Lancastrians in order of succession to the throne. The Lancastrians, however, overthrew Richard II by force of arms and had ruled ever since.

Thus, England in the time of Henry VI has two competing dynasties: the House of Lancaster, which is new to the throne and seeking to establish its legitimacy, and the House of York, which has a hereditary claim on the throne but lacks the means to enforce it. The execution and imprisonment of Yorkists under Henry IV and Henry V was thus part of a campaign to suppress potential rivals for the crown, ultimately leading to a situation in which the Lancastrians ruled by default. In restoring Richard to his ancestral titles, as he will do in Act 3, Henry VI is unraveling the work begun by his father and grandfather.

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