The Plays of Shakespeare: A Thematic Guide

By Victor L. Cahn | Go to book overview

Power

One of the strongest motivations in the plays of Shakespeare is power, more specifically the desire to rule over others. Yet the implications of this drive resist simple explanation. Certain characters, for instance, become so consumed by the lust for power that they lose whatever ethical center they might have had. Other characters who seek power just as strongly are, in fact, the very ones who use it most effectively. Finally, those who reach positions of power inevitably undergo changes in personality and values, and not always in the manner prescribed by the nineteenth-century politician Lord Acton’s famous dictum: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Rather, the pressures responsibility can prove insupportable for the most determined of souls.

Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3 are dominated by figures who do not even bother to disguise their obsession to control their world. Consider the Earl of Suffolk, who in Part 1 negotiates the marriage between Henry and Margaret of France, but who has far more sinister ambitions, based on his bond with Margaret. As he says at the close of Part 1, when the marriage is about to take place:


Thus Suffolk hath prevail’d, and thus he goes,

As did the youthful Paris once to Greece,

With hope to find the like event in love,

But prosper better than the Troyan did.

Margaret shall now be Queen, and rule the King;

But I will rule both her, the King, and realm.

(V, v, 103–108)

Margaret also has ambition, as in Part 2, when she broods over her husband’s reluctance to exert the force of the kingship over Gloucester, the king’s Protector, and other nobles:

-285-

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The Plays of Shakespeare: A Thematic Guide
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Introduction xi
  • Acting 1
  • Appearance versus Reality 9
  • Clerics 23
  • Commoners 35
  • Cynicism 45
  • Divine Right 53
  • Fate 63
  • Fathers and Daughters 71
  • Fidelity 81
  • Fools 89
  • Forgiveness 99
  • Gender 107
  • Generations 117
  • Honor 127
  • Innocence 135
  • Intoxication 143
  • Justice 151
  • Language 161
  • Love and Romance 171
  • Machiavels 187
  • Madness 199
  • Male Friendship 211
  • Marriage 219
  • Money 229
  • Mortality 237
  • Nationalistic Pride and Prejudice 245
  • Nature 255
  • Order 263
  • Politics 273
  • Power 285
  • Reason versus Passion 295
  • Revenge 305
  • Supernatural Phenomena 315
  • The Tragic Flaw 325
  • War 335
  • Conclusion 345
  • Further Reading 347
  • Index 349
  • About the Author 362
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