Act 1, scene 2
Ay Sandal Castle, in Yorkshire, two of York’s sons, especially Richard, try to persuade him to seize the throne immediately, rather than wait for Henry VI to die. Their father protests that he took an oath to allow Henry to reign in peace, but Richard persuades him that because Henry is a usurper, the oath was not lawful. York then sends his sons to other parts of the country to round up support for an armed uprising against the king.
A messenger arrives with the news that the Queen is approaching with an army of twenty thousand men. York tells his sons to remain with him and sends his ally Montague to London to strengthen the hold his allies, including Warwick, have over the weakened king.
Sir John Mortimer and Sir Hugh Mortimer, uncles of York, enter, and York tells them of the impending battle. The Yorkist forces are outnumbered five to one, but they claim to be confident of victory.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Shakespeare has Richard playing the leading role in persuading his father to seize the crown immediately. York does not offer much resistance to his sons’ urgings, thus setting the scene for the battle of Wakefield, which historically took place in 1460.
Act 1, scene 3
At some point during the battle, Clifford descends on York’s youngest son, Rutland, and his tutor. Clifford announces his intention to kill the boy, because Rutland’s father killed his, Clifford’s, father. The tutor protests but is dragged away. The boy pleads repeatedly for his life, to no avail. Clifford is determined to kill any one from the house of York that he can get his hands on. After killing Rutland, Clifford goes off to seek out York in the battle.
The atrocity in which Clifford kills the child Rutland is one way in which Shakespeare shows the corruption and brutality of the entire house of Plantagenet, the branches of which included both Yorkist and Lancastrian houses. Shakespeare’s overall design is to show how justice eventually decrees that the entire Plantagenets will be wiped out. Shakespeare again has to tamper with history to achieve the effect he wants, because historically Rutland was not a child but a seventeen-year-old soldier (considered an adult in medieval times) who fought and died in the battle.
Act 1, scene 4
York enters and announces that the battle is lost. His uncles have been killed and his forces are fleeing from those of the queen. But York applauds the bravery of his sons Edward and Richard. He himself is weak from the battle and knows that his life is at an end.
The queen enters with Clifford, Northumberland, and Prince Edward. Northumberland demands that York yield, and York and Clifford have an angry, insulting exchange. Clifford would kill York on the spot, but Queen Margaret intervenes, saying she wants to prolong the traitor’s life for a while. Soldiers grab York, who struggles. Margaret then makes a long speech in which she taunts the helpless York. She asks him where his sons are now, who urged him on. Where, she says is his “darling,” Rutland? Then she shows him a napkin stained with the boy’s blood and says that his grief makes her merry. She continues to mock him by putting a paper crown on his head and reminds him that he broke the oath he swore in promising to allow Henry to reign in peace. She orders him to be beheaded, and Clifford volunteers to do the deed. Margaret delays him so she can hear the prayers York makes.
York, however, does not pray. Instead, he launches into a vehement attack on Margaret’s character. She is a “she-wolf” with a tongue more poisonous than an adder. She is the opposite of everything good. She has neither beauty nor virtue. How could she, as a woman, be party to killing a child and taunting the child’s father with the boy’s blood? He weeps for his dead child and says his tears cry out for vengeance against Clifford and Margaret.
Northumberland is moved by York’s words, and York continues to taunt Margaret. He tells her to tell everyone what she has done, and even his enemies will weep with pity. He curses her and then asks Clifford to kill him and be cursed for the murder. Northumberland sympathizes with York but Margaret rebukes him. Clifford and then Margaret both stab York. Margaret commands that he be beheaded and his head placed on top of the city gates.
This is an intensely dramatic, cruel, and violent scene—the most famous scene in the play. Margaret reveals herself as vicious and pitiless in her revenge against York, and Clifford adds to the reputation that gets him called “bloody Clifford.”
Historically, the scene is not accurate, since York was in fact killed in battle, and the Queen did not take part in this battle. So the dramatic confrontation between Margaret and York never actually took place, since Margaret was likely in Scotland at the time, mustering up support. But Shakespeare’s imaginative creation of the confrontation powerfully conveys the bitterness and cruelty of this long-running rivalry over the crown—which is still not over, because York’s sons escape unscathed.
The conclusion of the scene is factually correct, however, since York’s severed head was indeed displayed on the town gate, with the paper crown on it.