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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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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 26305

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 which major chronicle history plays share with romantic comedy, one can also see why Henry VIII is a play of another kind even though it draws upon the materials of chronicle history. By the same token, Hamlet must be placed with the chronicle histories in terms of its strategies of representation rather than with the Jacobean tragedies in terms of which literary tradition has identified it.

I will not be concerned with the march of literature, on the one hand, nor with the history of institutions of state on the other. It is the representation of power that commands my interest in this [essay], by which I mean specifically that cultural logic or general economy of meaning within which the monarch's body was inscribed and achieved value. I will show that the theater which idealized state power did not observe either its own logic or that of any individual author's development. Quite the contrary, as the inherited prerogatives of the monarch were challenged, first by a contending faction within the aristocracy, and later by dissenting voices outside the oligarchy, literature had to employ radically discontinuous artistic strategies to remain politically consistent. Indeed, we find that a whole set of literary genres fell out of favor with the accession of James I, and new forms provided the appropriate means of situating oneself in proximity to political power. Along with romantic comedy, Petrarchan poetry, prose romance, and other genres as well, the chronicle history play enjoyed a period of unprecedented popularity during the 1590s. And just as clearly as it shared their popularity, the chronicle history play also participated in the demise of many of these Elizabethan genres; with few exceptions, such plays ceased to be produced after Henry V (1599), the most notable exception being Henry VIII.


To explain why history plays became virtually unwritable after 1600, I would like to consider what this dramatic form shared with romantic comedy and Petrarchan poetry that enabled these genres to address the interests of the same audience and then hasten into obsolescence together. For all their differences, chronicle history uses the same strategy to produce political order out of political conflict as romantic comedy uses to reinforce the dominant rules of kinship. Both represent patriarchal hierarchies in a state of disorder, in this way creating two bases for authority, and thus two competing hierarchies of power, which only the monarch can hold together in harmonious discord.

If we recall for the moment the example of A Midsummer Night's Dream, a play surely characteristic of Shakespeare's romantic comedies, we can see that the problem which authority has to master is a problem with authority itself. It is the problem of authority grown archaic. At the outset, the law seems arbitrary in that it seems to serve only the will of the father. A comedic resolution does not require the law to be less arbitrary, for arbitrariness can be a perfectly acceptable feature of monarchal power. Rather, a comic resolution requires either the independence of the law or the generosity of the father. It requires, in other words, a more inclusionary order. Oberon represents the traditional alternative to patriarchal law, the elements of carnival. Thus we find his introduction into the play triggers a series of inversions.1 As if Titania's playing the role of an unruly woman were not enough to define this as the role of fairie, Puck sets this principle of disorder to work among the Athenians—both lovers and mechanicals—who have wandered into the woods. Such inversions—of gender, age, status, even of species—violate all the categories organizing the Elizabethan social world. Relationships consequently assume the nightmarish proportions of Renaissance madness, which occurs as desire exists whenever transgressions of patriarchal law exist in absolute opposition to political authority.

But the romantic comedies demonstrate that festival breaks down the hierarchical distinctions organizing Elizabethan society only—in the end—to be taken within the social order where it authorizes a new form of political authority. This strategy of double inversion contains political disorder within the framework of festival where it can be further aestheticized, as illustrated by "the story of the night told o'er," Bottom's "dream," as well as the mechanicals' production of the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe. When Theseus and his party come upon the sleeping couples lying intermingled on the ground, the duke surmises, "No doubt they rose up early to observe / The rite of May . . ." (IV.i.132-3). By identifying the lovers as revelers, Theseus does more than decriminalize their transgression of the law; he identifies their state of disarray with the order of art. "I know you two are rival enemies," he says to the young men, "How comes this gentle concord in the world .. . ?" (IV.i.142-3) At the same time, however, by including filial disobedience within a field of permissible illegalities, Shakespeare has changed the construction of political authority. What had been a violation of the father's law now becomes a scene of harmony. And when Egeus presses Theseus to punish the youthful offenders, the duke overrules the father in what strikes many as an arbitrary gesture. While both Egeus and the duke have been arbitrary in their exercise of authority, the power of legitimate authority is distinguished from the patriarchal authority by the monarch's willingness to generously forgive where Egeus, despite the lovers' show of obeisance, would be penurious and harsh.

If Theseus authorizes certain inversions of power relations by permitting them to exist within the frameworks of festival and art, it is also true that the introduction of disorder into the play ultimately authorizes political authority. Once Theseus includes the rites of May within the domain of the permissible, the revelers in turn fall on their knees before him. Thus configured together, revelers and duke comprise a harmonious political body where the power of the monarch exists independently from that of the patriarch. The equation of juridical power with patriarchal power gives way to a new set of political conditions where competing bases for authority are held in equipoise by the duke. This form of authority constitutes an improvement over the punitive power he threatened to exercise at the play's opening. The entire last act of the play consequently theorizes the process of inversion whereby art and politics end up in this mutually authorizing relationship. This process is reproduced on the stage in the form of an Elizabethan tragedy—Pyramus and Thisbe—which has been converted into a comedy as rude mechanicals play a range of parts from those of noble lovers to the creatures and objects of the natural world.

The popularity of inversions which bring the law into contradiction with patriarchal authority cannot be fully understood unless one sees how Elizabeth used these forms of authority against one another. It is not enough to say that the transfiguration of authority in romantic comedy resembles Elizabeth's actual style of exercising the power of the monarch. To be sure, she used her power as a patron to curb the power of the ruling families and set economically-based authority in opposition to that based on blood. But the facts would indicate this strategy was more than personal ingenuity on her part. They indicate her characteristic strategies for expressing power were no less dependent upon the political conditions of the time than the form of a comedy such as A Midsummer Night's Dream.

The Acts of Parliament of 1536 and 1543 gave Henry VIII the power to determine succession. His will not only specified the crown would pass to Edward, Mary and Elizabeth in that order, it also determined that, if his children should die without issue, the crown would pass to his younger sister's children in the Suffolk line and not to her older sister's children in the superior hereditary Stuart line.2 Henry thus treated the crown as property, governed by the same common-law rules against alien inheritance as any other piece of English property. By exploiting his legal prerogative to authorize this line of descent, Henry used the civil authority of a property owner to define the monarchy as such a juridical form. This tautology set the dominant principle of genealogy against the one which was invoked later by supporters of Mary Queen of Scots and her line. During Elizabeth's reign, both Catholic and Stuart spokesmen insisted on the traditional view of the monarch as two bodies, a body natural and a body mystical, in the same body.3 Theirs was a monolithic view of power that saw the body politic as the corporate body of the crown in perpetuity. The mystical body purged the body natural of attainder; it joined the king with his royal predecessors to constitute them as one and the same corporate person; and the metaphysical body was joined to the natural body of the king, they argued, like an affair of the heart in a marital pre-contract of the blood royal.

A similar logic operates in A Midsummer Night's Dream as the law and the father temporarily come into contradiction in the last act of the play. In this instance, however, the splitting of one form of power into two competing voices is hardly the dramatic problem. It is rather the comedic resolution to a problem which develops when authority assumes an absolute and monolithic form. Since Elizabeth's ascendancy could be justified according to her father's will and primogeniture both, her very person temporarily reconciled the competing viewpoints formulated during the debates concerning her succession. Elizabeth was a paradox, in other words, by virtue of the contradictory definitions of monarchal authority her succession had occasioned. Much the same contradiction resolves the dramatic conflict of A Midsummer Night's Dream with the divergence of Theseus's authority from that of Egeus. Indeed, in turning back to courtly poetry, we find the same strategy for idealizing power obtains as the patron is endowed with the attributes of the reluctant lover. The puns characterizing the Petrarchan mode of poetry effectively create a gulf between the power of property (in the form of economic favors) and that of blood (through marriage into the aristocracy), even as the two modes for representing power are brought together in one figure of speech.


If the Petrarchan lyric or romantic comedy are shaped by strategies for idealizing the state, this rhetorical behavior should be all the more evident in the chronicle history plays. The obstacle one encounters in identifying these strategies in the material of chronicle history is not quite the same as the obstacles that stand in the way of historicizing romantic comedy. Shakespeare's use of political rather than sexual subject matter entices many to make the history plays allude to contemporary events. While such a procedure anchors "the text" to events taking place in a "context," such an allusory, or allegorical construction prevents us from seeing the drama as a symbolic activity of a piece with and giving shape to the events we call history. It is fair to say that the form of the history play is so completely one with certain Elizabethan controversies, that the materials of chronicle history could no longer be so assembled once the official strategies for mastering those controversies changed.

Richard II exemplifies the strategies by which Shakespeare stages the struggle for legitimate authority. It is significant that few if any monarchs in the entire sequence of history plays are represented at the outset of their dramas with a more secure claim to the throne. Yet within the first two acts Shakespeare creates the impression that no monarch is more irresponsible and finally more threatening to the stability of the state. He makes Richard appear as a tragic version of the patriarch who exercises his authority for penurious and exclusionary ends. In contrast with the anointed king, then, Shakespeare makes the displaced and dispossessed Bullingbroke into the figure who rescues the principle of genealogy and links it to the law.

Shakespeare first has Richard act as if he had absolute authority over the law by virtue of his solid claim to the throne. At the same time, Richard disregards the other principle that secures his position. In the opening scenes, the king is unwilling—or, more likely, unable—to entertain Bullingbroke's charge that Mowbray was responsible for Gloucester's murder. There is even the possibility Richard is complicit in that crime, which would implicate the king in a crime against the state. An impossible semiotic dilemma would arise in the event of such a conflict within the body politic between the monarch's two bodies. The notion that the bearer of blood could also betray the state requires one to imagine the state and the blood as separate entities. Although several of the sources for the play suggest the possibility of Richard's implication in his uncle's death, then, Shakespeare leaves the whole issue in a cloudy state. Otherwise, he would have to represent Richard II as the monstrous form in which Richard HI steps forth.

In III Henry VI as well as in Richard III, Richard's monstrosity is stressed at the very moment he wages personal war on the monarchy. When Richard has murdered King Edward, boasted to the imprisoned King Henry of killing the king's son as well, and stabbed Henry repeatedly, the dying monarch describes Richard as a monster. His regicidal behavior fits a body that also is a disfiguration of the family line, "... an indigested and deformed lump, / Not like the fruit of such a goodly tree" ( Richard then muses on his figure using Henry's terms: having been born with teeth, he says, "I should snarl, and bite, and play the dog" ( He sees his behavior as the providential equivalent for the deformation of his natural body: "Then since the heavens have shap'd my body so, / Let hell make crook'd my mind to answer it" ( By this, he makes his monstrous form become the figure for the fratricidal desire that works against the aristocratic body through the entire first tetralogy. At the end of Richard III, the victorious Richmond enters with the crown to describe the victory in these terms, "The day is ours, the bloody dog is dead" (V.v.2). It is important to note that even as Shakespeare represents this king quite literally as a monster, the playwright still has this monster preserve the iconic relationship between the two bodies of the monarch. In being so disfigured in his body the power of blood will also be restored to its natural form with Richard's defeat.

In Richard II, Shakespeare suggests quite a different order of problem is plaguing the state, namely its failure to exercise force. In assuming the authority of blood is absolute, Richard neglects those displays of political authority which establish the absolute power of the monarch over the material body of the subject. To settle the charges about Mowbray's role in the murder of the Duke of Gloucester, Richard stages a trial by combat, only to cancel this ceremony before it gets underway. His subsequent banishment of Mowbray and Bullingbroke demonstrates the monarch's right to exercise royal power arbitrarily. But with a consistency that suggests he could not do otherwise, Richard avoids those occasions where scenes of violence ordinarily would be staged. Even late in the play, Shakespeare does not allow Richard to do battle where he would show an ability to exercise the force of state. Hearing of the uprising led by Bullingbroke, Richard instead invokes the metaphysics of kingship to protect his crown. It is from his position as the magical body of England that he urges the earth,

Feed not thy sovereign's foe, my gentle earth,
Nor with thy sweets comfort his ravenous sense,
But let thy spiders, that suck up thy venom,
And heavy-gaited toads lie in their way,
Doing annoyance to the treacherous feet,
Which with usurping steps do trample thee.


He believes angels will fight on his behalf, that stones will become soldiers for the anointed king, and that "the king's name" is worth "twenty thousand names" (III.ii.85). In contrast with Richard III, then, Richard II threatens to break the bond between the king's two bodies.

Although Shakespeare raises the matter of Gloucester's death, he stops short of making it the central issue.

Instead, he uses Gaunt's deathbed speech to represent Richard as "the careless patient" who fails to prevent the spilling of royal blood. Of equal importance is Richard's insensitivity to the dangers of leasing the royal lands, for both policies—or lack of policy—cause the body politic to fall dangerously ill. Giving up his control over royal land threatens the very basis of the monarch's authority ("This land .. . Is now leas'd out—I die pronouncing it—/ Like to a tenement or pelting farm" [II.i.57-60]). The danger, of course, is one and the same as that troubling the participants in the succession debate. By so representing Richard, Shakespeare has the king undermine the bond among the claims to power which Elizabeth embodied. In Gaunt's opinion, Richard threatens to destroy the equipoise between the king's two bodies by making that body subject to contract. "Landlord of England art thou now, not king," the dying Gaunt charges, "Thy state of law is bond-slave to the law" (II.i.113-14). Besides the spilling of aristocratic blood and the leasing of the aristocratic body, Shakespeare represents yet another assault by Richard on the institutions of power, his arrogant disregard for the principle of primogeniture. When the king seizes Bullingbroke's inheritance following the death of Gaunt, York rightly accuses him of challenging the principle on which his own power rests. ". . . How art thou a king," York asks, "But by fair sequence and succession" (II.i.198-9). This act threatens the entire nobility and provides as great a threat to the body politic as the "grievous taxes" that have stripped the common people bare and "quite lost their hearts" (II.i.247).

In the comedies such . . . a split in the body politic is repaired as the state contains all the heterogeneous elements of carnival. This makes the hierarchy of state seem less at odds with nature, at once more inclusionary and less arbitrary in its laws. Although we do not usually think of Henry Bullingbroke in such terms, Shakespeare does give him the features of inversion which necessarily challenge the law. In preparing for battle against Mowbray, Bullingbroke is "lusty, young, and cheerly drawing breath" (I.iii.66). As Henry leaves England, Richard accordingly describes his rival as one who enjoys the popular support of the "craftsmen," "an oyster-wench," and a "brace of draymen." These elements, Richard notes, regard Henry as if "England [were] in reversion his, / And he our subjects' next degree of hope" (I.iv.35-6). Even the support enabling Henry to challenge the king—in its mixing of ages, sexes and social ranks—sounds more like a carnivalesque troop than a disciplined military force. And indeed, Scroop employs figures of inversion to describe the raggle-taggle supporters of Bullingbroke:

White beards have arm'd their thin and hairless scalps
Against thy majesty; boys, with women's voices,
Strive to speak big, and clap their female joints
In stiff unwieldy arms against thy crown;
Thy very beadsmen learn to bend their bows
Of double-fatal yew against thy state;
Yea, distaff-women manage rusty bills
Against thy seat: both young and old rebel....


This is not the figure of a revolutionary army assaulting the traditions of patriarchy. To the contrary, as E.P. Thompson has noted, such are the elements of an essentially conservative form of riot staged to demand better adherence to a patriarchal ideal.4 In Richard III, then, Richmond's troops successfully overthrow the tyrant Richard to return England to a stable England. To Richard III, however, these soldiers appear as, "A sort of vagabonds, rascals, and runaways, / A scum of Britains and base lackey peasants . . ." (V.iii.316-17).

I would like to suggest that the history plays all turn on this use of the materials of carnival. The popular energy embodied in carnival legitimizes authority, provided that energy can be incorporated in the political body of the state. In effect, such energy lends the power of autochthony to a rigidly hierarchical form of patriarchy. In this respect, it is significant to find Richard describing Bullingbroke in language more appropriate for a Falstaff than an English king; Bullingbroke is "a thief," as well as "a traitor," one "Who all this while hath revell'd in the night" (III.ii.47-8). It is especially significant that Bullingbroke embody these features as he rescues the principle of inheritance which underwrites Richard's right to wear the crown. Bullingbroke repeats his uncle's words as he lays claim to a title and, with it, to the authority of the blood, "Wherefore was I born? / If that my cousin king be King in England, / It must be granted I am Duke of Lancaster" (II.iii.122-4). If Richard had dissociated the power of blood from the exercise of force, then Henry restores the body politic to wholeness. His England incorporates the robust features of festival, while Richard's is a state that lets the family blood and leases the royal land. Gaunt characterizes Richard's body politic as a place where Edward III's "son's sons . . . destroy his sons"(II.i.105), and it "is now bound in with shame, / With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds . . ." (II.i.63-4). It is for this reason that the figure of carnival is associated with Henry, while the figure of a mutilated England characterizes Richard's monarchy. The rhetorical contrast between them shifts legitimate authority from Richard to Henry.

The shift begins when Bullingbroke arrests Bushy and Green on charges of treason for assaulting the king's body. Not even the loyal York questions Henry's authority in this, for Bushy and Green have,

. . . misled a prince, a royal king,
A happy gentleman in blood and lineaments,
By you unhappied and disfigured clean. . . .


They "disfigured" Richard, we should note, by dividing the king from the queen, thus breaking "the possession of a royal bed," as well as by dividing Bullingbroke from the king. As Henry says, "you did make him misinterpret me." While critics have puzzled over the charge of divorce, (there is no evidence in the play or in the chronicles of any such divorce), the play simply suggests that anything dividing the aristocratic body against itself disfigures the king. Assaults on Bullingbroke's estate constitute the same treasonous act of disfigurement, then, as Bullingbroke further details the crimes of Bushy and Green:

. . . you have fed upon my signories,
Dispark'd my parks and fell'd my forest woods,
From my own windows torn my household coat,
Ras'd out my imprese, leaving me no sign,
Save men's opinions and my living blood,
To show the world I am a gentleman.


This representation of aristocracy divested of its natural body indicts not only Bushy and Green, we must note, but also Richard. In allowing the body of England to be split apart and himself disfigured, he has disfigured the official iconography of state. He has become the "other" against whom popular support may be legitimately invoked.

Richard has been called the poet king by critics who want to read him in the nineteenth-century manner, as a poet king who was a political failure, rather than as a sixteenth-century monarch who destroyed the sign of his own legitimacy.5 In actuality, it is Henry IV rather than Richard in whom Shakespeare invests the power of the artist, not a power detached from matters political, that is, but the power to incorporate disruptive cultural elements within the official rituals of state. Henry successfully stages Richard's resignation of the crown and the procession and coronation that legitimate his own claim to the throne.6 York contrasts Richard's poor appearance to Bullingbroke's triumphant processional; while Henry drew everyone's gaze, he says Richard appeared

As in a theatre the eyes of men,
After a well-graced actor leaves the stage,
Are idly bent on him that enters next,
Thinking his prattle to be tedious. . . .


Another occasion for Henry to display his authority occurs when Aumerle, his conspiracy discovered, begs forgiveness, and Henry grants it. With this, Shakespeare completes the contrast between Richard and Henry. Richard lacks the power of generosity as well as the capacity for ruthlessness. Henry possesses both and can manifest either power in extreme as he so chooses. No less important than granting his cousin Aumerle forgiveness is Henry's condemnation and pursuit of all those who plotted against him. He vows, "Destruction straight shall dog them at their heels . . . / They shall not live within this world, I swear" (V.iii.139, 142). Thus in one scene he shows both sides of the coin of power: he vows to exercise unlimited force in the interest of the state, and he displays generosity in the interest of the blood. It is significant that by staging this scene of forgiveness for Aumerle's parents, the Duke and Duchess of York, Henry recasts his authority in a comedic form. "Our scene is alt'red from a serious thing" (V.iii.79), he observes, when the Duchess begs an audience to plead for her son. Having just examined the comedies, one should find this scene a familiar one. By this stroke, we might say, Shakespeare acknowledges the conceptual link between his two major Elizabethan genres.


In certain respects, Henry V can be called a piece of political hagiography.7 As if omniscient, Henry discovers domestic conspirators and punishes them. He secures his borders against Scottish invaders, unifies the dispirited and heterogeneous body under his authority, and wins the battle of Agincourt, thus taking control of territory which had been claimed by French inheritance law and contested by English laws of succession. The stability of the state having been won, and the promise of its continuance having been established by the king's marriage with the French princess, the Epilogue to this tetralogy takes on the features of a comic resolution:

Thus far, with rough and all-unable pen,
Our bending author hath pursu'd the story,
In little room confining mighty men,
Mangling by starts the full course of their glory.
Small time, but in that small most greatly lived
This star of England. Fortune made his sword;
By which the world's best garden he achieved,
And of it left his son imperial lord.

(lines 1-8)

The history play stabilizes the conflict among contradictory origins of power, it appears, only to define that stasis as nothing else but a moment of equipoise within a competitive process. The hagiographical theme of this play understands power as the inevitable unfolding of order. But to idealize political authority, Shakespeare evidently found it necessary to counter this theme with a contrary one.

In this other logic of history, history is nothing else but the history of forms of disorder, over which Henry temporarily triumphs. He alone embodies the contradictions that bring disruption into the service of the state and allows a discontinuous political process to appear as a coherent moment. Thus the Epilogue continues on past a comedic resolution to remind the Elizabethan audience that the very marriage which secured the peace with France and established the line of succession eventually led to the Wars of the Roses:

Henry the Sixt, in infant bands crown'd King
Of France and England, did this king succeed;
Whose state so many had the managing,
That they lost France, and made his England bleed. . . .

(lines 9-12)

Providence temporarily comes under the control of the monarch. Working against political order, however, providence offers a tide that one can ride into power but against which he must struggle vainly in order to remain there.8 This leveling force effectively unseats every hierarchy. This seems to be the point of Richard Ill's rise, of Henry Richmond's victory over Richard, of Bullingbroke's successful challenge to Richard II, but particularly of Hal's defeat of Hotspur and his subsequent victory over the French. In each case, state authority does not descend directly through blood. Rather, it pursues a disrupted and discontinuous course through history, arising out of conflicts within the reigning oligarchy as to which bloodline shall legitimately rule. Together these chronicle history plays demonstrate, then, that authority goes to the contender who can seize hold of the symbols and signs legitimizing authority and wrest them from his rivals to make them serve his own interests. What else is accomplished, however perversely, by Richard Ill's incarceration of the young princes? Or Bullingbroke's public ceremony in which Richard is forced to hand over the crown? And surely Hal's self-coronation in II Henry IV, preemptive though it may be, dramatizes the same principle, that power is an inversion of legitimate authority which gains possession, as such, of the means of self-authorization.

Such a rhetorical strategy guarantees the figures of carnival will play a particularly instrumental role in the idealizing process that proves so crucial in legitimizing political power. It cannot be accidental that the Henriad, which produces Shakespeare's most accomplished Elizabethan monarch, should also produce his most memorable figure of misrule. The complete king was by birth entitled to the throne. A rough misspent in low-life activities at the same time lends him the demonic features of the contender, a potential regicide, whose legitimacy has yet to be recognized. The various conflicts comprising I and II Henry IV, in actuality cohere as a single strategy of idealization. In opposition to legitimate authority, Hal takes on a populist energy. In contrast, the law of the father seems to have atrophied and grown rigid to the degree that it can be inverted by the likes of Falstaff, whose abuses of legitimate authority, like those of Oberon, take on a menacing quality when unconstrained by the forest glade or tavern. Falstaff frequently anticipates the lawlessness he will enjoy when Hal assumes authority and authority is therefore not "as it is with the rusty curb of old father antic the law" (I.ii.61). Upon hearing of Henry IV's death, again (in Part II) he looks forward to the dissolution of the state: "I know the young king is sick for me. Let us take any man's horses, the laws of England are at my commandment" (V.iii.135-7). Thus Shakespeare uses the figures of carnival to represent a source of power contrary to that power inhering in genealogy. However, the various confrontations between licit and illicit authority comprising the Henriad more firmly draw the distinction between aristocracy and populace even as they appear to overturn this primary categorical distinction.

The figures of carnival ultimately authorize the state as the state appears to take on the vigor of festival. We see this, for example, in Vernon's account of Hal and his men preparing to do battle with Hotspur:

Glittering in golden coats like images,
As full of spirit as the month of May,
And gorgeous as the sun at midsummer;
Wanton as youthful goats, wild as young bulls. 9


The same process transfers what is weak and corrupt onto the tavern folk where it is contained and finally driven even from that debased world. Criminalizing the popular figures of inversion is as necessary to the poetics of power as incorporating a certain popular vigor within the legitimate body of the state. This capability of making rebellion serve the interests of the state by including it within the state is the proof of noble blood and the principle toward which the tetralogy moves. Legitimate order can come into being only through disruption according to this principle, and it can maintain itself only through discontinuous and self-contradictory policies.

If Henry V appears to be Shakespeare's ultimate monarch, it is because historical sources provided the author with material that met the Elizabethan conditions for idealization. Yet these semiotic conditions for producing the ideal political figure are precisely what make Henry V so resistant to modern criticism's attempts at appropriating him for a post-Enlightenment humanism.10 The king's identity coalesces and his power intensifies as he unifies those territories that are his by hereditary law. But as this occurs, one finds that the figure of the monarch breaks apart and disappears into many different roles and dialects. He uses the strategies of disguise and inversion to occupy a range of positions from soldier to lover, as well as several roles in between. As a consequence, the king is virtually everywhere. He occupies the center of every theater of social action and in this way constitutes a state that to modern readers appears to have no center at all, neither a continuous political policy nor an internally coherent self. To make sense to an Elizabethan audience, we must therefore assume the king's body did not have to behave as if it were that of a self-enclosed individual. Rather the histories suggest that body had to behave, semiotically speaking, as if blood had conspired with the disruptive operations of providence to produce it. In becoming so many functions and dialects of a single political body, he makes the various social groups he thus contains lose their autonomy. At the same time, the people acquire an ideal identity as they are embodied by the king.

The most successful monarch of the Elizabethan stage plays displayed his power by incorporating political elements—people, land, dialects—within the body politic. So, too, the power of the monarch achieved legitimacy as recalcitrant cultural materials were taken up and hierarchized within the official rituals of state. Figuratively speaking, this notion of power argued against the idea of patriarchy whose authority was based purely on primogeniture and the metaphysics of blood. But since no challenge to patriarchal authority was successful unless the claimant also happened to possess the blood, the exercise of force alone could hardly convert the energy of the populace into a display of legitimate power. Thus a monarch's ability to convert carnivalesque activity into banqueting and procession was the sign of his entitlement to political power.


Hamlet marks the moment when the Elizabethan strategies for authorizing monarchy became problematic. While he still thinks in terms of Elizabethan figures for power, Shakespeare appears to question their adequacy in representing the transfer of power from one monarch to another. History plays could not be written after Hamlet, I will argue, because this whole matter of transferring power from one monarch to another had to be rethought in view of the aging body of the queen, Elizabeth. That body was, as I have said, a political figure in its own right. Its decay without an apparent heir precipitated serious speculation about the transfer of power, and such speculation gave rise to narrative strategies to figure out how the continuity of the metaphysical body might be preserved.

During the Christmas celebrations of 1600, Elizabeth made a public show of dancing with Duke Bracciano. John Chamberlain writes, "The Queen entertained him very graciously, and to show that she is not so old as some would have her danced both measures and galliards in his presence."11 But the signs of her age were everywhere to be seen. At the opening of Parliament in 1601, it was reported, "her robes of velvet and ermine had proved too heavy for her; on the steps of the throne she had staggered and was only saved from falling by the peer who stood nearest catching her in his arms.. . ."12 The degree to which the condition of her body represented that of the state is apparent in Sir John Harrington's description of the scene at court written during the same year:

the madcaps are all in riot, and much evil threatened .. . the Queen is quite disfavoured, and unattired, and these troubles waste her much. She disregardeth every costly cover that cometh to the table and taketh little but manchet and succory potage. Every new message from the City doth disturb her. . . The many evil plots and designs have overcome all her Highness' sweet temper. She walks much in her Privy Chamber, and stamps with her feet at ill news, and thrusts her rusty sword at times into the arras in great rage. . . . The dangers are over, and yet she always keeps a sword by her table.13

"The many evil plots and designs" in Harrington's account were just that, plots of a political drama organizing the court as well as the stage during this period. Some of these circulated at various European courts among members of the diplomatic corps who imagined the crown of England as an aging and still heirless Elizabeth. In Spain, France, and Italy there was serious debate about naming the Spanish Infanta to the English throne. France was deeply worried, Spain intrigued by the possibility, and the Pope ambivalent. Meanwhile, the North German princes were encouraging a Protestant to be named heir, and Denmark, of course, openly announced it expected Elizabeth to name James. Scottish representatives on the continent actively promoted rumours of various scenarios. A typical example is reported by John Petit who, writing to Peter Helms from Antwerp in 1598, says:

If I were not acquainted with Scottish brags, I might believe England was already more than half theirs. They say the King of Denmark's brother,.. is to bring men from Denmark to do wonders in England; that the Queen, having promised the King of Scots, at his marriage with the Dane, to declare him her successor she must perform it... .14

Prominent members of Elizabeth's own court envisioned other narratives in their secret correspondence with James VI of Scotland.15 Still further possibilities were produced by the gossip of an anxious populace quick to imagine the worst possible conclusion to events. And yet other dramas were acted out in the form of failed conspiracies or foolhardy rebellions, the Essex rebellion constituting the most famous attempt to determine the line of power.

In declaring the line of succession, the queen would determine history itself, and any plot other than hers was treason. Such questions, however, had to be discussed with discretion. The Act of 1571 prohibited debate on the matter of succession outside of Parliament, and after 1571 Parliament itself became extremely reluctant to debate the matter. Despite the fact that James was the most likely candidate, he was far from being the only contender. Yet even though the issue could never become the topic of open debate, Thomas Wilson's The State of England, Anno Dom. 1600 provides a useful indication of the central role this issue played in thinking about the nature of the state and one's relation to political authority. While many Englishmen felt the crown would go to James, Wilson cautions, "to determine thereof is to all English capitally forbidden...." For as he explains, "The crown is not like to fall to the ground for want of heads that claim to wear it, but upon whose head it will fall is by many doubted... ,"16 Because there were so many heads ready to claim the crown (if one follows Wilson's argument there were at least three with reasonable claims), we may safely assume the matter of succession was the single most important concern among the literate classes.

Elizabeth's physical condition seemed at regular intervals to open a gap between the two notions of kingship her physical presence had successfully mediated for some forty years. We might be tempted to say this is also true of chronicle history plays which pit the claims of blood against the effective exercise of force. But Shakespeare invokes the possibility of such a threat to the body politic only to demonstrate that the monarch's two bodies cannot exist as separate entities. It is significant, then, when we find that the very presupposition allowing Shakespeare to play out a dialectics of power in the earlier plays was regularly called into question between 1599 and 1601, the years when it is most likely Hamlet was being written.17 When, in August of 1599, London feared a Spanish invasion, John Chamberlain explained to Dudley Carleton how the appearance of military commanders at the Paul's Cross Sermons was read by the London crowds:

The Lord General with all great officers of the field came in great bravery to Paul's Cross on Sunday . . . and then was the alarm at the hottest that the Spaniards were at Brest. ...

The vulgar sort cannot be persuaded that there was some great mystery in the assembling of these forces, and because they cannot find the reason for it, make many wild conjectures and cast beyond the moon: as sometimes that the Queen was dangerously sick. .. .18

Rather than appearing to them as the routine attendance of military men at Paul's Cross the "vulgar sort" took the presence of military force in the city to mean that the queen was certainly failing. With the loss of her natural body, they must have assumed, the magical power of the Crown was also in question, and the nation, therefore in a state of extreme peril. What is most important for purposes of this argument, however, is the fact that between 1599 and 1601 people could obviously imagine state authority as two separate bodies.

One could speculate that the Essex rebellion was founded on this same presupposition. However one reads his motive, furthermore, the twelve-hour rebellion forced the government and the populace at large to question whether history resided in the exercise of human force or in the Crown's power. Angry at the queen for her support of Cecil, angry at her, too, for reprimanding him when he granted wholesale knighthoods in Ireland, angry at being denied the opportunity to dispense patronage in England, and angry at the recent Star Chamber proceedings against him, Essex is said by Camden to have complained bitterly that Elizabeth was "grown an old woman and as crooked in mind as in her carcase."19 Clearly Essex conceived of the aristocratic body and the change of government to be susceptible to the exercise of force. Even after the government discovered his plans, Essex believed the mere display of his colors and the support of relatives, friends, clients, and household retainers would gain him the popular voice and military force to achieve authority. He obviously had Bullingbroke's method of challenging Richard II in mind, for he requested Shakespeare's company to revive Richard II the night before the rebellion.

While Essex undoubtedly believed the queen's body embodied the magic of blood, he did not see the exercise of force or the power of the law as one and the same force as her magic. Rather, his display seems to have been aimed at controlling the magical body. Following his arrest, the indictments charged Essex specifically with attempting "to usurp the Crown," and the Earls of Essex, Southampton, Rutland, and Sandys, with conspiring to depose and slay the queen.20 In secret letters to James, Essex had indeed declared he intended to seize the queen and force her to name James as her successor. Two days after his conviction, Essex changed his story, claiming his purpose had been to seize the queen, use her authority to change the government, and then call a parliament that would condemn his opponents for mismanaging the state.21 In both versions of the story, the iconic relationship between the monarch's two bodies was in question. Whether he intended to overthrow the queen—which is unlikely—or simply to force her to name the successor of his choice, Essex was insisting that with the mere display of power he could command the natural body, which would in turn determine the mystic line of succession.


Hamlet rehearses this dilemma of a state torn between two competitors, neither of whom can embody the mystical power of blood and land associated with the natural body. Hamlet's claim to power derives from his position as son in a patrilinear system as well as from "popular support." It is this support which Claudius consistently lacks and which, at the same time, prevents him from moving openly against Hamlet. Following the murder of Polonius, for example, Claudius says of Hamlet, "Yet must not we put the strong law on him. / He's lov'd of the distracted multitude . . ." (IV.iii.3-4). But this alone does not guarantee authority. Hamlet is not by nature capable of exercising force. To signal this lack, Shakespeare has given him the speech of Stoical writing, which shifts all action onto a mental plane where any show of force becomes self-inflicted aggression. We find this identification of force with self-assault made explicit in Hamlet's speeches on suicide as well as those in which he berates himself for his inability to act.

In contrast with Hamlet, Claudius's authority comes by way of his marriage to Gertrude. Where he would be second to Hamlet and Hamlet's line in a patrilineal system, the queen's husband and uncle of the king's son occupies the privileged male position in a matrilineal system. Like one of the successful figures from a history play, Claudius overthrew the reigning patriarch. Like one of the successful courtiers in a romantic comedy, he married into the aristocratic community. What is perhaps more important, he has taken the position through the effective use of force. Thus Shakespeare sets in opposition the two claims to authority—the exercise of force and the magic of blood—by means of these two members of the royal family. Because each has a claim, neither Hamlet nor Claudius achieves legitimate control over Denmark. Each one consequently assaults the aristocratic body in attempting to acquire the crown. It is to be expected that Claudius could not legally possess the crown, the matrilinear succession having the weaker claim on British political thinking. Thus the tragedy resides not in his failure but in the impossibility of Hamlet's rising according to Elizabethan strategies of state. This calls the relationship between the metaphysics of patriarchy and the force of law into question.

