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The issue of succession is significant in many of Shakespeare's plays, especially the history plays, which include the two historical tetralogies (Richard II, Henry IV, Parts One and Two, and Henry V; and Henry VI, Parts One, Two, and Three, and Richard III) as well as King John. Scholars explain that the topic figures so prominently in Shakespeare's work due to the fact that Queen Elizabeth, the “virgin queen,” had no heirs. Additionally, doubts about Elizabeth's own legitimacy as the rightful monarch plagued her reign. Among Shakespeare and his contemporaries, therefore, questions regarding lineage, legitimacy, and succession were commonly circulated. The plays' relation to this historical issue is of the utmost interest to a number of critics, many of whom attempt to assess what Shakespeare's own political sympathies were. The topic of succession is important in Shakespeare's tragedies as well, notably in Macbeth and Hamlet. The parallels between the transfer of power from Queen Elizabeth to King James—a highly charged political concern at the time these tragedies were written—provides another source for the critical evaluation of succession in Shakespeare's plays.

In King John, Shakespeare explored the issue of what establishes a “right” to the throne of England. William H. Matchett (1962) reviews this topic, noting that King John usurped the throne from Arthur, the rightful ruler, but that Philip the Bastard seems to possess the qualities of a true king. In the end, Matchett argues, neither power nor prestige count for much. Rather, true honor is possessed by the rightful king, and this trait is based on duty, that is, on what is best for England. Like Matchett, Robert Lane (1995) investigates the subject of succession in King John. Lane demonstrates that both King John and Queen Elizabeth's reigns were marred by doubts about legitimacy. The play highlights these similarities, Lane states, by examining a number of issues, including the people's involvement in the process of selecting a successor. Phyllis Rackin (1990) takes a broader approach to the topic of succession, studying the way two Renaissance theories of historical succession, or causation, are portrayed in the historical plays. Rackin identifies the conflict between providential and Machiavellian outlooks on historical causation as the genesis of the “theatrical energy” of the plays. This conflict is represented in different ways in the history plays. For example, Rackin maintains that in Richard III Shakespeare forced a sense of providential order on the chaos that arose from the Machiavellian power struggles in the Henry VI plays, but in King John he advocated a Machiavellian approach to kingship. William C. Carroll (1992) also reviews the apparent providentialism of Richard III. Carroll finds that although it seems that the Tudor myth of providential succession is portrayed in the play, in fact the principles of social order, including that of succession, are compromised, and that Shakespeare reveals a certain skepticism regarding the nature of logical succession.

The issue of succession in Macbeth is revealed in the play's concern with children and babies; that is, heirs, maintains Sarah Wintle and René Weis (1991). While King James I, who succeeded Elizabeth and who reigned at the time Macbeth was written, had children and an heir, he was nevertheless concerned with legitimacy and succession, and was known to be obsessed with his own ancestry. Wintle and Weis find parallels between the play's concerns and those of James I. Like Wintle and Weis, Jonathan Baldo (1996) finds links between James I, his style of rule, and Macbeth. Unlike Elizabeth, who stressed her legitimacy through theatrical demonstrations of power, James, a more aloof ruler, addressed concerns related to legitimacy by emphasizing lineal succession. Baldo underscores that Macbeth is similarly focused on aloofness as a style of rule, and on lineal succession. Additionally, Baldo comments on the relationship between the character of Malcolm and King James. Concerns regarding King James's journey to the English throne are reflected in Hamlet, argues Stuart M. Kurland (1994). Kurland explores the relationship between the political atmosphere of the play and that in England in the 1590s. During that time, Kurland states, England had grown uneasy due to the possibility that James might capture the English throne through military action. Kurland cautions, however, that despite such parallels, the “militaristic Fortinbras” should not be viewed as a theatrical representation of James, nor does Hamlet necessarily represent Essex, the leader of a failed rebellion against Queen Elizabeth.

William H. Matchett (essay date 1962)

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SOURCE: “Richard's Divided Heritage in King John,” in Essays in Criticism, Vol. XII, No. 3, July, 1962, pp. 231-53.

[In the following essay, Matchett maintains that the plot of King John focuses on the issue of the “right” to the throne, and studies the claims to the throne of Arthur, John, and the Bastard. The critic asserts that in King Johnthe mark of a true king is decided not by power or prestige, but on the basis of what is best for England.]

In ‘Commodity and Honour in King John’ (University of Toronto Quarterly, April, 1960, 341-56) Mr. James Calderwood demonstrates the essential role of those themes in Shakespeare's play. I should like to confirm, strengthen and extend his perceptive analysis through a discussion of structure. In brief, my argument is as follows: The plot of King John is built around the question of who should be King of England and thus of what constitutes a ‘right’ to the throne. In the first act, three characters are shown to have particular claims to the crown. With the death of Arthur, the failure and eventual collapse of John and, through the course of the play, the growth of the Bastard in his perception of the distinction between commodity and true honour, it would appear that the Bastard is being groomed to take over as the rightful king. The final scenes, however, with their surprising introduction of a new claimant of unknown character and ability, defeat this expectation and shift the emphasis from the original question to a deeper consideration of the requirements of honour. The very qualities which constitute the Bastard's claim to the throne lead to his repudiation of personal ambition and his kneeling to Prince Henry. True honour, a matter not of prestige and power but of duty, is decided, in this play, upon the basis of what is best for England. The Bastard, in kneeling, renounces his recently established ‘right’ to the throne and thus ensures his already suffering country against civil war. True honour makes him the best of subjects in a unified England and this, in the logic of the play, is more important than the character of the King.

A crux in this reading of the play, as it is in Calderwood's discussion of the central themes, is the weight of meaning it finds in the Bastard's kneeling to Prince Henry. Speeches at that place, as critics will point out, do not sustain the argument that the Bastard, in kneeling, is renouncing a personal claim to the crown. Similarly, both Calderwood and I interpret V, vi, as a scene in which Hubert is inviting the Bastard to seize the throne, while critics may claim that the text of that scene does not justify such a reading. I would agree that the speeches in these two key scenes do not deal explicitly with the issue as I see it, but I hope to demonstrate that Shakespeare is working by means of dramatic implication. The speeches are understatements (not, it is worth pointing out, contradictions) of the issue, while the main weight of meaning in the actions and speeches is carried by their relationship to the inevitable expectations aroused by the structure of the play.


King John enters his play as a usurper. Unlike his mother, he offers no objection to Chatillon's reference to his ‘borrow'd majesty’ (4),1 and even Eleanor's objection is a political gesture, not an assertion of principle, as is clear as soon as Chatillon has left the stage. When Chatillon urges Arthur's right to the throne (based, of course, upon primogeniture), John's response is not an argument but the cold question ‘What follows if we disallow of this?’ (16). The dramatic image is unmistakable. Chatillon three times uses the word ‘right’ for Arthur's claim; John's only rebuttal is force, ‘war for war and blood for blood’ (19). Eleanor also, though she disapproves of ‘ambitious Constance’ (32), speaks of ‘the right and party of her son’ (34). Finally, when John couples ‘Our strong possession and our right’ (39), Elanor immediately distinguishes them, leaving John's position dependent upon ‘Your strong possession much more than your right’ (40). John is king de facto but not de jure.

It is necessary to insist upon this initial image in the play because critics, pointing to Holinished and Richard I's will, have shown that John had in fact a legitimate claim to the throne. Historically perhaps, but not here. John's claim to the throne is his presence on it and the issue raised is one of possession vs. right.

The remainder of the act, devoted to introducing the Bastard, repeats the national situation on a domestic scale. The Bastard is also in possession of an estate to which another, his half-brother Robert, is the rightful heir. Our sympathies, like John's, are of course with the ‘good blunt fellow’ (71); under the influence of these sympathies, however, both ‘right’ and ‘honour’ begin to twist in our hands. Robert's assumed moral right to his inheritance is denied by John in the name of another right, the legal fiction of the Bastard's legitimacy. Everyone concerned knows that Robert, for lack of sufficient proof, like Arthur, for lack of sufficient power, is being ‘legally’ cheated. Though he happens to have truth on his side and to be fighting for his right, Robert is, dramatically, a deserving victim both because of his unprepossessing appearance, especially in comparison with the Bastard, and his willingness to sacrifice his mother's good name, however undeserved, for his own gain.

But the Bastard, unlike John, is not permitted to enjoy his dishonourably held possessions. To save him for his later role in the play, he is presented with a choice between ‘honour’ and possessions. He chooses ‘honour’ (here merely ‘reputation’) and his ambitious choice immediately pays off, for John knights him—‘Arise Sir Richard, and Plantagenet’ (162). There is in his response an impetuous decisiveness, uncalculating, heedless of consequences, a little naïve. He is not one to ask ‘What follows if we disallow of this?’ but says at once, ‘I'll take my chance’ (151). In appearance already judged ‘perfect Richard’ (90), the image of his father, he further convinces his grandmother of his parentage by his blunt, bawdy and attractive enthusiasm:

[to Robert] Brother by th' mother's side, give me your hand:
My father gave me honour, yours gave land.
Now blessed be the hour [punning with whore], by night or day,
When I was got, Sir Robert was away!
The very spirit of Plantagenet!


Though we have not yet seen Arthur, it is clear that the first act has set up three characters as each being in a special relation to kingship through his share in Richard's heritage: the nephew, Arthur, the throneless rightful king; the brother, John, who has usurped the throne; and the bastard son, who, with neither right to nor possession of the throne, has nevertheless inherited the self-reliant decisiveness of a true king. For the memory of Coeur-de-lion haunts this play as the mythically heightened image of a good and heroic king. A little cuckolding on the side merely proved his manliness, and it is the manliness of ‘this same lusty gentleman’ (108), his son, that is played off against the debility of Sir Robert's son by the same mother. Coeur-de-lion triumphantly combined what has now been divided, his right going to the child, Arthur, his throne to the man, John, and his personal qualities to the youth, Sir Richard, the son who now has his name. The division is an imbalance demanding resolution: which—right, possession, or character—is the essential ingredient for a king? Arthur has been denied his right and John's possession is threatened; only the Bastard cannot be alienated from his inheritance, for it is intrinsic and he can boast, ‘I am I, howe'er I was begot’ (175).

There would seem to be a contradiction, then, between the Bastard's self-sufficient character and his pursuit of an honour which is merely reputation. So there is. His discovery and handling of this contradiction is a primary development in the play. But the reputation he has chosen is one to which he has in fact a right: gambling on future ‘chance’, he trades his spurious respectability for an honest reputation as a royal bastard. He has made the right choice for the wrong reason; he has yet to add insight to the character which is already his. It is safe to say that the first act leaves the audience more interested in what will happen to the Bastard than in the immediate challenge to John, which, in the absence of Arthur, has as yet been somewhat abstract.


The second act, however, is concerned almost completely with the dynastic struggle, and the Bastard, though he attempts once, unsuccessfully, to control the action, serves primarily as an observant commentator. His simple presence as an observer needs to be stressed since, in the shade of his lively comments, one might overlook its importance: his political education is beginning and he has much to learn. By the end of the act the once naïve young man has found the proper name for the political motivation he observes.

The point at issue between John and Arthur, so clearly stated in the first act, becomes more ambiguous when looked at more closely in the second; we meet Arthur in circumstances which overshadow his right. While his immaturity and weakness may attract some personal sympathy, sympathy for his cause is dissipated as we observe the company he keeps. King Richard's rightful heir is first seen agreeing to ‘Embrace’, ‘love’, ‘welcome’ and ‘forgive’ (11-12) Austria, the man who killed King Richard. Instead of avenging England's honour, which he is of course too weak to do, Arthur—or Constance through Arthur—is seeking to further his cause and to force his way into Angiers by embracing England's enemies. The patriotic determination to ‘follow arms’ till England, ‘That water-walled bulwark, still secure / And confident from foreign purposes … Salute thee for her king’ (27-31) rings falsely from the tongue of one who is not merely a foreigner but the very foreigner who wears the lion-skin of England's last rightful king. After his first brief, formal (and no doubt prompted) speech, Arthur speaks only twice more in the act, both times in brief and vain attempt to pacify his mother, who does his fighting and decision-making for him. He is too retiring, but Constance—especially since she is not above the suspicion that she fights primarily for personal power—is overbearing. Arthur is a pawn surrounded by an unscrupulous, self-seeking league. Were he to gain his right and become king, the results would presumably be disastrous for England.

For, though the word ‘right’ is used sixteen times in the act,2 it is eclipsed by the recurring threat of the bloodshed to which the issue is leading: ‘blood’ and its cognates (‘bleed’, ‘bleeding’, ‘bloody’), used only four times in the first act's foreshadowing of this result, appear in the second act no less than twenty-six times.3 While the issue of dynastic ‘right’ is being shown to be far from simple, its very existence unresolved is being shown to invite, or indeed ordain, carnage.

But the attack on Angiers is interrupted by the arrival of John and the English forces. The first battle is verbal, with the opponents paired: John vs. France, Eleanor vs. Constance, and the Bastard vs. Austria. Opposed to France—‘'Tis France, for England’—John appears in a new light—‘England, for itself’ (202). We realise again—especially now that we have seen poor Arthur—that, usurper or not, John is the King. The meeting of the two rulers, each backed by an army and mouthing ‘Peace’, is, however, a bit of political farce, no less so for being true to the life of power politics: each subverts the peace he claims to desire, since each will have it only on his own terms. John's self-righteous claim is no criterion; ‘God’ is a mere political gambit, one which can be used equally by France in citing Arthur's right: ‘In the name of God, / How comes it then that thou art call'd a king’ (106-7). (And Hubert, demurring from both positions, will claim, ‘A greater power than we denies all this’ [368]).

The women's exchange is close to hair-pulling, especially Eleanor's unjustified slur on Arthur as ‘thy bastard’ (122) and her witty play on Constance's desire to be ‘queen’ (123)—royal queen, and chess queen (‘check the world’)—which oversteps any pretence of royal dignity in its third significance, quean. Constance, with Arthur's right on her side, is nevertheless forced onto the defensive and, frustrated, becomes increasingly violent. First Austria—‘Peace!’ (134)—then Arthur—‘Good my mother, peace!’ (163)—then John—‘Bedlam, have done’ (183)—and finally France—‘Peace, lady!’ (195)—seek to quiet her, her three allies using the same maligned word in the attempt to reconcile her to the etiquette of political duplicity.

The Bastard's immediate antipathy to Austria, motivated of course by the lion-skin, contrasts his sense of honour directly with Arthur's and, by extension, with John's. Whatever the moral masquerades of the others, the Bastard, as Richard's son, has a legitimate personal grudge against Austria.

France brings the general verbal violence back to the practical here-and-now of Angiers and suggests discovering ‘Whose title they admit, Arthur's or John's’ (200). The decision of the men of Angiers then, though not necessarily a final resolution of the main issue, has its dramatic importance as a test case. Hubert—for, though as yet unnamed, it is he who is the citizen-spokesman for Angiers (as Wilson first made clear and Honigmann has adopted)—gives an answer that has all the appearance of eminent sense: ‘we are the king of England's subjects … he that proves the king, / To him will we prove loyal’ (267-71). John, after an exasperated appeal to his simple logic—‘Doth not the crown of England prove the king?’ (273)—adduces the thirty thousand Englishmen who accompany him. It is, of course, a double argument: that so many Englishmen follow him attests his moral right to the English throne; that so many men follow him attests his threat to Angiers. France cannot match the moral half of this claim though he can match the threat with ‘As many and as well-born bloods’ (278). But Hubert remains adamant: ‘Till you compound whose right is worthiest, / We for the worthiest hold the right from both’ (281-2). After the frustrated kings indulge in a brief and bloody, but fruitless skirmish, Hubert for a third time maintains his seemingly sensible neutrality: ‘One must prove greatest: while they weigh so even / We hold our town for neither, yet for both’ (332-3).

But, however sound the arguments which might convince a modern man of the virtues of neutrality, Hubert's position is unacceptable in King John. This is not the moral superiority of ‘A plague o' both your houses!’ with which Mercutio, ‘the prince's near ally’, rejects the parochial quarrel that has caused his death (R. & J. III, i, 105-8); this is the willingness of common citizens to accept either of two contradictory national loyalties. It has the sound sense of self-preservation—and perhaps today that seems enough—but it is meant to have little else; as comes increasingly clear in Hubert's progressive responses, it is not a moral position at all, but a refusal to face the issue. (That the issue is not resolvable in the terms in which it has been set does not, apparently, excuse a man from involvement.) At no time is Hubert concerned with Arthur's rights. He faces the straight power politics of England and France. His first response sounds fine till probed: ‘he that proves the king, / To him will we prove loyal.’ What kind of loyalty is this? Like ‘honour’ in the first act, it is not the real article, but a calculated substitute; what ought to be the warm and total response of a committed man is here the small change of a self-indulgent apathy. What ‘proves the king’ is precisely the issue that Hubert avoids, and his restatements, ‘the worthiest’ or ‘greatest’, are equally hollow, assuming only that might makes right. Hubert abdicates the citizen's duty to act according to his best moral lights and, selfishly holding himself aloof, leaves the decision to naked force.

It is in contrast with Hubert that one is to understand the Bastard's behaviour. Loyally (he declared his loyalty to John with his entering line in the first act), unselfishly and also, one must add, unthinkingly, he urges on the battle which seems to him the sole way of settling the issue: ‘Cry “havoc!” kings; back to the stained field, … Then let confusion of one part confirm / The other's peace; till then, blows, blood, and death!’ (357-60). But, though superior to Hubert here in his loyalty and his freedom from selfish calculation, the Bastard is not himself facing any moral issues. His response is warm and total, but it is not yet what one would call perceptive. He, no less than Hubert, leaves the decision to naked force; the difference is his willingness to involve himself on the side to which he is loyal. After Hubert's fourth refusal, the Bastard, unable to stomach men who can stand coldly before ‘industrious scenes and acts of death’ (376), makes his ‘wild’ (395) suggestion that the kings join forces against Angiers before turning back to their own quarrel. It is his first venture into political strategy, and his ‘Smacks it not something of the policy?’ (396) shows his naïve pride in what he is pleased to consider his approach to political wisdom.

But what is the rash response of naïve loyalty in the Bastard as an individual becomes insane ruthlessness when it is accepted and given royal authority by John:

France, shall we knit our powers
And lay this Angiers even with the ground;
Then after fight who shall be king of it?


To such inhuman nonsense has the political stalemate led.

Hubert, fortunately for Angiers, has another suggestion: the marriage of John's niece, Blanche, to the Dauphin, Lewis. The Bastard reacts with disgust to Hubert's rhetoric, which has usurped the place of his own strategy, but both kings see in the plan a way of saving face while abandoning their sterile enmity. With the few gestures owed to respectability, the political match is arranged. Lewis plays the game with a will and his ability to switch so rapidly from enemy to lover, patently insincere, gilding his political opportunism with the language of a sonneteer, is in sharp contrast not only with the Bastard's disgusted and less-flexible sincerity, but with the honesty of his bride-to-be. Blanche plays only a brief role in the play, but it is a crucial one for, though she is almost as much as Arthur a political pawn, she has something to teach the Bastard. Without loss of dignity or femine propriety, she is hardly less plain-spoken—when called upon to speak—than he is:

My uncle's will in this respect is mine: …
Further I will not flatter you, my lord,
That all I see in you is worthy love,
Than this: that nothing do I see in you …
That I can find should merit any hate.


To marry Lewis is her duty, and therefore she will marry Lewis. When John asks for formal assent, she pronounces herself ‘bound in honour still to do / What you in wisdom still vouchsafe to say’ (522-3). This is the only appearance of the word ‘honour’ in the second act, and its first appearance in the play as a high-minded sense of personal obligation, a trait of character rather than a mere claim for public approval. Blanche is controlled by her honour, whatever the personal consequences. The Bastard is silent but his education has now truly begun, as comes clear when he is left alone at the end of the scene.

In his well-known soliloquy—‘Mad world! mad kings! mad composition!’ (561)—with new insight, he gives the name, missing so far in the play, to the primary motivating force behind what we have seen: ‘Commodity, the bias of the world’ (574), commodity, the unprincipled self-interest which perverts ‘all indifferency, … direction, purpose, course, intent’ (579-80), and brings the noblest-sounding resolutions to the most ignominous results. This speech is clearly crucial in the play, as others before Calderwood have recognised, but there has been much disagreement as to what it is meant to imply. Though the Bastard is disgusted by commodity, he has been thought to advocate it, and, indeed, his final words are: ‘Gain, be my lord, for I will worship thee!’ (598).

Many of the problems commentators have with this speech seem to me to arise from attempts to make of it a summation of the Bastard's character, a final position rather than a stage in his development. He is not static, and it is enough in the second act that he has begun to consider where he is. What was blind loyalty now sees madness on both sides. For the first time he is critical of John. Though he is wrong in his estimate of King Philip's original motive, accepting the public declaration for the fact, the important point is that he is beginning to judge for himself, and no longer just following chance. The word ‘honourable’ in the Bastard's mouth now, though we may demur from ‘honourable war’, is not what it was in the first act, but what he has learned from Blanche.

After this insight into the kings, there is surely a hesitation (between lines 586 and 587) while, in his honesty, the Bastard recognises its application to himself: ‘And why rail I on this commodity? / But for because he hath not woo'd me yet’ (587-8). Must we demand conversion at the very incipience of self-knowledge? The Bastard, realising that he has been living in the very spirit he has condemned in the kings, concludes most humanly by reversing his complaint and turning their conduct into a rationalisation for his own. But he has found a name for such conduct; he has seen ‘commodity’ and its opposite. Never again can he remain unconscious in following chance. It is enough for now. It is a place to end a scene but not a play.

The brief scene which follows and concludes the act (traditionally III, i, 1-74) brings Constance the news of her loss of support. ‘I have a king's oath’, she insists (10), but we have seen what such an oath is worth. Arthur has only a single line: ‘I do beseech you, madam, be content’ (42). His cause would appear to be lost; the act thus ends with John's possession of the throne apparently secure and the primary suspense once again is that of what is likely to happen next to the Bastard.


The third act, however, quickly introduces a new challenge to John. Pandulph's entry is abrupt, but John's response is even more so. To the legate's greeting—‘Hail, you anointed deputies of heaven!’ (62 [136]), clearly meant as an immediate assertion of the Pope's claim to superior authority—John returns his thoroughly and anachronistically Protestant answer. Having just won his victory over Arthur, John is carried away into attempting to brazen out another which, could he win it, would leave him even stronger. The stakes are high. John must carry France with him in this reckless rebellion or suffer not only excommunication but, what makes it a political threat, loss of the very support which he has just purchased to seal the possession of his kingdom against the threat of Arthur's right. The ensuing struggle is not spiritual, but political jockeying, with Pandulph merely another power politician, his weapons excommunication and incitement to political purge of the excommunicant.

When Pandulph can argue that ‘indirection … grows direct, / And falsehood falsehood cures’ (202-3 [276-7]), he is a master politician at the furthest remove from the Bastard. But the Bastard has been presented with no special problem by all this. Remaining loyal to John, he has been more concerned with his animosity for Austria, whom he continues to bait, than with Pandulph. Blanche, however, is trapped between her loyalty to her uncle and her new loyalty to her husband. She is hardly more in this scene than a formalised image of the dilemma of loyalties; her having acted honourably has not protected her from subsequent suffering.

Two brief images of importance must emerge from the chaos of the staged battle: the Bastard enters with Austria's head, having achieved his revenge; and Hubert is entrusted by John with the custody of their prisoner, Arthur. There are no speeches to explain Hubert's presence as John's follower; we can only look for the implications. France having broken the league, Hubert has apparently remained loyal to the injured party. A possible further implication of the entry with Arthur is that Hubert himself has been responsible for Arthur's capture. The battle over, these same characters return to the stage. John commissions the Bastard to precede him to England and ‘shake the bags / Of hoarding abbots’ (ii, 17-18 [iii, 7-8]). More attention has gone to debating the degree of Protestantism of this commission—which is hardly a remarkable one, given John's defiance of the Pope—than in recognising its obvious structural function. For the sake of his dramatic development, the Bastard cannot be permitted to witness John's charge to Hubert. Sending him to England gets him off the stage; sending him to rob the monastaries adds another touch to John's defiance and to the Bastard's own character. Clearly the issue between Church and Crown has not touched him. He is still John's loyal follower with a responsible commission—one from which he presumably stands to gain a percentage for himself. Thus his earlier choice has begun to pay off in cash as well as title.

The Bastard gone and Eleanor claiming Arthur's attention, John turns and fawns on Hubert. The warmth of his approach—‘O my gentle Hubert, / We owe thee much!’ (ii, 29-30 [iii, 19-20])—has, I believe, a double motivation. John is not merely flattering Hubert in order to bring him to murder Arthur, but indeed owes Hubert much, just as he says—owes him the very capture of Arthur, as the former appearance implied. John is promising a reward already due and hinting for just one further service. Hubert's response, moving from his noncommittal ‘I am much bounden to your majesty’ (39 [29]) to his more fervent declaration of love, is not unclouded. Whatever the circumstances that determined him, he is no longer in a position to maintain his neutrality; he has made, or been forced to make, his choice, and the loyalty then so coldly promised to the stronger must now be delivered. After a number of false starts, John finally manages the most pointed of commissions, as though his will were less tainted through showing naked so briefly:

K. John.
My lord?
K. John.
A grave.
He shall not live.
K. John.

(76 [65-6])

John leaves the promised reward unspecified, but the more significant ambiguity lies in the sinister irony of his final statement to Arthur that Hubert will attend on him ‘With all true duty’ (83 [73]). True to whom? to what? and in what sense? The nature of ‘true duty’—whether Hubert's, John's, the Bastard's, Blanche's, King Philip's, Pandulph's, Lady Faulconbridge's, or that of others yet to appear—is precisely what is at issue in this play, whether we call it that, or loyalty, or honour.

In the final scene of the third act, Pandulph, the master strategist, shows the defeated French how they yet stand to win. John, he points out, cannot rest while Arthur lives. Arthur is John's prisoner and John must kill him, thus freeing Lewis to claim the English throne through Blanche and simultaneously driving the English to revolt. John, as we know, has already headed directly into the trap Pandulph has described, but, should John eliminate himself along with Arthur, we are left with a claimant whom Pandulph has not imagined: the English Bastard will be on hand to contest the issue, and he, we feel, should take precedence over the foreigner. As though to heighten the developing contrast, the final comment of the willing Lewis—‘Strong reasons makes strange actions’ (182)—is a direct affirmation of commodity.


The fourth act closes the trap, with complications no one could have foreseen. However unexpected, and even illogical, the shift in intent from murder to blinding—or, more likely, to murder as an ‘accident’ during blinding—the resultant stage business is an image of the moral situation, an image which is echoed and reëchoed in the lines. The dilemma of conflicting loyalties is here most acute, with Hubert, the very man who thought he could hold himself aloof from commitment, now caught between the claims of political allegiance and those of simple compassion. It is his ‘duty’ that is iron:

Must you with hot irons burn out both mine eyes?
Young boy, I must.
And will you?
And I will.


Human sympathy is the living eye that Hubert must put out. Hubert, with his irons and backed by two burly accomplices, concealed but at hand, is brute power; the child Arthur is powerless innocence, wronged right.

Arthur's insistence upon his own innocence and upon his loving attendance when Hubert's head once ached drives the scene dangerously close to the sentimental. To maintain his helplessness, there can be no one else to defend him, and, in the economy of the play, there has been no time for a scene demonstrating the attendance he is forced to cite, a bit priggishly, in his own behalf. In the difficulty of putting goodness on the stage, Shakespeare makes of Arthur, as he did of Blanche, a formal image of victimised virtue, Arthur the image of suffering innocence as Blanche was of suffering integrity. Perhaps the ultimate horror in the viciousness of ‘this iron age’ (60) is the recognition by innocence that its own appearance must be suspect: ‘Nay, you may think my love was crafty love, / And call it cunning’ (53-4). But Hubert is unable to proceed and, surprising no one more than himself—‘Yet am I sworn’ (123)—he spares Arthur. His choice of a higher duty over a lower creates no moral millenium; it involves him immediately in duplicity—he must lie to John—and in ‘Much danger’ (133).

In the second scene, the English lords, who have formed John's silent retinue throughout the play, now first have a hand in the action, detaching themselves from John as Pandulph foretold. They are ostensibly objecting to the ‘wasteful and ridiculous excess’ (16) of a second coronation which John has just staged. (The unspoken implication is that John has been reasserting his authority after the excommunication, enforcing a new oath of allegiance to counteract Pandulph's having freed his followers from their former oaths.) Behind their cold acceptance, however, lies an obvious discontent. Their very worry about John's ‘safety’ (50), in requesting freedom for Arthur, has about it more of threat than of concern. Hubert's entrance before John's reply (as the Folio has it, rather than following that reply, where most editors have seen fit to place it) plainly implies, as Honigmann points out, that John grants their request as a matter of hypocritical policy, assured by Hubert's appearance that Arthur is dead. The nobles' well-justified suspicion leads them to depart with all the dignity of outraged principle. But, as Calderwood demonstrates, it becomes clear in the next scene that this apparent dependence upon principle has been the commodity of traitors.

Before we see them again, however, we have a new view of the Bastard. His increasing maturity is evident. He is no less open, no less loyal, but he makes his decisions more slowly, suspending judgment without hiding his grounds for suspicion. He is more critical. He speaks to John with more than a hint of annoyance—‘if you be afeard to hear the worst, / Then let the worst unheard fall on your head’ (135-6)—an annoyance which must arise from his close inspection of John and his disappointment with what he sees. He has met the lords ‘going to seek the grave / Of Arthur, whom they say is kill'd tonight / On your suggestion’ (164-6). This report clearly invites denial from John, and the Bastard's suspicions cannot but increase when the invitation is not accepted. John instead claims ambiguously, ‘I have a way to win their loves again’ (168), and sends the Bastard to bring them back. His first response is merely a sober acceptance of the charge—‘I will seek them out’ (169)—quite unlike his earlier enthusiasm, but John's reminder of the need to reconcile ‘subject enemies’ (171) in the face of a French invasion restores his usual zeal. His loyalty to England takes precedence over any doubts he is feeling about John.

John's ‘way to win their loves again’ is presumably explained in his immediate attempt to put the blame for Arthur's supposed death upon Hubert. Even while struggling to clear himself of the responsibility, John, with no sympathy for the boy, shows merely his own dismay at the outcome. Learning that Arthur lives, he expresses no joy, but thinks only of his own advantage: ‘Doth Arthur live? O, haste thee to the peers’ (260). It is obvious, however, that Hubert has best served his king, both morally and politically, by disobeying him.

What John wanted was Arthur's death without the responsibility for it. The consequences of the alleged death have no sooner forced him to welcome the news that Arthur is yet alive than Fate gives him exactly what he first wanted: the third scene begins with Arthur's accidental death while leaping from the wall to escape. But it is too late and the thing John wanted becomes its own opposite. Though, as it turned out, he lacked the power, he is left with the responsibility—or at least the alleged responsibility, which is equally harmful.4

Arthur's body lies unfound on the stage, however, while the skein is tangled still further. The lords, who appeared to be leaving the king on the basis of outraged principle, turn out to have been already in correspondence with Pandulph. They know the French plans and are deserting John to save their skins; Arthur's supposed death was a pretext for treason, not a cause of revulsion. The justice of their pretext cannot excuse such hypocrisy. They have just renewed their oaths to the king they are deserting. In contrast, though he shares the same suspicions, the Bastard puts his duty to England first: ‘Whate'er you think, good words, I think, were best’ (28). Given England's danger and the absence of evidence that Arthur is dead, ‘there is little reason in your grief’ (30).

Discovery of Arthur's body will confirm all suspicions, and the audience waits in suspense for the Bastard's reaction while the lords indulge in self-justifying superlatives of horror. ‘Sir Richard, what think you?’ Salisbury asks (41), but he and Pembroke both favour him with their own I-told-you-so's before—following surely a lengthy pause—he answers, simply and directly:

It is a damned and a bloody work;
The graceless action of a heavy hand,
If that it be the work of any hand.


His conditional conclusion, which in John would be but a final attempt to protect his own false position, is in the Bastard a sign of his increasing wisdom. It is under-girded for the audience by their knowledge that he is right to withhold final judgment, for the death was in fact accidental. But this rational contingency can only strike the eager lords as pussy-footing, and Salisbury returns the Bastard's ‘If’ with indignant scorn. The lords, carried away by their own performance, join in a ‘holy vow’ (67) for revenge. In spite of the evidence, they are mistaken; whatever John's unsuitability, they are taking a vow that can only be seen as traitorous.

Hubert's untimely message that Arthur lives can hardly be expected to convince them of their error. The Bastard is forced to defend Hubert from their wrath, though his ‘If’ is still unresolved. Shown Arthur's body, Hubert weeps, which the hypocrites naturally take for hypocrisy, but, held off by the Bastard, they cannot attack him, and they leave to join the Dauphin at Saint Edmundsbury.

Though willing to defend Hubert from attack while the facts are unclear, the Bastard has not abandoned his own strong suspicions. Hubert, in spite of his choice of a higher duty, is entangled in circumstantial evidence. The Bastard demands a direct answer—‘Knew you of this fair work?’ (116)—indicates both his stand if the answer is yes—‘There is not yet so ugly a fiend of hell / As thou shalt be, if thou didst kill this child’ (123-4)—and his honest opinion—‘I do suspect thee very grievously’ (134). This is the new, more thoughtful, less hot-headed but no less forthright man that the Bastard has grown to be, a far cry from the unthinking enthusiast he was in the first act. Having accepted Hubert's protestation of innocence, however, he is left with his suspicions of John. The issues surrounding Arthur's death are more complex, more confused and human, than most critics have been willing to allow, and the Bastard's reaction is the appropriate one for any conscientious man: ‘I am amaz'd, methinks, and lose my way / Among the thorns and dangers of this world’ (140-41). The moral life is never, for a perceptive man, a simple choice between black and white, but life in a maze. The ambiguity of the Bastard's ensuing soliloquy reflects the ambiguity of the issues themselves, and his conclusion the necessity to act in spite of it. He recognises both Arthur's right to the throne and the fact that the very question of right is now irrelevant; that ‘England’ is dead, but that England remains to suffer, ‘and vast confusion waits, / As doth a raven on a sick-fall'n beast, / The imminent decay of wrested pomp’ (152-4). this is what commodity has cost England. But, though he realises now that John's pomp was wrested, the Bastard sees no choice but continuing loyalty: ‘I'll to the king’ (157).


The fifth act begins with the king reduced to a most unkingly posture, however, yielding his crown to Pandulph. True, he receives it back at once, but only as the Pope's vassal, and we cannot fail to realise how far he has fallen from his earlier proud defiance. There is no religious issue here, but once again a simple political bargain, a yielding to force: John's immediate response to the brief ceremony is ‘Now keep your holy word: go meet the French’ (5). He sees himself as reestablishing his own rule in his kingdom, where his people have been ‘Swearing allegiance … To stranger blood’ (10-11), but, remembering his assurance that ‘No Italian priest / Shall tithe or toll in our dominions’ (III, i, 79-80), we realise that we have witnessed him doing precisely what he blames in his subjects.

The Bastard, upon his arrival with bad news, is again closely observing John and controlling his disgust only with difficulty. After mentioning military reversals and the nobles' treachery, he concludes, ‘And wild amazement hurries up and down / The little number of your doubtful friends’ (35-6). He is reporting not merely a general but a pointedly personal condition (‘I am amaz'd’), and though others may be ‘doubtful friends’ because they are both fearful and untrusting, he is a trustworthy and fearless friend tormented by doubt. John's assumption that Arthur yet lives sounds to the Bastard like the sheerest hypocrisy and almost leads to a break. Given the Bastard's suspicions, ‘some damn'd hand’ (41) is dangerously blunt, backing down no whit before John's face from the firm position already taken (IV, iii, 57-9). There is a crescendo of excitement, with John, in horror and guilt, attempting again to put the blame on Hubert, and the Bastard, having accepted Hubert's innocence, responding with a direct insinuation of John's responsibility for murder:

K. John.
That villain Hubert told me he did live.
So, on my soul, he did, for aught he knew.


The final pronoun, clearing Hubert, accuses John. This exchange, in which tempers have risen on both sides, must be followed by a long, electric silence, while John cringes and the Bastard cools to consider what he is doing. England must again be uppermost in his thoughts, for he stops, as it were, in midstream in his attack and turns to rallying John's spirits for the battle with the invaders. This self-control, this ability to quell his passionate outrage in order to undertake what is required by a higher loyalty, demonstrates the maturity the Bastard has reached. His moral superiority to John is clear; it is one of his glorious moments and prepares us to accept what follows.

Though he has, technically, misjudged the detail of Arthur's death, he has not in fact misjudged John. He pleads now only that the man act with the outer semblance of the king in order to inspire his followers. But John has abandoned his authority to Pandulph and, pleased merely to have retained his throne, considers it a ‘happy peace’ (63). Such peace with an invading army horrifies the Bastard—‘O inglorious league!’ (65)—and leads to so overwhelming a remonstrance that John, having just yielded to Pandulph, yields again, this time to the Bastard. John, a king incapable of kingship, is finally replaced in action by the man most capable of it.

The little ceremony by which John and Pandulph exchanged oaths is succeeded in the second scene by another little ceremony in which the Dauphin and the traitorous nobles do the same. These are the formalisations of allegiance, the hollow rites which political practice substitutes for the living loyalty exemplified by such a man as the Bastard.

The Bastard's new role is mirrored in the stage direction: always before he has been on his own, but now, as Regent, he enters ‘attended’. Though he speaks of ‘the scope / And warrant limited unto my tongue’ (122-3), it is but a way of postponing action until he learns how things stand; once he knows the situation, he assumes full authority. The King of and for whom he speaks—who ‘is prepar'd’ (130), who ‘doth smile’ (134) at the invasion, ‘the gallant monarch’ (148), ‘warlike John’ (176)—is of course not the man John but a verbal image of the king England needs at the moment. The image is not a mere fiction, however, for it is personified in the Bastard himself; though not the King, he wields the King's authority and speaks for England.

As though to ensure this distinction, the brief third scene shows us, in direct contrast to ‘warlike John’, the utter impotence of the man beneath the public image, ill with a fever, he is ordered off the field by the Bastard lest his very appearance dishearten the soldiers. The kingly role has been entirely transferred. The Bastard ‘alone upholds the day’ (V, iv, 5).

The fourth scene twists the ironic complications of meaningless oaths and meaningful loyalty about as far as they can go. The dying Melun, breaking an oath (his to the Dauphin) which broke an oath (the Dauphin's and his to the English nobles) which broke an oath (theirs to John) reveals to the nobles that the Dauphin intends to execute them as soon as the battle is over. Abandoning their ‘holy vow’, they hasten to return to John. Who is to disentangle true honour from such a skein as this? But Melun, saving their lives, says that he does so for the love of ‘one Hubert’ (40), and because he himself had an English grandfather. This personal loyalty stands out above the meaningless oaths as a return to sanity and honour. The men saved by his love for Hubert are, however, the very men who misjudged and misused Hubert for their own selfish ends. They are saved by love for the man they scorned; the cutting of the skein carries overtones of Christian forgiveness.

Hubert it is who brings to the Bastard the news that John is dying. No time is wasted in the play on the mechanics of John's death; poisoning by a monk is supplied by history as Shakespeare knew it; his attention, however, is not on John but on the effect of John's approaching death on the Bastard. As they meet in the night, Hubert's ‘Who art thou?’ (vi, 9) is precisely the question which remains to be settled, and the Bastard's ‘Who thou wilt’ (9), coupled with the reminder of his Plantagenet blood, stresses the possibility toward which the play has apparently been aiming. We have seen Hubert grow from his attempt at a coldly rational avoidance of the problem of choice between loyalties to a realisation that a man is forced to commit himself and can only hope to do so honourably. We have seen the Bastard grow from a naïve enthusiast following chance to a man of mature insight and ability. What Hubert brings the Bastard now is, in effect, an invitation to take the throne, to assume the role he has in fact been filling and for which the character he inherited from his father has proven so eminently fitted. It is all understated, but the implications are clear: ‘I left him almost speechless; and broke out / To acquaint you with this evil, that you might / The better arm you to the sudden time’ (24-6). Hubert foresees a struggle, and he wants the Bastard to have the throne. A struggle with whom? ‘The lords are all come back’ (33). Clearly they must not gain control. But then a new complication is introduced: ‘And brought Prince Henry in their company’ (34). This is the first mention in the play that John has a son and heir; the Bastard is (and many in the audience are) presumably reminded; dramatically it is startling news, further snarling the problem of moral choice.5

Prince Henry is apparently, like Arthur earlier, a young successor surrounded by a self-seeking league.6 The Bastard is in the identical situation which faced John upon the death of Richard and the question is, will he, like John, usurp the throne? However self-seeking such a move might appear, it could clearly be considered also, given the Bastard's truly kingly character, to be for England's own good. The Bastard's immediate response is a prayer, as much for England as for himself: ‘Withhold thine indignation, mighty heaven, / And tempt us not to bear above our power!’ (37-8). It is not a decision, but it is surely an aspiration not to be misled by the temptations of commodity. He is, in fact, not even willing at the moment to entertain the possibility. His immediate revelation that he has lost ‘half my power this night’ (39), half of his army having been wiped out by a perverse tide, has been taken as showing that he is forced to his dynastic decision only by his inability to muster sufficient strength to seize the throne from the combined forces of the returning noblemen. It is rather the explanation to Hubert of his prayer that heaven withhold its indignation. His worry is, as always, for England, facing the invader now with decimated forces. The invasion, not the succession, is his business at the moment. And the question is doubly untimely, for John is still ‘the king’ (43).

But the audience knows, as the Bastard does not, that Lewis also has suffered grievous losses quite apart from the battle. Structurally, it remains only for John to die and the Bastard to reach his decision. Shakespeare first shows us Prince Henry, however, though the lines give us almost no clue as to how the author directed his company to have that part played. Prince Henry's few speeches leave him sounding a sensitive enough young man facing the death of his father, but it would be equally possible to play him as a weakling reminiscent of Arthur or as a young man of promising strength of character. And the effect he creates will naturally cast its light on the Bastard's decision. I think director and actor are called upon to attempt a compromise: Henry must be kept young enough to underline the similarity between the Bastard's choice and that which originally faced John; at the same time he must show some vitality and promise, for a suggestion of his complete dominance by the former traitors would be out of key with the generally hopeful conclusion of the play. This ambiguity of effect in the Prince's role is in part indicative of the fact that our attention is no longer on the question of what a king ought to be but has shifted over to that of how, given this situation, the Bastard ought to act.

