Act 4, scene 1
In Paris, Henry VI enters with his lords and is crowned king. Gloucester orders the Governor of Paris to swear an oath of allegiance to Henry.
Sir John Fastolf enters and presents Henry with a letter from the Duke of Burgundy. Talbot is furious with Fastolf for running away at Rouen. He tears off the garter, symbolic of Fastolf’s knighthood of the Order of the Garter, from Fastolf’s leg. Gloucester backs up Talbot. Talbot explains that Fastolf has brought dishonor onto the Knighthood of the Garter through his cowardice. Henry banishes Talbot on pain of death.
Gloucester reads the letter from Burgundy, which tells the king in disrespectful terms that he (Burgundy) has joined Charles, whom he sees as the rightful king of France. Henry asks Talbot to go to Burgundy and rebuke him for his offence. Talbot leaves.
Vernon and Basset enter, still wearing their roses of differing colors, and ask Henry’s permission to fight. Richard, Duke of York asks Henry to favor Vernon, and Somerset asks him to favor Basset, according to the sides they have chosen in the Wars of the Roses. Henry asks them the cause of their quarrel. Basset says that during the journey to France, Vernon insulted him over his choice of red rose. Vernon says he was provoked by Basset’s insulting his choice of white rose. Richard, Duke of York, joins in the quarrel by accusing Somerset of malice, and Somerset replies in kind.
Henry is astonished that they can disagree over such trivial causes and asks them to make peace. Richard says that Vernon and Basset should have their fight first. Somerset suggests that as the quarrel only concerns himself and Richard, they two should fight.
Gloucester rebukes the quarreling nobles for upsetting the king. Henry orders Richard, Duke of York and Somerset to forget their quarrel and reconcile. He says they should remember that they are in France and should unite against England’s enemy, rather than weaken the English cause by dissent. Also, the French must not see that England is divided or they will rebel against their English occupiers.
Henry says that if foreign monarchs should find out that England lost its hard-won French territories due to trivial arguments, this would bring shame on the nation. He takes a red rose and says that this act should give no one any reason to suspect that he favors Somerset over Richard, Duke of York. He claims to be impartial.
Henry appoints Richard, Duke of York regent in certain parts of France and sends Somerset off to fight the French. Henry intends to go to Calais and then back to England, where, he says, he will look forward to seeing Charles and Alençon as prisoners of the English.
After Henry exits, Richard, Duke of York does not comment on his promotion to regent of France but only complains about the king’s decision to wear a red rose. Warwick says it is no more than an innocent whim.
Exeter is left alone on stage to comment on the proceedings. He notes Richard’s spite and says that when the nobles disagree, disorder in the nation must follow. He blames personal ambition (“envy” – line 193) in the nobles, along with the fact that the king is only a child and therefore unable to keep the unruly nobles in order.
Talbot’s rebuke to Fastolf for dishonoring his knighthood of the Order of the Garter sums up Shakespeare’s argument about the decay of the nobility in England. The current generation of nobles create problems by indulging in petty disputes while England’s glory, won with much bloodshed under Henry V, goes to ruin. They are shown as sullying the aristocratic tradition of loyalty and integrity to monarch and state. Fastolf is contrasted with the brave warriors such as Talbot and Salisbury, who represent the heroes that made England great under Henry V.
Henry is astonished that his nobles can disagree over trivial causes. It is hard to judge for certain within the context of the play whether these causes are trivial, as they are never laid out for the audience’s judgment. Shakespeare’s dramatic technique of portraying the dispute in terms of choice of a red or white rose helps the audience identify who is on whose side. But it also risks trivializing what may be important reasons for dissent. It is analogous, perhaps, to claiming that the American Civil War was about the choice between the Unionist and Confederate flag, rather than examining the causes of the conflict.
Shakespeare’s discussion of the political causes of the Wars of the Roses does not go beyond the argument that the House of York has a better right to the throne of England than the House of Lancaster. Any more complex political arguments are not presented. However, this fits Shakespeare’s usual stance that what matters in such cases is the rightful succession. His plays take a conservative viewpoint, supporting the rightful heir to the throne according to the law of succession: that is, the first-born son succeeds the father. This viewpoint favors the Yorkist line.
In Henry VI, Part One, in common with his other plays, Shakespeare insists that a nation’s ruling class must place the interests of the nation as a whole above their own personal rivalries and concerns. It is probable, therefore, that he does not present the intricacies of the argument that led to the Wars of the Roses because he judges them insignificant in comparison with the all-important national unity.
Henry is portrayed as peace-loving but naïve when he takes a red rose and still claims to be impartial in the quarrel between the Houses of Lancaster and York. Henry is a Lancastrian king, and the fact that he takes a red rose, the color of the House of Lancaster, is noticed and resented by Richard, Duke of York. Henry may believe that his action inn choosing the red rose means nothing, but it is an act laden with political significance in the current context.
The scale of the domestic problem facing Henry is plain from the fact that Richard, Duke of York ignores the king’s gift of the highly prestigious post of regent of France. He does not respond to the king’s speech announcing it and after the king has left, only complains about Henry’s having chosen to wear a red rose.
In spite of Henry’s naivety, he successfully identifies the key issue facing his nation when he repeatedly tries to reconcile his warring nobles. He says that England cannot defeat its enemies when it is weakened by dissent:
“And you, my lords, remember where we are –
In France, amongst a fickle wavering nation.
If they perceive dissension in our looks,
And that within ourselves we disagree,
How will their grudging stomachs be provoked
To willful disobedience and rebel!”
Exeter’s comment on the proceedings, in the form of a soliloquy, is typical of his chorus-like role. In ancient Greek drama, the chorus was a character or group of characters who commented on the action of the play. Here, Exeter’s speech helps guide the audience to interpret the events onstage and evaluate their seriousness.