Claudius's criminality is never the problem. What more heinous crime could be committed against the aristocratic body than a fratricide that is also a regicide? Add to this that both Hamlet and his father's ghost consider this crime incestuous in that it allows one member of the king's family to marry another. But even when they acquired state power under the most questionable means, and even when the magic of blood seemed to locate power elsewhere, the monarchs of the chronicle histories could authorize force and sanction their blood by certain displays of power. Thus we see them incorporating popular energy in the processions of state. In particular, we find them including alienated members of the aristocracy. We may observe this in rituals of forgiveness as Bullingbroke uses to forgive Aumerle, for example, or Henry's vow to banish Falstaff while promising to those that do reform themselves, "We will, according to your strengths and qualities, / Give you advancement" (V.v.69-70). Henry V concludes in comic fashion with courtship and promises of marriage, much as Richard III ends with Richmond's prayer, "O now let Richmond and Elizabeth, / The true succeeders of each royal house, / By God's fair ordinance conjoin together" (V.v.29-31). All these gestures stress the patron's generosity rather than his power to subordinate. It is important, then, that Claudius cannot seize hold of these signs and symbols of power that would authorize his reign. If Hamlet cannot translate the claims of blood into the exercise of force, it is also true that Claudius cannot command the symbolic elements of his culture which testify to the magic of blood. This is especially apparent in the contrast Shakespeare draws between the patron's feast and the revels Claudius attempts to stage. Significantly, Hamlet must explain to a startled Horatio that the sudden noise of trumpet and cannon do not signal a military invasion but rather announce Claudius's revels:

The King doth wake to-night and takes his rouse,
Keeps wassail, and the swagg'ring up-spring reels;
And as he drains his draughts of Rhenish down,
The kettle-drum and trumpet thus bray out
The triumph of his pledge.


Add to this the fact that Shakespeare has Hamlet describe Claudius to Gertrude in terms that specifically invoke the figure of misrule:

A murtherer and a villain!
A slave that is not twentieth part the [tithe]
Of your precedent lord; a vice of kings,
A cutpurse of the empire and the rule,
That from a shelf the precious diadem stole,
And put it in his pocket . . .

A king of shreds and patches . . .


As he leaves, Hamlet urges his mother not to let "The bloat king tempt you again to bed . . ." (line 182). To call Claudius a "bloat king," a "lecherous" man, "a cutpurse of the empire," "a vice of kings," is for Shakespeare to cut this usurper out of the same cloth he used in fabricating Falstaff. Thus Claudius acquires the features of illicit power which the history plays subordinate, if not purge, in sanctifying power.

Rather than authorizing the state, then, Shakespeare lines up the benign image of carnival—a populist support—in opposition to Claudius. When Laertes returns to demand justice for the murder of his father, he exhibits the same features of popular authority which Shakespeare gave the heroes of his chronicle history plays and attributed to Hamlet as well:

young Laertes, in a riotous head,
O'erbears your officers. The rabble call him lord,
And as the world were now but to begin,
Antiquity forgot, custom not known,
The ratifiers and props of every word,
[They] cry, "Choose we, Laertes shall be king!"

(IV.v. 102-7)

In light of the power these features have to authorize force in the history plays, then, we must sit up and take note when the figure of popular energy is caught up in Claudius's conspiracy to turn the banquet table into the scene of Hamlet's death. Transformed, these materials testify to the hierarchizing power of the aristocracy. Untransformed, however, these materials represent what is outside the aristocratic body and most threatening to it.

The staging of a play within a play, say, in A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Taming of the Shrew, as well as in Hamlet, serves another purpose. Shakespeare makes these stagings part of the official rituals of state even when directed by pranksters and rude mechanicals. Furthermore, the dramatic performance so nested within the dramatic performance of the play as a whole invariably concerns itself with ruptures or disturbances within the aristocratic body itself. When Hamlet stages The Murder of Gonzago, it is his attempt to locate and purge a corrupt element within the aristocratic body. In this respect, he does not resemble Laertes playing the revenger of Senecan tragedy but acts in his capacity as would-be sovereign. Shakespeare gives Hamlet the state's power to discover and punish a crime against the sovereign's body. In refusing to display his power by staging some spectacle of punishment, we should recall, Richard II weakened his hold on the throne, while Henry IV strengthened his by taking such action upon acquiring the crown.

The play within the play is Hamlet's attempt to reenact his uncle's assault on the sovereign's body and thus establish the truth of regicide which would authorize Hamlet's claim to the throne. He explains:

I'll have these players
Play something like the murther of my father
Before mine uncle. I'll observe his looks,
I'll tent him to the quick. If a do blench,
I know my course.


Hamlet means the play to "tent," or probe Claudius as with a dagger that opens an infected wound. Thus he would inscribe upon his uncle's body the truth of his crime against the king. Of torture and confession which precedes the spectacle of punishment, Foucault writes, "the secret and written form"—torture and confession—"reflects the principle that in criminal matters the establishment of truth was the absolute right and the exclusive power of the sovereign."22 Let us make the statement still stronger and say that the monarch's ability to establish truth is as important as his ability to incorporate the state within his body politic. Both are means of authorizing forms of violence which otherwise would have to be considered acts of insurrection and regicide. But Hamlet's play fails in two respects to materialize as a spectacle of punishment which would display the authority of Hamlet over Claudius. Because the play is only a play, first of all, and not an official ritual of state, its truth is bracketed as a supposition rather than a reenactment of the truth. It is another instance of Shakespeare's giving Hamlet a mode of speech that cannot constitute political action because it automatically translates all action onto the purely symbolic plane of thought and art. Only here it is the Senecan mode of tragedy that turns the exercise of power into a purely symbolic gesture, not his use of Stoic discourse.

Even as a symbolic gesture, secondly, the play fails to hit its mark. Hamlet has chosen to produce The Murder of Gonzago for its political truth. The play he says will be "something like the murther of my father" (II.ii.595). Indeed, the play does reenact that fratricide in that it portrays the aristocratic body turning against itself to inflict a mortal wound. But Hamlet's gloss on the play gives us to understand he has chosen a play portraying the murder of an uncle by his nephew:

This is one Lucianus, nephew to the king. . . .

'A poisons him i'th' garden for his estate. His name's Gonzago. The story is extant, and written in very choice Italian. You shall see anon how the murtherer gets the love of Gonzago's wife. (III.ii.244-64)

Rather than a crime against a patrilineal system of descent, then, The Murder of Gonzago portrays a crime which would be precisely equivalent to fratricide in a matrilineal system of descent where uncle and nephew rather than first and second sons constitute the most competitive male relations. This is not to say that Shakespeare has the play betray Hamlet's intentions and reveal the secret wishes—thus the thought crimes—of its director. Quite the contrary, Shakespeare has carefully worked out the configuration of family relations within and without this play. As he did so, Shakespeare deviated from the source by casting the murderer as a nephew to the duke.23 By this deliberate revision of his source, Shakespeare equated Hamlet's punishment with Claudius's crime. This is to say that both acts of violence assault the sovereign's body rather than establish the absolute power of the aristocratic body over that of its subject. Both turn out to be self-inflicted wounds. As the play concludes by heaping up the bodies of the royal family where the banquet scene should have been, this truth materializes: that the murder of one member of the aristocracy by another is an assault on the entire body, in other words, an act of suicide.

That Hamlet's act of vengeance against his uncle constitutes a crime against the state is dramatized in another way as well: in the language that Hamlet speaks. Where he spoke a Stoic discourse (e.g. "To be or not to be . . .") before staging his play, afterwards Hamlet speaks in the contrasting terms of Senecan tragedy:

'Tis now the very witching time of night,
When churchyards yawn and hell itself [breathes] out
Contagion to this world. Now could I drink hot blood
And do such [bitter business as the] day
Would quake to look on.


This is the language which Nashe identified a decade earlier as that of the "English Seneca" which characterized earlier productions of "whole Hamlets."24 By giving him this familiar stage speech, Shakespeare distinguishes Hamlet's exercise of authority from the rituals and processionals concluding the chronicle history plays. At the same time, such speech identifies Hamlet with Claudius whose exercise of force turns into Senecan tragedy, first, in the murder of Hamlet's father which initiated the action of the play, and then in the murder of Hamlet with which the play coneludes. Thus Hamlet's play figures out the power of the state on a symbolic plane in the very terms that Claudius uses to enact his authority. Neither can act in a way that establishes the family line according to the strategies of state governing the chronicle history plays.

One might be tempted to declare a generic difference between Hamlet, as a tragedy, and the history plays on just these grounds, but I will argue against the wisdom of doing so for those who want to understand Shakespeare's genres as political strategies. Even as he raises questions concerning the iconic relationship between the queen's two bodies, Shakespeare cannot imagine legitimate power in any other way. Given the fact that neither Claudius nor Hamlet could embody the state in a way that effectively hierarchized power—this, chiefly because each had equal claims to power—neither one could become the legitimate sovereign of Denmark. In light of their failure, the arrival of Fortinbras marks Hamlet as an Elizabethan play. Nowhere to be found in the sources, his name implies a natural ability to exercise force. Shakespeare also endows Fortinbras with aristocratic blood, though not that of the Danish line. In this, he obviously resembles the figure who emerges at the end of all the major history plays as the product of human history and providence as well. Most perfectly realized in Henry V, this figure acquires authority not only through material conflicts which display the effective exercise of force, but also through the metaphysics of blood which he embodies.


Interrogation of the relationship between the monarch's two bodies would not end with the death of Elizabeth and James's ascent to the English throne. We may in fact see Jacobean drama as an attempt to deny there could be any relationship between the two bodies. Jacobean drama, including Shakespeare's own, is obviously troubled by Elizabethan representations which seem to grant the possibility of acquiring power through human force and artifice in violation of the doctrine of blood. In this respect, Jonson's masque of Ober on written for the investiture of Henry as Prince of Wales, provides a useful comparison between the Elizabethan and Jacobean strategies for idealizing political authority. Jonson evidently found it advantageous to revise the Elizabethan figure of misrule and thus the kind of artistic authority associated with him. One purpose of the masque was the undoing of the opposition between the carnivalesque and the law of the father, an opposition as we have seen, upon which such a comedy as A Midsummer Night's Dream depends for its comic resolution. It should come as no surprise, then, to find that various forms of carnival, particularly those associated with May Day festivities, became increasingly controversial during Elizabeth's reign. These were evidently viewed as practices that resisted the strategies of the Reformation and, as such, were held to be sacrilegious by radical Protestant factions. Reformers also argued that such activities interfered with economic productivity. Moreover, its figures of inversion and boundary dissolution necessarily presented a challenge to the government. The Elizabethan response was mixed. On the one hand, as Peter Stallybrass has argued, when Elizabeth's accession day, November 17, became a national holiday, the state was clearly trying "to harness and appropriate the forces of misrule."25 On the other hand, Elizabeth was careful not to arouse opposition to the central administration, either by actively supporting traditional festival celebrations or by enforcing rules that would suppress them. At the same time, her government frustrated legal efforts to enforce the practice of Sabbatarianism which gained support in the industrial centers and urban areas.26 These were the same towns enacting legislation against theatrical performances and entertainments, and it is this legislation which reveals the political motivation most germane to my project.

Margot Heinemann summarizes the letters from the lord mayor and aldermen of London to the Privy Council in 1597 listing their objections to the theater. Not only did they condemn plays for drawing people away from sermons on Sunday, she notes, but the city fathers also felt such entertainments were a source of social disruption:

they encouraged apprentices to absent themselves from work . . . they caused traffic jams and spread infection in time of plague: and they gave an opportunity for the unemployed and idle to meet in riotous assemblies. Indeed, unruly apprentices and servants had admitted that they foregathered at stage plays to organize their "mutinous attempts", "being also the ordinary places for masterless men to come together".27

Even as they condemned the popular theater on the same grounds regularly justifying opposition to May Day celebrations and saints' day observances, these same men felt perfectly justified in producing elaborate forms of public and private entertainment:

The Aldermen themselves freely staged shows, plays, and masques privately in their own houses. They lavished thousands of pounds on Lord Mayors' pageants to impress Londoners with the wealth and glory of their city, and to preach, through allegorical tableaux, the virtues of industry and thrift.28

Evidently it was not theater per se that disturbed the town fathers. What was at stake was not the nature of the performance—not a moral issue—but a political one: who had control of the means for representing power? Only those performances could be authorized in London which in turn authorized the governing powers of the city.

In contrast to Elizabeth, James made it a matter of royal policy not only to seek control of the theater but also to advocate the celebration of festivals and the practice of various Maytime sports. In the Basilikon Doron, he approves of the practices of the traditional festivities, and in the infamous Book of Sports (1618), he argues that participating in sports and festivities did more than improve the health of the laboring poor and make them fit for the army. It actually prevented the populace from engaging in subversive political activities. In declaring his position openly, he necessarily defined his authority in opposition to radical Protestantism where Elizabeth had successfully avoided such confrontation. As Leah S. Marcus notes:

During the early years of the seventeenth century ... attitudes toward the maygames became sharply and dangerously polarized: to advocate such pastimes became tantamount to a declaration of loyalty to the king and conservative Anglicanism; to preach or write openly against the pastimes came to imply alliance with the growing factions of puritan and parliamentary dissidents.29

What more effective way, then, of revising the figures of Elizabethan literature than using revels to represent the investiture of the heir to the English throne and Oberon to portray the future monarch of England? What better way to dramatize the new concept of political power than using Oberon to symbolize a rebirth of the powers of blood? In Jonson's masque, he thus inhabits a palace along with the noblest knights of history now "Quickened with a second birth."30 Representing that of the prince, Oberon's costume incorporates the signs of Roman, Arthurian, and Jacobean nobility, and two white bears draw his chariot toward the center of power to the accompaniment, significantly, of this song:31

Melt earth to sea, sea flow to air,
And air fly into fire,
Whilst we in tunes to Arthur's chair
Bear Oberon's desire,
Than which there nothing can be higher
Save James, to whom it flies:
But he the wonder is of tongues, of ears, of eyes.

(lines 220-6)

As the father of Prince Henry, James is the origin of his son's power. In the guise of Oberon, the son acknowledges the principle of genealogy as he places all the powers traditionally opposing the patriarch—those of youth, nature, and the tradition of romance—in the king's service.32 Thus we learn Oberon and his knights pay homage to James, "To whose sole power and magic they do give / the honor of their being .. ." (lines 49-50). It is worth noting that the costume which Inigo Jones designed for the fairy king in this masque alludes to the three monarchies James claimed to unite within himself. It was as if the masque brought all of the traditional signs of authority under the governance of the contemporary monarch for the sole purpose of identifying that monarch as an historically earlier and mythical form of political authority.


Henry VIII, Shakespeare's belated history play, consequently resembles the dramatic romances and masques that come into favor under James more than it does a chronicle history play as we know it.33 Operating in violation of the very strategy he so perfectly realized right through the end of the Epilogue of Henry V, Shakespeare makes genealogy one and the same thing as providence in Henry VIII. The events which constitute this model of history are those which reproduce Henry VIII and thus perpetuate the power of blood, Henry's divorce from Katharine, for example, and the union with Anne from which Elizabeth is subsequently born. Operating under this imperative, the playwright has no cause to engender sympathy for Katharine or endow his monarch with it. He may in fact equate the unproductive mate with Wolsey and Buckingham—all three oppose legitimate political authority—because they obstruct genealogy. Buckingham represents a contending line of succession, and Wolsey's populist energy serves only his own ambitions. These, we must remember, were the very figures that lent the Elizabethan hero power and enabled him to seize the throne. As these figures came to define the forces conspiring against the Tudor and Stuart lines, however, Shakespeare rather obviously turned them to the task of revising Elizabethan strategies for authorizing power.

The strategies shaping his Elizabethan plays are no less tautological than those he revises. It is worth noting that Henry VIII, unlike the political heroes of an earlier stage, does not have to overpower those who possess the symbols of authority in order to make his line legitimate. Quite the contrary, in possessing the blood, his body is a living icon in relation to which all other signs and symbols acquire meaning and value. This is acknowledged when the king removes his mask after he and his revelers—having disguised themselves as shepherds and dressed in golden costumes—intrude on Wolsey's banquet. Not only is the monarch's presence felt by Wolsey and his guests before the king appears in his own person, but once he does reveal himself as king, the festivities reorganize around him as if around the sun. Wolsey simply cedes his position to one "More worthy this place than myself, to whom / (If I but knew him) with my love and duty / I would surrender it" (I.iv.79-81). Henry need not struggle with these opponents because they possess no force except that which he confers upon them. It is as if they exist only to demonstrate the absolute supremacy of his blood by their utter subjection to its mystic power. Wolsey's famous advice to Cromwell just before the deposed cardinal departs echoes the last words of Katharine and Buckingham by acknowledging Henry as the source of all earthly power:

Serve the King, and—prithee lead me in.
There take an inventory of all I have,
To the last penny, 'tis the King's. My robe
And my integrity to heaven, is all
I dare now call my own.


This is the triumph of the hagiographical theme: to locate the essence of the fully-realized figure in the original. In perfectly realizing this political strategy, however, history gives way to a slow procession of tableaux which convert all the dialectical motion of history into the same static and hierarchical figure of political power.

Shakespeare's use of the carnivalesque in this play offers a means of comparing the later strategy for idealizing power with that lending the materials of chronicle history their Elizabethan form. As his identity makes itself known, the king instantly assumes Wolsey's role as the king of misrule. Referred to as a "keech," or lump of suet, by Buckingham, Shakespeare endows the cardinal with features of the grotesque body. Rather than threaten the monarch, his illicit practices are taken over by Henry as the legitimate prerogatives of the state:

Let's be merry,
Good my Lord Cardinal: I have half a dozen healths
To drink to these fair ladies, and a measure
To lead 'em once again, and then let's dream
Who's best in favor. Let the music knock it.

(I.iv. 104-8)

The disruptive powers associated with the erotic, the demonic, and the folk never constitute a field of contention in this play. Indeed, we find all that is politically threatening caught up, sexualized, and aestheticized in the official ceremony of Anne's coronation:

Such joy
I never saw before. Great-bellied women,
That had not half a week to go, like rams
In the old time of war, would shake the press
And make 'em reel before 'em. No man living
Could say, "This is my wife" there, all were woven
So strangely in one piece.


Such a strategy for harnessing populist energy clearly maintains the absolute identification of power and genealogy.

It is no mere accident of history, then, that the ending of Henry VIII presents such a striking contrast to the Epilogue of Henry V. The blessing of the infant Elizabeth heralds the fulfillment of divine prophecy and guarantees the corporate nature of the Crown in perpetuity. It certainly does not usher in a period of controversy and misrule over which a new contender will triumph. The poetics of Jacobean politics aim at transforming all such change into continuity. For achieving this end, chronology may be discarded and even gender differences effaced to present change as repetition and conflate successive monarchs into a single identity. When Henry demands of the midwife attending Anne, "Is the Queen deliver'd? / Say ay, and of a boy," the old lady answers, "Ay, ay, my liege, / and of a lovely boy. The God of heaven / Both now and ever bless her! 'tis a girl / Promises boys hereafter" (V.i.162-6). Cranmer's blessing over the infant Elizabeth in the last moments of the play places still more emphasis upon sameness over difference and upon continuity over change. This speech echoes with the language of biblical prophecy as Cranmer foresees her reign of peace and prosperity. Her death in turn will be, he says,

.. . as when
The bird of wonder dies, the maiden phoenix,
Her ashes new create another heir
As great in admiration as herself,
So shall she leave her blessedness to one. . .
Who from the sacred ashes of her honor
Shall star-like rise as great in fame as she was,
And so stand fix'd.


The fulfillment of this prophecy is none other than King James, whom this speech has united with both Elizabeth and Henry VIII in the corporate identity of the Crown.


If nothing else, Shakespeare's inability to write an Elizabethan chronicle history play for a Jacobean audience indicates the degree to which Renaissance drama was a political activity. Shakespeare drew upon the same sources and worked under the general imperative to idealize political authority throughout his career. As political circumstances changed and presented the monarch with new forms of opposition, then, the strategies for legitimizing that authority had to change accordingly. In the Elizabethan history play, art authorizes genealogy. That is, to legitimize blood one must acquire the signs and symbols of authorization, which is to question the iconicity of the king's body and entertain the possibility of its arbitrary relation to the laws and ceremonies of state. Shakespeare's only Jacobean history play declares itself a contradiction in terms by emphatically canceling out this notion of power. Genealogy authorizes art in this play, and the production of art consequently comes squarely under a political imperative to display wealth and title....


1 As C. L. Barber notes, "In making Oberon, prince of faeries, into the May king, Shakespeare . . . presents the common May game presided over by an aristocratic garden god," Shakespeare's Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and its Relation to Social Custom (Princeton, Princeton Univ. Press, 1959), p. 159.

2 The problems with Henry VIII's will have been detailed by Mortimer Levine in The Early Elizabethan Succession Question: 1558-1568 (Stanford, Stanford Univ. Press, 1966), see especially pp. 99-162.

3 This summary draws upon Marie Axton's fine study, The Queen 's Two Bodies: Drama and the Elizabethan Succession (London, Royal Historical Society, 1977). Ernst H. Kantorowicz, The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology (Princeton, Princeton Univ. Press, 1957).

4 E. P. Thompson, "The moral economy of the English crowd in the eighteenth century," in Past and Present, 50 (1971), 76-136.

5 While a number of critics have held to some version of the thesis that Richard was more a poet than a king, the most extreme is Mark Van Doren, Shakespeare (New York, Henry Holt, 1939), p. 89.

6 Joseph A. Porter, The Drama of Speech Acts: Shakespeare 's Lancastrian Tetralogy (Berkeley, Univ. California Press, 1979), argues Bullingbroke is the figure for the drama itself as opposed to Richard whose theatricality is always contained by Henry, pp. 175-7.

7 See, for example, Sherman H. Hawkins, "Virtue and kingship in Shakespeare's Henry IV" in English Literary Renaissance, 5 (1975), 313-43.

8 Henry Angsar Kelly, Divine Providence in the England of Shakespeare's Histories (Cambridge, Harvard Univ. Press, 1970). Kelly shows that the workings of providence in the two tetralogies is neither consistent nor continuous.

9 I am indebted to Peter Stallybrass for calling these lines to my attention.

10 Norman Rabkin summarizes the critical discomforts many have with this play, Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning (Chicago, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1981), pp. 33-62.

11The Letters of John Chamberlain, ed. Norman McClure (Philadelphia, The American Philosophical Society, 1939), I, p. 115.

12 Elizabeth Jenkins, Elizabeth the Great (New York, Harcourt Brace, 1958), p. 321.

13 Sir John Harrington, Nugae Antiquae (Hildesheim, Georg Olms, 1968; rpt. 1779), I, 64-5.

14 Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (New York, Columbia Univ. Press, 1973), VII, 185.

15Correspondence of King James I with Sir Robert Cecil and Others in England, ed. John Bruce (London, Camden Society, 1861).

16 Quoted in Joel Hurstfield, "The succession struggle in late Elizabethan England," in Freedom, Corruption and Government in Elizabethan England (Cambridge, Harvard Univ. Press, 1973), p. 108.

17 I am following Harold Jenkins in the Arden Hamlet (London, Methuen, 1982), p. 1.

18Letters and Memorials of State, ed. Arthur Collins (New York, AMS, 1973; rpt. 1746), I, 83.

19 Thomas Birch, Memoirs of the Reign of Queen Elizabeth (New York, AMS, 1970; rpt. 1754), II, 463.

20 G. P. V. Akrigg, Shakespeare and the Earl of Southampton (Cambridge, Harvard Univ. Press, 1968), pp. 120-1.

21Shakespeare and the Earl of Southampton, p. 127.

22 Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York, Vintage, 1979), p. 35.

23Narrative and Dramatic Sources, VII, 30, 172-6.

24 Nashe writes, "Yet English Seneca read by candlelight yields many good sentences, as 'blood is a beggar,' and so forth; and if you entreat him fair in a frosty morning, he will afford you whole Hamlets ... of tragical speeches," The Unfortunate Traveler and other Works, ed. J. B. Steane (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1972), p. 474.

25 Peter Stallybrass, "Carnival contained: patrician festivity and nationalism in early modern England," (forthcoming).

26 Christopher Hill, Society and Puritanism in Pre-Revolutionary England, 2nd edition (New York, Schocken, 1972), pp. 145-218.

27 Margot Heinemann, Puritanism and the Theater: Thomas Middleton and Opposition Drama under the Early Stuarts (Cambridge, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1980), p. 32.

28Puritanism and the Theater, p. 31.

29 Leah S. Marcus, "Herrick's Hesperides and the 'Proclamation made for May,'" Studies in Philology, 76 (1979), 52.

30Ben Jonson: The Complete Masques, ed. Stephen Orgel (New Haven, Yale Univ. Press, 1969), 1. 105, Citations of the text are to this edition.

31 Stephen Orgel, The Illusion of Power: Political Theater in the Renaissance (Berkeley, Univ. California Press, 1975), pp. 66-70.

32 Jonathan Goldberg has pointed to the many ironies in Jonson's representation of this homage, James I and the Politics of Literature: Jonson, Shakespeare, Donne, and Their Contemporaries (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1983), pp. 123-6.

33 For discussions of the features of masque and romance Henry VIII exhibits, see Ronald Berman, "Henry VIII: history and romance," in English Studies, 47 (1967), 112-27; H. M. Richmond, "Shakespeare's Henry VIII: romance redeemed by history," in Shakespeare Studies, 4 (1968), 334-49; Lee Bliss, "The wheel of fortune and the maiden phoenix of Shakespeare's King Henry the Eighth," ELH 42 (1975), 1-25; Edward I. Berry, "Henry VIII and the dynamics of spectacle," Shakespeare Studies, 12 (1979), 229-46.

Barbara H. Traister (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "The King's One Body: Unceremonial Kingship in King John" in King John: New Perspectives, edited by Deborah T. Curren-Aquino, Associated University Presses, 1989, pp. 91-8.

[In the following essay, Traister investigates the character of King John as an example of a Shakespearean monarch lacking his "second body, the public image of majesty and power."]

Compared to Shakespeare's history plays that precede it, King John is a play of reductions. Its cast of named characters is considerably smaller than those of the earlier plays. It has no fully staged battle scenes, despite the ongoing war between France and England. Many of its scenes and lines are devoted to private moments in its characters' lives. The panoply and ceremony that marked the first tetralogy have largely vanished. The crown itself has lost power as a symbol of majesty. The play presents homely kingship, a king who is a flawed and limited man rather than a divinely appointed public force. Only in the play's concluding scenes is lip service given to the "divinity [which] doth hedge a king" that produces so much ambivalence in weak king plays. In act 5 Faulconbridge, the returned nobles, and Prince Henry all attempt to invest England's monarch with his second body, the public image of majesty and power that has been absent from John's version of kingship.1

King John offers possibilities for spectacle and for elaborate stagecraft but does not urge them. Reporting on the play's stage history, Eugene M. Waith remarks of Macready's 1823 production, "The pageantry of court scenes and marching armies, the movement of large numbers of people across the stage, made it the equivalent of a Cecil B. DeMille extravaganza in the grand old days of film."2 Macready had fifty-nine actors on stage when John spoke his opening lines, and eighty-eight people when the armies came together in act 2. Macready's very exaggeration, however, calls attention to the play's rather simple stage demands. Stage directions call for only six people to be on stage when the play opens—John, Elinor, the courtiers Essex, Salisbury, and Pembroke, who have no lines in the act, and the French messenger. The other fifty-three were Macready's elaboration, inspired no doubt by Shakespeare's earlier histories where courtiers, soldiers, and messengers crowd the stage. Acts 1 and 2 are each composed of a single scene, and though there are entrances and exits during those scenes, the effect is one of relative simplicity rather than of ceremonious activity.

Despite the international dimensions of its action, the play is unpretentious. As the armies of France, England, and Austria stand before the walls of Angiers (the stage direction "with forces" is an early editor's addition), the principals in the dispute speak directly to one another with no intervening ceremony or messengers. They are frequently interrupted, to be sure, by the irrepressible Faulconbridge and by the scolding women, but such interruptions can occur precisely because ceremony does not dominate the scene. The kings are not in control of those who accompany them any more than they are in control of the city of Angiers.

Though several rushes of armed men across the stage occur in the play, it contains no real battle scene. At one point Faulconbridge enters with Austria's head, and at another John is told to leave the battlefield. But there is no hand-to-hand combat by specified characters as there is in each of the plays of the first tetralogy.

Just as there are no formal battle scenes, there is little dramatized ceremony. Ritualistic occasions that might have been dramatized are merely reported: the wedding ceremony of Lewis and Blanch takes place offstage, as does John's second crowning ceremony. The one ritual that is dramatized—John's surrender of his crown to the papal legate—is an embarrassing one, lasting only for a few lines and witnessed only by "Attendants." Macready's panoply was indeed primarily of his own creation.

In lieu of ceremony and ritual, King John presents informality and personal drama.3 The king himself is constantly criticized and upbraided by characters who show no fear of reprisals. The play opens with an ambassador who addresses John as "borrowed majesty," and only a few lines later his mother corrects John's claim to have right on his side in the contest for the crown. Faulconbridge speaks his mind before the king with no fear or restraint. John's nobles, curiously silent in his presence except when expressing opposition, directly criticize his insistence on a second coronation. The citizens of Angiers display no fear of the opposing kings and their armies.

Other Shakespearean kings, most notably Henry VI, also receive a good deal of criticism within their plays, but John, unlike Henry VI, is not "weak" except in his claim to the throne. In the play's early acts he is decisive, a good judge of character, and not afraid to act or to fight. But except for a few moments in act 5, John acts and is treated more like an important man than like an untouchable king, apparently inspiring and demanding very little awe. John sets the tone for his relationships with those around him, and he repeatedly encourages a man-to-man straightforwardness; though he himself becomes devious when he attempts to persuade Hubert to murder Arthur in act 3, scene 3. This attempt, interestingly enough, is John's first serious misstep.

As a result of this lack of ceremony—apparent even in his speech ...—the symbols of majesty and power normally associated with a king carry little weight when John attempts to use them for political advantage. For example, as he stands before Angier's walls John offers his crown as proof of his legitimacy as king: "Doth not the crown of England prove the King?" (2.1.273). But evidently recognizing his crown's weakness as a proof, John does not even pause for an answer before continuing with less symbolic but more practical proofs: "Twice fifteen thousand hearts of England's breed" (2.1.275).

John's own lack of belief in what should be his ceremonious second body becomes clear to the audience as well as to his nobles when he chooses to be crowned a second time. According to Tudor theory, the king as present in his second body never died or erred. By ordering a second coronation, John implies that he had not formerly been properly king, that he had not been invested from the moment of the previous sovereign's death with the ceremonial body of kingship. Thus he weakens rather than strengthens his position by betraying insecurity about his kingship. As Faulconbridge demonstrates in the first act, what is important in this play is not so much who is legitimate (for titles and legalities are all subservient to commodity) but rather who is confident enough to base his claim to power on his own merits: "And I am I, howe'er I was begot" (1.1.175).4

King John portrays individuals' responses to power and political reality. Repeatedly, characters are judged not on their pedigrees or their positions but on their physical appearance. When Faulconbridge first arrives at court, Elinor and John find in his face, his voice, his build, and his spirit evidence that he is son to Coeur de Lion. Before Faulconbridge forces his mother to admit that he is Coeur de Lion's son, the king has accepted him as a kinsman on the basis of appearance alone. No other proof is necessary.

Constance claims that she pushes her son's claim to the throne of England because he is fair and looks like a king. If he were ugly, "I would not care, I then would be content, / For then I should not love thee; no, nor thou / Become thy great birth nor deserve a crown" (3.1.48-50). Later, Arthur describes Hubert's change of heart about blinding him as a change in appearance: "O now you look like Hubert! All this while / You were disguis'd" (4.1.125-26). When John believes that Hubert has murdered Arthur and regrets ordering him to do so, John blames his own moral lapse on Hubert's appearance:

How oft the sight of means to do ill deeds
Make deeds ill done! Hadst not thou been by,
A fellow by the hand of nature mark'd,
Quoted, and sign'd to do a deed of shame,
This murther had not come into my mind.


Once Hubert makes clear that he has not followed the king's order to murder Arthur, John's vision of Hubert suddenly changes:

Forgive the comment that my passion made
Upon thy feature, for my rage was blind,
And foul imaginary eyes of blood
Presented thee more hideous than thou art.


Judgments made on the basis of appearance and manner are, of course, as error-ridden as those based on social position and title. But in this play history is made by individuals on the basis of physical evidence. Given that basis for judgment, John's lack of "majesty" becomes a serious political handicap.

John's style of kingship is apparently to lead his people on the strength of the personal bonds he forges with them. Almost every aspect of his relationships with those around him focuses on the personal. Despite Faulconbridge's subordinate position, John frequently addresses him as "cousin." When he persuades Hubert to kill Arthur, John gives him no direct order. In their fifty lines of dialogue, John addresses Hubert three times as "friend," once as "gentle Hubert," twice as "good," and says that he "owes" Hubert, "respects" him, and "loves" him. He also takes his hand. Not once in the scene does John say anything to break the illusion that this conversation is taking place between two old and dear friends. Hubert remains aware, however, that despite his friendly approach John is still "your Majesty" (3.3.29-64). When Shakespeare's kings hire or command subjects to eliminate their enemies, they conventionally address the murderers-to-be in friendly terms, but this scene goes far beyond what is required to keep an employee happy. John might have commanded as a monarch; instead he begs as a friend.5

John is not the only character in the play to stress the personal and individual. Burckhardt's penetrating analysis of the death of Melun points out the personal emphasis in that scene, Melun's two reasons for revealing Lewis's plans to destroy the English nobles being strikingly personal: his grandfather was an Englishman, and he loves and respects Hubert.6 Hubert himself, kept from blinding Arthur by the boy's pleading, does not rationalize his decision by appeals to morality or a greater good. Instead, his decision seems purely ad hominem; he cannot bear to hurt the child who stands before him "for the wealth of all the world" (4.1.130).

Earlier in the play, the arguments thrown back and forth across the stage by Constance and Elinor are painfully personal. The women seem to feel that the kingship should be decided on the basis of who was faithful or unfaithful to whose husband; each implies the other is an adulteress. Even Lewis, whose responses to the question of whether he will have Blanch for a wife are Petrarchan clichés, does not define an obviously political decision in political terms. Instead, he personalizes his response, speaking to Blanch as to an individual woman—though one he barely knows. Compared to Henry V's similar attempt to personalize a political liaison, Lewis's response here seems colorless. Yet both political wooers attempt to turn the public political deal into a semblance of personalized romance.

The central question in the plot of King John—who is the legitimate English monarch, embodying majesty?—brings the issue of the king's second body to the fore. Two physical bodies, John's and Arthur's, vie for the right to be the English monarch. John holds the position "by possession." But, as we have seen, he rarely invokes the perquisites of his position. The great exception is, of course, his prompt defiance of Pandulph:

What earthy name to interrogatories
Can taste the free breath of a sacred king?

But as we, under [God], are supreme head,
So under Him that great supremacy,

Where we do reign, we will alone uphold
Without th' assistance of a mortal hand.


But his claim here only earns him excommunication and loss of the alliance with France. Eventually he submits to Pandulph, in what Faulconbridge terms an "inglorious league" (5.1.65). John's chief attempt to invoke his sacred kingship, his second body, fails; no one pays attention.

