Henry VI, Part 1 | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Henry VI, Part 1 | Symbols

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The two most prominent symbols in Henry VI, Part 1 are the colored roses that denote the York and Lancaster factions. Throughout the play these floral emblems help the audience to keep track of the characters' party allegiances on an often crowded stage. They also serve as a visual reminder of the growing partisan rift among England's nobility and gentry.

White Rose of York

Act 2, Scene 4 marks the formal beginning of the conflict that erupts into the Wars of the Roses. In maintaining his side of a legal quarrel against the Duke of Somerset, Richard Plantagenet invites his followers to pluck white roses from the rosebushes in the Temple Gardens. The Earl of Warwick, initially hesitant to choose a side, plucks a white rose to declare his allegiance to Plantagenet's cause; the gentleman Vernon and an unnamed Lawyer do the same. Plantagenet is descended from the Dukes of York and (after Act 3, Scene 1) holds that title in his own right. Thus, his followers are described as Yorkists or the House of York.

In placing these two colors of roses within the Temple Gardens, Shakespeare is simply following tradition. For Plantagenet and his followers, however, the color of the roses is far from coincidental: to them the white rose represents purity and innocence. Vernon calls it a "pale and maiden blossom," reflecting the "truth and plainness" of Plantagenet's case. For Warwick the white rose symbolizes a lack of flattery or falsehood: punning on the rose's lack of hue, he declares himself a man who "love[s] no colors," meaning he is not interested in mere appearances.

Red Rose of Lancaster

Like the Yorkist white rose, the red rose first appears in the Temple Garden scene (Act 2, Scene 4). Somerset plucks a rose of this color, and his supporter Suffolk follows suit as a show of solidarity. The red rose is commonly described as a Lancastrian symbol, which may seem odd given that there is no character named Lancaster or Duke of Lancaster in the Henry VI plays. This reflects the fact that, by the time depicted in this trilogy, the Duchy of Lancaster had been merged with the crown. Thus Henry VI himself is technically the Duke of Lancaster, though he is never referred to as such. (Henry does, however, signal his connection to Somerset's faction in Act 4, Scene 1 when he dons a red rose in the course of a peacemaking speech.) Somerset, though not strictly the head of the House of Lancaster, is one of its senior members and is older and more politically experienced than his royal cousin. Other prominent Lancastrians in this play include the Duke of Gloucester and the Duke of Bedford, though neither is closely involved in the York/Somerset quarrel.

Somerset and his followers invest the red rose with its own symbolic properties, making it more than just a convenient team color. As is pointed out multiple times in the Temple Garden scene, red is the color of blood—the blood that causes enemies to blush when they are caught in a lie and that is spilled with increasing frequency in England throughout the Henry VI trilogy. By emphasizing this sanguinary quality, Shakespeare molds the audience's impression of the two faction leaders, painting Somerset as the more hotheaded and violent of the two rivals. It is Somerset, for example, who threatens to "dye [the] white rose in a bloody red" when he realizes that he is outnumbered by the Yorkists.

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