Act 2, scene 4
The action shifts to the garden of the Inner Temple, one of the four Inns of Court (a legal university) in London, England. Richard Plantagenet, a scion of the royal line of Plantagenets, enters with various Lords, including Warwick, the Lord Protector Somerset, Suffolk and Vernon, and a Lawyer. Richard Plantagenet and Somerset are in dispute about who is the rightful successor to the English throne. Plantagenet believes that he has the rightful claim to the throne. He asks the assembled Lords each to pick a rose from the garden to show whose side they support. A red rose symbolizes the royal House of Lancaster and the white rose, the royal House of York. Both Houses were branches of the Plantagenet family.
Richard plucks a white rose and Somerset a red rose. Warwick and Vernon pluck a white rose and Suffolk a red. The Lawyer plucks a white rose, suggesting that he thinks Plantagenet’s case is stronger in law. When Plantagenet challenges Somerset to argue his case, Somerset says his argument is his sword, prefiguring the bloody wars that will emerge from this dispute.
The two exchange insults. Somerset makes a jibe at Plantagenet’s father, the Earl of Cambridge, who was convicted of treason and forfeited his lands, reducing Richard Plantagenet to the status of a humble yeoman. Warwick reminds Somerset that Plantagenet’s grandfather was the third son of Edward III. Plantagenet replies that though his father was sentenced to death, he was no traitor. He implies that the treason was never proven and warns Somerset that he will remember this insult. Somerset and Plantagenet each vow that they and their followers will wear red and white roses respectively, as symbols of their allegiances.
Plantagenet and Warwick are left alone. Warwick believes that the next Parliament will restore to Plantagenet the lands that were confiscated from his father and that Plantagenet will be created Duke of York. Warwick predicts that the dispute in the Temple garden will lead to the deaths of many men.
The scene in the garden of the Inner Temple is a piece of dramatic licence on Shakespeare’s part. It is an attempt to simplify and dramatise the origins of the Wars of the Roses, a series of dynastic civil wars between supporters of the rival Houses of Lancaster and York for the throne of England. Both Houses were branches of the royal line of Plantagenet.
The Wars of the Roses are generally considered to have been fought in several battles between 1455 and 1485.
In reality, the origins of the Wars of the Roses were complex and Shakespeare does not attempt to explain them. Instead, he has the assembled nobles graphically symbolize their allegiance by choosing either a red rose (House of Lancaster) or a white rose (House of York) from the garden of the Inner Temple.
The choice of the setting of the Inner Temple, a university for study of the law, is significant as it suggests that in theory at least, there was a legal basis for the dispute. Suffolk’s and Warwick’s declared ignorance of the legal aspects of the matter bodes ill for England. Suffolk’s comment that he intends to “frame the law unto my will” (line 9) is especially ominous, as it implies that he considers himself and his cause above the law. When Suffolk subsequently picks a red rose, his remark, along with the Lawyer’s choice of a white Yorkist rose, casts doubt on the legal validity of the Lancastrian cause. Shakespeare consistently holds this position throughout the history plays.
Shakespeare invariably warned against the deposition of rightful monarchs, seeing it as a crime against God as well as the sovereign. In his play Henry V, Shakespeare has Henry V doubt that his possession of the English throne is legitimate. This is because the Lancastrian line of English kings was founded by Henry IV, Henry V’s father, who seized the crown by deposing the rightful king, the Plantagenet and Yorkist Richard II. Historians of the Elizabethan period felt that England’s losses during the reign of Henry VI of the French territories gained by his father Henry V were a divine punishment for Henry IV’s wrongful usurpation of the throne.
Henry VI was the last Lancastrian king. He was succeeded by the last Yorkist king, Richard III, who was also the last Plantagenet king.
The Wars of the Roses ended when Richard III was defeated by the Lancastrian Henry Tudor (crowned King Henry VII). Henry VII then married the Yorkist heiress Elizabeth of York, thus uniting the red and the white rose in what became known as the Tudor rose. Ever since, the white and red Tudor rose has been the flower emblem of England.
Henry VII was succeeded by his son, Henry VIII, who in turn was succeeded by his daughter, Elizabeth I, England’s monarch at the time Shakespeare wrote the play.
Warwick’s prediction at the end of the scene that the dispute will lead to the deaths of many men (lines 124–127) foreshadows the horrors of the Wars of the Roses.