The second claimant, Arthur, is even less persuasive than John as an embodiment of sacred majesty. In the first place, he is only a boy and does not particularly want to be king. His claim is supported by foreign powers who clearly see in his kingship a political advantage to themselves. He is dominated by his scolding mother who expects to be the power behind Arthur's throne. Only in his captivity and despair, separated from his mother, does Arthur win sympathy, not so much for his claim to the throne as for his personal eloquence and courage. The words that Faulconbridge speaks over Arthur's dead body—"How easy dost thou take all England up / From forth this morsel of dead royalty! / The life, the right, and the truth of all this realm / Is fled to heaven" (4.3.142-45)—suggest that Arthur may have had the "majesty" that John lacks, but this suggestion comes only after Arthur's death. As the realist Faulconbridge clearly sees, if "majesty" is to live on in England, it can only be in John now that the rival claimant is dead.

In King John Shakespeare examines kingship in a way explored by earlier Tudor dramatists in what is sometimes called "romantic" or "comical" history.7 Such drama is perhaps best exemplified by the "historical" plays of Robert Greene: James IV, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, and George a Greene. There the monarch mingles with his people on more or less equal terms, discarding ceremony and pomp. In King John, such unceremonial kingship is removed from the holiday world of the comical history and placed instead in the arena of international politics. Can rulers deal successfully with one another and with their subjects without the trappings of ceremony and "sacred kingship?" Apparently not easily. By the end of act 4, Faulconbridge sees only "the bare-pick'd bone of majesty" and the "imminent decay of wrested pomp" (4.3.148, 154).

Maintenance of kingship on the basis of the king's personal qualities is possible only so long as that king performs well. For a while, John's vigor, determination, and wise choice of subordinates (namely Faulconbridge) carry him along. But when he tires, slows, and makes bad judgments, he has nothing to fall back on. His kingship becomes a bone to be fought over. To emphasize the low point to which John's rule has fallen, act 5 opens with his handing his crown, "the circle of my glory," to Pandulph. From this point, John's personal leadership as king is at an end. But as though by common consent, his followers begin to invoke not the king as individual but the king as sacred majesty. King John gives the reins of command to Faulconbridge—"Have thou the ordering of this present time" (5.1.77)—who begins to speak in the voice of the "English King," though not necessarily in the voice of John:

Now hear our English King,
For thus his royalty doth speak in me:

. . . . Know the gallant monarch is in arms,
And like an eagle o'er his aery tow'rs,
To souse annoyance that comes near his nest.


The image of kings, the eagle, here appears in the play for the first time, and Faulconbridge's description of John is clearly not of the man as he is but of the king as he should be.

A similar response comes from the nobles who, upon learning of Lewis's plans to kill them after the battle is won, prudently decide to return to "our ocean, to our great King John" (5.4.57). Ironically, the physical body to which this allegiance is pledged is wracked by both fever and poison. But the final scene, despite the painful and rather ignominious death of John, is the most ritualistic of the play. As John dies, his son offers a traditional ubi sunt response: "What surety of the world, what hope, what stay, / When this was now a king, and now is clay?" (5.7.68-69), and Faulconbridge promises—as do Kent and Horatio at the death of their lords—to follow his monarch into death. Later in the scene Faulconbridge and the nobles kneel and pledge their loyalty to Prince Henry, a gesture of fealty stronger than any John received in the play.8 Prince Henry has done nothing to show himself more worthy than his father of such a response. But John's lack of success in embodying "majesty" suggests that ceremony and ritual, the continuing acknowledgment of the king's second body, are a necessary part of kingship.

However attractive the informal, unceremonious, manto-man style of leadership may seem, its pitfalls are real. The Henry VI trilogy suggests that the monarchy cannot stand unless the man who embodies it has a certain personal strength and ability. Sacred majesty is not enough. But King John, examining the other side of the coin, suggests that a strong and vigorous man who lacks majesty is not enough either. The individual must be bolstered by the ceremonies and awe owed to the king's second body. The informality of the comical history will not work in the world of Realpolitik. The king needs both his bodies.

The proper use of both those bodies is explored at length in the Lancastrian tetralogy to which Shakespeare turned next.9 The reason why Shakespeare chose to dramatize the reign of John in the midst of his War of the Roses histories has often been a matter for critical speculation. If indeed he wished to explore a kingship in which the man and not the "sacred majesty" dominated, then perhaps he had to move back in time, away from his own age in which divine right was so familiarly invoked.10King John was written at a time when the question of the succession was very much in the minds of the Elizabethan audience.11 Which physical body was to embody "sacred majesty" once the old queen died was not at all clear, and that uncertainty must have called into question, for those who understood it, the whole concept of the undying second body of the monarch. King John depicts a king without a second body, whose physical presence alone proves inadequate to maintain loyalty in his subjects and order in his kingdom. The solution, at least for Faulconbridge and the nobles, is to establish ceremony, to convince themselves and all England that the emperor is wearing his clothes and the king his two bodies.


1 Ernst H. Kantorowicz, The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957), has written the seminal work on this theme. In The Queen's Two Bodies: Drama and the Elizabethan Succession, Marie Axton explores how Elizabethan dramatists at the Inns of Court and in the public theaters used this theme to offer veiled advice on the succession. My essay is informed throughout by both discussions.

2 Eugene M. Waith, King John and the Drama of History," 204.

3 There is considerable critical disagreement on this point. Alexander Leggatt, in "Dramatic Perspective in King John" sees a change from public to private occurring after act 2: "Instead of great massed public movements, we are more aware of private intrigue, and private feeling. Many scenes involve only two speakers" (8). Larry S. Champion, "'Confound Their Skill in Covetousness,'" sees the play as public: "Inevitably the spectators' interest is directed, not to single individuals, but to the broad sweep of events characterizing critical moments during John's reign" (39).

4 John R. Elliott, "Shakespeare and the Double Image of King John," 64-84.

5 Ralph Berry, The Shakespearean Metaphor, writes of this scene: "There are limits to the obedience a king can exact of a subject, and the play explores them" (26). But John claims the duty of a friend, not the loyalty of a subject.

6 Sigurd Burckhardt, Shakespearean Meanings, 116-43.

7 M. C. Bradbrook, The Growth and Structure of Elizabethan Comedy (1955; rpt. Baltimore: Penguin, 1963), 76-83.

8 Philip Edwards, Threshold of a Nation, reads Faulconbridge's efforts in act 5 to restore majesty to the English kingship with similar emphasis (120-21).

9 Kantorowicz finds Richard II the locus classicus of this concern.

10 Edwards, Threshold, 115.

11 Axton reads King John as one of a number of plays that comment upon the question of the succession (The Queen's Two Bodies, 107-11).

Sukanta Chaudhuri (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "The New Machiavelli: Shakespeare in the Henriad," in Literature East and West: Essays Presented to R. K. DasGupta, edited by G. R. Taneja and Vinod Sena, Allied Publishers Limited, 1995, pp. 122-49.

[In the following essay, Chaudhuri contends that in the character of Henry V Shakespeare reveals "an integrated and purposive development of a new Renaissance ideal of kingship" in which he "appropriates and extends the Machiavellian view of man."]

Shakespeare's Prince Hal, and his later incarnation as Henry V, have always drawn equivocal responses. The New Arden Henry V lists "The Diversity of Critical Opinions"1; but what might worry us is not this diver sity but the ambiguity of the single response. From Hazlitt through Bradley to Danby, Nuttall, Greenblatt and Kristian Smidt,2 readers have been struck by Hal/Henry's image as an ideal prince, guided by his unquestioned duty from the rejection of Falstaff onward, if not earlier; and yet by that very conduct as calculating, hypocritical or inhumane. This conflict of response has been explained in terms of Shakespeare's critique of political man, and specifically the prince or ruler. There appears to be a basic opposition of human ideals and political necessity, ethics and expediency, private and public values.

I wish to propose that the supposed ambiguity lies within Shakespeare's image of the ruler or political man; and that far from being ambiguous, this image is an integrated and purposive development of a new Renaissance ideal of kingship.

This obviously assumes what few will contest, that the conceptual framework of these plays is Tudor not Lancastrian, late-sixteenth and not early-fifteenth century. It also assumes more controversially that Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V make up a single programme—if we like, a "tetralogy." This has been traditionally accepted but often questioned.3 My reasons for adopting such a view will, I hope, emerge from my analysis.

There is another question as well. The very existence of a new Renaissance ideal of monarchy has sometimes been dismissed. As early as 1953, G. R. Elton called it an "outmoded concept."4 But the overwhelming consensus, amply borne out by historical and literary evidence, accepts the presence of a new breed of absolute rulers in Renaissance Europe. Their rise may be traced, following Burckhardt,5 to the masters of the Italian citystates, a gallery ranging from condottieri and "tyrants" to sophisticated autocrat-statesmen.

The great Tudors—Henry VII, Henry VIII and Elizabeth—are among the leading northern examples of the type.6 In treating of the two Henries, Tudor (and later) writers allude significantly to their Lancastrian namesakes. The apotheosis of Henry V begins with Polydore Vergil under Henry VII. As late as 1616, Christopher Goodman in The Fall of Man sees the seventh Henry as uniting the virtues of the fourth, fifth and sixth.7 The 1513 translator of Tito Livio's Life of Henry V offers his subject as a model for the young Henry VIII.8 We may also recall Henry V's insistence on his Welsh connexions in Shakespeare's play, suggesting an association with the Tudors.

The New Monarchs derive their authority not from hereditary claim—at least not a long or secure claim—so much as from virtù, the driving force of assertive personal rule, indeed a projection of their selves onto the fabric of the state: more rather than less so from their sense of the innovative and contingent nature of their rule. They had to work out new strategies of survival and domination, heavily oriented to their own personalities, the circumstances of their rule, and the realities of political life and conduct. They may invoke the principles professed in classical or mediaeval precedent; but these now play their part (not necessarily a mischievous or hypocritical part) in a different context of priorities. The apparent ambiguities of the new political ideal arise from this cause: viewed in a different perspective, they fall into place as elements in a consistent, integrated design.

The most complete and influential exponent of the new politics was Machiavelli. We have been cautioned against seeing Machiavelli as sui generis9; but it was through the Machiavellian glass that contemporary political thought and practice was focussed on the consciousness of the age.10 Yet there has been a curious reluctance to read Shakespeare's political plays in Machiavellian terms. Most writers, even Machiavelli scholars like Felix Raab,11 confine themselves to the vulgarized "stage Machiavel" of Elizabethan drama. The concomitant neglect of Machiavelli's real doctrines in that age has been equally stressed, so that Tillyard can say—amazingly but almost, it seems, with relief—that "his basic doctrines lie outside the main sixteenth century interests" (p. 21). More recently, as in J. G. A. Pocock's formidable The Machiavellian Moment, it has been demonstrated that Machiavelli's influence, though profound, was basically republican; and hence argued, more questionably, that he could not greatly influence English political thought of that age with its doubly sanctified monarchy.12

With Shakespeare in particular, some late nineteenth-century critics work their way round to tracing Machiavellism in the History Plays. Georg Brandes comments on Hal's infamous soliloquy "I know you all . . ." (1 H IV I.ii. 190-212):

The son is not so unlike the father as the father believes. Shakespeare has made him, in his way, adopt a scarcely less diplomatic policy.13

And Swinburne, in a remarkable evocation of Machiavelli's milieu, writes:

Henry V is the first, as he is certainly the noblest, of those equally daring and calculating statesmanwarriors whose two most terrible, most perfect, and most famous types are Louis XI and Caesar Borgia.14

But later critics have not followed this lead. Wyndham Lewis's subtle but eccentric study argues for Shakespeare's uncommon understanding of Machiavelli but no special sympathy or assimilation, rather a contrast in temperament.15 The New Arden 1 Henry IV, and more recently the Oxford Shakespeare edition, make almost casual references to Machiavelli, uneasily coupled in the latter with writers on "courtesy" like Castiglione and Spenser.16 Wilbur Sanders offers an acute exposition of Machiavellism in Elizabethan drama but sees Shakespeare as essentially anti-Machiavellian, and moreover confines himself to Richard III and Richard II17 John Danby indeed places Hal as a "Machiavel of goodness,"18 and A. D. Nuttall as a "White Machiavel"19but they do not really explore the implications of their phrases.

It is worth investigating whether Shakespeare's English kings evince a more serious and sustained Machiavellism. It is often hard to distinguish between conscious adherence to Machiavelli and a mere course of conduct to which his tenets are applicable. That is the whole point of Machiavelli's empirical approach: he was describing and systematizing timeless patterns of political conduct. But this also means that the distinction is irrelevant: Shakespeare is working within the same context of political awareness. And the parallels are so recurrent and often so close that it does seem to argue for conscious Machiavellism.

In Richard II, the confrontation between Richard and Bolingbroke is most readily interpreted in Machiavellian terms. Richard is a clear example of Machiavelli's warning model, the hereditary prince who fails to see how times are changing, or more generally the ruler who will not adapt to changing fortunes (Discourses III.ix, The Prince xxiv, xxv):

Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm off from an anointed king;
The breath of worldly men cannot depose
The deputy elected by the Lord; . . .



having never in quiet times considered that things might change . . . when adverse times came, they only thought of fleeing, instead of defending themselves; . . .

(Pr. xxiv: p.90)

The Prince, ch. xxiv, on "Why the Princes of Italy Have Lost Their States," is of special relevance: such princes are deficient in military power, and have antagonized both the nobles and the commons. It is so with Richard:

The commons hath he pill'd with grievous taxes,
And quite lost their hearts. The nobles hath he fin'd
For ancient quarrels and quite lost their hearts.


Richard may be called a classic example of Machiavelli's "contemptible" or "despicable" monarch, who is "thought changeable, frivolous, effeminate, timid, and irresolute" (Pr. xix: p.67):

The skipping King, he ambled up and down,
With shallow jesters, and rash bavin wits,
Soon kindled and soon burnt, carded his state,
Mingled his royalty with cap'ring fools . . .

(1 H IV III.ii..60-63)

More specifically relevant is Discourses A prince, Machiavelli says there, can inflict three types of wrong on an individual: to his person, his honour and his possessions; and the last is what most alienates the prince from his subjects (cf. Dis. III.xix, xxiii). Richard taxes his kingdom heavily (R II I.iv.43-52, II.i.246); and further, confiscates the property Bolingbroke was due to inherit from Gaunt, after having wronged both Henry's person and his honour by exiling him.

Henry, on the other hand, has the advantage of his situation:

For a new prince is much more observed in his actions than a hereditary one, and when these are recognized as virtuous, he wins over men more and they are more bound to him than if he were of the ancient blood. For men are much more taken by present than by past things . . .

(Pr. xxiv: p. 89)

He consolidates this advantage by many Machiavellian strategies: for instance, by assiduously courting the commons (as enjoined in Pr. ix, xix: pp. 35-38, 67-69) both before his assumption of power (R II I..iv.23-36) and after (V.ii. 18-21). As Westmoreland recalls in 2 Henry IV:

For all the country, in a general voice,
Cried hate upon him [Richard]; and all their prayers and love
Were set on Hereford, whom they doted on,
And bless'd, and grac'd, indeed more than the King.

(2 H IV IV.i. 136-39)

Henry also wins followers like Aumerle (R II V.iii) and Carlisle (R II by the Machiavellian strategy (Pr. ix: p.37) of treating well those who expect ill-treatment: "To win thy after-love I pardon thee" (V.iii.34). Yet his general severity towards rebels ( 1-18) bears out Machiavelli's precept (Pr. xvii) that "cruelty" is imperative for a new prince, and in time of rebellion.

Discourses III.iv is headed with the precept "A Prince Cannot Live Securely in a State So Long as Those Live Whom He Has Deprived of It." Bolingbroke obviously agrees: he makes known his wish for Richard's liquidation, though later he disowns those who carry out that wish ( Cesare Borgia acted in this way with his cruel minister Ramiro d'Oro (Pr. vii). It was a basic Machiavellian precept that the prince should perform gracious and popular deeds himself, but leave the dirty work to others. Bolingbroke uses Northumberland all through in this way.20

Broadly speaking, says Machiavelli, a prince should combine the qualities of the cruel emperor Severus and the benign and philosophical Marcus Aurelius: ".. . he must take from Severus those things that are necessary to found his state, and from Marcus those that are useful and glorious for conserving a state that is already established and secure" (Pr. xix: pp. 76-77). It is easily seen how the successive conduct of Bolingbroke in Richard II and Henry IV in Henry IV conforms to this dual precept.

I shall have more to say later on the benign and philosophical aspect of Henry's later rule. Perhaps his heightened image of benevolence in Henry IV is at some cost to his valourousness. It certainly accompanies a general depression, a fragmentation of the polity in spirit though not in fact, an obsessive concern on the King's own part with his usurped title. His Machiavellian career generates its own profound sense of inadequacy and frustration. In James Winny's memorable phrase, "He dies broken by his achievement."21

We may take this as a critique of Machiavellism. There is an element of truth in Lily Campbell's somewhat single-track view of Henry IV as a "mirror" of rebellion.22 Even in his own eyes, Henry remains a rebel to the end, and this self-castigation compromises his status as a "Machiavellian" king, whose role as innovator makes him almost essentially a rebel or usurper.

But the focus of attention has now passed to Henry's son, in whom we see the perfection of the creative Machiavellism initiated by his father in his earlier years. There are many versions of conventional Machiavellism in Henry IV, most clearly in the deception with which Prince John quells the rebel leaders (2 H IV IV. ii). Machiavelli has parallels to offer: Cesare Borgia's extermination of his enemies at Sinigalia (Pr. vii: p.26, and the "Description of the Methods Adopted by the Duke Valentino When Murdering Vitellozzo Vitelli, etc."23) or Oliverotto da Fermo's trapping of the Fermanese leaders (Pr. viii: pp.32-34). We may contrast Henry V's equally ruthless quelling of Lord Scroop's rebellion (H V II.ii). Henry's rhetoric is just as disingenuous, we may say Machiavellian:

Touching our person seek we no revenge;
But we our kingdom's safety must so tender,
Whose ruin you have sought, that to her laws
We do deliver you.

(H V II.ii. 174-77)

But his manner is completely assured: there is no deception, only an effortless exercise in detection and punishment.

In Henry IV, Hal's own strategy as prince is Machiavellian in spirit—fundamentally in being a strategy, as defined from the outset in his soliloquy "I know you all.. .." His very vow of reform is phrased to sound like a deception:

By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men's hopes; . . .
I'll so offend, to make offence a skill,
Redeeming time when men think least I will.

(1 H IV I.ii.205-06, 211-12)

This speech is taken to indicate an inhumane, even unethical stance on Hal's part, shattering his apparent embracement of personal freedom and private relations which seems so clearly anti-Machiavellian, a protest against the depressing demands of political conduct. I shall presently argue that this expression of private and popular values constitutes an extended Machiavellism. For now let me note Hal's conscious assumption of a princely role even at this stage, so that his very transgressions contribute to a political strategy and political image. This is confirmed by his words in later life, in a line that has strangely escaped notice: the Dauphin, he says in Henry V, taunts him for his "wilder days," "Not measuring what use we made of them" (H V Lii.267-68).

Hal's goal and strategy are distinctively Machiavellian. As Quentin Skinner points out,24 Machiavelli differs from all earlier theorists in dismissing the importance of training or education in the making of an effective ruler. Hal's Machiavellism in this instance needs no labouring: I shall discuss its implications later. But his plan for a final spectacular reform accords with another of Machiavelli's precepts. Machiavelli does grant that "there is no better indication of a man's character than the company which he keeps"; but an even better way to win renown is "by some extraordinary act," "some . . . novel act that would cause them to be talked about" (Dis. III.xxxiv: p. 510).

For nothing so certainly secures to a prince the public esteem as some such remarkable action or saying dictated by his regard for the public good, showing him to be magnanimous, liberal and just, and which action or saying is of a nature to become familiar as a proverb amongst his subjects (Ibid, pp. 511-12),

This is precisely the tactical purpose behind the rejection of Falstaff. It is foreshadowed in the impact that Hal's sober resolution makes on his father before Shrewsbury (1 H IV III.ii. 129-61) and subsequently on the warring camps at large (I H IV V.i.83-103, V.iv.1-73).

The prince who seals his succession by such an act proves to enjoy all the supports that Machiavelli can propose for princely rule: hereditary claim as well as the backing of the clergy, nobles, commons and army (see the early chapters of The Prince). He is careful to appear to have five crucial attributes: of being "merciful, faithful, humane, sincere, religious" (Pr. xviii: p.65). He "endeavour(s) in every action to obtain fame for being great and excellent" (Pr. xxi: p. 82). He placates the nobles, but realizes that the esteem of the people is more important (Pr. xix, Dis. I.xvi, xxxii).

This is best brought out in Henry's relation with his soldiers in Henry V. Indeed, the social basis and recruiting methods of the English army enable him to resolve the Machiavellian opposition of "the people" and "the army." Henry's soldiers are "the people," and he is leading them against a foreign power instead of using them to tyrannize over the commons at home. He alludes specifically to that English institution, the yeomanry supplying the infantry at the time of war:

And you, good yeomen,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; . . .

(H V III.i.25-27)

As J. G. A. Pocock remarks, the status of the yeoman (classically contrasted with that of the French peasant) seems "as if made for" a Machiavellian context25; and the Machiavellian Bacon makes much of it, both in his Essays and in his History of Henry VII.26

Above all, Henry V is Machiavellian in his role as general. As Skinner notes,27 a basic distinction between Renaissance Italian and North European political thought lies in the former's stress on military strategy and the prince's own prowess in war. Machiavelli is specially forceful on this point (see Pr. xiv, xxvi; Dis. I. xxi, II.xvi, indeed Bks. II and III passim; and of course The Art of War), Henry leads his soldiers in person like a good Machiavellian warrior-statesman (Pr. xii, Dis. III.x), and his troops are native subjects, not mercenaries (Pr. xii, Dis. II.x; p. 308). In his French campaign he clearly has to rely on his infantry, which Machiavelli favours over cavalry, citing instances (to which we may add Agincourt) of small armies, chiefly on foot, having routed large mounted forces (Dis. II.xviii, xix). The Dauphin's boasts about his horse (H V III.vii.11-67) take on special point in this light.

Henry's conduct before Agincourt is, in fact, notably like Camillus' when facing the far bigger Tuscan army, as recounted by Machiavelli:

.. . he showed himself to his army, and, going through the camp, he spoke personally to the men here and there; and then, without making any change in the disposition of his forces, he said, "Let every man do what he has learned, and is accustomed to do."

(Dis. III.xxxi: pp. 503-4)

Some chapters earlier (Dis. III..xxii: pp.480-81), Machiavelli had particularly advocated "affability, humanity, and benevolence" in a monarch or prince's treatment of his army: republican armies require stricter and more impersonal handling.

Henry also conforms to Machiavelli's advice (Dis. II..xxvi) of restraint and courtesy towards the enemy (the boasts and taunts of the French again providing a contrast):

.. . we give express charge that in our marches through the country there be nothing compelled from the villages, nothing taken but paid for, none of the French upbraided or abused in disdainful language; for when lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentler gamester is the soonest winner.

(H V III. vi. 112-18)

Bardolph, it will be recalled, was hanged for pilfering enemy property (H V, 103-10). This agrees with the other part of Machiavelli's advice in Discourses III.xxii:

His strict observance of the laws will insure him obedience and the reputation of being virtuous; and his affability, humanity, and benevolence... will make him beloved (p. 481).

The strategic purpose behind such benignity emerges from the contrast with Henry's threat to the people of Harfleur:

.. . in a moment look to see
The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;
Your fathers taken by the silver beards,
And their most reverend heads dash'd to the walls;
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes,
Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confus'd
Do break the clouds . . .

(H V III.iii.33-40)

A subdued nation calls for gentler handling, for as Machiavelli says, "Wise Princes and Republics Should Content Themselves with Victory" (Dis. II.xxvii, title). Henry trains himself to do so, especially as he has followed Machiavelli's Roman example of a quick campaign (Dis., following which the enemy would quickly come to terms "to save his country from being devastated" (p. 299).

In Henry V it is not so much devastation by the English as the general decay accompanying the war:

And as our vineyards, fallows, meads, and hedges,
Defective in their natures, grow to wildness,
Even so our houses and ourselves and children
Have lost, or do not learn for want of time,
The sciences that should become our country,
But grow like savages . . .


Whence it happens that the greater kingdom makes terms with the smaller and intrinsically feebler, indicating the latter's political power, as Machiavelli instances (Dis. p. 384). Interestingly, he cites a parallel from his own times, where France had to pay tribute to England because the French king had enfeebled his own subjects by oppression (p. 385), so that

when the English attacked France in the year 1513, the whole country trembled, and the King, as well as everybody else, was of the opinion that the loss of a single battle would deprive him of his state, (p. 387)

This occurred, of course, in Henry VIII's reign. Of the more extensive parallels with Henry VII's, I shall speak later.

We may also recall Machiavelli's mock of the Gauls (i.e., the French, as he explains in Dis. III.xliii: p. 532) as "at the beginning of a combat as more than men, and afterwards as less than women" (Dis. xxxvi: title). There are other stray echoes of Machiavelli in Henry V. The art of war is a major concern not only of Henry himself but of his followers. Fluellen's interest in the "Roman disciplines" and "aunchiant wars" is apparently shared by Captain Jamy (see III.ii, IV.i.). We may even wonder whether Fluellen's comparison of the rivers in Monmouth and Macedon owes something to Machiavelli's remark about the topographical resemblances between various lands, so that "from a knowledge of the country in one province one can easily arrive at a knowledge of others" (Pr. xiv: p. 54).

More centrally, Fluellen and his peers discuss the crucial Machiavellian factor of Fortune in human affairs (HV Interestingly, Fortune is never invoked by the King himself; but in Henry IV there are references to an analogous "Fate" of "Necessity" against which the elder Henry has to profess true Machiavellian virtù:

Are these things then necessities?
Then let us meet them like necessities; . . .

(2 H IV III.i.92-93)

Henry V sees in hostile circumstance both an unbendable frame of action and an opportunity to combat it by one's humanity:

If we are mark'd to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.

(H V IV.iii.20-22)

As commonly in such speeches, we cannot distinguish rhetoric from sincerity; but the rhetorical urge itself argues Henry's desire to "covet honour," to carry his men with him and triumph.

I have cited enough parallels of varying importance between Machiavelli and the History Plays. Many of the resemblances are not conclusive; but, as I said earlier, they affirm Shakespeare's general familiarity with the new politics, whose most influential founder and spokesman was Machiavelli. Bolingbroke and Henry V could have been conceived only by a dramatist participating in such assumptions of political conduct and political success.

Awareness of the new politics and new image of the prince is also borne out by at least one treatise written shortly after Shakespeare. Bacon's History of Henry VII (1621), anticipated or echoed in his Essays, is closely based on Machiavelli and often repeats the latter's very phrases. Bacon's realistic picture differs at many points from Shakespeare's ideal monarch: Henry VII is said to have evoked much reverence, a "good measure" of fear, but very little love.28 Yet the affinities between the two figures are striking, usually relating to Machiavellian points of strategy or policy.

In a general way, says Bacon, the King

was grown to such a height of reputation for cunning and policy, that every accident and event that went well was laid and imputed to his foresight, as if he had set it before (p. 156).

This appears from his success in quelling rebellions with singularly little bloodshed (p.239): "His pardons went ever both before and after his sword." His method, first with the rebellion of Lovell and the Staffords and later in the Perkin Warbeck affair, was to issue a general pardon and then, having thus isolated the leaders, to crush them ruthlessly—just as Prince John does in 2 Henry IV IV.ii. Henry VII's "secret spials" to discover "practices and conspiracies" (pp. 241-42) recall Henry V's handling of the Scroop plot. And Henry VII too usually led his troops in person, being "first or second in all his warlike exploits." (p. 89).

Above all, though Henry VII fought no major war, "he knew the way to peace was not to seem to be desirous to avoid wars"; and further, "his arms, either in foreign or civil wars, were never infortunate" (p. 238). The target of his foreign wars and missions was of course France. In a speech to Parliament29 in 1491, he delivered a harangue against France alluding to Crécy, Poitiers and Agincourt (pp. 118ff.).

Needless to say, hostilities with France continued in Henry VIII's reign, frequently to English advantage. (Machiavelli notes this, as we have seen.) The persistence of anti-French sentiments, especially after the loss of Calais in Mary's reign, is a fact of English social history. Its vehemence in Elizabethan times appears from the widespread resistance to Elizabeth's proposed marriage with the Duke of Alençon. Shakespeare exploits a basic premise of Tudor sentiment to uphold his presentation of the New Monarch.

In this presentation, the purely Machiavellian elements are combined with others from the varied political traditions of the time. As Skinner points out, North European political thought operated on a more idealized plane than the Italian, with more emphasis on the ethics of political conduct, at times in direct reaction to Machiavelli; but gradually, raisons d'état came to prevail. This is precisely the adjustment that we find in the Henriad. The theme of "honour" prominent in the plays echoes the treatment in, say, Erasmus' The Education of a Christian Prince: "True honour is that which follows on virtue and right action of its own will."30 This can be matched from the more idealistic of Italian political discourses. Here, for instance, is Castiglione:

So upon the earth a much more liker image of God are those good Princes that love and worship him, and show unto the people the clear light of his justice, accompanied with a shadow of the heavenly reason and understanding.31

Significantly, Castiglione's philosophic basis is Plato's metaphysical idealism rather than the customary Aristotelian materialism as reflected in the Politics and Ethics. Castiglione's rhetoric can be matched from Henry V:

Consideration like an angel came,
And whipp'd th' offending Adam out of him,
Leaving his body as a Paradise,
T'envelop and contain celestial spirits.


But the speech is framed in irony: two churchmen, alarmed at Henry's designs on the wealth of the Church, wish to divert his energies towards a war with France.

Erasmus makes much of the Christ-like nature of the ideal prince. This is in line with a new clemency and ethical concern that not only form part of the professions of the mature Henry IV but correspond to something genuine in his final sober and self-questioning phase. He adopts a policy of pardon in handling rebellions (1 H IV V.i, 2 H IV IV i.142 ff.): the older rebel leaders have to conceal his clemency from Hotspur to serve their own politic ends (1 H IV V.ii.). An exchange between a rebel and a loyal lord in 2 Henry IV significantly inverts the Machiavellian tenets of "love" and "fear," seen as the ruler's possible response to his subjects:

Mowbray: But he hath forc'd us to compel this offer,
And it proceeds from policy, not love.
Westmoreland: Mowbray, you overween to take it so.
This offer comes from mercy, not from
fear; . . .


We cannot tell who is right.

In Henry V, any reversal of the Machiavellian balance is clearly strategic, as in Henry's preference for "lenity" over "cruelty," cited above ( 116-18), or the Earl of Cambridge's praise:

Never was monarch better fear'd and lov'd
Than is your majesty: . . .


Cambridge is plotting against the King even as he says these words. But in Henry IV it is hard to be sure. The King's offer to the rebels in Part I sounds like common political rhetoric:

We love our people well, even those we love
That are misled upon your cousin's part...
... But if he will not yield,
Rebuke and dread correction wait on us,
And they shall do their office.

(I H IV V.i 104-5, 110-12)

But his earlier words to Worcester betray the sincere regret of a troubled old man weary for peace:

You have deceiv'd our trust,
And made us doff our easy robes of peace
To crush our old limbs in ungentle steel:
This is not well, my lord, this is not well.
What say you to it? Will you again unknit
This churlish knot of all-abhorred war,
And move in that obedient orb again
Where you did give a fair and natural light.. .


As we saw before, Henry IV offers both a study and an insidious critique of Machiavellism.

Both Henry IV and Henry V show a new concern and responsibility of office. It is present even in the latter's Prince Hal days:

O majesty!
When thou dost pinch thy bearer, thou dost sit
Like a rich armour worn in heat of day,
That scald'st with safety.

(2 H IV IV.v.27-30)

The most striking evidence of this concern lies in Henry IV s sense of the burdens of kingship, the unease afflicting the head that wears a crown (2 H IV III.i.4-31). Here, interestingly, Shakespeare for once reflects the idealized vein of Erasmus and echoes his words and images: the good prince "is ever on the watch so that everyone else may sleep deeply."32 Prince Hal too echoes the sentiment in the speech just quoted:

O polish'd perturbation! golden care!
That keep'st the ports of slumber open wide
To many a watchful night!

(2 H IV IV.v.22-24)

Such passages convey an entirely un-Machiavellian sense of the sacrifice involved in high office. The idea is extended in Henry V's reflections on his responsibility for his soldiers' fate:

We must bear all. O hard condition!
Twin-born with greatness . . .
What infinite heart's ease
Must kings neglect that private men enjoy!

(H V IV.i.239-43)

This should be read in the light of a Tudor law whereby a subject assisting the King with men or arms was absolved of all responsibility for the justness of the cause, as he was merely obeying his King. As Bacon remarks,33 it was a law more admirable in ethics than in jurisprudence; but its immediate end, of course, was a practical one, to induce a readier offer of men and arms. Henry's burden of responsibility is indeed "twin-born" with warlike ambition.

A similar ambiguity invests Henry IV s repeated desire to lead a crusade. By Henry's own deathbed admission, this is a politic ploy:34 Machiavelli would have approved, for he has much to say about the use of religious faith to political ends. (Discourses I.xii, II.ii, III.i are most important in this regard.) To prevent betrayal by his new supporters, says Henry:

I cut them off, and had a purpose now
To lead out many to the Holy Land,
Lest rest and lying still might make them look
Too near unto my state. Therefore, my Harry,
Be it thy course to busy giddy minds
With foreign quarrels . . .

(2 H IV IV.v.209-14)

Thus, Ferdinand of Aragon, according to Machiavelli:

. . . to be able to undertake greater enterprises, and always under the pretext of religion, . . . had recourse to a pious cruelty, driving out the Moors from his kingdom and despoiling them.

(Pr. xxi: p. 82)

Yet as Alexander Leggati observes,35 Henry's cynical professions do not quite meet the case. His vow to go on a Crusade is first made at the end of Richard II:

I'll make a voyage to the Holy Land,
To wash this blood off from my guilty hand.


This is indeed part of his suspect rhetoric to disown the murder he has instigated; but the context generates a more sincere sense of guilt. So too at the end, as invoked at the moment of death (2 H IV IV.v.230-40), the desire acquires a sincerity and poignancy it did not possess even twenty lines earlier in the account to Hal quoted above.

The lasting impact of Henry IV's resolution was, of course, politic. Bacon reports how Charles VII of France, announcing his intention to go on a Crusade, cited Henry's precedent.36 In Shakespeare too, the "higher" ideals of both Henry IV and Henry V are asserted in a context of practical strategy and sordid political realities. This might make for ethical ambiguity, but emphatically not for divided purpose or intent: even Henry IV's world-weariness does not stand in the way of his political ends.

Indeed, by a basic paradox of contemporary political thought, a spiritual—hierarchic frame of values provided the best rationale for absolute rule. As J. G. A. Pocock explains:

In what may be termed the imperialist vision of history, political society was envisaged as the existence among men of the hierarchical order existing in heaven and in nature; its legitimation and its organizing categories were alike timeless, and change could exist in it only as degeneration or recovery. Affiliation with the empire, then, like affiliation with monarchy generally, was affiliation with the timeless.37

The republican ideal, on the other hand, was set in time; it "accepted the fact of the republic's mortality," and its hero was the unsuccessful rebel Brutus. A hero-king, general and absolutist like Henry V also admits the mortality of his own life and rule:

O, be sick, great greatness,
And bid thy ceremony give thee cure!
Think'st thou the fiery fever will go out
With titles blown from adulation?

(H V IV.i.257-60)

But this admission is, as it were, proof of his spiritual Tightness and conformity with the universal order. It is quite opposite in purport to Richard II's rhetoric on the "antic" Death (R II III.ii. 144-77), whose defeatist self-indulgence reveals Richard's unfitness to rule.

