History told by the losing side sometimes leads to… exaggeration, slanders, and out-and-out lies. In Henry VI Part I, Act 2, the retaking of Orleans in Scene 1, the triumph of Talbot over the French Countess who sought to entrap him in Scene 3, and Richard Plantagenet’s meeting with Mortimer in Scene 5 are all, according to Isaac Asimov in Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare, wishful thinking and total fabrication.
There is evidence and plenty of debate that Henry VI was the collaborative work of several authors, only one of whom was Shakespeare. In the introduction to Henry VI in the version edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen in cooperation with the Royal Shakespeare Company, the editors mention that two of the strongest scenes of the play (one of which is Act 2, Scene 4) are the ones computer tests show to be all Shakespeare.
It is commonly believed that Parts II and III of Henry VI were written by Shakespeare before Part I. Rasmussen and Bate suggest that Henry VI Part I was the 16th century equivalent of a “prequel”. As such, Act 2, Scene 4 is of particular importance. It is one of the few scenes in Henry VI Part I which lead directly into the action of Parts II and III. From a continuity perspective, if you read only one scene in this play, this should probably be the one.
However, from an I-can-relate-to-that-quote perspective, my favorite lines of Act 2 come from Scene 2.
When Talbot asks his friends to accompany him for (what appears to be) a social invitation to the Countess’s residence, the Duke of Bedford replies:
“No, truly, ’tis more than manners will: And I have heard it said, unbidden guests Are often welcomest when they are gone.”
This quote struck me in particular, most likely, because I read it near the time when an unbidden guest invited more than two dozen additional unbidden guests to my home without any notice. It was a taxing experience.
This is one reason why I like Shakespeare: in some way on some level, he has addressed practically everything I have ever thought or felt- but coming from his pen it tastes less bitter when I speak it. It helps me feel understood and validated, but not entitled necessarily to go and do likewise. It’s a safe and cathartic way, in other words, to get the difficult out of my system without harming someone else. These particular lines may or may not be Shakespeare, but they are my favorite from the play thus far. My thanks to whoever wrote them.
As for Scene 4, roses were not used to differentiate political alliances between the houses of York (White) and Lancaster (Red) in the actual time period the events took place. In fact, according to Isaac Asimov, the red rose became associated with the wars only after they had concluded, as a contrast to the white rose which the Yorks used during the wars . The roses, however, were firmly entwined with the legend of the time, and as such, effectively begin the story of the Wars of the Roses here.
As Somerset and Richard Plantagenet disagree regarding who has highest claim to the throne- Richard Plantagenet or Henry VI- they try to draw others to their sides. In a time when such talk could be considered treason and worthy of death, few are willing to speak outright so Richard suggests that those who support him should pluck a white rose as a sign of their allegiance to him instead. Somerset plucks red. Near the end of this scene, Warwick, who was the tutor of Henry VI by the will of Henry V in real life and who brought young Henry VI to France when he (Warwick) supervised the trial and execution of Joan of Arc, sides with York and says in part:
“Meantime, in signal of my love to thee, Against proud Somerset and William Pole, Will I upon thy party wear this rose. 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.”
This quote presages one of the most moving scenes regarding the horrors of civil war that I have ever read or seen: Act 2, Scene 5 of Henry VI Part III. It starts here, in Act 2, Scene 4 of Henry VI Part I.