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Henry VI, Part 2 | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Henry VI, Part 2 | Symbols


Henry VI, Part 1 introduced the famous red and white roses, symbols of the rival Houses of York and Lancaster. These badges retain their importance in Part 2, appearing from Act 1 onward as visual indicators of the noblemen's allegiances. In dialogue the rose imagery of Part 2 is less heavily embellished than in the previous play; nor are the roses themselves as numerous as they will be in Part 3. Nonetheless the Yorkist and Lancastrian roses grow in importance as England veers toward civil war.

White Rose of York

Back in Part 1 Richard, Duke of York (then Richard Plantagenet) plucked a white rose in the Temple Gardens and demanded his followers do the same. York returns to this image in the first soliloquy of Part 2 (Act 1, Scene 1), wherein he vows to supplant King Henry and "raise aloft the milk-white rose,/With whose sweet smell the air shall be perfumed." The image of a rose releasing its perfume into the air underscores York's eagerness to claim the throne openly, "rais[ing] aloft" the emblem that—for now—he must carefully hide.

Of the three men who plucked the white rose with York in the earlier play, the most powerful by far was the Earl of Warwick, known in English history as the "Kingmaker." In Part 2 Warwick reaffirms his loyalty to York after hearing the duke's claim to the English crown. Warwick's father, the Earl of Salisbury, joins the Yorkist faction in the same scene (Act 2, Scene 2) and wears the white rose in his onstage appearances thereafter. Late in the play York's sons Edward and Richard are introduced; they too bear the badge of the House of York, signaling that the Wars of the Roses will not begin and end with a single generation.

Red Rose of Lancaster

Despite his status as king, Henry VI begins the trilogy as a peripheral figure in the York/Lancaster quarrel, which Part 1 presents mainly as a rival between York and the Duke of Somerset. In the earlier play Henry foreshadows his role in the conflict by donning a red rose, a gesture that undercuts his claims of neutrality and confirms his allegiance to his ancestral house. Somerset, who remains a powerful rival to York until the end of Part 2, wears a red rose from Act 1 onward. So does the Duke of Suffolk, who is Somerset's main supporter in the Temple Garden dispute of Part 1. The other major Lancastrian figures, Lord Clifford and his son, are new to Part 2; Clifford the elder dies within a few scenes of being introduced, but his son will prove to be a ruthless adversary to the Yorkists in Part 3.

The Red Team MVP, however, is Queen Margaret, who dons the Lancastrian red rose only in Act 5. This delayed declaration of loyalties may reflect Margaret's desire to rule from the shadows, with the dukes and earls underestimating her to their peril. On the other hand it may be a simple oversight; Shakespeare, like other playwrights of his time, is not known for the preciseness of his stage directions. Whatever her motives, Margaret emerges as the de facto ruler of the Lancastrians in Part 3, when her husband's inability to rule becomes apparent to all. In that play roses of both colors multiply prodigiously.

The Lord Protector's Staff

The York and Lancaster roses are present throughout Henry VI, Part 2, but they take on their greatest significance at the play's end, when war finally erupts. The staff wielded by the Duke of Gloucester is a less partisan emblem of authority, reminiscent of a time when the divisions among the nobility were less serious and reconciliation seemed possible. As Lord Protector, Gloucester carries the staff with him to signal his status as acting head of state until Henry is old enough to rule. His onstage actions and speeches present him as a wise and fair regent, though his political opponents accuse him of abusing his power and leaving England open to foreign influence.

In Act 1, Scene 2 Gloucester has "troublous dreams" in which his staff is broken in two by an unidentified figure, possibly his uncle the cardinal. This signals an abrupt end to his tenure as Lord Protector: in ensuing scenes Gloucester's enemies (including Queen Margaret) convince the king that he is old enough to govern without supervision. Henry, giving in to their influence, asks for Gloucester's resignation, and the duke obeys with a heavy heart. Later in Act 3, Scene 1 Gloucester makes a last glancing allusion to his staff as the "crutch" that supported the weak King Henry. Without the crutch, he argues, the king will not be able to stand against the wolfish nobles who now surround him.

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