Henry V is sober enough in his sense of his own feebleness and mortality. He lives with these realities, and (as James Winny argues persuasively in The Player King) the History Plays are at one level a sustained pageant of "men grappling with an identity bigger than their own,"38 the role of "king" imposed on the capacities of the "man." But whereas Richard II falls abject victim to the anomaly, and Henry IV succumbs privately to frustration and melancholy, in Henry V it remains a general and, as it were, philosophic premiss that, far from curbing his ambition, seems to lend it an extra cachet of sober self-awareness.

As for Henry V's explicit religiosity, we may agree with Kristian Smidt that it is "a political, not a personal, phenomenon."39 In his most agonized stirrings, he betrays a strange redaction of piety and penitence in a singular bargain with God:

Not to-day, O Lord!
O not to-day, think not upon the fault
My father made in compassing the crown!
I Richard's body have interred new . . .
Five hundred poor I have in yearly pay,
Who twice a day their wither'd hands hold up
Toward heaven, to pardon blood; and I have built
Two chantries, where the sad and solemn priests
Sing still for Richard's soul.

(H V IV.i.298-308)

The spiritual nullity of such expiation is obvious even to himself:

.. . all I can do is nothing worth,
Since that my penitence comes after all,
Imploring pardon.


The "ideal" and spiritual dimension of his rule is supremely a political concern and political strategy, confirming his power by the strongest divine and hierarchic criteria. It makes good his weakness of hereditary title, providing a new Machiavellian basis for personal power and popular support.

Now, the ultimate orientation of Machiavellian thought is republican, however it might incorporate the concept of the New Monarch. Such a monarch may exploit the concepts of tradition and hierarchy to his own ends, but he has to justify his rule in a nontraditional and non-hierarchical context. Barring such simple throw-backs (in both conceptual and chronological terms) as Marlowe's Tamburlaine, the New Monarch of Renaissance history and drama is asserting a model of individual power, and exceptional ability to justify that power, in a world which has admitted new ideas of a contrary bent. Even a figure like Tamburlaine illustrates the paradox by virtue of his shepherd origin.

Quentin Skinner describes how the figure of the vir virtutis passes from a republican embodiment in the fifteenth century to an authoritarian one in the sixteenth.40 By this time too, a new philosophy of sovereignty and the divine right of kings was evolving in France and would pass to England. James I's explicit insistence on his divine right was perhaps a reactionary and counterproductive stance; but Elizabeth invested herself with a singular self-generated mystique, an utterly novel and expertly manipulated image of power.41

Such absolutism is not a survival from mediaeval models. It exceeds them in its totality and intensity; and whatever philosophical trappings it may assume, it is conceptually much more precarious, relying on the ruler's charisma—deepening into myth in extreme cases—and his control of events. The cultivation of this image of monarchy provides a special version of the Renaissance process of "self-fashioning" that has captured our attention since Greenblatt's influential work.42 In Hal/Henry V, however, right from the soliloquy "I know you all . . . ," the aim seems less a discovery of the intrinsic self than the projection of a public image, in a Machiavellian world where to seem is more crucial than to be.

At a different level, of course, the best way to seem something is to be it. Public triumph is possible only through the assertion of a compelling self, a true triumph of personality—achieved most dramatically, if most crudely, by Marlowe's Tamburlaine. Where Tamburlaine succeeds, Coriolanus fails. English political drama traverses an immense distance in these twenty years.

Henry V has to succeed in a Coriolanian context. He manipulates society by the power of his personality, whereas Coriolanus merely alienates himself. A major support lies in Henry's self-created mythic image of the dissolute prince reformed. Beyond this, his autocracy is tempered but also protected by the rule of law, tradition and general consensus:

This is the English, not the Turkish court;
Not Amurath an Amurath succeeds,
But Harry Harry.

(2 H IV V.ii.47-49)

Both Henry IV and Henry V—especially the former in handling his wild son—embody the classic English model of a controlled, constitutional monarchy of which the Chief Justice is a symbolic embodiment43:

Happy am I, that have a man so bold
That dares do justice on my proper son;
And not less happy, having such a son
That would deliver up his greatness so
Into the hands of justice.

(2 H IV V.ii.108-12)

This, incidentally, agrees not only with orthodox "idealistic" continental thought but also with Machiavelli. At several points in the Discourses (I.xvi, xxxiv, 1 viii) Machiavelli emphasizes how a beneficent monarchy approaches republicanism by creating laws that restrain its own power.44

This leads on to a profounder populism consolidating the image of the King in the Henriad. Here we find a remarkable contribution on Shakespeare's part, an extension and reworking of the classic Machiavellian model. This makes the Henriad, to the best of my knowledge, unique as a proposal for political innovation in dramatic form.

Machiavelli's fundamental strength is his realism, his acceptance of political life as it truly is:

.. . it appears to me more proper to go to the real truth of the matter than to its imagination; and many have imagined republics and principalities which have never been seen or known to exist in reality; for how we live is so far removed from how we ought to live...

(Pr. xv: p. 56)

This leads him to recognize the importance, and also the ease, of pleasing the people:

.. . he who has but a few enemies can easily make sure of them without great scandal, but he who has the masses hostile to him can never make sure of them, and the more cruelty he employs the feebler will his authority become; so that his best remedy is to try and secure the goodwill of the people.

(Dis. I.xvi: p. 162. Cf. Pr. xix)

This is particularly true of the new political context created by the ever-changing reality of events, the uniqueness of each contingency, which is an obvious assumption of the Machiavellian approach:

in Roman times it was necessary to satisfy the soldiers rather than the people, . . . because the soldiers could do more than the people; now, it is more necessary for all princes, except the Turk and the Sultan, to satisfy the people than the soldiers, for the people can do more than the soldiers.

(Pr. xix: pp. 75-76)

Time and again, Machiavelli emphasizes the contingent nature of monarchy itself, however beneficial or even essential it may be at times: he even suggests that monarchic rule might be introduced in the interests of a greater republican programme (Dis. I.ix, x, xxxiv; II.ii). His younger contemporary Francesco Guicciardini reiterates this with a still greater republican bias, though concluding that princely rule tempered by law and popular control provides the best form of government.45

In such a context, it will not be enough for a monarch to "satisfy" the people. He must understand and interact with them, enter into enlightening and strengthening contact with the humble, unmentionable elements of national life. The orthodox, restrictive, merely "majestic" ideal of kingship, confined to courtly and military routine, has limitations amply brought out by Henry IV's last melancholy phase. Prince Hal's different programme provides him with an inclusive experience of mankind.

As we have seen, traditional manuals on the education of princes had advocated an orthodox, bookish mode of social ethics, "how we ought to live," rather than "how we live." This is coupled with vehement injunctions to the prince to avoid what Erasmus calls "the sullied opinions and desires of the common folk":

. . . whence, I ask you, does the prince get the leisure time to remain secluded for whole days, to waste the greatest part of his life in playing at dice, in dancing, in hunting, in associating with utter fools, and in idle nonsense, even more frivolous than these?46

J. H. Walter cites Erasmus' advice to justify the rejection of Falstaff.47 But as we have seen, the Machiavellian approach dismisses such orthodox political education. Instead, Hal trains himself through engagement with the total inchoate social order that he will one day rule and be ruled by: a mobile order, which he must guide to his ends by the adaptive power of his own virtù: "He is happy whose mode of procedure accords with the needs of the times" (Pr. xxv: p. 92).

This new sense of the power of undefined social forces, more compelling than royal authority, may be called the socio-political equivalent of the philosophic recognition of a pluralité des mondes. Such recognition is not merely disintegrating: it authenticates the royal identity on a much firmer and more complexly tempered basis. The awareness of this greater, openended, immeasurable reality as the shaping factor in politics, the basing of royal and political heroism on a fundamentally unheroic sense of man—these are the crucial legacies of Machiavelli. The Henriad gives them dramatic embodiment in a new creative reworking.

Many critics have talked of the expansive quality imparted to Henry TV by the Eastcheap and Gloucester-shire scenes—in Tillyard's phrase, "the idea of picturing all England."48 But there is more to the matter than picturesque or sentimental patriotism. The demotic scenes in Henry IV do nothing less than introduce a new popular level of social apprehension, outside the pale of formal political theory in that age, essentially subversive, yet needed to provide the ultimate justification of any system of rule.

The carnivalesque implications of Henry IV have been noted in academic criticism since C. L. Barber's study.49 But Barber lays great emphasis on the formal order subsuming the carnival. For an awareness of the full potential of carnival, we must look to Mikhail Bakhtin:

The carnivalesque crowd in the marketplace or in the streets is not merely a crowd. It is the people as a whole, but organized in their own way, the way of the people. It is outside of and contrary to all existing forms of the coercive socio-economic and political organization, which is suspended for the time of the festivity.50

With Falstaff as with Gargantua and Pantagruel, we can see the people's spirit expressed in carnival through the "language of the marketplace," the "grotesque image of the body," and references to the "material bodily lower stratum" (Bakhtin's chapter-headings). Bakhtin sees in the entire Renaissance a unique "concept of frankness":

The culture of folk humour that had been shaped during many centuries and that had defended the people's creativity in non-official forms, in verbal expression or spectacle, could now rise to the high level of literature and ideology and fertilize it.51

In the last chapter of Rabelais and His World, Bakhtin cites specific instances of Rabelais's carnivalesque commentary on the politics of the time. Rabelais, claims Bakhtin, embraced "the new principle to which the immediate historic future belonged, the principle of the national state"; but

although he spoke seriously of such things, he knew the limits of this seriousness. Rabelais's own last word is the gay, free, absolutely sober word of the people, which cannot be bribed with the help of the limited progressiveness accessible to the men of his time.52

I would like to place Shakespeare within the same design, challenging orthodox class-based political thought—to which even Machiavelli is clearly confined—with wider populist criteria of judgment. But he expands Machiavellism to meet the challenge: in place of the sceptical, anarchic utopia with which Bakhtin credits Rabelais,53 we have a reaffirmation of monarchy in terms of a broader, utterly unassailable reality.

The deepest insight into this process seems to come from outside the political and academic pale of western Europe. "In Henry IV," writes Jan Kott:

two notions of England are continuously set in contrast to each other. . . . The young prince [becomes] a wise and brave king. [But] it appears that the company of Falstaff and cutpurses is a far better school for royalty than the feudal slaughter.54

In other words, we are witnessing the paradox of a monarchy validated in proletarian terms, a conflation of two contrasting levels of being. The isolating, elitizing tendency implicit in a monarchy is thus countered by assimilating it with a popular carnivalesque (alternatively, mythopoeic) level of apprehension—as it was in many ways in Tudor myths and spectacles.55

Yet of course this is the ultimate Machiavellian ploy, the New Monarch's most skilful extraction of popular assent to his rule: "I'll so offend, to make offence a skill." Hence, although the validation is chiefly effected through Hal's association with Falstaff, it is sealed by an astute and well-timed overthrow: the rejection of Falstaff adds a new dimension to the myth of Hal as King. When all is said and done, the popular element is assimilated not in the anachronistic terms of Marxist dialectic but in those of the new politics of the "Machiavellian moment."

In Henry IV, says Greenblatt:

the founding of the modern state, like the selffashioning of the modern prince, is shown to be based upon acts of calculation, intimidation, and deceit. And these acts are performed in an entertainment for which audiences, the subjects of this very state, pay money and applaud.56

We need not resort to metadrama to study the process. Hal has confirmed his right to rule by proletarian contact; now he can and must break off such contact—to satisfy public expectation and complete the pattern of a popular royal myth.

Falstaff's equivocal class identity marks him out for his role. He is a knight, but a markedly déclassé knight: more than sufficiently so to lead the prince down the uncharted paths of low life, yet far enough removed from the proletariat for the multitude to watch his fall with unvexed gratification. His rejection is approved of by people of all orders, Fluellen (H V IV.vii.48-55) as well as the Archbishop of Canterbury (I.i.26-69), but much more sincerely by the former. Even Falstaff s associates, who ascribe his death to a broken heart, see it as the concomitant of a perfectly admissible exercise of power:

The king is a good king: but it must be as it may; he passes some humours and careers.

(H V II.i. 125-26)

On Henry's side, his experience of Eastcheap gives him the confidence to move incognito among his soldiers on the night before Agincourt and even seal a challenge with one of them. As Gary Taylor notes,57 he does not indeed seek them out, and always maintains his distance, even when he later makes good the challenge in his proper identity (IV. viii.24-63). But he can speak to the soldiers in their own language; and, what is more important, he can confront his subjects' image of himself. Enlightened Renaissance princes were enjoined to look into such a "mirror."

I have more to say about the rejection scene; but this calls for another approach. The king's popularity in Henry V is accompanied by resentment and doubt in the soldiers' minds:

Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it . . .


They also mistrust his word that he will not be ransomed:

Ay, he said so, to make us fight cheerfully; but when our throats are cut, he may be ransomed, and we ne'er the wiser.

(IV.i. 199-201)

With this goes a revelation that can spell the death of royal authority:

I think the king is but a man, as I am: the violet smells to him as it doth to me; the element shows to him as it doth to me; all his senses have but human conditions: his ceremonies laid by, in his nakedness he appears but a man; . . .


The crucial point is that the last admission is made by the king himself. It is the climax of a motif running through the Henriad. In a passage from Henry IV (II.ii.1-18) which Auerbach chose as his point of entry into Shakespearean drama,58 Hal had confessed to an unprincely love of small beer. This wry modesty is later turned to good use in setting up a new line of rapport with his subjects: the king's mere humanity provides an extra mandate for his rule. J. G. A. Pocock again explains the rationale:

The way is now open to say that because the king shares imperfection of intellect with his subjects, he should take counsel of their laws and customs and of themselves in occasional and regular assemblies; but that because authority is, under God, his alone, he can never be obliged to take counsel of law or parliament and does so only because prudence enjoins it.59

The populism of both Bolingbroke and Hal/Henry V now appears in a clearer light. Their new sobriety and responsibility is not born simply of conventional royal duty, but from a new republican consciousness. Falstaff s great role in Henry IV—his "educative" role vis-à-vis Hal—had been to provide an alternative order of values and experiences: anti-rule, anti-virtù, but expressing certain crucial energies of the human state. The play is structured around the dialectic of Falstaff and the king, the tavern and the court; and our divided response is owing to the opposite human realities they represent, reflected in the conflict of "man" and "king" in Hal's progress to kingship. But in terms of political strategy there is no opposition: rather a convergence of two lines of engagement, popular and magisterial sentiment interfused to uphold the prevailing political system, here a monarchy. This is essentially the compound of Machiavelli's Prince.

The puzzle of the rejection scene reflects the same predicament. Initially, it appears as a disquieting ethical choice, and has been so presented by critics from Bradley down to Danby, Nuttall and Greenblatt.60 Was Hal right or wrong to reject Falstaff? Was the price in human terms balanced by the political advantage? Which party has a better call on our sympathy? But finally, the insolubility of the puzzle brings us round to a sense of its irrelevance, and this provokes a deeper dissatisfaction. The situation is replete with ethical implications, yet it bypasses the question of ethics. The rejection is politically imperative; viewed functionally rather than morally, it is right. Yet our sense of its Tightness is nagged by values that should logically find no entry here. We are caught between two categories of judgment which should be kept apart but cannot. At a simpler level, Tamburlaine poses the same challenge.

In his path-breaking article on "The Originality of Machiavelli," Isaiah Berlin suggests that what has challenged and infuriated Machiavelli's readers down the centuries is his sense of the irrelevance of moral or ethical social life:

. . . an insoluble dilemma . . . his de facto recognition that ends equally ultimate, equally sacred, may contradict each other, that entire systems of value may come into collision without possibility of rational arbitration, and that not merely in exceptional circumstances, . . . but (this was surely new) as part of the normal human situation.61

But this binary view emerges, at it were, between Machiavelli's lines. His tone is amoral, detached, clinical, though impregnated with a hint of conscious paradox and iconoclasm, a quizzical awareness of the "shocking" ethical impact of his observations.62

In Shakespeare's Henriad we find a truly full and balanced presentation of the paradox, without foregrounding either component: a triumphant new princely ideal, integral and consistent within itself, tempered by the full complex reality of life, yet curiously vulnerable to assault from external or irrelevant factors and partial realities considered in their own terms. Figures like Bolingbroke or Henry V acquire a kind of elevation by virtue of their political achievement, an immunity from common human judgment; yet clearly they cannot be immune. Shakespeare appropriates and extends the Machiavellian view of man; but the Henriad is perhaps the most stringently self-defining, self-assessing testament of the "Machiavellian moment."


All Shakespeare references are to the New Arden editions of the plays. All references to Machiavelli's Prince and Discourses are to the translations by L. Ricci (Rev. E. R. P. Vincent) and C. E. Detmold, respectively, in the 1-Vol. Modern Library edition (New York, 1950).

1Henry V, ed. J. H. Walter (London, 1954, rpt., 1970), pp. xii-xiv.

2 William Hazlitt, Characters of Shakespeare's Plays (1817; rpt., Oxford, 1952), pp. 166-77; A. C. Bradley, "The Rejection of Falstaff," Oxford Lectures on Poetry (1909; rpt., London, 1965); John Danby, Shakespeare's Doctrine of Nature (London, 1948, rpt., 1975), pp. 81-101; A.D. Nuttall, A New Mimesis (London, 1983), pp. 153-61; Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations (Oxford, 1988), pp. 40-65; Kristian Smidt, Unconformities in Shakespeare's History Plays (London, 1982), pp. 134-44.

3 For an efficient account of the controversy, see Dennis H. Burden, "Shakespeare's History Plays: 1952-1983," Shakespeare Survey 38 (Cambridge, 1985), pp. 14-15.

4 G. R. Elton, "Renaissance Monarchy?," Studies in Tudor and Stuart Politics and Government, Vol. 1 (Cambridge, 1974), p. 40. The article first appeared in 1953.

5 Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860 et seq.), trans. S. G. C. Middlemore: see Part I ("The State as a Work of Art") and Part II ("The Development of the Individual"), chs. 1-3.

6 See E. W. Ives, "Shakespeare and History," Shakespeare Survey 38, pp. 19-25.

7 See E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's History Plays (London, 1944, rpt., 1956), p. 237.

8 See Tillyard pp. 56-57; Lily B. Campbell, Shakespeare's "Histories" (3rd edn., 1947, rpt., 1977), p. 256.

9 See Quentin Skinner, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought (Cambridge, 1978, rpt., 1979), Vol. 1, pp. 128 ff., 180 ff. cf. J. W. Allen, A History of Political Thought in the Sixteenth Century (London, 1928, rpt, 1964), pp. 493-95.

10 The Elizabethan response to Machiavelli has been treated at length by Felix Raab, The English Face of Machiavelli (London, 1964); but balanced summaries can be found in Wilbur Sanders, The Dramatist and the Received Idea (Cambridge, 1968, rpt., 1980), pp. 61-63, and Anne Barton, "Livy, Machiavelli, and Shakespeare's Coriolanus," Shakespeare Survey 38, p. 122.

11 See note 10.

12 J. G. A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment (Princeton, 1975), ch. x.

13 Georg Brandes, William Shakespeare: A Critical Study (1895-96; Eng. trans. 1898): quoted in the New Variorum 1 Henry IV, ed. S. B. Hemingway (Philadelphia, 1936), p. 49.

14 A.C. Swinburne, A Study of Shakespeare (1880): quoted ibid., p. 461.

15 Wyndham Lewis, The Lion and the Fox (London, 1927, rpt., 1955), pp. 161 ff., 177 ff.

161 Henry IV, ed. A. R. Humphreys (London, 1960, rpt., 1968), p. lii; ed. David Bevington (Oxford, 1987), p. 45.

17 Sanders, chs. 4-6, 8-9.

18 Danby, pp. 89-90.

19 Nuttall, p. 147.

20 See Sanders, pp. 170-71.

21 James Winny, The Player King (London, 1968), p. 104.

22 Campbell, ch. XIV.

23 See W. K. Marriott's translation appended to the Everyman's Library edition of The Prince (London, 1908, rpt, 1931).

24 Skinner, Vol. 1, p. 122.

25 Pocock, p. 357.

26 Bacon, "Of the True Greatness of Kingdoms and Estates," Essays, ed. E. A. Abbott (London, 1882), Vol. 1, pp. 105-6, 11.114-40; History of Henry VII in Bacon's Works, eds. J. Spedding, R. L. Ellis and D. D. Heath (London, 1857-59), Vol. VI, p. 95.

27 Skinner, Vol. 1, pp. 130, 172 ff, 244 ff.

28 Bacon, Works, Vol. 6; p. 243. All later page refs. to this edition and volume.

29 Actually, it was probably to a "Great Council": see Spedding's note, Works, Vol. VI, p. 117.

30 Erasmus, The Education of a Christian Prince, trans. L.K. Born (New York, 1936, rpt, 1964), p. 148.

31 Baldassare Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier, trans. Sir T. Hoby (1561: Everyman's Library, London, 1928, rpt., 1974), pp. 276-77. Spelling modernized.

32 Erasmus, p. 162; cf. p. 184.

33History of Henry VII: Works, Vol. VI, pp. 159-60.

34 Contrast Mowbray's genuine old-world crusading zeal as recalled by Carlisle in R II, IV.i.92-100.

35 Alexander Leggatt, Shakespeare's Political Drama (London, 1988), p. 83.

36History of Henry VII: Works, Vol. VI, p. 107.

37 Pocock, p. 53.

38 Winny, pp. 46-47.

39 See Smidt, pp. 137-40; New Arden, 1 Henry IV, p. li.

40 Skinner, Vol. 1, ch. 5.

41 The best account of this is still to be found in Frances A. Yates, Astraea (1975, rpt., Harmondsworth, 1977), Part II: "The Tudor Imperial Reform."

42Renaissance Self Fashioning (Chicago, 1980) practically ignores the History Plays. The omission has been made good in Shakespearean Negotiations.

43 See Norman Sanders, "The True Prince and the False Thief," Shakespeare Survey 30 (Cambridge, 1977), pp. 31-32; Leggatt, p. 107.

44 I may refer here to Anne Barton's fine account of Machiavellian republicanism as reflected in Coriolanus: see note 10 above.

45 See Guicciardini's Considerations on Machiavelli's "Discourses," I.ii, ix, lviii: trans. in Guicciardini's Selected Writings, ed. & trans. C. & M. Grayson (London, 1965).

46 Erasmus, pp. 150, 184. Cf. also p. 52.

47 New Arden Henry V, p. xxv. Tillyard (pp. 277 ff.) more curiously cites manuals on courtesy and princely education to justify Hal's association with Falstaff.

48 Tillyard, p. 299. Cf. Tillyard, p. 304; 1 Henry IV, Oxford Shakespeare edn., pp. 59-64.

49 C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (Princeton, 1959).

50 Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. H. Iswolsky (1968, rpt, Bloomington, 1984), p. 255.

51Ibid, p. 72.

52Ibid, pp. 452, 453-54.

53 See, e.g., ibid., pp. 448, 454.

54 Jan Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary, trans. B. Taborski (2nd edn., London, 1967, rpt., 1978), p. 42.

55 See Yates, Astraea (as in note 41 above); E. C. Wilson, England's Eliza (1939; rpt., London, 1966); Helen Cooper, Pastoral: Medieval into Renaissance (Ipswich, 1977), ch. vi; Jean Wilson (ed.), Entertainments for Elizabeth I (Woodbridge, 1980).

56 Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations, pp. 52-53.

57Henry V, Oxford Shakespeare edn. (1984), pp. 42-46.

58 Erich Auerbach, Mimesis, trans. W. R. Trask (Princeton, 1953, rpt., 1973), ch. 13.

59 Pocock, p. 353.

60 Bradley, Oxford Lectures, p. 255; Danby, pp. 91, 99-100; Nuttall, p. 155; Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations, pp. 56-64.

61 Isaiah Berlin, "The Originality of Machiavelli," Against the Current (1979, rpt., Oxford 1981), pp. 74-75.

62 Sanders (p. 64) sees this feature as indicating "Machiavelli's own final failure to exclude the moral order." To me it suggests a deliberate teasing undercurrent of allusion to that order.

Monarchy And Ceremony

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 22681

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 reverence toward the clergy or their solemnities. She excluded the most staunchly Catholic primates such as Heath and Bonner from the coronation service; the timely death of Cardinal Pole, archbishop of Canterbury, relieved her of the need to eliminate him as well. She retained the lower-ranking bishop of Carlisle, Owen Oglethorpe, to crown and anoint her, but she insisted on making Protestant changes in the ensuing Mass. The bishop balked at such changes several weeks before the coronation. According to II Schifanoya, an Italian resident in London, "on Christmas day, the Bishop of Carlisle sang high mass, and her Majesty sent to tell him that he was not to elevate the host; to which the good Bishop replied that thus he had learnt the mass, and that she must pardon him as he could not do otherwise."3 Offended by his intransigence, Elizabeth walked out after the reading of the gospel, replacing Oglethorpe at the next day's service with a more pliant royal chaplain.

How then did Elizabeth conduct herself at her coronation? There are hints in the records of scandalous irregularities, but these accounts are so elliptical and inconsistent that certainty is impossible.4 The only official version is an unusually brief and fragmentary paragraph in the archives of the College of Arms that is much less detailed than the herald's earlier accounts of coronation proceedings. Its cryptic summary may reflect an effort to play down if not cover up a troublesome inaugural occasion. There are also two unofficial versions of the event: a letter from a Mantuan resident, 11 Schifanoya, and a report by an anonymous English eyewitness. The herald's account and the letter from II Schifanoya agree on one significant alteration. Each indicates that, while Bishop Oglethorpe crowned and anointed the queen, the Mass was celebrated by the Dean of the Chapel Royal, George Carew, a man who could be trusted to refrain from elevating the host. Faced with the prospect of such a sacrilegious alteration, several Catholic dignitaries boycotted the service, including, apparently, II Schifanoya; his version is filled with errors and gives the impression of being second-hand.

The anonymous eyewitness account raises an even more scandalous possibility. In this version, the bishop celebrated the Mass, presumably elevating the host as he said he would. The report says that "her Grace retorned unto her Closset hearing the Consecration of the Mass." Similarly, the herald's proclamation notes the queen's withdrawal during the Mass "to her traverse," a curtained pew or closet. Finally, a heraldic drawing used for planning the service locates a traverse behind the high altar in St. Edward's chapel, but the instructions indicate that she was to go there only "after the ceremonyes and Service [were] doon." Evidently, the queen withdrew to a traverse midway through the Mass, where she abstained from receiving communion and hid herself from sight for the duration of the service. The Spanish ambassador had refused to attend a church service that omitted the elevation; now he had a new scandal to report to Philip II:

By last post I wrote your Majesty that I had been told that the Queen took the holy sacrament 'sub utraque specie' on the day of the coronation, but was all nonsense. She did not take it at all.5

These tantalizing clues and enigmas have inspired considerable speculation, prompting some historians to conclude that Elizabeth impulsively walked out on her own coronation. One even accused her of committing "a striking breach of the ritual of centuries."6 Others doubt that such behavior would excite so little remark. H. A. Wilson proposes the less dramatic possibility of a second traverse on the altar to which she withdrew deliberately rather than impulsively.7 Tudor monarchs often heard Mass from the privacy of a curtained pew, a practice going back at least to Edward's coronation.8 Moreover, a memorandum prepared before the coronation anticipates that "her Matie in her closett may use the Masse without lyfting up above the Host according to the Ancient customs."9 Nevertheless, even if Elizabeth's withdrawal to her traverse were decorously deliberate, her treatment of the bishop and her abstention from communion still suggest a lapse from the "great devocion" toward the "sacrament" enjoined by the coronation ordo of her predecessors. Indeed her diminished regard for the entire sacred rite is manifest in her subsequent remarks to the French Ambassador, Fénélon. Legalism rather than piety prompts her to assure him that "she had been crowned and anointed according to the ceremonies of the Catholic church, and by Catholic bishops, without, however, attending the mass."10 Less flippant than the witticism attributed to Henri IV that Paris was worth a Mass, Elizabeth's remark still reflects the same politique spirit of calculating pragmatism.

The real historical significance of Elizabeth's coronation finally has little to do with the actual events or the rumors surrounding it. Since the records are scanty and contradictory, the facts can never be determined with any certainty; Elizabeth's coronation is one of those historic occasions that recedes from view as one learns more about it. Many religious sectarians on both sides were certainly scandalized: Catholics were shocked by her liturgical alterations and her treatment of Bishop Oglethorpe, while the Geneva exiles were distressed by her employment of a Catholic bishop and the traditional Latin rite.11 Nevertheless, none of these scandals or controversies stirred up much excitement. The most extraordinary features of Elizabeth's coronation were its obscurity and ultimate irrelevance. The event's real historical significance consists in the deliberate subordination of the church service to the civic progress the day before.

The civic progress from the Tower to Westminster was a secular procession, traditionally a mere preliminary to the coronation the next day. The progress included popular entertainments and allegorical pageants sponsored by the city guilds, and, at various points along the way, the monarch and his entourage would stop for an exchange of gifts and formal tributes. The progress allowed the London populace their first glimpse of the new monarch as well as an opportunity for stylized dialogue. The citizens may have written their own speeches that promoted their own agenda, but the queen probably previewed them. Nevertheless, this carefully controlled dialogue could generate feelings of spontaneity and "intimate give-and-take."12 The civic progress was, in Eric Hobsbawm's suggestive phrase, an "invented tradition."13 Its speeches and spectacles were newly and variously devised for each reign, addressing contemporary political concerns. During Elizabeth's progress, the pageant at the Little Conduit depicted the "decayed common weale" of the previous regime and the "florishing commonweale" expected from her benign rule.14

In comparing these two events, a distinction made by some anthropologists is useful. The civic progress was a ceremony, secular and popular, whose pageants were freshly improvised and performed in London's streets and civic spaces; while still formal and "ceremonious," its procedures were varied, open, and genuinely dramatic. By contrast, the coronation was a ritual, sacred and hierarchical, and its procedures were fixed and mystical; these rites were performed within the confines of Westminster Abbey and they directly invoked God's authority.15 According to Percy Schramm, the coronation was paradoxically jeopardized by its privileged status and aura of ritual mystery:

only an illustrious and select circle could get near it, and so it became a question whether it would not lose its central position and become a mere episode in a long series of festivities.

The civic progress, on the other hand, was more of a crowd-pleaser because of its greater visibility and malleable theatricality. It included

manifestations of royal power that could be abandoned, changed, or devised anew. After the Middle Ages, the danger threatening the coronation was precisely that it might be degraded into a pageant of this sort.16

The danger hardly bothered Elizabeth, who made the civic progress the main event, one that completely overshadowed the sacred ritual. She clearly appreciated the political value of secular pageantry and sought to exploit it in several ways. First, she helped to subsidize the civic progress by loaning costumes from the Revels Office, as David Bergeron discovered.17 Secondly, she deployed her considerable skills as an actress to sustain a dazzling performance in which she won the hearts of her people. A commemorative tract records a variety of inspired gestures, such as clasping the English Bible to her breast, accepting humble "nose gaies" from "poore womens hands," and earnestly attending to all the exhortations addressed to her.18 Her performance enacted a drama of reciprocity and affection in which the queen

was of the people received merveylous entierly, as appeared by thassemblie, prayers, wishes, welcomminges, cryes, tender woordes, and all other signes, which argue a wonderfull earnest love of most obedient subjects towarde theyr soveraygne. And on thother syde her grace by holding up her handes, and merie countenaunce to such as stoode farre of, and most tender and gentle language to those that stode nigh to her grace, did declare her selfe no lesse thankefullye to receive her people's good wille, than they lovelingly offred it unto her.19

The essentially theatrical nature of these ceremonies is manifest in the claim that they transformed London into "a stage wherin was shewed the wonderfull spectacle, of a noble hearted princess toward her most loving people, and the peoples excading comfort in beholding so worthy a soveraign."20 Finally, and most significantly, the government capitalized on the success of this performance by authorizing the prompt publication of the tract itself. The Quenes Maiesties Passage through the Citie of London to Westminster the Day before her Coronacion was an unprecedented publication that made the event accessible to an even larger audience and preserved its glorious memory for all time. Thus, the published record reinforced the primacy of the civic progress by shifting the focus entirely from the sacred rite to the secular pageant.21

The visual records are similarly distorted. There is one drawing of the procession to the church and it is clearly intended as a planning device. There are three heraldic drawings of the civic progress.22 One of these is somewhat crudely and hastily drawn and was also probably intended for planning purposes: the queen's litter is simply indicated by a rectangle and the words, "The Queens most excellent majesty." The archbishops of Canterbury and York are included, despite the death of the first and the exclusion of the second, but there are x's and lines drawn beneath them, which probably indicate their absence and the need to replace them with those next in line, the Norroy and Clarenceux Kings of Arms. In the other two drawings, Elizabeth's problems with her bishops are blithely ignored, and the two primates are shown without marks in the proper places. The drawing of the church procession shows the "bishops in their pontificalibus" with miters and crosiers; in the civic progress, they are arrayed in respectably Protestant academic caps and gowns. The later drawings pay more attention to ornament and dress: the queen is portrayed in her litter surrounded by a throng of noble and courtly attendants and the effect is one of sumptuous display. The drawings had a practical, prescriptive purpose since they depicted the order of precedence to be observed when "Procydyng to ye parlement or coronation," but they also serve the same commemorative function as The Quenes Maiesties Passage.23 They preserve an image of social harmony, while suppressing evidence of religious difficulties.24

The drawings of the civic progress and The Quenes Maiesties Passage present the opening scenes of an enormously successful and long-running stageshow. The show lasted for most of her reign, developing into the nearly idolatrous "cult of Elizabeth."25 Yet for all its devotional fervor, the cult was a self-consciously theatrical enterprise in which secular ceremony and printed propaganda affirmed royal authority more effectively than sacred ritual. The Accession Day Tilts, like the civic progress, were "invented traditions," and their adaptations of Catholic symbolism and ritual were, as Stephen Greenblatt explains, stylized improvisations, designed to exploit the residual powers of the old forms and customs. Sir Henry Lee and other courtiers staged elaborate pageants in which altars and candles, hermits at their beads, and hymns in praise of virginity became the theatrical props of temporal power. According to Greenblatt, these stylized ceremonies exemplify

two of the characteristic operations of improvisation: displacement and absorption. By displacement I mean the process whereby a prior symbolic structure is compelled to coexist with other centers of attention that do not necessarily conflict with the original structure but are not swept up in its gravitational pull; indeed, as here, the sacred may find itself serving as an adornment, a backdrop, an occasion for a quite secular phenomenon. By absorption I mean the process whereby a symbolic structure is taken into the ego so completely that it ceases to exist as an external phenomenon; in the Accession Day ceremony, instead of the secular prince humbling herself before the sacred, the sacred seems only to enhance the ruler's identity, to express her power.26

At her coronation Elizabeth resisted "humbling herself before the sacred" either by replacing the celebrant of the Mass or by absenting herself completely, and she focused all attention on herself by the shows of secular pageantry. The increasingly elaborate celebrations of her Accession Day, the principal feast of the cult of Elizabeth, dates the beginning of her reign from her accession and reduces the coronation to a superfluous formality.27 Later in her reign, the queen timed her return from her summer progresses partly to coincide with her Accession Day, and her formal reentry into London reenacted the stately scenes of her first civic progress:

The Queen came by night with the Master of the Horse leading her palfrey by the bridle and a great noble carrying the sword. Ambassadors were invited to be present, and the Lord Mayor and citizens were called upon to don their rich gowns and chains and give a torch light welcome28

The Accession Day Tilt itself was celebrated with increasingly elaborate tilts and pageants recalling the traditional feast and tournament that followed the coronation. Thus, the Accession Day festivities reenacted only the secular ceremonies of her reign's beginning, while displacing them from their original occasion; in the meantime, the sacred rite sunk still further into oblivion.