John, who commenced the play as a successful usurper, dies miserably as he listens to the Bastard's news of England's losses. Even as John lies dying, his faithful follower pays him the compliment of not tempering the truth. And, though ‘God He knows how we shall answer’ Lewis (60), John is no sooner dead than the Bastard turns to rallying the defence. But defence is not necessary, for the others know that Lewis has already sued for peace. There remains then but the single question, and it is quickly settled: the Bastard turns and kneels to Prince Henry. Whether the Prince combines the true kingly character with the possession and right here acknowledged, we are given little chance of knowing. That, however, is not the point. The very strength of character which made the Bastard the most worthy of Richard's heirs leads him to relinquish any devisive personal ambitions and to acknowledge a true duty to support the new king. This is the heir who alone remains of those who were established in the first act as having a share in Richard's heritage; this is the young man who once said, ‘Gain, be my lord, for I will worship thee!’; this is the efficient commander who, as John failed, has actually been wielding the royal power. In spite of all these indications of a contrary denouement, he kneels to Prince Henry. In a world of self-seekers, his conception of honour has grown until he is capable of this self-denying loyalty to England. It is, of course, one of the tragic ironies of politics that a man may be cut off from authority by the very act which best demonstrates his worthiness to wield it.

Though it takes a paragraph—and could take more—to sketch the implications of the Bastard's kneeling, he is not to be seen as one who has thought it all through. He is impulsive at the close as he was at the beginning, but his impulses now are those of one whose original promise has come to maturity. His closing speech, with its ringing final couplet—‘Nought shall make us rue / If England to itself do rest but true!’—has sometimes been dismissed as a platitudinous set piece. It is so only if we cannot see that the play has demonstrated the moral complexity of the problem of loyalty while the Bastard (and to a lesser extent Hubert) has shown us the self-denying acceptance of a higher duty which true loyalty demands from the man of honour.


  1. All citations are from the Arden edition, edited by E. A. J. Honigmann (London, 1954), because I am convinced by his arrangement of the act- and scene-divisions. Where these differ from the traditional arrangement, I give a second reference to that, as found in J. D. Wilson's Cambridge edition (1936).

  2. Nine times as Arthur's; once—‘God and our right!’ (299)—the French king, in Arthur's name, claiming for himself in English what English kings are supposed to claim in French; once (548) Arthur's right given to Constance; once (335) John claiming right for himself; and twice (139 and 236) with a different meaning altogether.

  3. Four times, it is true, in reference to lineage; five times, with greater richness of connotation, in reference to vital existence; but the remaining seventeen times in reference to the butchery of war.

  4. The moral responsibility may, of course, be disputed, with the emphasis either on the accident or on the justified fear of John which forced Arthur to take the chance.

  5. The structure of the play is not affected by whether or not the audience ‘knows all the time’ that John must, historically, be followed on the throne by his son Henry. Whether or not the audience is surprised by the conclusion, the fact remains that the play, in its original division of claimants to the throne and its eventual elimination of two of them, seems to be moving toward the coronation of the third and only frustrates that expectation at the last minute by introducing the hitherto unmentioned heir.

  6. Where, when and how the lords made contact with the Prince is unmentioned. It would not be out of line with their duplicity and the complications of V, iv, to think of them as having been holding him in reserve as a future resource against Lewis.

Sarah Wintle and René Weis (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: “Macbeth and the Barren Sceptre,” in Essays in Criticism, Vol. 41, No. 2, April, 1991, pp. 128-46.

[In the following essay, Wintle and Weis examine the relationship between James I's legitimacy issues and Macbeth's concern with succession and legitimacy as revealed through the play's emphasis on children and babies.]

Tragedy often begins with trouble from the children. Among Shakespeare's tragedies King Lear is the most obvious example, although Hamlet runs it a close second. Even Desdemona, as Rymer observed, would not have died if she had obeyed her father1. At the end of most Shakespearean comedy and romance a new generation of family stands ready to take over; in the tragedies on the other hand power passes to a representative of another family altogether, to Fortinbras, Edgar or Albany. Ideas of succession and continuity—stressed in so many of the sonnets—seem to have been an abiding preoccupation for Shakespeare. This particular personal interest coincided with a contemporary public and political concern. All his plays were written either towards the end of a long reign by a sovereign who had no direct heir, or at the beginning of the reign of a sovereign who had produced children but whose legitimacy or claim to represent continuity could do with buttressing.

James I and his children could claim descent from two of the characters in Macbeth, Malcolm and Fleance, both sons of fathers murdered in the play by the childless hero. Malcolm—as Bullough tells us in the relevant volume of Narrative and Dramatic Sources2—married as his second wife Margaret, the grand-daughter of Edmund Ironsides and the sister of Edward Atheling. Their daughter Edith married Henry I of England and so became ancestress to a long line of English kings. Macbeth, however, is a Scottish play and its focus is on the Scottish rather than the English antecedents of the new ruling house of Stuart. Banquo and his son Fleance were invented to extend and dignify the somewhat obscure genealogy of the Stuarts when they came to power in Scotland. Holinshed found the story in his main source, the Scotorum Historiae by Hector Boethius, and it is also related by John Leslie in his 1578 defence of Mary Stuart's right to both English and Scottish thrones, De Origine Scotorum.

The topical nature of Macbeth is not confined to its Scottishness. Allusions to the Gunpowder Plot along with its use of the weird sisters and the supernatural intimate the degree to which it is attuned to the political climate of the time. Shakespeare works from the reigning monarch's favourite obsessions—kingship, witchcraft, and his own ancestry—to make a radically imaginative artefact which lays bare the deeply rooted assumptions and values of its own version of Christian monarchism.

James had children and an heir. The historical fact, ascertainable from Holinshed, that the Macbeths were without heirs, that the murder of Duncan results only in the grasp of ‘a barren sceptre’ seems to have prompted Shakespeare to write a play which (as so many have noted) continually comes back to its concern with children and babies3. The immediate family of the protagonist, so often the source of tragedy in a dynastic context, is displaced from the centre of the tragic action only to haunt and challenge it imaginatively on the level of language and symbol.

Most of the major characters in the play appear at some point in the role of parent or child with the single and prominent exception of Macbeth himself, and those baneful influences upon Macbeth, the witches. Charles Lamb observed that

the hags of Shakespeare have neither child of their own, nor seem to be descended from any parent. They are foul anomalies, of whom we know not whence they are sprung, nor whether they have beginning or ending. As they are without human passions, so they seem to be without human relations.4

The witches are ‘foul anomalies’ because they are sexually as well as existentially ambiguous, as Banquo lets us know:

                                                                                                    What are these,
So wither'd, and so wild in their attire,
That look not like th'inhabitants o' th' earth
And yet are on't …
                                                                                                    You should be women,
And yet your beards forbid me to interpret
That you are so.

(I.iii. 39-47)5

The Macbeths' childlessness and the doubts about their sexual identity that are suggested in the course of the play are closely associated with Shakespeare's examination of the nature of evil.

Initially both Duncan and Banquo construe the Macbeths' moral character in terms of a beneficent and procreative nature. On arrival at Inverness, they comment on ‘the halcyon air’ surrounding the castle, approved by ‘the temple-haunting martlet’; birds who have built everywhere on it ‘pendent beds’ and ‘procreant cradles’. The fact that Duncan himself has sons, Malcom and Donalbain, is of key importance in the plot itself and its resolution. Banquo's message from the witches presupposes the existence of his son Fleance who will escape being murdered and so live to found the Stuart dynasty. Then there is Macduff's small son, murdered as he defends his father's reputation, and finally young Siward nobly killed in battle, to his father's grim satisfaction, as he fights Macbeth. All these children are male, hence potential heirs and successors, and seen in relation to their fathers. Other mentions of children in the play have to do with babies rather than with children old enough to take part in the action itself. When, in Act IV, Macbeth returns to the witches for further information he is shown a bloody child and a crowned child as well as an armed head; finally, in Act V, we learn that Macduff ‘was from his mother's womb untimely ripped’. In one of the most famous images in the play pity is seen as ‘a new-born babe’. Lady Macbeth denies her own femaleness by perverting her capacity to nurse a child:

                                                            Come to my woman's breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murd'ring ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature's mischief.

(I.v. 44-47)

and who should according to her husband bear only sons:

                    Bring forth men-children only;
For thy undaunted mettle should compose
Nothing but males.

(I.vii. 72-74)

and yet who cannot murder Duncan because he reminds her of her father:

                                        Had he not resembled
My father as he slept, I had done't.

(II.ii. 12-13)

Lady Macbeth contrasts absolutely with the passive and conventionally timorous Lady Macduff, an innocent mother of several children deserted by her husband, and murdered defenceless:

                                                            Whither should I fly?
I have done no harm. But I remember now
I am in this earthly world, where to do harm
Is often laudable, to do good sometime
Accounted dangerous folly. Why then, alas,
Do I put up that womanly defence
To say I have done no harm?

(IV.ii. 72-78)

Having the innocent Macduff family slaughtered is the low point of Macbeth's decline: it marks a complete break with the normal bonds of humanity. The bereaved Macduff's observation to Malcolm, ‘He has no children’, suggests not only that an eye for an eye revenge is here out of the question but also that Macbeth can only commit such a crime because he does not fully understand what it might mean to have children. A further jump in meaning is possible: he has no children because to have children is an outward sign of natural humanity. We might also add, rather primitively for this is in some respects a very primitive play, that the begetting of children is seen as the ultimate sign of manhood, just as the nursing and nurturing of them is a distinct sign of womanhood. A man is not a man until he proves it by offspring.

Manliness and womanliness here are gender-specific as well as indicative of the more generally inclusive concept of humanity. The idea of man is interrogated in both King Lear and Macbeth, but the former's ‘the thing itself: unaccommodated man …’ (III.iv.105) contrasts with the latter play's idea of man in time, both in relation to history and generation and in relation to final judgements when time ceases. Macbeth's childlessness makes him suspect, and reverberates in connection with his willingness to slaughter other people's children—the little Macduffs and Fleance. The murder of Macduff's wife and children is thus particularly significant, yet characteristically the symbolic resonances are pulled back into a psychological naturalism at key dramatic moments. Macbeth himself will acknowledge, when he encounters Macduff for the last time, that this particular murder lies heavy on his soul and his wife too is affected. When Lady Macbeth sleepwalks haunted by her crimes, the only time she actually mentions a victim by name is in the hysterical doggerel of

The Thane of Fife had a wife; where is she now?

(V.i. 40-41)

In Lady Macbeth's nightmare it is the image of the murder of the defenceless and innocent Lady Macduff which establishes her all but lost humanity, and it does this through her memory of an act which also establishes and symbolises her husband's denial of such a quality in himself.

There is another strikingly human touch in this scene, more homely than the suggestive poetry of the murkiness of hell and the incurable smell of her hand. ‘Yet who would have thought’, she says in the plainest of plain styles, ‘the old man to have had so much blood in him?’ There is nothing here about Duncan's silver skin laced with his golden blood—just an old man horrifyingly and endlessly bleeding, even though blood is one of the great equivocating words of the play. The old man had so much blood in him because, as the play tells us, once you've shed blood you go on shedding it. As Macbeth says, ‘blood will have blood’, because friends and kin (blood-relations) will have revenge, because murderers go on murdering both to keep safe, and because the second time is always easier than the first. Yet Duncan has blood in him in a way that Macbeth does not, and that blood is by this point in the play working for restoration as well as revenge, although it too has been under threat; as Donalbain comments to Malcolm soon after they hear of their father's death,

There's daggers in men's smiles; the near in blood,
The nearer bloody.

(II.iii. 139-140)

The witches have cheated Macbeth into a dead end, as he comes to realise:

Upon my head they plac'd a fruitless crown
And put a barren sceptre in my gripe,
Thence to be wrench'd with an unlineal hand,
No son of mine succeeding.

(III.i. 60-63)

Children (or sons) not only guarantee a man's natural humanity, as they do for Banquo and Duncan and Macduff; they do this precisely because they also guarantee succession, the continuity of the human bond through time, both in the domestic family and in the state. Children are essential to community and continuity, a point which would not be lost on James VI and I, successor of the childless Elizabeth.

When Macbeth visits the witches in Act IV to ‘know by the worst means the worst’, he is shown not only an armed head, a bloody child, and a crowned child, but this is followed by a historically precise symbol of natural succession: eight Stuart kings, the last carrying a mirror presumably designed masque-like to reflect James and his progeny, followed by the Stuart ancestor ‘blood-boltered’ Banquo6. All these children, and descendants, bloody or not, cruelly emphasize the fruitlessness of Macbeth's predicament, the fact that his childlessness ensures that his achievement has no future. The visions themselves represent the future, that future which Macbeth has tried in vain to make for himself, but in this play making the future legitimately depends on the making of children.

That there is some close association between children and the future in more than the very obvious way is shown by Macbeth's fear that Duncan's virtues will

… plead like angels, trumpet-tongu'd, against
The deep damnation of his taking-off;
And pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven's cherubin hors'd
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
That tears shall drown the wind.

(I.vii. 19-25)

The idea that pity is like a new-born babe anticipates, as the Arden notes suggest, the new-born suckling child of whom Lady Macbeth says in the same scene:

I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck'd my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash'd the brains out …

(I.vii. 54-58)

Pity—human feeling for another's plight—is what the Macbeths chase out of themselves, suppress or exorcise from their own consciousnesses, just as they have failed to have living children.

However, the new-born babe in Macbeth's soliloquy remains a new-born babe for one pentameter line only, for how can a baby stride the blast? This babe is transformed between the end of one line and the beginning of the next into an apocalyptic angel which like love in sonnet 116 ‘bears it out ev'n to the edge of doom’ and which brings with it recognition, knowledge of the truth, and in the action of the play itself, revenge and even justice. Babies like this one are small, vulnerable and innocent, at the mercy of adult cruelty, strength and wickedness, but also innocent and terrible with all the power of goodness and justice behind them.

The bloody child shown to Macbeth by the witches is commonly assumed to be Macduff from his mother's womb untimely ripped, bloody because it will wreak revenge, and bloody too because of the usual quibble upon the word for it says

Be bloody, bold and resolute; laugh to scorn
The pow'r of man, for none of woman born
Shall harm Macbeth.

(IV.i. 79-81)

Macbeth may continue in his slaughters and murders, letting the blood of his Scottish subjects, but we know as we always do in this pervasively ironic play that all this will be ended by the bloody child: ‘blood will have blood’—the blood of slaughter will be ended by the blood of violent childbirth; in the bloodiness of Macbeth's end comes restoration and the renewed possibility of continuity. So the bloody child is followed by the ‘child crowned with a tree in his hand’—Malcolm who caused Birnam Wood to come to Dunsinane. However, it may be too that the tree is more than just proleptic of that particular event, for as Macbeth asks

Who can impress the forest, bid the tree
Unfix his earth-bound root? Sweet bodements, good!
Rebellion's head rise never till the wood
Of Birnam rise, and our high-plac'd Macbeth
Shall live the lease of nature, pay his breath
To time and mortal custom.

(IV.i. 95-100)

It is only towards the end of the play—as he falls into ‘the sere, the yellow leaf’—that Macbeth uses imagery drawn from a beneficent conception of nature, in the way that Duncan or Banquo did at the beginning. This is indeed the first time he does so, and it is relevant to note that in Jacobean poetry trees are often symbols of continuity suggesting the organic rootedness of the family tree, as for instance in Ben Jonson's ‘Epistle to Katherine, Lady Aubigny’:

You, madam …
                                                                      worthy are the glad increase
Of your blessed womb, made fruitful from above,
To pay your lord the pledges of chaste love,
And raise a noble stem, to give the fame
To Clifton's blood that is denied their name.
Grow, grow fair tree, and as thy branches shoot,
Hear what the muses sing about thy root …(7)

If we are properly to realise the implications of the masque-like elements in the play and its calculatedly full use of such symbolic resources, then such associations are important. This one too has the usual equivocating playfulness; the child's tree is both the tree of continuity and the tree of deception which will bring about Macbeth's bloody downfall and ensure that he will not ‘live the lease of nature, pay his breath / To time and mortal custom’, even though such natural longings—longings for a natural life—re-assert themselves most strongly at the very point he has firmly denied them.

Macbeth and Macduff are both Thanes and their prime function in the Scottish feudal society in which they live is military. Macbeth especially is presented as a soldier, wielding, when we first hear of him,

                                                  his brandish'd steel
Which smok'd with bloody execution.

(I.i. 17-18)

Nonetheless, when he is doubtful about killing Duncan, Lady Macbeth casts aspersions on his manhood with an expression which, significantly enough, feminizes him by an association with breast-feeding. He is, she says, ‘too full o’ the milk of human kindness', and she taunts him with cowardice prompting the reply:

I dare do all that may become a man;
Who dares do more is none.

(I.vii. 46-47)

This idea is taken up again in III.iv, the banquet scene: Macbeth, appalled and disoriented by the appearance of Banquo's ghost, is asked by his wife ‘Are you a man?’, and later she exclaims ‘What! Quite unmanned in folly?’ ‘Man’ here might be thought to have the generic sense ‘human’ but that it is firmly gender-linked is suggested by Macbeth's own speech in the same scene as he addresses Banquo's ghost:

What man dare, I dare.
Approach thou like the rugged Russian bear,
The arm'd rhinoceros, or th'Hyrcan tiger;
Take any shape but that, and my firm nerves
Shall never tremble. Or be alive again,
And dare me to the desert with thy sword;
If trembling I inhabit, then, protest me
The baby of a girl.

(III.iv. 99-106)

The play can be seen as a kind of dialectic between Macbeth manned and unmanned in different ways: he moves from being a soldier to being terrified by the prospect of his own murderous fantasies; from committing murder to being terrified by his own murderous acts; then as he realises that

                                                            My strange and self-abuse
Is the initiate fear that wants hard use.
We are yet but young in deed.

(III.iv. 142-144)

so he regains his soldierliness

I'll fight till from my bones my flesh be hack'd.

(V.iii. 32)

The thought weaves glancingly between the poles of manliness and its absence, between a feminine and babyish innocence and a military hardness of experience.

It is a mark of the heroism of Macbeth's final version of manliness and also of its terrible limitations that Macbeth can only be destroyed by a being whom he has made similar to himself. Malcolm, heir and restorer of legitimate political order, does not play any real part in the fighting at the end of the play; the role of killing the tyrant is exclusively Macduff's. Macduff is now like Macbeth ‘single man’; with his wife and children destroyed he has no softening ties of kinship left, and when we see him learn of the death of his family, the notion of manliness is again raised. When Macduff realises the full import of Ross's information he can hardly take it in:

He has no children. All my pretty ones?
Did you say all? O Hell-kite! All?
What, all my pretty chickens and their dam
At one fell swoop?
Dispute it like a man.
I shall do so;
But I must also feel it as a man.
I cannot but remember such things were
That were most precious to me.

(IV.iii. 216-223)

Malcolm, however, urges Macduff not to remorse but to anger:

blunt not the heart, enrage it.
O, I could play the woman with mine eyes
And braggart with my tongue! But, gentle heavens,
Cut short all intermission; front to front
Bring thou this fiend of Scotland and myself;
Within my sword's length set him; if he scape,
Heaven forgive him too!
This tune goes manly.

(IV.iii. 229-235)

So it might be said that by the end of the play both Macduff and Macbeth are both more and less than men, and that only one so extreme, so isolated from social norms, is capable of killing the man Macbeth has become. It is worth remembering the contemptuous ease with which Macbeth disposes of young Siward; ‘Thou wast born of woman’ he says. Yet Macduff's isolated extremity is not quite the same as Macbeth's; it is—equivocatingly—both identical and oppositional, for if Macbeth's spirit is now dulled and his haunted imagination, once the sign of his human sensibility, now stilled, then Macduff is now the haunted man:

                                                  Tyrant, show thy face.
If thou beest slain and with no stroke of mine,
My wife and children's ghosts will haunt me still.

(V.vii. 14-16)

The spirits of continuity and family feeling embodied in the passion of a bereaved father egged on by a bereaved son finally do for Macbeth.

Yet Macbeth, the childless infanticide now facing the father of his victims, realises finally and fully in a way his wife never quite does the truth of his predicament—that blood is more than merely blood. When Macduff enters and cries ‘Turn, hell-hound, turn’, Macbeth replies in words that are entirely Shakespeare's, for there is no authority for them in Holinshed,

Of all men else I have avoided thee.
But get thee back; my soul is too much charg'd
With blood of thine already.

(V.viii. 4-6)8

Macbeth's speech when he decides to murder Macduff's family is crucial:

Time, thou anticipat'st my dread exploits.
The flighty purpose never is o'ertook
Unless the deed go with it. From this moment
The very firstlings of my heart shall be
The firstlings of my hand. And even now,
To crown my thoughts with acts, be it thought and done:
The castle of Macduff I will surprise,
Seize upon Fife, give to the edge o'th' sword
His wife, his babes, and all unfortunate souls
That trace him in his line.

(IV.i. 144-153)

Macbeth here resolves to conquer time by murder, the murder of Macduff's ‘wife and babes’, when the play has already intimated many times that children or babes are the only sure guarantee of the future. Macbeth's futile destructiveness is further indicated by the significance of the firstling image. The primary contextual meaning is that Macbeth wishes to turn himself into some kind of unthinking killing machine, but his chosen image betrays him for firstling is not a neutral word in the context of child-killing. OED defines it as ‘The first of its kind to be produced, come into being, or appear’, but adds ‘esp the first offspring of an animal’. The word seems to carry with it the suggestion of a biblical context; Shakespeare's use of it of course predates the Authorised Version's but OED quotes Coverdale's translation of Proverbs iii. 9: ‘Honoure the Lorde … with ye firstlinges of all thine increase’. Interestingly too, Cruden's Concordance draws specific attention to the word's connection with ‘first-born’, which is the human equivalent. Macbeth then, despite himself, draws attention or expresses in the act of denying it the natural spiritual dimensions of his existence. The speech thus echoes Lady Macbeth's attempts to divest her womanhood of its child-nurturing functions. Infanticide is a central concept in the moral analysis of what it means to be human, a man or a woman. It is for this reason that infanticide is the crime that Macbeth recognises finally as having condemned him, a recognition that also typically affirms his humanity at the same time that it acknowledges its damnation:

                                                  … my soul is too much charg'd
With blood of thine already.

(V.viii. 5-6)

But if Shakespeare explores the questions of what it is to be a man or a woman, through the persons of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth and their attitudes to, and connections with, children he also portrays a marriage. Here we might again remember that Macbeth is a soldier: when writing of military tragic heroes, Shakespeare often concentrates on or adverts to their marriages. Such heroes' relationships with their wives either undermine or define their soldiership and its limitations. Othello is destroyed through his marriage to Desdemona as his feelings for her bring him into a world of emotional turmoil that he simply cannot cope with, and which his simple soldierly self is incapable of mastering; he dies asserting a terrible unity between kissing and killing. Coriolanus' manliness, his Roman and martial valour, is instilled partly by his mother, and his silent wife only serves as a reminder of all those areas of human experience which Coriolanus' code denies, represses and destroys. Antony (to all intents and purposes married to Cleopatra) loses his military prowess the more he becomes entangled, in a play that asks profound questions about sexual identity.

Macbeth actually identifies with Antony, when he soliloquizes on the threat represented by Banquo:

                                                            To be thus is nothing,
But to be safely thus. Our fears in Banquo
Stick deep; and in his royalty of nature
Reigns that which would be fear'd. 'Tis much he dares,
And to that dauntless temper of his mind
He hath a wisdom that doth guide his valour
To act in safety. There is none but he
Whose being I do fear; and under him
My Genius is rebuk'd, as it is said
Mark Antony's was by Caesar.

(III.i. 47-56)

Antony, Coriolanus and Macbeth are all ineffective as politicians; Antony is shown up by Caesar, and Coriolanus in a rather different sort of way by tricky old pros like Menenius and the tribunes. In Macbeth both Banquo and Malcolm show an ability for political trickery and manoeuvre which modifies any conception we may have of them as simple representatives of ‘natural goodness’ and true succession (father and son). Banquo never makes his suspicions known but appears to go along with Macbeth:

                                                  Let your Highness
Command upon me; to the which my duties
Are with a most indissoluble tie
For ever knit.

(III.i. 15-18)

Indeed Bradley thought that Banquo's own ambition for his descendants kept him quiet9. Alternatively, he could either be just biding his time, or acting according to James I's views of kingship which dictated that all kings once in power must be obeyed. Malcom shows that he has his wits about him in the long scene with Macduff when he pretends to be more degenerate than Macbeth himself, and he is astute enough not to get drawn into any fighting at the end. Macbeth on the other hand appears never to establish his authority, and one might think it silly of him—especially when he is a new king and needs to make his power known and obvious—to be so informal over the banquet ceremonial, and let his wife take the head of the table:

Ourself will mingle with society
And play the humble host.
Our hostess keeps her state; but in best time
We will require her welcome.

(III.iv. 3-6)

If you do that sort of thing you are asking for trouble.

Their marriage, however, has something of the closeness and mutuality of the relationship between Antony and Cleopatra, and this must modify the play's treatment of manliness and womanliness. We are touched at the start by Macbeth having written so immediately to his wife—this is a marriage of shared interests—and also by her ambition for him:

                                                  Hie thee hither,
That I may pour my spirits in thine ear,
And chastise with the valour of my tongue
All that impedes thee from the golden round
Which fate and metaphysical aid doth seem
To have thee crown'd with all.

(I.v. 22-27)

There is an appalling sense in which this is quite disinterested—she wants it for him and when later he hesitates at the prospect of murder, her jibes at his lack of manliness are given an edge by their marital relationship.

                                                  Was the hope drunk
Wherein you dress'd yourself? Hath it slept since,
And wakes it now to look so green and pale
At what it did so freely? From this time
Such I account thy love. Art thou afeared
To be the same in thine own act and valour
As thou art in desire?

(I.vii. 35-41)

Macbeth's act of murder seems in part an act of love done to please his wife. The great murder scene itself has a kind of grim intimacy, an extraordinary domesticity, as the Macbeths creep about their bedroom landing trying not to wake their guests.

I have done the deed. Didst thou not hear a noise?
Lady Macbeth
I heard the owl scream and the crickets cry.
Did not you speak?
Lady Macbeth
As I descended?
Lady Macbeth
Hark! Who lies i'th' second chamber?
Lady Macbeth

(II.ii. 14-19)

This kind of whispered shorthand conversation is only possible among people who know each other very well. The scene is, like the sleep-walking scene later, a remarkable mingling of the homely and the sublime, a mingling continued in Macbeth's horror-struck and prophetic perception of what he has just done and his wife's re-assuring matter-of-factness.

Methought I heard a voice cry ‘Sleep no more;
Macbeth does murder sleep’—the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the ravell'd sleave of care,
The death of each day's life, sore labour's bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course,
Chief nourisher in life's feast.

(II.ii. 35-38)

Sleeping and eating are what one does at home; one also washes. No doubt there was at least a pitcher of water on this bedroom landing, but

Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.

(II.ii. 60-63)

The actual setting of this scene creates a precise perception of the relationship between the small change of married life, the shared experiences of sleeping, eating, washing and the vast symbolic resonances that these acts have; the way in which they should be properly recognised as guarantees of the central moral order which constitutes our humanity, an order in which looking after babies is also important. It is Macbeth himself who articulates such resonances; Lady Macbeth is quite incapable of recognising them although her repeated insistences to her husband that he wash himself are telling assertions of the fact of intimacy and domestic relation itself. ‘Go get some water’, she says, slightly petulantly,

And wash this filthy witness from your hand.
Why did you bring these daggers from the place?
They must lie there.

(II.ii. 46-49)

And again:

                                        I hear a knocking
At the south entry; retire we to our chamber.
A little water clears us of this deed.
… Hark! more knocking.
Get on your night-gown, lest occasion call us
And show us to be watchers.

(II.ii. 65-70)

Indeed right through the play—or at least until she goes mad—Lady Macbeth keeps almost pathetically trying to comfort her husband, to tie him in to domestic normality:

                                                                                Come on.
Gentle my lord, sleek o'er your rugged looks;
Be bright and jovial among your guests to-night.

(III.ii. 26-28)

she says before the banquet; and after its disasters, when the guests have gone, she and her husband discuss Macduff's absence as any couple might after a party, and then it is time for bed:

Lady Macbeth
You lack the season of all natures, sleep.
Come we'll to sleep.

(III.iv. 141-142)

The next time we see her on stage it is with the taper in her hand, and her very last words are

To bed, to bed; there's knocking at the gate.
Come, come, come, come, give me your hand.
What's done cannot be undone. To bed, to bed, to bed.

(V.i. 64-66)

Even at the end of her life when she is literally dying from guilt she is unable to hear the implications of her own words; the knocking and the idea of going to bed remain for her entirely quotidian and ordinary. The play, in its explorations of the profoundly evil consequences of such a failure of the imagination incorporates the historical fact of the Macbeths' childlessness as both a symptom and as an instrument of analysis. In its own way Macbeth testifies to the human centrality of the process of generation as eloquently as any of the comedies or romances.


  1. Thomas Rymer, A Short View of Tragedy (1689).

  2. G. Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, VII (1973).

  3. As Freud pointed out, ‘It would be a perfect example of poetic justice in the manner of the talion if the childlessness of Macbeth and the barrenness of his Lady were the punishment for their crimes against the sanctity of generation’. (‘Some Character-Types Met with in Psycho-Analytical Work’, 1916). Compare also G. Wilson Knight The Imperial Theme (1931); Cleanth Brooks, ‘The Naked Babe and the Cloak of Manliness’ (1947); Helen Gardner, The Business of Criticism (1959); Marjorie Garber, Coming of Age in Shakespeare (1981).

  4. The Complete Works of Charles and Mary Lamb, ed. E. V. Lucas, (1908).

  5. This, and all subsequent references to Shakespeare's plays, are to The Complete Works, ed. Peter Alexander (1951).

  6. The kings are the eight Stuart monarchs from Robert II to Mary Queen of Scots. See Arthur Melville Clark, Murder Under Trust or The Topical Macbeth (1981).

  7. Ben Jonson, Poems, ed. Ian Donaldson (1975).

  8. In Holinshed, Macbeth challenges Macduff by calling him a traitor, taunts him about his invincibility, and then fights to kill him. He does not express any remorse about killing Macduff's family (cf. Bullough, op. cit., p. 505).

  9. A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy (1904).

Stuart M. Kurland (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: “Hamlet and the Scottish Succession,” in Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Vol. 34, No. 2, Spring, 1994, pp. 279-300.

[In the essay below, Kurland argues that Hamlet portrays the controversy surrounding James's succession to Queen Elizabeth's throne. The political world of Hamlet, explains Kurland, is informed by England's uncertainty generated by James's threats to secure the English throne through military action.]

Surveying earlier topical interpretations of Tudor drama, David Bevington observed in 1968 that “Hamlet offers a rich field for topicality … and reveals perhaps most clearly the basic error of the lockpicking sleuth.” Among the theories that were no longer “given serious attention” was Lilian Winstanley's, in “Hamlet” and the Scottish Succession, published in 1921. Winstanley maintained that Hamlet employed “historical analogues” that were “important, numerous, detailed and undeniable” in an effort “to excite as much sympathy as possible for the Essex conspirators, and for the Scottish succession.” Indeed, Winstanley explicitly identified Hamlet with Essex—and King James VI of Scotland.1

Since Bevington's Tudor Drama and Politics appeared twenty-five years ago, historical criticism of Shakespeare and Renaissance Drama has undergone a transformation and revitalization; as Leah Marcus has observed of the 1980s, “historicism is nearly everywhere.” But despite the advent of the “New Historicism.”2 many critics remain uneasy about topicality in Shakespeare: as Marcus points out, “even for Renaissance specialists it carries a faint but distinct odor of disreputability.”3 Critics interested in Shakespearean topicality today must attempt to reconstruct what Marcus terms the “local” dimensions of the plays in ways that will inform, rather than determine (or supplant), interpretation.

I would like to suggest that Winstanley's title, though not her thesis, deserves reconsideration. As I will argue, the late Elizabethan succession question—specifically the anticipation that James VI of Scotland might succeed the aging Elizabeth—figures importantly in Hamlet. An awareness of English politics with regard to the succession can help us better comprehend the play, particularly the threat from abroad as personified in Young Fortinbras, and, more generally, the unhealthy political climate of Denmark, which extends beyond the corruption of Claudius.

One could begin at the beginning, on the ramparts outside Elsinore, where a jittery watch is unsure about what the feverish preparations for war portend. I would like to begin instead at the end, with Hamlet's death and the arrival of Fortinbras, returning from Poland at the head of a conquering army. With his last words Hamlet prophesies that “th'election lights / On Fortinbras. He has my dying voice” (V.ii.360-61).4 And Fortinbras, upon viewing the dismal sight, asserts his claim to the Danish throne:

For me, with sorrow I embrace my fortune.
I have some rights of memory in this kingdom,
Which now to claim my vantage doth invite me.

(V. ii.393-95)

Let us imagine for a moment that the story—if not the play—continues: that Fortinbras succeeds Claudius on the Danish throne, that, indeed, he reigns in peace for over twenty years, during which the memory of the circumstances surrounding his accession grows successively dimmer. And let us imagine that what might be called the Age of Fortinbras has now receded some four hundred years into the past. How difficult would it then be for later students to reconstruct the end of the preceding reign, especially the uncertain atmosphere that surrounded the anticipation of the succession?

What I mean to suggest, of course, is that our knowledge of James I's peaceful accession to the English throne, and the subsequent course of British history, makes it difficult for us to imagine how the prospect of Elizabeth's death and the anticipation of her successor would have appeared to her subjects near the end of the reign—in the period 1500-1601, at the time Hamlet was written and first performed.5


The peaceful accession of James VI of Scotland in 1603 may have an air of inevitability when seen in retrospect that it could not have had at the time. Indeed, almost to the end James's prospects of succession were anything but certain. What J. Hurstfield calls “the succession struggle” is an extremely complicated story, only part of which need concern us here. Briefly, although James had what many regarded to be the strongest hereditary claim to the English crown, as a foreigner he faced a common law prohibition against alien land inheritance in England.6 And there were at various points a number of rival claimants, perhaps a dozen, including four other principal ones: Lady Arabella Stuart, Catherine Grey, the Earl of Derby, and Philip II of Spain (or his daughter, the Infanta), each of whom could trace his or her descent to Henry VII. Three of them “received the particular attention of the succession speculators and the chanceries of Europe”: James, Arabella, and the Infanta.7 As Thomas Wilson observed around 1600, “this crown is not like to fall to the ground for want of heads that claim to wear it.” Of the claimants, he was confident James would succeed, “as very many Englishmen do know assuredly.”8

Nevertheless, the succession remained in doubt virtually until the moment of Eiizabeth's death, and the uncertainty caused considerable anxiety: many of her subjects “genuinely feared that chaos would ensue when Elizabeth died.”9 This uncertainty was exacerbated by Elizabeth's refusal to declare a successor.10 James's quiet accession was largely engineered by Elizabeth's chief minister, Robert Cecil, who had been working discreetly to this end for a number of years. In a secret correspondence with James beginning in 1601, in which he offered assurances of support, Cecil counseled James to be patient and to say or do nothing that might alienate Elizabeth or alarm her subjects.

Throughout her long reign, Elizabeth had been unwilling to name a successor or even to allow the subject to be discussed.11 Towards the end of the reign, as Thomas Wilson noted at the time, speculation about the succession was “to all English capitally forbidden.”12 While Elizabeth's unwillingness to settle the succession had been a matter of concern earlier in the reign, the issue became increasingly acute towards the end of the century, with the childless queen's age—she would turn sixty-seven in 1600—an obvious consideration. As Hurstfield observes, there were good reasons for a “policy of refusing to acknowledge a successor” when the strongest claimant was James's mother, Mary Queen of Scots, who was not only a foreigner but a Catholic: “To have acknowledged Mary might well have prompted rebellion on behalf of an English candidate against a Catholic Scot.” But even after Mary's execution in 1587, Elizabeth still refused to name a successor. This was, as Hurstfield observes, “a dangerous policy,” since James, the best-positioned of the claimants, might be tempted to try to seize the crown by force instead of waiting hopefully for a prospect that was not entirely certain.13

Indeed, this danger was almost realized. As Helen Georgia Stafford writes, in pursuit of “the coveted prize” of the English succession James entered upon a frenzy of preparation. He had semi-official agents on the continent, seemed in touch with factions in England, and directed propaganda in Scotland. At the end of 1599 he was busy with a plan to equip his subjects with arms and armor in case of need on the great day. A “band” circulated among his nobility to insure their support for the occasion. Books were printed in defense of his title. Ambassadors were being sent abroad and received in Scotland in a fashion that implied much.14

In seeking support in England and, especially, in a great many European capitals, James pursued a diplomatic policy that was in D. H. Wilson's unsympathetic phrase “tortuous, secretive and dishonest.” Posing “in Britain and in northern Europe as the Protestant heir to England,” James sought “at the same time to commend himself secretly to Catholic powers.”15 However, due to both his own weakness and Elizabeth's opposition, his efforts produced few concrete results.16 James also began a Secret intrigue with the rebel Tyrone, in Ireland, and sought to cultivate both Catholics and Puritans in England.17

Crucially, James became involved in the intrigues of the “brilliant but unstable” Essex, Elizabeth's favorite, “whose rivalry with Cecil was dividing the English court.” Apparently James hoped that an ascendant Essex might help “force from Elizabeth a recognition” of his title.18 Early in 1600, under Essex's influence, James had encouraged the Scottish nobility to make preparations to ensure his succession. James urged his nobles to join together for the preservation of his person, and the pursuit of his right to the crowns of England and Ireland. … He also solicited from his Parliament … a liberal grant for warlike purposes in reference to the succession. “He was not certain,” he told them, “how soon he should have to use arms; but whenever it should be, he knew his right, and would venture crown and fall for it.”19

Nothing of substance came of this association of Scottish nobles, which “attracted little attention in England, although well enough known.”20 John Chamberlain reported at the time that “The Scottish nobilitie find themselves greeved that theyre kinge is no more respected, and have lately made an association among themselves against all those that shall hinder his right and succession.”21

As Essex's situation was becoming more critical in the year or so before the failed rising of February 1601, his followers appealed to James to intervene militarily in England.22 James was assured that he would be “declared and acknowledged the certain and undoubted successor to this crown.” Essex reportedly carried the king's response, in cipher, in a purse around his neck and burned it before surrendering. Generally aware of James's dealings with Essex, Elizabeth never allowed them to become public at Essex's trial, apparently because she was unwilling despite James's conduct to allow his claim to the throne to be jeopardized.23

After the fall of Essex, in early 1601, James eagerly welcomed the overtures of Essex's former rival, Robert Cecil, who was concerned in the secret correspondence he initiated “to ensure that James was never again tempted to seize power before his time.” Assured of support at the highest levels of the English government, James “began to sing a different tune. ‘Yea, what a foolish part were that in me,’ he wrote, ‘if I might do it to hazard my honour, state and person, in entering that kingdom by violence as an usurper.’”24

What we need to remind ourselves, after four hundred years, is that at the time Hamlet was written James's newly conciliatory and nonthreatening attitude towards his rights to the throne, like the peaceful succession itself, lay in the future. What was well known in England at the time was that James, who had been actively cultivating support for his claims in England and across Europe, might be tempted to assert his rights by force.

Not surprisingly, inflammatory rumors of Scottish war preparations circulated in England. Often there was thought to be a Danish connection, since it was assumed (and reported) that James's claims would be supported by his brother-in-law, Christian IV of Denmark. We may be tempted to dismiss some of these rumors as fantastic, especially those that involved the Spanish Infanta or the French king Henri IV, but even if grossly exaggerated their effect on the population—and on the political climate (as distinct from the diplomatic or military reality)25—could be powerful. In August 1599, for example, Cecil learned of a possible Spanish plot to install James from a writer who felt it his duty to advertise “you of the strange rumours and abundance of news spread abroad in the city, and so flying into the country, as there cannot be laid a more dangerous plot to amaze and discourage our people, and to advance the strength and mighty power of the Spaniard, working doubts in the better sort, fear in the poorer sort, and a great distraction in all, in performance of their service.”

According to the writer, the Spanish were said to be preparing a huge armada, carrying 50,000 soldiers, supported by 100 ships from Denmark. It was reported “that the King of Scots is in arms with 40,000 men to invade England, and the Spaniard comes to settle the King of Scots in this realm.” The rumor “is so creditably bruited as a preacher, in his prayer before his sermon, prayed to be delivered from the mighty forces of the Spaniard, the Scots and the Danes.”26 A month earlier, Coke sent Cecil an account of the interrogation of one Weyman, an Essex supporter, who provided “(amongst much refuse) many things worthy of your observation,” including testimony that seemed to “as much prognosticate a mathematical conquest (which yet may be imagined) as mustering, making of armour, expectation of forces from Denmark, hope of and from Ireland, &c.”27 Early that year, Cecil had apparently shown his brother Thomas, Lord Burghley” a report of a Scottish-Spanish design, which the latter rejected as based “upon false grounds and malicious” despite “the malice of Spain,” because “Scotland hath neither a good purse nor a good argument to make her hateful unto England.”28

The Calendar of State Papers, Domestic Series contains accounts of a fascinating series of letters, dating from April 1598 through early 1601, from one John Petit in Flanders, often writing under the alias J. B., to Peter Halins (alias Thomas Phelippes) in London, conveying news of rumored designs against England. In them the Scottish king figures prominently. On 22 April 1598, Petit wrote from Antwerp that James was “hastening himself in making friends to attain the Crown of England, and for that purpose sends out many ambassadors.” Petit went on to say, “I hope Her Majesty may live many years, and prevent the intentions which all Scots in these parts affirm he has, of attempting it in her lifetime; but she should look well about her.”29 In June 1598 Petit reported from Antwerp:

If I were not acquainted with Scottish brags, I might believe England was already more than half theirs. They say that 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 Anne of Denmark, to declare him her successor, she must perform it; … and that the house of Lorraine and other princes have promised assistance.

