Ambition and Desire for Power
Since Henry VI is a weak king, never fully in charge of his realm, it is inevitable that the ambitions of the nobles who surround him will eventually result in civil conflict. Henry has to surround himself with more powerful figures who are strong enough to act on his behalf. But he has to be sure of their loyalty to him, which, with the exception of Gloucester, can never be guaranteed. At the beginning of the play, the Duke of Gloucester holds the powerful position of Protector, and he remains loyal to the King throughout. Even though he views the royal marriage and the consequent loss of the French territories with dismay, he does not blame the King but instead Suffolk who arranged it and the nobles who let it happen. However, the combination of the weak king and the loss of the territories won by Henry V, Henry VI’s father, creates a potent brew in the kingdom. Each of the nobles struggles to enhance his own position. It is one plot piled on top of another, and Gloucester cannot hope to survive all the machinations against him. Gloucester may be innocent, but his wife is not immune to high ambition. She plots to become queen by trying to instill in her husband an ambition to win the throne. But Beaufort, Suffolk, Buckingham, and York are aware of her ambitions and use them against her, ensnaring her in a witchcraft scandal as a way of bringing down Gloucester. Each character has his or her own agenda. Suffolk and the Queen, for example, only join with Beaufort, whom they dislike, in order to overthrow Gloucester. The Queen wants to rid herself of the powerful nobles so that she will have the power she seeks. York, on more than one occasion, pretends to go along with the others while secretly plotting for his own advancement. His words after Gloucester is arrested and he is acquiring an army to put down the rebellious Irish, well express not only what he is doing but what many of the other plotting nobles are up to, as well: “My brain, more busy than the laboring spider, / Weaves tedious snares to trap mine enemies” (3.1.339-40).
Ambition and the desire for power, and the large and small plots that go along with it, shape the structure of the overall plot. The first three acts focus on the plot against and the eventual fall and murder of Gloucester. Act 4 focuses on yet another plot, that of Jack Cade and his rebellious Kentishmen. Cade himself is as ambitious for power as any noble, and he is also a tool of the Duke of York, who encourages his rebellion only as a way of testing the waters for his own power grab later. Act 5 deals with the culmination of York’s plotting and his direct challenge to the King. Throughout the play it seems that Henry is the last to know about all the plots and challenges to his authority. It is his ineptitude that drives the plot. As the Queen puts it to Suffolk, her confidant, after naming Beaufort, Gloucester, Somerset, Buckingham, and York, “and not the least of these / But can do more in England than the King” (1.3.70-71). It is into this power vacuum that all the nobles seek to step.
The disorder that plagues the kingdom is not limited to the plotting nobles. The common people are also up in arms. One of their grievances is made clear in act 1, when one of the petitioners who intends to approach Gloucester instead finds himself confronted by Suffolk and the Queen. His complaint is against Suffolk “for enclosing the commons of Melford” (1.3.21). Melford was a town in Suffolk, and enclosing land was to make what was formerly common land subject to the ownership of a landlord, with all the disadvantages that implied for the tenants.
When Suffolk is later seized by pirates, they recite a long list of grievances against him. By this time Suffolk has taken over from Gloucester as the most powerful noble in the realm, but it is clear that he has aroused the extreme displeasure of the populace for “swallowing the treasure of the realm” (4.1.74), as the Lieutenant, one of the pirates, says.
Class resentment can also be seen in the way that the Duchess of Gloucester is taunted by the common people as she is paraded in the streets on her way into exile. The most potent form of class warfare in the play is of course the Cade rebellion. Cade and his men want to overturn the very basis of society, their resentment of the ruling class is so great.