The issue of succession is significant in many of Shakespeare's plays, especially the history plays, which include the two historical tetralogies (Richard II, Henry IV, Parts One and Two, and Henry V; and Henry VI, Parts One, Two, and Three, and Richard III) as well as King John. Scholars explain that the topic figures so prominently in Shakespeare's work due to the fact that Queen Elizabeth, the “virgin queen,” had no heirs. Additionally, doubts about Elizabeth's own legitimacy as the rightful monarch plagued her reign. Among Shakespeare and his contemporaries, therefore, questions regarding lineage, legitimacy, and succession were commonly circulated. The plays' relation to this historical issue is of the utmost interest to a number of critics, many of whom attempt to assess what Shakespeare's own political sympathies were. The topic of succession is important in Shakespeare's tragedies as well, notably in Macbeth and Hamlet. The parallels between the transfer of power from Queen Elizabeth to King James—a highly charged political concern at the time these tragedies were written—provides another source for the critical evaluation of succession in Shakespeare's plays.
In King John, Shakespeare explored the issue of what establishes a “right” to the throne of England. William H. Matchett (1962) reviews this topic, noting that King John usurped the throne from Arthur, the rightful ruler, but that Philip the Bastard seems to possess the qualities of a true king. In the end, Matchett argues, neither power nor prestige count for much. Rather, true honor is possessed by the rightful king, and this trait is based on duty, that is, on what is best for England. Like Matchett, Robert Lane (1995) investigates the subject of succession in King John. Lane demonstrates that both King John and Queen Elizabeth's reigns were marred by doubts about legitimacy. The play highlights these similarities, Lane states, by examining a number of issues, including the people's involvement in the process of selecting a successor. Phyllis Rackin (1990) takes a broader approach to the topic of succession, studying the way two Renaissance theories of historical succession, or causation, are portrayed in the historical plays. Rackin identifies the conflict between providential and Machiavellian outlooks on historical causation as the genesis of the “theatrical energy” of the plays. This conflict is represented in different ways in the history plays. For example, Rackin maintains that in Richard III Shakespeare forced a sense of providential order on the chaos that arose from the Machiavellian power struggles in the Henry VI plays, but in King John he advocated a Machiavellian approach to kingship. William C. Carroll (1992) also reviews the apparent providentialism of Richard III. Carroll finds that although it seems that the Tudor myth of providential succession is portrayed in the play, in fact the principles of social order, including that of succession, are compromised, and that Shakespeare reveals a certain skepticism regarding the nature of logical succession.
The issue of succession in Macbeth is revealed in the play's concern with children and babies; that is, heirs, maintains Sarah Wintle and René Weis (1991). While King James I, who succeeded Elizabeth and who reigned at the time Macbeth was written, had children and an heir, he was nevertheless concerned with legitimacy and succession, and was known to be obsessed with his own ancestry. Wintle and Weis find parallels between the play's concerns and those of James I. Like Wintle and Weis, Jonathan Baldo (1996) finds links between James I, his style of rule, and Macbeth. Unlike Elizabeth, who stressed her legitimacy through theatrical demonstrations of power, James, a more aloof ruler, addressed concerns related to legitimacy by emphasizing lineal succession. Baldo underscores that Macbeth is similarly focused on aloofness as a style of rule, and on lineal succession. Additionally, Baldo comments on the relationship between the character of Malcolm and King James. Concerns regarding King James's journey to the English throne are reflected in Hamlet, argues Stuart M. Kurland (1994). Kurland explores the relationship between the political atmosphere of the play and that in England in the 1590s. During that time, Kurland states, England had grown uneasy due to the possibility that James might capture the English throne through military action. Kurland cautions, however, that despite such parallels, the “militaristic Fortinbras” should not be viewed as a theatrical representation of James, nor does Hamlet necessarily represent Essex, the leader of a failed rebellion against Queen Elizabeth.
Criticism: Succession In The History Plays
SOURCE: “Richard's Divided Heritage in King John,” in Essays in Criticism, Vol. XII, No. 3, July, 1962, pp. 231-53.
[In the following essay, Matchett maintains that the plot of King John focuses on the issue of the “right” to the throne, and studies the claims to the throne of Arthur, John, and the Bastard. The critic asserts that in King Johnthe mark of a true king is decided not by power or prestige, but on the basis of what is best for England.]
In ‘Commodity and Honour in King John’ (University of Toronto Quarterly, April, 1960, 341-56) Mr. James Calderwood demonstrates the essential role of those themes in Shakespeare's play. I should like to confirm, strengthen and extend his perceptive analysis through a discussion of structure. In brief, my argument is as follows: The plot of King John is built around the question of who should be King of England and thus of what constitutes a ‘right’ to the throne. In the first act, three characters are shown to have particular claims to the crown. With the death of Arthur, the failure and eventual collapse of John and, through the course of the play, the growth of the Bastard in his perception of the distinction between commodity and true honour, it would appear that the Bastard is being groomed to take over as the rightful king. The final scenes, however, with their surprising introduction of a new...
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SOURCE: “Ideological Conflict, Alternative Plots, and the Problem of Historical Causation,” in Stages of History: Shakespeare's English Chronicles, Cornell University Press, 1990, pp. 40-85.
[In the following essay, Rackin identifies a conflict between two Renaissance theories of history, providentialism and Machiavellianism, as alternate explanations of historical causation. This conflict, maintains Rackin, can be found in Shakespeare's history plays, and it is the source of their theatrical energy and the inspiration for the audience's contemplation of the problems related to historical interpretation. Rackin goes on to investigate how this ideological conflict is portrayed in different ways in the history plays.]
Modern criticism of Shakespeare's history plays can be divided conveniently into two main camps, both concerned with the problem of historical causation. First there was the “Tudor myth” school associated with E. M. W. Tillyard, which found in the plays “a universally held,” and “fundamentally religious” historical “scheme,” governed by divine providence, beginning with the “distortion of nature's course” in the deposition and murder of Richard II and moving purposefully “through a long series of disasters and suffering and struggles” to the restoration of legitimacy and order under the Tudors.1
Then—and this side still holds the...
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SOURCE: “‘The Form of Law’: Ritual and Succession in Richard III,” in True Rites and Maimed Rites: Ritual and Anti-Ritual in Shakespeare and His Age, edited by Linda Woodbridge and Edward Berry, University of Illinois Press, 1992, pp. 203-19.
[In the following essay, Carroll states that the way in which Richard III explores the failure of ritual reflects the political concerns of the 1590s related to the succession issue. Carroll concludes that the play demonstrates Shakespeare's skeptical attitude toward the “logic of succession.”]
Deformed persons are commonly even with nature, for as nature hath done ill by them, so do they by nature … Therefore it is good to consider of deformity, not as a sign, … but as a cause, which seldom faileth of the effect.
—Bacon, “Of Deformity”
In her study of rites of passage and other ritual actions in Shakespearean drama, Marjorie Garber describes Richard III (along with Macbeth) as unique among tragic characters: “Of all Shakespeare's characters … two in particular stand out as examples of a contrary linguistic pattern, a regression rather than a progression—a failure of maturation emblematized by a failure in language.”1 Garber then describes in detail the initial power and eventual failure of Richard's rhetorical powers in the play, until the multiple fragmentations of his...
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SOURCE: “‘The Sequence of Posterity’: Shakespeare's King John and the Succession Controversy,” in Studies in Philology, Vol. 92, No. 4, Fall, 1995, pp. 460-81.
[In the following essay, Lane reflects on the ways in which King John addresses the succession crisis of the 1590s, at the end of Queen Elizabeth's reign. Lane explains that the play explores the doubts regarding legitimacy and succession that plagued the reigns of both King John and Queen Elizabeth.]
When Parliament convened in February, 1593 the queen was 59 years old, her age intensifying public concern over that “uncertain certainty,”3 the as-yet unsettled succession on her death. This apprehension had persisted since early in her reign, the succession issue having been the focus of domestic politics as early as the 1560s, especially after Elizabeth's serious illnesses in 1562 and 1564.4 Despite, or rather because of, the decisive importance of this question, it remained largely invisible on the landscape of public discourse. Elizabeth's government was determined to see that this preoccupation had no outlet. Public discussion of the succession was forbidden, declared treasonous by parliamentary statute.5 Authors of pamphlets on the subject in 1564 and 1568 were imprisoned, even though in the latter instance the author advocated what was the government's own position.6...
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Criticism: Succession In The Tragedies: Hamlet And Macbeth
SOURCE: “Macbeth and the Barren Sceptre,” in Essays in Criticism, Vol. 41, No. 2, April, 1991, pp. 128-46.
[In the following essay, Wintle and Weis examine the relationship between James I's legitimacy issues and Macbeth's concern with succession and legitimacy as revealed through the play's emphasis on children and babies.]
Tragedy often begins with trouble from the children. Among Shakespeare's tragedies King Lear is the most obvious example, although Hamlet runs it a close second. Even Desdemona, as Rymer observed, would not have died if she had obeyed her father1. At the end of most Shakespearean comedy and romance a new generation of family stands ready to take over; in the tragedies on the other hand power passes to a representative of another family altogether, to Fortinbras, Edgar or Albany. Ideas of succession and continuity—stressed in so many of the sonnets—seem to have been an abiding preoccupation for Shakespeare. This particular personal interest coincided with a contemporary public and political concern. All his plays were written either towards the end of a long reign by a sovereign who had no direct heir, or at the beginning of the reign of a sovereign who had produced children but whose legitimacy or claim to represent continuity could do with buttressing.
James I and his children could claim descent from two of the characters in...
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SOURCE: “Hamlet and the Scottish Succession,” in Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Vol. 34, No. 2, Spring, 1994, pp. 279-300.
[In the essay below, Kurland argues that Hamlet portrays the controversy surrounding James's succession to Queen Elizabeth's throne. The political world of Hamlet, explains Kurland, is informed by England's uncertainty generated by James's threats to secure the English throne through military action.]
Surveying earlier topical interpretations of Tudor drama, David Bevington observed in 1968 that “Hamlet offers a rich field for topicality … and reveals perhaps most clearly the basic error of the lockpicking sleuth.” Among the theories that were no longer “given serious attention” was Lilian Winstanley's, in “Hamlet” and the Scottish Succession, published in 1921. Winstanley maintained that Hamlet employed “historical analogues” that were “important, numerous, detailed and undeniable” in an effort “to excite as much sympathy as possible for the Essex conspirators, and for the Scottish succession.” Indeed, Winstanley explicitly identified Hamlet with Essex—and King James VI of Scotland.1
Since Bevington's Tudor Drama and Politics appeared twenty-five years ago, historical criticism of Shakespeare and Renaissance Drama has undergone a transformation and revitalization; as Leah...
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SOURCE: “The Politics of Aloofness in Macbeth,” in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 26, No. 3, Autumn, 1996, pp. 531-60.
[In the following essay, Baldo contrasts the styles of rule of Queen Elizabeth and King James and studies the way in which James's aloofness is reflected in Macbeth. Baldo explains that whereas Shakespeare's Elizabethan plays reflect Elizabeth's theatricality and interrupted succession, Macbeth is a reflection of James's aloof style of rule and of his emphasis on lineal succession.]
There is the same method through all the world in general. All things come to their height by degrees; there they stay the least of time; then they decline as they rose.
—Owen Feltham, Resolves, XLIX
The King our Soveraigne is lawfully and lineally descended … and that by so long a continued line of lawfull descent, as therein he exceedeth all the Kings that the world now knoweth.
—The Lord Chancellor, 1608
Jonathan Goldberg sums up the contrasting styles of Queen Elizabeth and King James as follows: in the pageants that were an important part of both monarchs' “symbolics of power,” “Elizabeth played at being a part,” whereas “James played at being apart, separate.”1 Displaying “an unmovingness even...
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Axton, Marie. “Miraculous Succession: ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle’ (1601).” In The Queen's Two Bodies: Drama and the Elizabethan Succession, pp. 116-30. London: Royal Historical Society, 1977.
Maintains that Shakespeare's poem, The Phoenix and the Turtle is both politically and philosophically motivated. The poem addresses Shakespeare's attitudes toward kingship, love, and duty—the same attitudes, Axton asserts, that are found in Shakespeare's histories and tragedies.
Erskine-Hill, Howard. “The First Tetralogy and King John.” In Poetry and the Realm of Politics: Shakespeare to Dryden, pp. 46-69. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.
Studies the extent to which providentialism is explored in the Henry VI tetralogy and King John, arguing that a providential explanation is not explicit in the tetralogy. In King John, the critic contends, Shakespeare makes specific allusions to contemporary events and suggests that both the papacy and the monarchy are guided only by self-interest.
Jones, Robert C. “King John: ‘Perfect Richard’ versus ‘This Old World.’” In These Valiant Dead: Renewing the Past in Shakespeare's Histories, pp. 46-68. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991.
Examines the issue of legal heritage in King John,...
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