Petit evidently felt that there must have been some foundation for these rumors (“So great a smoke cannot be without some fire”), but he judged that in relying upon France James would be “deceived,” because “the French will never help to join Scotland and England; they would rather divide both into more kingdoms.”30 By the end of the year, Petit was reporting (from London), “I am told that in making war for the Crown, the King of Scots builds more on means within England than abroad, and has a great party, especially of Puritans. If he can get money from abroad, he will not wait till the fruit be ready to fall.”31

From Antwerp in the spring of 1599, Petit reported news out of Scotland that “the King intends to gather grapes before they are ripe, and his brother of Denmark will assist him with 10,000 men.” There were rumors that “for a kingdom” James would “become a counterfeit Catholic, like the King of France.” “The Scots here are in great hopes, but all they say need not be believed,” Petit wrote, concluding that “Means should be taken to prevent that King cutting the grass under Her Majesty's feet.”32 A month later Petit wrote again, from Liege, that James “would attempt to gather fruit before it is ripe, but cannot find friends to assist him; the French King will not … and the Scottish nobility do not desire to see him King of England.”33 Again, less than six weeks later, Petit wrote from Liege, “A Scot at the Spa said that his King had a promise from the Queen to succeed her; that if she perform it not, he has made many friends, both in England and abroad, especially in Denmark, and has no doubt of carrying it; and that he would undoubtedly be a Catholic, or give the liberty of religion which he has promised.”34

In August 1599, Petit complained from Brussels that his letters were being opened and the contents conveyed to James. He went on to enumerate the arguments against those in England that “will not believe that the King of Scots intends to cut the grass under Her Majesty's feet.” Citing “public speeches” by “the King and many in their Parliament … to stir the people to contribute largely to revenge his mother's death, and force Her Majesty to declare him heir apparent,” and “many sendings between England and Scotland … to excuse this,” Petit noted considerable activity across the Continent in Denmark, Germany, Rome, Spain, Brussels, and Paris, and concluded that the members of Elizabeth's Council who would “not believe known truths” were favorers of the Scot who “will not believe what they see, and want Her Majesty to wink at it, that her enemy may fortify himself.” Petit went on to relay the rumor that “some English and French have put it into the head of the King of France … to take England himself.” The English at Brussels were reportedly “in factions for and against the Scot, and I hear it is the same at Court,” where Cecil and the Lord Admiral “are said to be chief of the Scottish faction.” And Petit reported that the Scots “brag of many more friends among the nobility and commons, and that London is wholly theirs, with all the Puritans in England.”35 In October 1599 Petit reported, “Rumours fly that the King of Scots is preparing to war against England, and that his brother-in-law of Denmark has broken the ice already.”36 Similar reports were dispatched the following month—and throughout 1600.37

Petit's letters may in some measure represent the obsessions of a single individual, but their confused minglings of fact and rumor, tinged with apprehension, suggest something of the climate of uncertainty and fear surrounding the succession issue. And fearfulness about the succession “was linked to a number of other anxieties, concerning sedition, aristocratic factionalism, popular rebellion, and foreign invasion.”38 It is against this background, and the many reports of diplomatic intrigue and possible military action in behalf of James's efforts to assure his succession, that I propose we look at Hamlet.


Let us return to Fortinbras and his reappearance at Elsinore in arms at the end of the play. As Eleanor Prosser observes, Fortinbras “reenters Denmark like a conquering hero.” Firing off a volley to greet the English ambassadors, he acts “not like a privileged guest in Denmark but like its sovereign.” Even before learning that his election has received Hamlet's blessing, Fortinbras calls a council of the Danish nobility and asserts his claim to the throne.39 Horatio's attitude towards Fortinbras reinforces this view. Specifically charged by Hamlet with telling Fortinbras that he has Hamlet's “dying voice” for the succession (V.ii.361-62), Horatio appears to concede Fortinbras's authority:40

give order that these bodies
High on a stage be placed to the view,
And let me speak to th'yet unknowing world
How these things came about.


But before Horatio reveals that he intends to address the succession issue, Fortinbras takes the initiative and asserts his “rights … in this kingdom”; Horatio merely adds,

Of that I shall have also cause to speak,
And from his mouth whose voice will draw on more.


Fortinbras's self-assurance is unmistakable in his next speech, the last in the play, when he gives a series of commands for bearing off the bodies.

Although Fortinbras has been frequently seen as the embodiment of a “restoration of order” at the end of the play,41 he is in many respects a problematic figure. As Prosser notes, he is “a foreign adventurer,” anything but a representative of “the rule of reason and integrity.”42 And, in Paul Cantor's words, despite Fortinbras's courage, which Hamlet admires, he is “presented as a troublemaker; his own uncle does everything he can to keep him out of Norway and direct his spiritedness against Poland.” To Cantor, Fortinbras is a “dubious” choice: Hamlet “seems in fact to undo everything his father was said to have accomplished.” Indeed, “the prospect of Denmark falling into Norwegian hands should increase our sense of hollowness and futility at the end.”43

A troubling figure, Fortinbras returns to Denmark in circumstances that are themselves deeply unsettling. The stage is strewn with bodies, of course, when he appears at the head of his army and begins to take charge. That Horatio is ill at ease should hardly be surprising, given the scene he has just witnessed. Yet it seems odd that in urging haste so he can relate Hamlet's story he seems primarily concerned with the dangers of an unsettled populace.44 He asks that the disposition of the bodies

be presently perform'd
Even while men's minds are wild, lest more mischance
On plots and errors happen.


Horatio's focus at this moment on the future stability of Denmark may seem all the more perplexing given his previous lack of political ambition or interest. A moment before, declaring himself to be “more an antique Roman than a Dane” (V.ii.346), he had attempted to kill himself. And it is difficult to imagine what “more mischance” might happen; as Fortinbras observes, death has already struck “so many princes at a shot” (V.ii.371-72).45

The apprehension Horatio voices about the instability of “men's minds” can best be understood in the context of a recurring concern throughout the play with popular unrest, an anxiety known to many in the play's original audiences,46 especially as it relates to the succession. As E. A. J. Honigmann observes, Hamlet continually alludes to, and even depicts, “the distraction of the multitude.”47 Most striking is the rebellion Laertes foments in seeking to avenge his father's death: overbearing Claudius's officers “in a riotous head,” Laertes leads his followers into the very presence of the king. According to the report of an unnamed messenger,

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.” Caps, hands,
and tongues applaud it to the clouds,
“Laertes shall be king, Laertes king.”


Although Claudius manages to avoid danger, co-opting Laertes and redirecting his anger at Hamlet, the threat is real: both the king's life and crown are at risk. So are the principles of antiquity and custom that sustain the crown and its wearer (illegitimately, in the case of Claudius). The Danish monarchy may be elective, but Denmark is not a democracy, and this brief assertion of popular will is as treasonous as it would be in Elizabethan England. A Fortinbras might have seized the opportunity—Claudius's “Switzers,” the foreign mercenaries of the palace guard, have been swept aside—but Laertes seems interested only in personal revenge, which Claudius is able to manipulate for his own ends. Nevertheless, Claudius's vulnerability is evident.

Apprehension of such an event has been palpable at the court at least since Hamlet mistakenly stabbed Polonius. Claudius's first reaction upon learning of Polonius's death was to fear for his own safety: “O heavy deed! / It had been so with us had we been there” (IV.i.12-13). But he immediately focuses on the more abstract danger in the likelihood that he will be blamed: “Alas, how shall this bloody deed be answer'd? / It will be laid to us”; and he goes on to say,

this vile deed
We must with all our majesty and skill
Both countenance and excuse.

(IV.i.16-17, 30-32)

It is not clear where Claudius most perceives a danger: from the populace, the Council, or Laertes. But it is clear that he feels compelled to try to avoid the appearance of responsibility. He does so, just as he sought the support of his Council for his hasty marriage, by gathering his “wisest friends” for consultation, to “let them know both what we mean to do / And what's untimely done.” His aim is to keep “slander” from himself, so it “may miss our name / And hit the woundless air” (IV.i.38-44). Claudius's strategy fails, however: despite his efforts, the people become muddied / Thick and unwholesome in their thoughts and whispers / For good Polonius' death, and Claudius realizes that he has “done but greenly / In hugger-mugger to inter him” (IV.v.81-84). And Claudius's anxiety about appearances leaves him vulnerable to Laertes, who concludes from Polonius's “means of death” and “obscure funeral” that Claudius must have been responsible (IV.v.210).48

The dissatisfaction of the people is a source of considerable anxiety at court; Claudius is particularly nervous about how it may affect Laertes, who

wants not buzzers to infect his ear
With pestilent speeches of his father's death,
Wherein necessity, of matter beggar'd,
Will nothing stick our person to arraign
In ear and ear.


The play never depicts the sort of opposition Claudius imagines, which seems to be a mirror image of the rumor-mongering and conspiracy we associate with Polonius and the court. Indeed, except for Hamlet and the “rabble” that accompany Laertes (who disappear as abruptly as they burst into the royal presence), Claudius seems remarkably unburdened by domestic opposition, either open or clandestine. His seemingly unfounded fears reinforce the impression of weakness evident from his initial preoccupation with what he imagines to be Fortinbras's “weak supposal of our worth” (I.ii.18).

The “rabble” who follow Laertes against the king may recall Fortinbras's supporters, the “lawless resolutes” he “Shark'd up” to recover the lands his father lost to Old Hamlet (I.i.101, 105-107).49 In both cases, the dangers to Denmark are seen as serious. The threat posed by Fortinbras and his followers is said to explain the extraordinary defensive preparations that open the play: the “strict and most observant watch” every night, the “daily cast of brazen cannon / And foreign mart for implements of war,” the “impress of shipwrights” working without respite (I.i.73-79). Again, Fortinbras's threat is

The source of this our watch, and the chief head
Of this post-haste and rummage in the land.


These hurried preparations in the face of a military threat provide the larger context in which the ghost of Old Hamlet appears to the frightened watch, wearing “the very armour he had on / When he th'ambitious Norway combated” (I.i.63-64). (Presumably, Old Hamlet was not so armed when murdered sleeping in his garden.)50 The sight is ominous: to Horatio it “bodes some strange eruption to our state” (I.i.72); when the ghost reappears, Marcellus concludes that “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” (I.iv.90). Both Horatio and Marcellus interpret the ghost's appearance in political terms, as a sign that the state is troubled. Between the ghost's appearances, the scene shifts to court, the source of the trouble.

With unconscious irony, King Claudius opens his speech to the court by evoking the “green” memory of Old Hamlet's death. The contrast between the old king and his successor is striking; Claudius is in every way a falling-off. Where Old Hamlet commanded his subjects' affection along with their allegiance, so that his exploits of thirty years earlier are still discussed, Claudius's hold on the crown is not secure. Claudius's kingship depends, as he is well aware, on the support or at least acquiescence of the Danish nobility and commons, hence his elaborate concern in his opening speech to underscore the support of his Council for his hasty marriage to his dead brother's queen:51

Nor have we herein barr'd
Your better wisdoms, which have freely gone
With this affair along. For all, our thanks.


It is in this larger political context that Claudius's apprehensions about Hamlet must be understood. Hamlet's unwillingness in the first court scene to forego his mourning and accept Claudius's clumsy and disingenuous efforts at reconciliation merely complicates a situation that would exist regardless: Hamlet is not only a potential private avenger of a murdered father, as Laertes will be, but a public figure whose very existence poses a challenge to Claudius's kingship. “Hamlet, Prince of Denmark,” as he is called on all the early title pages,52 calls himself “Hamlet the Dane” when he jumps into Ophelia's grave after Laertes (V.i.251). Although Claudius seems to have attained election to the throne legitimately, Hamlet is old enough to have succeeded his father.53 As important, he is accomplished, as both Ophelia and Fortinbras testify: he has “The courtier's, soldier's, scholar's, eye, tongue, sword” (III.i.153), and “he was likely, had he been put on / To have prov'd most royal” (V.ii.402-403).

Further, Hamlet is popular, as Claudius constantly worries.54 As he will tell Laertes, Claudius feared to move openly against Hamlet because of Gertrude's doting and because of “the great love the general gender bear him” (IV.vii.18). If Laertes, in pursuit of his private grievance, could rally such support, how might Hamlet have challenged Claudius's hold on power if he had wished?

Claudius is usually taken to be the source of Denmark's ills, and with good reason: he commits the ultimate political sin of regicide, and his efforts to keep the crown lead directly or indirectly to the tragedies that engulf the court and country. Claudius is responsible for the treachery that kills Hamlet, along with Gertrude, Laertes, and Claudius himself. Their service to Claudius results in the deaths of both Polonius and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Even Ophelia's distraction and drowning follow directly from Hamlet's apparent madness and her father's death.

But Claudius's responsibility has definite limits. While it is not possible to measure precisely the influence of his sins on the behavior of his followers, especially the corrupting influence of the royal murder—of which his creatures are, like Gertrude, presumably innocent—the case of Polonius suggests the limits of Claudius's influence. Polonius appears to be the creature of a novice king who himself acknowledges, in seeking to solidify the support of his Council, that Young Fortinbras holds “a weak supposal of his worth” (I.ii.18). But Polonius is also, paradoxically, an experienced minister, whose brain has long hunted “the trail of policy” (II.ii.47). However we may view Polonius's political instincts—he is incapable of discerning the real causes of Hamlet's apparent madness, and he spies on his own son by initiating harmful rumors about his character—it is clear that unlike Osric or, arguably, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Polonius reached political maturity before Claudius murdered Old Hamlet and assumed his crown. Thus, whether or not we can easily imagine Polonius holding sway at the court of Old Hamlet,55 we cannot trace his political and ethical conduct directly to Claudius and the murder of his royal brother.

When Hamlet mistakenly kills Polonius, having taken him for Claudius hiding behind the arras, Hamlet maintains that Polonius must bear responsibility for his own conduct: he is a “wretched, rash, intruding fool” who deserves his “fortune” for having been “too busy” (III.iv.31-33).56 Similarly, Hamlet justifies the deliberate deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, whom he could as easily have spared,57 on the grounds that they “did make love to this employment,” which ironically kills them instead of the intended victim:58

They are not near my conscience, their defeat
Does by their own insinuation grow.


The point, for Hamlet, is that these political creatures are free to make other choices.59

As Hamlet is aware, there is something inherently corrupting in the relationship between a king and his courtiers. Hamlet's barbs at Rosencrantz and Guildenstern reveal that he is aware of their ambition; like them, he slyly suggests, he has an aspiring mind. As Polonius jumped to the conclusion that his daughter was the source of Hamlet's distemper, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern may conclude, at Hamlet's suggestion, that Hamlet is distraught because he “lacks advancement” (III.ii.331). To Rosencrantz this is incomprehensible, since Hamlet has “the voice of the King himself for his succession in Denmark” (III.ii.332-33). Their advancement depends on serving the king in whatever way he commands, which includes their efforts to play upon Hamlet, as he says, like a pipe.60

The courtiers who so disgust Hamlet operate in a climate of corruption that pervades Denmark, where Hamlet is aware that “one may smile, and smile, and be a villain” (I.v.109). It is important to note, however, that as rotten as Denmark is, a similar atmosphere envelops other countries, where there has been no sin of regicide. Norway, governed by a decrepit old man, cannot contain the spirit of Young Fortinbras, who does not feel bound by the legality of his father's forfeiture of lands or by the value of the ground he seeks to win, at terrible human cost, from the Poles. And England, Denmark's tributary, can be counted upon to fulfill Claudius's request for the immediate execution of Prince Hamlet. The climate of corruption at the Danish court—the spying, conspiracy, hypocrisy, and ambition of courtiers like Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and Osric—should be seen within this larger international context. The political evils depicted in Hamlet cannot all be traced to the sins of Claudius.

The international dimension is crucial for an appreciation of the politics of Hamlet, particularly when considered in the context of the uneasiness surrounding the late Elizabethan succession question. As I have suggested, the political world of the play is informed by the uncertainty engendered by James VI's maneuvers and threats to secure the English succession. This is not to say that there are specific correspondences, that the militaristic Fortinbras is meant to represent James VI on stage. (Nor is Denmark Scotland, as Winstanley maintained, or Hamlet Essex—and James.)61 It is not in such a literal sense that Hamlet may be thought to have held “as 'twere the mirror up to nature” (III.ii.22).

Rather, an awareness of the Elizabethan political scene can serve the task of interpretation by reminding us of the immediacy with which a contemporary audience might have perceived the anxious war preparations of the opening scene, with its rumors and apprehensions; the highly charged political atmosphere throughout the play; and the public dimensions of Hamlet's plight. Unlike some modern readers, Shakespeare's audience would have been unlikely to see in Hamlet's story merely a private tragedy or in Fortinbras's succession to the Danish throne a welcome and unproblematic restoration of order.62


  1. David Bevington, Tudor Drama and Politics: A Critical Approach to Topical Meaning (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1968), pp. 21, 22; Lilian Winstanley, “Hamlet” and the Scottish Succession (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1921), pp. 165, 180.

  2. Much has been written recently about the “New Historicist” movement in English Renaissance studies, especially about the ideologies and methodologies evident in the work of its diverse practitioners. The historical orientation of the “New Historicism,” as it has been practiced by Stephen Greenblatt and critics influenced by him, has been called into question recently by a historian who finds the term “a misnomer, for the method has little to do with historicism of any sort,” though he “often admires and approves of New Historicist work.” According to this view, “‘New Historicism’ is a text-based form of close rending that relies upon essentially arbitrary comparisons with other texts” (emphasis in original). See Robert D. Hume, “Texts Within Contexts: Notes Toward a Historical Method,” PQ 71, 1 (Winter 1992): 69-100, 71.

  3. Leah S. Marcus, “Puzzling Shakespeare: Local Reading and Its Discontents”,The New Historicism: Studies in Cultural Poetics 6 (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1988), pp. xi, xii.

  4. Quotations throughout are from the New Arden edition of Harold Jenkins (London: Methuen, 1982); citations are given parenthetically.

  5. Although we cannot be absolutely certain about Hamlet's date, I follow the dating in the New Arden edition: the play “belongs to 1601,” Jenkins concludes, but “the essential Hamlet, minus the passage on the troubles of the actors … was being acted on the stage just possibly even before the end of 1599 and certainly in the course of 1600” (p. 13).

  6. J. Hurstfield, “The Succession Struggle in Late Elizabethan England,” Elizabethan Government and Society, ed. S. T. Bindoff, J. Hurstfield, and C. H. Williams (London: Univ. of London—Athlone Press, 1961), p. 372; David Harris Willson, King James VI and I (London: Jonathan Cape, 1956), p. 138.

  7. Hurstfield, pp. 372-73.

  8. Quoted in Hurstfield, p. 373.

  9. Maurice Lee, Jr., Great Britain's Solomon: James VI and I in His Three Kingdoms (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1990), p. 106. After James's peaceful succession the mood was generally euphoric. Sir George Carew reported, “All men are exceedingly satisfied and praise God who of His goodness hath so miraculously provided for us, contrary to the opinions of the wisest, who for many years past trembled to think of her Majesty's decease, as if instantly upon it the kingdom would have been torn in sunder.” According to Lord Burghley, “The contentment of the people is unspeakable, seeing all things proceed so quietly, whereas they expected in the interim their houses should have been spoiled and sacked” (quoted in Lee, pp. 106-107).

  10. “It is sometimes said that Elizabeth named James as her heir on her deathbed, but firm support is lacking for this view,” according to John Guy (Tudor England, Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1990, p. 453). Rejecting the theory that Elizabeth anointed her successor, Guy writes, “On the contrary, James I succeeded because Cecil and Lord Henry Howard had paved the way, because he was the most realistic alternative, and because fifteen nobles and councillors signed the warrant that ordered proclamation of his style” (pp. 453-54). Lee observes that James “worked long and hard to achieve” the English crown, and “for his ultimate triumph he deserves a great deal of the credit” (p. 95).

    According to Willson, Elizabeth promised James in 1586 that “she would do nothing to injure any right or title that might be due him, unless his ingratitude provoked her to the contrary; and beyond these words, with their threatening reservation, she would not go”; Willson believes Elizabeth “undoubtedly” came to regard James's “accession as inevitable” (p. 140).

  11. Many sources document the various negotiations for marriage early in the reign and the attempts by Parliament to urge Elizabeth to settle the succession. On efforts to employ drama to advance specific policies and claims see Marie Axton, The Queen's Two Bodies: Drama and the Elizabethan Succession (London: Royal Historical Society, 1977). Bevington notes that from the first Elizabeth “was especially alert to the question of her marriage or establishing a successor to the throne”; however, even late in the reign, and despite her known dislike of talk about the succession, “she still expected … to receive unwelcome advice in her plays” (p. 8).

  12. Quoted in Hurstfield, p. 373.

  13. Hurstfield, p. 391. Elizabeth may have been “anxious … not to rouse an anti-Scottish faction which might have tried to make things impossible for James—and for Elizabeth.” There may also have been a more personal motive, “the understandable personal feelings of an old and popular Queen who hated to see her own shadow lengthen while the sun rose in Scotland” (p. 391). As Lee observes, “The succession to the English crown was the great object of James's life—indeed, an obsession. He would do anything to obtain it, even to the extent of risking the patriotic wrath of his subjects after the execution of his mother” (p. 65).

  14. Helen Georgia Stafford, James VI of Scotland and the Throne of England (New York: Appleton-Century, 1940), pp. 196-97.

  15. Willson, p. 142; see pp. 142-48. Willson's 1956 biography of James offers a generally negative portrayal, which has been challenged in recent years; as Lee observes, summarizing the changing interpretations of the king's character and ability, Willson's book is “still, alas, the best scholarly biography” (p. xiii).

  16. Stafford, p. 124.

  17. To observers throughout Europe, James seemed, in Willson's terms, “a kind of irrepressible and erratic bounder whose bizarre diplomacy was crass and uncivilized and whose words and actions offered no basis of confidence” (p. 148). According to Lee, James concluded before the Armada that Elizabeth was unlikely to support any of the English claimants. James waged a “brilliantly successful campaign” to minimize a challenge from foreign, Catholic claimants: he “carried on underhand negotiations with various Continental Catholics, including the Pope, and did so in ways that were so studiously noncommittal, vague, and repudiatable as to raise a great many hopes yet commit him to nothing. … There was no Catholic opposition when the great day came, and in Catholic circles on the Continent there was considerable hope of James's conversion” (p. 99).

  18. Essex used the succession issue “to lend an appearance of statesmanship to his wild ambitions and to win the King of Scots” (Willson, pp. 149-50). The exact date of Essex's “first overture to James” on the subject of the succession is uncertain, though it was probably in the period 1597-1599 (P.M. Handover, The Second Cecil: The Rise to Power, 1563-1604, of Sir Robert Cecil, Later First Earl of Salisbury, London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1959, p. 152). Essex and James “had exchanged casual letters” at least since 1588 (G.B. Harrison, The Life and Death of Robert Devereux Earl of Essex, New York: Holt, 1937, p. 45). Beginning at least in 1598, through a series of secret contacts, Essex evidently sought to reinforce James's Protestant leanings and to counter what he believed was sympathy among some English officials for the claims of the Infanta. James apparently answered the letters, but the correspondence is lost. However, it seems clear that Essex “flirted with treason in his secret correspondence” with James, contemplating in 1599 the use of troops “to oust Cecil and his collaborators from the Privy Council” (Guy, p. 448).

    There was speculation that Essex sought the crown for himself; Handover cites Thomas Fitzherbert, a Catholic exile in Madrid, writing in early 1599: “‘I think … the King of Scots will win the game, if the Earl of Essex be not in his way.’ Although the Scots took Essex to be James's ‘greatest friend,’ the writer considered they were deceived, and that Essex ‘takes him for his competitor.’” That year Essex was cautioned that James had been told that “the only obstacle” to his title was Essex (Handover, pp. 189, 191).

  19. John Bruce, ed., Correspondence of King James VI. of Scotland with Sir Robert Cecil and Others in England …, Camden Society o.s., 78 (London, 1861; rprt. New York: AMS, 1968), p. xlv; see also p. xxi.

  20. Bruce, p. xlv, n. b.

  21. Chamberlain to Dudley Carleton, 22 February 1600, cited by Bruce, p. xlv, n. b, in The Letters of John Chamberlain, ed. Norman Egbert McClure, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1939), 1:87.

  22. Although the details are unclear, according to Stafford there appears to have been “a fairly close understanding” between James and the Essex camp. In mid-1599, a messenger from an Essex supporter, Lord Mountjoy, sought “to assure the King that Essex had no thought of rivalry and would countenance no heir to the throne but James, and to discuss some course for his recognition as heir in the Queen's lifetime”; this amounted to “a general invitation to James to back the Earl's efforts to oust his rivals from the government of England.” James's response was “cautiously encouraging.” Then, in early 1600, it was proposed more definitely “that James should prepare an army ‘at a convenient time’ and declare his purpose” while Mountjoy would bring troops from Ireland. This time the response was “dilatory” (Stafford, pp. 208-209).

  23. Stafford, pp. 216-18.

  24. Hurstfield, pp. 392, 393. Hurstfield suggests that Cecil also sought to “instruct James” in his future duties as king; for a contrasting view, that James was left in the dark about English affairs, see Lee, pp. 102-103.

  25. I owe this emphasis to an anonymous reader, a historian, who observed that these rumors “were grossly exaggerated, given the weak state of Scottish arms and James's reasonable prospect of succeeding peacefully in the near future” (reader's report).

  26. G. Coppin to Sir Robert Cecil, 9 August 1599, Calendar of the Manuscripts of the Most Hon. the Marquis of Salisbury, K.G …, Historical Manuscripts Commission Reports (London: His Majesty's Stationery Office, 1902), 9:282-83, henceforth HMC Salisbury. I wish to thank James S. Shapiro of Columbia University for calling my attention to this letter.

  27. Sir Edward Coke, Attorney General, to Sir Robert Cecil, 9 July 1599, HMC Salisbury, 9:227.

  28. Thomas, Lord Burghley to Sir Robert Cecil, 13 February 1599, HMC Salisbury 9:71.

  29. Calendar of State Papers, Domestic Series, of the Reign of Elizabeth, 1598-1601, ed. Mary Anne Everett Green (1869; rprt. Nendeln, Liechtenstein: Kraus, 1967), p. 39, henceforth CSP Domestic.

  30. 14 June 1598, n.s., CSP Domestic, p. 59. In Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, vol. 7, Geoffrey Bullough reprints a portion of this letter under the heading “Probable Historical Allusions” in Hamlet; the Danish prince was rumored to intend to “demand a certain old payment which England was accustomed to give Denmark” (London: Routledge; New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1973), p. 185.

  31. 2 December 1598, CSP Domestic, p. 128.

  32. 8 May 1599 n.s., CSP Domestic, p. 189.

  33. 9 June 1599 n.s., CSP Domestic, p. 201.

  34. 18 July 1599 n.s., CSP Domestic, p. 243.

  35. 28 August 1599 n.s., CSP Domestic, pp. 298-99.

  36. 11 October 1599 n.s., CSP Domestic, p. 327.

  37. CSP Domestic, p. 343, passim.

  38. The larger implications of the succession fears are stressed by the anonymous reader cited above, who observes, “There were many reasons to worry about the political stability of England at the time Hamlet was produced, but the danger of a disputed succession provided a focus for all of them, since an unsettled succession provided a potential opening for every other form of rebellion, sedition, and conspiracy” (reader's report).

  39. Eleanor Prosser, Hamlet and Revenge, 2nd edn. (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1971), pp. 239, 240.

  40. On Horatio's deference to Fortinbras, the text is ambiguous. He has just addressed Fortinbras and the English ambassadors together, and it is possible that he continues to address them jointly:

    since …
    You from the Polack wars and you from England
    Are here arriv'd, give order that these bodies
    High on a stage be placed to the view.


    On the other hand, Fortinbras is addressed first, despite Horatio's having just responded to the ambassadors. If Horatio concedes Fortinbras's authority, the cause may be less in Fortinbras's assuming command than in Hamlet's having just explicitly endorsed him.

  41. See, e.g., Roland Mushat Frye, The Renaissance “Hamlet”: Issues and Responses in 1600, (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1984), p. 268.

  42. Prosser, pp. 239, 240. Questioning the “critical commonplace that Shakespeare always reestablishes order at the end of his tragedies,” Prosser writes, “Order of a sort is always established, but is the audience necessarily to rejoice that the commonwealth has been healed?” (p. 240, n. 38). At the end of Hamlet, “A strong man has taken over” (p. 240).

  43. Paul A. Cantor, Shakespeare, “Hamlet,” Landmarks of World Literature, (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989), pp. 61, 62-63. An extreme view of Fortinbras is expressed by Arthur McGee, who identifies him with the devil: “puffed with ‘divine ambition,’” he has “rebelled against his king … He is clad in armour like the Ghost at the beginning of the play—he not only acts like Satan, he looks like him. Elizabethans would have had no difficulty in seeing the parallel” (The Elizabethan Hamlet, New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1987, p. 173).

  44. In his eagerness to assume control, Fortinbras had also urged haste: “Let us haste to hear it” (V.ii.391).

  45. Whatever the merits of Fortinbras's “rights” in Denmark, no credible Danish rival is left alive at the end of the play to claim the throne.

  46. Fear of unrest seems to have been pervasive throughout the period in England, according to most historical accounts; however, Steve Rappaport challenges the assumption that sixteenth-century London was marked by “chronic instability” and observes that “Not once did the capital experience a popular rising aimed at overthrowing the government or otherwise overturning the established social order” (Worlds within Worlds: Structures of Life in Sixteenth-Century London, Cambridge Studies in Population, Economy and Society in Past Time 7 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989, pp. 6, 18).

  47. E. A. J. Honigmann, “The Politics in Hamlet and ‘The World of the Play,’” “Hamlet,” ed. John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris, Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 5 (London: Arnold, 1963), p. 141.

  48. The uneasiness of the populace is also a factor in the court's response to Ophelia's madness. When she asks to see Gertrude, the reluctant queen is urged to admit her lest Ophelia's plight inflame discontented subjects, who

    aim at it,
    And botch the words up fit to their own thoughts:. …
    Twere good she were spoken with, for she may strew
    Dangerous conjectures in ill-breeding minds.


    Exactly what these conjectures might be remains unclear, but they are evidently related to the muddy and unwholesome whispers about Polonius's death.

  49. In urging that we remain aware of the cumulative threat of lawless bands challenging Claudius's rule, I do not mean to identify Laertes's followers with Fortinbras's, as Harold Jenkins does. Noting that as the play proceeds Fortinbras is seen leading not a group of “lawless resolutes” but a well-disciplined army, Jenkins concludes that the “‘lawless resolutes’ … have attached themselves to Laertes” (p. 100). Such a conclusion seems unsupported by the explicitly Norwegian character of Fortinbras's followers: he gathered them “in the skirts of Norway here and there” (I.i.100), making his “levies,” “lists,” and “full proportion … / Out of Old Norway's subject” (I.ii.31-33); and these are the same soldiers who march across Danish soil to attack Poland (II.ii.74-75), returning at the end of the play. Laertes's followers must have been Danish, given the secrecy and apparent haste of his return from France after Polonius's death (IV.v.88).

  50. The ghost's military costume and bearing are repeatedly emphasized: he appears in that fair and warlike form

    In which the majesty of buried Denmark
    Did sometimes march,

    and he appears three times before the watch “With martial stalk” (I.i.50-52, 69). See I.i.112-13, where “this portentous figure / Comes armed through our watch.”

    When the ghost appears to Hamlet in Gertrude's closet, according to Q1 he does so “in his night gowne” (III.iv. 103 s.d. t.n.), though Hamlet observes later in the scene that he appears “in his habit as he liv'd” (III.iv. 137).

  51. Claudius's chief followers are explicitly identified as his Council in Q2 o.s.d. (Jenkins, p. 178, S.D. t.n.).

  52. Jenkins, p. 165, Title t.n.

  53. There has been extensive critical discussion of the elective nature of the Danish monarchy and its relationship to England, which will not be reviewed here (see, e.g., Honigmann and John Dover Wilson, What Happens in “Hamlet,” 3rd edn. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1951; rprt. 1962; Cay Dollerup, Denmark, “Hamlet,” and Shakespeare: A Study of Englishmen's Knowledge of Denmark towards the End of the Sixteenth Century with Special Reference to “Hamlet,” Elizabethan and Renaissance Studies 47, 2 vols. Salzburg: Institut fur Englische Sprache und Literatur, 1975; and Gunnar Sjogren, Hamlet the Dane, Publications of the New Society of Letters at Lund 77 Lund: Gleer, 1983). Norway does not provide an exact parallel, since Fortinbras must have been a minor when Old Fortinbras was killed and his brother succeeded him.

    As to Claudius's election, it is easy to imagine Claudius working to consolidate his position while Hamlet is at Wittenberg, so that Hamlet returns to Denmark after learning of his father's death to confront a fait accompli. At any rate, Hamlet seems to accept the fact of his uncle's election, raising no objection despite the opportunity Claudius provides in publicly declaring him “the most immediate to our throne” (I.ii.109), at least until the end of the play, when he charges Claudius (to Horatio) with having “kill'd my king and whor'd my mother and / Popp'd in between th'election and my hopes” (V.ii.64-65).

  54. Although Claudius never offered an explanation for forbidding Hamlet's return to Wittenberg after the funeral/wedding, declaring simply that wit is most retrograde to our desire” (I.ii. 114), his intention of keeping an eye on Hamlet is apparent even before Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are called for. When keeping Hamlet at court becomes too dangerous, Claudius resolves to send him to England (III.i.169-72). Even after the death of Polonius, Claudius treats Hamlet with caution—while plotting his “present death” when Hamlet reaches England (IV.iii.68):

    How dangerous is it that this man goes loose!
    Yet must not we put the strong law on him:
    He's lov'd of the distracted multitude,
    Who like not in their judgment but their eyes.


  55. That some courtiers were flexible enough to adapt successfully to the new regime is evident from Hamlet's comment, to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, that “my uncle is King of Denmark, and those that would make mouths at him while my father lived give twenty, forty, fifty, a hundred ducats apiece for his picture in little” (II.ii.359-62). Whether he has Polonius specifically in mind is unclear.

  56. Hamlet is aware, of course, that he too must bear responsibility for his conduct: as he says of Polonius,

    For this same lord I do repent; but heaven hath pleas'd
    it so,
    To punish me with this and this with me.


  57. In the forged commission, Hamlet could as easily, and safely, have asked that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern be held secretly in England until Denmark sent further word. At the very least, he could have allowed them shriving time.

  58. In both situations, Hamlet judges his victims in similar terms: just as Polonius finds that “to be too busy is some danger,” Rosencrantz and Guildenstern find that “'Tis dangerous” to come between the thrusts “Of mighty opposites” (III.iv.33; V.ii.60-62).

  59. Indeed, Hamlet repeatedly—though ironically—exhorts his old school fellows to “deal justly” with him (II.ii.276). And he cautions them about the precariousness of their position: Rosencrantz is a “sponge,” soaking up “the King's countenance, his rewards, his authorities,” a sponge that will be squeezed dry when the king “needs what you have gleaned” (IV.ii.11-20).

  60. In the following scene, eagerly accepting Claudius's commission to take Hamlet to England, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern fawningly endorse his concern for his own safety as “Most holy and religious,” since so “many many bodies … live and feed upon” him. Upon the king's

    Weal depends and rests
    The lives of many …
    Never alone
    Did the King sigh, but with a general groan.


    Hamlet sees Fortinbras as a salutary contrast: as wasteful and destructive as his campaign against the Poles is likely to be, his “spirit, with divine ambition puff'd, / Makes mouths at the invisible event.” Hamlet is encouraged in his task by the example of Fortinbras, whose greatness can find “quarrel in a straw / When honour's at the stake” (IV.iv.49-56).

  61. Winstanley, pp. 7, 180.

  62. Some of the ideas presented in this essay were first aired at an NEH seminar on Shakespeare's Politics directed by Paul A. Cantor at the University of Virginia in 1987. An earlier draft of the essay was discussed at the 1990 Shakespeare Association of America seminar “Shakespeare and the Accession of James I,” organized by Arthur F. Kinney (respondent: Steven Mullaney). I am grateful to Professors Cantor and Kinney for their interest and encouragement. As the essay approached publication, it benefitted from the critiques of David Scott Kastan and more than one anonymous reader.

Phyllis Rackin (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: “Ideological Conflict, Alternative Plots, and the Problem of Historical Causation,” in Stages of History: Shakespeare's English Chronicles, Cornell University Press, 1990, pp. 40-85.

[In the following essay, Rackin identifies a conflict between two Renaissance theories of history, providentialism and Machiavellianism, as alternate explanations of historical causation. This conflict, maintains Rackin, can be found in Shakespeare's history plays, and it is the source of their theatrical energy and the inspiration for the audience's contemplation of the problems related to historical interpretation. Rackin goes on to investigate how this ideological conflict is portrayed in different ways in the history plays.]

Modern criticism of Shakespeare's history plays can be divided conveniently into two main camps, both concerned with the problem of historical causation. First there was the “Tudor myth” school associated with E. M. W. Tillyard, which found in the plays “a universally held,” and “fundamentally religious” historical “scheme,” governed by divine providence, beginning with the “distortion of nature's course” in the deposition and murder of Richard II and moving purposefully “through a long series of disasters and suffering and struggles” to the restoration of legitimacy and order under the Tudors.1

Then—and this side still holds the field—there was the rebellion against the Tudor myth theory, a rebellion that has taken two forms. Sometimes it takes the form of a refusal of ideology. Shakespeare, we are reminded, was always concerned with the universal qualities of human nature and experience. Accordingly, an interpretation based on the claim that the plays deal in ideologies belies their rich complexity and literary value by reducing them to political propaganda.2 Most often, however, the rebellion takes the form of an attack on the Tudor myth itself, either a demonstration that it never existed, except in the minds of Tillyard and his followers, or a demonstration that Shakespeare was actually debunking rather than dramatizing the Tudor myth.

In this view, “Shakespeare was no spokesman for Tudor orthodoxy” but instead “used the stage to undermine” the conventional pieties.3 In fact, “there is no other Elizabethan writer [who] so acutely and extensively portrays the weakness, folly, incompetence, and wickedness of English kings.”4 Moreover, Tudor opinion was by no means so univocal or conservative as Tillyard and his followers supposed. The myth of the Great Chain of Being was “widely denied,” religious skepticism as well as credulity was commonplace, and “insubordination, mutiny and wholesale desertion occurred repeatedly in the princely passages, which were often preserved in appendices), Tillyard's version inevitably led to a consideration of all the material that had to be left out to make the case. The rejection of the conservative, providentialist view of the history plays also has obvious connections with larger trends in twentieth-century literary study, with the changing populations of university departments of English and history, with the new historical sophistication that refuses, in Stephen Greenblatt's words, to attribute “a single political vision” to an “entire population” or even to an “entire literate class,”5 and with the movement from the politically conservative New Critical tradition that venerated T. S. Eliot and the American Agrarians to the typically left-wing politics of contemporary European theorists who have influenced Anglo-American literary criticism during the seventies and eighties. In these same years the view of the politics of Shakespeare's history plays has also moved from conservative (or reactionary) to liberal (or radical). From the present vantage point, it is easy to see how Tillyard and his followers projected their own nostalgia for the medieval past and their own distaste for the competitive, individualistic modern age into the plays and only slightly more difficult to see how more recent critics, in constructing a new set of texts for the plays, have been expressing their own rejections of traditionalist mythologies and reifications.”6

It is not surprising that both sets of critics have found ample ammunition in the plays to defend their claims, for the plays do in fact offer plentiful evidence for both views. Dramatic scripts, open to a variety of directorial emphases and actors' interpretations, the plays lend themselves easily to the kind of interpretive “foregrounding” I have been describing. What the controversy among the critics both fails to acknowledge and demonstrates, however, is that although neither ideological position is clearly or consistently privileged, the conflict between them lies very close to the center of Shakespeare's historical project. Exploring the dramatic implications and exploiting the theatrical potential of rival theories of historical causation, the plays project into dramatic conflict an important ideological conflict that existed in their own time, not only by having dramatic characters speak and act from opposing ideological vantage points but also by inciting these conflicts among their audiences.

The conflict in Renaissance theories of history between providential and Machiavellian views of historical causation involved the most important cultural and social issues of a changing world: the conflicts between feudal values and capitalist practice and relationship between the two orders of the divine and the human. The demonic Machiavel of the Elizabethan stage expressed a recognition that Machiavelli's theories were irreconcilably opposed to the providential vision of human history that justified the existing social and political order. To a deeply political age, Machiavelli offered the attraction of shrewd political advice, but he also represented what Felix Raab has described as “the horror of atheism, of a political world no longer determined by the Will of a universal Providence manifested in Christian precepts of political morality.”7

Shakespeare, like his audience, was obviously fascinated with these issues: ten of the thirty-five plays listed at the beginning of the First Folio were English “histories,” and in every one of those plays the conflict about historical causation plays a crucial role. The audience at a Shakespearean history play, struggling to make sense out of conflicting evidence and uncomfortably reminded of the difficulty of explaining historical causation, is forced to enact the same conflicts that divided Renaissance historians. The conflicts among the twentieth-century critics illustrate this process: the critics themselves can be seen as a uniquely accessible divided audience, offering conflicting testimony as they describe and rationalize their conflicting responses to the ideological struggles depicted in and incited by the plays. Thus, although the twentieth-century conflict between the Tillyard school of “Tudor myth” advocates on the one hand and their revisionist debunkers on the other can be seen as a response to twentieth-century political and cultural forces, it can also be seen as a response to the rhetoric of the plays. The ideological conflict between providential and Machiavellian notions of historical causation was built into the plays from the beginning, generating theatrical energy and engaging the audience in the problematic process of historical interpretation.

Herbert Lindenberger, in fact, cites Shakespeare's English histories to illustrate his contention that it is a distinguishing mark of the history play genre to replace “the ordinary suspense of plot” with “a kind of intellectual suspense about the larger causes of action” (that is, about the question of historical causation):

To what extent are the events of Shakespeare's English historical cycle a working out of providential design (by which the deposition of Richard II must result in the ultimate downfall of the successors of Henry IV until the restoration of order by the first Tudor king) or a result of the weaknesses in character of the various kings (or, for that matter, the stroke of Fortune which cut off Henry V in his prime)? All these questions must, of course, remain unanswered—or, at best, tentatively answered, with new answers following to modify or contradict earlier ones.8


Subjecting conflicting propositions about historical truth and historical causation to the tests of dramatic action, Shakespeare's history plays can be seen as versions of trial by combat. In Richard II the ideological conflict between providential legitimacy and Machiavellian power is directly projected into the dramatic conflict between Richard and Bullingbrook. The ideological conflict forms the basis for opposed rhetorical appeals (and opposed modern interpretations)9 as Richard's theoretical claim to the throne as divinely anointed legitimate heir is supported by providential theory and poetic eloquence but opposed by Machiavellian logic and the hard evidence of Richard's personal and political failings and Bullingbrook's political and military superiority.10 It forms the basis for the ironic disparity in the opening scene between Richard's personal weakness (he cannot stop the quarrel between Bullingbrook and Mowbray) and his institutional authority (only he is authorized to adjudicate the quarrel). At the end of the scene, in a speech that expresses his ironic predicament, Richard capitulates in the face of Mowbray and Bullingbrook's stubborn refusal to give up their quarrel:

We were not born to sue, but to command,
Which, since we cannot do to make you friends,
Be ready, as your lives shall answer it,
At Coventry upon Saint Lambert's day.
There shall your swords and lances arbitrate
The swelling difference of your settled hate.


