It takes until the third act for this play’s namesake to make his first appearance in it. Those who have been caught in the middle of family squabbles turned venomous will likely have the most empathy for Henry VI. The enmity between his uncle and great-uncle is spreading beyond them among the people and erupting into violence. When swords and other customary weapons are taken away from them, Gloucester’s supporters pick up rocks and use them as effective weapons instead. Henry VI’s first lines of the play are a plea for conciliation:
Uncles of Gloucester and of Winchester, The special watchmen of our English weal, I would prevail, if prayers might prevail, To join your hearts in love and amity.
His success in this is akin to most attempts of this sort when an authority figure pressures fighting factions into handshakes: there may be an outward sign of conciliation, but no inner substance to it. It will not last.
But Henry’s reasons and fears for trying to unite them in Act 3, Scene 1 are sound:
O what a scandal is it to our crown, That two such noble peers as ye should jar! Believe me, lords, my tender years can tell Civil dissension is a viperous worm That gnaws the bowels of the commonwealth.
Human nature being what it is, it can take real strength of purpose and character not to succumb to this in government, communities, and families. We hope for more from our leaders. Children hope for more from their parents. Henry is no exception:
Fie, uncle Beaufort! I have heard you preach That malice was a great and grievous sin: And will not you maintain the thing you teach, But prove a chief offender in the same?
As is typically Shakespeare’s way, Winchester- a villain- makes the outward motions of obedience but will not leave the stage before asserting to himself and the audience that, “I intend it not.”
He is one of several selfish and proud men who will, as Henry VI’s other living great-uncle, the Duke of Exeter foretells, bring about ruin for England and King Henry:
This late dissension grown betwixt the peers Burns under feigned ashes of forged love, And will at last break out into a flame: as festered members rot but by degree, Till bones and flesh and sinews fall away, So will this base and envious discord breed. And now I fear that fatal prophecy Which, in the time of Henry named the Fifth, Was in the mouth of every sucking babe: That Henry born at Monmouth (Henry V) should win all and Henry born at Windsor (Henry VI) lose all:
I find it interesting that Exeter talks about rot and ruin coming about by degrees inside the individual members involved. It is so. We chart our course and live our lives through small habits and decisions that move us towards happinesses and unhappinesses by degrees. We may not notice the individual shifts- just like in temperature- until things get uncomfortable for us, but those changes by degrees are constantly happening. It’s something worth looking for in our lives. It’s something worth working on in us.