Shakespeare must have been fascinated with politics, the jockeying for authority that takes place within governmental institutions. The world of his plays is hardly democratic, but the strategies his characters employ to gain advantage over their opponents resonate with remarkable accuracy in all societies, our own as much as any other.
This theme is apparent especially in Shakespeare’s earliest works. Consider the opening scene of Henry VI, Part 2, when at the urging of the Duke of Suffolk, the weak King is about to marry the poor but calculating Margaret of Anjou. After debate over the impending nuptials, of which no one approves, Humphrey, the Duke of Gloucester and the King’s uncle and Protector, departs to avoid further squabbling with the King’s great-uncle, the Bishop of Winchester, also known as Cardinal Beauford (I, i, 139–146). Immediately afterwards, though, Winchester speaks with the remaining nobles—Buckingham, Somerset, York, Warwick, and Salisbury—and all seem to unite. As Buckingham says:
And all together, with the Duke of Suffolk,
We’ll quickly hoise Duke Humphrey from his seat.
(I, i, 167–169)
Yet as soon as the Cardinal leaves, Buckingham and Somerset join the remaining figures in a new conspiracy against both Gloucester and the Cardinal (I, i, 172–176). Then Buckingham and Somerset exit, leaving Salisbury, Warwick, and York to form their own team, ostensibly in support of Gloucester (I, i, 183–189).
This pattern of alliances, all in opposition, and all shifting back and forth, dominates the play. The supreme political principle in this court is self-promotion, and no one exemplifies that attitude better than the Duke of York, who takes personally the loss of territory demanded by