The first line is a proud assertion of Richard's inherited, institutional authority as king; the second an anticlimactic confession of his inability to exercise it. In the remainder of the speech he calls for a trial by combat, deferring the problem to the only authority superior to his own in the providential scheme that authorizes him, the will of God.

It is significant that Richard calls for a trial by combat, a chivalric ritual that must have had an enormous appeal for Shakespeare's original audience, many of whom would also have flocked to see the extravagant re-creations of medieval tournaments staged by courtiers at Queen Elizabeth's Accession Day tilts and open to the general public.11 In both cases, the theatrical appeal of extravagant spectacle was reinforced by nostalgia, for both courtly and theatrical enactments of ritual combats evoked an imagined medieval world where divine providence legitimated earthly status.

Shakespeare throws enormous stress on the trial by combat in Richard II, deferring it and emphasizing its necessity with an invented scene between John of Gaunt and the Duchess of Gloucester, holdovers (as was the ritual for Shakespeare and his contemporaries) from an earlier world where power and legitimacy were united. The duchess urges Gaunt to avenge Richard's murder of her husband, but Gaunt argues with equal force that there is no way a good subject can avenge that crime without opposing the will of God:

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


There is nothing Gaunt can do, and nothing the duchess can say to make him change his mind. Faced with a dispute they cannot adjudicate and an ideological dilemma they cannot resolve, both Gaunt and the duchess turn to the trial by combat for providential adjudication. “God's is the quarrel,” and only God has the authority to resolve it.

Act I, scene iii, begins with all the formal preliminaries to the trial by combat, the anticipated resolution of the conflict between Richard and Bullingbrook (for which the conflict between Mowbray and Bullingbrook has been from the beginning the thinnest of screens) and the anticipated resolution of the ideological dilemma articulated in scene ii. But Richard interrupts the ceremony, refusing, after all the preliminaries have been accomplished, to allow the contest to proceed. When Richard stops the trial by combat he interferes with a symbolic embodiment of his own authority. Trial by combat is a ritual based upon the assumption that right makes might, an assumption that underlies the authority of the whole feudal system, including the authority of God's anointed king. In preventing the symbolic ritual of chivalry, Richard attacks the source of the only authority that makes him king. He also alienates Shakespeare's audience, for they, no less than the characters, have been waiting to see the tournament that Richard now interrupts, depriving them of the anticipated pleasure of seeing on stage a historical spectacle and the anticipated comfort of having their own doubts resolved by a clear, tangible demonstration of God's will.

Late in 2 Henry IV (IV.i.123-27), Mowbray's son will recall this scene, attributing enormous historical significance to Richard's reneging:

O, when the King did throw his warder down,
His own life hung upon the staff he threw;
Then threw he down himself and all their lives
That by indictment and by dint of sword
Have since miscarried under Bullingbrook.

Regardless of the accuracy of Mowbray's analysis (and it is suspect, since he assumes that his father would have defeated Bullingbrook, had the king allowed the trial to proceed), it serves as a reminder of the importance of Richard's refusal. Trial by combat occupies a central place in the conflict between providential and Machiavellian explanations of history because it forms a nexus of power and authority, a place where those two forces, opposed in the conflict between the two ideologies, are joined together in medieval practice and providential belief. Trial by combat is a crucial ritual in the scheme of divine right because, like the theory of divine right itself, it rests on the assumption that God takes a hand in human events, ensuring that might derives from right, that power derives from authority, and not the other way around.

In the vastly diminished world of 2 Henry VI, Shakespeare presents a very different trial by combat, parodically reduced to an inept contest between a terrified prentice and his drunken master, but the same issues are involved. This trial ends in a severely qualified version of divine justice when the poor prentice Peter, despite his lack of experience in arms, kills his master, Horner, and Horner confesses with his last breath that Peter spoke the truth when he accused him of the treasonous statement that the Duke of York was rightful heir to the crown (II.iii.94; I.iii.25-27). Shakespeare's modifications of his historical sources for this incident are suggestive. Neither Holinshed nor Hall verifies the servant's story or connects the charge of treason to York's claim to the throne. Both attribute the servant's victory to the master's drunkenness, and both end by reporting the servant's execution. Holinshed, in fact, specifically absolves the master of guilt, both in the marginal description of the episode—“Drunkennese the overthrow of right and manhood”—and in his account of it:

The said armourer was overcome and slaine; but yet by misgoverning of himselfe. For on the morow, when he should come to the field fresh and fasting, his neighbours came to him, and gave him wine and strong drinke in such excessive sort, that he was therewith distempered, and reeled as he went, and so was slaine without guilt. As for the false servant, he lived not long unpunished; for being convict of felonie in court of assise, he was iudged to be hanged, and so was, at Tiburne.12

In Holinshed's account, the servant's story is false, the incident is a warning against drunkenness and a lesson in obedience to earthly masters. Justice comes from the court of assizes rather than the judicial combat. All the implications are secular.

Shakespeare's entire reconstruction of the incident seems designed to raise the issue of providential justice but withhold an answer. He has Horner confess, departing from his historical sources to validate Peter's story, but he refuses to take the next step and attribute the victory to divine intervention. Henry VI reads the outcome as an unambiguous message from above—“God in justice hath reveal'd to us / The truth and innocence of this poor fellow” (II.iii.102-3)—but York urges Peter to “thank God, and the good wine in thy master's way” (II.iii.95-96). Shakespeare gives Henry the last word in this scene, but Henry's opinion is finally no more reliable than York's, for we have just seen Henry accepting Simpcox's bogus miracle as the work of “God's goodness” (II.i.82). If York has too much interest in discrediting Peter's story to offer reliable testimony, Henry is too credulous. On the one hand, there are Horner's confession and Henry's faith; on the other, York's cynical explanation and the authority of the chronicles. York and Henry offer alternative explanations for Peter's victory, but the world of this play provides no clear standard to adjudicate between them and no clear answer to the riddle of historical causation.13

In the providential world of Richard III, Richmond's victory will be clearly marked as the will of God, not only by the judgments of the other characters but also by the prophecies, curses, and prophetic dreams that give direct and unambiguous directions for its interpretation. In the world of Henry VI, by contrast, incessant battles between Yorkists and Lancastrians yield no clear pattern of victory, and the rhetoric of those plays yields no clear warrant of legitimacy. In a Machiavellian universe, rival truths have no means of adjudication but the law of force. The verdicts of force, however, are always provisional, always subject to contradiction by the next turn of the fortunes of battle. Trial by combat can only yield an uncontested verdict in a providential universe where victory means vindication because it represents a supernatural justification for the victorious side.

Richard II cannot allow the fight between Mowbray and Bullingbrook to proceed because, unlike the treacherous master in 2 Henry VI who expects to win even though he knows he is defending a lie and the cynical Duke of York who attributes Peter's victory to the wine his master drank before the battle, Richard really does believe in trial by combat, and he knows that Bullingbrook's charges are true. But once he throws his warder down, using his ritualistic authority to interrupt the ritual that authorizes him, he abandons the field to another kind of battle—the kind that really is decided by superior military and political power, the kind that Bullingbrook is sure to win.

The interrupted ritual at Coventry may well have been the last formal trial by battle in English history. The chronicles, including Holinshed's, emphasize its importance, and it is pictured in the Harleian MS.14 It is also the only formal trial by combat in any of Shakespeare's English histories. Richard is the only king in the two tetralogies with an unambiguous hereditary claim to the throne, rooted in an uncontested genealogy and ratified by divine right. The medieval world—and with it the possibility of ritualized judicial combat—disappears with his deposition.

In King John, set even farther back in the past but depicting an anachronistically modern world where the relationship between power and legitimacy is endlessly contested, trial by combat ends in frustration and stalemate. The immediate cause of contention is the city of Angiers. The city belongs, as its citizens admit, to the King of England, but neither citizens nor audience can be sure who that king is. John, who sits on the throne, bases his claim on “strong possession much more than … right” (I.i.40), but the true heir is a helpless child whose claim on the audience's allegiance is undermined by support from the French king and the Roman pope.

The conflict over Angiers is both the direct result and the direct expression of the larger conflict on which the entire play is based—the conflict between the two claimants to the English throne—and its ideological basis, the conflict between power (“strong possession”) and authority (“right”). The struggle for legitimacy represented within the play reaches out to engage the audience, who must try to decide where to place their allegiance as they watch the play. Shakespeare makes the analogy explicit in the trial-by-combat scene, where the citizens of Angiers standing on their battlements to watch the two contending armies are compared to an audience “in a theatre” who “gape and point at … industrious scenes and acts of death” (II.i.375-76). Both sides have appealed with equal eloquence to the citizens (and the audience) to accept their claims to the city and the English crown, but the citizens (speaking, I believe, for the audience) have refused to admit either claim until one is proved legitimate: “Till you compound whose right is worthiest, / We for the worthiest hold the right from both” (II.i.281-82). Turning to action when words fail, John and Philip try to adjudicate their quarrel in battle, but the audience does not see the battle, which takes place offstage, and at the end of it both sides claim victory. The audience, like the citizens, still has no way to decide, for neither side can present a clear claim to the English throne, and the trial by combat has ended in a draw.

The Bastard's scornful description of the citizens of Angiers exposes the element of voyeurism and theatrical exploitation in all these scenes of trial by combat:

By heaven, these scroyles of Angiers flout you, kings,
And stand securely on their battlements
As in a theatre, whence they gape and point
At your industrious scenes and acts of death.


The Bastard's contemptuous metadramatic comparison demystifies the trial by combat, extending the nihilism of his world to encompass the audience in Shakespeare's theater. Debased by theatrical representation, the mortal conflicts of kings and noblemen are reduced to meaningless spectacles designed to amaze and titillate a vulgar public. However, the same theatrical appeal that the Bastard cites to empty the scene of significance and value serves, by merging the audience with the spectators on stage, to engage them in the ideological dilemmas that lie at the center of the plays. The Bastard's demystification exposes the element of vulgar spectacle in all theatrical reenactments of battles, but it elides the ethical and ideological significance of the trial by combat, a significance which is finally theatrical as well. As Herbert Lindenberger points out, “Drama has never thrived well on moral neutrality.”15 The ethical conflicts the trials attempt to resolve constitute an important element of their interest for theater audience as well as characters onstage. Directly or indirectly, the trials represent efforts to clarify the relationship between power and authority and answer the riddle of legitimacy. Appealing to God to adjudicate conflicts that earthly justice cannot resolve and attempting to read God's verdicts in the outcomes of physical conflict, the trials attempt to resolve in dramatic action the crucial and contested issues surrounding the problem of historical causation.

A trial by combat constitutes a miniature plot that stages conflicting propositions about historical truth in the form of physical action, its outcome designed to ratify one proposition and discredit the other. As such, it exhibits in simplified microcosm the dynamics of the larger and more complicated plots of the plays. A plot, as Aristotle explained, is a proposition about causation. If plot is, as he said, the soul of tragedy, it is also the theme of history. A historical plot, whether in a narrative history or in a play about history, constitutes a proposition about historical causation. At the same time, as Michael Quinn points out, “an idea about Providence is an idea about drama.”16 A providential view of history constructs an unbroken chain of historical causation, but a Machiavellian view interrupts that chain, constructing each age as unique, the product of Fortuna, or accident, and individual will.17 Hence the episodic structure of King John and the Henry VI plays and the radical separation of King John, the most Machiavellian of all Shakespeare's histories, from the temporal and causal chain that unites the two tetralogies. The varied structures of Shakespeare's history plays not only produce a variety of dramatic forms and imagined worlds; they also express changing conceptions of historical causation.


The issue of authority is closely implicated with issues of historical causation and dramatic structure. In a Machiavellian universe, where the hand of God is absent or invisible, so is the hand of the author: the dramatic structure becomes loose and episodic, the principle of causation becomes inscrutable, and the audience has no guidance to help them discover significance or assign value as they watch the action unfold. The issue of authority is also implicit in the long-standing preference of conservative critics for Richard III and the plays of the second tetralogy and their superior canonical status to King John and the Henry VI plays. Set in a providential universe, graced with aesthetic unity, these plays construct a world where the authority of the playwright as well as that of God is clearly manifest. In King John and the Henry VI plays, by contrast, where royal authority is ambiguous and the hand of providence is absent or invisible, the dramatic structure is loose and episodic, as if the hand of the playwright were also effaced. Indeed, many of the earlier critics saw in these plays undigested lumps of chronicle material. To John Middleton Murry, for instance, 3 Henry VI seemed a “‘mere record’, with ‘no trace of speculation on the causes of things’”; and theories of multiple authoriship were often advanced.18 In these theories, Shakespeare's authority as playwright was attacked just as the dramatic structure of the plays deposed the king from his expected central role and their represented action attacked the king's authority and that of his office.19

At the opposite extreme, in Richard III, which delineates a process of providential retribution and restoration, the hand of the playwright is all too apparent; and although the play has a complicated textual history, Shakespeare's authorship has not been seriously questioned. The play has a tight, linear dramatic structure, and the king is a strong, central character, so dominant, in fact, that he has no real antagonist in the play except providence itself. Margaret curses, and she is a powerful dramatic presence, but she has no real part in the plot. Richmond comes in at the end to take Richard's crown, but he is a deus ex machina rather than a dramatic presence, and his tiny part in the play could easily be given to a minor actor. The play, in fact, has a large cast of minor characters, but rather than diffusing Richard's dominance, they serve to reinforce it, for most of them could be listed as “assorted victims.”

Everyone who dies in Richard III is Richard's victim, and, with the exception of the two innocent babes murdered in the Tower, everyone who dies expresses his recognition that he is paying for past crimes. Finally, when all the dying is done, the kingdom is purged of evil and the succession purged of ambiguity. All claimants to the throne except for Richmond and Elizabeth have been killed, and their marriage will unite the warring dynasties. In the Machiavellian universe of 3 Henry VI, by contrast, death is meaningless or, at best, pathetic, and the play ends with the succession still in question and Richard of Gloucester plotting to take the throne.

Most of the twentieth-century debates about Shakespeare's history plays center on various, related forms of authority: the authority of the king, the authority of God, the authority of the historical source, of the dominant ideology, of the authorial script. In fact, the arguments about Shakespeare's authorship recall (although they do not invoke) the Renaissance analogy between the author of a literary work and the Author of the universe. Julius Caesar Scaliger argued that the poet in the act of literary creation “makes himself another God, as it were.”20The Arte of English Poesie (1589), attributed to George Puttenham, begins:

A Poet is as much to say as a maker. And our English name well conformes with the Greeke word, for of poiein, to make, they call a maker Poeta. Such as (by way of resemblance and reverently) we may say of God; who without any travell to his divine imagination made all the world of nought. … Even so the very Poet makes and contrives out of his owne braine both the verse and matter of his poeme.21

The same analogy (and even more diffidence about making a comparison that might be construed as an irreverent usurpation of divine prerogative) appears in Sir Philip Sidney's Defense of Poesy (ca. 1583):

Neither let it be deemed too saucy a comparison to balance the highest point of man's wit with the efficacy of nature: but rather give right honor to the Heavenly Maker of that maker, who, having made man to His own likeness, set him beyond and over all the works of that second nature, which in nothing he shows so much as in poetry, when with the force of a divine breath he brings things forth far surpassing her doings.22

Puttenham uses a theological argument to celebrate the work of the poet. Sidney transforms a celebration of literary creativity into an affirmation of religious faith. Both make explicit the deep connections between aesthetic and theological issues implicit in the varied forms of Shakespeare's history plays and the modern scholarly debates about their ideological import. As William Camden wrote in the preface to his Annals of Queen Elizabeth (1615), “Although I know that matters military and politic are the proper subjects of an historian, yet I neither could nor ought to omit ecclesiastical affairs (for betwixt religion and policy there can be no divorce).”23 The growing rift that Camden attempts to bridge lies beneath the dispute about historical causation and the problem of plot as well. As Wlad Godzich points out, “The problem of agency arises in modern times” as a legacy of the secularization that marked the end of the medieval world. For the Scholastics, although “human will could rise in opposition to the divine will … it did not have any agential power as such to determine the course of affairs of the world.” Secularization, Godzich argues, “let loose all that which had previously been an attribute of God,” thus producing the problem of agency and the problem of plot as well.24 Writing in the time that saw the beginnings of that secularization and reconstructing historical narratives in the shape of dramatic plot, Shakespeare could hardly avoid confronting the problem of historical causation, which was also a problem of plot. To say that Shakespeare's English histories cannot be reduced to an extended sermon pro or contra Machiavel is not to say that the issues raised by the Machiavellian challenge to providential views of history are irrelevant to the plays, only that the ten plays can better be construed as series of dramatic meditations than a sustained univocal sermon.


History is always constructed in retrospect. Thus, the criticism of the 1940s and 1950s found in the medieval world, and in Shakespeare's representations of it, a story of national union and English patriotism that answered to their own desires and needs, just as the radical criticism of the present finds a story of conflict and subversion. In both cases, present desire is projected in the form of a historical plot: alternative political agendas construct alternative plots. In Shakespeare's own time, the Tudors, like the conservative critics of the mid-twentieth century, projected the authoritarian world they wished to build into an imagined medieval past.25 The story that begins with Richard II and ends with Henry VII shows the passage from an idealized medieval England through the crime against God and the state that destroyed it and the long process of suffering and penance that led to its redemption in the divinely ordained accession of the Tudor dynasty. Following the structure of the providential historical plot of the Bible and the medieval cycles that dramatized biblical history, it begins with a myth of the Fall in the deposition and murder of Richard II and ends with a story of redemption in the accession of Henry VII.

The traditional view of Shakespeare's history plays reproduces the teleological providential narrative of Tudor propaganda, focusing on the second tetralogy and Richard III to construct a plot that traces the passage from the medieval world to Shakespeare's own. It starts with Richard II, which represents the beginning of the providential narrative Shakespeare found in Hall and depicts a ceremonial, medieval world that looks back to an even more perfect union of authority and power in John of Gaunt's idealized vision of the time of Edward III.26 It proceeds, in the Henry IV plays, to depict an abrupt plunge into a contemporary, fallen world,27 where the future Henry V must engage in a long struggle to reconstruct the uncontested union of authority and power that obtained in the older, Edenic world ruled by kings whose power was rooted in unambiguous hereditary authority and validated by divine right. Henry V cannot inherit the Edenic England described by John of Gaunt because it is already lost, but what he can do to reproduce it, he does; when he conquers France, he “achieves” “the world's best garden” (Epilogue. 7), as close a postlapsarian approximation to Eden as human endeavor can produce. The final redemption will have to wait for the end of Richard III and the advent of Henry Tudor.

An ideological construction, designed in retrospect to ratify the Tudor claim to the throne, this is the story that Shakespeare found in his historiographic sources and twentieth-century conservative critics found in Shakespeare's history plays. It is also implicit in the First Folio arrangement of the plays in a sequence that begins with King John and Richard II and ends with Henry VIII. But it is not the only story Shakespeare could have learned from Tudor historiography, and it is certainly not the only story that modern critics have found in his plays. The plot of Tudor historiography constructs a myth of original order followed by a fall in the deposition of Richard II and leading finally to a glorious redemption in the person of Henry VII, but the order in which Shakespeare composed his English history plays constructs a much more complicated story, whose plot is embedded in the cultural history of his own time. The series of plays that begins with Henry VI and ends with Henry V replaces the teleological, providential narrative of Tudor propaganda with a self-referential cycle that ends by interrogating the entire project of historical mythmaking. The first tetralogy Shakespeare wrote ends in providential redemption; but although the second recapitulates that process, it does so in much more problematic terms. The deposition of Richard II, like the death of Henry V, initiates a period of civil strife, penance, and purgation and ends with the advent of a savior-king, but the redemption depicted in Henry V is severely qualified. The order in which Shakespeare produced his two tetralogies follows the progress of Renaissance historiography, towards an increasingly self-conscious and skeptical attitude, not only toward its subjects but also toward the very process of historical production. Increasingly opposing historical fact to literary artifact, Shakespeare exposes the processes of historical mythmaking even as he engages in them.


From the beginning, the plays seem guided by this double agenda: the historical story they tell is also a story of historiographic production. Shakespeare's historical protagonists, in fact, repeatedly conceive their actions as versions of history-writing. In 1 Henry VI, English heroes identify their struggle to retain Henry V's French conquests as an effort to preserve the historical record of English glory, an identification that recurs in King John in the French king's effort to defend Arthur's hereditary right to the English throne, and in Henry V with Henry's effort to win his place in history by defeating the French in battle.28

In structure as in subject, the plays signal their discursive origins. The retrospective process of historical construction informs the structure of King John and Henry VIII as well as the entire first tetralogy. The disorderly and disturbing plot of King John ends with the assurance that Prince Henry will “set a form upon that indigest / Which [John] hath left so shapeless and so rude” (V.vii.26-27) and the Bastard's ringing declaration that England will never be conquered so long as it “to itself do rest but true” (V.vii.118), denying the subversive implications of its chaotic plot with assurances of future stability and the imposition of a conventional moral lesson.29 In Henry VIII, the birth of the princess Elizabeth ends a similarly disjointed and painful narrative with similar assurances. The rush of coincidences that resolves the plot in King John undermines the concluding rationalizations, making the play increasingly popular with recent critics, who have discovered in it anticipations of their own project of historical demystification.30 In Henry VIII the birth of Elizabeth redeems the preceding action without rationalizing it: like Shakespeare's emphasis on Katherine's virtue even as he depicts her fall, the entire plot seems calculated to demonstrate that the ways of providence are inscrutable. In the first tetralogy, by contrast, the process of retroactive reconstruction is fully realized.

The first three plays are set in a Machiavellian universe. Linked together by open-ended conclusions that conclude nothing but initiate actions to be pursued in the subsequent play, their episodic plots depict an increasingly chaotic and meaningless world and an action that seems devoid of ethical significance or providential purpose until it is explained in retrospect in Richard III. At the beginning of 1 Henry VI, Henry V, the mirror of all Christian kings, has just died; as the Henry VI trilogy progresses, the chivalric, civic, patriotic, and ethical virtues associated with Henry V also die, often in the persons of human exemplars like Talbot and the dead king's brothers, Bedford and Gloucester, who retain and exemplify the virtues of an older world. Finally, in 3 Henry VI, the kingdom is reduced to a Machiavellian jungle where Yorkists and Lancastrians vie with each other in treachery and atrocity, and even the loyalties that bind parent and child are violated in senseless battles in which fathers kill sons and sons kill fathers. Authority is effaced, power becomes an end in itself, and the crown becomes a commodity, tossed back and forth from one head to another at the whim of blind fortune and the Earl of Warwick. Even the pretense of hereditary legitimacy and divine right is left behind.31

In 3 Henry VI, a Machiavellian figure erupts from this maelstrom of history turned savage: Richard of Gloucester, who promises to “set the murtherous Machevil to school” (III.ii.193), defining in advance the role he will play in the final play in this tetralogy. In Richard III, however, the ideological tables are turned. Richard believes (as well he might, given his background in the Henry VI plays) that the world runs on Machiavellian principles, but almost from the first the audience is given reason to believe that he may be mistaken. Prophecies, prophetic dreams, curses that take effect—all suggest that supernatural forces are involved in the events that Richard believes and claims are completely under his control. For instance, we have Richard's clever manipulations and self-congratulatory soliloquies as he arranges his brother Clarence's death, but we also have Clarence's prophetic dream and death's-door recognition that his impending doom is, in fact, a recompense for the crimes he committed in the time of Henry VI.

Richard thinks he is living in a world governed by Machiavellian Realpolitik, but Shakespeare places him in a world governed by providence, a dissonance that produces heavy dramatic irony in the scenes when Richard gloats happily about the success of his machinations while the audience, informed not only by their foreknowledge of Richard's historically appointed doom but also by the intimations of a providential agenda provided by the women's prophecies, know better. At the end of the play, Richmond, the agent of providence, heralded by prophetic dreams and heavenly imagery, kills the tyrant and takes over, but not before Richard has been forced to suffer the horrified recognition that he does indeed live in a providential universe, one where he will be punished now and forever for the crimes he committed in the past.

Richard III offers a neat, conventional resolution to the problem of historical causation. All the cards have been stacked in advance, and the entire play reads like a lesson in providential history. In the first English treatise on historiography, The true order and Methode of wryting and reading Hystories … (1574), Thomas Blundeville advised,

As touching the providence of God … though things many times doe succeede according to the discourse of man's reason: yet mans wisedome is oftentymes greatlye deceyved. And with those accidents which mans wisedome rejected and little regardeth: God by his providence useth, when he thinketh good, to worke marveylous effects. And though he suffreth the wicked for the most part to live in prosperitie, and the good in adversitie: yet we may see by many notable examples, declaring aswell his wrath, and revenge towardes the wicked, as also his pittie and clemencie towardes the good, that nothing is done by chaunce, but all things by his foresight, counsell, and divine providence.32

A “notable example” of providential justice, the entire action of Richard III is subsumed in the ideological scheme that Blundeville recites. Richard “greatlye deceyves” himself and the other characters, but Shakespeare's audience knows from the beginning that this is a providential universe and that Richard will fall. The audience came into the theater knowing Richard's history and they came to see a play called “The Tragedy of Richard III.” That knowledge offers the audience a privileged vantage point, removing them from the flux of human temporality and placing them in the omniscient position of providence itself.

The only threat to that position is Richard himself, who reaches out to seduce the audience by the sheer energy and dramatic force of his characterization. By the end, however, even Richard has been subsumed in the providential scheme, first as the diabolical figure defined, as John Blanpied suggests, “as an antitype of the providentialism it opposes,”33 and then, like the devil himself, as an unwitting instrument for the fulfillment of a providential plan. Killing off all the characters stained by the lingering guilt of the Wars of the Roses, Richard purges the kingdom to make it ready for Richmond's accession. Counting over Richard's victims and recalling the past crimes which justify their deaths, Margaret concludes,

Richard yet lives, hell's black intelligencer,
Only reserv'd their factor to buy souls
And send them thither. But at hand, at hand
Ensues his piteous and unpitied end.
Earth gapes, hell burns, fiends roar, saints pray,
To have him suddenly convey'd from hence.
Cancel his bond of life, dear God I pray,
That I may live and say “The dog is dead.”


Richard is a “factor,”34 a purchasing agent acting for a superior power, even though he denies the authority of that power and supposes he acts on his own behalf.

In Richard III Shakespeare reconstructs the history he has already written, retroactively imposing a providential order that makes sense of the Machiavellian chaos he depicted in the Henry VI plays. The women's litanies of old wrongs and the repeated pattern of Richard's victims recalling just before they die the past crimes for which they are now about to pay subsume the events they recall into a teleological providential plot. Shakespeare brings all the chickens home to roost in Richard III, framing and containing the wild melee of human treachery, bloodshed, and injustice he depicted in the Henry VI plays in a totalizing explanatory scheme that purges moral ambiguity and eradicates ideological conflict.

Richard III has remained a popular play on the stage, although it is frequently revised for performance, but its neat structure probably did not satisfy Shakespeare;35 for all the issues so comfortably resolved in the end of that play are opened up again in King John, a “problem history” where the audience has no sure guide through the ideological ambiguities but instead finds itself lost, like the Bastard, “among the thorns and dangers of this world” (IV.iii.141). Historical events take on meaning and coherence only after they have passed into history. Experienced in the present tense, as they happen, “actions outstrip comprehension”; the “truth” a historical narrative constructs is, as Marshall Brown points out, “a reification that only exists outside of time” or after the fact.36 Of all Shakespeare's English histories, King John is set farthest back in the past, and yet of all of them it depicts a world that is least medieval and most insistently present. Caught up in the whirl of events, the audience shares the characters' uncertainties as they find themselves lost together in a “thorny wood” of ideological confusion and confused plot. In King John Shakespeare abandons the Tudor historians' anachronistic ascriptions of divine right and providential theory to their medieval ancestors in order to depict a world without faith or ceremony,37 where failure and success ride on the shifting winds of chance. Late in the play, beset by political and military attack, King John gives “the ordering of this present time” to the Bastard (V.i.77); but it is tempting to speculate that Shakespeare gave it to him from the beginning. The Bastard is a fictitious character; that is, not historically legitimate, and his cynicism and illegitimate birth epitomize the lawless forces that substitute for providential order to motivate the action and move the plot in the confused “present time” of King John.

In many ways, King John offers a Machiavellian antithesis to the providential thesis so insistently laid down and retroactively imposed upon the entire first tetralogy in Richard III. But the second tetralogy would be difficult to read as a synthesis. Moving further into the past and retreating from the providential resolution he imposed in Richard III, Shakespeare reopens the question of historical causation and complicates the conflicts it involves with an increasingly intense interrogation of his own historiographic project. Instead of reconciling the binary oppositions between past and present, providence and Machiavelli, theater and history, the second tetralogy destabilizes them in a whirling dialectic that increasingly calls into question both the adequacy of its own dramatic representations and the possibility of historical knowledge.

At the beginning of the second tetralogy, Shakespeare seems to be replaying the conflicts he staged in the first tetralogy, ringing new changes on the same chimes. Richard II begins with a situation exactly opposite to the one in Richard III. This time, the king who is the play's protagonist sits on an inherited throne to which he is entitled by divine right. If Richard III thinks he lives in a Machiavellian universe where authority is only another name for power, Richard II thinks he lives in a providential world where authority alone is sufficient to maintain him in office. He imagines that the king's very name can be armed against a would-be usurper—“Is not the king's name twenty thousand names? / Arm, arm, my name! a puny subject strikes / At thy great glory” (III.ii.85-87)—and that angels will fight to defend his title to the crown:

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.


Shakespeare gives Richard glorious poetry, but he also supplies him with a Machiavellian antagonist, a character who speaks few words but raises large armies and rejects the comforts of imagination and philosophy with the materialistic protest,

O, who can hold a fire in his hand
By thinking on the frosty Caucasus?
Or cloy the hungry edge of appetite
By bare imagination of a feast?
Or wallow naked in December snow
By thinking on fantastic summer's heat?


In this play, unlike Richard III, it is the Machiavel who wins.

Despite their opposite outcomes, both plays project the ideological conflict into the opposition between a protagonist king and the antagonist who deposes him. In Richard II, however, Shakespeare does not simply reverse the terms of the opposition; he also complicates and compromises them. In Richard III the principle of historical causation is unambiguous: providentialism and divine right are clearly privileged. The dangerous theatrical power of the Machiavel is contained by his unequivocal definition as a villain. Richmond, the providential figure, is clearly a paragon of royal virtue, his victory the fulfillment of God's plan. No such simple assignment of virtue, vice, or agency can be made in Richard II. Richard, the hereditary king who believes heaven will protect his divine right to the throne, is still depicted as being largely at fault in his deposition. Bullingbrook, the usurper, is an enigmatic figure, clearly at fault in taking a throne that he has not inherited, but otherwise not obviously reprehensible, and certainly endorsed with the warrant of success. Moreover, the obscurity of Bullingbrook's motives makes it impossible to determine whether his victory represents the will of God or the triumph of his own Machiavellian strategy.

In the Henry IV plays, this duplicity intensifies. All the actions can be explained on two levels, the mystical and the political. As Matthew Wikander points out, “traditional patterns and images refuse to stay put as they do in the earlier history plays. … The clear rhetorical lesson that each scene seems to offer is undercut and questioned even as it is taught.”38 The duplicity is probably most obvious in the king's plans to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, which are explained both as a political stratagem (“to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels” “lest rest and lying still might make them look too near unto my state”; 2 Henry IV: IV.v.211-214) and as a religious obligation (“to wash this blood off from my guilty hand”; Richard II:; cf. 1 Henry IV: I.i.19-27), but it characterizes every component of the king's action. Hal's wildness is both a political problem (How will civic order be maintained in the future if the king is a riotous wastrel?) and a supernatural affliction.39 The rebellions that beset the king throughout his reign have a similar duplicity, sometimes rationalized as retributions for Bullingbrook's crime against Richard, sometimes explained as the ambitious strivings of power-hungry nobles. Thus, Henry IV is a play that can be understood on either or both of two levels, like the Tudor histories that, acknowledging that all things have their first causes in the will of God, still found it profitable and useful to explore their second causes in the deeds of men.

In Henry V, the last play in the second tetralogy, the two views are deliberately clashed against each other. We get not only two interpretations of the action but two accounts of the action, one in the discourse of the chorus and one in the dramatic representation staged before us; and the two accounts not only differ from each other but also insist upon each other's inadequacies. Moreover, instead of reconciling the two views at the end of the play or discarding one for the other, Shakespeare lets both of them stand, directing our attention to the abyss at the center of the historiographic project: the impossibility of recovering the past or of getting behind the historiographic text (whether that text be a written record or a dramatic representation) to discover the always postulated and never graspable fiction called historical truth.

The two emblems of royal perfection, English triumph, peace, and prosperity that frame the first tetralogy—Henry V at the beginning, Henry VII at the end—are never problematized. Indeed, Henry V never even appears on stage, and Henry VII appears only at the very end of Richard III and only as Richmond, not as the ideal king he will become. Both, therefore, exemplify an authority that is never really seen or subjected to the tests and strains of theatrical representation. In the second tetralogy, by contrast, Shakespeare subjects his icon of royal authority to those tests and strains, exploring the theatricality of royal authority and the fictiveness of historical truth even as he creates their dramatic embodiments. Henry VII, briefly introduced at the end of Richard III as England's savior, is never anything but God's soldier, the destined king who will unite the red rose and the white to found the Tudor dynasty. Henry V and his England, recalled with nostalgic longing as the world of his son sinks into chaos, is projected in the Henry VI plays in unproblematic terms as an image of lost perfection. In the second tetralogy, however, Shakespeare complicates that image by showing the process of its creation.

The second tetralogy depicts a world where “miracles are ceas'd; / And therefore we must needs admit the means / How things are perfected” (Henry V: I.i.67-69). The Henry we see on stage in the second tetralogy anticipates the Tudors in using the resources of theatrical role-playing to produce the perfect image of royal authority that he could not inherit from the ambiguous genealogy that left him the throne. Producing himself as “the mirror of all Christian kings,” Henry appropriates the legitimating emblems of an older world to authorize himself.40 Just as Henry VII looked to the dim mists of legendary Welsh history to ratify his claim to the English throne, Henry V invokes a tortuous, distant genealogy to ratify his claim to France. Just as Elizabeth's aspiring courtiers engaged in mock tournaments and her newly rich merchants purchased genealogical titles to authorize their newly acquired gentility, Henry appropriates Hotspur's chivalric honor to reproduce the anachronistic ideals of the world his father destroyed when he usurped the English throne.41


There is a sense in which Shakespeare's progress as a writer of English history seems to run against the current of Renaissance historiography, which moved from providential to Machiavellian explanations of historical causation. In the Machiavellian world of the Henry VI plays, Shakespeare celebrates the pagan virtues of heroic warriors like Talbot and good citizens like Alexander Iden. Moreover, these plays, like King John, highlight the forces that subvert the project of patriarchal history. The characters who dominate the worlds of these plays act on the Machiavellian principle of self-interest, and they prevail because they live in a Machiavellian universe governed by force and fortune rather than the providential hand of God. Moving in Richard III and the second tetralogy to a providential universe, Shakespeare depicts history in mythic, Christian terms, thus, it would seem, inverting the progress of Renaissance historiography, which developed in the direction of rational analysis and demystification. But there is another way to see this progress; for at the same time that Shakespeare's historical representations became more providential, they also became more self-consciously theatrical, increasingly complicated by metadramatic allusions that emphasize their status as theatrical representations. Even as he celebrates the glamor of Richard II and the perfect royalty of Henry V and depicts the working out of God's holy purpose in English history, Shakespeare emphasizes the theatricality of his own representations. The metadramatic self-consciousness of the plays of the second tetralogy invokes the growing rift between historical fact and fictional artifact to emphasize the constructed character of all historical representation.

Moving backward to the mystified medieval past of Richard II, Shakespeare's second tetralogy self-consciously reconstructs the providential order that was deconstructed in the Henry VI plays, but it also moves forward into Shakespeare's own theatrical future. Reconstituting a providential universe in explicitly theatrical terms, the plays of the second tetralogy expose their own compromised status as theatrical performances to interrogate the process of historical representation that produces images of authority and the myths that authorize them. Henry V, the great image of royal authority in the second tetralogy, is depicted from the first as a player of roles. Conquering France, unifying the English nation, submitting himself first to the legal counsel of churchmen and finally to the verdict of God in heaven, Henry V frames his story in providential terms; but his continual recourse to theatrical strategies to achieve those ends also identifies Henry as a Machiavel. As Kenneth Burke points out, Machiavelli's Prince “can be treated as a rhetoric insofar as it deals with the producing of effects upon an audience.42 Separating moral virtue from political efficacy and private character from public mask, Machiavelli conceived politics in theatrical terms, as, in Wylie Sypher's words, “a form of role-playing.”43

In Shakespeare's history plays there is a persistent association between Machiavellianism and theatricality. Richard III, the only one of Shakespeare's English kings explicitly associated with Machiavelli, is also the most theatrical. Images of the theater hover around Richard from the beginning. Contemplating his impending death at Richard's hands, Henry VI asks, “What scene of death hath Roscius now to act?” (3 Henry VI: Plotting with Buckingham to seize the English throne, Richard prepares him for a theatrical performance where he will “counterfeit the deep tragedian” (Richard III: III.v.1-9). It is significant, moreover, that Richard announces himself as a Machiavel in the same speech wherein he announces himself as an actor:

Why, I can smile, and murther whiles I smile,
And cry “Content” to that which grieves my heart,
And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,
And frame my face to all occasions.
I'll drown more sailors than the mermaid shall,
I'll slay more gazers than the basilisk,
I'll play the orator as well as Nestor,
Deceive more slily than Ulysses could,
And like a Sinon, take another Troy.
I can add colors to the chameleon,
Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,
And set the murtherous Machevil to school.


Richard describes his diabolical theatrical power in the same terms that Renaissance writers typically used to describe actors. Both Edward Alleyn and Richard Burbage, the actor who first played Richard's role, were compared by admiring contemporaries to Proteus the shape-shifter;44 but in Richard's self-description, the reference to Proteus slides inexorably into the reference to Machiavelli, a far more sinister symbol of perfect hypocrisy, who was also associated with Proteus in contemporary thought.

Although Richard represents the apotheosis of the Machiavellian forces in the first tetralogy, he has numerous and varied antecedents. Subverters of history, opponents of true royalty and the English state, characters like Joan, Margaret, and Jack Cade deceive their fellow characters and seduce the audience with a dangerous theatrical energy. They pursue a power to which they have no legitimate claim with the ruthless, amoral ambition that associated the image of Machiavelli in Elizabethan thought with the new commercial forces that threatened the status quo. Deceitful, ambitious, scornful of traditional restraints and traditional notions of honor, the Machiavel represented the threats to traditional order posed by emergent capitalism.

The associations between actor, merchant, and Machiavel are explicit in Thomas Heywood's satiric pamphlet, Machiavel as He lately appeared to his deare Sons, the Moderne Projectors (1641). Of one group of projectors, Heywood writes, “Their scene was the whole Kingdome. In every part of which, they stoutly acted their well seasoned interlude, which now at last is proved the Tragedie of the Actors themselves.”45 In fact, Heywood's description of the Machiavellian deceptions of “A Projector in generall” employs the same images that Richard uses in his self-characterization as a Machiavel. Just as Richard can “frame [his] face to all occasions” and “add colors to the chameleon,” Heywood's projector can “change himself into as many shapes as Painters can doe colours.” Like Richard, the projector has “more wit than honestie,” and like him, he uses his Machiavellian devices to rise in the world and acquire titles that bespeak a nobility he does not possess.46 The Protean, shape-shifting actor, the ruthless image of the Florentine and the new commercial adventurer merge in a single figure that combines subversive threat with theatrical power. Cut loose from the traditional bonds that unite feudal society and define the place of individuals in terms of hereditary rights and obligations, no longer subsumed under the old generic categories that reduced individuals to representations of their classes, these strikingly individualized characters represent the emergence of individual subjectivity in a changing world.47

Like the “new men” of emergent capitalism that Heywood satirizes, the Machiavellian subverters of established order provide the subjects for sharply individualized characterizations. Intensely theatrical, they represent not only a new kind of dramatic characterization that substitutes individual for generic attributes but a new conception of personal identity. No longer imposed by an inherited social position, the new man's identity is constructed in action: the theatrical principle of present performance replaces the historical principle of hereditary status as its defining ground.

The most compelling dramatic presences in the first tetralogy, these characters speak with distinctive dramatic voices that emerge from the undifferentiated blank verse that constitutes most of the dialogue. Nonetheless, despite the lively dramatic particularity of their voices and personalities, they are all contained ideologically within the binary opposition that defines them as enemies to royal authority and established order. The French peasant Joan and the English queen Margaret, the great Cardinal Beauford and the knavish priest John Hume, the noble lady Eleanor Cobham and the poverty-stricken Simpcox, the bricklayer's son Jack Cade and the Plantagenet pretender to the throne range in characterization from the heights of aristocratic pride to the depths of poverty and humiliation. Their languages range from learned eloquence to inarticulate illiteracy, but they all share the Machiavellian attributes of treachery and selfish, amoral ambition that define them as demonic Others. Peasant rebels, aristocratic traitors, and noble usurpers are all contained within the binary opposition between legitimate authority and Machiavellian subversion.

In King John and the second tetralogy, these characters become increasingly prominent, and their theatrical power becomes increasingly dangerous, reaching out to the audience with a seductive, amoral appeal and influencing the course of the action by the sheer force of their personalities. Character, in fact, emerges along with Machiavellianism as a motive force in Shakespeare's historical universe. In the providential universe of the morality play, as in the paradigmatic expressions of universal rules of causality that Aristotle found in tragedy,48 character is subordinated to plot. As Catherine Belsey points out, the protagonist of a morality play is “a fragmented and fragmentary figure,” the battlefield for a struggle between Christ and Satan “which exists before he is born and continues after his death.”49 Character, however, becomes increasingly important in the increasingly secularized worlds of Elizabethan drama (and in the increasingly secularized world of Elizabethan England), as human agency rather than transcendental teleology comes to motivate the action. This opposition between providential plot and Machiavellian character can be seen in the first tetralogy, where the emblematic flatness of the characters who act in the name of God and country and the uniformity of their language contrast with the vivid particularity of the characters who oppose providential order to pursue their own agendas. In the later plays, however, although characters like the Bastard in King John and Falstaff in the Henry IV plays exhibit many of the traits that marked their dramatic antecedents as Machiavels, they are no longer contained within the simple binary scheme that opposes character to plot and Machiavellian subversion to legitimate authority.

