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Henry VI, Part 3 | Symbols

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Over the course of the Henry VI trilogy, Shakespeare makes increasingly heavy use of the famous red and white roses: family symbols of the House of Lancaster and the House of York, respectively. The origin of these floral badges is explained in Part 1, where the emblems are steeped in conventional color symbolism by those who wear them. York, when he plucks the white rose, speaks to the purity of his cause; Somerset, the initial leader of the Lancastrian faction, muses on his color's association with blood, passion, and violence.

Throughout the first two plays, the roses are worn only by the leaders of each faction. By the time of Part 3, however, nearly all of England seems to be involved in the war, and the roses themselves have become common. Moreover, as allegiances change, characters switch the color of rose they wear, providing audiences with a handy way of identifying the rival factions on a frequently crowded stage.

White Rose of York

At the beginning of the play, Richard, Duke of York, is the leader of the eponymous Yorkist faction. He and his followers enter the stage in triumph after the Battle of Saint Albans, all sporting white roses. After York's death, his sons Edward, Richard, and George (later Duke of Clarence) will continue to wear the rose as a symbol of family and factional unity; their followers, including the Duke of Norfolk and Lord Hastings, will do the same. Richard, with his penchant for violence, voices a wish to "dye" his white rose "in the lukewarm blood of Henry's heart." He gets his chance in the penultimate scene of Act 5. Rutland, the duke's youngest son, conspicuously lacks a white rose, perhaps to signal his status as a noncombatant.

The Earl of Warwick, the most influential of the Yorkists after the duke himself, has been with the White Team almost since the beginning of Part 2. In Part 3 he is instrumental in bringing King Edward IV to power (hence his historical nickname "the Kingmaker"). Warwick throws aside his white rose in Act 3, however, after Edward offends him one time too many; to signal the change he dons a red rose when next he appears onstage. The Duke of Clarence does the same in Act 4, after an apparent loss of faith in his brother's ability to govern fairly and effectively.

Red Rose of Lancaster

Like their Yorkist enemies, the Lancastrians wear their own badge—a red rose—consistently throughout the play. King Henry is the first to appear onstage with this symbol; his wife, Queen Margaret, and their son, Prince Edward, follow suit. They are joined by the earls of Northumberland, Westmorland, and Exeter—and eventually (after Act 4) by Clarence and Somerset as well. In the play's early acts, a particularly prominent Red Rose partisan is Lord Clifford; he, however, is motivated not by loyalty to Lancaster but by an overmastering hatred of the House of York.

It is Henry, not coincidentally, who makes the play's most thoughtful and sustained reference to the rose symbolism. Eulogizing the death of a common soldier, he declares:

The red rose and the white are on his face,
The fatal colors of our striving houses;
The one his purple blood right well resembles,
The other his pale cheeks methinks presenteth.
Wither one rose and let the other flourish;
If you contend, a thousand lives must wither.

In this scene Henry comes to realize—at least momentarily—the true extent of the chaos and violence that underlie the innocuous emblem of the rose. This epiphany may make him a more empathetic human being, but it does nothing to galvanize his will to fight. Indeed it is not even clear which rose Henry wishes to "wither" and which to "flourish"; he may even be willing to accept his own defeat so long as it brings an end to the war.

The Paper Crown

Crowns are donned and doffed with alarming speed throughout Henry VI, Part 3. For the most part these coronations and "de-coronations" involve the actual Crown of England and symbolize the tradeoff of power between the Yorkists and the Lancastrians. In Act 1, Scene 4, however, the act of coronation is turned to sarcastic purpose by Queen Margaret, who places a paper crown on the head of her vanquished adversary, the Duke of York. Her subsequent speech to York makes it clear that the crown is meant to humiliate him by commemorating his failure to seize the real thing:

Ay, marry, sir, now looks he like a king.
Ay, this is he that took King Henry's chair,
And this is he was his adopted heir.
But how is it that great Plantagenet
Is crowned so soon and broke his solemn oath?

Everything about this episode—the singsong tone, the mock-heroic forms of address, even the tiny hillock on which York stands—is dripping with derision. The entire faux-coronation episode also strongly parallels the events preceding the Crucifixion, as recounted in the Gospels. Like the Crown of Thorns, the paper crown furnished by Queen Margaret is intended to ridicule the wearer and his pretensions to kingship; moreover, as in the Bible, the crowning is a mere prelude to the torture and execution of the condemned. The audience likely knows too much about York to see him as a particularly Christ-like figure, especially if they've seen or read Part 2; still, Margaret's performance here symbolically aligns her with Jesus's persecutors. This can hardly have been a flattering comparison in the eyes of Shakespeare's English contemporaries, who were almost universally Christian.

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