William Shakespeare Kingship - Essay


(Shakespearean Criticism)


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

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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" (V.vi.51-2). 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" (V.vi.77). 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" (V.vi.78-9). 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...

(The entire section is 26305 words.)

Monarchy And Ceremony

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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....

(The entire section is 22681 words.)

Abdication And Absolutism

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 7968 words.)

Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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):...

(The entire section is 330 words.)