With the deposition of Richard II, royal authority is dispersed, and so is the subversive force that opposes it. In the second tetralogy, Machiavellianism is no longer contained by association with characters who threaten to destroy or usurp royal authority. In 1 Henry IV the rebels Worcester and Northumberland are marked as Machiavels by their calculation and duplicity, but so is the king, the man Hotspur calls “this vile politician, Bullingbrook” (I.iii.241). The most ruthless act of Machiavellian cunning in the Henry IV plays is used, significantly, to subdue rebel forces. Prince John deceives the rebels at Gaultree Forest when he swears “by the honor of my blood” and gives his “princely word” (IV.ii.55-66), corrupting and compromising the very authority he invokes to win an ignoble victory. The characterization of the royal prince as a cold-blooded Machiavellian deceiver shows how far royal authority has been compromised in the second tetralogy, for the same historical personage, grown old, was depicted in 1 Henry VI as a paragon of the old chivalric virtues, the “valiant Duke of Bedford” (III.ii.87), the subject of Talbot's eulogy, “A braver soldier never couched lance, / A gentler heart did never sway in court” (III.ii.134-35). It is Bedford who leads the chorus of praise and mourning for Henry V in the opening scene and Bedford whose gallant courage inspires the English victory at Rouen. Old and sick, Bedford refuses to leave the battlefield,

                                                                                                    for once I read
That stout Pendragon in his litter sick
Came to the field and vanquished his foes.
Methinks I should revive the soldiers' hearts,
Because I ever found them as myself.


Bedford's emblematic characterization is completely subsumed within the binary scheme that associates noble English valor with a heroic, historic past.

In the world of Henry IV, by contrast, the only character who is thoroughly animated by the old feudal values is Hotspur, and it is in the name of those values, of personal honor and Mortimer's hereditary right to the throne, that Hotspur rebels against the king. Hotspur's honor is never questioned in the play, but the very absoluteness of his commitment to honor serves to compromise honor itself. To Douglas, Hotspur is the very “king of honor” (IV.i.10); and even the king he opposes calls him “the theme of honor's tongue” (I.i.81). Personified in Hotspur, the old knightly honor is doubly compromised, not only by the slightly comical enthusiasm with which he embraces it but also by the fact that it inspires him to rebel against the king.

Royal authority is compromised too. Not only opposed by Hotspur in the plot, but also characterized as the calculating, political antithesis to the impetuous, idealistic young rebel, the king has none of the honor that should belong to royalty. Prince Henry is perfectly aware that he must appropriate the honor he needs from Hotspur. He tells Hotspur before their battle, “all the budding honors on thy crest / I'll crop to make a garland for my head” (V.iv.72-73). Earlier, he used the same chivalric language, even the same metaphor, when he promised his father that he would “redeem” his shame “on Percy's head”:

And stain my favors in a bloody mask,
Which wash'd away shall scour my shame with it.
And that shall be the day, when e'er it lights,
That this same child of honor and renown,
This gallant Hotspur, this all-praised knight,
And your unthought-of Harry chance to meet,
For every honor sitting on his helm,
Would they were multitudes, and on my head
My shames redoubled!


Hal's promise is a heroic vaunt in the old chivalric tradition. He promises to “die a hundred thousand deaths / Ere break the smallest parcel of this vow” (III.ii.158-59). But even in the course of making that promise, he slips into another idiom, contaminating the language of chivalry with gross terms taken from the new commercial economy. When he swears to “make this northren youth exchange / His glorious deeds for my indignities” (III.ii.145-46), the prince transforms glorious deeds and indignities into objects of commercial exchange:

Percy is but my factor, good my lord,
To engross up glorious deeds on my behalf;
And I will call him to so strict account
That he shall render every glory up,
Yea, even the slightest worship of his time,
Or I will tear the reckoning from his heart.


The “factor” image defines in advance Hal's victory over Hotspur in knightly combat as a repossession of the honor that rightly belongs to royalty, but it also compromises that honor by terms—“factor,” “render up,” “engross,” “strict account” and “reckoning”—that reduce the chivalric battle to a closely calculated financial transaction.50

Like the aspiring commercial men of Shakespeare's time, the future Henry V must struggle to achieve a status he did not inherit. Unlike Richard II, who had a clear, hereditary claim to the throne, Henry V must earn his legitimacy. The honor he could not inherit from the “vile politician Bullingbrook,” he must acquire from Hotspur in battle. The “cold blood he did naturally inherit of his father” he warms by drinking “good and good store of fertile sherris,” in Falstaff's company (2 Henry IV: IV.iii.118-21).51 Like the son of a rich tradesman sent to university to acquire the education that will make him a gentleman, Hal revels and carouses, but he also “studies his companions” (2 Henry IV: IV.iv.68) and acquires new languages. Learning the names of his humble subjects and mastering the terms in which they speak, he wins their recognition as the “king of courtesy” (1 Henry IV: II.iv.5-11). The two parts of Henry IV, in fact, depict a long educational process in which Prince Hal learns the skills and assumes the attributes that constitute the “mirror of all Christian kings” he will become in Henry V (II.Chorus,6). Like the new gentility that successful commoners were acquiring by their own efforts, the royal authority that Henry V finally represents is an achievement, not an inheritance.

What Henry V does inherit is a taint—his father's guilt for usurping Richard II's crown. The hereditary taint of his father's low origins and dishonorable ascent threatens Henry's own aspirations for worldly power and success: “Not to-day, O Lord!,” he prays before his climactic battle of Agincourt, “O not to-day, think not upon the fault my father made in compassing the crown” (IV.i.292-94). Henry's struggle for France represents an effort to wipe out that taint and legitimate his status as King of England. “No king of England, if not king of France” (II.ii.193), Henry uses Agincourt as an enormous trial by combat to establish the legitimacy of his rule and earn his place in providential history. The providential legitimation, in fact, is the sole purpose of the battle. Refusing to accept any credit for the victory, he insists, “Take it, God, / For it is none but thine!” and he threatens his soldiers, “be it death proclaimed through our host / To boast of this, or take that praise from God / Which is his only” (IV.viii.111-16). The stridency of the threat exposes the anxiety that produced it, the keen sense of the absence of divine right that Henry attempts to fill by the exercise and mystification of earthly power.

It takes three plays for Henry to reconstruct the royal authority that was lost when Bullingbrook usurped the English throne, and although he finally succeeds in producing the perfect icon of royal authority in Henry V, the authority he reconstructs is deeply compromised by his recourse to Machiavellian strategies of political manipulation and theatrical display.52 His constant role-playing celebrates the power of theater to produce the perfect image of royalty, but it also compromises the authority it produces by associating it with the ambiguous figures of actor, Machiavel, and merchant.

The authority of the playwright is also compromised. The playwright of Richard III conceived his authorial role in the same exalted terms that Sidney used to describe the poet. Contriving his plot to show “virtue exalted and vice punished,”53 he distributed rewards and punishments with a poetic justice that bespoke the providential order it imitated. Like God, he created and ruled a providential universe, and he ended his play with a prayer, designed to inspire his audience to piety and patriotism. In the second tetralogy, the authorial role is divided against itself by the social and ethical differences that separated Sidney's gentleman poet writing to inspire his readers from a commercial playwright manufacturing public entertainments for financial gain.54 As a poet, the dramatist works in imitation of divine providence to teach the ways of righteousness and draw his audience “to as high a perfection as our degenerate souls, made worse by their clay lodgings, can be capable of.”55 As a commercial playwright, he deceives and manipulates for his own profit like a Machiavel.

A deep contradiction, therefore, divides the subject of Shakespeare's English history plays from their medium, opposing the patriotic piety of historical mythmaking to the Machiavellian subversion of theatrical performance. The theater, in fact, was associated with every sort of transgression of the social and religious order that the historical myths were designed to support.56 Common players acting the parts and wearing the clothes of kings and noblemen transgressed the hierarchical status system; providential order and genealogical history supported it. The rhetoric of antitheatrical polemic, denouncing the theater as a seat of dangerous allure “whereunto more people resort than to sermons or prayers,” set the playhouse in diametrical opposition to the house of God: “More have recourse to Playing houses, then to Praying houses.”57 Sidney's poet inspired his readers to virtuous action, but the playwright of the antitheatrical tracts provided the “springs of many vices, and the stumbling blocks of godliness and virtue,” seducing his audience to “adulterie and uncleannesse,” and every sort of “ungodly desires,” crimes, and treason:58

if you will learne to … blaspheme both Heaven and Earth: … If you will learn to rebel against Princes, to commit treasons … if you will learne to contemne GOD and all his lawes, to care nither for heaven nor hel, and to commit al kinde of sinne and mischeef, you need to goe to no other schoole, for all these good Examples may you see painted before your eyes in enterludes and playes.59

This final statement, taken from Phillip Stubbes' Anatomie of Abuses, represents an extreme example of antitheatrical invective, and the theater had its defenders as well.60 The statement is significant, however, because it reveals the extent to which the subversive power of the theater was associated with rebellion against the authority of God and the king, the same authority that providential history was designed to justify.


Henry V ends the two tetralogies in a play of unresolved contradictions. The action Shakespeare dramatizes contradicts the story the chorus tells. The king's recourse to Machiavellian plotting contradicts his representations of his achievements as manifestations of providential purpose, and his role-playing contradicts his characterization as a true embodiment of royal authority. The chorus constantly urges the audience to suppose that the historical persons and events the play depicts are actually present, and just as constantly reminds them that they are only watching a theatrical representation that falls far short of the historical reality it attempts to imitate.

The final chorus echoes these contradictions even as it attempts to deny them. Cast in the form of a sonnet, the chorus employs the familiar sonnet strategy of translating existential contradiction into verbal antithesis and paradox61 and resorting to rhetorical appeal to escape from logical impasse:

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.
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;
Which oft our stage hath shown; and for their sake,
In your fair minds let this acceptance take.

The chorus's description of Henry's French conquest (“Fortune made his sword: / By which the world's best garden he achieved”) redeems that Machiavellian and commercial implications of “fortune” and “achieved” with the providential warrant implied by the allusion to Eden. And the sestet erases the distinction the chorus has emphasized throughout the play—the intractable difference between the historic past and Shakespeare's dramatic representations. The sestet moves imperceptibly from England's historical future in the troubled reign of Henry VI to Shakespeare's theatrical past in the successful plays he had written about that reign, from the painful history of bleeding and loss to the pleasing theatrical spectacles that represented that history.

Refusing to distinguish between historical event and theatrical performance, the sestet of the final sonnet also denies the irreconcilable opposition between past pain and present pleasure. Conflating bloody battles with theatrical pleasure, the chorus now elides the social and ethical differences that separate participation in heroic history from attendance in a commercial theater. At the end of the first tetralogy, Richmond invited Shakespeare's audience to join him in a patriotic prayer for a common future of “smooth-fac'd peace,” “smiling plenty” and “fair properous days.” At the end of Henry V the chorus asks the audience to approve a theatrical performance. The playwright of the second tetralogy takes on a divided role, compromising the notable image of virtue he produces in Henry V and the providential plot that depicts Henry's triumph with the Machiavellian taint of his own theatrical, commercial contrivance.

When the Bastard in King John compared the citizens of Angiers to the members of a theater audience who “gape … at … industrious scenes and acts of death” (II.i.375-76), he exposed the debasement and commodification of the heroic past in the hands of professional actors working for the pleasure of a low-born audience and their own profit. At the beginning of Henry V, the Prologue addressed the same problem when he complained about the inadequacy of “this wooden O” to contain the heroic past and wished for “princes to act, and monarchs to behold the swelling scene”; only then, he said, would “warlike Harry” be “like himself.” He wished, as David Kastan points out, “that the contradictions of playing would disappear.” Purified of the social contamination of bourgeois actors and a socially heterogeneous audience, the representation of the heroic past “would be simply presentation and history plays would be history itself.”62 In the final sonnet, he papers over all these deficiencies and contradictions—the social deficiencies of actors and audience and the inadequacy of the theatrical representation—when he submits himself and the play to the public theater audience he actually has. The sonnet ends with a rhetorical appeal to the audience that is also a commercial appeal—if the audience does not accept the play, the play will not make money. The appeal rests on an ambiguous pronoun—the “their” in “for their sake”—that conflates the authority of history with the popularity of the Henry VI plays.

The final chorus's reference to the Henry VI plays defines the place of Henry V in Shakespeare's historical plot. Not only the last play in the two tetralogies, it is also their center; for the plot of Shakespeare's historical reconstruction bends the teleological, chronological line of his historiographic sources into a circle, beginning and ending with the death of Henry V. The circle is joined at the point that represents the moment of loss, and, like the “wooden O” of Shakespeare's theater, it circumscribes an absence—the heroic past and royal authority that the name of Henry V denotes. It replaces the purposeful, linear progress of history with the endless work of historiography and the endless repetition of theatrical performance, obsessively moving about a lost center they can never recover. Enacting the obsessive movement it describes, the image of the circle itself circles back to the first act of 1 Henry VI to recall Joan's resonant lines:

Glory is like a circle in the water,
Which never ceaseth to enlarge itself,
Till by broad spreading it disperse to nought.
With Henry's death the English circle ends,
Dispersed are the glories it included.


Here too the circle encloses an absence, and here too it is associated with Henry's death and the erasure of English heroic history.

The desired object of theatrical recuperation, the king who presided over the transcendent moment when the English star “most greatly lived” is finally revealed as the product of his own theatrical recuperation, his providential authority the product of Machiavellian manipulation. The unresolved contradictions of Henry V are those of Shakespeare's entire historiographic project. Infused by nostalgic yearning, the plays begin in a heroic effort to recuperate a lost, heroic past, but they end by calling attention to the ineluctable absence of that past and their own compromised status as commercial, theatrical representations.


  1. E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's History Plays (New York: Collier Books, 1962), first pub. 1944, p. 362. See also Lily B. Campbell, Shakespeare's “Histories”: Mirrors of Elizabethan Policy (San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1947); Irving Ribner, The English History Play in the Age of Shakespeare (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957); and Andrew S. Cairncross's introductions to the Arden editions of 1, 2, and 3 Henry VI (London: Methuen, 1962, 1957, 1964). For more recent examples of providentialist readings, see Robert B. Pierce, Shakespeare's History Plays: The Family and the State (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1971); and Robert Rentoul Reed, Jr., Crime and God's Judgment in Shakespeare (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1984). See also the summaries of twentieth-century criticism of Shakespeare's history plays in Shakespeare Survey 6 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1953) and Shakespeare Survey 38 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

  2. Robert Ornstein, in A Kingdom for a Stage: The Achievement of Shakespeare's History Plays (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972), is a persuasive advocate for this view. He argues that Shakespeare's “progress in the history plays was a journey of artistic exploration … that led almost unerringly beyond politics and history to the universal themes and concerns of his maturest art” (p. 31). “Chaos comes in the History plays as in the tragedies, not when doctrines of obedience are questioned, but when the most intimate human ties disintegrate” (p. 222). More recent critics have argued that the “refusal of ideology” is itself ideologically conditioned. See especially Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, “History and Ideology: The Instance of Henry V,” in Alternative Shakespeares, ed. John Drakakis (London: Methuen, 1985), pp. 206-27.

  3. C. G. Thayer, Shakespearean Politics: Government and Misgovernment in the Great Histories (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1983), p. viii. Other writers who dispute Tillyard's view include W. Sanders, The Dramatist and the Received Idea (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968); Henry Ansgar Kelly, Divine Providence in the England of Shakespeare's Histories (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970); David Riggs, Shakespeare's Heroical Histories (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971); John C. Bromley, The Shakespearean Kings (Boulder: Colorado Associated Press, 1971); Michael Manheim, The Weak King Dilemma in the Shakespearean History Play (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1973); Edna Z. Boris, Shakespeare's English Kings, the People, and the Law: A Study in the Relationship between the Tudor Constitution and the English History Plays (Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1974); and Gordon Ross Smith, “Shakespeare's Henry V: Another Part of the Critical Forest,” Journal of the History of Ideas 37 (1976), 3-26.

  4. Ornstein, p. 29.

  5. Stephen Greenblatt, The Power of Forms in the English Renaissance (Norman, Okla.: Pilgrim Books, 1982), p. 5.

  6. Cf. the discussion of twentieth-century literary theory and criticism in Terry Eagleton's Literary Theory: An Introduction (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), especially chap. 1, “The Rise of English.”

  7. Felix Raab, The English Face of Machiavelli: A Changing Interpretation, 1500-1700 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1964), pp. 69-70.

  8. Historical Drama: The Relation of Literature and Reality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975), p. 133.

  9. Twentieth-century critics reenact this conflict as they argue the relative merits of the two contenders for the throne and the opposed ideologies that support their opposing claims. See especially Ornstein, pp. 13-21.

  10. It is interesting that “Bolingbroke,” the usual spelling of Bullingbrook's name in modern editions of Richard II, was first adopted by Alexander Pope. Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke (1678-1751), to whom Pope dedicated his Essay on Man, was in his own time a leading exponent of the ideology of civic humanism that J. G. A. Pocock has identified as an outgrowth of Machiavelli's theories. See Pocock's The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975), pp. 477-86.

  11. On the Accession Day Tilts, see Frances A. Yates, “Elizabethan Chivalry: The Romance of the Accession Day Tilts,” in Astraea: The Imperial Theme in the Sixteenth Century (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975), pp. 88-111. On Tudor use of the cult of chivalry, see Julia Briggs, This Stage-Play World: English Literature and Its Background 1580-1625 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), pp. 132-33; Roy Strong. The Cult of Elizabeth (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977), pp. 161-62; and Arthur B. Ferguson, The Chivalric Tradition in Renaissance England (Washington, D.C.: Folger Shakespeare Library, 1986). My account of the conscious anachronism of Shakespeare's use of chivalry is indebted to a fine, unpublished paper by David Scott Kastan, “‘I’ the Vein of Chivalry': Troilus and Cressida and the Politics of Honor.” On Shakespeare's use of the cult of chivalry, see also Paul N. Siegel, “Shakespeare and the Neochivalric Cult of Honor,” in Shakespeare in His Time and Ours (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968), pp. 122-62, especially pp. 133-38, where he discusses Hotspur and Hal; and Ralph Berry, “Shakespeare and Chivalry,” in Shakespeare and the Awareness of the Audience (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1985), pp. 109-27.

  12. Raphael Holinshed, Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (1587; rpt. London: J. Johnson et al., 1808), 3:210. Cf. Edward Hall, The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancastre & Yorke (1548; rpt. London: J. Johnson et al., 1809), pp. 207-8.

  13. A similar ambiguity about the issue of causation characterizes Shakespeare's representation of Gloucester's death. Initially, it seems to support a Machiavellian reading of history. Shakespeare implies the powerlessness of Gloucester's virtue in the face of his Machiavellian enemies when he has Gloucester deliver the following speech immediately before his summons, arrest, and murder: “I must offend before I be attained; / And had I twenty times so many foes, / And each of them had twenty times their power, / All these could not procure me any scathe / So long as I am loyal, true, and crimeless” (II.iv.59-63). Nonetheless, before the play is over, Suffolk and Beauford will join their victim in death, Beauford, in fact, by a mysterious, sudden illness that includes among its symptoms the belief that he is haunted by Gloucester's ghost (III.ii.373).

  14. Matthew W. Black, A New Variorum Edition of The Life and Death of King Richard the Second (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1955), p. 49n.

  15. Historical Drama, p. 141.

  16. Michael Quinn, “Providence in Shakespeare's Yorkist Plays,” Shakespeare Quarterly 10 (1959), 45.

  17. It is perhaps for this reason that, as F. J. Levy has observed, Machiavellian historiography tended to deal with “a brief period, such as the reign of one monarch or the story of one event.” See Tudor Historical Thought (San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1967), pp. 237-38, where Levy cites Machiavelli's Prince and Guicciardini's History of Italy as examples.

  18. John Middleton Murry, Shakespeare, p. 144, quoted by Cairncross in his introduction to the Arden edition of 3 Henry VI, pp. xlviii-xlix. See Cairncross, p. xli, on the controversy over the question of authorship. On the related questions of royal authority and dramatic unity, the Quarto title pages are revealing. The earliest published version of 3 Henry VI was entitled “The true Tragedie of Richard Duke of Yorke, and the death of good King Henrie the Sixt, with the whole contention betweene the two Houses Lancaster and Yorke, as it was sundrie times acted by the Right Honourable the Earle of Pembrooke his servants.” In the case of 2 Henry VI the Quarto title does not even mention the name of the king. Instead, it designates the play as “The first part of the Contention betwixt the two famous Houses of Yorke and Lancaster, with the death of the good Duke Humphrey: and the banishment and death of the Duke of Suffolke, and the Tragicall end of the proud Cardinall of Winchester, with the notable Rebellion of Iacke Cade: And the Duke of Yorkes first claime unto the Crowne.

  19. As David Kastan has pointed out, Elizabethan objections to “mongrel tragi-comedies” expressed similar anxieties, associating the hierarchical logic of the dramatic plot with the hierarchical logic of the unitary state. Kastan made this point in a paper at the 1989 meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America—“‘Clownes shoulde speake disorderlye’: Mongrel Tragicomedy and the Unitary State”—where he identified the unassimilated intrusions of clowns in the dramatic structure as a register of “what the unitary state would repress.”

  20. Julius Caesar Scaliger, Poetics (1561) I, i, p. 3DI, in Allen Gilbert, Literary Criticism: Plato to Dryden (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1962), p. 413. See also Torquato Tasso, Discourses on the Heroic Poem (1594): “The operations of art appear to us as though divine and in imitation of God, the first artist” (quoted in Gilbert, p. 492); and Thomas Blundeville, The true order and Methode of wryting and reading Hystories (London: Willyam Seres, 1574), E4r-E4: “Of those that make anye thyng, some doe make much of nothing, as God dyd in creating the Worlde of naught, and as Poets in some respect also doe, whilest they faine fables and make thereof theyr poesies, and poetical Hystories.” Blundeville's treatise is reprinted with an introduction by Hugh G. Dick in The Huntington Library Quarterly 3 (1940), 149-70. For a remarkable twentieth-century reinscription of the analogy, see Sigurd Burckhardt's “Notes on the Theory of Intrinsic Interpretation” in Shakespearean Meanings (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968), pp. 285-313.

  21. G. Gregory Smith, ed., Elizabethan Critical Essays (London: Oxford University Press, 1904), 2:3.

  22. Sir Philip Sidney's Defense of Poesy, ed. Lewis Soens (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1970), p. 10.

  23. Trans. Abraham Darcy, reprinted in Peter Burke, The Renaissance Sense of the Past (London: Edward Arnold, 1969), pp. 127-28.

  24. “Foreword” to Thomas G. Pavel, The Poetics of Plot: The Case of English Renaissance Drama, Theory and History of Literature 18 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), p. xx. Cf. Fredric Jameson's observation that “religious and theological debate is the form, in pre-capitalist societies, in which groups become aware of their political differences and fight them out” in “Religion and Ideology: Paradise Lost,” in Literature, Politics & Theory: Papers from the Essex Conference 1976-84, ed. Francis Barker et al. (London: Methuen, 1986), pp. 38-39. For an extensive analysis of the interpenetration between politics and theology in medieval and Renaissance thought, see Ernst Kantorowicz, The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957).

  25. They also recognized that history was a field of ideological contention and that alternative accounts of the past threatened their present political hegemony. See Campbell, Shakespeare's “Histories,” pp. 182-92, for an account of the use of Sir John Hayward's history of Henry IV as evidence at the Essex conspiracy trial.

  26. For an especially perceptive version of this reading, see James L. Calderwood, “Richard II: The Fall of Speech,” in Shakespearean Metadrama (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1971), pp. 149-86.

  27. Leonard Barkan, “The Theatrical Consistency of Richard II,Shakespeare Quarterly 29 (1978), 5-19.

  28. For a fuller discussion of this point, see Chapter 4, in Stages of History: Shakespeare’s English Chronicles, Cornell University Press, 1990.

  29. For especially perceptive discussions of the way this structure interrogates the process of historiographic mythmaking, see John R. Elliott, “Shakespeare and the Double Image of King John,” Shakespeare Studies 1 (1965), 64-84; and Virginia M. Vaughan, “King John: A Study in Subversion and Containment,” in King John: New Perspectives, ed. Deborah T. Curren-Aquino (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1989), pp. 62-75.

  30. See the two essays cited in the preceding note and the entire Aquino anthology, especially Larry S. Champion, “The ‘Un-end’ of King John: Shakespeare's Demystification of Closure,” pp. 173-85.

  31. For an excellent account of the shape of the first tetralogy, to which I am much indebted, see Edward I. Berry, Patterns of Decay: Shakespeare's Early Histories (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1975).

  32. F3. Hugh G. Dick points out (p. 149) that Blundeville's was “the first separately printed treatise in English on the art of history.”

  33. John W. Blanpied, Time and the Artist in Shakespeare's English Histories (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1983), p. 100.

  34. On the Machiavellian, commercial implications of the “factor” image, see my discussion in section VI of Stages of History: Shakespeare’s English Chronicles,Cornell University Press, 1990. Of Hal's statement in 1 Henry IV, III.ii.147-50: “Percy is but my factor, good my lord, / To engross up glorious deeds on my behalf; / And I will call him to so strict account / That he shall render every glory up.”

  35. Cf. Blanpied, p. 100, where he too sees King John as an expression of Shakespeare's dissatisfaction with Richard III, although he defines that dissatisfaction in terms somewhat different from mine: “What he finds he needs, the morning after the Richard III blowout, is a strongly centered play that, paradoxically, does not refuse to relinquish control.”

  36. Marshall Brown, “‘Errours Endlesse Traine’: On Turning Points and the Dialectical Imagination,” PMLA 99 (1984), 11, 21.

  37. Sigurd Burckhardt (in “King John: The Ordering of This Present Time,” Shakespearean Meanings, pp. 116-43) sees King John as Shakespeare's critique of the Tudor myth, pointing out that Shakespeare greatly reduces the Protestant propaganda in his source, where John was depicted as a martyr to Roman Catholic wickedness.

  38. The Play of Truth and State, p. 27.

  39. Henry IV is characteristically skeptical: “I know not whether God will have it so / For some displeasing service I have done / That in his secret doom, out of my blood / He'll breed revengement and a scourge for me; / But thou dost in thy passages of life / Make me believe that thou art only mark'd / For the hot vengeance, and the rod of heaven, / To punish my mistreadings” (1 Henry IV: III.ii.4-11).

  40. Like a playwright or actor, Henry is characterized from the very beginning as an “imitator.” Note, for instance, his first soliloquy in 1 Henry IV (I.ii.197), where he announces that he will “imitate the sun.” As Alexander Leggatt points out, the “promise to imitate the sun takes us back to Richard II; but while Richard, as rightful king, was naturally identified with the sun, Hal can only promise to imitate it—to produce, as his father did, a good performance in the role of king.” Shakespeare's Political Drama: The History Plays and the Roman Plays (London: Routledge, 1988), p. 89.

  41. David Norbrook, Poetry and Politics in the English Renaissance (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984), p. 99, points out that “despite the archaising feudal costumes they wore at court entertainments,” many of the “members of Leicester's circle were essentially nouveaux riches” and that no less a person than the Queen's Champion at the Accession Day tilts, Sir Henry Lee, “owed much of his wealth to enclosures.”

  42. A Grammar of Motives and a Rhetoric of Motives (Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1962), p. 682.

  43. Wylie Sypher, The Ethic of Time: Structures of Experience in Shakespeare (New York: Seabury Press, 1976), p. 28. Cf. Jonas Barish, The Antitheatrical Prejudice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), p. 97: “Machiavelli rarely asks whether the prince should practice such and such a vice … or should possess such and such a virtue … but rather whether he should be thought to practice it. … The image is all, the reality nothing.” Recent critics, especially American new historicists and especially during the Reagan presidency, have been fascinated with the Renaissance theatricalization of power. For an influential early exploration, see Stephen Orgel, The Illusion of Power: Political Theater in the English Renaissance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975); for an especially committed later one, see Leonard Tennenhouse, Power on Display: The Politics of Shakespeare's Genres (New York: Methuen, 1986).

  44. For a good summary of Elizabethan descriptions of actors, including those of Alleyn and Burbage, see Louis Adrian Montrose, “The Purpose of Playing: Reflections on a Shakespearean Anthropology,” Helios n.s. 7.2 (1980), 56-57. On the image of Proteus, see Barish, pp. 99-107.

  45. (London, 1641), D2r.

  46. Sigs. B3-B4. For a perceptive discussion of Renaissance associations between theatrical deception and commercial trickery, see Jean-Christophe Agnew, Worlds Apart: The Market and the Theater in Anglo-American Thought, 1550-1750 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), pp. 1-148. On pp. 76-77 Agnew cites Heywood's pamphlet to illustrate the way “English dramatists forced on Machiavelli's principles an association with commercial trickery that would have horrified the Florentine.”

  47. On the intellectual roots of the conjunction between Machiavellianism and this new sense of personality, see Hugh M. Richmond, “Personal Identity and Literary Personae: A Study in Historical Psychology,” PMLA 90 (1975), 209-21, especially pp. 215-18. On the roles of social change and theatrical representation in the Renaissance production of a new concept of subjectivity, see Catherine Belsey, The Subject of Tragedy: Identity and Difference in Renaissance Drama (London: Methuen, 1985).

  48. Poetics, VI. 9-11, in Aristotle's Theory of Poetry and Fine Art, ed. S. H. Butcher, 4th ed. (New York: Dover, 1951), pp. 24-27.

  49. Belsey, The Subject of Tragedy, p. 15.

  50. Cf. Leggatt, Shakespeare's Political Drama, p. 94: “The thinking is that of a chivalric hero, but the words belong to the counting-house.”

  51. This speech is placed, significantly, at the end of the Gaultree Forest episode. Celebrating the virtues of sherris-sack to explain the difference between the heat and valor of Prince Henry and the cold-blooded calculation of Prince John, Falstaff emphasizes that Henry's virtues are achievements and not inheritances.

  52. For an extended discussion of Hal's Machiavellianism, see Blanpied, chap. 9, especially pp. 160-66. On the ways the mere fact of theatrical representation threatened to compromise royal authority, see Franco Moretti, “‘A Huge Eclipse’: Tragic Form and the Deconsecration of Sovereignty,” Genre 15 (1982), 7-40, reprinted in The Power of Forms in the English Renaissance; and David Scott Kastan, “Proud Majesty Made a Subject: Shakespeare and the Spectacle of Rule,” Shakespeare Quarterly 37 (Winter 1986), 459-75.

  53. Defense, p. 21.

  54. On Sidney's association of social rank with poetic quality, see Norbrook, Poetry and Politics in the English Renaissance, p. 92. See also Stephen Greenblatt, “Murdering Peasants: Status, Genre, and the Representation of Rebellion,” in Representing the English Renaissance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988, originally published in Representations 1 [1983]), pp. 17-18 for a perceptive discussion of Sidney's anxious efforts to mark the status boundaries between himself as a gentleman amateur and the commoner who practices art as a profession.

  55. Sidney, Defense, p. 13 et passim.

  56. Many writers have explored the ways the Elizabethan theater constituted a site of transgression, but see especially Montrose, “The Purpose of Playing”; Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986), chap. 1; and Steven Mullaney, The Place of the Stage: License, Play, and Power in Renaissance England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988).

  57. Samuel Cox, letter of January 15, 1591, and I. H., This World's Folly. Or a Warning-Peece discharged upon the Wickednesse thereof (1615), both reprinted in E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1923), 4: 237, 254.

  58. George Whetstone, A Touchstone for the Time, printed as an “Addition” to A Mirour for Magestrates of Cyties (1584), and Gervase Babington, A very Fruitful Exposition of the Commandements (1583), reprinted in Chambers, 4:227, 225.

  59. Phillip Stubbes, The Anatomie of Abuses: Contayning a Discoverie, or briefe Summarie of such Notable Vices and Imperfections, as now raigne in many Christian Countreyes of the Worlde: but (especiallie) in a verie famous Ilande called Ailgna (London, 1583), in Chambers, 4:224.

  60. For an account of these defenses, and of the deep instability of contemporary conceptions of the theater, see Chapter 3, section III, in Stages of History: Shakespeare’s English Chronicles, Cornell University Press, 1990.

  61. I am indebted to an unpublished paper of Myra Jehlen's for the distinction between paradox and unresolved contradiction.

  62. Kastan, “Proud Majesty Made a Subject,” pp. 473-74.

William C. Carroll (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: “‘The Form of Law’: Ritual and Succession in Richard III,” in True Rites and Maimed Rites: Ritual and Anti-Ritual in Shakespeare and His Age, edited by Linda Woodbridge and Edward Berry, University of Illinois Press, 1992, pp. 203-19.

[In the following essay, Carroll states that the way in which Richard III explores the failure of ritual reflects the political concerns of the 1590s related to the succession issue. Carroll concludes that the play demonstrates Shakespeare's skeptical attitude toward the “logic of succession.”]

Deformed persons are commonly even with nature,
for as nature hath done ill by them, so do they
by nature … Therefore it is good to consider
of deformity, not as a sign, … but as a cause,
which seldom faileth of the effect.

—Bacon, “Of Deformity”

In her study of rites of passage and other ritual actions in Shakespearean drama, Marjorie Garber describes Richard III (along with Macbeth) as unique among tragic characters: “Of all Shakespeare's characters … two in particular stand out as examples of a contrary linguistic pattern, a regression rather than a progression—a failure of maturation emblematized by a failure in language.”1 Garber then describes in detail the initial power and eventual failure of Richard's rhetorical powers in the play, until the multiple fragmentations of his nightmare at Bosworth Field. Richard's failure to develop, to progress through rites of passage to some kind of maturity, is a particular instance, as I hope to show, of a much larger general failure of ritual in Richard III. This failure of ritual may be seen both in the transgressions of specific cultural rites and in the violation of “form” generally in the world of the play. I will argue, as well, that the play's interrogation of ritual form is not merely formalistic, but also a representation of perhaps the central political problem facing the Tudor dynasty in the 1590s: the issue of succession. After Henry VIII, the course of true succession never ran smoothly. From one perspective, it may appear that Richard III perfectly enacts the Tudor myth of succession—underneath all the chaos, violence, and betrayal, the sanctity of succession remains intact as the Tudor reign begins; and yet, as we will see, even that principle, that “form of law,” is compromised in the play. I propose, then, another way of understanding the putative conservatism of the play's ending, in the accession of the first Tudor, Henry VII. The way to this understanding is first through an examination of Richard's relentless and, in every sense, fruitless assault on ritual and order.

“Deform'd” (I.i.20)2 in many ways himself, with no delight except to spy his shadow in the sun “And descant on mine own deformity” (I.i.27), Richard makes music from his own pain; but it becomes evident that however much he derides his own shape, his bitterest hatred is reserved for form itself. His strategy throughout, of course, is to represent himself as a defender of “form,” particularly in the “form of law.” When the Duke of Buckingham, for example, proclaims of the just-executed Hastings that “the subtle traitor / This day had plotted, in the council-house, / To murder me and my good lord of Gloucester” (III.v.38-39), the Lord Mayor queries “Had he done so?” and is roundly answered by Richard himself in his high ironic vein:

What, think you we are Turks or infidels?
Or that we would, against the form of law,
Proceed thus rashly in the villain's death,
But that the extreme peril of the case,
The peace of England, and our persons' safety,
Enforc'd us to this execution.

To which the Mayor quickly replies, “Now fair befall you! He deserv'd his death” (III.v.40-47). Richard's tender regard for the “form of law”—which he admits has already been set aside—is not surprising given his consistent desire throughout the play to make vice appear in the guise of virtue. Richard's effort to preserve the outward “form of law” reaches quite far, as the next scene shows us. Here a Scrivener enters with paper in hand:

Here is the indictment of the good Lord Hastings,
Which in a set hand fairly is engross'd
That it may be today read o'er in Paul's.
And mark how well the sequel hangs together:
Eleven hours I have spent to write it over,
For yesternight by Catesby was it sent me;
The precedent was full as long a-doing
And yet within these five hours Hastings liv'd,
Untainted, unexamin'd, free, at liberty.
Here's a good world the while! Who is so gross
That cannot see this palpable device?
Yet who's so bold but says he sees it not?


Hastings' “indictment” may be a farce, but no one will say so or question the mere “form” of law; thus it carries all the effectual power of a real indictment.3 At the beginning of the play, in another instance, Clarence asks the two murderers who threaten him,

Are you drawn forth among a world of men
To slay the innocent? What is my offence?
Where is the evidence that doth accuse me?
What lawful quest have giv'n their verdict up
Unto the frowning judge? Or who pronounc'd
The bitter sentence of poor Clarence' death?
Before I be convict by course of law,
To threaten me with death is most unlawful.


This concern for legal niceties is both ironic (considering Clarence's own past history of treachery and betrayal) and naive. It is an instance of the powerful naivete which afflicts virtually everyone in the play, a continuing belief in the forms, rites, and order of social life—of the “law,” in particular—which are everywhere, in fact, betrayed. If we find Clarence's naivete amusing early in the play, we can only find Buckingham's—of all characters!—later in the play to be shocking. Even the worst characters, even Richard himself, still place trust in the “course of law” and the very ritual forms they have elsewhere helped to undermine. The play thus enacts a radical division between public manifestations of hieratic form and ritual, and the private appetites which undermine and devour them.

Few if any forms of law in Richard III survive unblemished. The grisly circumstances of Richard's own birth suggest the originating transgression in natural law against “form” in general which is, contra Bacon, both “cause” and “sign” in this play. Richard himself tells us how he was

Cheated of feature by dissembling Nature,
Deform'd, unfinish'd, sent before my time
Into this breathing world scarce half made up—
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me, as I halt by them.


This disruption heralds the arrival of something quite unnatural in the world, foreshadowing the “deform'd” and “unfinish'd” nature of virtually every rite of passage or social form in the play. Richard's very first victim, his brother Clarence, is done in through a hideous perversion of the sacrament of baptism: Richard tells him—as he is sent to prison—that perhaps the King “hath some intent / That you should be new christen'd in the Tower” (I.i.49-50); Clarence has already of course been “christen'd” as the fulfillment of the prophecy “which says that ‘G’ / Of Edward's heirs the murderer shall be” (I.i.39-40). Clarence's drowning in the malmseybutt is not only a horrid joke on the promised christening, but perhaps also, as Antony Hammond suggests, “a grotesque parody of the Eucharist … at the behest of the anti-Christ Richard … Clarence is ‘made a sop of,’ a human host soaked in wine, by murderers who call him a ‘bloody minister,’ debate of theology, and make comparisons of their acts with those of Pilate” (Arden 112).

In resisting the murderers, moreover, Clarence engages them in a high-rhetorical debate about the sacred origins of authority, conducted in the theological-philosophical vocabulary of a belief system in which no one in the play actually seems to believe:

I charge you, as you hope to have redemption,
By Christ's dear blood, shed for our grievous sins,
That you depart and lay no hands on me:
The deed you undertake is damnable.
What we will do, we do upon command.
And he that hath commanded is our King.
Erroneous vassals! The great King of kings
Hath in the table of His law commanded
That thou shalt do no murder. Will you then
Spurn at His edict, and fulfil a man's?
Take heed! For He holds vengeance in His hand
To hurl upon their heads that break His law.


The “table of His law” has in this world already declined into the “course” and mere “form of law,” where man's “edict” holds sway over God's. Redemption by Christ's blood has likewise devolved into another kind of mockery, a mechanical series of formulaic confessions by Richard's victims before their murders. In promising God's vengeance, finally, Clarence sounds eerily like Gaunt in Richard II, predicting divine vengeance on Richard for the murder of Woodstock. Clarence's rhetoric fails to move the murderers, in any event, who point out that he himself is “a traitor to the name of God” in his own treachery and betrayal: “How canst thou urge God's dreadful law to us, / When thou hast broke it in such dear degree?” (lines 198-99). The divinity that doth hedge a king is thus everywhere invoked but never observed.

Clarence is accused, in particular, of ripping open “the bowels of thy sovereign's son” (line 196), but in the skill of murdering children, Clarence must necessarily defer to his master in this trade, his brother. Richard's revenge for his own betrayal as a child is harsh, and in kind: his first instincts are to murder children, particularly those to whom nature has not done ill, and those for whom social relation has not been transgressed. “Tetchy and wayward” (IV.iv.169) in his own infancy, his birth “a grievous burden” to his mother, Richard quite naturally settles his hatred on those whose births were natural and noble, whose passage through this stage did not leave them deformed or unfinished. To one of Clarence's children, we learn, Richard wept (this just before they learn their father has been murdered), “And pitied me, and kindly kiss'd my cheek; / Bade me rely on him as on my father, / And he would love me dearly as a child” (II.ii.24-26). Richard follows Buckingham at the end of this scene—“I, as a child, will go by thy direction” (II.ii.153)—to take on the child of his brother Edward, now become Edward V: “So wise so young, they say, do never live long” (III.i.79). Even Richard's metaphors here suggest the “unfinish'd” curtailing of seasonal order and transition: “Short summers lightly have a forward spring” (III.i.94).

In ordering his most infamous assault against children, the Tower murders, Richard exclaims, “I wish the bastards dead” (IV.ii.18), thus justifying his order by denying the legitimacy of their succession. Tyrrel's description of the murdered princes, “this piece of ruthless butchery” (IV.iii.5), on the other hand, turns them back into “gentle babes … girdling one another / Within their alabaster innocent arms.” They seem no less than heavenly cherubs here, as the verse waxes pastoral-poetic: “Their lips were four red roses on a stalk / And in their summer beauty kiss'd each other. / A book of prayers on their pillow lay …” (IV.iii.9-14). When Richard takes stock of his situation at the end of this scene, his attention focuses almost exclusively on his enemies' children, whose natural maturation and marriage he would disrupt and undermine: “The son of Clarence have I pent up close; / His daughter meanly have I match'd in marriage; / The sons of Edward sleep in Abraham's bosom” (IV.iii.36-38). Finally, when wooing Queen Elizabeth for her daughter, Richard makes an appeal now ironic and chilling, promising to begin anew the cycle of birth and maturation which he has nearly finished annihilating:

If I have kill'd the issue of your womb,
To quicken your increase, I will beget
Mine issue of your blood upon your daughter.
A grandam's name is little less in love
Than is the doting title of a mother.

