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
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