Study Guide

Henry VI Part 2 Ambition

By William Shakespeare

Ambition

SALISBURY
Pride went before; Ambition follows him.
While these do labor for their own preferment,
Behooves it us to labor for the realm. (1.1.188-190)

Salisbury is talking about Buckingham and Somerset (who have ambition) and Suffolk and Cardinal Beaufort (who have pride), but you could almost put any character's name in there and make it work. That's because all the nobles want titles and power for themselves, and they don't really care much about Henry himself. They all compete for the position of regent, and they all want to get rid of the Protector so they can have more power.

GLOUCESTER
Banish the canker of ambitious thoughts!
And may that hour when I imagine ill
Against my king and nephew, virtuous Henry,
Be my last breathing in this mortal world! (1.2.18-21)

From this remark to his wife, it seems that Gloucester has some issues with ambition: he says it's like a cancer that corrupts things. Well, he has a point, and we do know how dangerous Eleanor's dreams of becoming queen turn out to be, but we can't help but wonder why Gloucester isn't ambitious himself. Is it just not part of his character, or is he not ambitious because he's already at the top? After all, as he himself says, he's the second most powerful dude in the land, and he's in control of the most powerful dude. It doesn't get a whole lot better than that, right?

HUME
Well, so it stands; and thus I fear at last
Hume's knavery will be the Duchess' wrack,
And her attainture will be Humphrey's fall.
Sort how it will, I shall have gold for all. (1.2.107-110)

We only see Hume briefly, but it's long enough to know that he's one determined dude. He double-crosses Eleanor by tipping Suffolk and Beaufort off to her latest dalliance in witchcraft. He might be a servant, but he's got ambitions just like the nobles, and his dreams are gold-plated.

QUEEN MARGARET
Am I a queen in title and in style,
And must be made a subject to a duke? (1.3.50-51)

Even though Margaret's already queen, she wants more. She hates that Gloucester still has power over her hubby. What Margaret seems to want is to have total control over the kingdom herself. She certainly doesn't want to play second fiddle to some old duke. It doesn't matter how high she goes, she always wants more and more power.

YORK
We thank you, lords. They rise. But I am not your
   king
Till I be crowned, and that my sword be stained
With heart-blood of the house of Lancaster;
And that's not suddenly to be performed,
But with advice and silent secrecy.
Do you as I do in these dangerous days:
Wink at the Duke of Suffolk's insolence,
At Beaufort's pride, at Somerset's ambition,
At Buckingham, and all the crew of them, (2.2.68-77)

York lets Warwick and Salisbury in on a little secret: his claim to the throne. He's happy to criticize the king's men for their ambitions, but is he cut from the same cloth as they are? They're after power, and so is he, after all. Somehow, York differentiates himself from the crowd by creating an argument about why he deserves to be king. The question is: do we buy it?

GLOUCESTER
My staff?—Here, noble Henry, is my staff.
                             He puts down his staff before Henry.
As willingly do I the same resign
As e'er thy father Henry made it mine;
And even as willingly at thy feet I leave it
As others would ambitiously receive it.
Farewell, good king. When I am dead and gone,
May honorable peace attend thy throne. (2.3.34-40)

Gloucester lays down his staff—the symbol of his office—at the request of Margaret and Henry. It's a poignant moment, but his mind turns to ambition—others' ambition, that is. Gloucester doesn't have a problem with letting go, but he knows that others want to take the power for themselves. Gloucester's gesture here means he's one of the only characters who is willing to give up power (and not fight for more).

GLOUCESTER
Ah, gracious lord, these days are dangerous.
Virtue is choked with foul ambition,
And charity chased hence by rancor's hand;
Foul subornation is predominant,
And equity exiled your Highness' land. (3.1.142-146)

Don't say he didn't warn you: Gloucester tells Henry why the other lords want to try him for treason. They are just after Henry's power, he says, but his warning falls on deaf ears. Since Henry is just about the least ambitious character ever, he can't see it all around him.

CADE
It is to you, good people, that I speak,
Over whom, in time to come, I hope to reign,
For I am rightful heir unto the crown. (4.2.126-128)

Even a commoner like Cade gets what it's like to be ambitious. His bid for the crown is part of his deal with York, but it also reveals his deeper desire to rule over people. It's clear he loves the attention he gets from leading an army and telling them what to do. It might start out as a paid gig from York, but Cade's rebellion quickly turns into his own pet project.

CADE
Fie on ambitions! Fie on myself, that have a
sword and yet am ready to famish! (4.10.1-2)

Cade hasn't eaten in five days. He's starving and wants to die, so he starts cursing everything in sight. First on his list is ambition. Why? He could rant about the rebels who went against him, or about the king who sent out his army against them, but nope, his mind's still on ambition. It's kind of a fatal flaw: he wants too much that he can't possibly achieve, and he'll fight for it to the death.

YORK
From Ireland thus comes York to claim his right
And pluck the crown from feeble Henry's head.
Ring, bells, aloud! Burn, bonfires, clear and bright
To entertain great England's lawful king! (5.1.1-4)

It's important that we know York's plans throughout the play. His long, calculated ambition helps us understand his goals and understand why he goes for the crown in the end. Does this cast York's ambition in a different light from Suffolk's, Margaret's, or Beaufort's? Are we more accepting of York's goals because they seem more rational and planned?

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