Richard then notes that grandchildren “are as children but one step below … of your very blood; / Of all one pain,” with the single exception, he says in one of his greatest sophistries, “save for a night of groans / Endur'd of [the daughter], for whom you bid like sorrow” (IV.iv.296-304). Reducing the experience of birth to “a night of groans,” Richard proleptically reveals the future pain of his own victims here. His final appeal to Elizabeth carries this nasty ambiguity to an extreme: “But in your daughter's womb I bury them [her dead children] / Where, in that nest of spicery, they will breed / Selves of themselves, to your recomforture” (IV.iv.423-25). For Richard the womb is always a tomb, the source of his birth but also the source of his imprisonment. His imagery is doubly revealing here, for Elizabeth's dead children will somehow, in her daughter's womb, reproduce incestuously and autonomously (“they will breed / Selves of themselves”). Richard's irony and bitterness run so deep that he can claim not to know “that Englishman alive / With whom my soul is any jot at odds, / More than the infant that is born tonight” (II.i.70-72). His quest to slay the first-born of the kingdom—those most likely to inherit—of course links Richard with another infamously bloody king, Herod—one also identified in tradition, as Scott Colley has demonstrated, as a “crippled, incestuous tyrant.”4

As with the law, the “form” of marriage is both desired and violated by Richard throughout the play. His wooing and marriage of Lady Anne, most notoriously, suggest the extent of Richard's perversions of the ritual of traditional courtship rites and the orderly process of marriage.5 Richard's language frequently suggests a particularly perverse transgression against marriage as well—incest:

I'll marry Warwick's youngest daughter—
What though I kill'd her husband and her father?
The readiest way to make the wench amends
Is to become her husband, and her father:
The which will I, not all so much for love
As for another secret close intent,
By marrying her which I must reach unto.


In wooing Queen Elizabeth, we saw, he promised to “beget / Mine issue of your blood upon your daughter.” The suggestion of incest is not only with the mother but with the daughter, for “I must be married to my brother's daughter” (IV.ii.60) in order to solidify his claim to the throne. At the same time he seeks “some mean poor gentleman, / Whom I will marry straight to Clarence' daughter” (IV.ii.53-54), who by the next scene has been “meanly … match'd in marriage” (IV.iii.37). In urging Queen Elizabeth to woo her daughter on his behalf, Richard urges “my mother” (IV.iv.325) to acquaint her daughter “with the sweet, silent hours of marriage joys” (IV.iv.330). The poetical alliteration here masks the most outrageous vision of marriage in the play.

Richard will even go so far in his assault on marriage as to “Infer the bastardy of Edward's children” (III.v.74) and, if necessary, allow Buckingham to tell the Mayor and citizens that Edward himself was illegitimate, and thus his own mother had violated the state and form of marriage:

Tell them, when that my mother went with child
Of that insatiate Edward, noble York
My princely father then had wars in France,
And by true computation of the time
Found that the issue was not his-begot.


Buckingham complies by reviving the unsavory rumors of Edward's “contract with Lady Lucy, / And his contract by deputy in France” (III.vii.5-6) as well as Edward's “own bastardy” (line 9). This latter issue, Richard instructs Buckingham, is to be gingerly approached “Because, my lord, you know my mother lives” (III.v.93). This tender regard for his mother comes to an abrupt end in IV.iv, when the Duchess of York describes herself to her son as “she that might have intercepted thee—/ By strangling thee in her accursed womb” (lines 137-38).

The natural form and order of marriage and birth, then, represent for Richard what he is denied, what he desires, and what he must violate. His actions make a mockery of the power and sanctity of these rites, but no sooner has he emptied them of all cultural force, turned them inside out, than he tries to crawl back inside them himself; even the empty shell of ritual is preferable to his own shape. The restoration of authenticity to these forms comes of course in the royal shape of Richmond. In consulting with Richmond before the battle at Bosworth Field, Stanley invokes the terminology of ritual before a now-receptive audience:

Farewell; the leisure and the fearful time
Cuts off the ceremonious vows of love
And ample interchange of sweet discourse
Which so long sunder'd friends should dwell upon.
God give us leisure for these rites of love!


The “sweet discourse” of these “rites of love” contrasts starkly with the “keen encounter of our wits” (I.ii.119) which Richard, the “jolly thriving wooer” (IV.iii.43), initiates with Lady Anne and Queen Elizabeth. The play's only other reference to the “ceremonious,” by contrast with Richmond, is Buckingham's cynical and dismissive rebuke to the Cardinal's defense of the principle of sanctuary:

You are too senseless-obstinate, my lord,
Too ceremonious and traditional.
Weigh it but with the grossness of this age,
You break not sanctuary in seizing him.


Richmond on the other hand is careful to observe the ceremonious and the traditional, from his planned marriage to Elizabeth through his prayer before the battle, to his oration to his troops. His final speech in the play brings together explicit ritual and the “form of law” generally, now even invoking the highly charged term “sacrament” which accompanies his oath to marry Elizabeth:

Inter their bodies as become their births.
Proclaim a pardon to the soldiers fled
That in submission will return to us;
And then, as we have ta'en the sacrament,
We will unite the white rose and the red.


Each line of this speech invokes a different ritual or principle of order: the decorum of funeral rites; the royal pardon; the subject's obedience of hierarchical authority; the ritual of the “sacrament”; and the union of opposites. Richmond says all the right things that could be said.

As with the term “ceremonious,” the only other reference in the play to a “sacrament” is sacreligious, the Second Murderer's insistence on Clarence's earlier betrayal of his family: “Thou didst receive the sacrament to fight / In quarrel of the House of Lancaster” (I.iv.192-93). Richmond's taking of the “sacrament,” however, leads not to a “fight” but to “this fair conjunction” of the two houses in marriage. The offspring born of this re-sanctified rite will be equally hallowed:

O now let Richmond and Elizabeth,
The true succeeders of each royal house,
By God's fair ordinance conjoin together,
And let their heirs, God, if Thy will be so,
Enrich the time to come with smooth-fac'd peace,
With smiling plenty, and fair prosperous days!


The “sacrament,” under “God's fair ordinance,” to “conjoin together” is an attempt to reinvest the ritual's lost power after the “dire division” (line 28) practiced by Richard. The “heirs” who will result from birth will be the Tudors, whose current avatar must have looked on in pleasure as her grandfather is shown as a representation, indeed virtually a reincarnation, of the power of ritual, of all that is “ceremonious and traditional.”

Richmond's command at the end to “Inter their bodies as become their births” reminds us by contrast of still another set of rites of transition that Richard systematically violates throughout the play—those of execution, and of burial. We have already seen how Richard's false piety over the “form of law” is made a mockery in the seizure and executions of both Clarence and Hastings. The initial “order” by Edward for Clarence's death was reversed, “but,” as Richard says in one of his bitterest ironies,

          he, poor man, by your first order died,
And that a winged Mercury did bear;
Some tardy cripple bore the countermand,
That came too lag to see him buried.


There is no need here to rehearse the myriad ways in which Richard sends his victims off to the executioners: when they are marched off to what Buckingham calls “the block of shame” (V.i.28), none has time to reflect on what has happened, or to enact the established Renaissance conventions of execution.6 These conventions are truncated everywhere, as indicated in Richard's command to Clarence's murderers:

But sirs, be sudden in the execution,
Withal obdurate: do not hear him plead;
For Clarence is well-spoken, and perhaps
May move your hearts to pity, if you mark him.


Richard himself attempts to displace the role of executioner onto others, particularly in his encounter with Lady Anne:

Is not the causer of the timeless deaths
Of these Plantagenets, Henry and Edward,
As blameful as the executioner? …
Your beauty was the cause of that effect.


The reversal of cause and effect works splendidly on Anne, for when he offers himself as a potential victim, laying open his breast and giving her a sword while confessing his murders, she lets the sword fall: “Arise, dissembler; though I wish thy death, / I will not be thy executioner” (I.ii.188-89).

Richard's disruptions of conventional burial rites are equally offensive and self-conscious, beginning with his intervention in the funeral cortege of Henry VI in I.ii. Here even the corpse is witness to Richard's crimes—“see, see dead Henry's wounds / Open their congeal'd mouths and bleed afresh.” The cause of this unnatural phenomenon, according to Anne, is Richard's “presence that exhales this blood / From cold and empty veins where no blood dwells” (I.ii.55-59). At the end of the scene, Richard promises that the body of Henry will be “solemnly interr'd / At Chertsey Monastery” where he will “wet his grave with my repentant tears” (I.ii.217-19), but then orders the bearers to take the body “to Whitefriars” (line 231) instead. The body of Clarence, in another example, is to be hidden “in some hole / Till that the Duke give order for his burial” (I.iv.271), while the bodies of the murdered princes were buried by the chaplain of the Tower, according to Tyrrel, “But where, to say the truth, I do not know” (IV.iii.30). The only successful burial rite in the play, it would seem, is what Richard describes as a psychological one: “And all the clouds that lour'd upon our House / In the deep bosom of the ocean buried” (I.i.3-4). Richmond's command at the end, “Inter their bodies as become their births,” by contrast would allow even “the bloody dog” Richard (V.v.2) a proper burial.

It would seem, then, that Richard's every effort in the play is to violate what he has been denied, to insure that every principle of social order, form of law, or cultural rite remains “unfinish'd” or “deform'd,” as his own birth was. And yet there is one structure of social order which remains absolutely sacred for Richard throughout the play: it is what might be termed the Ur-“form” of passage that is embodied in all the other rites and forms—the principle of succession. By “succession” I mean, most generally, the stated or implied logic of transition from one condition to another: from the womb to life, from life to death, from a single state to marriage; more specifically, “succession” is the logical movement through time of the law (natural or social) from boy to man, from heir to inheritor, and most importantly, from subject to king.

Belief in the power of the ordering form of succession is unchallenged by Richard, indeed his movement toward the crown absolutely depends on it. He never questions the right of Clarence to take the crown before him, for example, nor the right of Edward's son; he accepts his place in this hierarchy even as he works to undermine hierarchy in general. His slander that his brother Edward was illegitimate rests in part on the assertion that the proof “well appeared in his lineaments, / Being nothing like the noble Duke, my father” (III.v.90-91), which Buckingham dutifully echoes to the Mayor in a positive restatement of this belief: “I did infer your lineaments—/ Being the right idea of your father, / Both in your form and nobleness of mind” (III.vii.12-14). How this deformed hunchback might resemble his father is a question the Mayor and the citizens do not address; the mere assertion of proper “form” once again goes unquestioned. Lineage and lineaments count for everything.

More than the principle of physical succession, however, the principle of legal succession is most critical for Richard. Buckingham's claim before the Mayor and the citizens—

                                                                                                    we heartily solicit
Your gracious self to take on you the charge
And kingly government of this your land,
Not as Protector, steward, substitute,
Or lowly factor for another's gain,
But as successively from blood to blood,
Your right of birth, your empery, your own.


—is to be sure hypocritical cant, but it is also in fact the fundamental principle on which Richard has based his own claim, and on which he has acted to remove his brother and nephew—what Buckingham calls “the lineal glory of your royal House” (III.vii.120). When he is momentarily uncertain of the effectual power of his claim, Richard moves to eliminate this dynastic weakness: “I must be married to my brother's daughter, / Or else my kingdom stands on brittle glass” (IV.ii.60-61). What Richard never entertains is the possibility of simply seizing power; he desires to inherit it “successively,” to reclaim everything that “dissembling Nature” has “cheated” him of.

The psychology of Richard's logic thus mirrors the logic employed by Edmund in King Lear. There the principle of lineal succession doubly defeats Edmund, who is both a younger brother and a bastard, and who therefore can appeal only to the “law” of “Nature” (I.ii.1),7 because his half-brother, “Legitimate Edgar” (I.ii.16)—the epithet is made to seem part of his proper name—is in fact Gloucester's son “by order of law” (I.i.19): “Well then,” Edmund concludes, “Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land” (I.ii.15-16). Edmund's boast that “if not by birth,” he will “have lands by wit” (I.ii.190) is quickly translated into a scheme by which, as I have argued elsewhere,8 Edmund seeks to become Edgar rather than destroying the social order which denies him; Edmund rather wishes to exchange places with Edgar in the social hierarchy, to take his brother's place. The principle of lineal succession is denounced, desired, and finally achieved by Edmund, when his father offers to modify the law: “Of my land, / Loyal and natural boy, I'll work the means / To make thee capable” (II.i.83-5).

The connection between Richard and Edmund here is that for both characters the principle of “lineal glory,” the “form” and “order of law,” is both the principle which denies them and so must be annihilated, and the principle which will define them and so is constantly desired. Yet when both achieve their stated goals, the triumph is bitter and short-lived. R. B. Heilman has noted the pattern in which, at his moment of triumph, Richard suddenly loathes what he has previously desired to achieve.9 Richard's deepest hatreds, like Edmund's, are always reserved for himself.

Richard believes—and rightly—that he was “born so high” (I.iii.263) and that accordingly he is “the Lord's anointed” (IV.iv.151). When told that Richmond has come “to claim the crown,” Richard is genuinely surprised and indignant, and reasserts one last time the principles of legitimacy and succession:

Is the chair empty? Is the sword unsway'd?
Is the King dead? The empire unpossess'd?
What heir of York is there alive but we?
And who is England's King but great York's heir?
Then tell me, what makes he upon the seas!


There are no good answers to these questions—for Richmond ironically seems to be the one seizing power—but only the knowledge that Richmond and Elizabeth can correctly be called “the true succeeders of each royal House” (V.v.30) only after Richard has been killed.

Wolfgang Clemen has observed that the final scene of Richard III “is an undramatic epilogue in which Richmond, even less individual than in the earlier scenes, once more becomes the mouthpiece of a higher power.”10 As a result, Richmond's self-confidence and the ceremonial tone of his final speech have struck some (but by no means all) readers as unearned, even compromised. Certainly Richmond's language is that of a re-sanctification of the power of ritual and the “form of law,” as the very action of the brief scene itself is. Yet how can an audience at this point easily accept the reaffirmations of the principle of lineal succession? Richard's attacks on marriage, birth, and death also undermine and as it were profane the order of succession which lies beneath them. It is easy enough to see, then, that Richard cannot retain the one principle having already annihilated the others. But what he has shown the audience is that these rituals can be emptied out and made arbitrary. He has contaminated everything.

Yet one instance of “succession,” ironically, will endure, and serve forever to tarnish Richard's name; its power is indicated in the dialogue upon the Tower, which is not present in any of the sources of the play:

I do not like the Tower, of any place.
Did Julius Caesar build that place, my lord?
He did, my gracious lord, begin that place,
Which since, succeeding ages have re-edified.
Is it upon record, or else reported
Successively from age to age, he built it?
Upon record, my gracious lord.
But say, my lord, it were not register'd,
Methinks the truth should live from age to age,
As 'twere retail'd to all posterity,
Even to the general all-ending day.


The record or report of history, handed down “successively from age to age,” is invoked just as Richard announces his intention to commit the notorious act which will be linked with him to the general all-ending day:

[Aside] So wise so young, they say, do never live long.
What say you, uncle?
I say, without characters fame lives long.


Julius Caesar, the Prince concludes, “now he lives in fame, though not in life” (III.i.88); so too will Richard's murder of the princes become the report of “succeeding ages.” “Why should calamity be full of words?” the Duchess of York asks after the murder of the princes; because, their mother replies, words are “Windy attorneys to their clients' woes, / Airy succeeders of intestate joys, / Poor breathing orators of miseries.” (IV.iv.126-29).11 Long after Richard's fabled rhetoric fails, after he fails to reproduce his reign “successively” and dies “intestate” himself, the “breathing orators” of language itself—condemning him—will be his only legacy.

An essential distinction between Richard's experience of the nature of ritual and the audience's experience must be made here, for the play as a whole suggests a far more ambivalent attitude than that of the moral lessons drawn in the final scene. A. P. Rossiter was perhaps the first but certainly not the last scholar to suggest that Richard III is a qualification of, rather than a celebration of, “the Tudor myth” of history; this historic myth, Rossiter observed, “offered absolutes, certainties” such as Richmond expresses, but Shakespeare, he argued, “always leaves us with relatives, ambiguities, irony, a process thoroughly dialectical.”12 Rossiter arrives at this conclusion via a far different route than the one I have taken here, of course, but I share his skepticism as it relates to a reaffirmation of ritual power in this play. If any value or principle is undermined here, it is surely the logic of ritual, and the logic of “succession” itself. The more strongly Richard depends on it and Richmond reaffirms it, the more doubtful it becomes.

In his ironic conservatism, Richard III stands in contrast to his namesake Richard II, who routinely violates, in the later play, the principle of succession which has made him king. York upbraids Richard for his seizure of Gaunt's estate:

Did not [Gaunt] deserve to have an heir?
Is not his heir a well-deserving son?
Take Herford's rights away, and take from time
His characters, and his customary rights;
Let not to-morrow then ensue to-day:
Be not thyself. For how art thou a king
But by fair sequence and succession?


There seems a much greater division between Richard III and Richard II here than the few years which separate their composition, for Richard II casually undermines the very logic for which Richard III killed.

Hamlet remarks that in writing satire against the public theater, the writers for the boy actors “do them wrong to make them exclaim against their own succession” (II.ii.348-49). Richard III repeatedly, with evident satisfaction, violates sacraments, rites, and order itself while nevertheless seeking to maintain their outward form; though he never exclaims against succession—indeed, he seeks its encompassing logic—his very actions annihilate his own claim to succession. Soon enough, his chair is empty, the “empire unpossess'd,” and a new set of “true succeeders” takes over.

The ironies of Richard III's bloody quest are intensified by the historical situation of the early 1590s. Written and performed during a period of extraordinary urban unrest—what one historian has termed “an epidemic of disorder”13Richard III seems in many ways a rejection of disorder and a reaffirmation of law: the soon-to-be Henry VII puts an end to the civil violations of Richard. Yet it is the bloody butcher himself, Richard, who most clearly aligns himself with the ideology of legal and “natural” succession; and it is the re-sacramentalized emblem of “ceremonious” order, Richmond, who intervenes when the “chair” of state is not “empty,” when the “empire” is not “unpossess'd.” Richmond's own actions—the killing of Richard—finally bring about the conditions which allow him to be termed not a usurper but one of the “true succeeders” to the throne. Richmond's way, through marriage, is thus the inverse of Elizabeth's, herself a true succeeder to the throne through a process that exposed the law of succession as something as much constructed (through Henry VIII's will) as “natural.” The issue of succession in Richard III is thus put under interrogation, and we find that the monarch who believes in its absolute force is a monster, while the monarch who comes to power by indirections, invoking succession as an attribute which can be acquired, is the ostensible hero, the first Tudor. The last Tudor, if she attended closely to this play, would have noticed a kind of prophetic interpretive slippage in the chief principle underlying her power. Like Richard III, Elizabeth would leave her chair empty with no immediate heir; but long before she was dead, Cecil understood that the new monarch would take power not only through the “form of law,” of succession, but through the pragmatic politics of negotiation. Richard III, I believe, represents an early temblor of the shocks to come in the English understanding of the monarchy.


  1. Marjorie Garber, Coming of Age in Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1981), 100. For a general discussion of the concept of “rites of passage” and its usefulness in literary analysis, see Garber's introductory chapter. See also Edward Berry, Shakespeare's Comic Rites (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 1-32. Berry does not discuss Richard III. I am using the term “ritual” primarily as Garber and Berry do, following Arnold van Gennep's The Rites of Passage, trans. Monika B. Vizedom and Gabrielle L. Caffee (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960; original ed. 1908). I also follow to some extent Victor Turner's description of ritual as “formal behavior for occasions not given over to technological routine, having reference to beliefs in mystical beings or powers” in The Forest of Symbols (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1967), 19.

  2. Quotations are from the Arden Richard III, ed. Antony Hammond (London: Methuen, 1981). Quotations from other plays are from the relevant Arden editions.

  3. In Shakespeare's Ghost Writers (New York: Methuen, 1987), Marjorie Garber describes how the Scrivener's speech reflects “the play's preoccupation with writing and the preemptive—indeed prescriptive—nature of its political design” (38).

  4. Scott Colley, “Richard III and Herod,” Shakespeare Quarterly 37 (1986): 451-58.

  5. See the summary by Lawrence Stone in The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800 (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), which distinguishes five distinct stages: the written legal contract between the parents; the spousals; the public proclamation of banns in church; the wedding in church; and the sexual consummation (31-37).

  6. See the scaffold conventions described by Lacey Baldwin Smith, “English Treason Trials and Confessions in the Sixteenth Century,” Journal of the History of Ideas 15 (1954): 471-98: “The form of these confessions [on the scaffold] followed a fairly set pattern. Those about to suffer announced that they had come hither to die, and they were careful to point out to the surrounding multitude that they had been judged by the laws of the land and that they were content to accept the penalties which the law required. After granting the legality of their execution, they usually went on to hold themselves up as examples of the frightful fate in store for those who dared to sin against God and their king. Finally, they ended up by requesting their audience to pray on their behalf that God and king would mercifully forgive them their trespasses, and then, in a closing burst of loyalty, they expressed the hope that their gracious sovereign might long and happily reign over the kingdom in peace and tranquillity. Rarely was a word of complaint or bitterness heard at these executions, and usually both the innocent and guilty humbly prostrated themselves before the royal will and confessed the iniquities of their lives” (476).

  7. The title page of the 1608 Quarto of Lear also identifies Edgar as “sonne and heire to the Earle of Gloster”; in this case, “sonne and heire” is no redundancy.

  8. “‘The Base Shall Top Th'Legitimate’: The Bedlam Beggar and the Role of Edgar in King Lear,Shakespeare Quarterly 38 (1987): 426-41.

  9. Robert B. Heilman, “Satiety and Conscience: Aspects of Richard III,Antioch Review 24 (1964): 57-73.

  10. Wolfgang Clemen, A Commentary on Shakespeare's Richard III (London: Methuen, 1968; original ed. 1957), 235.

  11. See the Arden note on this difficult passage, 339-40.

  12. A. P. Rossiter, “Angel with Horns: The Unity of Richard III,” reprinted in Shakespeare: The Histories, ed. Eugene M. Waith (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1965), 84.

  13. Roger B. Manning, Village Revolts: Social Protest and Popular Disturbances in England, 1509-1640 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 187. See also The European Crisis of the 1590s, ed. Peter Clark (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1985).

Work Cited

Strong, Roy C. Portraits of Queen Elizabeth. Oxford: Clarendon, 1963.

———, and Julia Trevelyan Oman. Elizabeth R. London: Secker and Warburg, 1971.

Thomas, Keith. Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England 1500-1800. London: Allen Lane, 1983.

Turner, Victor. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Chicago: Aldine, 1969.

Van Gennep, Arnold. The Rites of Passage. Trans. Monika B. Vizedom and Gabrielle L. Caffee. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1960. First published in French, 1908.

Velz, John W. “The Ancient World in Shakespeare: Authenticity or Anachronism?” Shakespeare Survey 31 (1978): 1-12.

Vickers, Nancy. “‘The Blazon of Sweet Beauty's Best’: Shakespeare's Lucrece.” In Shakespeare and the Question of Theory. Ed. Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman. New York: Methuen, 1985. 95-115.

Vigarello, Georges. Concepts of Cleanliness: Changing Attitudes in France Since the Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Warner, Marina. Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1976.

Wickham, Glynne. “From Tragedy to Tragi-Comedy: King Lear as Prologue.” Shakespeare Survey 26 (1973): 33-48.

Willis, Deborah. “Shakespeare's Tempest and the Discourse of Colonialism.” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 29 (1989): 277-89.

Woodbridge, Linda. Women and the English Renaissance: Literature and the Nature of Womankind, 1540-1620. Urbana: University of Illinois Press; Brighton: Harvester, 1984.

Jonathan Baldo (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: “The Politics of Aloofness in Macbeth,” in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 26, No. 3, Autumn, 1996, pp. 531-60.

[In the following essay, Baldo contrasts the styles of rule of Queen Elizabeth and King James and studies the way in which James's aloofness is reflected in Macbeth. Baldo explains that whereas Shakespeare's Elizabethan plays reflect Elizabeth's theatricality and interrupted succession, Macbeth is a reflection of James's aloof style of rule and of his emphasis on lineal succession.]

There is the same method through all the world in general. All things come to their height by degrees; there they stay the least of time; then they decline as they rose.

—Owen Feltham, Resolves, XLIX

The King our Soveraigne is lawfully and lineally descended … and that by so long a continued line of lawfull descent, as therein he exceedeth all the Kings that the world now knoweth.

—The Lord Chancellor, 1608

Jonathan Goldberg sums up the contrasting styles of Queen Elizabeth and King James as follows: in the pageants that were an important part of both monarchs' “symbolics of power,” “Elizabeth played at being a part,” whereas “James played at being apart, separate.”1 Displaying “an unmovingness even as he moved through London,” James departed dramatically from the style of his predecessor, who “offered a show of love in her first display before the people in her procession through London in 1558/9,” and who generally “provided a mirror of the people's hopes and wishes in her attentiveness to the pageants, in pressing the English Bible to her bosom after kissing it, in seemingly spontaneous responses to the words said to her” (pp. 29-32). By contrast with the Queen who played according to script, as it were, “James stood aloof; for him to see was enough” (p. 31). In Macbeth James's elected style of aloofness, imitating “the style of gods,” is reflected in the disquieting quietude of Malcolm and in a multitude of other forms of aloofness. “Aloofness” is an exceptionally complex trope in the play, and it appears to be the winning style of kingship.

James's aloofness is intimately tied to his doctrine of legitimism. Succeeding a childless virgin and coming from Scotland, James emphasized lineage in his speech to his first Parliament,2 a strategy, I shall argue, that produces “aloofness” in many forms. Claiming to trace his ancestry to the first king of Scotland, Fergus I of the 4th century B.C., James believed and caused others to believe that he held the throne of England by “birthright and lineal descent.” In his 1607 address to Parliament, James insisted that the “Kings descent [should be] mainteined, and the heritage of the succession and Monarchie, which hath bene a Kingdome, to which I am in descent, three hundred yeeres before CHRIST.”3 He also expressed the hope that his royal line would rule England “to the end of the world,” a wish echoed in Macbeth's glum response to the Show of Kings, “What, will the line stretch out to th' crack of doom?” (4.1.132).4

For Elizabeth it would have been impolitic to draw too much attention to lineal succession, one of the primary motifs of Macbeth, since a whiff of illegitimacy surrounded her reign from the beginning. Elizabeth cultivated a theatrical style of kingship, in which her legitimacy was continually reaffirmed not by aloofness but by her theatricality, her participation in shows of force and of love. As Goldberg, maintains, “The queen's legitimacy, the law that justifies her power, is the inheritance from Henry VIII of the show of force and the ability to display the actuality of power when the show failed to work” (p. 28). Shakespeare's Elizabethan history plays and tragedies echo her theatrical displays of power as well as the interrupted and distinctly unlineal successions characteristic of her family's history. By contrast, Macbeth shares James's trope of power, lineal succession, and the aloofness that was its natural issue. His aloofness is refracted and shown in several parts in Macbeth: those of Banquo, Macduff, the witches, and especially Malcolm. Not only does he succeed to the throne at the end of the play, but his eventual succession is mirrored by many other speeches and situations in which he appears in a general way sovereign over the successive. A mastery over succession from a position separate and apart from it takes many forms: to name just a few, Malcolm's embodiment of a stable, universal paradigm of kingship; the witches' foreknowledge of events; the symbolic exemption of Macduff, the man not born of woman, from biological succession; and in its most explicitly political form, Banquo's founding of a line of kings to which he does not properly belong. Malcolm's mastery over seriality of various kinds, analogous to that of his playwright as well as of the weird sisters, Banquo, and Macduff, sets him apart from Macbeth, who is a prisoner of interminable successions that have no exterior, no end, and therefore no meaning.5 A transcendence of sequential articulation is an essential part of the formula for political success in this play. Because it is independent of successions of various kinds, Malcolm's success seems infinitely repeatable, in a succession that stretches to infinity in the Show of Kings: seems, because linear, sequential order is challenged by the stuttering and cyclical progress of speech, action, and, in one of the play's visions of it, history itself.6

Although the line was James's favored image for the history of his house and of the countries he governed, it was not the dominant way of conceiving history in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. Partly as an inheritance from classical historians, cyclical conceptions of history predominated in the Tudor and early Stuart eras.7 The understanding of history as either a single cycle or a series of repeatable cycles received some competition from a degenerative model of history as a continuous and irreversible decline, a view that also had ample classical precedents. A third conception, according to which history marked a steady progress or upward movement, began to emerge later in the seventeenth century.8

The cyclical model of history, the dominant one for Renaissance England, was subject to a variety of interpretations. Thus, for Raleigh the cyclical pattern of rise and fall evident in all the great kingdoms was providentially ordained, the doleful evidence of “GODS judgments upon the greater and greatest.”9 For others, like Hakewill and Browne, the cyclical order of history was to be celebrated as evidence of the perfection of God, commonly described as a circle whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere.10 A cyclical view of history was sometimes put forth to attack the competing idea of history as inevitable and universal decay. In short, in cyclical accounts of history the accent could fall on the inevitability of either degeneration or regeneration.

In spite of this inherent flexibility in the view of history as a cycle(s), such a view was potentially threatening to a monarch who wished his line to rule in England “to the end of the world.” It is telling that during the Interregnum, the republican James Harrington alluded to the cyclical view of history to explain the demise of the Stuart dynasty: “the dissolution of the late Monarchy was as natural as the death of a man.11 In addition, the history of Scotland, including the reigns of both Macbeth and Malcolm, seemed particularly well-suited to a cyclical interpretation, replete as it was with the pattern of coup and countercoup, seeming evidence of Fortune's wheel at work.12 As Sir Christopher Piggot, an English member of Parliament, said in 1605, the Scots “have not suffered above two kings to die in their beds, these two hundred years.”13 The Scottish historiographical tradition was intensely disliked by James for its record of an elective element in the Scottish monarchy as well as its frequent advancement of the idea of limited monarchy, as David Norbrook has recently detailed.14 For those in Shakespeare's audience who knew that Malcolm turned tyrant and was subsequently deposed, following a familiar pattern in the history of the Scottish monarchy, the image of future Scottish and English history as an unbroken, peaceful, and infinite line of descent must have seemed a skewed prophecy indeed. To those spectators, the shape of history (including Stuart history) might have been better approximated not by the rigorously sequential Jacobean line,15 but by the grotesque antic rounds of the witches, like the one that follows on the heels of the Show, or the circularity of their order of speech. In addition, as a force for producing doubling and repetition, cyclicism in Macbeth becomes linked with things disruptive of political order: equivocation, duplicity, opposition, conflict, and the repeated, cyclical rise and fall of monarchs and dynasties. The Show of Kings, with its incorporation of that important instrument of doubling, the mirror, appears to subdue the potentially subversive sense of history as a series of repetitions and cyclical returns by incorporating them with the dominant figure of the line. What could easily be construed as an image of political instability and deterioration, cyclical form, is, in the Show of Kings, reinterpreted as a sign of political stability and thereby made to serve the interests of the absolute state wishing to perpetuate itself to the end of the world.

But the Show of Kings is not the play's last word on future Scottish and English history. It is succeeded by two ironizing commentaries, one visual and one verbal, both of which begin to let the image of the circle slip from the control of a lineal and successive order: the grotesquely mannered antic round of the witches following the Show, and Macbeth's “Tomorrow” speech, whose power as a critical gloss on the Show of Kings has been inadequately appreciated. Both revive the spectre of a predominantly cyclical and repetitive view of history, and prophesy that Malcolm's success, like the success of the Stuart dynasty as a whole, may be brief as a candle16: further, that the Jacobean formula for how to succeed in kingship—aloofness—is as replete with equivocation as anything in the play.


Malcolm's Jacobean aloofness has been readily apparent to readers and audiences alike, but certain rhetorical forms of aloofness are more distant, as it were, harder to tease out into the open. After being hailed King of Scotland, Malcolm proclaims,

We shall not spend a large expense of time,
Before we reckon with your several loves,
And make us even with you. My Thanes and kinsmen,
Henceforth be Earls; the first that ever Scotland
In such an honour nam'd. What's more to do,
Which would be planted newly with the time,—
As calling home our exil'd friends abroad,
That fled the snares of watchful tyranny;
Producing forth the cruel ministers
Of this dead butcher, and his fiend-like Queen,
Who, as 'tis thought, by self and violent hands
Took off her life;—this, and what needful else
That calls upon us, by the grace of Grace,
We will perform in measure, time, and place,
So thanks to all at once, and to each one,
Whom we invite to see us crown'd at Scone.


By the measure of Macbeth and other Shakespearean protagonists, it is certainly an understated, untheatrical first performance for this new monarch. The self-consciously epoch-making speech declares the first earls of Scotland, but its real mastery lies elsewhere. It establishes control over the domain that eludes Macbeth: the various successions of moments, events, stages of a life, and stages of a discourse. The speech begins with present business: the establishment of earls,17 what J. L. Austin would term a performative utterance which allows not so much as a gap between intention and action, or in other words the condition which a desperate Macbeth aims for when he says, “And even now, / To crown my thoughts with acts, be it thought and done” (4.1.148-49), of his intent to surprise Macduff's castle. It then proceeds in orderly and linear fashion to two pieces of specific and imminent future business, then to unspecified and more distantly future action (“And what needful else …”).

This orderly movement through three broad segments of time, propped up by the organicist metaphor “Which would be planted newly with the time,” opposes the spirit of Macbeth's speech by which he rejects all sense of the sequential and the consequential. In spite of his rejection of (con)sequence Macbeth makes a powerful bid for consequentiality, and threatens to make Malcolm's apparent command of sequence and consequence seem a squeaky postscript rather than a culmination.

She should have died hereafter:
There would have been a time for such a word.—
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow; a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.


Macbeth begins by noting an incongruity within the succession of events: something is out of sequence, namely the news of his wife's death.18 Furthermore, rather than conveying an orderly succession of three dimensions of time, Macbeth describes the collapse of three temporal dimensions into an idiot's stammer of one, repeated three times: “To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow.” His speech may actually reverse the natural sequence of yesterday, today, and tomorrow, if one allows that “day to day” may serve as an appropriately elusive reference to the most elusive dimension of time (“to day,” the present), separating those “to-morrows” from the last dimension of time to be mentioned, “all our yesterdays.” The speech features both a regressive, inverted sequence (“To-morrow … to day … yesterdays”), as well as a sequence collapsed into repetition.19 In two ways, therefore, Macbeth's speech subverts a linear order and succession of the kind captured in Malcolm's closing lines. Having lost all sense of the sequential, Macbeth has severed all ties with the consequential: all has become a stuttering tale told by an idiot. Macbeth's tacit wish for an identity of present and future, implied by his apparent need to act out every imagining that visits his mind, is ironically consummated in “To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow.”20

In Malcolm's lines—“So thanks to all at once, and to each one, / Whom we invite to see us crown'd at Scone”—the highly repetitive thanking of “each one” of his loyal supporters in succession doesn't suggest an idiot's stammering. The fluid movement between simultaneity, “all at once,” and succession, “to each one,” suggests a mastery of the sequential, easily convertible to a nonsequential form. The difference between expressing thanks simultaneously, and thanking in succession—but also repetitively—suggests something like a reconciliation between sequence and repetition, not the collapse of sequence into sameness and repetition as in “To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow.” Such a reconciliation of sequence and repetition might also be signalled by the sudden intrusion of rhyme at the end of Malcolm's speech, which concludes with two couplets (rare in this play, except of course in the weird sisters' speeches). As if to cast a charm or spell to try to prevent the potentially demoralizing, not to mention lethal, effects of doubling and repetition by absorbing repetition into a sequence, the last four rhyming lines of Malcolm's concluding speech are a seal on the bond between sequence and repetition. Even the oddly repetitive phrase “by the grace of Grace” may signal such a truce, rather than echoing the return of the disturbing stammer of Macbeth's recent speech, where all sense of sequence disappears.

Precisely such a truce between repetition and sequence is implicit in the Show of Kings in Act 4, scene 1, presented as a rigorous line of descent from Banquo to the present King James. In that show Macbeth remarks on the likeness of the various kings to Banquo and to each other: “Thou other gold-bound brow, is like the first:—/ A third is like the former” (4.1.114-15). The last member of the line holds a glass or mirror displaying the line of Stuarts stretching infinitely into the future, in a reflection that presumably suggests both the doubling associated with mirrors and the rigorous sequentiality of the line Macbeth sees in the glass. If repetition were not so tamed or subdued by sequence, we might be tempted to read that Show in the spirit of Macbeth's later speech: as a demonstration of history as demoralizing and tedious repetition: “a Stuart, and a Stuart, and a Stuart.” The marriage of sequence and repetition that takes place at microscopic levels in Malcolm's closing speech is therefore an issue of very considerable political importance, and is a reenactment of sorts of a similar marriage in the Show of Kings.

This may seem an overly theorized reading of a speech that seems designed not to draw any close scrutiny at all. But Malcolm is presented, or presents himself, over and over again as the embodiment of a stable, archetypal pattern independent of all sequential articulation, and therefore in command of all forms of succession. In other words, something like the conjunction of “all at once” and “to each one” happens repeatedly whenever Malcolm is onstage. Take Malcolm's speech to Macduff, after he has tested the other's loyalty with a blackened self-portrait and decided to reveal his true character to him. Here it is the sequence of mental activities that lead up to, and finally issue in, action, over which Malcolm seems absolute sovereign: “What I believe, I'll wail; / What know, believe; and what I can redress, / As I shall find the time to friend, I will” (4.3.8-10). Malcolm presents the transition from knowledge to action in four successive stages: knowledge, belief, utterance, action. That he doesn't present the four stages successively, or in proper sequence, is itself telling. Rather, he begins with the two terms in the middle of the series—belief/utterance—then proceeds, architecturally, first to the anterior term (“What know, believe”), then to the consequent one (“and what I can redress”). The overall impression is of a stable paradigm, more spatial than sequential, to govern all vicissitudes of motive and action.

Malcolm's belief in a profound orderliness not only to the legitimate succession of kings but also to the mind's operations and the mind's governance of action find their foil in Macbeth, who in an aside following news of Macduff's flight to England, observes,

Time, thou anticipat'st my dread exploits:
The flighty purpose never is o'ertook,
Unless the deed go with it. From this moment,
The very firstlings of my heart shall be
The firstlings of my hand. And even now,
To crown my thoughts with acts, be it thought and done:
The castle of Macduff I will surprise;
Seize upon Fife; give to th'edge o'th'sword
His wife, his babies, and all unfortunate souls
That trace him in his line. No boasting like a fool;
This deed I'll do, before my purpose cool:


Macbeth both describes and enacts an annihilation of succession at three distinct levels: the destruction of Macduff's genealogical line; the collapse of the line of successive stages that, according to Malcolm's speech, all responsible action must take; and the purported revocation of temporal succession, of the difference between present intention and future act. The vow to make thought and action as nearly simultaneous as they can be—“even now, / … be it thought and done”—is a vow to cancel succession at the level of actions and events, echoing his desire to put an end to all future political successions.

Presenting an inverted image of himself as a means of testing his protector Macduff, he ventures, “The king-becoming graces, / As Justice, Verity, Temp'rance, Stableness, / Bounty, Perseverance, Mercy, Lowliness, / Devotion, Patience, Courage, Fortitude, / I have no relish of them” (4.3.91-95). Malcolm's self-presentation suggests not only that the kingly virtues peacefully coexist, but also that they exist in an order of simultaneity, not sequentiality. Macbeth suggests it is otherwise with a subject, in his protestation to Macduff justifying his murder of the chamberlains: “Who can be wise, amaz'd, temperate and furious, / Loyal and neutral, in a moment?” (2.3.106-07). The character of the subject can be adequately represented only in successive stages.21 Together the two speeches of Malcolm and Macbeth suggest that the character of the subject in Macbeth, unlike the character of the king, is bound to succession rather than master of it.

It is the sense of being shackled to a rigorous succession of consequences, of causes and effects, that galls Macbeth before he murders Duncan. In terms of the play's Jacobean line, Macbeth proves his unfitness for kingship by wishing to annul lineal succession, that most powerful agent of political legitimation for a hereditary monarchy:

If it were done, when 'tis done, then 'twere well
It were done quickly: if th'assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease success; that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all—here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We'd jump the life to come. But in these cases
We still have judgement here, that we but teach
Bloody instructions, which being taught, return
To plague th'inventor. This even-handed justice
Commends th'ingredience of our poison'd chalice
To our own lips.


The unsuccessiveness of Macbeth's syntax in these lines, their tortuousness and their uncertain division of sentences or units of grammatical sense,22 obviously reflect his confusion before the murder. They also signal the unlineal succession of the crown once he wrenches it from Duncan's line. Macbeth's speech seems an assault on a more well-ordered syntax that would mirror a legitimate patrilineal line of succession to the throne. Furthermore, they may reflect Macbeth's impossible wish for a halt to all future consequences (the meaning of ll. 2-5). In other words, the unsuccessiveness of Macbeth's syntax is both a reflection of the crime he is actually about to commit and a rhetorical reflection of the conditions he would ideally have apply to his murder, a halting of the inevitable progress of causes and effects.23

Before murdering Duncan, Macbeth fantasizes about an existence outside of succession, but it is Macbeth's enemies Malcolm, Banquo, and Macduff, the three human apparitions that haunt him, who represent such a seemingly impossible condition. The man not born of woman, untimely ripped from his mother's womb, Macduff is symbolically lifted outside of genealogical succession by his birth. Although his strange apparent indifference to the safety of his wife and son disturbs many viewers and readers, it reinforces his status as a being outside of succession. Macduff's counterpart in the political sphere is Banquo, who during the Show of Kings in Act 4, scene 1 appears at the end of the succession of eight kings all resembling Banquo. He is not properly a part of that succession of kings—he is never King of Scotland himself, and he appears at the end rather than the beginning of the procession of kings—although he is the origin of the line. Like King James in his pageants, he both is and is not a part of the procession or show.24 Having an existence on its margins, like a playwright, and commanding or directing the procession from those margins, James's ancestor Banquo is therefore also the prototype of Malcolm, who is repeatedly represented as being independent of sequential articulation as well as being sovereign over all forms of the successive or sequential, including the successions of action and discourse.


Like Malcolm, the witches seem masterful at making the transition between orders of succession and of simultaneity. This is apparent not only in their ability to project a sequence of events from what appears to be a stationary position beyond succession, but also in the order of their speech. On the day of Macbeth's “success” (1.5.2) the witches speak in succession and of succession. They speak in a prescribed order—1. Witch, 2. Witch, 3. Witch—that is at once linear and circular, in which a repeated seriality periodically gives way to the simultaneity of a refrain.

Just as they announce the play's themes of success and succession in the order of their speech, so do most of their exchanges raise issues of succession at every opportunity. On the one hand, they seem to possess foreknowledge of the successive stages of Macbeth's career, the stages of his undoing, or the succession of Scottish kings. On the other hand, much of what they have to say seems designed to tease us out of succession. Their first refrain—the first time they do not speak in succession—articulates a coincidence of opposites that precludes narrative progress or development: “Fair is foul, and foul is fair: / Hover through the fog and filthy air” (1.1.11-12).25 Declaring the unsuccess of our attempts to think Macbeth successively, the line suggests that attempts to think the plot of Macbeth, or any plot for that matter, foul or fair, tragic or comic, in terms of narrative succession is doomed to failure. The equivocating language of the play in general inhibits its own successiveness. The plot and language of Macbeth are therefore at odds with one another, if we accept that it is the most relentlessly successive of all Shakespeare's tragedies; the one most directly concerned with legitimizing political succession; and also the most riddling of all the tragedies. Riddles pose all sorts of challenges to the mind habituated to sequential forms of order.