Ceremonial pragmatism was an essential technique in the Tudors' consolidation of their power. Nevertheless, the secularization of ceremony entailed losses as well as gains. The "divinity [that] doth hedge a king" was inevitably diminished by the desacralization of the rites of majesty, and the dependence of authority on theatrical artifice created problems as well as advantages. In royal pageantry, the alienation effect of ceremonial displacement was offset by the monarch's actual presence, which invested these shows with genuine authority and the aura of sacred ritual. However, when royal pageantry was transposed from the civic or courtly stage to the stages of London's theaters, yet another displacement occurred, removing it still further from its original sacred context. In the theaters, the links to ritual became more attenuated and the effects of displacement more unsettling. In fact, dramatic representation occasionally highlighted contradictions of form and function at the heart of ceremonial improvisation.

Royal ceremony in practice served purposes that were potentially incompatible, because it made the sovereign visible to men at the same time that it distanced him. Jonathan Goldberg emphasizes the contradictions of such performances: "what the sovereign displays in public [is] his own unobservability, observed in his spectacles."29 In Goldberg's view, royal pageantry retains an aura of ritual mystery and limited accessibility. On its stage, the monarch is inscrutable, standing "not as an actor but as a spectacle . . . distinguished . . . by his penetrating glance, and by his invisibility and his obscurity."30 By contrast, the theater provided a place

where the audience saw kings treading the stage, where the public assembled to see itself. The theater, that tragic scaffold, was a place for self-knowledge precisely because its re-presentation duplicated public life. It is there that Renaissance man went to know himself.31

The risk was that, presented on the common stage, the monarch became too visible and too commonplace. A desire to prevent this overexposure and demystification of majesty was probably a factor in those commands forbidding "that princes should be played on the stage in their lifetime."32

The dangers of overexposure became apparent even in plays that celebrated a monarch's rule. As nostalgia for the good old days of good Queen Bess flourished under James, several plays reenacted the pageantry and events of Tudor history. The implicitly critical contrast between the two regimes proved less disturbing to some than the staging of royal pageantry in a public theater. In his description of Henry VIII, Sir Henry Wotton complained that the

many extraordinary circumstances of pomp and majesty .. . the knights of the Order with their Georges and Garter, the Guards with their embroidered coats and the like [were] sufficient in truth within a while to make greatness very familiar, if not ridiculous.33

Wotton's description focuses on the splendid costumes and insignia of the royal retinue. Many of these outfits were undoubtedly obtained through the Revels Office, which frequently gave clothing from the royal wardrobe as payment to the actors' companies. This policy of "translation" made profitable use of outfits no longer "serviceable," some of them passed on because "to moche knowen."34 Wotton's misgivings suggest some of the troubling consequences of this otherwise perfectly sensible displacement. Within the court, the rites and accoutrements of royal ceremony could inspire awe and sustain distance between subject and sovereign. Translated to the common stage and repeated daily by common players, these ceremonious forms lost their singularity and became "to moche knowen."35

These same risks are still more obvious in Thomas Heywood's If You Know Not Me, You Know Nobody.

The play's first half reenacts the coronation of Mary, whose reign is dominated by murderous bishops and friars, bent on securing their hold on power and doing away with Elizabeth. Their chicanery is defeated by Elizabeth's accession. Following her civic progress, the new queen simply accepts the regalia from her temporal peers, dispensing with the bishops and their rituals. If You Know Not Me perpetuates and embellishes many of the myths of Elizabethan propaganda. Its title and title page with its stereotyped engraving of an instantly recognizable personage project an image of a monarch well known to all her subjects and to Englishmen of all ages. Yet even as Hey wood's play perpetuates the cult of Elizabeth, it also reveals some of its problems, particularly in the action of the second half, which features an encounter between Queen Elizabeth, Thomas Gresham, her finance minister, and a comical sidekick named Hobson. Hobson is the epitome of brusque, bourgeois common sense, and, when the queen fails to recognize him, he applies the titular phrase to himself, exclaiming:

Knowest thou not me Queene? then thou knowest no body.
Bones a me Queen. I am Hobson . . . I am sure you know me

When she still does not know him, Gresham interjects that "He is a rich substantiall Citizen" and Hobson blurts out:

Bones a me woman send to borrow money
Of one you do not know, there's a new trick:
Your Grace sent to me by a Pursuevant
And by a Priuie Seale to lend your Highnesse
An hundred pound: I hearing that my Queene
Had need of money, and thinking you had known me,
Would needes vpon the bearer force two hundred. 36

The queen graciously thanks him and then proceeds to knight Gresham and dedicate the royal exchange.

Amidst the stylized artifice of an actual civic progress, the dialogue between subject and sovereign was carefully controlled. Here, on the public stage, these authoritarian controls and the ceremonial distance between subject and sovereign were partially diminished, despite the efforts of the censors. The inherent vulgarity and levelling tendencies of the public theater were recognized and deplored by an aristocrat like Sir Philip Sidney, who condemned its "mongrel tragicomedy" for "mingling kings and clowns" and then thrusting in these "clowns by head and shoulders, to play a part in majestical matters with neither decency nor discretion."37If You Know Not Me confirms Sidney's worst fears: Hobson's presumptuous bluster insists with insulting accuracy on the queen's debts and her dependence on her common subjects. The playwright's treatment of Elizabeth, however positive, is no less impertinent, and one can see why this play would not have been tolerated during her lifetime. As Stephen Orgel says of Jonson's Every Man Out of His Humor, the play "overstepped its bounds, making the monarch subject to the whim of the playwright."38

There is still another, graver risk attached to the displacement of royal ceremony on to the public stage. This is the "ultimate danger" inherent in all ceremonies, according to the anthropologists Sally Moore and Barbara Meyerhoff:

the possibility that we will encounter ourselves making up our conception of the world, society, our very selves. We may slip in that fatal perspective of recognizing culture as our construct, arbitrary, conventional, invented by mortals. Ceremonies are paradoxical in this way. Being the most obviously contrived forms of social contact, they epitomize the made-up quality of culture and almost invite notice as such. Yet their very form and purpose is to discourage untrammeled inquiry into such questions.39

Shakespeare's later histories, written near the end of Elizabeth's reign, enforce this heightened awareness. Ceremony is a central preoccupation in these plays. Nearly every scene in Shakespeare's Henriad undercuts the majesty of royal ceremony in subtle but unsettling ways, exposing its "made-up quality" and the void behind its illusions.40

Upon his return to his kingdom, Richard II proclaims his belief in his own sacramental invulnerability with majestic assurance:

Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm off from an anointed king
The breath of worldly men cannot depose
The deputy elected by the Lord;
For every man that Bullingbrook hath press'd
To lift shrewd steel against our golden crown
God for his Richard hath in heavenly pay
A glorious angel; then if angels fight,
Weak men must fall, for heaven still guards the right.41

Richard's belief in the sufficiency of sacred unction, the "golden crown," and the divine right of English kingship is swiftly shattered by his abrupt and ignominious defeat. His disillusion is painful and absolute because what had been everything becomes nothing: the regalia, a "hollow crown," and royal ceremony, a macabre farce in death's court (Richard II. 3.2.160-70). He bitterly enjoins his rebellious subjects to "throw away respect / Tradition, form, and ceremonious duty" (Richard II. 3.2.172-73), but they refuse to obey even this command for their own ulterior motives. First, the rebels require his formal self-deposition, and Richard obliges them, unable to resist the chance for a ceremonial grand finale. Secondly, "tradition, form and ceremonious duty," though insufficient in themselves, are still necessary to the usurper's own accession and rule.

The actual Henry IV "had himself anointed with the sacred oil which Thomas Becket was supposed to have received from the Virgin" in order to enhance his shaky legitimacy, and its "propaganda value" may have been as important to him as the oil's miraculous origins.42 Shakespeare's Henry IV is more explicitly pragmatic in his manipulation of the rites of royalty. As James Calderwood explains, Henry does not jettison "the panoply of ritual, ceremony, and verbal display with which Richard girded kingship;" instead, he exploits it "with a clear awareness that it is a means and not an end. . . . Bolingbroke's plays of state are directed exclusively to an audience of men, not God."43 He also uses ceremony to ingratiate himself with the groundlings, while still dazzling them from a distance. Noting how Bullingbrook doffs "his bonnet to an oyster-wench" in "his courtship to the common people," Richard enviously concedes the effectiveness of these theatrics even as he sneers at their falseness (Richard II. 1.4.31 and 24):

How he did seem to dive into their hearts
With humble and familiar courtesy,
What reverence he did throw away on slaves,
Wooing poor craftsmen with the craft of smiles.

(Richard IL 1.4.25-28)

At the same time that he courts popularity, Bullingbrook tries to preserve royalty's ceremonial mystique. As he later tells Hal:

Thus did I keep my person fresh and new,
My presence, like a robe pontifical,
Ne'er seen but wond'red at, and so my state,
Seldom but sumptuous, show'd like a feast,
And wan by rareness such solemnity.

(1 Henry IV 3.2.55-59)

Henry realizes the dangers of overexposure: the royal presence like the robes of state can become "to moche knowen."

Henry's public performances closely resemble Elizabeth's civic theatricals. With both rulers, the same illusion of warmth and spontaneity, of intimate connection with the lowliest "oyster-wench," is conveyed by their passages among the people; during her civic progress, Elizabeth "gentlie receiued presentes offered by base and low personages."44 Yet the sense of intimate connection is projected from an immense distance, and the monarch usually has the last word in these artfully regulated dialogues. Joseph Porter describes the exchange well when he calls it a "genuine interaction controlled entirely by the king;" in the Henriad, Henry's subjects resemble, as Porter says, "those model children who speak when spoken to."45 A similar interaction occurs at the beginning of Elizabeth's civic progress, when the noise of the crowd drowned out the speech of the official vox populi, a small boy deputed to explain the first pageant's meaning. Before she proceeded further, Elizabeth sent a resonant double message ordering "all the other pageants to require the people to be silent for her majestie was disposed to heare all that should be said unto her."46

The problem with Henry IV's "plays of state" is that too many of his subjects see through them and through him. Indeed, once he obtains the throne, the aims and the artifice of his ceremonial pretensions become even more obvious. Yet, for all his shrewd cynicism, Henry succumbs to pathetic hypocrisy, making the same accusations against his enemies that Richard made against him. His spokesman chastens the rebels for their "stand against anointed majesty," but Hotspur coldly rebukes such flagrant sanctimony:

The King is kind, and well we know the King
Knows at what time to promise, when to pay.
My father and my uncle and myself
Did give him that same royalty he wears.

(1 Henry IV. 4.3.52-55)

Henry's subjects know him all too well, and their familiarity undermines all his efforts to preserve the mystified distance of "anointed majesty." Indeed, Hotspur explicitly recalls the "covenant" Bullingbrook made in Richard II (2.3.50) with those who welcomed him home from exile and pledged to join him in treason. Then he vouched that "All my treasury / Is yet but unfelt thanks, which more enrich'd / Shall be your love and labor's recompense" (Richard II. 2.3.60-62). Hotspur subsequently sneers at Henry's claims to sacramental supremacy and insists on his debts and dependence. His claim to "know the King" is a more hostile version of Hobson's impertinent familiarity with Elizabeth in If You Know Not Me but here the reciprocal "covenant" between sovereign and subject leads not to the jocular banter of Hobson or the autocratic stability of Hobbes—but to threats of blackmail and rebellion.

Hal surpasses his father because he places himself beyond all such covenants and all familiarity. He secretly vows to "pay the debt I never promised" and can say to his confederates "I know you all," while no one knows him (1 Henry IV. 1.2.209 and 195). Indeed, upon his accession, he uses the ceremonial forms and guises of majesty to thwart knowledge of his character and claims upon his person. Confidently assuming the "new and gorgeous garment, majesty," he assures all that he will "deeply put the fashion on / And wear it in my heart" (2 Henry IV. 5.2.44 and 51-52). On returning from his coronation, Hal says to Falstaff, "I know thee not . . . Presume not that I am the thing I was" (2 Henry IV 5.5.56).

Hal's mastery of his sovereign role also derives paradoxically from his profound skepticism toward its pretensions. That skepticism pervades the Henriad, but it achieves its sharpest expression in Henry V. In that play, the chorus simultaneously deflates and inflates the illusions of both the theater and the state, apologizing for the "flat unraised spirits that hath dar'd / On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth / So great an object" (Henry V. Prologue 9-11) while urging us to "mind true things by what their mockeries be" (Henry V. 4.Cho.53). The second part of Henry IV concludes with Hal's coronation, a solemnity we do not see, but we do witness an oddly somber mockery of that event when Hal crowns himself prematurely beside his father's sick bed. The dying king awakens and bitterly rebukes him: "For now a time is come to mock at form. Harry the Fift is crown'd! Up, vanity! / Down, royal state!" (2 Henry IV. 4.5.118-20). Here we see another way in which Hal surpasses his father, for he succumbs to none of majesty's illusions. In Henry V, he realizes the unsettling truth suggested by the chorus: mocking at form is finally redundant, because all forms, no matter how solemn, are mockeries, desacrilized representations of truth and power.

That view receives its clearest expression in Hal's only soliloquy in Henry V, his desolate address to "thou idol Ceremony" on the eve of Agincourt:

What infinite heart's ease
Must kings neglect, that private men enjoy!
And what have kings, that privates have not too,
Save ceremony, save general ceremony?
And what art thou, thou idol Ceremony?
What kind of god art thou, that suffer'st more
Of mortal griefs than do thy worshippers?
What are thy rents? What are thy comings-in?
O Ceremony, show me but thy worth!
What is thy soul of [adoration]?
Art thou aught else but place, degree, and form,
Creating awe and fear in other men?

(Henry V. 4.1.236-47)

Henry's sumptuously detailed inventory of his regalia dismisses all these accoutrements as components of a "proud dream" that prevents sleep:

No, thou proud dream,
That play'st so subtilly with a king's repose,
I am a king that find thee; and I know
'Tis not the balm, the sceptre, and the ball,
The sword, the mace, the crown imperial,
The intertissued robe of gold and pearl,
The farced title running 'fore the king,
The throne he sits on, not the tide of pomp
That beats upon the high shore of this world—
No, not all these, thrice-gorgeous ceremony,
Not all these, laid in bed majestical,
Can sleep so soundly as the wretched slave.

(Henry V. 4.1.257-68)

Hal exposes an obvious but still disturbing secret of state. The rites of "anointed majesty" have no sacramental efficacy or "soul of adoration," nor are they divinely sanctioned. Up to a point, these sentiments echo the moderate Protestantism of Archbishop Cranmer, who preached at Edward VI's coronation that the

solemn rites of coronation have their ends and utility, yet neither direct force or necessity: they be good admonitions to put kings in mind of their duty to God, but no increasement of their dignity.47

Earlier, Cranmer advised Henry VIII that ceremonies

ought neither to be rejected, nor yet to be observed with this opinion, that they of themselves make men holy, or that they remit sin . . . not the laws and ceremonies of the church at their first making were devised for that intent . . . but for a common commodity, and for a good order and quietness among your subjects.48

However, Hal's speech moves beyond Cranmer's pragmatic traditionalism toward Puritan iconoclasm in its use of the provocative word "idol." Radical Puritans saw ceremony as a form of idolatry, "creating awe and fear in other men" and enslaving them through its mystifications. They deplored what Cranmer endorsed—its subtle capacity to keep subjects in thrall—and they regarded its affirmations of "place, degree, and form" not as a means to "good order and quietness," but as a fraudulent imposition. Shakespeare's startling exposition of sovereignty's mystifications may have caused its suppression. Like the deposition scene of Richard II, it was omitted from contemporary printed versions.49

The impact of both scenes is, nevertheless, more poignant than directly subversive, illuminating the pathos of sovereignty even as it exposes the artifice of its impostures. Shrewder than Richard and less susceptible to histrionics, Henry yearns to escape for a moment from ceremonial deception. He is well positioned to see through it ("I am a king that find thee") and exempt from the "awe and fear" engendered in other men. His soliloquy allows us to share in his privileged perspective and provides, momentarily, one of those "intimations .. . of a release from the complex narrative orders in which everyone is inscribed."50 When Hal first assumed the "gorgeous garment, majesty" he eagerly embraced the responsibilities that accompanied it: "I'll be your father and your brother too / Let me but bear your love, I'll bear your cares" (2 Henry IV. 5.2.57-58). Now he wants to put aside the mantle and the burdens of sovereignty: "I think the king is but a man as I am. . . . His ceremonies laid by, in his nakedness he appears but a man" (Henry V. 4.1:101-05).51

He is, of course, incognito when he makes this confession of his common humanity, and he finally never puts his disguise aside.52 Williams's subsequent reproach confirms this on several levels: "Your majesty came not like yourself (Henry V. 4.8.50). During their encounter, the king's two bodies were both hidden from sight, the physical by the night's darkness and the political by his lowly disguise. The charge also rings true at a more basic level. Henry can never appear as himself, despite his professed desire to do so, nor can any of the successful monarchs depicted in the histories: as A. P. Rossiter sardonically remarks: "By and by he will 'be more himself.' Hal says it; Father says it. None does it."53 Both the role and its disguises prove inescapable and Henry grudgingly submits to majesty's "hard condition": "We must bear all" (Henry V. 4.1.223). Indeed, for the remainder of the play, Henry immediately pulls back from the unsettling depths of his soliloquy, seeking to renew his fraternal connection with others in battle by promising that "he to-day that sheds his blood with me / Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile" (Henry V. 4.3.60-62). Public confidence in his own sovereignty is renewed by his conquest of France and his enforced dynastic marriage. Critics of the play still argue over the success of these solutions, but, for many, Henry's triumphs are still haunted by the doubts and misgivings of his soliloquy.54 In that speech, Henry regards his submission to the role and rites of majesty as an exercise in futility and he despairs over amending "the fault / My father made in compassing the crown" (Henry V. 4.2.293-94). His profound skepticism toward ceremony extends to the penitential prayers sung by "sad and solemn priests" in chantries that he built and will continue to support: "More will I do; / Though all that I can do is nothing worth" (Henry V. 4.1.300-03).

Shakespeare's later histories coincided with the decline of the cult of Elizabeth, and the last one came on the very eve of the event that precipitated its collapse: the return against orders of the earl of Essex, "the general of our gracious Empress . . . from Ireland coming" (Henry V. 5.cho.30-31), not, as the chorus anticipates, in triumph over rebellion. Her cult was, as I said earlier, an essentially theatrical enterprise in which secular ceremony affirmed royal authority more effectively than sacred ritual. It flourished as long as Elizabeth's authority remained firm. However, as she grew older and her authority was challenged by a faction of increasingly unruly subjects, the artifice of her cult became more brittle and transparent.55 The earl of Cumberland, her designated champion in the Accession Day Tilts had to be "forced to joust" in 1602, and certain members of the Inns of Court refused to join in the revels traditionally staged for her pleasure.56 She had difficulty assembling a suitable entourage for her summer progress of 1600, and, according to one contemporary, "she had just cause to be offended that at her remove to this place she was soe poorely attended, for I never saw such a dearth of nobility."57 Most insulting of all were the theatricals staged during the Essex conspiracy. She who had once triumphed by her passage through London's streets found herself mocked by a tragedy "played forty times in open street and houses": "I am Richard II. Know ye not that?"58

Elizabeth overcame defeat and deposition, the most humiliating aspects of Richard's fate, but the pathos of his disillusion and the play's mockery of "tradition, form, and ceremonious duty" must have been galling, as some of her own subjects let these fall into neglect and worse. There is a terrible pathos in her final efforts to sustain the cult's illusions through her wigs, garish make-up, and increasingly threadbare "love tricks." Her "golden speech" to parliament was perhaps an exception to this decline, for, after receiving a delegation at Whitehall, she deployed her familiar phrases and conceits on a somewhat less jaded audience, but, at times, even she despaired of these pretenses. When one of the ladies at a wedding masque in 1600 asked her to dance, claiming to represent Affection, Elizabeth replied "Affection is false."59 The official portraits of her last years were perhaps more successful than were courtly performances at sustaining the old illusions, for the face they present to the world is increasingly youthful, even ageless, and the figure is heavily encrusted with the mystical trappings of majesty.60 Yet even here a poignant irony intrudes. One of the last suggests a reversion to a sacramental idea of kingship. The coronation portrait that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery has been shown to have been painted sometime near the end of her reign, possibly even afterward, but it depicts her reign's beginning.61 It shows her as a young woman clinging to "the sceptre, and the ball" and vested in "the crown .. . [and] intertissued robe of gold and pearl." It is an icon of that once obscure and subordinate rite, her coronation.


1 Percy Ernest Schramm, A History of the English Coronation, trans. L. G. W. Legg (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1937), 7-9, and Janet L. Nelson, "Inauguration Rituals," Early Medieval Kingship, ed. P. H. Sawyer and J. N. Woods (1977; rpt. Leeds: University of Leeds Press, 1979), 62. For a discussion of the somewhat ambiguous sacramental status of the coronation and the power struggle between clergy and royalty, see Marc Bloch, The Royal Touch, trans. J. E. Anderson (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973), 113-14.

2 The text of the ordo is reproduced by Anne F. Sutton and P. W. Hammond in The Coronation of Richard III (Gloucester: Alan Sutton, 1983).

3Calendar of State Papers, Venetian, 7 (1558-1580), ed. Rawdon Brown and G. Cavendish Bentinck (London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1890), 2. To confirmed Protestants, the elevation of the host was the essence of Popish idolatry.

4 C. G. Bayne reproduces and discusses the three extant accounts of the event in "The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth," English Historical Review 22 (1907): 650-73. For a discussion of the confusing records of Elizabeth's coronation and the subsequent historical controversy, see my '"The Wonderfull Spectacle' and Obscure Ordo of Elizabeth's Coronation" (forthcoming).

5Calendar of State Papers, Spanish, I (1558-67), ed. Martin A. S. Hume (London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1892-99), 25. Newly consecrated monarchs could receive communion "in both kinds" as an indication of their sacerdotal status, since this was a privilege separating the clergy from the laity. See Marc Bloch, The Royal Touch, 120.

6 Bayne, "The Coronation of Elizabeth I" (1907), 661.

7 H. A. Wilson, "The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth," English Historical Review 23 (1908): 87-91. Bayne subsequently changed his mind, partly as a result of Wilson's article, concluding that Elizabeth's chaplain probably did say Mass and that Elizabeth remained for the service. See Bayne's "The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth," English Historical Review 24 (1909): 322-23. See also William P. Haugaard, "The Coronation of Elizabeth I," Journal of Ecclesiastical History 19 (1968): 161-70.

8Acts of the Privy Council, n.s. 2 (1547-50), ed. John Roche Dasent (London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1890), 33. For a description of Elizabeth's "princely travers sumptuously sett forthe" at a later Easter service, see E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage, 4 vols. (1923; reprint, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1951), 3: 27. When Richard III and his queen received communion after his coronation, two bishops "held before them a long towel of white silk to shield them from the gaze of the congregation" (Sutton and Hammond, Coronation of Richard III, 42).

9 Public Record Office, State Papers Domestic, Elizabeth I, 68.

10 Bayne, "The Coronation of Elizabeth I" (1909), 322-33, and A. F. Pollard, "The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth," English Historical Review 25 (1910): 125-26. Her remark was made in 1571 in the midst of marriage negotiations with Alençon's representatives. It is probably just as dubious as several other claims made during that campaign of diplomatic deception, and Haugaard's suspicions of its accuracy seem justified (166). While the remark's value as evidence is as limited as all the other conflicting claims about what happened at the coronation, it is a good indication of Elizabeth's attitude toward the rites.

11 Patrick Collinson discusses the reaction of the Genevan exiles in The Elizabethan Puritan Movement (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1967), 31.

12 Jonathan Goldberg, James I and the Politics of Literature (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983), 31 and 39.

13 See Hobsbawm's introduction to The Invention of Tradition, ed. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983). David Cannadine's excellent essay on the very successful ceremonial adaptations of Victoria and her modern successors, "The Context, Performance, and Meaning of Ritual: The British Monarch and the 'Invention of Tradition,' c. 1820-1977" in the same collection, 101-OS, offers intriguing parallels to Elizabeth's ceremonial exercises in public relations.

14The Quenes Maiesties Passage through the Citie of London to Westminster the Day before her Coronacion, ed. James M. Osborn (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960), 46-47.

15 See Raymond Firth who contends that "Ceremony [is] . . . enforced by mystical sanctions," in Tikopia Ritual and Belief '(London: Allen and Unwin, 1967), n. 2, 33, and Max and Mary Gluckmans who assert that ritual invokes occult powers while ceremony is secular, in their essay "On Drama, and Games and Athletic Contests" in Secular Ritual, ed. Sally F. Moore and Barbara G. Meyerhoff (Assen/Amersterdam: Van Gorcum, 1977), 231-34. They argue that the course and outcome of a ritual is "prescribed and predetermined . . . and conformity to rule and tradition is important;" ceremonies are more improvisational and open-ended (239). Ritual fixity can be exaggerated, and the distinction can become too rigid. Rituals must be relatively flexible for both formal and functional reasons. There are simple mechanical obstacles to unvarying transmission discussed by Richard A. Jackson in a paper presented to the International Conference on Medieval and Early Modern Coronations, Toronto, 31 January-2 February, 1985. See also his Vive le Roi: A History of the French Coronation from Charles V to Charles X (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984). Since many rituals are intended to negotiate conflicts arising at society's liminal stresspoints, they must also allow for flexibility, as Victor Turner has shown; see especially his Drama, Fields and Metaphors (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1974), 13-15. Richard Trexler's emphasis on the "relative fixity" and "ecologically adaptive" nature of ritual is useful as well; see his Public Life in Renaissance Florence (New York: Academic Press, 1980), xxiv.

16 Schramm, History of the English Coronation, 93 and 10.

17 David Bergeron, "Elizabeth's Coronation Entry (1559): New Manuscript Evidence," English Literary Renaissance 8 (1978): 3-8.

18The Quenes Maiesties Passage, 48, 62, and 36, 37 respectively.

19Passage, 27.

20Passage, 28.

21 In his introduction to the facsimile text, J. E. Neale explains that the Tudor civic progress "became increasingly important until with Queen Elizabeth, it was finally transformed into an occasion in its own right—a popular and secular companion for the subsequent solemn sacrament worthy of commemoration, as commemorated it was, in print" Passage, 7. Yet even Neale underestimates the impact of the progress and publication, because they were more than mere companions. The civic progress became the central event, reducing the vexatious coronation to an obscure sideshow whose troublesome irregularities have faded from sight and mind.

22 These drawings are included in British Museum Egerton MS 3320 and College of Arms MS M6.

23 College of Arms MS M6 fol. 86v. There is also a marginal note on fol. 46, "At the parlement the Trompettes take ther place." The more finished of these two sets of drawings resembles drawings of Elizabethan tournaments included in the same manuscript collection. I have discussed this small anthology of chivalric texts and drawings elsewhere, arguing that they were compiled by the herald Robert Cooke, a protégé of Robert Dudley as a gift to his patron. See my "From the Tower to the Tiltyard: Robert Dudley's Return to Glory," The Historical Journal 27 (1984): 425-35. The drawings of the civic progress in which Dudley figured prominently as master of the horse would have been a handsome tribute to both the queen and her favorite. The more traditional ecclesiastical procession was dominated by the older aristocratic families, and Dudley had no special place in it.

24 As a result of these distortions, the sacred and secular processions have become confused in modern accounts of Elizabeth's coronation and our recollection of the event. James Osborn, the modern editor of The Quenes Maiesties Passage, reproduces a portion of the Egerton manuscript illustration of the civic progress on the cover and as the frontispiece of the facsimile text. The note says that "the drawing depicts the Queen in her litter on the way from Whitehall to her coronation at Westminster . . . on Sunday, 15 January, the day following her passage through the City of London." The queen actually proceeded from Westminster Hall (not Whitehall) on 15 January, and the dignitaries and their order of precedence in the second day's procession were very different from the first. See Neville Williams, "The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth," Quarterly Review 291 (1953): 397-410, especially 402-06.

25 See Frances A. Yates, Astraea: The Imperial Theme in the Sixteenth Century (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975) and Roy Strong, The Cult of Elizabeth: Elizabethan Portraiture and Pageantry (London: Thames and Hudson, 1977).

26 Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 230; see also 166-68.

27 According to Sutton and Hammond, The Coronation of Richard HI, the "devaluation" of the coronation had been a trend since the twelfth century, since kings began dating their reigns not "from their coronation and unction but from the day of their accession" around that time (n. 21, 6).

28 Chambers, Elizabethan Stage, 1:17-18. The change in schedule from day to night might have been designed to enhance the theatrical impact of these later passages (as well as concealing the changes wrought by age), for as Bishop Goodman says of an equally impressive appearance by the Queen, "shows and pageants are best seen by torchlight" (quoted by Greenblatt, Self-Fashioning, 167).

29 Goldberg, James I, 150. See also Anne Barton Righter's explanation of royal ceremony that simultaneously distances kings from their subjects while allowing an "outward expression of authority. . . .

Through form and tradition, a splendor of ritual and dress, and all those accustomed rites of obeisance and fealty, the nature of kingship is made visible to men" in Shakespeare and the Idea of the Play (London: Chatto and Windus, 1962), 114.

30 Goldberg, James I, n. 37, 271.

31 Goldberg, James I, 150.

32 Chambers, Elizabethan Stage, 1:328.

33 The letter is quoted by Herschel Baker in his introduction to Henry VIII in The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. B. Blackmore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), 976.

34 Chambers, Elizabethan Stage, 1:76.

35 In his essay entitled "Making Greatness Familiar," Stephen Orgel elaborates on Wotton's apprehensions, noting that "to mime nobility on the stage was to diminish it," because, as Wotton realized, such familiarity could easily breed contempt, Genre 15 (1982): 47.

36 Thomas Heywood, If You Know Not Me You Know Nobody, 2 vols. (Oxford: Malone Society Reprints, 1934-35), 2: fol. H. lv.

37 Sir Philip Sidney, An Apology for Poetry, ed. Geoffrey Shepherd (1965; rpt. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1973), 135.

38 Orgel, "Making Greatness Familiar," 45.

39 Moore and Meyerhoff, "Introduction: Secular Ritual: Forms and Meanings," Secular Ritual, 18.

40 W. Gordon Zeeveld, The Temper of Shakespeare's Thought (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974), 68. Zeeveld's first chapter is devoted to a thoughtful and historically informed discussion of ceremony in the history plays. See also Alvin B. Kernan, "The Henriad: Shakespeare's Major History Plays," in Modern Shakespeare Criticism, ed. Alvin B. Kernan (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1970), 245-75, and Eric LaGuardia, "Ceremony and History: The Problem of Symbol from Richard II to Henry V" in Pacific Coast Studies in Shakespeare, ed. Waldo F. McNeir and Thelma N. Greenfield (Eugene: University of Oregon Press, 1966), 68-88.

41 Richard II, 3.2.54-62. All references are to The Riverside Shakespeare, hereafter cited in the text.

42 J. W. McKenna, "The Coronation Oil of the Yorkist Kings," English Historical Review 82 (1967): 102.

43 James L. Calderwood, Shakespeare Metadrama (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1971), 182.

Cf. Herbert Coursen's assertion that "ritual becomes the invention of men. . . . Ritual will no longer be the transmitter of deeper spiritual mysteries as it was in the world John of Gaunt recalls" in Christian Ritual and the World of Shakespeare's Tragedies (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1976), 86-87.

44Passages, 62.

45 Joseph A. Porter, The Drama of Speech Acts; Shakespeare 's Lancastrian Tetralogy (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1979), 61-62.

46Passages, 36-37.

47 John Strype, Memorials of Archbishop Cranmer, 2 vols. (Oxford: Ecclesiastical Historical Society, 1848), 2:8.

48 Thomas Cranmer, Miscellaneous Writings and Letters, ed. John Edmund Cox, Parker Society Publications (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1846), 326-27.

49 Zeeveld, Shakespeare's Thought, 67.

50 Greenblatt, Self-Fashioning, 254. Greenblatt's subtle analysis of these equivocal intimations in Shakespeare is very persuasive, but I think he exaggerates when he concludes that "such a revelation scarcely matters" (253). If that were true in this case, the text would not have been suppressed.

51 Significantly, his effort to evade these burdens begins with a rejection of fraternity, as he dismisses Erpingham and Gloucester, "brothers both": "Go with my brothers to my lords of England / I and my bosom must debate a while / And then I would no other company" (Henry V. 4.1.30-32).

52 In her discussion of the disguised king motif, Anne Barton remarks that "most Elizabethan dramatists seem to have accepted the idea that disguise was an essential prerequisite for the ease and success of the meeting between private men and king. Only if the king's identity was concealed could there be a natural conversation, frankness, and a sense of rapport," in "The King Disguised: Shakespeare's Henry V and the Comical History" in The Triple Bond: Plays Mainly Shakespearean in Performance, ed. Joseph G. Price (University Park: Penn State University Press, 1975), 98. Henry's disguises thwart rapport in Shakespeare's ironic treatment of this motif, and the king "falls into a series of nonencounters, meetings in which the difficulty of establishing understanding between subject and king is stressed." (99).

53 A. P. Rossiter, Angels With Horns, ed. Graham Story (New York: Theatre Arts Book, 1961), 63.

54 E.g., Una Ellis-Fermor's conclusion that "Henry V has transformed himself into a public figure. . . . It is in vain that we look for the personality behind the king; there is nothing else there" in The Frontiers of Drama (1945; rpt. London: Methuen and Co., 1964), 45, versus Gary Taylor's assertion that "the final scene of the play is a consummation of union, political and personal" reconciling Henry's "political and his private selves, the king's two bodies" in his introduction to the Oxford Henry F (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), 46.

55 For a discussion of the strains on the cult of Elizabeth in its final decade, see my "'A Dangerous Image': The Earl of Essex and Elizabethan Chivalry," The Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 13 (1983): 313-29.

56 Strong, Cult of Elizabeth, 136, and Philip J. Finkelpearl, John Marston of the Middle Temple: An Elizabethan Dramatist in His Social Setting (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1969), 65.

57 Rowland White to Sir Robert Sydney, 2 August 1600, Penhurst Manuscripts, 6 vols., ed. C. L. Kings-ford (London: His Majesty's Stationery Office, 1934), 2: 475.

58 See the Arden Shakespeare's Richard II, ed. Peter Ure (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1956), lvii lxii. Orgel and Greenblatt each discuss this incident in their respective essays in the special issue of Genre 15 (1982): 3-6 and 41-48, respectively.

59 J. E. Neale, Elizabeth I (1934; reprint, Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor, 1957), 383 and 400-01.

60 See for example the Rainbow Portrait. Roy Strong discusses what he terms "the retreat from reality" and "the mask of youth" in the later portraits in Artists of the Tudor Court (London: Thames and Hudson, 1983), 126-32.

61 See John Fletcher, "The Date of the Portrait of Elizabeth I in her Coronation Robes," Burlington Magazine 120 (1978): 753. The portrait had been regarded until recently as "contemporary with the Coronation itself," but tree-ring analysis of the panel backing it established that it dates from 1600-1610. "Historical evidence suggests that the events connected with Elizabeth's elaborate funeral in April 1603 might have provided the purpose for this large painting and that it could have been intended to remind one of her 'Second Coronation' after her ascent from earth to heaven" (753). For a detailed comparison of this portrait with the earlier Hilliard miniature and other portraits, see Janet Arnold, "The 'Coronation' Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I" in the same issue of the Burlington Magazine, 727-41.

