The struggle to become king and the issue of a ruler's proper qualities lie at the center of Shakespeare's chronicle history plays. Recent critical interest on these subjects has been particularly focused on Shakespeare's first historical tetralogy, the Henriad, which includes the plays Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V. Contemporary scholars have also examined the question of kingship in relation to Shakespeare's later works, notably Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear. From their investigations two of Shakespeare's primary concerns about kingship have emerged—the question of the nature and legitimacy of political authority and the search for an ideal king, one which embodies both medieval Christian piety and a more contemporary conception of the monarch as outlined by the Renaissance political philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli. In addition to these two overriding concerns, other significant subjects of interest among contemporary scholars include the role of the monarch as the object of both sacred and secular ritual, and the study of the disastrous effects of malign rulership—particularly the detrimental consequences on individuals and nations of monarchical absolutism and royal abdication.
The Renaissance ideal of kingship and the importance of legitimate rule have been frequently mentioned by critics of the history plays as they study the personal, spiritual, and political dimensions of these works. George W. Keeton has noted the confluence of Shakespeare's political theory as it appears in the chronicle history plays and in Elizabethan thought, highlighting the monarch's role as the protector and benefactor of his or her subjects—the foundation of Shakespeare's kingly ideal. Leonard Tennenhouse has continued in the same vein by outlining the political subtexts of Shakespeare's history plays, which he sees as a sustained attempt by the dramatist to create and legitimate a new kind of ideal ruling authority. Sukanta Chaudhuri has explored the same subject, focusing particularly on the character of Henry V. For Chaudhuri, Henry embodies this new Renaissance ideal by offering a synthesis of Machiavellian virtù—connoting personal energy, vigor, and fortitude as well as cunning and duplicity—with a Christian compassion and a deeply-rooted connection to humanity. Barbara Traister offers a counterexample to the ideal of Henry V in Shakespeare's portrait of King John, an individual lacking in the charismatic and empathetic traits of the Lancasterian monarch and thus devoid of a king's so-called "second body"—the aura of majesty the binds the body politic.
The tendency to view the chronicle history plays and certain other dramas—notably King Lear—as Shakespeare's critique of kingship gone awry is another common critical approach to these works. Richard F. Hardin has recounted the coronation of Elizabeth I—in which the new monarch endeavored to place her position as secular ruler above the sacramental role of the Church—in order to confront the topic of ostentatious ceremony in relation to the Renaissance monarchy. Hardin has noted that the ceremonial pomp and futile self-worship of Richard II in Shakespeare's play Richard II serves to contrast this inadequate king with Henry V, whose uneasiness with ceremony is matched by his considerable piety. Ceremony thus becomes, in the words of Richard C. McCoy, a "secular pageant"—a gaudy display that exists in lieu of true royal virtue. Other commentators have continued along a similar line of inquiry by noting Shakespeare's portrayal of the very worst qualities of the monarch. Graham Holderness has interpreted Richard II's appeal to the myth of divine right as a sign of weakness that leads to his failed reign and subsequent self-deposition. Furthermore, Eva Figes has examined Shakespeare's critique of royal irresponsibility in the non-historical plays by focusing on the character of King Lear, whose selfish abdication of his throne precipitates a bloody civil war.
The Legitimacy Of Rule And The Ideal King
Leonard Tennenhouse (essay date 1985)
SOURCE: "Rituals of State: History and the Elizabethan Strategies of Power," in Power on Display: The Politics of Shakespeare's Genres, Methuen, 1986, pp. 72-101.
[In the following excerpt, an earlier version of which was published in 1985 in Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism, Tennenhouse discusses Shakespeare's creation of the Elizabethan chronicle history plays and the drama Hamlet as a political activity in he which sought to find a legitimate, ideal ruling authority.]