In Macbeth as in Oedipus Rex,26 another play with an unusually rigorous and sequential plot structure, the riddles of the play are riddles about succession: in Oedipus' case the three stages of a life; in Macbeth's, the three stages of his career. In both plays ternary patterns are linked to questions of sequence and of political succession.27 The riddle of the sphinx lays out three stages that Oedipus makes simultaneous, through both his marriage to Jocasta and his playing several roles simultaneously, in chordal fashion, as when he acts the powerful king, helpless child, and decrepit man simultaneously in the final scene of the play. The crossroad at which the murder takes place is a visible manifestation of Oedipus' fate. It spatializes the number three, which appeared to be associated with succession in the Sphinx's riddle, but is now subdued to the simultaneous, captured within a spatial, nontemporal image—the crossroads—which is also the scene of a crime against temporality, leading to a further one against biological succession, in which the successive stages of a life are collapsed into an intolerable simultaneity.

In both plays a riddle issues in political success: Oedipus succeeds to the throne of Thebes (a succession leading directly to violations against the naturally successive stages of a life represented in the sphinx's riddle); Macbeth (more passively, to be sure, since unlike Oedipus he is never called upon to solve any riddle on pain of death) succeeds, in rapid succession, to the titles Thane of Glamis, Thane of Cawdor, King of Scotland. Both plays also yoke political succession to the question of the proper succession of thought and action. Kreon's line, “We need to know before we act,” suggests that Oedipus has violated natural orders of succession in other senses than the biological one. Like Macbeth, the rash Oedipus customarily tries to make thought as nearly simultaneous with action as he can, or else to invert the more natural sequence of thought leading to action; the patient Kreon represents a more natural succession of action from thought. For both Macbeth and Oedipus, once a course of action has been conceived (or proposed by someone else) it is already in progress or even accomplished. Macbeth also shares with the earlier play the riddle of one man being, in succession and perhaps also simultaneously, many men. Macbeth asks, “Who can be wise, amaz'd, temperate and furious, / Loyal and neutral, in a moment?” (2.3.106-07). And Oedipus says with confidence regarding the rumor that a band of men murdered King Laios, “One man is not the same as many men.” But of course the clarity of that distinction is challenged by the whole of the play, as well as by the sphinx's riddle, both of which suggest that “man” can be understood only in terms of the multiple, dispersed, fragmented, sequential, or syntagmatic.

Although the riddles about succession in both Oedipus the King and Macbeth issue in success for their protagonists, the very nature of riddles may be inimical to various kinds of sequential order. The answer to a riddle is usually achieved not by cautious and deliberate sequential reasoning but by sudden illumination. Johann Huizinga writes, “The answer to an enigmatic question is not found by reflection or logical reasoning. It comes quite literally as a sudden solution—a loosening of the tie by which the questioner holds you bound.”28 And just as Oedipus inverts the ordinary stages of a human life (like his playwright, who tells his story backward), so do riddles invert the ordinary sequence of question and answer, as well as configurations of power that ordinarily hold between questioner and answerer.29 Both the riddle about the successive stages of a life in Oedipus and the riddle about the successive stages of Macbeth's career hold out the promise of success(ion) in a form that in itself subverts succession. In both plays, the riddles' promises about succession are secretly retracted by the unsuccessiveness of riddles.

The witches do not finally come across as enemies to various kinds of successive order: they are as much the impartial overseers of succession, whether of events, causes and effects, or kings. They are the supernatural equivalents of Malcolm, Banquo, and Macduff, all of whom are stationed at once inside and outside various serial orders. The witches have a foreknowledge of the successive from a position that appears to be beyond succession. So does Malcolm oversee various orders of succession, like the sequence leading from knowledge to action, from a position outside them. The functional equivalence of Malcolm and the Witches is underscored by the last few lines of the play, which in their minutest details recall the opening. Malcolm's closing lines implicitly answer the question posed in the very first line of the play, “When shall we … meet again?” (Answer: At Scone, at my coronation.) The trebled syntactical pattern of “in measure, time, and place,” like many other such patterns in the play (including “To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow”), seems to faintly echo the inaugural instance of such trebling, “In thunder, lightning, or in rain?” The two closing couplets themselves echo the Witches' speaking in couplets. And finally, the penultimate line of the play, “So thanks to all at once, and to each one,” mimes the witches' speaking alternately “all at once,” in refrain, and “each one,” in (and usually of) succession. This echo of the opening lines by the closing is more than an aesthetic device to bring the play “full circle”: it casts the order of the play as a whole in a league with the witches,30 who favor cyclical patterns in both speech and movement (their dances or “rounds”). These cyclical patterns may finally challenge the stability of the Jacobean “line.”

Macbeth wishes for Malcolm's easy commerce between stations inside and outside of succession when he dreams of an action without futurity and consequence: “if th'assassination / Could trammel up the consequence, and catch / With his surcease success; that but this blow / Might be the be-all and the end-all” (1.7.2-5). After the matter of succession is decided in his favor, the childless Macbeth becomes the inveterate enemy of succession, wishing to murder all tomorrows, all consequences, all successions to the throne, all futurity. With Macbeth's accession some forms of succession are revoked. Not only does the future come to seem a drearily repetitive series of tomorrows, but the ordinary succession of sleep and waking is disturbed, as it was in the witch's tale of the harassed sea captain.

Methought, I heard a voice cry, ‘Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murther Sleep,’—the innocent Sleep;
Sleep, that knits up the ravell'd sleave of care,
The death of each day's life, sore labour's bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great Nature's second course,
Chief nourisher in life's feast;—
Lady M.
What do you mean?
Still it cried, ‘Sleep no more!’ to all the house:
‘Glamis hath murther'd Sleep, and therefore Cawdor
Shall sleep no more, Macbeth shall sleep no more!’


The revocation of the natural sequence of waking and sleep (and of night and day both in Rosse's description in 2.4, and Lady Macbeth's line, 3.4.126) is reflected in a number of repetitive devices in this speech: the constant chiming of the word “sleep” and the phrase “sleep no more,” the extraordinary number of appositives, the linear-cyclical repetition-with-variation of Macbeth's name (Macbeth-Glamis-Cawdor-Macbeth), not to mention the haunting repetitions of sounds. A sequential order of thought is also denied Lady Macbeth, whose actions and speech become fiercely repetitive following her descent into madness: her line “To bed,” repeated two, then three, times (5.1.62-65), and her periodic washing of hands. Lady Macbeth describes her husband's interruption of the banquet (owing to Banquo's ghost) in terms that suggest a broken order of succession: “You have displac'd the mirth, broke the good meeting / With most admir'd disorder” (3.4.108-09). Whereas Malcolm will become the scene of a reconciliation of sequence and repetition, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are the occasion of their polarization. Strenuously resisting sequentiality in so many forms, they appropriately descend into what the surface of the play implies may be the only alternative order, twin nightmares of pure repetition.


And we fairies, that do run
          By the triple Hecate's team
From the presence of the sun,
          Following darkness like a dream

—Puck, MND (5.1.385-88)

As a number of critics have noted, ternary and binary patterns are everywhere in Macbeth.31 The numbers three and two would have already come to Shakespeare heavily encoded.32 The number three would have had direct associations with temporal sequence: Luisa Guj has argued for the relevance to Macbeth of the iconographic representation of time “in its tripartite sequence of past, present, and future” as a “frightful tricephalous monster revived from antiquity by Renaissance iconographers” (p. 76). Shakespeare greatly extended any association of ternary patterns with sequence, and employed binary patterns in the play to mark the stalling or blocking of sequential elaboration, whether of action (through doubling or repetition) or of meaning (in the form of “equivocation”). The play's elaborate interweaving of ternary and binary patterns seems a powerful ideological issue, as well as a formal or structural one. The “success” of the whole Stuart dynasty simultaneously recollected and prophesied in the witches' Show of Kings seems predicated on an alliance between the forms of sequence and repetition, or in terms of the Show, the line and the mirror: in numerical terms, two and three. By contrast with this Jacobean marriage of sequence and repetition, the ternary and binary, Macbeth counts two and three as rivals—until his “tomorrow” speech, in which the very difference between sequence and repetition, trebling and doubling collapses. The ultimate collapse of trebling into doubling is (pardon me) tr/oubling. Troubling especially for the Jacobean line on history, which is indirectly challenged by Macbeth's speech.

Since we tend to conceptualize succession—for instance, past, present, and future; yesterday, today, and tomorrow; youth, maturity, and age—in terms of threes, not twos, it should not be surprising that Macbeth's career should be expressed in terms of various triads. In his political career he passes through three successive stages on the way to the Scottish throne.33 In his second career, as murderer, he commits three crimes, the murder of Duncan, the murder of Banquo, and the murder of Macduff's wife and son. Even the progressive interiorization of Macbeth's battles seems describable as a triad: according to M. J. B. Allen, “three stages of Macbeth's future career where combat with a manifest enemy is succeeded by the melee and carnage of the fight with the Norwegians, which is in turn succeeded by the hand-to-hand encounter with a warrior who is a psychological projection.” Like Macbeth's career, the play also passes through stages of threes, both at its opening and its close: “A triptych of battle episodes” constituting the finale of the play, and a “triptych of decriptions” of the battle at the beginning, “two by the Sergeant and one by Rosse.”34 The First and Second of the Three Apparitions address Macbeth in the trebled form of “Macbeth! Macbeth! Macbeth!” (4.1.71, 77), as if in reference to the three political roles that have devolved to him in the course of the play. The triple address also suggests Hecate, the triune goddess. Macbeth, an adventurer in darkness, has become her male and human equivalent, Hecate's triune bridegroom. Responding to the Second Apparition, Macbeth provides a highly visual or apparitional testament to the distinction between two and three, the human/contestational and the supernatural/sequential: “Had I three ears, I'd hear thee” (4.1.78).

Beneath the supernatural level which has invaded and taken over Macbeth's sphere, implanting its series of sequential threes, we witness human beings struggling with their binary patterns suggestive of contestation and choice. Not only in the Second Witch's description, “When the battle's lost and won,” but throughout the description of the battles at the beginning of the play there recur certain motifs of doubling. Duncan's enemies seem to be grouped in doublets: manifest (Sweno) and secret (Macdonwald), foreign and domestic. Fraternal doubling occurs not only between the two actual brothers in the play, Malcolm and Donalbain, but also between the new Thane of Cawdor and the old Thane of Cawdor, the two generals Macbeth and Banquo, and the two initial enemies of the realm, Sweno of Norway and the rebel Macdonwald (who like Banquo's murderers extend their number to three, to include the Thane of Cawdor, a doubled figure within the series, since it embraces both the old and new Thane). Speaking of the conflict between the rebel Macdonwald and the King's armies, the bloody sergeant reports of Banquo and Macbeth's twin counterassaults, “they were / As cannons overcharg'd with double cracks; / So they / Doubly redoubled strokes upon the foe” (1.2.36-38).

Doubling takes place not only between characters but also within characters called upon to double parts, to play two roles to one another, with the result that characters in Macbeth tend to become living equivocations. So Macbeth speaks of Duncan, “He's here in double trust” (1.7.12)—as his monarch and as his guest. In the bloody Sergeant's description of Macbeth's combat, Macbeth's and Macdonwald's armies are painted as two exhausted swimmers clinging to one another, itself a double gesture of antagonism and support: “Doubtful it stood; / As two spent swimmers, that do cling together / And choke their art” (1.2.7-9). The equipoise suggested by this image of Macbeth and Macdonwald indicates the predominant association of doubled patterns in the play. Whereas ternary patterns are kinetic and almost always associated with questions of succession, binary configurations tend to be static. The meaning of binary configurations is perhaps best encapsulated in Lady Macbeth's doubled exclamation, “Hold, hold!” (1.5.54). All predominantly binary configurations may be said to put the play and its interpreter into a holding pattern, like Macbeth and Macdonwald locked in an embrace/grip of life/death.

The speeches of the three witches often dance in elaborate patterns around the number three, three to the second power, and three to the second power doubled. To cite just a few of many instances: [All.] “Thrice to thine, and thrice to mine, / And thrice again, to make up nine” (1.3.35-36); [1 Witch.] “Weary sev'n nights nine times nine” (1.3.22); and [1 Witch.] “Thrice the brinded cat hath mew'd.” [2 Witch.] “Thrice, and once the hedge-pig whin'd” (4.1.1-2). Hecate, Goddess of the Witches, was also called Trivia (tri- + via, three ways or roads), or Diana of the Crossways, presiding as she did over all places where three roads meet. Trivia is a triune goddess, called Luna as goddess of the moon, Diana as goddess of the earth, and Persephone or Hecate as goddess of the underworld, and it is possible that she is a less trivial character than is ordinarily assumed by critics, who have widely attributed her to Middleton rather than Shakespeare.35

Establishing the relation of the Witches and their goddess with the number three early on, the play opens with an exchange whose very syntactical patterns suggest an association of the supernatural with the ternary, the human with the binary and (inevitably) oppositional or contestational:

1 Witch.
When shall we three meet again?
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
2 Witch.
When the hurlyburly's done,
When the battle's lost and won.
3 Witch.
That will be ere the set of sun.


The trebled witches are reflected in the trebled alternatives, thunder, lightning, or rain. There are numerous other instances of trebled syntactic patterns, as in “And mounch'd, and mounch'd, and mounch'd” (1.3.5); “I'll do, I'll do, and I'll do” (1.3.10); the Second Apparition's urging Macbeth to “Be bloody, bold, and resolute” (4.1.79); Macbeth's “secret, black, and midnight hags” (4.1.48); Malcolm's “in measure, time, and place”; and that most troubled form of trebling in the play, “To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow.”

The speeches of the Second and Third Witches also set a pattern that will recur in many forms in the play: of two becoming three, and of a temporary stationing or suspension (associated with patterns of two) yielding to sequence (associated with three). The Second Witch's couplet is suffused with doublets of various kinds: “hurlyburly”; the alternatives that are apparently meaningless to the witches, “lost and won,” because they inhabit a sphere above alternatives, choice, suspense, and conflict, all aspects of the binary (and human); the repetition of “When … When”; and the rhymed couplet as a whole that sounds so much like a martial drumbeat. The Third Witch then stretches that pattern of two enunciated by the Second, making the couplet a tercet. It is telling that the third line of the tercet, converting two into three, returns us from the stationary pattern of “lost and won” to a sense of the serial or successive by referring to a moment in a recognizable sequence: “That will be ere the set of sun.”

The Porter Scene, where a sense of the supernatural yields to a sense of return to the familiarly human (as in the first two scenes of the play, where a similar trend from trebling to doubling obtains), provides a mirror image of the pattern of the opening speeches by the Second and Third Witches. Here the pattern of threes and twos is reversed, configurations of three now yielding to two. “Knock, knock, knock” alternates with “Knock, knock,” each series being voiced twice (2.3.1-21). Three imagined entrants at hell's gate (a farmer, a jesuit equivocator, and a tailor) reduce to the two who actually enter (Lennox and Macduff). It is three o'clock, as signalled by the “second cock.” The three things that drink provokes yields to two, the number associated with polarized alternatives and equivocation. The Porter is explaining to Macduff why he does “lie so late,” itself an equivocation or doubling of meaning.

What three things does drink especially provoke?
Marry, sir, nose-painting, sleep, and urine. Lechery, sir, it provokes,
and unprovokes: it provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance.
Therefore much drink may be said to be an equivocator with lechery:
it makes him, and it mars him; it sets him on, and it takes him off; it persuades
him, and disheartens him; makes him stand to, and not stand to—in conclusion,
equivocates him in a sleep, and giving him the lie, leaves him.


In the course of this exchange the triadic pattern yields to a pattern of two, to binary syntactical patterns explicitly connected to equivocation or double entendre. The passage from threes to twos is accompanied by a stalling effect, the speaker's fixation on a single subject. He “holds” the conversation through a dilated series of binary pairs, linked by copulas. The to-and-fro motion of these pairs is not unlike that of both of the speech's principal subjects, copulation and equivocation. This “holding” of sequential elaboration is consistent with other associations in the play of the binary with stationing, the interruption of sequences.36

Doubled syntactical patterns are often used to suggest hesitation or stalling before equivocation. In response to the news of a moving grove, Macbeth says, “I pull in resolution, and begin / To doubt th'equivocation of the fiend / That lies like truth” (5.6.42-44). Double-speak leads to a reining-in of resolution, and consequently to the interruption of success(ion). Similarly, in response to Lady Macduff's equivocating line, “Fathered he is, and yet he's fatherless” (4.2.27), Ross must break himself free from the staying power of that riddling line, its power to make him weep and the spell of interruption it, like so many of the play's acts of equivocation, seems to cast: “I am so much a fool, should I stay longer / It would be my disgrace, and your discomfort. / I take my leave at once” (4.2.28-30). Sequence yields to a staying of sorts when Duncan first hears news of Macbeth's “success” in battle: “The King hath happily received, Macbeth, / The news of thy success; and when he reads / Thy personal venture in the rebels' fight, / His wonders and his praises do contend / Which should be thine or his” (1.3.89-93). As the Oxford editor points out, these are “thoroughly confusing lines” (p. 105): in other words, lines that cause us to share the King's mental state as we try to unpack his confusing lines about his confusion. Our minds mime the staying of Duncan's precisely at the moment of greatest success(ion). Duncan's response to Macbeth's success also prefigures the “surcease” of the moment of success Macbeth himself will try to achieve. The words “stay” and “stayed” appear in the first encounter of Macbeth and Banquo with the witches, in response to the doublets, “So all hail Macbeth, and Banquo,” and “Banquo, and Macbeth, all hail” (1.3.68-69). Macbeth commands, “Stay, you imperfect speakers,” and subsequently, “Would they had stayed” (1.3.82). Like nearly all humans in the play, creatures of the oppositional and contestational, Banquo and Macbeth are experts at “staying.” Not so the witches, who appropriately do not stay, for they are creatures of the ternary and sequential. Like Ross, who must fight his desire to “stay” and weep, the play's riddling language causes us repeatedly to stay upon an equivocating utterance even as the action of this remarkably sequential play races ahead.

The Porter's transformation of patterns of three into patterns of two reverses the pattern established in the opening lines of the play, where a doubled syntax and rhyme yield to a trebling, a transformation which is ominous. It seems to presage, for instance, the murderers, who begin as two and subsequently, for mysterious reasons, expand to three. Or Lennox's lines to Macbeth, “'Tis two or three, my Lord, that bring you word, / Macduff is fled to England” (4.1.142-43). The Witches' couplet about doubling, “Double, double, toil and trouble; / Fire burn, and cauldron bubble,” with its hendiadys “toil and trouble” and syntactical groupings of two (“fire burn,” “cauldron bubble”), is repeated exactly three times at the beginning of Act 4. The many instances of two becoming three (of which these are but a few) mirror the play's signal instance of a failure of two to become three, the humanly sterile Macbeth and Lady Macbeth's failure to produce living issue, a failure of succession at the biological, political, and imaginative levels, since they have placed themselves in the position of not being able to envision or wish for a future that is anything but a desperate clinging to the present, a resistance to any further change once they possess the crown.

Lady Macbeth's pathetically trebled injunction in her madness, “To bed, to bed, to bed” (5.1.64-65), which follows on the heels of “To bed, to bed” (5.1.62), suggests the futility of the Macbeths' wishing for success or succession of any kind. The trebled “to bed,” pathetically echoing the witch's “I'll do, I'll do, and I'll do,” both suggesting the act that might have provided a successor and at some level relieved the Macbeths from the nightmare of unrelieved repetition, is appropriately couched in the trebled syntactical pattern associated with succession throughout the play. “To bed, to bed, to bed,” with its troubled and trebled repetition and threefold use of the preposition “to,” is Lady Macbeth's shorthand version of “To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,” another series of three that fails to suggest any sense of sequence or succession, any living issue or issue to live for: in short, any “to-” or “toward-ness.”

Macbeth's “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” may represent a cancelling of the difference between three and two, sequence and repetition, which Macbeth plays off against what is a more positive embracing of two by three, of repetition by sequence, in the Show of Kings. “To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow” suggests that the difference between two and three has become arbitrary, since the vision of the future it evokes may be indifferently described as either a dreary desert of successiveness unrelieved by cyclical returns and renewal, or a pure repetitiveness unrelieved by succession or syntagmation. Among other things, it is narrative form that is denied by Macbeth's speech, as it was denied by the First Witch's tale in Act 1, scene 3. Narrative represents one kind of succession of the many that threaten Macbeth, this beneficiary of succession who becomes its enemy at the moment of his accession. Narratives in general, including the plot of Macbeth, may represent a marriage of three and two, if a narrative is understood as the distribution over a syntagm of an essentially binary pair: for example, high/low, an archetypal pair for the construction of tragedy. But Macbeth is framed by speeches—the witches' at one end and Macbeth's at the other—that challenge the very notion of narrative development, the seriality of narrative. In Macbeth's great speech, famous for its “staying power,” history itself is a shaggy dog story, and in that same speech a particular human life is so brief that it seems to lack a narrative or sequential dimension altogether. Both the individual life and the flow of history of which it is part are inimical to narration, Macbeth implies. But viewing a human life as a brief candle, necessarily unsuccessful because unsuccessive or devoid of a successive element, seems a final way of coping with a failure to succeed by one who, unlike the witches, remains prisoner of successions of various kinds. Macbeth's implication that all forms of successive order are specious appearances is a way of attempting to master the successive orders of events by erasing them, by subtracting the element of succession altogether.

Banquo's line in the Show of Kings, culminating in the present king, James I, represents a kind of successiveness that incorporates substitutive relationships usually associated in Shakespeare with binary pairs, but without collapsing the difference between doubling and trebling, repetition and sequence, as Macbeth's “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” does.37 The three weird sisters have already suggested a reconciliation of trebling and doubling, lineal sequence and repetition, of the kind realized in the Show of Kings. The three are doubled by the appearance of a second triad of witches at the beginning of Act 4, scene 1.38 Their most famous refrain about doubling is subjected to a threefold repetition. The circularity of their speech may also be counted among the signs of a welcome embrace of 2 by 3, of repetition by sequence, for it mirrors the repetitions or refrains within history, implied by the endless series of mirror reflections within the Show of Kings: a view of history, it is important to add, that has a darker reflection in Macbeth's vision of history as an idiotic stammer, a view that the play, finally, may not sufficiently differentiate from the official Jacobean version provided in the Show of Kings.

It is characteristic of Shakespearean tragedy to oppose (fraternal) doubling to (patrilineal) succession and transmission of power. The effort of Macbeth, perhaps Shakespeare's most cunning piece of propaganda, is to mediate them, though Macbeth's bewitching, creeping speech on all our yesterdays may hold the power to sever that carefully negotiated alliance.


In keeping with Macbeth's status as enemy to the successive—one who, following the murder of Duncan, wishes history to come to an end—the play often seems a stuttering series of “amens,” attempts to bring something to a close, which to Macbeth's horror turn out to be “omens,” or projections about the future and therefore about succession. Recounting to Lady Macbeth his effort to echo one of the groomsmen's “Amens” the night of Duncan's murder, Macbeth confides,

                    One cried, ‘God bless us!’ and ‘Amen,’
the other,
                    As they had seen me with these hangman's hands.
                    List'ning their fear, I could not say, ‘Amen,’
                    When they did say, ‘God bless us.’
Lady M.
Consider it not so deeply.
                    But wherefore could not I pronounce ‘Amen’?
                    I had most need of blessing, and ‘Amen’
                    Stuck in my throat.


That “Amen,” a figure of endings as well as of blessing, is never successfully uttered by Macbeth is indicative of his failure in every attempt to halt succession. There are many forms of “amen” in this play, including sleep (“Sleep no more”); the sleep that follows “life's fitful fever” (3.2.23), which seems a blessed “Amen” to the mind stretched on the rack of “restless ecstasy” (3.2.19-22); Macbeth's premature “It is concluded” following the dispatch of Banquo's murderers to their deed; Macbeth's faux-apocalyptic speech when Duncan's murder is revealed (2.3.89-94), as well as the more urgent proclamations of doomsday to the witches (4.1.50-61) and to himself:

I'gin to be aweary of the sun,
And wish th'estate o'th'world were now undone.—
Ring the alarum bell!—Blow wind! come, wrack!
At least we'll die with harness on our back.


One of the most arresting forms of “Amen” is that word of arrest, “Hold!” We might even adopt it as a watchword for Macbeth's and Lady Macbeth's opposition to succession. Although Macbeth says to his opponent in battle Macduff, “damn'd be him that first cries, ‘Hold, enough!’” (5.8.34), Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have essentially been crying “Hold, hold!” (1.5.54) to succession from the moment of Duncan's murder.39

Not only Macbeth but the play too tries to say “Amen”—and often, in the middle and later tragedies of Shakespeare, “Amen” sticks in the throat. The play Macbeth may only appear to be more successful than its namesake in dislodging “Amen.” For in spite of the apparent organic unity of the play, Macbeth's speech on all our tomorrows and yesterdays subverts the carefully contrived sense of an ending that will be delivered momentarily by Malcolm. “I could not say ‘Amen,’” one could easily imagine the plays Hamlet and King Lear uttering in unison with Macbeth. “Amen” is so elusive in Hamlet and Lear largely because, like Malcolm's fizzling finale, the concluding speeches of Horatio, Fortinbras, and Edgar fail to “trammel up” the meanings of those plays, fail to serve as hermeneutic benedictions. Hamlet is a play that looks like Macbeth's opposite in that causality, at least as it is perceived by characters, seems so loosely established.

Because the twin problems of succession and causality are worked out so differently in the two plays, the frequent apocalyptic pronouncements of their protagonists have completely different functions. Macbeth's end-stopped ways of thinking are a means of wishing an end to the endless, the successions of kings and tomorrows that will make his own success a qualified one. In Hamlet apocalyptic fantasies cannot serve as desperate attempts to apply the brakes to the train of causes and effects, for there is no rigorous sense of “cause” in any sense of the term in that play.40 Since results (desired or otherwise) in Hamlet are never achieved by a linear, dynastic succession of causes and effects, apocalyptic thinking may be an attempt to reach by desperate means an endpoint which is so elusive and inaccessible by ordinary means (that is, through orderly chains of causes and effects, actions and consequences). Hamlet's desperate attempts to imagine a terminus—for example, “I say we will have no mo marriage” (3.1.149); or “To be, or not to be” (3.1.56), aspiring to be the farthest point of thought as well as a speech about ultimate things, things that come last in a series or progression—are also a way of positing a causality that cannot be understood in the present tense. Projecting oneself beyond an imaginary terminus promises to allow one to see like the “divinity that shapes our ends” (5.2.10). Like so much else in Hamlet, apocalyptic thinking is a way of going backward, a means of retroactively reading causality into what appeared to be chance. To put things somewhat differently, end-stopped ways of thinking promise to keep Macbeth very much in the present tense and world, but ones from which succession, sequence, and consequence have been banished. For Macbeth they are a means of holding onto a tense that is always in the process of vanishing. Furthermore, in Macbeth dreams of an End are tied to “jumping”—or risking—“the life to come” (1.7.7). By contrast, apocalyptic fantasies in Hamlet are a means of imaginatively inhabiting “the life to come” in order to clarify causality and succession in the present one.

Hamlet, wearing causality like a loose robe, and Macbeth, with its stuttering series of amens, exhibit quite different anxieties about causality, anxieties that inform the reigns of the respective monarchs under which the plays were written. The shadows of Elizabeth and James are cast over the length and breadth of both plays, as the interests and anxieties of each monarch's reign concerning succession are reflected in the plays at nearly every level. Hamlet, written in the final years of the reign of the aged Virgin Queen, when English anxieties about succession were high, enacts such anxieties at nearly every level, including those of action and discourse. The more rigorously successive Macbeth, written toward the beginning of a reign and of a new dynastic succession, seems to answer to the needs of a monarch who, in a way more like Macbeth than like Banquo, would like to see both the Stuart line (or the issue of succession) and the Jacobean “line” on history established “to the end of the world.”


  1. Jonathan Goldberg, James I and the Politics of Literature (1983; rpt. Stanford, 1989), p. 31.

  2. In his opening speech to his first English Parliament, James insisted that a king who inherits the throne through lawful succession could not be dispossessed. Parliament responded by declaring him “as being lineally, justly and lawfully, next and sole Heir of the Blood Royal of this Realm.” In The Trew Law of Free Monarchies he had written that the people owe allegiance not merely to the present king but to “his lawfull heires and posterity, the lineall succession of crowns being begun among the people of God, and happily continued in diuers christian common-wealths.”

  3. Charles H. McIlwain, ed., The Political Works of James I (Cambridge, Mass., 1918), p. 300.

  4. All citations from Macbeth refer to the recent Oxford Shakespeare edition, ed. Nicholas Brooke (Oxford, 1990).

  5. Barbara Everett writes that Lady Macbeth sacrifices “to Macbeth's success his succession—their hope of children.” She usefully discusses shifts in the meaning of “success” as well, in Young Hamlet: Essays on Shakespeare's Tragedies (Oxford, 1989), pp. 96, 104.

  6. See “Shakespeare's Art of Preparation,” in Wolfgang Clemen, Shakespeare's Dramatic Art (London, 1971), pp. 1-95.

  7. See the valuable discussion by Achsah Guibbory, The Map of Time: Seventeenth-Century English Literature and Ideas of Pattern in History (Urbana, 1986). On the cyclical de casibus pattern in Tudor history writing, see F. J. Levy, Tudor Historical Thought (San Marino, Cal., 1967), pp. 15ff. On the cyclical form of most Stuart historical writing, see D. R. Woolf's recent The Idea of History in Early Stuart England (Toronto, 1990), pp. 3ff.

    Marjorie Garber has much to say about circular temporal patterns in “‘What Past is Prologue’: Temporality and Prophecy in Shakespeare's History Plays,” in Renaissance Genres: Essays on Theory, History, and Interpretation, ed. Barbara Lewalski, Harvard English Studies 14 (Cambridge, Mass., 1986), pp. 301-31. Sigurd Burckhardt discusses rings and circular form in The Merchant of Venice in Shakespearean Meanings (Princeton, 1968), pp. 210-11. Mark Rose discusses the “full circle technique” in Hamlet in his Shakespearean Design (Cambridge, Mass., 1972), pp. 58-60, 124. On the palindromic structure of Hamlet, see James R. Siemon's discussion in Shakespearean Iconoclasm (Berkeley, 1985).

  8. See the discussion in Guibbory, pp. 5ff. James's preference seems to have been “none of the above.” Scottish conservatives like James tended to emphasize “the timeless order underlying all mutation and transience.” Arthur H. Williamson, Scottish National Consciousness in the Age of James VI (Edinburgh, 1979), p. 46. (Cited in David Norbrook, “Macbeth and the Politics of Historiography,” in The Politics of Discourse: The Literature and History of Seventeenth-Century England, ed. Kevin Sharpe and Steven Zwicker [Berkeley, 1987], p. 99.) What Shakespeare does with various kinds of circular movement in Macbeth, it seems to me, is to make them appear to support the absolutist faith in timeless order, although, like everything else in the play, they equivocate, and may also (or instead) suggest something like the opposite of an order immune from mutation and transience.

  9. Sir Walter Raleigh, History of the World, sig. A2v.

  10. See Guibbory, pp. 12ff.

  11. Cited in Guibbory, p. 11.

  12. In what must have seemed a subversive treatment of the Show of Kings, Sir Henry Beerbohm Tree “turned his figures on a giant wheel where, in visual metaphor, each rose to the highest before giving way to his successor” (Marvin Rosenberg, The Masks of Macbeth [Berkeley, 1978], p. 523), apparently giving the lie to the promise of an endless lineage promised by the Show, and substituting an endless series of cycles more in the spirit of Macbeth's “Tomorrow” speech. It is entirely possible that the visual impact of the Show of Kings as it was originally staged may have been predominantly cyclical. As Nicholas Brooke notes in his recent Oxford Shakespeare edition of the play (1990), “There is no need for eight actors if they move round backstage and re-enter with different emblems (depending on the structure of the theatre)” (p. 176).

  13. Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (London, 1957-75), v. 7, pp. 428-29. Needless to say Piggot and James were not on the best of terms; in his 1607 speech to Parliament, James said of his native Scotland, “I know there are many Piggots amongst them, I meane a number of seditious and discontented particular persons, as must be in all Commonwealths” (McIlwain, p. 301).

  14. See Norbrook, p. 92. Buchanan, whose well-known history James suppressed in Scotland and forbade to the published in England, argued that hereditary kingship produced instability, and preferred an elective system of kingship. James of course made precisely the reverse argument, attributing instability to elective monarchy. Buchanan's attack on primogeniture instanced a long span of Scottish history, including the reigns of Duncan, Macbeth, and Malcolm, “as illustrating the relative merits of elective and hereditary kingship” (Norbrook, p. 88).

  15. The rigorous line of descent imagined for England and Scotland seems to me mirrored by the plot of Macbeth, in many ways seemingly the most rigorously successive or sequential of any of Shakespeare's tragedies. Seemingly, for the rigor of the play's causality is largely apparent. Reading reveals many fissures and inconsistencies in the play's sequences that viewing would not. See Brian Richardson, “‘Hours Dreadful and Things Strange’: Inversions of Chronology and Causality in Macbeth,Philological Quarterly 68 (1989), 283-94, for a discussion of “unnatural arrangements of narrative time” and “distortions of causality” in the play. See Harry Berger, Jr., “Text Against Performance in Shakespeare: The Example of Macbeth,Genre 15 (1982), 49-79, for a brilliant discussion of other ways in which the play as text functions as a critique of the play as performance. My reading as a whole is consistent with Berger's argument, insofar as the deficiencies of Malcolm's success(ion) are mostly revealed through reading, although not exclusively, given Malcolm's relatively weak theatrical presence. A performance of Macbeth might very well appear to tow the Jacobean line, while a reading of the play could seem highly subversive of it.

  16. The predominant take on the politics of Macbeth has been, until recently, that the play in many ways flatters Shakespeare's monarch and patron. See Herbert N. Paul, The Royal Play of “Macbeth” (Cambridge, Mass., 1950); and, more recently, George Walton Williams “Macbeth: King James's Play,” South Atlantic Review, vol. 47, No. 2 (May, 1982), 12-21. More recently there has begun what may very well become a trend to read the play in opposition to the Jacobean line. See, in addition to the articles by Norbrook and Berger already cited, Michael Hawkins, “History, politics, and Macbeth,” in Focus on Macbeth, ed. John Russell Brown (London, 1982), pp. 155-88; and Alan Sinfield, “Macbeth: history, ideology and intellectuals,” Critical Quarterly, vol. 28, Nos. 1-2 (spring-summer, 1986), 63-77. Sinfield notes that the dominant tendency has been to read Macbeth in a Jamesian way as “attempting to render coherent and persuasive the ideology of the Absolutist State” (p. 66). Such readings, according to Sinfield, often proceed from the mistaken assumption that “other views of State ideology were impossible for Shakespeare and his contemporaries,” a view that Sinfield contests largely with the aid of George Buchanan's writings.

  17. On ways in which the Scottish historiographical tradition was critical of Malcolm's establishing the first earls, thereby multiplying distinctions of rank where there had once been equality among the nobility, see Norbrook, pp. 78-116, especially p. 86. It is entirely possible that this climactic action of the play and inaugural act of Malcolm's realm would have been taken at least by some members of Shakespeare's audience as a sign of historical decline, not a revitalizing beginning. On Shakespeare's possible knowledge of Scottish history, see Elizabeth Nielsen, “Macbeth”: The Nemesis of the Post-Shakespearean Actor,” Shakespeare Quarterly 16 (1965), 193-99. For a skeptical response to Nielsen, see Michael Hawkins, “History, Politics, and Macbeth” in Focus on “Macbeth”, ed. John Russell Brown (London, 1981), n. 21.

  18. Alternately, ll. 17-18 may be taken to signify that position within a sequence is arbitrary. “She should have died hereafter” may be taken to mean that if not now, she would have died sometime. Whenever reported, the news of her death would have been equally meaningless, and the placement of her death within a sequence of events is completely arbitrary.

  19. Roland Barthes writes of sequence and repetition as the two principal ways of form—or structure-making. See “Introduction to the Structural Study of Narrative,” in Image-Music-Text, ed. and trans. Stephen Heath (New York, 1977), p. 124.

  20. Cf. General Siward's speech at 5.4.16ff., which opens up a space between present and future, today and tomorrow, that Macbeth strives to collapse.

  21. This is a premise, by the way, to which the later Shakespeare seems to subject his princes and sovereigns as well. The earlier Shakespeare, by contrast, tends to present tragic characters who do not need to be unfolded to us gradually. The integrity of a Romeo or a Brutus depends precisely on their resistance to change, on their remaining through a series of vicissitudes more or less exactly what they were at the beginning of the play. Macbeth is the Hamlet or Lear of this play; Malcolm, the Romeo or Brutus. Although Macbeth's lines are designed to cover up guilt and explain away the hasty dispatch of the dead king's chamberlains, they also express Macbeth's fear, which he expresses so forcefully just before the murder of Duncan, of imprisonment within an endless seriality of events and consequences, without exterior or end. The speech is similar in this respect to Macbeth's speech a few lines earlier, again designed to mask his guilt but also serving as omen of its speaker's imminent psychological state: “Had I but died an hour before this chance, / I had lived a blessèd time; for from this instant / There's nothing serious in mortality—/ All is but toys: renown and grace is dead, / The wine of life is drawn, and the mere lees / Is left this vault to brag of” (2.3.93-98).

  22. Marjorie Garber discusses the syntax of 1.7.1-4 in Coming of Age in Shakespeare (London, 1981), p. 105. Nicholas Brooke has an interesting gloss on the syntax of ll. 5-7 in his recent Oxford Shakespeare edition of the play.

  23. His lines about justice provide a further rationale for his tortuous syntax. They suggest that justice is habitually antimetabolic or chiasmic, reversing the order of cause and effect, perpetrator and crime, eventually presenting the agent's poison to his own lips. The working of Justice is already prefigured in Macbeth's convoluted syntax as well as the witches' “Fair is foul, and foul is fair.”

  24. Text and stage direction are in conflict as to Banquo's position in the procession, whether first or last. See the discussion in Marvin Rosenberg, The Masks of Macbeth (Berkeley, 1978), p. 520.

  25. Even the succession of the second line from the first is problematic. Is “hover” a command or a proposal (in either instance, with an anterior subject understood), or a predicate whose subject is to be found somewhere in the preceding line?

    As the antimetabolic line of the witches' riddling refrain, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair”—chiasmal, and spoken simultaneously by all three witches—suggests a breakdown of discursive succession at two distinct levels, the order of the speech and the order of the speakers, so does the 1st Witch tell a tale of impeded succession, just prior to their meeting on the heath with Macbeth and Banquo to speak of their imminent and future successes and successions. It is the closest the witches ever come to a “full-blown,” sequential narrative. Because a sailor's wife has refused to share her chestnuts, the 1st Witch harasses her sailor-husband. The witch apparently doesn't hold the power of life and death over the sea captain, so the story cannot reach any decisive conclusion: “Though his bark cannot be lost, / Yet it shall be tempest-tost” (1.3.25-26). The story is devoid of climax, although in a literal sense it is nearly all “climax.” All she can think to do is “to do,” that is, to repetitively drain the sailor sexually: “I'll drain him dry as hay” (1.3.19). This stuttering tale is also about lost succession of another kind: the ordinary sequence of waking and sleeping, together with the sense of temporal progression that the cycle of sleep and waking imparts. “Sleep shall neither night nor day / Hang upon his penthouse lid; / He shall live a man forbid” (1.3.20-22). The end result is no end result, a shaggy hag story reminiscent of the second witch's antinarrative description of the battle between the Scottish and Norwegian forces (“When the battle's lost and won”) and prophetic of Macbeth's “tomorrow” speech, in which he conceives lives and history itself as endlessly repetitive stories devoid of climax. All are stories deprived of an issue, like Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.

  26. Rosenberg makes glancing reference to the similarity of Oedipus' and Macbeth's parallel entrapments by tantalizingly opaque and riddling oracles, but he goes on to detail the later play's relation to “closer classical precedents” (p. 518). He misses, I think, the extensive network of questions concerning succession that are linked to riddles in both plays.

  27. Ternary patterns in Oedipus would have seemed a reflection of the ritual circumstances of that play's performance: performed as part of a competition over a period of three days, and within a grouping of three plays presented by a single playwright.

  28. Johann Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture (1950; rpt. Boston, 1955), p. 110.

  29. In the case of the riddle, the questioner holds the answer prior to posing the question, precisely the reverse of the situation of most interrogatives; the respondent, who in the ordinary interrogative is presumed to possess more information than the questioner, is in the dark. And unlike the ordinary question, where the questioner is in some sense subservient to the addressee who is presumed to know or at least to represent the possibility of knowing, it is the riddler who is empowered by the question s/he poses, the riddlee disempowered (for instance, in the riddle contests so prevalent in the Norse sagas, in which failure to answer a riddle correctly could cost one's life).

  30. Descriptions of the play tend to be drawn toward images of circularity. See, e.g., James Caldwerwood, “‘More Than What You Were’: Augmentation and Increase in Macbeth,English Literary Renaissance 14 (1984), p. 80; and Donald W. Foster, “Macbeth's War on Time,” English Literary Renaissance 16 (1986), pp. 321-22, 328.

  31. Among recent examples, see Anthony L. Johnson, “Number Symbolism in Macbeth,Analysis: Quaderni di anglistica 4 (1986), 25-41; Calderwood, 70-82; Luisa Guj, “Macbeth and the Seeds of Time,” Shakespeare Studies 18 (1986), 175-88; Claudia Corti, ‘Macbeth’: la parola e l'immagine (Pisa, 1983); and John McRae, “‘The equivocation of the fiend that lies like truth.’ La regia di Macbeth,” in ‘Macbeth’: dal testo all scena, ed. Mariangela Tempera (Bologna, 1982), pp. 123-64. For Calderwood triplings in the play belong to a larger pattern of repetition emphasizing that what has “an appearance of fullness or abundance … is in fact mere redundancy” (p. 75). Johnson for the most part sees patterns of two and three as similarly “in opposition to the principle of unity” (p. 37), although he admits a positive meaning for patterns of three in the play as well: “Threes correspond to cooperation and complementarity in an enterprise” (p. 37). He misses, I think, the important links between various triplings and questions of success/succession.

  32. On the importance of number symbolism to Renaissance culture, see Alastair Fowler, Triumphal Forms (Cambridge, 1970); and Edgar Wind, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance (London, 1958). The latter is especially helpful in its discussion of various triadic patterns. See pp. 36ff., 241ff.