Richard F. Hardin (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "Shakespeare: Liberty and Idol Ceremony," in Civil Idolatry: Desacralizing and Monarchy in Spencer, Shakespeare, and Milton, Associated University Presses, 1992, pp. 124-63.

[In the following excerpt, Hardin studies the thematic links between ceremony and proper rulership in the Henriad.]


Arguing that in Shakespeare scholarship "the ideas of the time have become a club with which to clobber the character," Richard Levin has offered a worthy refutation of many thematic "readings" of the plays. His case against academic nonsense can make anyone think twice before producing an interpretation of a play that depends on historical and intellectual backgrounds. Such readings, says Levin, "are all based upon the contention that the real meaning of the plays is wholly or largely determined by some component of the extradramatic background and can only be apprehended in relation to it." A good example is the old argument that King Lear commits a grievous sin against the Tudor concept of order in abdicating (once a king always a king). As Levin points out, this concept was by no means universally assumed, Charles V being a notable example of honorable abdication. Moreover, the horror of abdication is nowhere expressed in the play by the many characters who witness and comment upon Lear's giving up the throne.1

Two tests of thematic criticism are suggested here. One, related to studies of the "world picture," asks whether the idea being treated is truly widely held during the period in question. Another asks if the theme receives significant attention from characters and plot. Many thematic readings fail the first test rather badly. A collection of opinions from clergymen or government time-servers will be produced to make an apparently resounding case that Elizabethans believed, say, that meat was good for the liver; yet a collection just as large can be made for the opposite opinion. Did Elizabethans believe in ghosts—or, more to the point of my inquiry, did they believe in the divine right of kings or in the monarch's absolute power or in the rights of subjects to redress acts of tyranny? A wide range of contemporary opinions exists on these issues.

Theme need not be a play's raison d'etre, but in Julius Caesar and perhaps Richard II politics serve more than the nominal heroes to unify the whole.2 When Wilbur Sanders says that "Shakespeare has pondered the unproductive violence of political controversy in his age and has seen through it to the deeper issue it evades,"3 he means that for Shakespeare ideas, both false (the controversy) and true (the deeper issue) had consequences. It follows that the critic's task is in part to uncover that "horizon of already granted meanings and intentions"4 lying behind the play—always acknowledging that the discovery of meaning and the act of evaluation are two different critical procedures. This horizon is not propounded, it is already there; but it may seem quite foreign to a later audience. One domain of what is sometimes disparagingly called thematic criticism, then, is simply understanding the concepts in the characters' dianoia, regardless of whether they are imputed to the author. Recent attention to the theatricality of life in Shakespeare, whereby kings are actors, actors are kings (Calderwood, Goldberg, Greenblatt, and others) opens up new ways to think about the plays. But in Shakespeare's political plays the theater is a model for human life, vehicle not tenor. The dianoia of these plays offers not imitations of ideas but true ideas. If thematic criticism sometimes makes Shakespeare sound like a political commentator, it is because he was that, among other things. He comments, through dramatic incarnation, on monarchs pretending to divinity, avaricious noblemen, hypocritical old statesmen, stupid commoners, and on all the theories that each party constructs to justify its claim to exclusivity in the power struggle. These criticisms, for the most part denials, recur so often in Shakespeare's plays, and with less regularity in those of his contemporaries, that they must be attributed to Shakespeare's mind. This mind is often ironic, iconoclastic, as Sanders says, "agnostic" (p. 158). It is a useful thing, no doubt, to analyze Shakespeare's games and plots; but it is at least as worthwhile to sort out the icons and opinions that give rise to his denials.

In fact even the most committed antithematist cannot talk for long about the plays without introducing a theme. An approach that anticipates Levin's in many ways is that of S. C. Sen Gupta in his excellent book on the histories. "If, however, the plays are considered as plays," he writes, "it will appear very doubtful whether Shakespeare was primarily interested in propagating any particular political or moral idea." Yet he performs a number of historically based thematic readings, such as: "by making Richard [II] personally responsible for his disasters, Shakespeare seems to stress his independence of the medieval idea of tragedy, and show in the true Renaissance spirit that man is the architect of his fate and not a victim of the blind goddess of Fortune."5

Levin would agree with Sen Gupta that Shakespeare "was not a writer of homilies or of political history" (p. 28), as would any reasonable person. To pursue relentlessly the implications of the homilies against rebellion could end in the view that not only Julius Caesar and Henry IV but Dogberry and Elbow are the unimpeachable heroes of their plays, since all power, even a constable's, is from God. Yet against the wisdom of Ulysses on order and degree there is also that of "a dog's obeyed in office." What is there in the horizon of these two plays at their moment in history that makes the words of Ulysses or Lear exactly right? Or, to return to my own topic, why, on the night before the Battle of Agincourt, does Henry render his memorable soliloquy on kingship and ceremony? Henry V's soliloquy is the climax of the king-and-commoner dialectic of the Henriad—as Norman Rabkin says, "in some respects . . . the thematic climax of the entire tetralogy."6 This speech bears directly on this chapter, but adequate interpretation requires searching the horizons of the speech. These contain the whole play Henry V and the history plays leading up to it, especially Richard II, the one that most strikingly sets forth the issues of the soliloquy. Not to be excluded is Julius Caesar, a play written within a few months of Henry V, one that also contends with sovereignty and ceremony. Comparing Henry V with Caesar, John Anson says that the English ruler knows his greatness to be "an essentially social and ritualistic persona behind which there stands another private, corporeal being."7 The art of kingship lies in distinguishing between the king's two persons and in achieving, as Anson says, "a position from which he can oversee" both selves, private and public. Henry accomplishes this end, as Caesar does not, by liberating himself and his society from bondage to idol (therefore idle) ceremony.

Richard II

The idea of "the king's two bodies" can become one of those clubs to beat characters with that Levin so rightly complains of. As was said in the introduction, it is not supported by Richard II, and if it implies divine-right sovereignty of the sort that James I supposed, it scarcely conforms to monarchy as practiced in sixteenth-century England. As for that period's own perspective, writes Graham Holderness, Shakespeare "would have known the Middle Ages not as a period dominated by order, legitimacy and the undisputed sovereignty of a monarch sanctioned by Divine Right, but as a turbulent period dominated by a great and fundamental conflict, fought out again and again and rarely suppressed, between the power of the Crown, and the power of the feudal barons."8 Writing on this topic, an eminent English jurist has firmly, if unsubtly, called Richard II "a study in misgovernment, due to an over-exalted conception of the royal office by Richard, and an arbitrary disregard for the rights of subjects. The moral of it is as plain in the tragedy as in history. High-handed conduct, based on a conception of royal responsibility to God alone, is alien to the traditions of the English constitution."9 Only add that the play is a tragedy, not just a political drama, because the "misgovernment" occurs within the person as well as the realm of Richard. This double focus, inherited from morality-play conventions of the proud soul as world-king, results in a more human king, not a more godlike one. Colet or Erasmus would say, a more human king and therefore a more Godlike one—hence the parallels with Christ's passion that seem so baffling at the end of the play.

The first act of Richard II belies the smooth administration of ideal monarchical justice conducted in Spenser's Mercilla episode. Duessa's trial runs on a clear division of labor, with the knight-heroes and the court in pursuit of a just verdict, and the queen in her mercy-giving capacity somewhat aloof from the proceedings. Richard, however, is hopelessly entangled in the Mowbray-Bolingbroke dispute. Family ties blur the division between peerage and royalty, the accusations reflecting gravely on the honor of both estates. Holderness accurately observes that monarchy has simply failed to balance the power between itself and aristocracy (p. 51). In the speech beginning "Mowbray, impartial are our eyes and ears" (I.1.115), Richard tries to defend himself from suspicion of partiality; but his final sentencing of the combatants satisfies no one, least of all the audience, in its apparent inequity and bias. Richard will later exemplify the defects of divine-right political thought, but the first act indicates the equal perils of mixed monarchy in which the aristocracy shares power with the king. The difference between Richard's throne room and Mercilla's is that between historical and philosophical truth.

The atmosphere of this play breathes mistrust. The formality at Coventry implies not some golden age of well-ordered monarchy, but a guarded, apprehensive condition not unlike the fear that greets Henry V on first entering his throne room (2H4, V.2), fear that he must labor to dispel. At Coventry, in his increasing self-centeredness, Richard violates two principles sacred to the nobility: ceremony and time. The theme of time in the play is broached in the king's very first lines to "Old John of Gaunt, time-honored Lancaster." By the fifth act, Richard realizes his sins against time: "1 wasted time, and now doth time waste me" (V.5.49). Moving toward this realization, Richard hears York warn of his offense against aristocracy when the old duke says that to deprive Bolingbroke of his inheritance is to "take from Time / His charters and his customaryrights" (II. 1.195). Bolingbroke's refusal to throw down his gage lest he become "crestfallen" (I..1.188) puns on the fear that his name will fall to oblivion if he does not defend the honor of his ancient family. Manipulating time in the sentences and commutations, Richard behaves as if he transcends time like a god.

Richard is often identified with the ceremonies of monarchy, but he reserves ceremony for himself alone. His unthinking self-worship, like Lucifera's mirrorgazing, culminates in his self-identification as God's own child.10 Later he breaks this illusion of pomp in shattering his mirror. His most serious violations of form, of course, are legal: the farming of the realm and the expropriation of Gaunt's estate. But he shows heedlessness for form in the lists when he shatters the rites of combat. The structure of the scene highlights its ceremoniousness. First comes the marshal's questioning the pair (a "mere formality," as we would say, since audience and characters alike know the points at issue). There is a taboo in the warning that no one may touch the lists, followed by a leave-taking, the herald's challenges, and a trumpet call. At this moment Richard violates the sense of flow and inevitability by throwing down his ceremonial baton. Despite its deadly implications, the ritual until now has conveyed a certain confidence that things will be settled. Richard's gesture unnerves and exasperates everyone. From the participants' viewpoint, royal arrogance has usurped the sacred life-and-death rites of the aristocracy.

If there is no clear delineation of authority in this aristocratic monarchy, there is also no clear answer to the question who brings the king to justice when he commits acts of tyranny like those envisioned in Act II. Clearly the aristocracy cannot. Just before the great deposition scene of Richard II the assembled nobles burst into a series of charges and counter-charges. To Bagot's claim that Aumerle collaborated in Gloucester's murder, the latter convincingly asserts his innocence (IV. 1.20). No sooner has he spoken than Fitzwater throws down his guantlet in equally convincing testimony, saying Aumerle had admitted killing Gloucester, even bragged of it. Percy and another lord step in to take Fitzwater's side, whereupon the Duke of Surrey accuses Fitzwater of lying about Aumerle. Some hope of unscrambling this maze of accusations lies in Mowbray's expected return following the repeal of his exile, until we hear that Mowbray has died. No one can discern the truth. These events thrust us back to the opening scene of the play, when Bolingbroke and Mowbray contended over the same crime. Not only does the play never tell who killed Gloucester, but it leaves unresolved the quarrels over his murder, whether between Bolingbroke and Mowbray or among the assembly in Act IV. When Henry suspends the angry lords' challenges "under gage," he in effect does what Richard might have done to him and Mowbray in Act I, scene 1. For the same reason? Should Richard have done so? We do not know why either king acted as he did; we never know the truth behind the accusations.

When this scene is played—and it is often omitted in productions—the quarreling lords in Act IV must be acted as if each believes unreservedly in his own honesty, for such is the quality of their language in these impassioned denials and countercharges. The same is true of the Bolingbroke-Mowbray dispute: the audience must be utterly perplexed as to who is telling the truth. Their oaths are both sacred and serious. Bolingbroke swears by heaven,

for what I speak
My body shall make good upon this earth
Or my divine soul answer it in heaven.


as readily as Mowbray, who in the lists against Bolingbroke aims

by the grace of God and this mine arm,
To prove him, in defending of myself,
A traitor to my God, my king, and me;
And as I truly fight, defend me heaven!


Such is the confusing stuff of Richard II's world, which like that of other political tragedies by Shakespeare lacks any confirming center. This is the opacity of true history: contradictions, deceptions, rumors, without the certainty that any doubts can ever be cleared up. Parents betray children; religion is at best ineffective, more often a pretext for policy; dishonor, injustice, and fear are the real ruling powers. It is as if God had abandoned the body politic to the insatiable appetites of the powerful, as if the play began and ended in the middle of Macbeth.

In Act I, one effect of moving from the challenge to the formal ceremoniousness of the scene at the lists must be to baffle the audience with the question of Gloucester's murder, given further exposition in the intervening scene between Gaunt and the Duchess of Gloucester. Why, if Gaunt believes that "God's substitute," Richard, "Hath caused his death" (I.2.37) does he not follow his namesake in Woodstock and take up his dead brother's cause, vowing revenge? More to the point, why doesn't he use his knowledge to help his son's case against Mowbray? The Duchess could be right: Gaunt counsels patience when he means despair. Alternatively the truth may lie with Gaunt's self-justification, that the quarrel is God's alone: "for I may never lift an angry arm against his minister." If so, York may act from the same motive even in the end, when he races to Henry to tell him of his son's conspiracy. Surely the sycophantic behavior of York in Act V, knowing that his son has abandoned the conspiracy, yet urging Henry not to forgive him after the plot has been defused, makes self-interest a more likely motive than patriotism. The scene anticipates another betrayal of a family member to a usurper in King Lear, when Edmund says that "nature thus give way to loyalty" (III.5.2). Significantly, it is when the family of York has had its bonds of love thoroughly destroyed, and when the dignity of father, mother, and son has been irrevocably compromised by their bickering and groveling before Henry, that Henry's pardon receives the Duchess of York's thanks: "A god on earth thou art" (V.3.136). Rather than take this remark as indicating Henry's newly acquired regal dignity,11 perhaps we ought to see it as the pathetic self-abasement of an old nobility that has capitulated to usurpation, creating an idol-monarch. Does any audience see the scene with York, Aumerle, and the Duchess all cringing before Henry without at least some embarrassed laughter? The scene speaks for itself: it cannot communicate anything except complete loss of face. In the light of this scene, York's early indecision looks suspiciously like a failure of courage.12 Possibly Gaunt is cast from the same mold, so that his caution, too, is something less than wisdom.

Gaunt may seem a choric figure in the play, the confirming center that will reassure us as to the real meaning of events.13 The great speech on "this scept'red isle" in Act II scene I seems incontrovertible evidence of Gaunt's prophetic role. Yet other critics have seen this dying speech as a "vehement wish to dispossess Richard himself of his brithright," its patriotism quite aside.14 In Act I when Gaunt speaks to Gloucester's widow of Richard's complicity in murdering her husband, scholars used to see Gaunt as enunciating "official Tudor doctrine" on the sacredness of kings:

God's is the quarrel; for God's substitute,
His deputy anointed in his sight,
Hath caused his death; the which if wrongfully,
Let heaven revenge; for I may never lift
An angry arm against his minister.


If "God's substitute" does mean "king by divine right,"15 it does so not in the Jacobean sense, but in the general sense that legitimate power is from God. Yet religion serves politic ends admirably here, for Gaunt has done wonders with this little speech. He has guaranteed that people will know about Richard's guilt in Gloucester's murder, since Gloucester's angry widow is unlikely to keep his revelation in confidence. Appealing to heaven is also an eminently convenient way to get rid of an emotional duchess. To her anxious question, "Where then, alas, may I complain myself?" there is no safer, yet less satisfying rejoinder than, "to God, the widow's champion and defense." Gaunt will not be so quick to urge piety in the next scene, speaking to his banished son. This is not to say that Gaunt should have taken the duchess's part, only that his attitude in the scene bespeaks a cold detachment, something less than candor, and possibly an interest in using the widow's grief against the king. As for his coldness, or at least reticence, it may be relevant to add that in the entire scene Gaunt speaks sixteen lines against the duchess's fifty-eight. In summary, Gaunt's deference to "God's substitute" can be interpreted more as pretext than principle.

The world of Richard II resonates with deceiving voices; no one, not the king, not righteous old Gaunt, is above suspicion. Therefore, one cannot take the speeches of either as proof-texts of the play's advocating mystical kingship. As Levin tirelessly reminds us, no thematic statement should be viewed apart from the context of character and action, and context provides only limited help with Richard and Gaunt. At other moment in this play, however, an awareness of context will clarify the ethical direction of a scene. This is especially true of events that cast light on Bolingbroke's motives. What, for example, are we to think of Bolingbroke's assurances to York (II.3.113-36) that he has returned to England only to claim his inheritance, when he shortly lays claim to Richard's too?

An important instance of this kind is the trial of Bushy and Greene. Henry charges the two companions with having "misled a prince," having "Made a divorce betwixt his queen and him," and having "fed upon" Bolingbroke's own fortune by persuading the king to seize his estates (III. 1.7-27). The angry peer devotes by far the greatest part of his speech to injuries against himself, leaving the strong impression that he is acting as judge and jury in his own cause. In the light of his earlier claim that Bushy and Greene are "caterpillars of the commonwealth" (II.3.166), it is surprising that he says nothing here about their supposed corruption in public office. As to the first charge, nowhere does the play support the view that Bushy and Greene have mastery over the king—in this respect the contrast with Woodstock could not be greater. Bolingbroke's factor Northumberland first plants this rumor in the play ("The king is not himself, but basely led / By flatterers" II. 1.241). Richard makes his fatal decisions in Act I all on his own (e.g., the "farming" of the realm, which is wholly his idea, presented to Greene at I.4.42); his independence, indeed, is essential to his tragedy.

Bolingbroke's second accusation regarding the "divorce" carries a veiled reference to the homosexual reputation of Richard II as developed in Woodstock and the chronicles; but these implications are not in Shakespeare's play. If anything, Shakespeare's king resembles not the clothes-horse of Woodstock but the Richard of Drayton's Heroical Epistles, where his love for Isabel raises him to heroic stature. In fact the entirety of Act II, scene 2, in which Greene, Bagot, and Bushy console the queen, suggests amiable relations between the favorites and her.16 Clearly Bolingbroke has exploited Rumor, "the common liar," who will ever be in attendance once he has taken the throne.

A seemingly straightforward scene is that in which Richard utters his famous "doctrine" of divine right; but the irony here (III .2) is indicated in the immediate entry of Salisbury with news of the Welsh defection. Thus dispirited, Richard acts out a passage from the Vindiciae contra tyrannos: "Let the people forsake their king, he presently falls to the ground, although before, his hearing and sight seemed most excellent, and that he was strong and in the best disposition that might be; yea, that he seemed to triumph in all magnificence, yet in an instante he will become most vile and contempible" (p. 126). Here Shakeapeare probably meant Richard to sink down, for a few moments later when he says, "For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground / And tell sad stories of the death of kings" (lines 155-56), Richard is almost certainly sitting. This emblematic use of gesture occurs frequently in the play, as in the king's descent from the battlements to meet Bolingbroke. It was very likely a gesture inherited from the mystery plays centuries earlier, when Herod held his stage tantrum on hearing the Magi had escaped, or when he was taken by death. The same enacting of a king's "fall" occurs in The Spanish Tragedy when the Viceroy of Portugal hears of his overthrow (I.3.10), and of course at the end of Richard III

Richard II resembles Hamlet in its world of seeming and deception. Yet the protagonist is less equipped than Hamlet to discriminate false from true, especially as regards the "flatterers" that people his own mind. This world, where words and symbols cannot be taken at face value, has with good reason prompted interpretation of Richard II as a play about language and symbol.17 Richard's tragedy is that he allows himself to be deluded, hence ultimately usurped, by his confidence in the lifeless symbol. What gives life to the symbol of the crown, what gives it sacredness, is the king's living up to his role. Failing that, it does no good for king or critic to invoke "the sacred, animistic bond between king and land—the corpus mysticum which includes and transcends both political kingdom and physical earth."18 In Coursen's words, Richard fails as keeper of the holy metaphor. The bond, rendered lifeless, becomes an empty "idol," as Henry V will say in the very act of bringing the symbol of the crown back to life.

There remains the argument that Richard, for all his failures and crimes, represented the order that in Shakespeare's time "was in fact humanity's only right condition."19 Yet it is crucial to see that order was not an end in itself. One effect of king-worship is to take both freedom and responsibility from the subject. In Eramus and Spenser the order of monarchy is an instrument of peace, and peace in turn of the personal liberty that would give each soul the fullest possible scope for working out its salvation. The tragedies of disorder in Shakespeare similarly move us not because they violate some aesthetic or mystical status quo, but because the liberties of good, happy people have been cut off by malice or misfortune. Hamlet forced into the path of violence; Ophelia, Brutus's Portia, and Lucrece20 driven to suicide; Othello constrained by a different but no less devastating injustice—all exemplify the pathos of the subverted will. Cosmic or social disorder may be the setting of tragedy, but the tragic event is personal. Audiences feel pity for Lear in the storm, not on account of the storm itself. M. M. Reese writes that "divine right is only a slightly elaborate way of stating the general conviction that the gods do act through man, and that the consequences are tragic when we try to resist their will" (p. 113). Rather, it would seem, the tragic consequences are set in motion when human lives are invaded by Satanic malevolence, or fortune, or perhaps even Providence (Macduff s children must die so that James VI may ascend the throne). Moreover, does God act through men, and how do we know when he is doing so? Divine intervention enters the plays not as assumed but as the subject of a question.

What distinguishes the history plays from the tragedies, says Nevo, is that in the former "the protagonists are exhibited as struggling for freedom to initiate events" (p. 60). Richard is a tragic hero in that he is sufficiently human to make the wrong choices; but in the early acts of the play he also makes the choice of wrong. At least for a time he takes on the role of Spenser's Grantorto. His haughtiness toward the dying Gaunt is offensive, but much more destructive of Richard's "reputation" in the play is his unreflecting, casual seizure of other people's land and wealth to make war in Ireland. What stands unforgivable to Elizabethan frugality is that the seizure is necessitated by "riot," courtly extravagance. Yet, damning as it is, Richard's venality at least remains open for all to see. Bolingbroke, the inscrutable usurper who so manipulates his public image, opens the floodgates of civil war while pretending to save his country. His pious claims of loyalty on returning from exile do not fool Richard and serve only to confirm his hypocrisy. Only after Richard has lost his kingship and liberty does he become the hero of a history play, "struggling for the freedom to initiate events." The weariness with patience that overtakes him in the last act leads to his one freely willed moment during the entire play, in the sense that it emerges from the wisdom of self-knowledge. Even in the deposition his vacillating blunts the impact of a potentially grand exit.

"Ceremony" is both the veil that conceals Richard from himself and the cloak that Henry IV will use to hide his guilt. Although Shakespeare may not have known the theological terms, he depicts the effects of confusing dulia (the honor due to authority) and latria (divine worship, which Richard thinks he shares). Nevo writes that in the first scenes of the tetralogy, "Feudal rituals mask the ulterior potential realities of collusion and guilt" (p. 62). Maynard Mack, Jr., detects impatience with the "cloying ceremony" of court in the early scenes of the play.21 Whereas E. M. W. Tillyard had found in "the ritual or ceremonial element" of Richard II evidence that Shakespeare was consciously depicting the golden age of the old medieval order, most of the more recent critics of the play seem to agree that, far from glorifying Richard, the ceremonies of anointed kingship keep him fettered in illusion, not yet a free man.22 At the center of the play is what Norman Rabkin calls "Richard's tragic confusion of ceremony with reality."23 During the great speech when Richard at last recognizes his humanity, he finally sees "Tradition, form, and ceremonious duty" (III.2.173) as worthless if unreciprocated. In the same passage, "pomp" becomes an object of amusement for antic death; and later Richard will think of his wife, once "set forth in pomp" from France, now cast into widowhood and obscurity (V.1.78).

Ceremony is not redeemed until the last play of the cycle that Richard begins, when the monarch's humanity, his dependence on his fellow men as on God, is firmly established on the field at Agincourt. This does not imply a flawless unity in the entire tetralogy: the characters, especially Prince Hal, seem to shift a good deal over time.24 Yet the four plays have a continuous vision of history, sustained by a mature, creative intelligence. Like the proud soul of the morality plays, monarchy must be purged of idolatry, an evil spirit haunting European courts during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. W. Gordon Zeeveld has said of Richard II that "the enormity of his offense to Shakespeare's audience lies in his presumption to sanctity, the character no English king had been allowed."25 Richard pays for these pretensions, of course; Henry IV cannot even think of making them. Henry V, remarkably, manages to expiate both his father's sin of regicide and the blasphemy of Richard's presuming to a divine role.

Henry V and the Critics

"Without humanism, in short, there could have been no Elizabethan literature: without Erasmus, no Shakespeare."26 Thus Emrys Jones, in a book that faults earlier literary historians, particularly C.S. Lewis, for their neglect of Erasmus in assessing the intellectual backgrounds of English Renaissance literature. The criticism is accurate, though Shakespeare studies have been paying more attention to the subject. Shakespeare's first-hand knowledge of Erasmus is certain, and unquestionably both authors shared a similar vision of human folly and a scorn for the doctrinaire.27 A source in The Praise of Folly for one of Falstaff s speechs28 shows Erasmus contributing to the formation of the character. The Fallstaff-Hal relationship also echoes the warning against parasites in The Education of a Christian Prince. ("The prince will therefore always be on the lookout to keep the proportion of idlers down to a minimum among his courtiers, and either to force them to be busy or else banish them from the country.")29 The "player king" motif in Shakespeare may well originate in one of the Adagia?30 Erasmus's hatred of war, his ideas on the humanity of kings and their responsibility to their subjects also lie nearer the histories than does the once-assumed "Tudor doctrine" of God-like kingship. This correspondence has led several scholars to examine the Erasmian influence in Henry V, particularly J. H. Walter, whose Arden edition lists impressive parallel passages in Shakespeare's play and the Education.31 Andrew Gurr has recently explored the similarities between Erasmus's and Shakespeare's emblem of the bees' commonwealth in these two works.32 This is not to make Shakespeare Erasmus's mouthpiece, but the humanist's influence, often unnoticed in older scholarship, may provide an opening in the critical morass surrounding the play and its hero, since the tacit assumption in some "divine monarch" readings of the plays is that it never would have occurred to anyone in Shakespeare's century to say that kings were not absolute vicars of God.

The critics' attack on Henry V as hero begins with Hazlitt's politically charged essay in Characters of Shakespeare 's Plays?33 Through the years a number of anti-Henricians have similarly acted from their politics or moral convictions. "Purely subjective notions paralyze their judgments," complains one scholar, "and they write as pacifists, republicans, anti-clericals, little Englanders, moralists, even arbiters of etiquette, until one is astounded at the prejudice Henry has managed to arouse."34 Those who make reasoned attempts to deal with the play fall into several groups. Traditionalists take the playwright as endorsing both Henry and the politics of power (e.g., E. E. Stoll, John Dover Wilson); another group sees the play as a disguised satire on the politics of war, with Henry as an archhypocrite (Gerald Gould, Harold Goddard). The latter school typifies what Richard Levin calls the "two-play" or "two-audience" approach with one Henry V for the thick-brained jingoist, another for the sophisticated.35 Shaw and Mark Van Doren speak for a small party that reduces the play to an artless propaganda piece. Many recent critics (and they have my vote) see Henry as in the Kenneth Branagh film: an admirable character in a deplorable political situation (Stribrny, Reese, Jorgensen, Calderwood, Thayer).36

A special case is the dialectical interpretation. The title of Norman Rabkin's "Rabbits, Ducks, and Henry V" reflects the author's view that Shakespeare had an "intransigently multivalent perception of reality," and really wants us to buy neither a duck nor a rabbit. This interpretation raises the artist above the issues, agreeing with the ambient preference for negative capability, the sense of paradox, tension, or ambivalence. Yet Rabkin's summary of both pro- and anti-Henrician viewpoints, merely confirms the likelihood of the first. Is it really possible, for instance, that Pistol's sullen exit in Act V is supposed to evoke pathos "for the reality of the postwar world" of jobless soldiers turning to crime, of disappointed dreams of glory?37 Related to this is Eric LaGuardia's subtle argument that, although the tetralogy traces the decline of symbolic order as language turns from poetry to policy, "we are not asked to judge whether that decline is pure gain or pure loss. It would seem wiser to think of them [the plays] as dramatizing man's continuous participation in both the mythical and historical."38 Yet audiences are constantly being "asked to judge" in the political plays, this being one of their characteristics as a literary kind. "We may claim," LaGuardia writes, "that the plays dramatize the emergence of a culture purged of the nonhistorical formalism of Christian chivalry into a brighter world where the autonomous reality of nature is recognized," which means, I think, that Richard's and Hotspur's destructive egoism gives way to a recognition that time and community are real. This is unquestioned. Yet can we face the other way too? "Or, we may claim that they dramatize the tragic death of the sacramental view of nature, together with its kindred poetic sensibility, and the rise of a new order of anarchy, libertinism, and political opportunism" (pp. 70-71). The "sacramental view," by definition entailing a whole community, lies in the renewal of society that will occur in Henry V. As for libertinism and opportunism, these faults seem more chargeable to Richard than to Henry.

In any attempt to understand play and protagonist, the reading of Act IV, scene 1, especially the king's one soliloquy in the play, must be crucial. Yet Henry's speech on kingship and ceremony is often neglected or brushed aside. A 1979 article declares, "With the exception of his brief and relatively uninformative soliloquy the night before Agincourt, we have no access to the private man, and his public rhetoric is inevitably ambituous."39 Reese (p. 331) scarcely notices the speech in discussing the play, even though it could be used to bolster his case that majesty depends on a partnership between king and subject. Two studies have interpreted the speech as central to the play, but with opposite conclusions as to its meaning. These two arguments both demonstrate, incidentally, two of the pitfalls that Levin mentions in historical interpretation. Gordon Ross Smith has bolstered the Gould-Goddard view with a wide array of Elizabethan writings that condemn ceremony as the last refuge of scoundrels.40 Yet anyone who has read much on this subject knows that there are impressive authorities to uphold almost any point of view. Moreover, it seems fairly clear that Henry is himself questioning ceremony in his speech, not using it as pretext, and that the action of the whole play moves toward abandoning it as well. On the other hand, W. Gordon Zeeveld's lengthy and informed chapter on ceremony in Shakespeare uses Elizabethan writings to support the pro-Henrician view. Zeeveld is more interested in sources than plot and character development, claiming that Henry moves toward an "acceptance of the burden of ceremony."41 Far from it, in fact; the last two acts of the tetralogy completely reverse Richard's confidence in the trappings of anointed kingship, as Henry V rectifies the earlier king's confusion of ceremony with reality.42

Agincourt: Kingship without Fear

Henry's motive in going among his men before the battle is not "to survey and view the warders," as was reported in Holinshed, nor is it to lift his men's spirits, as the Chorus says, for he is in disguise. His words to the troops are scarcely encouraging:

WILLIAMS. Under what captain serve you?
KING. Under Sir Thomas Erpingham.
WILLIAMS. A good old commander and a most kind gentleman.
I pray you, what thinks he of our estate?
KING. Even as men wrecked upon a sand, that look to be washed off the next tide.


The most likely reason for this incognito excursion and the bleak comments is that Henry is testing his men's conviction to determine whether panic might undermine his generalship in the morning's action. He discovers fear, and at the root of his men's fear, their sense of powerlessness under the king. They have no voice in a war that may cost them their lives. As Williams says, a commoner's distrust of his king's actions is "a perilous shot out of an elder-gun. . . . You may as well go about to turn the sun to ice with fanning in his face with a peacock's feather." Williams sums up the principal arguments against war in the age, often echoing Erasmus's ideas in the Education and elsewhere.43 The dialogue opens a profound examination of the nature of kingship, of the condition of men under kings.

Agincourt was an excellent proving ground for theories of monarchy because monarchy exists in its purest form in war. Sir Thomas Smith described the battlefield as the one place where the prince has truly absolute power: "This absolute power is called marciali lawe, and ever was and necessarilie must be used in all campes and hostes of men . . . that with more awe the souldier might be kept in more straight obedience, without which never captarne can doe anie thing vaileable in the warres."44 Smith's nearest disciple in the play is Fluellen, spokesman for "the ceremonies of the wars, and the cares of it, and the forms of it, and the sobriety of it, and the modesty of it" (IV.1.70-74). But Smith's "awe," like Fluellen's ceremoniousness, if imposed too rigidly upon the army, could backfire, bringing about a spirit of craven servility rather than confidence in martial order. Henry himself believes in the "straight obedience" of his soldiers as poor Bardolph discovers and as the dialogue with Williams shows: a king is to his soldiers as a master to his servant. And yet he admits, in his soliloquy following this exchange, that such a strict bond creates a "hard condition" for king and people alike. The ardent monarchist Hobbes would later insist that if men are to lead tranquil, productive (therefore happy?) lives they must have one great power to keep them all in awe. The debate with Williams has made Henry discover the unsettling consequence of this opinion:

O Ceremony, show me but thy worth!
What is thy soul of adoration?
Art thou aught else but place, degree, and form,
Creating awe and fear in other men?
Wherein thou art less happy being fear'd
Than they in fearing.


The metrical shortening of the last line places a heavy emphasis upon "fearing." Under a tyrannical rule men can fulfill themselves only through fearing or "awe." Ultimately the typical subject under such a ruler is the "wretched slave" envisioned in the last third of the soliloquy, who has traded his liberty for the security of fear.

The ironic note in Henry's portrayal of the wretched slave subverts arguments that this is firm "political doctrine." Oxymorons suggest both Henry's own divided mind and the individual's impossible straits in these circumstances. The hypothetical slave has "body fill'd and vacant mind"; in his peaceful sleep he is "cramm'd with distressful bread"; though he "sleeps in Elysium," he "sweats in the eye of Phoebus" (recalling Williams's image of fanning the sun with a peacock's feather); at the end of his life he goes "with profitable labor to his grave." This last phrase implies a contrast between the ongoing motive of honor in the Henriad and its base alternative, "profit" or private gain as a result of mere "labour," which leads only to oblivion.

At this moment, his meditation at its most intense, Henry is interrupted by Erpingham's summons. His dilemma—between his need for fearless soldiers and the apparent necessity that in a monarchy all men be subservient—is not yet explicitly solved. He can only pray for a resolution:

O God of battles! steel my soldiers' hearts.
Possess them not with fear. Take from them now
The sense of reckoning, if th' opposed numbers
Pluck their hearts from them.


Henry's despondency is complicated by his sense of unworthiness before God. He has tried to make expiation for his father's crime, but recognizes that good works are vitiated by the condition of the worker:

More will I do;
Though all that I can do is nothing worth,
Since that my penitence comes after all,
Imploring pardon.


Resemblances to Claudius's prayer in Hamlet come to mind; but like all Adam's children, Henry has inherited the consequences, not the guilt, of his father's crime.

Any interpretation of Henry V must take into account that the prayer is in fact answered—or least that events turn out in accordance with the prayer.45 In his next scene Henry has solved his dilemma. If servile men cannot act with courage, then the slaves must be freed:

proclaim it Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse.
We would not die in that man's company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.


The free soldiers are offered a choice: a secure life of "profitable labour" or fame, honor, remembrance—all the qualities that Falstaff and his tavern crowd have denied. In the flush of victory (IV.7) Fluellen will report that he has forgotten Falstaff s name. Henry's speech on fame is no reversion to the values of Hotspur, the chivalric anachronism so obsessed with honor and self-glorification. The difference is that Henry offers to distribute honor to the English at large, diffusing his kingly person throughout the body politic. In the first act the bishops, themselves acting selfishly, had urged Henry to act for the sake of personal and family honor ("Stand for your own! Unwind your bloody flag"; "Awake remembrance of these valiant dead / . . . You are their heir; you sit upon their throne" (1.2.101, 115). Henry now urges his army to act for collective honor: we shall be remembered on St. Crispían's Day:

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother.