To discuss the politics of Shakespeare's history plays, I must . . . draw two kinds of comparison: one comparison allows one to understand this particular dramatic form in relation to others that we consider literary: romantic comedy, tragedy and the court masque. My objective in this is to determine what figures allow the materials of chronicle history to authorize the state in characteristically Elizabethan ways. But this in turn requires me to make another kind of comparison, one that understands aesthetic strategies as political strategies. To argue that theatrical spectacles displayed the power of the state, I will show how the figures organizing materials for the stage also shaped policies of state. I will use Henry VIII and Hamlet as test cases in proving this point. In addition to isolating the political strategies...
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Monarchy And Ceremony
Richard C. McCoy (essay date 1989)
SOURCE: "Thou Idol Ceremony': Elizabeth I, The Henriad, and the Rites of the English Monarchy," in Urban Life in the Renaissance, edited by Susan Zimmerman and Ronald F. E. Weissman, Associated University Presses, 1989, pp. 240-66.
[In the following essay, McCoy explores the theatrics of royal ceremony and antends that Shakespeare's later history plays undercut the majesty of ceremony and expose its " 'made-up quality' and the void behind its illusions."]
Something happened at the coronation of Elizabeth I, something potentially scandalous that subverted the rite's sacrosanctity and symbolic hierarchy. For centuries, the coronation had been a virtual sacrament as well as a "clerical monopoly" administered by bishops.1 Traditionally, the highest-ranking primate presided over the solemn oath, the anointment, and the investiture, and the monarch's inaugural subordination to a higher power was symbolized by his literal prostration at various points in the service. The coronation ordo of Richard III and Henry VII prescribes that the king shall lie "groveling afore the high aulter" before the administration of the oath and the unction, and that the king and his queen "wt a great devocion receive the sacrament" at the subsequent Mass.2
From the beginning of her reign, Elizabeth displayed little...
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Abdication And Absolutism
Eva Figes (essay date 1976)
SOURCE: "Kingship," in Tragedy and Social Evolution, John Calder, 1976, pp. 31-64.
[In the following excerpt, Figes provides a historical overview of kingship and claims that Shakespeare 's plays serve the function of the "chronicling and dramatization of the history of past kings . . . [and] the justification and explication of the present."]
The actor who plays the king is playing a role—he is not directly fulfilling a sacerdotal function, but only providing an example for the audience to watch; the king who is a king is also playing a role, since his 'part' will at some time be taken over by someone else, and since he is made king by virtue of the drama of the coronation rituals, and the regalia which are his props. This duality can enrich the drama: Shakespeare makes use of it, when his Macbeth and Richard II display self-awareness of themselves as actors on a stage. They are of course actors in a double sense, and in this way all the world does become a stage, and the concept of theatre as a microcosm is reinforced.
At some stage in social evolution it is no longer tenable to burn the king when the crops fail. The correlation between the welfare of the people and the conduct of the king has to be seen in more subtle and less superstitious terms, and this is when the idea of the king as an example to his people takes over....
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Bromley, John C. The Shakespearean Kings. Boulder: Colorado Associated University Press, 1971, 225 p.
Discusses the "aura of essential futility" which surrounds Shakespeare's histories and political tragedies.
Gurr, Andrew. "Henry V and the Bees' Commonwealth." In Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespearean Study and Production 30 (1977): 61-72.
Argues that Henry V ultimately applies the precepts of Erasmus's Instituto principis Christiani (The Education of a Christian Prince).
Hawkins, Sherman. "Structural Pattern in Shakespeare's Histories." Studies in Philology LXXXVIII, No. 1 (Winter 1991): 16-45.
Proposes a design that links Shakespeare's two historical tetralogies to form "the cycle of crime and punishment that makes up the Tudor myth."
Kantorowicz, Ernst H. "Shakespeare: King Richard II." In The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology, pp. 24-41. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1957.
Associates the image of a king's two bodies—one physical and the other his body politic—with Richard II as a play that dramatizes the sundering of these two.
Keeton, George W. "Shakespeare's View of the English Kingship." In Shakespeare's Legal and Political Background, pp. 264-83. London: Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons...
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