Saturday, January 22, 2011

Jarring Discord of Nobility

And here I prophesy: this brawl to-day,
Grown to this faction in the Temple-garden,
Shall send between the red rose and the white
A thousand souls to death and deadly night.

(Henry VI part 1, 2.4.1601-1604)

This speech, spoken by the Earl of Warwick about the quarrel between the supporters of the house of York (represented by the symbol of a white rose) and the house of Lancaster (represented by a red rose), underscores the central conflict in Henry VI, part 1. While at first it seems that the play will concentrate upon the war that England is waging in France, we soon see that there is much more going on behind the scenes. Although heroes such as Talbot are fighting for their lives in France, struggling and spilling blood for the glory of England against the foreign enemy, back home there is risk of blood being shed in quite another cause - the nobles are at each others' throats. Pride and jealousy among a group of powerful men, combined with a lack of leadership from a young and weak King, allows the seeds of conflict to grow that will lead to the Wars of the Roses - a conflict that will rip the country apart.

We see this theme of treachery and jealousy leading to downfall again and again throughout the play. The whole tone of the play is very unsettled; all throughout, even to the very end of the story, we have the threat of unresolved grudges that will lead to violence. (That's why we have to be sure and catch Henry VI part 2!) We see the proud Winchester plotting violence and civil war for England:

I'll either make thee stoop and bend thy knee,
Or sack this country with a mutiny.


The atmosphere in England, as seen by this speech as well through such incidents as the death of Mortimer, a political prisoner who rotted away his life in a cell, is poisonous. Thus, although the English that die in the wars in France breathe their last far from their homes, away from friends, family and the place where they were born, their very distance from the political turmoil in England allows them the confidence that they feel in their duty, and their hope for the future:

Come, side by side together live and die.
And soul with soul from France to heaven fly.


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