(lines 60-62)

By casting off "idol ceremony" Henry has freed his men from the previous night's fear. His pun in this phrase may have been commonplace in the controversial rhetoric of Shakespeare's age, for a speech in the pre-Civil War debates attacked "idol, idle or scandlous ministers" in the Church.46 But the pun has rich implications for the tetralogy. Richard's idleness and selfidolizing brought on England's troubles, and the "idle companions" of Prince Hal's youth seem to threaten the commonwealth. Applying the idol-idle epithet specifically to the ceremonies of coronation, Henry reflects the established thinking on these rites, for when the heir to the throne was anointed and given the scepter nothing sacramental occurred. Cranmer said that royal anointing was "but a ceremony," having "its ends and utility yet neither direct force nor necessity."47 Edward Coke wrote that "coronation was but a royal ornament and outward solemnization of descent."48 Even during the Civil War, both sides agreed that the king was king before his coronation.49 Yet Shakespeare has in mind something beyond this technicality, for in existential terms even birth does not "make" a king. As Erasmus said, "for a person to be a prince it is not enought to be born, to have ancestral statutes, the sceptre and the crown. What makes a prince is a mind distinguished for its wisdom, a mind always occupied with the safety of the state, and looking to nothing but the common good."50 Henry's soliloquy repudiates in this respect the idol-kingship of Richard, which depended on symbols to the exclusion of princely wisdom.

Fluellen gives an amusing, because distorted, reflection of such wisdom—faintly pompous and self-important, missing the sprezzatura of the real thing. He shows that formality has its uses: his attacks on the forlorn Pistol comically parody Henry's judgment of the traitors. But in the main Fluellen's eccentricity marks the limitations of ceremoniousness. When he complains that the killing of the English servant-boys is "expressly against the law of arms," he betrays a confusion of form and reality akin to Richard's. One wonders whether the very notion of "laws of war" did not appear contradictory if not quixotic to veterans of Europe's religious wars in Shakespeare's audience; it certainly would have to Erasmus. A similarly comic gravity undercuts Fluellen's strained analogy between Henry and Alexander the Great,51 as misguided as his comparison of Pistol and Mark Antony in Act III, scene 6. Formality and sobriety, the qualities that Henry says separate the king from his followers, are the very attributes that determine Fluellen's comic role. His presence thus has a therapeutic purpose, to rectify these qualities through laughter.

The new fearlessness of the English allows Henry to pun on "fear" in the exchange with Mountjoy. The word-play may go unnoticed unless one recalls that in Elizabethan English the vowel in the word was still close to the sound in Middle English fer:

MOUNTJOY. And so fare the well;
Thou never shalt hear herald any more.
KING. I fear thou wilt once more come again for ransom.


Spenser puns on the same word when Una approaches the disguised Archimago "with faire fearefull humblesse" (1.3.26). Shakespeare continues this word-play in the two following scenes, first when Pistol captures the French soldier Monsieur le Fer, "Master Fer" (or "master Fear" as Elizabethan audiences would have heard it). When the distraught Frenchman calls upon God, Pistol thinks the name "Signieur Dew" is meant for himself. The episode (often omitted in eighteenth-century performances, when the play seems to have been regarded as mere patriotic spectacle)52 joins the issue of freedom and servility in fear. The comic reversal of the gentlemen serving a clown is enhanced by the Frenchman's religious awe ("je vous supplie," "Sur mes genoux"). The next scene also evokes the theme of servility, when Bourbon tries to rally his fleeing soldiers with a contempt that sharply differs from the tone of Henry's speech to his men:

And he that will not follow Bourbon now,
Let him go hence, and with his cap in hand
Like a base pandar hold the chamber door
Whilst by a slave, no gentler than my dog,
His fairest daughter is contaminated.


The Chorus had promised to show Henry "thawing cold fear" among his troops (IV. Chor. 45). By the time the battle begins, the English soldiers no longer stand as "condemned sacrifices" but free men, while the French are in the service of servile men like Pistol.

Through purging himself of the poison in kingship, the quality that sustains flattery and fear, Henry solves a problem that his father could not. Henry IV's ironic apostrophe in the soliloquy, "O, be sick great greatness, / And bid thy Ceremony give the cure!" (Part Two, IV. 1.237-38), is only a breath away from the discovery of another Shakespearean king, who in the act of baring his soul finds himself. But the anagnorisis that comes with Lear's "Take Physic, pomp!" is elemental, metaphysical. Henry's aim, to reconcile the two private and public "bodies" he must wear, typifies the social action of the political plays:

What infinite heart's-ease
Must kings neglect, that private men enjoy!

And what have kings, that privates have not too
Save ceremony, save general ceremony?


Unlike his son, who in 3 Henry VI asks virtually the same question and elects to behave simply as if he were a private man, Henry manages to save the appearances of royalty. Abjuring ceremony, he ushers in a new sense of responsibility in king and subjects alike.53 Before this night, Henry wants to unload responsibility for his actions: on the bishops for determining the justice of the war, on the conspirators for their own death sentences, on the citizens of Harfleur for the devastation should they not capitulate. Certainly by this time if not earlier, the king understands that authority must exist independently of its symbols.

Yet the final lines of the soliloquy state a problem seemingly irrelevant to the state of things at the time:

The slave, a member of the country's peace,
Enjoys it: but in gross brain little wots
What watch the king keeps to maintain the peace,
Whose hours the peasant best advantages.

(lines 267-70)

First, the peace has not been maintained, second, the "slaves," or common soldiers, stay up and worry as much as the king. These lines, so much at variance with their context, appear to support an ironic reading of the speech. To be sure, "the slave" is not the common Englishman but the extreme case, the "wretched slave" envisioned in his earlier lines. Yet how can one explain Henry's claim to be maintaining the peace in the midst of an apparently unnecessary, even unjust war?

Since irony always depends on authorial intention, a prior question is whether Shakespeare believed, "No king of England if not king of France." The answer, as far as it can be given, seems to be yes—in 1415, that is. Henry V is not extending his empire but preventing the French king from doing so at England's expense. The first and second tetralogies are largely about the loss of French territories that, according to then-received history, especially in Hall,54 had rightfully been England's. Elizabethans probably knew better than we the close blood ties of English and French ruling families in the early fifteenth century, the historical Constable of France, for instance, being half-brother to Henry V. The first tetralogy methodically plotted the decline of England's fortunes as parallel to the erosion of her French territories. Looking back over these early plays, Shakespeare can write in the epilogue to Henry V:

Henry the Sixth, in infant bands crowned King
Of France and England, did this king succeed;
Whose state so many had the managing
That they lost France and made his England bleed.

The last line has almost the force of cause and effect: to lose France is to bring disaster to England. This is in part because the loss of territory means the deprivation of the king's own honor, a connection implicit in the Daphin's insult of the tennis balls. Even Falstaff acknowledges the uses of honor when he tries to claim credit for killing Hotspur. In Henry's uncertain political circumstances, as Shakespeare would have read in the chronicles, losing France and royal honor could leave the way open to a resumption of the late civil wars. This must explain the reasoning behind the soliloquy: Henry watches on the battlefield to keep the peace at home. The condition is not unlike that in 1599, as Gary Taylor reminds us, when the monarch "had, for a generation, maintained the peace largely by fighting wars abroad" (p. 9).

Nothing in the character of Hal or Henry V supports the picture of Erasmus's land-grabbing warmonger kings. In fact, Shakespeare appears to have constructed the play so as to exonerate Henry from this charge, showing the Dauphin maneuvering him into mounting an offensive. No sack follows the seige of Harfleur, as in Holinshed and in Drayton's version of the story.55 Moreover, Shakespeare shows the king leaving England with the memory of political conspiracy still fresh. The world of Acts I and II is not far from the deceit-charged atmosphere of Richard IL Yet it is too harsh to attribute Henry's motives to the politic wisdom of his father—"busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels" (2H4, IV.5.213). Rather, Henry finds himself confronted with a characteristically Shakespearean paradox. Peace can be attained only through war, or in the words of his own remark a little before the soliloquy: "There is some soul of goodness in this evil, / Would men observingly distill it out" (IV.1.4). That the English must fight abroad to keep from destroying each other at home is a pathetic fact of history. Like other important ideas in the main plot, this one is mirrored in the tavern scenes, as when Bardolph quells the fight between Nym and Pistol: "Come, shall I make you two friends? We must to France together; why the devil shall we keep knives to cut one another's throats?" (II. 1.86). The "soul of goodness" that Henry seeks is a spirit of discordia Concors governing the action of the play—first in the unification of the strife-torn English society, then in the concord of warring countries achieved in marriage.

The Growth of King Hal

Henry's uneasiness in the ceremonial role begins much earlier, even before the action of Henry V. At the instant of assuming power, the new king establishes himself as a plain man, eager to defuse the apprehensiveness, the "fear," attendant on royal solemnities.

This new and gorgeous garment, majesty,
Sits not so easy on me as you think.
Brothers, you mix your sadness with some fear:
This is the English, not the Turkish court,
Not Amurath an Amurath succeeds,
But Harry Harry.

(2H4, V.2.44-49)

The clothes metaphor, majesty as a covering for the essential humanity shared by all people, continues into Henry V. Henry tells the French ambassador, "I have laid by my majesty / And plodded like a man for working days" (1.2.227), but he will soon "dazzle all the eyes of France" with his "glory." The image returns in Exeter's message to the French king: "divest yourself, and lay apart / The borrowed glories" of Henry's rightful title (II.4.78). Going into war, Henry must "put on" majesty, even though he believes that, "His ceremonies laid by," the king is but a man (IV. 1.101). On his deathbed, Hal's father had promised, "a time is come to mock at form" (2H4, IV.4.118), but the prince will find it not so easy to rid himself of his costume.

An obstacle at first is the fearfulness of the court as noted above, a fear deriving partly from the Lord Chief Justice's earlier firmness with the wayward Hal. The new king will not retaliate because, recognizing that majesty is a "garment," he can understand the Justice's desire to protect the "royal image" (1.89). He sounds sincere when he claims that his wild affections have been buried with his father (1.123); but what remains behind—a person or only an image?

The tide of blood in me
Hath proudly flow'd in vanity till now.
Now doth it turn and ebb back to the sea,
Where it shall mingle with the state of floods
And flow henceforth in formal majesty.


Here surely the playwright looks toward themes and events of the next play in the series. The image suggests a tidal river like the Thames used in the familiar conceit of the microcosm. Until now Henry's blood has flowed inland. In the outgoing current the king will lose his self-centeredness entirely in the "state of floods," the open main of the nation. He makes good on this promise in the brotherhood of Agincourt and in his self-effacement after the victory. At the same time these lines hint at the cold formality of the king beset by enemies whom we see in the opening of Henry V, a play that moves us from the low ebb of Falstaff s death to the charm and warmth of the wooing scenes.

Before his triumph in France, Henry shows his cold majesty in his two encounters with the magnates of his realm—the avaricious bishops in Act 1, scene 2 and the treasonous lords in Act 2, scene 2. Both scenes are redolent with that same sense of hypocritical formality felt in the lists at Coventry in Richard II,

Opening the play with the bishops accomplishes two things. It clarifies their role in fomenting the war,56 and appeals mightily to the audience's prejudice against the hierarchy of the old (and maybe new) church, especially when followed by the bishops' strident appeals for war. In the first tetralogy, at Henry V's funeral, Gloucester says that "had not churchmen prayed" against him, the heroic king might still be alive (1H6, 1.1.33). Later the scheming Bishop of Winchester becomes a means of Gloucester's and the kingdom's downfall (2H6, III.1). Among the antecedents of this first scene is the mystery-play tradition that portrayed as bishops the Jewish priests scheming against Christ. So they appear in the stage directions of the N-Town or Ludus Coventriae play on the council of the Jews, where mitered bishops in red (much more obviously bishops than the two in the Branagh film) are attended by clerks and doctors in furred hoods. Erasmus's Education of a Christian Prince attacks bishops and priests for being "the very firebrands of war" in his day, a frequent accusation in his and like-minded humanists' writings.57 Tyndale laments that nowadays "bishops can only minister the temporal sword," calling for their expulsion from councils of government.58 Drayton blames an earlier civil war in England partly on the church, while the chronicler Hall dwells on Canterbury's selfish motives in urging Henry to war.59 Dressed, probably, in the splendid robes of a medieval archbishop, Canterbury images those "devils" that Henry later describes, who

Do botch and bungle up damnation
With patches, colors, and with forms being fetch'd
From glist'ring semblances of piety.


Some have read the archbishop's speech on the bees' commonwealth as the consensus political philosophy in Shakespeare's time; but if there were devotees of Elizabeth as the queen bee, there were also many who had encountered the republican skepticism of Cicero's De Officiis (a text much read in Elizabethan grammar schools):

Just as swarms of bees do not congregate in order to construct honeycombs, but devise honeycombs because they are by instinct swarming creatures, in the same way men apply their industry to actions and thought after they have formed communities according to an instinct much more powerful than that of bees. It is therefore clear that factual knowledge will be solitary and barren of results unless it is accompanied by the virtue that consists of protecting mankind, or, in other words, of promoting the social unity of the human race. The same condition holds true for courage. If courage does not function in a context of mutual benefit and human intercourse, it is hardly better than brutality and savagery. (1:57)

Oblivious to this higher sense of community, the beeminded hierarchy do not return to the later scenes of Henry's victory and negotiations for peace. They seem put in the play to represent a dimension of self-interested hypocrisy behind the war. Henry's barely suppressed anger at this deception is apparent in his repeatedly reminding them of their sacred trust, using formal phrases invoking the deity.

Henry's coldness returns in his sentencing of the traitors, when he adopts the tone of the heavenly judge presiding over "Another fall of man" (II.2.142). It is this kind of primness that has led people to call him an "unlikeable" hero.60 Many resent the king's deceiving the traitors in this scene (tricking them into self-condemnation by asking their advice on leniency for a drunk who reviled the king). In effect, Henry acts in conformity with Erasmus's Christian kingliness; for if the king must rule over free subjects, then ideally even the greatest criminals would freely condemn themselves. This takes a little contriving, perhaps at the expense of verisimilitude: although in 1 Henry VI Shakespeare indicates that the Cambridge plot is grounded in legitimate grievance, here the conspirators are merely seduced by French promises.61 An uneasy ceremoniousness also creates a rather hollow feeling during the last fifty lines. Exeter arrests each traitor using the formulaic language of the law: "I arrest thee of high treason, by the name of...." Each man in turn utters his last words and awaits the inevitable sentence. To enhance the sense of awe in these fifty lines, Shakespeare has Henry use the name of God no less than seven times—probably more reminding than necessary of the sacrilege implicit in overthrowing one's government.

These first two acts disclose a court atmosphere devoid of trust and love, an extension of the "enforced ceremony" of Brutus's famous lines on friendship (JC, IV.2.21). A sign of the deceit and treachery in the first half of the play, the language of ceremony remains part of Henry's mask (as in the rather bombastic speech to the people of Harfleur) until the self-examination of Act IV. It signifies less his own than his kingdom's insecurity that an open heart and free expression are impossible for him until then.62

This point can address two of the most frequent complaints about the king's character, even from some of his partisans—his coldness and, what perhaps is the same thing, his self-righteous piety. Almost everyone agrees that these qualities have disappeared by the last act, though Shakespeare may not make the change wholly convincing. The coldness in Acts I and II chiefly comes from seeing Henry in the company of enemies and those who would use him—the bishops, the traitors, and the French ambassador. To some extent, it is also owing to Henry's isolating himself in his "new garment." Except for Exeter, a councilor rather than a friend, the king is without companions or confidants; one feels this lack all the more severely because of Hal's fellowship in the earlier plays. Yet the histories, not unlike the tragedies, assert the dependence of even the greatest members of the commonwealth upon others.63 Henry shows he has learned this dependency only hours before his victory, when he makes the offer to his soldiers.

Piety actually comes to Henry in this play, and it may well be that it completes a Renaissance "education of the prince." Hal learns temperance and fortitude in Part One, justice and wisdom in Part Two. In Henry V, his placing the outcome of the battle in God's hands endows him with "religion as well as the cardinal four [virtues], rounding out the five royal virtues listed by Elizabeth" in her first address to parliament.64 This is not the uncritical piety of Henry VI, so removed from the world that he cannot discern fraudulent piety; nor is it "superstititous"65 simply because it leads him to pray for his soldiers in battle. Yet a subtle difference exists between Henry's formal declarations early in the play—those associating himself with God66—and his insistence after the battle that God deserves all the credit for the victory. This humility, this acknowledgment of his humanity, accounts for his self-conscious plainness wooing Katherine in the last act. What some see as the unadorned brutality of warfare could equally be the abandonment of the formalities of majesty. Now ceremony belongs to God. Henry celebrates the victory at Agincourt with almost obsessive selfeffacement:

O God, thy arm was here!
And not to us, but to thy arm alone,
Ascribe we all! . . .
. . . Take it, God,
For it is none but thine!


The Chorus reports that on his return to England Henry refused to parade the symbols of victory, a last abjuring of ceremony, "giving full trophy, signal, and ostent / Quite from himself to God" (V. Chor. 21). To celebrate his victory, Henry orders not only the traditional hymn of thanksgiving, "Te Deum," but also the "Non nobis," Psalm 115 ("Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto thy Name give glory."). The Geneva Bible describes this psalm as "A praier of the faithful oppressed by idolatrous tyrants." A marginal gloss adds, "Seeing that nether the matter nor the forme can commend the idoles, it followeth that there is nothing why they shulde be esteemed." As in the concluding battle of Spenser's Legend of Justice, the same action resolves possibilities for both tyranny and idolatry.


In several respects the liberation in the second tetralogy resembles that in Spenser's Book V. Both undertake first to deliver the body politic from the effects of private concupiscence, and in both a rehabilitation of honor joins with the public shaming of false knighthood. Then follows the need to deliver the state from the threat of civil discord, Duessa symbolizing the principle that is fleshed out in the rebellious Northumberland, Cambridge, Scrope, and Grey. Only in the final movement are the emphases different. Spenser shows the Christian commonwealth saved from external idolatries, Shakespeare, the self-denial that differentiates Christian king from world-king. The end of the sixteenth century brought apprehensiveness over absolutism in the state, a development that may explain Shakespeare's shift from the confident celebration of monarchy in Henry V to the troubled picture of the rise of tyranny in Julius Caesar.61 If the Roman history play was written later, it may originate in a desire to show a purer form of autocracy, one independent of Christian virtues.

Henry several times mentions the antithesis of ideal kingship: the Turkish tyranny, the nightmare of total autocracy envisioned by Spenser, Erasmus, More, and, in their peculiar handling of Herod, the mystery playwrights. "Not Amurath an Amurath suceeds, But Harry Harry" (2H4, V.2.48). Henry even anticipates a son, "half French, half English, that shall go to Constantinople and take the Turk by the beard" (H5, V.2.202). The Turkish government proverbially stood for the difference between mixed and absolute monarchy: "Wherefore .. . if the prince of the Turkes (as it is written of him) doe repute all other his bondmen and slaves (him selfe and his sonnes onely freemen) a man may doubt whether his administration be to be accompted a common wealth or a kingdome, or rather to be reputed onely as one that hath under him an infinite number of slaves or bondmen among whom there is no right, law, nor common wealth compact, but oney the will of the Lorde and segnior."68 Even in the conditions that most justify imposing his will on others—sedition in Act II and war in Act IV—Henry manages to keep alive the "compact" between king and subject.

Closer to events of the play, as noted in the early discussion of the French monarchomacy, the French government represented to many in Shakespeare's audience a "byword for tyranny."69 Sir Roger Twysden observed that the French monarch "hath beene ever esteemed more absolute then the English," and Sir Thomas Smith traced the "absolute and tyrannical power and government" there to the reign of Louis XI, whose warmaking Erasmus had deplored in the Adagia.70 Whether this was an accurate assessment or not, the French monarchy was thought a virtual tyranny, and to this belief was imputed the "base and servile behavior"71 of the French commoners. Especially in the scene in which Le Fer submits to Pistol, the play shows the playwright as susceptible to this myth as anyone else. The French nobility are every bit as devoted to honor as the English: "self-live, my liege, is not so vile a sin as self-neglecting," says the Dauphin to his father (II.4.75). But obsession with honor, like its neglect, brings failure. The French nobles' self-love causes them to underestimate the enemy and, in the scene of their rout (IV.5), leads them to blame their own troops for their failure. Their arrogance has in it something of Coriolanus, with his unreflecting identification of plebians as slaves. They prove unable to lead their men back into order, even though they still have superior numbers (lines 20-22). The epic qualities of Henry V require portrayal of a worthy adversary, a requirement that Shakespeare satisfies in the French scenes. But the great flaw of the Dauphin and his nobles is their constitutional inability (in every sense of the phrase) to grant the liberties that Henry allows his own troops.

The "soul of goodness in this evil" of war emerges in the concord of the final scene. The harmony of peace—as in the mystery plays of Pharaoh and Herod, Henry's "Peace" is the first word in this scene—comes to the body politic with the successful treaty, and to the private life of the king by his successful wooing of Katherine. The cold formality of the opening acts is exchanged for the warm rituals of peacemaking and matrimony. The French queen voices hope for the harmony of opposites, "that this day / Shall change all griefs and quarrels into love" (line 20). Burgundy's long speech on "mangled peace, / Dear nurse of all the arts, plenties, and joyful births" (line 34) looks back to traditional humanist ideas on peace, especially those found in Erasmus's Complaint of Peace and the Panegyric to Philip. This play shares yet another feature with Spenser's Book V in the eschatological undertones of the ending. The imagery of Burgundy's speech serves this purpose, partly borrowed from Isaiah's vision of a returned golden age.72 So does the projected marriage and the French king's prayer for "Christian-like accord" between the two nations. The golden age is just momentarily glimpsed, in a "Small time," as the Chorus says; but we see enough to realize the advantages of brotherhood over war in helping it return....


1New Readings vs. Old Plays: Recent Trends in the Reinterpretation of English Renaissance Drama (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 159, 146-66, 150. Much of what I am saying is also related to pp. 11-77.

2 Hugh M. Richmond, Shakespeare's Political Plays (New York: Random House, 1967), 203, makes this point about both plays.

3 Sanders, The Dramatist and the Received Idea (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968), 149.

4 Richard Palmer, Hermeneutics, 24. Note also his comment that "teachers of literature need to become experts in 'translation' more than 'analysis'; their task is to bring what is strange, unfamiliar, and obscure in its meaning into something meaningful that 'speaks our language.' This does not mean 'souping up' the classics and dressing Chaucer in twentieth-century English; it means recognizing the problem of a conflict of horizons and taking steps to deal with it, rather than sweeping it under the rug and concentrating on analytical games" (p. 29).

5Shakespeare's Historical Plays (London: Oxford University Press, 1964), pp. 18, 19.

6 "Rabbits, Ducks, and Henry V," SQ 28 (1977): 279-96 (p. 287); revised in Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 33-62 (p. 47).

7 "Julius Caesar: The Politics of the Hardened Heart," ShakS 2 (1966): 11-33.

8 Graham Holderness, Shakespeare 's History (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1985), 42. The discussion that follows has benefitted from this book as well as Calvin G. Thayer, Shakespearean Politics: Government and Misgovernment in the Great Histories (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1983).

9 George W. Keeton, Shakespeare's Legal and Political Background (London: Sir Isaac Pitman and Sons, 1967), 278-79.

10 In this respect Sanders (p. 188) notes the speech on God's angels, II.2.60.

11 See the long note on this line in the Arden ed. by Peter Ure (London: Methuen, 1961), p. 166, which typifies the editor's assumption of the Lily B. Campbell approach to kingship in this play (the line is said to be "normal Tudor doctrine").

12 The favorable treatment of York is one of the few blind spots in Wilbur Sanders' reading of this play. Sanders is forced to dismiss the York of the second half as "like an unfinished sketch" (p. 185).

13 E.g., Keeton, Background, 265; Ure, ed. Richard II, lxvi.

14 Richmond, Shakespeare's Political Plays, 128.

15 Matthew Black, Pelican ed., note at 1.2.37.

16 For this reason one may question the staging, in the BBC's televised RSC production, of 1.4 with a toweldraped Richard and his favorites in a sort of massage parlor. It simply reinforces Bolingbroke's version of Richard, which is not warranted by the text. The director also conveniently eliminates the scene in which the favorites console the queen. By contrast, in the 1986 RSC Stratford production Bolingbroke was a "brutal philistine" in a "single-minded reading" of the play: see Nicholas Shrimpton, "Shakespeare Performances," Shakespeare Survey 40 (1988): 180-81.

17 LaGuardia, "Ceremony and History"; James L. Calderwood, Metadrama in Shakespeare's Henriad: Richard II to Henry V (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1979). Calderwood and I would seem to disagree with LaGuardia's view that "the simplest statement of the basic conflict in the play is that there is a continual counterpoint in the equation of word and object, and the separation of word and object" (p. 78). I believe the play works relentlessly toward "the separation of word [or symbol] and object"—ultimately the separation of crown from king.

18 Nevo, Tragic Form, 75.

19 M. M. Reese, The Cease of Majesty: A Study of Shakespeare's History Plays (London: Edward Arnold, 1971), 112.

20 See Michael Platt, "The Rape of Lucrece and the Republic for Which It Stands," Centennial Review, 19 (1975): 59-79, for an excellent study of personal and political violation in Shakespeare's poem.

21Killing the King, Yale Studies in English 180 (New Haven, 1973): 27.

22 Tillyard, Shakespeare's History Plays (London: Chatto and Windus, 1944), 251. For a balanced critical appraisal of the anti-Tillyard school, see Robert P. Merrix, "Shakespeare's Histories and the New Bardolaters," SEL 19 (1979): 179-96.

23 "Rabbits, Ducks, and Henry V," 287.

24 Arguing against the consistency of Hal is William Babula, "Whatever Happened to Prince Hal? An Essay on 'Henry V,' SS 30 (1977): 47-59; arguing for it, Carol Marks Sicherman, "King Hal: The Integrity of Shakespeare's Portrait," TSLL 21 (1979): 503-21, largely on the evidence of Hal's canniness throughout his plays.

25The Temper of Shakespeare's Thought (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974), 53.

26 Emrys Jones, The Origins of Shakespeare (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), 13.

27 See, e.g., Kenneth Muir, "Shakespeare among the Commonplaces," RES 10 (1959): 283-89 (on Adagia in R2); Thelma N. Greenfield, A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Praise of Folly," CL 20 (1968): 236-44; G. R. Hibbard, "Erasmus and More in the Age of Shakespeare," Erasmus in English 12 (1983): 2-10; L. T. Woodbridge, "Shakespeare's Use of Two Erasmian Colloquies," N&Q 30 (1983): 122-23. Attention to Erasmus and Shakespeare's fools begins with Enid Welsford, The Fool (London: Faber and Faber, 1935).

28 Jurgen Schafer, "Falstaff s Voice," N&Q 214 (1969): 135-36.

29 Born trans. Education, 225.

30 Jones, Origins of Shakespeare, 278-82, citing "Tragicus Rex" (LB 2:574).

31King Henry V, Arden ed. (London: Methuen, 1954), xvi-xviii. See also Roy Battenhouse, "Henry V in the Light of Erasmus," ShakS 17 (1985): 77-88.

32 "'Henry V and the Bees' Commonwealth," Shakespeare Survey 30 (1977): 61-72. On the tradition of the bee-kingdom see below, p. 148.

33 E.g., "Such is the history of kingly power, from the beginning to the end of the world;—with this difference, that the object of war formerly, when the people adhered to their allegiance, was to depose kings; the object latterly, since the people swerved from their allegiances, has been to restore kings, and to make common cause against mankind." Everyman's Library ed. (London, 1906), 157. Hazlitt's continuing malign influence on productions of the play is noted by Gary Taylor, ed., Henry V (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), 58. Taylor's introduction, probably the most valuable criticism on the play yet written, differs from my interpretation in emphasizing the king's responsibility for the deaths in the play.

34 Reese, Cease of Majesty, 317.

35 Levin, New Readings, 138, though some form of "two audience" approach is inevitable, e.g., to allow for theatrical irony. In his Multiple Plot in English Renaissance Drama (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971), 116-19, Levin uses the evidence of plot structure to defend a pro-Henry reading of the play. Levin's argument is augmented in Brownell Salomon, "Thematic Contraries and the Dramaturgy of Henry V," SQ 31 (1980): 343-56.

36 Stoll, "Henry V," in Poets and Playwrights (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1930); Wilson, ed., Henry V, New Cambridge Shakespeare (Cambridge, 1947); Gould, "A New Reading of Henry V," English Review 29 (1919): 42-55; Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951); Edwin Wilson, ed., Shaw on Shakespeare (New York: Dutton, 1961); Van Doren, Shakespeare (1939; rpt. Garden City: Doubleday, n.d.), 143-52; Zdenek Stribrny, "Henry V and History," in Shakespeare in a Changing World, ed. Arnold Kettle (New York: International Publishers, 1964), 84-101; Reese, Cease of Majesty; Jorgensen, "A Formative Shakespearean Legacy"; Calderwood, Metadrama in Shakespeare's Henriad; Thayer, Shakespearean Politics.

37 Rabkin, "Rabbits." For a related view of 1H4, that it "confirms the Machiavellian hypothesis of the fraud even as it draws its audience irresistibly toward the celebration of that power," see Stephen Greenblatt, "Invisible Bullets: Renaissance Authority and Its Subversion," Glyph 8 (1981): 40-61 (p. 57). In the various incarnations of this essay Henry V gets short shrift, though the latest version improves slightly: see Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988), 12-65.

38 LaGuardia, "Ceremony," 71; see above, n. 17. Gunter Walch, "'Henry V as a Working-House of Ideology," Shakespeare Survey 40 (1988): 63-68, finds the play ambiguous in the disparity between what the Chorus says and what happens. He is right about the resulting complexity, but the truth about history is more accessible in this than in most of the other history plays.

39 Edward I. Berry, "'True Things and Mock'ries': Epic and History in Henry V," JEGP 78 (1979): 1-16 (p. 8). The ceremony speech is also virtually unnoticed in Moody E. Prior, The Drama of Power (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973), and in Greenblatt and Battenhouse.

40 "Shakespeare's Henry V: Another Part of the Critical Forest," JHI 37 (1976): 3-26.

41The Temper of Shakespeare's Thought, 41.

42 Richard C. McCoy, "'Thou Idol Ceremony': Elizabeth I, The Henriad, and the Rites of English Monarchy," in Urban Life in the Renaissance, eds. Susan Zimmerman and Ronald Weissman (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1989), pp. 240-66, shows that Elizabeth herself contributed to the desacralizing of kingship reflected in Henry V.

43 See above, p. 63.

44De Republica Anglorum: A Discourse on the Commonwealth of England (1853), ed. L. Alston (Cambridge University Press, 1906), pp. 59-60.

45 Contrast Calderwood, Metadrama: "Harry's speech on Ceremony and his prayer to the God of battles have no effect upon the English, who of course remain united as before" (p. 153).

46A Speech of John White (1641), fol. 413, quoted in J. Sears McGee, The Godly Man in Stuart England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976), 87. Also cf. Spenser's use of "idol pomp," above, p. 106.

47 J. Strype, Cranmer (1848), I, 2, p. 206, quoted in Janet L. Nelson, "Inauguration Rituals," in Early Medieval Kingship, eds. P. H. Sawyer and I. N. Wood (Leeds: University of Leeds, 1977), 50.

48Reports, Pt. VII (IV, 10a), quoted in Kantorowicz, p. 317.

49 Cf. Edward Symons, Essex royalist minister, addressing a neighboring Puritan minister: "First (Sir,) let me minde you: of what you yielded, namely, that the King is King before his Coronation; indeed his Crowne is but a note or ensigne of his Kingly dignity." A Loyall Subjects Beliefe (Oxford, 1643), 41.

50Adagia, "Aut fatuum aut regem nasci oportere," p. 41.

51 Robert P. Merrix, "The Alexandrian Allusion in Shakespeare's Henry F," ELR 2 (1972): 321-33, uses this passage to support an anti-Henrician reading, though it seems to me more germane to the opposite interpretation.

52 Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, Modernizing Shakespeare's Spelling, with Three Studies in the Text of Henry V (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), 92.

53 Cf. Reese, Cease of Majesty, 111.

54 See Walter, Arden ed., xxxiv.

55 See Drayton, The Battaile of Agincourt, lines 785-808, for a realistic account of civilian suffering during the artillery bombardment in the siege; Holinshed, ed. cit., 3:73-74, reports the pillaging after Henry enters Harfleur.

56 A. C. Bradley, Oxford Lectures on Poetry (1909; rpt. London: Macmillan, 1955), 257, was perhaps the first to note that, although Henry does not acknowledge it, he must know the bishops' true intentions.

57Education trans. Born, 255. Cf. Complaint of Peace in Essential Erasmus, trans. Dolan: "Yet priests dedicated to God as well as monks, who should be even more holy, now inflame men to murder. . . . Bishops leave their dioceses to perform the business of war" (pp. 190-91). In 2H4, IV.2.5-30, the Archbishop of York also receives his share of such criticism.

58Obedience of a Christian Man, 185, 206-7.

59 Drayton, Barons Wars, 1.6; Holinshed also follows Hall here: see Walters, Arden ed., p. 160.

60 Reese, Cease of Majesty, 332.

61 Kelly, Divine Providence, 235.

62 Contrast Gurr: "Henry's intense fury at the rebels' disloyalty shows that he has more than a touch of his father's insecurity" (p. 67).

63 Harold S. Wilson, On the Design of Shakespearean Tragedy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1957), 96, 210-12.

64 Sherman Hawkins, "Virtue and Kingship in Shakespeare's Henry IV," ELR 5 (1975): 314-42 (p. 342).

65 S. C. Sen Gupta, Shakespeare's Historical Plays, 146.

66 E.g., 1.2.23, 263, 291; II.2.140-42.

67 Robert P. Adams, "Transformations in the Late Elizabethan Tragic Sense of Life: New Critical Approaches," MLQ 35 (1974): 353-63. Boris proposes that the appearance of James Γ s The Trew Law of Free Monarchies (1598) may have moved Shakespeare "to specify the importance of law, parliament, and council to a king in the proper government of England" (p. 229).

68 Smith, De Republica Anglorum, p. 21.

69 Boris, Shakespeare's English Kings, 35. On the "mystery" of monarchy in France, see Roland Mousnier, The Assassination of Henry IV, trans. Joan Spencer (London: Faber and Faber, 1973), 240-50.

70 Twysden, Certaine Considerations upon the Government of England, ed. John Mitchell Kemble. Camden Soc, vol. 45 (London, 1849), 18; Smith, De Republica Anglorum, 16 (Smith's reference to Louis XII may originate in Hotman, suggests the editor, p. xlii); Erasmus, "Spartam nactus es hanc orna," Adagia, 103.

71 Thomas Gainsford, The Glory of England (1618), 307; in France, "as for the Country-man, hee is called a Pesant, disparaged in his drudgery and servile toylsomnesse, liveth poore and beastly, is treacherous at advantage, and yet afraid of his owne shadow" (p. 241). Hall (fol. 110v) thought that during Henry VI's times the French towns went over to the French king because of their "abhoring theenglish libertie, and aspiring to the French bondage and native servitude."

72 Isaiah 32:10-20, noted by Walter, Arden ed., 143.

Abdication And Absolutism

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7968

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. Plato, who lists the qualities of a good king as being temperance, good memory, intelligence, courage and nobility of manner, took this view:

a monarch, when he decides to change the moral habits of a State, needs no great efforts nor a vast length of time, but what he does need is to lead the way himself first along the desired path ... by his personal example he should first trace out the right lines, giving praise and honour to these things, blame to those, and degrading the disobedient according to their several deeds (Laws, Bk IV).

What is surprising is that Plato should assume that it is easy for a monarch to change the morals of his subjects, and this is an assumption which is usually made by monarchists who think kings should rule by setting a good example. And Plato, of course, was not a monarchist anyway, which makes his statement even more surprising. It is still assumed that there is something special about kingship, as opposed to other forms of government. Sir Walter Ralegh, who was a staunch monarchist, also had a simplistic faith in the efficacy of a moral monarch. 'Subjects are made good by two means,' he wrote in The Cabinet-Council, 'by constraint of law, and the prince's example; for in all estates the people do imitate those conditions whereunto they see the prince inclined.'

Here there is a belief that people imitate examples set before them. Theatre is both an imitation and an example. Aristophanes believed that the necessity of a powerful moral example in the theatre was so strong that it required a poet of the stature of Aeschylus to 'save the city'. In The Frogs he prefers Aeschylus to Euripides because he is the better teacher, and likely to give better advice to his audience in a time of crisis.

That the king acts a part, and does not necessarily act it well, is expressed in Tasso's The Householders Philosophie which was, aptly enough, translated into English by the dramatist Kyd. Tasso draws a parallel with the theatre:

whatsoever others say, thou art thus to understand, that this distinction of Sovereign, Ruler, Governor, or Master, is first founded upon Nature, for some are naturally born to command, and others to obey. And he that is born to obey, were he of the King's blood, is nevertheless a servant, though he be not so reputed; because the people that only have regard to exterior things judge none otherwise of the conditions of men than they do in Tragedies of him they call the King, who, apparelled in Purple and glistering all in Gold and precious stones, represents the person of Agamemnon, Atreus, or Etheocles; where if he chance to fail in action, comeliness, or utterance, they do not derogate from his old title, but they say The King hath not played his part well.

Life, says Tasso, is a 'Theatre of the world'. Some princes 'act' better than others. Machiavelli took the concept one step further when he took the idea of 'acting' as a form of dissimulation, not to inspire the people, but to hoodwink them.

Shakespeare's Richard II does not play his part well. He does not play it well in two senses, firstly because he does not have the attributes of wisdom, temperance and judgment which make for a good king, but also because he is so very conscious of playing a role—he is, let us face it, downright theatrical. He dramatizes himself, and insists on wringing the last vestiges of pathos and irony from any given situation. The audience, both on and off stage, are aware that he is playing a role, putting on an act. Bolingbroke loses patience with his self-dramatizing, his determination to make a big production number out of each situation. In a political sense, he does not act effectively at all.

Macbeth, on the other hand, is a real man of action. He starts as a hero, and if he had been born to play the part of king he would have made a good job of it. It is only at the very end of the play, when his wife is dead and he himself faces defeat and death, that he realizes that the whole bloody mess, his usurpation of the throne and the murders which followed it, were all not worth while, and that being a king merely involves playing a role for a little while. He need not have bothered, and his ambition was worse than wicked—merely futile.

The idea that the anointed king is merely playing a role, one which he may act well or badly, is also reflected in the concept of the king's two bodies, the 'body politic' and the 'body natural'. The 'body natural', wrote Edmund Plowden in his Commentaries, is 'subject to all the Infirmities that come by Nature or Accident, to the Imbecility of Infancy or old Age', but

his Body politic is a Body that cannot be seen or handled, consisting of Policy and Government, and constituted for the Direction of the People, and the Management of the public-weal, and this Body is utterly void of Infancy, and old Age, and other natural Defects and Imbecilities which the Body natural is subject to, and for this Cause what the King does in his Body politic cannot be invalidated or frustrated by any Disability in his natural Body.

The body politic 'wipes away every Imperfection of the other with which it is consolidated'. So that 'he has a Body natural adorned and invested with the Estate and Dignity royal'. Like an actor.

During Shakespeare's lifetime a king was still required to be clean-living, not so much because of a primitive belief in pollution following the breaking of taboos, or rituals left undone, but because the king had to set an example. He not only had to do this so that his subjects would copy the example, but in order to govern wisely and well. 'A man must first govern himself,' wrote Ralegh, 'ere he be fit to govern a family; and his family, ere he be fit to bear a part in the government of the commonwealth.'4 Ralegh recognized that royalty were subject to special temptations. 'Great princes,' he wrote, 'rarely resist their appetites, as for the most part private men can.'5 He had no doubt that a bad king had to be endured as an unfortunate Act of God, 'as fire, floods and other inevitable plagues are necessarily to be suffered'. It is necessary for princes to resist their appetites and wherever possible to listen to those older and wiser than themselves. 'Experience hath proved that commonweals have prospered so long as good counsel did govern; but when favour, fear, or voluptuousness entered, those nations became disordered.' And he goes on to say that 'The election of counsellors is and ought to be chiefly among men of long experience and grave years'. All of which inevitably reminds us of Richard II, who was governed by his appetites and jeered at the counsel of old John of Gaunt.

Thus the king's personal habits continued to have a special significance in spite of a more sophisticated view of politics and kingship than that encountered amongst ancient Germanic people or, more recently, African tribes. This gives a new dimension to the long eulogy to Henry V which we find in Holinshed's Chronicles, and enables us to understand why Shakespeare's Henry had to turn his back on his old cronies on becoming king. The eulogy is very long, and Henry is described as a 'captain against whom fortune never frowned', a just and courageous king, who left no offence unpunished, no friendship unrewarded. But most noticeable is the emphasis on the purity of his private life. 'This Henry was a king, whose life was immaculate, and his living without spot.' We are also told that 'he did continually abstain himself from lascivious living and blind avarice'. In Macbeth, when Malcolm tests Macduff by pretending that he would make an even worse king than Macbeth, the first sin he lays claim to is voluptuousness and unbounded lust, and the second is 'a staunchless avarice'.

The concept of kingship as a fountainhead of pure living and hence good government is most aptly expressed by Webster in The Duchess of Malfl:

In seeking to reduce both state and people
To a fix'd order, their judicious king
Begins at home: quits first his royal palace
Of flatt'ring sycophants, of dissolute
And infamous persons . . .
Consid'ring duly, that a prince's court
Is like a common fountain, whence should flow
Pure silver drops in general: but if t chance
Some curs'd example poison't near the head,
Death, and diseases through the whole land spread.

Plowden also described the king as the 'fountain' of all 'Justice, Tranquility and Repose', which for him justifies the royal prerogative, which puts the king above the law. As we have seen, Guevara also described a prince as a fountainhead, on which the purity of streams depended. Plowden also uses an image with which we are familiar through Shakespeare (particularly Coriolanus), that of the king as head of a body, 'the Members thereof are his Subjects, and he and his Subjects together compose the Corporation'.

As a result the business of the king is the business of everyone, which is a good justification for re-enacting his deeds on a public stage, so that everyone should know about them. Plowden wrote that 'every Subject has an Interest in the King, and none of his Subjects that is within his Law is divided from the King who is his Head and Sovereign. So that his Business and Things concern the whole Realm.' This view of the king is reflected in Holinshed's description of Henry V: 'Every honest person was permitted to come to him, sitting at his meal, and either sincerely or openly to declare his mind and intent.' The image of Henry keeping open house to his subjects is almost feudal in conception: the royal palace as a meeting place for subjects. Significantly, Holinshed also praises Henry for his liberality, in spite of his own immaculate living.

The plays written by Shakespeare and his contemporaries dealt with the history of past kings. It is quite clear, both from these texts, and from other literature, such as Ralegh's writing, that subjects had no right to rebel against an evil or inadequate king. They had to suffer the yoke, because of his divine position. This view of kingship goes back to Anglo-Saxon times. 'The people,' wrote Aelfric, 'have the option to choose him for king who is agreeable to them; but after that he has been hallowed as king he has power over the people, and they must not shake his yoke from their necks.' Shakespeare's Richard II relies on the fact that

Not all the waters in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm of an anointed king

and in the long-term he is proved right, because the usurpers are ultimately punished, though not within his own lifetime.

But many of the plays deal with kings who were either downright evil, or injudicious, or voluptuous. How are we to explain this in the light of contemporary monarchist philosophy? Firstly the kings written about were all dead, and secondly history can provide 'examples' in more senses than one. History, wrote Ralegh in the Preface to his History of the World, allows us to see 'how kings and kingdoms have flourished and fallen; and for what virtue and piety God made prosperous, and for what vice and deformity he made wretched'. Holinshed saw the uses of history in similar terms. Whilst Montaigne gave carte blanche to critics of kings when he wrote:

Let us make this concession to the political order: to suffer them patiently if they are unworthy, to conceal their vices, to abet them by commending their indifferent actions if their authority needs our support. But, our dealings over, it is not right to deny to justice and to our liberty the expression of our true feelings, and especially to deny good subjects the glory of having reverently and faithfully served a master whose imperfections were so well known to them, and thus to deprive posterity of such a useful example (BK I, Essay 3).

Dead kings no longer require our uncritical obedience; on the contrary, we owe it to ourselves and posterity to tell the truth, however unflattering to the dead monarch. The king is required to control his appetites, according to sixteenth-century political philosophy in England, not because of any automatic pollution, as would be the case in a less developed society, where the king's functions are primarily sacerdotal, and not only because the king provides an example for his people to follow, although this is important enough. A king who is ruled by his appetites cannot make just and rational decisions, and does not treat his subjects with fairness and impartiality. He also becomes subject to bad influences at court. This sounds highly idealistic but is more concerned with Realpolitik, since the subjects with whom a monarch must deal fairly are not the peasantry, who do not matter a damn, but the nobility, who can cause a great deal of trouble if they feel they have a grievance.

Both Edward II and Richard II were considered by Holinshed as inadequate for these kinds of reasons, and Marlowe and Shakespeare gave the examples living reality by dramatizing the dire consequences of such regal weakness. For Holinshed Edward II exemplifies the anger and discontent which is aroused amongst the powerful nobility if the king has a particular favourite. In his Maxims of State Ralegh used the famous Elizabethan concept of 'degree' to emphasize that a king must control his nobility by ensuring that honour, power and wealth are fairly distributed amongst them. (The common people are relatively unimportant—in The Cabinet-Council Ralegh writes that 'the vulgar sort is generally variable, rash, hardy, and void of judgment', which is very much the way Shakespeare portrayed them.) All historians and dramatists of the period warn against the dangers of flattery and bad advice, which can lead a monarch astray. In elaborating his concept of 'degree and due proportion', Ralegh wrote that it was important for the king to ensure that no nobleman should

so excel in honour, power, or wealth, as that he resembles another king within the kingdom, as the house of Lancaster within this realm. To that end, not to load any with too much honour or preferment, because it is hard even for the best and worthiest men, to bear their greatness and high fortune temperately, as appeareth by infinite examples in all states.6

Here, in a nutshell, we have the tragic story of Macbeth, a valiant nobleman who was overloaded with honours by a king too weak to fight his own battles, and who could not bear his high fortune 'temperately'. Shakespeare does not emphasize the regal weaknesses of Duncan in his play, where the main emphasis is on his age, but Holinshed tells us that Duncan was 'soft and gentle of nature' and 'negligent in punishing offenders', so that his reign was upset by 'seditious commotions'. But the worthiness of Macbeth in the eyes of his fellow nobles and the king, and the latter's reliance on him, are never in doubt in the early, expository part of the play. Duncan had failed to keep political 'degree', and chaos came upon his kingdom as a result.

The seditious commotions which plagued Richard II were also of his own making, and thus provided a useful example for posterity. Unfortunately, in the case of Shakespeare's play on the subject, the historical example came uncomfortably close to reality: Elizabeth saw herself as Richard and the supporters of the rebellious Essex had the play revived in 1601 for propaganda purposes. Holinshed wrote that Richard

forgot himself, and began to rule by will more than by reason, threatening death to each one that obeyed not his inordinate desires: by means whereof, the lords of the realm began to fear their own estates, being in danger of his furious outrage whom they took for a man destitute of sobriety and wisdom, and therefore could not like of him, that so abused his authority.

Thus Richard lacks the personal virtues of clean-living and temperance which were thought essential to good monarchy, and also fails to observe Ralegh's 'degree'. The fact that almost the entire nobility should have rallied to the Duke of Lancaster is emphasized by Holinshed as 'a very notable example, and not unworthy of all Princes to be well weighed'. Essex, however, proved no Bolingbroke.

Holinshed, in the preface to his Chronicles, stated his belief that the main purpose in the writing of history was 'the daunting of the vicious' by 'penal examples', apart from the encouragement of patriotism. If Richard II provided one penal example, no one more than Edward II illustrated the consequences of wanton living in a monarch. Through the influence of Gaveston, writes Holinshed,

he was suddenly so corrupted, that he burst out into most heinous vices .. . he began to have his nobles in no regard, to set nothing by their instructions, and to take small heed unto the government of the common wealth, so that within a while, he gave himself to wantonness, passing his time in voluptuous pleasure, and riotous excess . . .

Piers Gaveston saw to it that Edward's court was full of 'jesters, ruffians, flattering parasites, musicians, and other vile and naughty ribalds', so that the king spent 'both days and night in jesting, playing, banqueting and in such other filthy and dishonourable exercises'. Moreover, he procured 'honourable offices' for these ruffians, and antagonized the peers of the realm by his arrogant manner.

If historians thought the main function of history was to provide political 'examples' of virtue rewarded and vice punished for the instruction of the living, there is no reason to suppose that the authors of historical plays did not see their function in a very similar light. The fact that vice can be so entertaining is of course an added bonus.

The chronicling and dramatization of the history of past kings serves to provide examples for the contemporary audience or reader. But another function is also served, and that is the justification and explication of the present. We have seen that such a function was served in Greek tragedy, where the stories dramatized helped to provide an origin and to explain a current religious rite or custom. A similar function is served by Christian nativity and passion plays, and the ritual drama of the aborigines also served to explain the present in terms of a dim and distant past, the Wingara.

The Shakespearian plays which deal with the real or supposed past of the British Isles also serve a purpose of this kind. The most obvious example, with which every student is familiar, is the whole series which (chronologically in history) follows on the tragedy of Richard II, through the civil turmoils which followed, to the establishment of the glorious Tudor present. But Macbeth is another example, although it is not usually seen in this light, since it is a self-contained play, set in a dim and distant past, a play which is both a highly entertaining thriller and constructed in a way which conforms neatly to the theories of Bradley or any other critic of the tragic 'form'.

Macbeth was written shortly after the accession of James VI of Scotland to the English throne. With his reign began a new dynasty, and we see this dynasty foretold in the play, by the witches who prophesy and reveal an unending line of kings descending from Banquo, the fictional ancestor of James I, first Stuart king of England. Shakespeare got Banquo from Holinshed, who got him from Boece, who invented both Banquo and the witches in order to give the Stuarts a respectable pedigree. No doubt James must have been pleased to see a play with so much emphasis on witchcraft, since he firmly believed in witches, but the long line of kings stretching to the crack of doom, ie. long past James himself, must have been even more gratifying.

In a society basically committed to the idea of a static state, prophecy is a way of validating political change. Thus the invention of Boece, visibly dramatized by Shakespeare, helped to make a new royal family acceptable to a public who had only recently been inculcated with Tudor mythology. Prophecy gives an added force to this long pedigree, because it is supernatural and therefore implies both inevitability and divine sanction. The fact that the witches are agents of the Devil (and their prophecies to Macbeth are deliberately misleading) is a theological point which Shakespeare rather glides over. In his Daemonologie, published in 1597, only a few years before his accession to the English throne and the composition of Macbeth, James VI of Scotland discussed at some length whether the Devil and his agents could look into the future, and concluded that although witches could make some guesses by judging from past experience and the laws of natural causes, true prophecy belonged to God. The theological dilemma can, however, be resolved by the assumption that a contemporary audience would have regarded the line of kings as 'true' since the Stuarts had already ascended the English throne, thus fulfilling the prophecy. If the witches were allowed to show the truth, no doubt it was only to punish and torment Macbeth.

We have already tried to show at some length that disaster as a punishment for sin is a concept of cause and effect inherent in tragic drama, as it is inherent in a religious view of the world. It pre-dates the scientific rationalism which has, since Shakespeare's day, overtaken our own society and changed our attitudes to most, though by no means all, misfortunes that can overtake mankind.

In the sixteenth century history and politics were very much viewed as part of such a pattern of cause and effect, and it was not only the poets who imposed that kind of order on reality and on the past.

One of the disasters which the Elizabethans feared most was civil war, and strong monarchy provided security against such dissension. The Wars of the Roses provided a recent example of the horrors such political chaos could bring upon a nation. 'The greatest and most grievous calamity that can come to any state is civil war,' wrote Ralegh. Such calamity is viewed as the result of sin, a punishment brought upon the people. In Shakespeare's famous history cycle the Wars of the Roses follow on the sin of regicide. Holinshed constantly ascribes foreign invasions to internal factions: the Romans, he writes, were able to invade Britain 'the sooner doubtless, by reason of the factions amongst the Princes of the land,' and the Saxons were always quarrelling and fighting amongst themselves, 'so as no perfect order of government could be framed, nor the Kings grow to any great puissance, either to move wars abroad, or sufficiently to defend themselves against foreign forces at home'. Foreign invasions are punishments for misdemeanours at home (Lear, Macbeth, and Hamlet all end with a foreign invasion force). Insufferable tyranny, on the other hand, is also punished by the hand of God. The Danes, wrote Holinshed, were so barbarous that God

would not suffer them to continue any while over us, but when he saw his time he removed their yoke, and gave us liberty, as it were to breath us, thereby to see whether this his sharp scourge could have moved us to repentance and amendment of our lewd and sinful lives, or not. But when no sign thereof appeared in our hearts, he called in another nation to vex us, I mean the Normans.

Holinshed believed that in a dim and distant golden age the whole island had been ruled by one prince, and that this idyllic state of affairs had been ruined by 'ambition' and internal strife. Like all golden ages, it is seen as ending through human sin. It also reflects the wistful longings of a people who had been having trouble with the Welsh and Scottish peoples for many, many centuries.

Two plays of the period mirror this vision of unity and its destruction. Both are set in ancient Britain, and thus provide an origin for the afflictions which have beset the English people since those dim and distant times through human—and particularly royal—folly. One is Gorboduc, written by Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville in 1561 and usually termed the first English tragedy, and the other is King Lear, written forty years later. Although we do not think of these plays as 'histories' we must remember that to contemporary audiences Gorboduc and Lear, just like Macbeth, were historical kings. All three figure in Holinshed, for example.

Both Gorboduc and King Lear feature an ancient king who, because of his advanced years, wishes to abrogate his responsibilities and divide his kingdom amongst his heirs. (The failing powers of an old king can here be linked in a very real way with a belief in kingship which inspires certain societies to equate the health of their king with the life force of the society itself, and thus dispose of an ailing king.) Lear divides his kingdom between two of his daughters, disinheriting the third, and Gorboduc divides his kingdom between his two sons. In each case the result is civil strife.

The play of Gorboduc starts with a dumbshow designed to signify that 'a state of unity doth continue strong against all force, but being divided, is easily destroyed', a sentiment very much in evidence in the writings of Holinshed. Gorboduc is a crude play but it is useful for a greater understanding of King Lear, because it overtly expresses many of the political concepts which are implicit in Shakespeare's play. It also helps us to understand how Shakespeare, using the theme of the abdicating king and father, fused the relationship between natural order and political order into a poetic whole. A link which is much more baldly stated in Gorboduc,

Gorboduc, like Lear, is deaf to wise counsel when he first makes his decision to abdicate. In most societies age confers higher status on a man, but in societies which are conceived of as inherently static, that is, governed by a natural order which is also the political order, which exists for all time and is divine in origin, age and seniority confer special status which must be observed. Seniority was strictly observed amongst the aborigine tribes .. . ; age was also linked to status in fifth-century Athens. Thus, by allowing himself to be ruled by his own children, Gorboduc (like Lear) is overturning the natural order, which is also the political order. One of his advisers warns him

To yield to them your royal governance,
To be above them only in the name
Of father, not in kingly state also,
I think not good for you, for them, nor us.

And the reason why it is not good for either the royal household or the country at large is spelt out:

Nature hath her order and her course,
Which (being broken) doth corrupt the state
Of mind and things, ev'n in the best of all.

Much has been written about the concept of 'nature' in King Lear. In Shakespeare's play the emphasis is on the 'unnatural' behaviour of children, and from there the whole play is broadened out into a dialectic on what should be regarded as natural and unnatural. What is not brought out in the text itself is the fact that Lear was himself behaving in an unnatural way by abrogating his responsibility as king and father, and that by abdicating his authority he was himself the author of the chaos that followed. Of course we see, as a twentieth-century audience, that he was to blame in that his behaviour was rash, autocratic and foolhardy, and we may regard him as an unnatural father in his behaviour to Cordelia. But a contemporary audience would have understood, without having to be told, that his real irresponsibility lay in abdicating and dividing the kingdom. In Shakespeare's plays fathers are habitually authoritarian in their dealings with their daughters: this in itself would not have seemed blameworthy to Shakespeare (who obviously had troubled dealings with his own daughters) or to his patriarchal audience.

A man, said Ralegh, must first learn to govern his own family before he is fit to govern the commonwealth, and before that he must learn to govern himself. Lear obviously cannot govern himself, and when he gives up his kingdom he also gives up the ability to govern his family. Gorboduc is warned of the consequences of his action

When fathers cease to know that they should rule,
The children cease to know they should obey;

We must remember that in a society where age is an element in the structure of social hierarchy, the necessity for 'children' to obey and respect their elders, particularly their parents, most particularly the father, does not cease when they become adults. The sons of Gorboduc are obviously not minors, or there could be no question of dividing the kingdom between them. In Shakespeare's King Lear we have both a questioning dialectic on the nature of Nature and a much more subtle characterization because Shakespeare understands that such a hierarchy of seniority raises problems: his daughters are grown-up women with minds of their own, just as Edmund is no less a human being for being born a bastard. And as Cordelia rightly points out, once a woman marries half her love and duty must go to her husband, who is her new lord and master in the patriarchal system.

Gorboduc, which is a relatively crude play devoid of real poetic imagination, reads more like a political tract in places. As a result it provides useful information on contemporary attitudes, when a greater work, like King Lear cannot necessarily be regarded as representative. The authors of Gorboduc also recognized that the hierarchy of age seniority raised real problems. In relation to the problems of primogeniture they discuss the sibling rivalry which can follow as a manifestation of the goddess Nature:

And such an equalness hath Nature made
Between the brethren of one father's seed,
As an unkindly wrong it seems to be,
To throw the brother subject under feet
Of him, whose peer he is by course of kind;
And Nature, that did make this equalness,
Oft so repineth at so great a wrong,
That oft she raiseth up a grudging grief
In younger brethren at the elder's state:
Whereby both towns and kingdoms have been rased,
And famous stocks of royal blood destroyed:

Edmund's famous monologue in King Lear is usually regarded as the last word in irreverence, but the above speech, which is spoken on good authority by a wise counsellor, would appear to give him some justification in contemporary eyes. If Edmund's attitude was not correct, it was at least understandable:

Thou, Nature, art my goddess; to thy law
My services are bound. Wherefore should I
Stand in the plague of custom, and permit
The curiosity of nations to deprive me,
For that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines
Lag of a brother?

It is significant that his first objection is not to being discriminated against on the grounds of being a bastard, but because he is a year younger than his brother.

So he appears to justify his attitude firstly by telling the audience that he intends to obey the goddess Nature, as is only natural, a concept that they were already familiar with (as Gorboduc shows) and strengthens his case by the complaint about being a younger son, before going on to argue against the concept of bastardy. No doubt there were many younger sons in the audience who were only too ready to sympathize. Both plays recognize that in some points Nature seems to be at odds with itself, and certainly at odds with human customs and the social order, and no doubt contemporary audiences understood this from personal experience. The basic philosophy of a social and political order based on 'natural' order was not always as neat in practice as it was made out to be in principle, and the dramatized conflicts as presented in the theatre could attempt to resolve them, not necessarily in argument, but in the ending of the play, which is the resolution. In the case of Edmund his argument is undermined by making him a metaphorical bastard, a thoroughly bad lot. His logic may be impeccable, but his actions turn the audience against him. When he goes under his original argument appears to have been refuted. The status quo is restored, the custom of primogeniture and legitimacy appears to have been justified, and the audience have long forgotten (if they were inclined to sympathize with Edmund) that he really would have appeared to have suffered a basic injustice in the first place. A modern dramatist, working within a different system of ethics, would present Edmund as socially deprived, someone with a chip on his shoulder as a result of emotional or economic deprivation in his formative years, a criminal as a result of a broken home, with an absentee father or mother.

Gorboduc gives us an origin for the loss of that golden age which Holinshed and his contemporaries envisaged, a time when Britain was ruled by one monarch, and its people enjoyed peace, since lost for ever. When Gorboduc is warned against dividing his kindgom one counsellor tells him

Within one land, one single rule is best:
Divided reigns do make divided hearts;

And he is also reminded that his ancestor, the mythical Brutus, made a similar mistake when he divided his kingdom between his three sons:

But how much British blood hath since been spilt,
To join again the sunder'd unity!

But Gorboduc does not follow 'grave advice', instead he follows 'wilful will' and is a victim of flattery, thus showing very much the same weaknesses as Lear. At the end of the play the British people are left with no monarch at all and the threat of an imminent foreign invasion. The equation between civil strife and an inability to resist foreign invasion, so clearly stated in Holinshed, is also clearly stated in this play. The parallel with the ending of King Lear is also obvious. We are surely not making too great an assumption in thinking that a contemporary audience would have seen in Shakespeare's play yet another origin of later strife. At the very least he provided a warning and example. Like Gorboduc, who

A mirror shall become to princes all,
To learn to shun the cause of such a fall.

If Lear is at once an example of how kings should not behave and a possible origin for the British falling away from a supposed golden age of political unity, he is also something much more. In history he may be one of the first kings of the island, but in a poetic and imaginative sense Shakespeare sees him as the end of a line, the last of a line of kings. He did of course depart quite fundamentally from Holinshed, who had Lear restored to the throne by the forces of Cordelia, but also departed radically from an earlier dramatization of the story, which also ended happily. One could say that his pessimism was inspired by reading a little further into Holinshed, who tells us that Cordelia succeeded her father to the throne, but that her nephews levied war against her and took her prisoner, whereupon she killed herself. But the feeling one has that Lear is the last of a line of kings is reinforced by the perfunctory and ambiguous ending: the political order is not restored, no one really believes in Edgar as the next ruler, least of all himself. He is only a stand-in—for what? The answer is left blank, a vacuum is suggested. Instead of a moral and positive speech to round the play off we have four sad lines, the ambiguity of which has been commented on by Peter Brook in The Empty Space:

The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most: we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

To me the second line suggests a deliberate rejection of the political platitude of order restored, whilst the last two suggest that the time of chaos is not over, and that Edgar and his contemporaries will have short and violent lives, and cannot expect to die quietly in their beds of old age.

As an entity the play of King Lear presents us with a very profound exploration of the nature of Nature, and a dialectic on two opposing points of view runs right through it. Some characters, notably Edmund, present a cynical view of the universe where both human nature and the forces of nature are cruel, and where the gods do not care what happens to us, and even enjoy our sufferings. The other view, represented by the forces of right, maintains that the gods are just, and that wickedness will inevitably be punished in the end. Now, the first view undoubtedly comes over more forcibly throughout the play, and although Shakespeare makes his wicked characters die one feels that they did so more by accident than through any Grand Design. The positive view is put forward very feebly—by Albany, for instance, who hardly comes across as a strong character. Gloucester, who starts off as foolishly complacent in his religious beliefs, becomes highly pessimistic as a result of his suffering, and is only reconverted to piety by a trick in his pathetic blindness, one which is visible to the entire audience. Edgar may be doing him a kindness in deceiving him, but it is a kindness played upon an old man who cannot bear too much reality.

Now the position of kingship depends upon a belief in a natural and moral order which also includes a political order. Kings were put there by God, and their subjects' obedience depended on a recognition of this fact. One very practical reason for continued support for the monarchy in sixteenth-century England was this divine sanction. 'Monarchies royal,' wrote Ralegh in The Cabinet-Council 'are for the most part ancient and hereditary, and consequently easy to be governed. For it is sufficient for the prince to maintain the old laws, and on occasion temporise with those accidents that happen.' Machiavelli also recognized the practical advantages of hereditary rule.

But what if there is no such divine and natural order, no degree upon which the monarchy depends? In Richard II we are certainly shown that it is no good a monarch depending too heavily on his divine status, but nevertheless his actions and what happens to him are incorporated into that broader political philosophy of a bigger order embracing incidental chaos. This is not the case in King Lear.

Lear certainly breaks the rules of monarchy by being arrogant, wilful, and deaf to good advice. But Shakespeare's characters in this play do not argue a political case, as they do in Richard II or Gorboduc. Ultimately the struggle is not between human beings fighting for power but between Lear and the elements. Richard relies on the fact that he has been anointed by the society over which he rules, but Lear goes much further: he abandons political power but still relies on a special relationship with the gods (expressed in non-Christian terms as Lear is supposed to be an ancient British king). He is constantly calling on the powers above to pour curses on his disobedient daughters. When he disowns Cordelia he summons down Jove's thunder, and demands that lightning should strike her blind.

But the elements are indifferent to his regal authority. They do not, it appears, distinguish between a king and the meanest beggar. When the storm breaks, it is Lear who gets wet.

In a sense Lear has only himself to blame, as the Fool points out. In a society which equated old age with wisdom, he had grown old without growing wise and he had turned degree topsy-turvy, like Gorboduc, in making his daughters his mothers. But the vision of chaos and monstrosity which the play represents goes far beyond any sin of omission or commission on Lear's part. He has indeed spawned monsters, humanity does 'prey on itself, and Goneril and Regan are offsprings of the same legitimate marriage bed as Cordelia; they cannot be explained away, like Edmund, on the grounds of bastardy and an adulterous relationship.

Did Shakespeare see Lear as a 'last' king, the end of a line, in the sense that he represented a type of kingship no longer associated with his own period, the kind of kingship we find in tribal societies, or in Anglo-Saxon England, or was he doing a more thorough demolition job in associating him with kingship in general? It seems to me that the historical sense of Shakespeare and his contemporaries was very unlike our own, and such distinctions between different kinds of monarchy would have been quite alien to him. Sixteenth-century historians viewed the past as basically a static state, interrupted by periods of commotion from time to time, and their own period with its monarchy as a continuation of that static state. I think that one therefore must conclude that the vision of the universe which Shakespeare presented in King Lear was one which made the concept of kingship a nonsense and an absurdity. Lear is not deposed or usurped in the normal way of histories or historical tragedies. He is gradually made aware of his own humanity, his weak flesh, his affinity with the meanest beggars in the land once his royal trappings are stripped away. Calls to the powers above are useless, they are deaf and blind and the heavens merely piss on his unprotected head. He does not need to be got rid of by murder: he dies of his own accord, of a broken heart.

Shakespeare had done with history, and the tragedy of kings. From them on his kings belonged to fairy land, to romances where reconciliation between fathers and daughters, husbands and wives, was still possible; his kings belonged to a world of make-believe where wounds could still be healed and lost kingdoms restored. We may regard this as a higher wisdom, but there is no doubt that Shakespeare turned his back on monarchism as a positive political reality.

From then on the history of kings was to play an increasingly unimportant part in English drama. With the bourgeois revolution and the execution of Charles I the figures of kings lost their symbolic and political potency. The need for examples was lost, since bad kings could be disposed of and did not represent the organic head of the state. One could chop the head off and the state would survive. The taboo surrounding the awesome sin of regicide was lost, and the killing of the king no longer represented an explanation for consequent political turmoil or public and private suffering. The Restoration of 1660 did not bring with it a restoration of the old charisma surrounding the monarchy, and attempts at tragic drama set in royal palaces were a flop. Instead the theatre depicted a world of wealthy immorality and private pleasure, totally divorced from any sense of social responsibility.

In France the hothouse flowering of the French tragic drama of royalty represented an absolutism enforced by strict literary censorship. The tragedies of Corneille and Racine are written specifically for an élitist audience, and they represent all too clearly the divorce between monarchy and people. The royal personages in these dramas have no political responsibility, they move in a goldfish bowl of private passions, obsessed with honour, divorced from the rest of society. Ordinary mortals have no place in these plays except as servants, confidants conveniently placed to listen to their woes. Significantly, these dramatists could not draw on the real history of the French people and its monarchy; they were forced to draw on a false, neoclassical model and parade their characters in togas or Spanish costumes, anywhere, just so long as the setting and costume were not French. And if necessary classical models had to be altered so as not to offend the gratifying self-image that the French aristocracy had of itself, as quite unlike the rest of humanity. Strange as it may seem to us, with our theatrical traditions, Racine's characters were often considered scandalously unkinglike. Corneille was better at toeing the political line and giving his tiny public what they wanted. But even Racine altered the story of Phèdre, for example, so that it is her nurse who accuses Hippolyte and brings about his death—he thought such an action unsuitable for a princess. 'Cette bassesse m'a paru plus convenable a une nourrice, qui pouvoit avoir des inclinations plus serviles', he wrote.

French absolutism and censorship resulted in tragic drama which not only did not reflect the ideals and aspirations of a cross-section of society, a collective consciousness; it did not even reflect the true humanity of the tiny minority to whom it was addressed. What the drama does reveal is the extent of the divorce between rulers and ruled, the lack of any sense, so strong in English writing of the sixteenth-century, that the king's business is the business of everyone, because the welfare of the nation depends on him, and that his royal prerogative is dependent on his royal responsibility. Kings are not shown to govern, well or badly, and do not provide examples. Marooned in their palaces, their tragedies are purely private, honour and duty conflicting with passion and desire. No commotion, no fighting, no sounds of thunder breaking overhead. But in the silence, with hindsight, we can hear the tumbrils beginning to roll.


4 W. Ralegh, Maxims of State (Works, Vol. 8, 1829).

5Idem., The Cabinet-Council (Works, Vol. 8, 1829).

6Idem., Maxims of State (Works, Vol. 8, 1829).

Further Reading

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 330

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 Limited, 1967.

Argues that by dramatizing the Elizabethan ideal of kingship in his chronicle history plays, Shakespeare present a monarch's primary justification for rule as the overall welfare of the people rather than the dictates of divine right.

Merrix, Robert P. and Carole Levin. "Richard II and Edward II: The Structure of Deposition." Shakespeare Yearbook I (Spring 1990): 1-13.

Traces affinities between the deposition scenes in Richard II and Christopher Marlowe's Edward II.

Moseley, C. W. R. D. "Sad Stories of the Death of Kings." In Shakespeare 's History Plays Richard II to Henry V: The Making of a King, pp. 54-72. London: Penguin Books, 1988.

Examines the nature of kingship by studying themes of political obedience, duty, and rebellion in Shakespeare's histories.

Rabkin, Norman. "Rabbits, Ducks, and Henry V" Shakespeare Quarterly 28, No. 3 (Summer 1977): 279-96.

Explores Henry V as a play that presents a "multivalent perception of reality" in its critically ambiguous title character.

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Knowing aforehand: Audience Preparation and the Comedies of Shakespeare

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