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:
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: