The Prisoner of Zenda

by Anthony Hope Hawkins

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 636

The Prevalence of Deception

Characters from every arena and walk of life have to be deceitful at points in the novel, and their lies—well-intended or otherwise—act as the catalytic forces that drive the plot. Initially, the king's half-brother, Michael, deceives his brother into believing his loyalty, but he eventually drugs and kidnaps him. Later, Antoinette and Count Rupert act in ways that throw wrenches in the cogs of the plot. On the other side of the aisle, the faithful characters even engage in deception, as the king's advisers plot to deceive the country by asking Rassendyll to take the crown until he can give it back to the rightful king. The weary Rassendyll begrudgingly agrees and must act deceitfully to the country and, eventually, the woman he begins falling in love with to ensure that the plot continues.

The act of lying is so common that telling the truth seems almost ludicrous; nearly every character understands the web of falsities they must traverse, so to continue the deception and act dishonestly becomes rather mundane. Indeed, it is as if virtues such as honesty and truth have been erased by the call of duty that demands deception of all, both good and evil. This necessity adds nuance to the originally black-and-white conflict, for if all involved parties are liars and charlatans, who is truly good? Is anyone? 

The Right to Rule

Throughout the novel, many characters stake a claim on the throne. In the convolution of antiquated inheritance traditions, each character has a satisfactory, if unequal, claim to the position. However, readers are inclined to side with Rudolf V as the rightful heir simply because his claim aligns best with what readers expect. However, the novel questions the idea of “right” and asks if there is such a thing. The inheritance struggle of The Prisoner of Zenda is accompanied by an equally compelling philosophical struggle on the nature of power and conflicting claims to it. Rassendyll, a foreigner untrained in statecraft, holds the position admirably. His deception succeeds, and he convinces the public that he is a good and kind king. While he soon returns the crown to Rudolf V, readers might find themselves wondering: why? Had he not proven himself? Had he not served well? Indeed, the novel raises interesting, complex questions about the assumption of heritable rulership and monarchy in general. While Rudolf may be the traditional “rightful heir,” there is cause to believe that the others may have their reasoning, right, or desire to rule and might make capable rulers.

The False Expectation of Freely-Given Loyalty

Different groups of people are set apart by their loyalties—either to the king or to his brother. The nation divides itself by these loyalties, thus creating lines of conflict in the story. Just as the novel questions the idea of the right to rule, it also questions the idea of loyalty as an implicit, freely-given object. Instead, Hawkins argues that loyalty is earned through virtuous living and mutual respect. Readers see this difference in the way that supporting characters interact with Rassendyll versus how they interact with Michael. Rassendyll’s supporting characters respect his kindness and willingness to help in their country’s time of need; they see him as a good man who they are happy to follow and support. However, Michael’s henchmen lack loyalty in this sense; they align themselves with him only until he no longer aligns with their self-interests. Rupert, his main henchman, betrays him the instant he finds his goals threatened, much to Michael’s surprise. Part of what makes Duke Michael a successful villain is this very expectation: he is owed the throne, but he is also owed the loyal support necessary to achieve it. He has misunderstood the basic necessity of rulership: loyalty is earned not demanded.

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