Somerset spends most of this play antagonizing Richard. Somerset's from the house of Lancaster, which symbolized by the red rose, while Richard's from the house of York, symbolized by the white rose. Their squabbling underlines the fact that civil war between the two houses is about to break out not long after the conclusion of this play. We don't see it, but we know it's coming, the way we know Anakin is going to grow up and become Darth Vader when we watch Star Wars: Episode 1.
Somerset himself is a sore loser and a bit of a bully. He agrees that he'll give up the quarrel if Richard wins the rose contest, but keeps on wrangling even after most of those present agree with Richard. He also picks on Richard about losing his family title when his father was executed for treason, which is just plain mean.
Later in the play, the quarrel has serious consequences when Somerset and York can't work together well enough to send Talbot reinforcements. Talbot dies in battle as a result, as does his young son John. Somerset does make a belated attempt to send help, but it's not soon enough—his resentment for York has already caused collateral damage.
Ah, Suffolk. He's a character all right. Suffolk has one of the least promising plans in a play that, let's face it, has some unpromising plans. An English nobleman who captures Margaret, he thinks she's hot and wants to marry her. One problem: Suffolk is already married.
Undaunted by this detail, Suffolk gets a bright idea: He'll get Henry to marry Margaret instead. This way Suffolk can still woo her, but on behalf of the king. Any middle school kid could tell you this isn't going to go well, but Suffolk goes on and negotiates the deal with Margaret's father anyway. He's just that into her.
And luckily for Suffolk, when he suggests Henry should marry Margaret, Henry thinks it's a grand plan. Suffolk leaves out the bit about wanting to have an affair with Henry's queen-to-be, of course—he may be love struck but he's not stupid. Even though Henry has to jilt a richer woman with better political connections to marry Margaret, he decides to do it (for more on what this means about Henry's intellect, be sure to read up on him elsewhere in this section).
Suffolk is thrilled by all this, and ends the play hoping that he'll be able to influence Henry to do whatever he wants by having an affair with Margaret. Yep, that's actually his plan. Oh yeah, and he compares himself to Paris, the Trojan prince who caused the destruction of his own city by stealing a king's wife. So on second thought, maybe he is kind of stupid—only a dim bulb would lay claim to that comparison, after all.
Mortimer has a small but important role in this play. He's sort of like that messenger who staggers in with an arrow in his chest and gasps out a life-changing secret just before he slumps over and breathes his last. Okay, yes, in Mortimer's case he dies of old age—but before he does he tells Richard a story that changes his life. So the effect's the same.
What's that story? Well, as it turns out, Mortimer likely had a better claim to the throne than Henry VI's grandfather, Henry IV (not too creative on names in that family). And guess what? Mortimer says Richard is his heir. Hmm… the heir of the rightful heir to the throne is—you guessed it—the heir to the throne. The fact that Richard is thinking about this doesn't come home to roost in this play, but it will down the road. So while Mortimer's appearance may be short, it packs a punch that lingers.
Sir John Fastolfe is bad at his job. That's because his job, as a member of a special order known as the Knights of the Garter, involves being super courageous, which Fastolfe is definitely not. He's the kind of guy who runs away from battles, even battles where his side is winning. It's no wonder the brave Talbot gets fed up with him and tears off the garter that serves as Fastolfe's badge of office.
Talbot's son, John Talbot comes to learn war from his father. He gets a grim lesson, but he passes with flying colors. Despite multiple opportunities to escape what becomes a blood bath, John Talbot stays, and he and his father defend each other to the death, finally going out in a blaze of glory when the French forces overwhelm them. They die fighting for each other and their country, acting out the ideals of loyalty and courage the English want to be associated with in the play.
He's totally the brave, courteous, fresh-faced young guy who you just know is going to get killed defending someone else in battle. There's one in pretty much every war film, but though we sense it coming, it doesn't change the sorrow we feel when he dies. Tear.
Margaret doesn't get to do very much in this play. She's captured by Suffolk and agrees to marry King Henry VI. She seems to have a pretty sensible and straightforward approach to things, trying to negotiate a ransom with Suffolk before she realizes he wants her to marry the King of England. When she does realize this, she first says she's not worthy of the match and then accepts on condition that her father agrees. It's a smart political move for her even if it isn't love—her father may have a few impressive titles, but he's also poor.
And that, Shmoopers, is pretty much all we know about Margaret.
Ah, the Duke of Burgundy. An English ally at first, he switches sides and joins the French. His choices make a real difference in how much political power the English can hope to hold in France—or at least the French think so, anyway. They say that it would be pretty much impossible for the English to stick around without Burgundy's help.
There's a whole cast of English nobles: Exeter, Bedford, Warwick, Salisbury, Thomas Gargrave, and Sir William Lucy among them. Lots of them are brave and loyal, but lots of the brave and loyal ones die early on, like Salisbury and Bedford. Others, like Sir William Lucy, seem like good guys and decent soldiers, but don't appear to have the awesome battlefield cred with the French that someone like Talbot does.
The French nobility includes Alencon, Reignier, and the Bastard of Orleans. (Yes, that's what he's actually called in the stage directions. Not Shmoop's fault.) They seem to want their country to succeed, and obviously they've beaten back the English many times before the play begins. But they can be a bit flighty, like when they run away from Orleans in their pajamas rather than fight the English sneak attack in Act 2, Scene 1.
In fairness to the historical French nobility, though, that scene is likely another example of Renaissance English playwrights making fun of the French. The English stage at the time was anything but politically correct, especially when it came to showing other countries with whom the English frequently fought, like France and Spain. France just didn't really stand a chance on Shakespeare's stage.