The decline of England’s fortunes, the decay of the aristocracy, and civil dissent
The play covers the decline of England’s fortunes in the reign of Henry VI, from its pinnacle during the reign of Henry V. This decline, Shakespeare suggests, was caused by the decay of what he saw as the ancient and honorable role of the nobility or aristocracy, as they slipped into civil dissent.
In his plays, Shakespeare consistently celebrates the old aristocratic values of loyalty to the monarch, chivalry, honor, and military valor. He shows adherence to the traditional social order as paramount in the health of a nation. Personal ambition, greed, and the pursuit of power for its own sake (i.e. not in the service of the crown) lead to dissent among the nobles and are seen as divisive and destructive. In Henry VI, Part One, the motives for the nobles’ disagreement are never precisely laid out, reinforcing the sense that they are destroying England’s empire in France for trivial and selfish reasons. The theme of the destructiveness of dissent is summed up by Henry VI in his first appearance in Act 3, scene 1, when he says: “Civil dissention is a viperous worm / That gnaws the bowels of the commonwealth” (lines 73-74).
Henry’s words are proven correct in Act 4, scenes 3 and 4, when Somerset refuses to send the reinforcements needed by Talbot because the ‘middle man’ is Richard, Duke of York. Somerset is already in a dispute with Richard that will lead to the Wars of the Roses, but his refusal to send the troops seems to boil down to a personal dislike of the man: “I owe him little duty and less love” (line 34).
Shakespeare also suggests that civil dissent among the leaders of society, the nobles, filters down to infect society as a whole. This is made clear in Henry VI, Part One in the brawl between Gloucester and Winchester in Act 1, scene 3, when the Mayor of London, representing civil society, is forced to intervene to prevent further breach to the peace. The Mayor rebukes the lords, saying, “Fie, lords, that you, being supreme magistrates / Thus contumeliously should break the peace” (lines 57-58). The Mayor is expressing what is clearly the author’s view that the leaders of society, the aristocracy, are the moral exemplars of society. The fact that the citizens’ representative has to rebuke two nobles for bad behavior is a sign of decay in the state.