Study Guide

Henry VI Part 1 Politics

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King Henry the Fifth, too famous to live long.
England ne'er lost a king of so much worth. (1.1.6-7)

Ouch. This is not a good way for a play to begin, with the death of a great hero. King Henry V conquered France for England, cut a kingly figure in spite of his youth, and was a great orator to boot. No wonder Bedford is so sad about his death. King Henry VI, who this play is about, has a lot to live up to.

And here I prophesy: this brawl today,
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. (2.4.125-128)

When you're right, you're right. And unfortunately, Warwick is right here. In the play, the red and white roses symbolize the houses of Lancaster and York (more on this over in the "Symbols" section). The fact that Richard (about to be made Duke of York) and the others have been arguing about them points to the fact that soon there will be a bloody civil war between the two. It may not be obvious yet, it's totally coming.

I dare say
This quarrel will drink blood another day. (2.4.134-135)

After the quarrel that involves choosing sides by plucking roses, Richard predicts that the quarrel will cause more trouble, maybe even bloodshed, some other day. Quarrels between nobles cause a huge number of deaths in Henry VI, and that's just the beginning—the civil war that follows after this play's timescale ends will cause even more.

Since Henry Monmouth first began to reign,
Before whose glory I was great in arms,
This loathsome sequestration have I had;
And even since then hath Richard been obscured,
Deprived of honor and inheritance. (2.5.23-27)

Every story has a backstory, and the Wars of the Roses have a heck of a backstory. There's a lot of backstabbing, quarreling, and fighting over who's the rightful heir to the throne, and it goes back a long way. Mortimer laments that he and Richard have had it tough since the beginning of Henry V's reign. We later find out it goes even further back, to Henry V's dad Henry IV, who Mortimer says shoved his nephew (also named Richard) off the throne (2.5.61-69).

No, prelate, such is thy audacious wickedness,
Thy lewd, pestiferous, and dissentious pranks,
As very infants prattle of thy pride.
Thou are a most pernicious usurer,
Froward by nature, enemy to peace,
Lascivious, wanton, more than well beseems
A man of thy profession and degree. (3.1.15-21)

Whew—Gloucester sure has it in for Winchester. He accuses him of just about everything bad he can think of, from being proud to hating peace to being lustful (especially bad since Winchester is a member of the Catholic clergy and is supposed to be celibate). But the really scary part is that Gloucester is the more reasonable one in the quarrel between Gloucester and Winchester. If this is how the rational guy talks, you can see how bad it's gotten.

Uncles of Gloucester and of Winchester,
The special watchmen of our English weal,
I would prevail, if prayers might prevail,
To join your hearts in love and amity.
O what a scandal is it to our crown
That two such noble peers as ye should jar!
Believe me, lords, my tender years can tell
Civil dissension is a viperous worm,
That gnaws the bowels of the commonwealth. (3.1.69-77)

This little speech shows so much of what's good about Henry VI—and so much of what's going to make it tough for him to be a good king. He's pretty decent at speeches, and he seems goodhearted enough. He wants to make peace, and he's very polite in asking his uncles to be pals again. But he is of "tender years," as he admits in the speech, and it's going to be hard for his uncles to take him seriously as the king.

And even though he's a nice guy, he's not really a man of prompt action. The "noise within" is Gloucester and Winchester's men starting to fight each other in the streets, so Henry could be doing a better job of enforcing the peace he pleads for. Later in the scene, he needs the help of others to calm the rioting down—which is decidedly not so kingly.

Ay, we may march in England or in France,
Not seeing what is likely to ensue.
This late dissension grown betwixt the peers
Burns under feignèd ashes of forged love
And will at last break out into a flame.
As festered members rot but by degree
Till bones and flesh and sinews fall away,
So will this base and envious discord breed. (3.1.196-203)

Exeter's worries are all too accurate. He thinks that the lords of England (peers) aren't really getting along, even if they pretend to, and he thinks that tension will be disastrous, like smoldering embers turning into a forest fire or a festering wound rotting away someone's body. Sad to say, he has a much better grip on what's happening than King Henry.

But howsoe'er, no simple man that sees
This jarring discord of nobility,
This shouldering of each other in the court,
This factious bandying of their favorites,
But that it doth presage some ill event.
'Tis much when scepters are in children's hands,
But more when envy breeds unkind division:
There comes the ruin; there begins confusion. (4.1.188-195)

Exeter's still worried, and his worries are still unfortunately dead on. He says that it's harder to keep a kingdom running when the King is a child, but that's not the real problem. The real problem is the envy among the lords and the strife it's causing. Could the Kingdom be working okay under Henry VI if it weren't for all these quarreling nobles?

Thus, while the vulture of sedition
Feeds in the bosom of such great commanders,
Sleeping neglection doth betray to loss
The conquest of our scarce-cold conqueror,
That ever-living man of memory,
Henry the Fifth. Whiles they each other cross,
Lives, honors, lands, and all hurry to loss. (4.3.48-54)

Here, Sir William Lucy agrees with Exeter. If the nobles would just stop feuding (ahem York and Somerset), England could win against the French. How is the arguing of the nobles like a vulture, eating things away?

Is all our travail turned to this effect?
After the slaughter of so many peers,
So many captains, gentlemen and soldiers
That in this quarrel have been overthrown
And sold their bodies for their country's benefit,
Shall we at last conclude effeminate peace? (5.3.103-108)

Guess what? Upon hearing news of a peace treaty, York wants to keep fighting. But would that be better for England? Or is peace a better call, especially since it's not clear the nobles can work together?

Thus Suffolk hath prevailed, and thus he goes,
As did the youthful Paris once to Greece,
With hope to find the like event in love,
But prosper better than the Trojan did.
Margaret shall now be queen, and rule the King,
But I will rule both her, the King and realm. (5.4.103-108)

Why is this quote on love in our politics section? Because Suffolk is interested in a lot more than love, and because it says something really interesting about the play: Suffolk is infatuated with Margaret, but he's also hoping to use her to influence the king so that he can gain more political power.

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