  33. The political life of the play in general seems to be under the aegis of three, for there are three Kings of Scotland in the play, Duncan, Macbeth, and Malcolm.

  34. M. J. B. Allen, “Toys, Prologues, and the Great Amiss,” in Shakespearean Tragedy, ed. David Palmer and Malcolm Bradbury, Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 20 (London, 1984), p. 8.

  35. Hecate's threefold nature and function, although it certainly falls into line with the extensive pattern of trebling in the play, to my mind doesn't necessarily controvert the widely held view that she is largely or entirely an interpolation by a hand other than Shakespeare's, although it does challenge it. On Hecate's threefold nature, see Rosenberg, pp. 492ff. Luisa Guj, pp. 183ff. provides interesting evidence to support the idea that Shakespeare “could in fact be the originator of the idea of a personal intervention by the goddess in the action of the play.” She relates the three-headed queen of darkness to other three-headed figures in the play.

  36. Nevertheless, the number three, closely associated with the witches, continues to direct things from the wings. The speech takes place at three o'clock, and it ends with a triple equivocation. The phrase “giving him the lie” means “calling him a liar,” “forcing him to lie down,” and “making him urinate,” the word “lye” often being used to mean “urine.” (Brooke, Oxford edition, p. 132.)

  37. The spectacle of eight Stuart kings within a mirror, an instrument of doubling, together with the bloody image of their fountainhead Banquo, suggests two series, one contained within the other: eight within nine, or two to the third power within three to the second power. The number of Stuart kings, arrived at by leaving out of the count James's mother, Mary, Queen of Scots, seems oddly but carefully calculated to be consistent with other numbers in the Show of Kings, particularly the investment of some of the kings in the Show with “two-fold balls and treble sceptres” (4.1.121), one sceptre and orb to signify the King of Scotland, and two sceptres and one orb to signify the King of England. A text “hath bubbles, as the water has, / And these are of them,” as Banquo says of the witches (1.3.79-80). I don't want to ask too much to rest on the continual bubbling of the numbers 2 and 3 to the surface of Macbeth, especially whenever the witches appear. It does seem worth reckoning, however, that the Show of Kings, with its inscription of 8 within 9—the play's most complex interweaving of 2 and 3—should take place within the context of a view of history and succession in which, unlike Macbeth's, the modes of trebling and doubling, lineal succession and repetition, are wedded. Among other things, the succession of Stuart kings symbolically incorporates and thereby defuses the potentially deadly and fratricidal effects of doubling, which Shakespeare explores most thoroughly in one of the least successive of his plays, Hamlet.

  38. The authenticity of parts of this scene is doubtful, and if pressed I would be willing to drop this bit of numerical evidence. Macbeth plays the numbers so regularly that it isn't necessary to place bets on a second triad of witches in Act 4, scene 1. But as it fits a more general pattern of interconnecting doubling and trebling, there may be cause here for arguing that the second triad of witches is not necessarily an interpolation, regardless of what one may think about the authenticity of Hecuba's speeches.

  39. Perhaps the bloodiest versions of “amen,” diabolical counterparts to that blessed word of ending or the arch-blessing that is the sense of an ending, are the first Witch's image of a parent cannibalizing her children in the context of a recipe for a potion that Macbeth must imbibe in order to see the apparitions—“Pour in sow's blood, that hath eaten / Her nine farrow” (4.1.64-5)—and Lady Macbeth's

    I have given suck, and know
    How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me:
    I would, while it was smiling in my face,
    Have pluck'd my nipple from his boneless gums,
    And dash'd the brains out, had I so sworn
    As you have done to this.


    Lady Macbeth's violent image is somehow appropriate to its subject, the fixity of a promise, for the destruction of the babe is an image of the abolishment of succession which in another way is also accomplished by swearing an oath. An oath is an attempt to freeze or fix the mind's operations, to prevent the ordinary succession of conflicting or simply different intentions, hesitations, or misgivings. Lady Macbeth's association with oaths, vows, and other forms of mental fixity shows her resistance to various orders of succession, similar to that of her husband, with his fantasy about “trammel[ing] up the consequence” of the assassination.

  40. I develop this argument in “‘His form and cause conjoin'd’: Reflections on ‘Cause’ in Hamlet,Renaissance Drama, ns 16 (1985), 75-94.

Robert Lane (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: “‘The Sequence of Posterity’: Shakespeare's King John and the Succession Controversy,” in Studies in Philology, Vol. 92, No. 4, Fall, 1995, pp. 460-81.

[In the following essay, Lane reflects on the ways in which King John addresses the succession crisis of the 1590s, at the end of Queen Elizabeth's reign. Lane explains that the play explores the doubts regarding legitimacy and succession that plagued the reigns of both King John and Queen Elizabeth.]

When Parliament convened in February, 1593 the queen was 59 years old, her age intensifying public concern over that “uncertain certainty,”3 the as-yet unsettled succession on her death. This apprehension had persisted since early in her reign, the succession issue having been the focus of domestic politics as early as the 1560s, especially after Elizabeth's serious illnesses in 1562 and 1564.4 Despite, or rather because of, the decisive importance of this question, it remained largely invisible on the landscape of public discourse. Elizabeth's government was determined to see that this preoccupation had no outlet. Public discussion of the succession was forbidden, declared treasonous by parliamentary statute.5 Authors of pamphlets on the subject in 1564 and 1568 were imprisoned, even though in the latter instance the author advocated what was the government's own position.6 Despite Parliament's active participation in the question of succession during her father's reign,7 Elizabeth consistently refused its counsel, “reserving” this prerogative, according to the French Ambassador, “for herself.”8 Elizabeth was adamant in refusing to name her successor, fearful that a rising sun would eclipse her, relegating her to lame-duck status.9 The result was a population largely cowed into silence on this “notoriously taboo” question,10 for, as Edmund Plowden declared in 1566,

in dealing in tytles of kyngdomes there is mutche danger … and in these cases I thinke the surest waie is to be sylent, for in silence there is saufftie but in speache there is perill, and in wryting more.11

Despite the danger, however, there continued to be notable protesters against the government's position, whose treatment at the hands of the Crown punctuated its policy of enforced muteness. Most prominent among these was Peter Wentworth, who was imprisoned from 1593 until his death in 1597 for discussing the succession with a few of his parliamentary colleagues.12 Wentworth had also been incarcerated in 1591 for his efforts to have the queen resolve this issue.13 At that time the Lord Chancellor upbraided him before the Privy Council for prompting discussion of the succession in “cobblers' and taylors' shops.”14 The aim of the Crown's policy was wholly to remove the question of royal lineage from discussion by subjects, since the discussion itself implied their capacity to render judgment on the legitimacy of monarchs, a dangerous contradiction of the Crown's self-representation as immune from all judgment except God's.15

With Wentworth's example in front of it the 1593 Parliament refused to deal with the succession. “Its failure prompted the publication of the most famous of the 1590s succession tracts, the Jesuit priest Robert Parsons' Conference About the Next Succession to the Crowne of England (1594).17 Parsons' exhaustive work—together with responses to it by Henry Constable and John Hayward, Wentworth's two pamphlets on the subject, and Thomas Wilson's summary of the claims of the various contestants—define the issues surrounding the determination of Elizabeth's successor as they took shape after 1590.” Defying censorship in an effort to “influence a politically conscious reading public,”” they indicate the intense national interest in the question.

It has been recognized that Elizabethan drama addressed that interest, providing a forum for examination of the issue in a manner sufficiently oblique to avoid government retaliation. Marie Axton, for example, referred to Elizabethan drama as “the medium for speculation and protest, as testing ground for political ideas and situations.”20 What has not been acknowledged, however, is how thoroughly, almost systematically, Shakespeare in King John engages the specific issues entailed in the succession crisis of the 1590s, the issues the pamphleteers devoted so much attention to because their resolution would determine the next monarch of England. Indeed, it is more than plausible that Shakespeare chose King John's reign because its legitimacy—the fundamental focus of the play—turned on strikingly similar issues. The elements of Shakespeare's play are shaped to emphasize that similarity, underscoring three questions: 1. the effect of a monarch's will in naming the successor; 2. the propriety of a foreigner acceding to the throne; and 3. the process by which a successor would be chosen, in particular the role of the people in that determination.

A play about King John would have been self-evidently topical, since his reign figured as a precedent (positive or negative) in the succession debate as to the first two of these issues Shakespeare's fashioning of the historical material intensifies its pertinence not only by highlighting the third, but by the way that he shapes and combines various elements in the play's own succession controversy. While the official representation of John emphasized the religious dimension, portraying him as wholly justified in resisting the illegitimate incursion of papal Rome,22 Shakespeare significantly toned down the religious conflict in order to highlight those matters that pertained more directly to the succession.23 Further, by framing the issues in a way that pits important principles and values against one another, rather than as all neatly aligned behind a single figure, Shakespeare's drama creates in his audience what Phyllis Rackin calls “divided allegiances.”24 This effect forces the audience to consider the relative weight to be given each of these principles in determining a prince.

When Philip the Bastard rails against the “scroyles scoundrels of Angiers” who

Stand securely on their battlements
As in a theatre, whence thay gape and point
At the kings' industrious scenes and acts of death,


he means to derogate the citizens' role as frivolous and impudent. But the simile (“As in a theatre”) points up the relative security of the playhouse audience to take up contested political questions, albeit in veiled form, a security that encouraged the theater's role in critically examining those questions. The audience for the play is aligned with the citizens in it as judges of the respective claims of the competitors to the throne.25 By his presentation Shakespeare provokes precisely what the Crown's policy precluded—the exercise of critical judgment on the part of his audience—casting them as participants in the process of determining the successor. In so doing he constitutes the theater as a deliberative forum where that judgment can be stimulated and nurtured.


In Elizabethan England continuity with the past was a potent source of legitimacy (hence the use of charges of “novelty” and “innovation” to discredit religious and political claims or activities). But in the 1590S discontinuity was unavoidable: the English people were facing, in Elizabeth's impending death without an heir, a radical disjunction in their history. The arguments over the succession were a contest, not just between candidates, but over which of the competing historical narratives could best restore that breach and re-align the monarchy, and the nation, with its antecedents.26 The historical project of bringing past and present into a coherent relationship, one productive of a sense of collective identity, was at the heart of the contest over legitimacy.

Shakespeare's play offers several links to the reign of the deceased Richard I. Most important as far as John's title is concerned is the conflict pitting testamentary disposition of the Crown—a narrative that binds past and present through the exercise of the deceased monarch's will (in both senses)—against the operation of the laws of primogeniture—a narrative forging that link through the legal plotting of lineage. Though John's claim to the throne resides largely in his “possession” of it (1.1.38), we learn later that he was named as heir in Richard I's will, which Elinor claims “bars the title” (2.1.192) of John's nephew Arthur—the better claim under the rules of primogeniture in effect in both John's and Elizabeth's reigns.27 The validity of what was historically a death-bed instrument is put in question by Elinor herself, with her acknowledgment of doubt about John's title (1.1.40) and by the denunciation of Arthur's mother Constance:

A will! a wicked will, A woman's will, a cank'red grandam's


A will like Richard I's purporting to fix succession to the Crown was central to the 1590s debate. Henry VIII by his will (also a death-bed instrument) had contravened primogeniture by designating the heirs of his younger sister Mary Tudor (the Suffolk line), rather than those of his older sister Margaret Tudor (the Stuart line) as the royal bloodline in the event Elizabeth died childless. If the will was valid, then the sons of Lady Catherine Grey would be next in line, instead of James VI of Scotland.28 The will was challenged on technical grounds as well as for Henry's mental incapacity and was “for a time mislaid,”29 but supporting its validity was the parliamentary authorization for the instrument as well as precedent. That precedent was Richard I's will, giving the succession dispute in King John a direct relevance to the Elizabethan debate.

Shakespeare both intensified and complicated its resonance, however, by the ways in which he shaped the Faulconbridge inheritance dispute that is the centerpiece of Act 1, altering it from the earlier anonymous play, The Troublesome Raigne of King John (1591; herein TR).31 At the very outset of Shakespeare's play, John's legitimacy is put squarely in issue when the French ambassador snidely refers to his “borrowed majesty” (1.1.4).32 John tacitly acknowledges the cloud on his title when he demurs, silencing his mother's protest (1.1.5-6).33 Her objection appears to have been for the Ambassador's benefit, for she soon confides in John that the foundation of his reign lies in “your strong possession much more than your right” (1.1.40).34 With the equivocal status of John's title thus planted firmly in the audience's mind, the scene immediately shifts to the Faulconbridge controversy. This dispute revolves around the legal effect of the will of Sir Robert Faulconbridge (also a death-bed instrument 1.1.109), which had attempted to disinherit his illegitimate son, Philip, conceived by Richard I in his absence. The issue, so to speak, is crystallized by Sir Robert's legitimate son, who argues for the will's validity:

Shall then my father's will be of no force
To dispossess that child which is not his?


These lines have no analogue in TR. In fact, there is no mention of a will at all in the earlier play; it is wholly Shakespeare's invention.

Shakespeare makes another decisive change in the dispute from TR, namely its outcome. In TR John decided in favor of the legitimate son Robert, while in Shakespeare, though Robert's arguments are more compelling than those in the earlier play, John decides in favor of his older, though illegitimate, brother. In doing so, John repudiates the will of the deceased Faulconbridge. This judgment was apparently in accordance with feudal law and might seem to urge rejection of Henry's will.35 But John's decision is contrary to his own title, resting as it did on the will of Richard I. By putting John, in a sense, at odds with himself, Shakespeare's play virtually forces its viewer to consider the effect of Henry's will, and thus to engage the larger question it posed about monarchical power: to what extent should the prince be able to dispose of the Crown as if it were his/her own property, thereby superseding the historically sanctioned rules of succession? The Faulconbridge dispute raises another issue current in the succession debate: the significance of bastardy. The narrative of continuous bloodline was premised on the preservation and transmission of lineage through legally valid marriages. Birth outside that context was universally regarded as interrupting that line; bastardy “Cut off the sequence of posterity” (2.1.96) in a way fatal to any claim to the throne. Showing illegitimacy was thus the most effective way to defeat such a claim.36 But Shakespeare's play problematizes this disqualification because, unlike TR, Philip's illegitimacy does not bar him from inheriting his father's land. Furthermore, outside the Faulconbridge family context, Philip's birth confers on him legitimacy from yet another narrative of continuity—biological inheritance—the power of which is expressed in physiognomy, Richard's visible presence in the Bastard.37 John says of him: “Mine eye hath well examined his parts, / And finds them perfect Richard” (1.1.89-90). Casting Philip as the physical image of Richard draws attention to the simple fact that he is by far Richard's closest relative in the play, his only son.

But the circumstances of Philip's birth force him to a choice; he can either be a (legitimate) Faulconbridge or an (illegitimate) Plantagenet (1.1-134-37). Both contexts confer status on him which is at odds with his biological lineage: in the Faulconbridge family he succeeds to the position of a man who was not his father. In the royal family by the king's fiat he can be knighted and acquire the Plantagenet name (1.1.160-63), which accords with his embodiment of the “very spirit” of Richard (I.I-167). The lineal proximity imaged by the “trick of Cordelion's face” in him (1.1.85) cannot, however, give him a claim to the throne because the sanctioning narrative did not rest on the biological fact of patrilineage alone, but on marital legitimacy. By forcing Philip to choose between what are presented as mutually exclusive alternatives, Shakespeare invites appraisal of each of these circumstances of birth in determining succession.


By juxtaposing John's dubious title with the Faulconbridge controversy Shakespeare's play poses the question of how inheritance and succession are related. Implicit in the disposition of the throne by will is the analogy between the demise of the crown and the devolution of property. But is the analogy a sound one? To what extent do the legal principles governing the inheritance of property apply to the succession?” Because English law precluded foreigners from inheriting land,39 this question bore significantly on a central issue in the succession debate: whether a foreigner could accede to the English throne. John's reign was a central interpretive crux on this point: did his tenure affirm the principle that no foreigner can sit on the throne (i.e., was Arthur barred by having been born in France?), or was it simply usurpation by John that deprived the rightful king?40

The bar cast a dark cloud over James's hopes to succeed to the throne on Elizabeth's death. Though he favored James, Thomas Wilson reports that “some thought Arabella Stuart more capable then he, for that she is English borne (the want whereof, if our Lawyers opinions be corant, is the cause of his exclusion).”41 James took steps to remove this blemish from his claim by attempting to establish his right to the so-called Lennox lands which had been the property of his paternal grandparents, the Earl and Countess of Lennox. Establishing this right would have bolstered his claim to the throne precisely because of the importance of the analogy between inheritance and succession. Borrowing the Bastard's phrase we could say that James attempted to ground his title to the crown “upon the footing of English land” (5.1.66).

Elizabeth also well understood the significance of this property to the Scottish king, justifying her refusal to resolve the question because “some consequences which depende therupon hath made us forbare to dispose of this matter one way or the other.”42 She used those “consequences” to her best advantage, promising the lands to James in 1588 when the approaching Spanish fleet cast its shadow, but later reneging, hinting that James's rival Arabella had a colorable claim to them while never expressly rejecting James's.43 On his part, James sought judicial recognition of his claim, but also continued to press it with the queen most forcefully in 1596 and again in 1601—even trying to cast the annual pension he received from Elizabeth as compensation for the loss of this property. Shakespeare's play gives dramatic impetus to the arguments in the succession debate over foreign influence on the English throne. Shakespeare's portrayal of Arthur, emphasizing his youth (everyone repeatedly refers to him as “boy” or “child”), underscores his dependence on the King of France. Arthur himself acknowledges his subservient status when he refers to his own “powerless hand” (2.1.15). His youth and temperament raise grave questions about his capacity to govern.

Unlike the character in TR, Shakespeare's Arthur does not speak in his own behalf or otherwise actively pursue his own claim (he is even embarrassed about the fight over it—“I am not worth this coil that's made for me” 2.1.165).

His role is symbolized by his absence from the stage during negotiations over the peace pact between the kings.46 Arthur's relative impotence enhances the power of the French king, who describes himself as Arthur's “guardian” (2.1.115). Philip's announcement of himself to the people of Angiers—“'Tis France, for England” (2.1.202)—bluntly dramatizes the spectre of alien intrusion. Shakespeare shapes the contest more sharply as one between the countries rather than between John and Arthur, with the French king's ascendancy graphically depicting the disturbing possibility of foreign dominion over the English throne.

At the same time that Shakespeare's Arthur is portrayed as more submissive than his counterpart in TR (and many historical sources),47 he is personally treated more sympathetically and his claim to the throne more favorably, all of which casts John in a much more doubtful light in Shakespeare's play than in TRPS Arthur's status as a royal rival has a continuing, decisive impact on the action of the play, his irrepressible claim haunting John and impelling him toward Arthur's murder. Pandulph articulates the pressure Arthur's very existence exerts on John's dubious title:

A sceptre snatch'd with an uruuly hand Must be as boisterously maintain'd as gain'd; And he that stands upon a slipp'ry place Makes nice of no viid hold to stay him up. That John may stand, then Arthur needs must fall. …


Unlike TR, Arthur's youth and innocence render his death in Shakespeare's play a much more lamentable scene and its link to the barons' defection is much more direct and firm (4.3.11-13). Underscoring the pathos of the event Shakespeare adds the Bastard's denunciation of the “cruel act” (4.3.126) and his apotheosis of Arthur as “the life, the right, and truth of all this realm / Who has fled to heaven” (4.3.144-45).50 Pitting the appropriation of Arthur's claim by hostile powers against the record of John's perfidy forces Shakespeare's audience to assess whether the native born John was indeed preferable to his immature, encumbered victim. Once again framed to admit no easy resolution, the question prompts evaluation of the categorical bar against accession by a foreigner.

Shakespeare further amplifies the issue in the figure of the French Dauphin Lewis, who also asserts a claim to the English throne. As with his treatment of Arthur, Shakespeare makes the issue here a subtler question than in TR by rendering Lewis in a much more favorable light than the earlier play, which depicts his villainy at every possible turn.51 In Shakespeare there is even some sympathy for Lewis's firm resolve in the face of bad news (5.5.21-22; much qualified in TR, Pt. 2, 977-82), especially, in lines without counterpart in TR, for his ringing declaration of independence from the Pope—“Am I Rome's slave?” (5.2.97)—echoing John's own earlier affirmation (3.1.147-60). Even while opposing him in arms, the Bastard applauds Lewis's resolve: “The youth says well” (5.2.128). The split within Catholic Christendom which Lewis's speech represents echoed a historical reality. Some Catholic rulers (and the Pope himself) opposed the Hapsburgs' claim to the English throne because of the disproportionate power it would give Spain.52 In England, too, Catholic subjects were split, with some (“the Appellants”) actually negotiating with the Crown's representatives, not for a Catholic king, but for religious toleration under a Protestant one. Perhaps most striking is the difference in the way Lewis's claim is handled. In TR it is repeatedly compromised by being framed as “triumph in conquest” (Pt. 2, 942), his express aim that of French dominance: “The poorest peasant of the Realme of Fraunce / Shall be a maister ore an English Lord” (Pt. 2, 949-50).54 In Shakespeare, though, Lewis spells out the substantive basis for his claim, through Arthur, in his union with Blanche (“by the honor of my marriage bed / After young Arthur” 5-2.93-94), the deal struck by Philip and John in 2.1. Unlike TR where the Bastard repudiates Lewis's “fained claime” (Pt. 2, 686), the legal validity of this claim is never challenged. Through Lewis Shakespeare's play replicates the intertwined lineages of the royal houses of Europe. “The centuries of dynastic marriage,” according to the historian Joel Hurstfield, “had indeed created a situation in which most of the crowned heads of Europe could claim each others' thrones with some degree of plausibility.” Because in Lewis's case it is through just such a marriage that the English crown is exposed to a foreigner's claim, the play prompts scrutiny of exactly how that union came about. Specifically, how did it come to be proposed, not by any of the contestants for the throne, but by the citizens of Angiers?


At the very outset of Shakespeare's play, war is introduced as the readiest means for resolving succession disputes. When John asks the French Ambassador “what follows” if he rejects Arthur's claim to the throne, Chatillion declares, “The proud control of fierce and bloody war, / To enforce these rights so forcibly withheld” (I.I.17-18). Virtually all the pamphleteers invoked the spectre of war in urging alternatives for determining Elizabeth's successor. Wentworth warned the queen that “to leave that designation quyte without establishment, to whomever can catch it” would lead to civil war, “so that presentlie, the whole Realme wil be rent into as many shivers, as there be competitors. … And, thus, while the title to the crowne is in trying in the fielde by the dint of bloodie sword, one part will consume & devoure another.”57 The threat was far from fanciful; by 1599 James was taking concrete steps to arm his subjects to defend his claim. Both James and the French Ambassador offer violence as a means of enforcing legal right—“shadowing … right under … wings of war” (2-1.14). But the soldier in Parsons' work articulates the more realistic view of force as supplanting considerations of right:

When this matter must come to trial … not you lawyers, but we souldiars must determyne this title. …

We should admit the competing claimants' causes to examination, and perhapps give sentence for him, that by your lawes would sonest be excluded, for when matters come to snatching, it is hard to say who shal have the better part.59

What the soldier affirms is the legitimating power of successful violence. John invokes the same function when he declares that he will “verify our title with his soldiers' lives” (2.1.177). His challenge, echoing the assumption of the medieval trial by combat that physical strength correlates with legal validity and moral purity, may strike modern ears as at least naive, if not barbaric, accustomed as we are to regarding might and right as categorically distinct.60 But in fact their relationship was more complex than first appears, for possession of the Crown was itself regarded as conferring legitimacy. The historian William Camden, for example, in defending Elizabeth's title against her detractors, stated: “The Lawes of England many yeeres agoe determined … that the Crowne once possessed, cleareth and purifies all manner of defaults or imperfections.”61 It is thus not merely self-serving hyperbole when John asks rhetorically, “Doth not the crown of England prove the King?” (2.1.273), but an allusion to this principle.

The premise of the doctrine is that coronation, as the sign of free acclamation by the secular and religious authorities of the realm, cuts off any competing claims (an obvious effort to bring closure—and peace to the theoretically endless and potentially lethal succession disputes). In practice, of course, the endorsement was frequently tainted by the force used to acquire the Crown and even more frequently ineffective to subdue rival factions. The limitations of reliance on the doctrine are exposed by John's misplaced effort to use “double coronation” (4.2.40) to blot out Arthur's title, the self-destructive quality of which the nobles' speeches emphasize (4.2.9-34): it “doth make the fault worse by th'excuse” (4.2-31).62

While the prospect of violence raised the stakes for all English citizens, it simultaneously revealed the absence of any effective institutional means for authoritatively determining the succession. The issue of who would succeed to the throne necessarily entailed the question of how that person would be selected from the dozen or so candidates. Adopting the terms of Wentworth's declaration quoted as my epigraph, who should be heard on this question? Specifically, what role should the people play in this decision?

Most of the tracts dealing with the succession addressed this question.63 The most scandalous aspect of Parsons' pamphlet was not its conclusion that the Infanta of Spain had the best claim to succeed Elizabeth but its tenet that the monarch not be determined by lineage alone, that election should play a role. Election worked to “remedy the inconveniences of bare succession, namely, “that some un-apt impotent or evel prince may be offered some times to enter by priority of blood” (Pt. 1, 130). But Parsons stopped short of advocating election as the sole determinant of succession because he felt it was “subject to great and continual dangers of ambition, emulation, division, sedition, and contention.” These threats, Parsons believed, could be neutralized by giving substantial weight to lineage, “for that great occasions of strife and contention are there by cut of” (Pt. 1, 126). In this way each of the determinants—succession and election—would be “salved by the other, & the one made a preservative and treacle to the other” (Pt. 1, 130).

To assert even a partial role for the people in determining Elizabeth's successor was a radical proposal, and Parsons embedded his in a far-reaching discussion of the relationship between the sovereign and the people. He conceived of that relationship in contractual terms, for as much as not nature, but the election and consent of the people, had made their first Princes from the beginning of the world … they were not preferred to this eminent power and dignity over others, without some conditions and promises made also on their parts, for using well this supreme authority given unto them. (Pt. 1, 81) The monarch's responsibilities, as well as those of the people, were spelled out at the coronation:

This agreement, bargayne and contract between the king and his common wealth, at his first admission, is as certayne and firme (notwithstanding any pretence or interest he hath or maye have by succession) as any contract or mariage in the world can be.

(Pt. 1, 119)

In what was a significant extension of this theory, Parsons endowed the populace with the power to depose even a legitimate prince for breach of these obligations, “to dispossesse them that have bin lawfully put in possession, if they fulfil not the lawes and condicions, by which and for which, their dignity was given them” (Pt. 1, 32)64

Henry Constable's response to Parsons' work provides an index of how inflammatory its arguments for popular participation in governance were considered to be. He denigrates Parsons for “treadinge the steps of popularitie” by flattering “the phansies & conceits of people who ever delyghte in change” (21). Where Parsons had repeatedly referred to the people acting collectively as “the commonwealth,” Constable derides them as “disordered multitudes, beinge no common wealthes indeed, but prodigious monsters of manye heads” (24), the latter image the common epithet used to express contempt for and deny political capacity to the populace.65 The apocalyptic horror with which Constable greets Parsons' ideas is reflected in the following passage, its form as a rhetorical question declaring Parsons' proposal beyond the pale: “Who seethe not those horrible scandals, & steepe downe falls, threatninge present ruyne to all obedience, humilitie & Civil order” should the people acquire the power to “lawfully place & displace kinges and Soveragnes … ?” (48-49). In Constable's view Parsons' “popular doctrine” (21) reduces the king to “a soveraigne upon souffrance” (50), his reign subject to the whim of a fickle rabble.

Amidst his tirade Constable does make one telling point: “how, by what authoritye, that multitude is to be assembled, & other circumstances most expedient and necessarye, thies lawyers neyther define, nor regarde” (23). There was no discussion in Parsons of the exact means by which the voice of the people speaking as a commonwealth would be institutionalized.

Wentworth had proposed that Parliament be the forum wherein “all titles and claimes to the Crowne of England after Elizabeth's decease, throughlie … betried & examined” (5), and the recurrent parliamentary involvement in fixing the succession to Henry VIII created pressure to expand participation in the process. It was, of course, the absence of a recognizably authoritative institution for judging among competing claims that produced the high premium on possession of the Crown by coronation, as well as the virulent threat of war to secure that position.

Given the proscription on public discussion of succession, and the sensitivity over the political capacity of the citizenry, it is not surprising that Shakespeare's treatment of the people's role in King John is oblique and muted. But it palpably touched on these troubling questions nonetheless. The effort to elaborate on how it did so must begin with a textual anomaly, namely the abrupt shift in the middle of 2.1 in the Folio from the “Citizen” to “Hubert” as the speaker on the walls of Angiers. The designation of this speaker is crucial to an interpretation of his role.

Most editors conclude there is a typographical error and that the Citizen and Hubert were intended to be the same character; some further conclude that Hubert is that character. But there are compelling reasons based on textual analysis alone for treating the designation of “Hubert” as spurious and his speeches in this scene as the continuation of the Citizen's. Contrary to the prevalent Shakespearean practice Hubert is never named in the dialogue, undermining any claim that there is dramatic significance either to the shift of characters in the scene, or to Hubert's reappearance much later (3.3) as John's right hand man’ There is simply no persuasive rationale for identifying this scrupulously neutral figure with the later Hubert who is John's ally and confidant.68 On the contrary, the perspective and tone of “Hubert” reiterates precisely that of the Citizen earlier in the scene—the consistent use, for example, of the first person plural—reflecting this figure's continuing status as spokesman for the people of Angiers, the office the text repeatedly underlines.69

Given the weak textual basis, the editorial preference for Hubert over the Citizen signals a reluctance to grant a significant role to an unnamed, untitled figure who speaks for a body of the king's subjects. The choice may well evince a sense of political decorum that would downplay, if not altogether rule out, participation by the people in the selection of the monarch, even though this was a critical issue in the 1590 succession controversy. For in the Citizen the voice of the subjects becomes, as it was in the historical debate, a salient element in the contest over succession. The need both kings feel to actively solicit their consent gives that voice substance and weight. “Let us hear them speak,” King Philip says, “Whose title they admit” (2.1.198-200).70 Not only is the citizens' opinion as to the rightful prince treated as within their competence, at least initially it is portrayed as integral to the royal title. In this scene the consent of the public becomes the foundation for legitimate rule. Its authority here is visually depicted by the Citizen's placement on the wall above the two kings and their assembled armies.71 Philip's declaration initiates a dialogue between prince and subject which contains in embryonic form the kind of mutual exchange Parsons theorizes, a conversation in which, however brief their speeches, the people are represented (in both senses) as vital participants.

Instead of straightforwardly rendering judgment on who should succeed, however, the people, by “holding the right from both” candidates (281) and calling upon them to “prove the King” (270), foreground the question of the basis for this decision. While the Citizen's demurral seems a refusal of political agency, its most salient effect is to expose the simplistically militaristic impulses of the kings. He calls upon them to “compound whose right is worthiest” (281; my emphasis), the word implying the settlement of a dispute through negotiation and compromise rather than its well-restrained prosecution by violence. Without pausing for consideration of alternatives, however, the royals move impetuously to armed conflict, determined to “arbitrate” the question “with fearful bloody issue” (1.1.37). The futility of that carnage—“blood hath bought blood” (2.1.329) of such equal quantity that this effort “verifies” (277) nothing—amounts to a repudiation of war on both pragmatic and moral grounds as a credible means of trying title.

The citizens' refusal to be drawn into an alliance with one or the other faction, an alliance that would surely result in the town's destruction, is impressively astute. Their prudent resolve contradicts Wentworth's prediction that the common people, “at their wits end, not knowing what part to take nonetheless shal be driven to followe” rivals among the competing claimants, producing civil war.72 Their diplomacy nearly proves unavailing, however, for when the royals' further entreaties for acclamation prove unsuccessful, the Bastard spurs the kings' resentment toward these unmalleable subjects. His comments focus on the impertinence of the town (“these scroyles,” “this contemptuous city” and “peevish town,” “these saucy walls” 73/384, 402, 404), reproaching the people for their presumption in arrogating to themselves the power to render judgment in this dispute, even in the neutral form that they do.73 But his rebuke is undercut, both by the fact that the town has been put into this position by the royals themselves, and even more so by the Bastard's own proposal, which the kings eagerly agree to,74 that they conclude a military pact to “lay this Angiers even with the ground” (399). They thus conspire to destroy the city in order to rule it.

This sequence exposes the potentially tragic divergence between the interests of the people and those of the competitors for the throne, a divergence which, without the institutional means of enforcing the will of the populace, leaves the realm vulnerable to violence.76 Significantly, war here is not the product of a factionalized citizenry, for the subjects remain united and steadfast; the play rejects Parsons' fears of the people as divided and contentious. Rather, the threat comes from the ambition of the two contenders for the crown, portrayed here as extreme to the point of self-defeating absurdity: the destruction of the very substance of the kingdom that crown represents—its subjects.77

The neutrality of the Citizens up to this point thus is rendered not as spineless passivity or indecision, but as prudential adherence to a non-violent resolution of this question, for it is their lives and property which are jeopardized by any war that ensues. Their commitment to a peaceful determination becomes more active when, faced with the kings' united armies, they offer a peaceful way out of the conflict, one that satisfies the dynastic aims of both John and Philip, even at the price of Arthur's claim. They propose “peace and fair-fac'd league” (2.1.417) through the marriage between the Dauphin Lewis and John's niece Blanche. Not surprisingly, the Bastard rails against the proposal, in lines absent from TR, dwelling on the very fact of the Citizen's participation in the process:

He speaks cannon-fire, and smoke, and bounce, He gives the bastinado with his tongue; Our ears are cudgell'd—not a word of his But buffets better than a fist of France. 'Zounds, I was never so bethump'd with words Since I first call'd my brother's father dad. (2.1.462-67)

His rant reiterates the Citizen's audacity he earlier denounced, but adds the imposition he feels, a discomfort that grows from the very force of the Citizen's speech itself (the Citizen's words are weapons that “cudgel” and “bethump”). What offends him is that the voice of the people carries weight with the kings, so much that it is effective in actually re-directing royal power.

The creativity of the Citizen's contribution—a “union that shall do more than battery can” (446)—lays bare the reflexively violent character of the royal rivals. That the pragmatic character of his proposal leaves matters potentially unstable because it does not resolve Arthur's claim is hardly the responsibility of the Citizens who acted “to keep their city” (2.1.455), to spare themselves and their polity the destruction of war. Though that instability has its occasion in the existence of a rival claimant to the throne, it is needlessly and fatally exacerbated by John's misplaced efforts to immunize his reign from that claim through his repeated coronation and Arthur's murder.

But John is no simple villain, nothing like Richard in Richard III in his calculated strategies for eliminating the numerous prior claimants to the throne. Resort to the character of John, as either hero or villain, fails to provide any secure vantage from which to determine the issues the play so insistently poses. Instead, Shakespeare distributes legitimacy among the various claimants especially by endowing the young Arthur with doubtful fitness, thus witholding the prospect of a neat resolution. By refusing any single criterion as the standard to be mechanically applied in fixing the successor, Shakespeare's play demands that its audience “work, work its thoughts” (Henry V, 3.Chor.25). It calls upon its viewers, like the citizens of Angiers, to decide “whose title they admit” (King John, 2.1.200), to mediate among the various candidates by assessing the sanction each invokes. This demand for the audience's active, if only imaginative, participation in determining the monarch is echoed and affirmed by the portrayal of the popular representative in the play, the Citizen. While the precise scope and form of public participation was not to be explicitly addressed for another half century, this play registers the potency of that question, already palpable in Elizabeth's England.


  1. Thomas Wilson, The State of England, Anna Dom. 1600, Camden Miscellany XVI (3rd. Series, 1936), 5.

  2. Peter Wentworth, A Treatise Containing M. Wentworths Judgment concerning The Person of the True and Lawfull Successor to these Realmes of England and Ireland (1958), 6.

  3. Wallace T. MacCaffrey, Elizabeth I: War and Politics, 1588-1603 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 453.

  4. John Guy, Tudor England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 269.

  5. 13, Eliz. I, c. 1.

  6. Mortimer Levine, The Early Elizabethan Succession Question, 1558-1568 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1966), 89-90; John E. Neale, “Peter Wentworth, Part II EHR 39 (1924), 185-86.

  7. It passed succession acts in 1534, 1536, and 1544.

  8. Quoted in Marie Axton, The Queen's Two Bodies (London: Royal Historical Society, 1977), 11. “Those in Parliament who had wished to revive the question in the 1576 session had been silenced, and in 1581 … the lord keeper had forbidden its discussion in his opening speech” (Neale, “Peter Wentworth,” 178).

  9. MacCaffrey, 545.

  10. John E. Neale, Elizabeth I and Her Parliaments, 1584-1601 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1958), 251.

  11. Quoted in Axton, 20.

  12. Neale, “Wentworth II,” 186-205.

  13. Neale, “Wentworth II,” 186-85.

  14. Quoted in Edward P. Cheyney, A History of England From the Defeat of the Armada to the Death of Elizabeth (New York: Peter Smith, 1948), 2: 280.

  15. The government's posture is aptly characterized by the rhetorical question of Shakespeare's Bishop of Carlisle: “What subject can give judgment on a king?” (Richard II, 4-1.121). All passages from Shakespeare's plays are from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Co., 1974).

  16. The exclamation of James Morice, M.P., may express his colleagues' attitude: “Succession! What is he that dare meddle with it?” (quoted in Neale, Elizabeth I, 258).

  17. Parsons, writing under the name of R. Doleman, identifies Wentworth's suppression as the occasion for his work. It was prompted, he said, “when at length newes was brought, that nothing at al had bin done in the 1593 Parliament concerning succession, but rather that one or two (as was reported) had bin checked or committed for speaking in the same” (Conference About the Next Succession to the Crowne of England 1594, Part I, B. 1r-B. 1v).

  18. The works were Henry Constable, A Discoverye of a Counterfecte Conference Helde At A Counterfecte Place, etc. (Collen, 1600); John Hayward, An Answer to a Conference, Concerning Succession (London, 1603); Peter Wentworth, A Pithie Exhortation to Her Majestie (1598) and his Treatise cited above; and Thomas Wilson's work cited above. There was also a 1592 pamphlet by Richard Verstegen, A Declaration of the True Causes of the Great Troubles, etc. (1592) that addressed the succession at length.

  19. Levine, 89-90.

  20. Axton, ix. Axton believes that “of all the media—lawsuit, parliamentary debate, political pamphlet, stageplay—the stage offered the freest forum for speculation about the succession to the throne and the issues related to it” (x).

  21. Axton, 32; Lily B. Campbell, Shakespeare's “Histories” Mirrors of Elizabethan Policy (San Marino, CA: The Huntington Library, 1968), 142-44.

  22. Thus the Book of Homilies:

    The Bishoppe of Rome did picke a quarrell to King John of England, about the election of Steven Langton to the Bishopricke of Canterburie, wherein the King had ancient right, being used by his progenitors, all Christian Kinges of England before him, the Bishops of Rome having no right, but had begunne then to usurpe upon the Kinges of Englande, and all other Christian Kinges, as they had before done against their Soveraigne Lordes the Emperours. … (Certaine Sermons or Homilies Appointed to Be Read in Churches in the Time of Elizabeth, eds. Mary Ellen Rickey and Thomas B. Stroup (Gainesville, FL: Scolars' Facsimiles L Reprints, 1968, 315).

  23. “Shakespeare largely forewent,” according to A. R. Braunmuller, “the obviously dramatic conflict with Rome because the dynastic struggle itself guaranteed contemporary attention” (William Shakespeare, The Life and Death of King John, ed. A. R. Braunmuller Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989, 60). Lily Campbell sees Shakespeare's play as a straightforward mirror of the troubles of Protestant England with the Catholic Church, and, more specifically, regards the figure of Arthur as a stand-in for Mary Stuart (Campbell, 126-67). This perspective grows out of a model of one-for-one correspondence (not uncommon in earlier historicist criticism) that overlooks important features of King John, such as the reduced role of religion, and the sympathy generated for Arthur by John's mistreatment. Together with the retrospective posture Campbell attributes to the play as largely a transcription of earlier historical events, her approach saps the play of much of its contemporary vitality, a potency augmented by the work's resistance to simple historical allegorization.

  24. Phyllis Rackin, Stages of History: Shakespeare's English Chronicles (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990), 182. “The ethical and political ambivalences” of the play make it, in her view, “the most disturbing of all Shakespeare's English histories” (182).

  25. See Rackin, 53.

  26. The importance of history to the succession reinforced the Crown's jealous protection of its prerogative to determine Elizabeth's heir. It was committed to what Annabel Patterson characterizes as “the belief that the history of the realm, not only in terms of access to state documents but in terms of interpretation, belonged to the monarch” (Annabel Patterson, Censorship and Interpretation: The Conditions of Writing and Reading in Early Modern England, Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1984, 129).

  27. Because he was the son of John's deceased older brother, Arthur's title was superior by reason of “representation,” “the principle which allows the children or remoter descendants of a dead person to stand in that person's stead” (Braunmuller, 56). Perhaps the best-known example of the operation of this principle is the accession, on the death of Edward III, of Richard II instead of his uncles.

  28. Levine, 63.

  29. Joel Hurstfield, “The Succession Struggle in Late Elizabethan England,” in Elizabethan Government and Society, eds. S. T. Bindoff et al. (London: Atheneum Press, 1961), 72. Hurstfield comments that “the whole issue was criss-crossed with uncertainties” (372). See Parsons, Part II, 115-16; Wilson, 8-9.

  30. The latter two of Parliament's succession acts—28 Henry VIII, c. 1 (1536) and 35 Henry VIII, c. 1 (1544)—gave Henry limited right to settle the succession by will (Levine, 37).

  31. Critics disagree over whether Shakespeare's work antedated or followed The Troublesome Raigne. In the Introduction to his edition, Braunmuller ably compares the two works and summarizes the evidence for the possible relationships (1-15), concluding that King John postdates TR (15). His conclusion is further confirmed by the topical references discussed here, references whose allusiveness to the succession debate would have been amplified by the dissemination of Parsons' work in and after 1594. For that reason I believe Shakespeare's play came long enough after that work's publication for him to read and absorb it.

  32. In contrast TR begins with the declaration of John's succession to Richard and his acceptance of the burdens of office (the text of TR is that in Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, ed. Geoffrey Bullough, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962, 5: 72-151).

  33. In TR he responds sarcastically to the Ambassador's demand that he vacate the throne (Pt. 1, 35-44).

  34. There are no comparable lines in TR.

  35. George W. Keeton, Shakespeare's Legal and Political Background (New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 1967) 121, 127. “Only with legal statutes passed under Henry VIII could a will disinherit a lineal heir” (Virginia M. Vaughan, “King John: A Study in Subversion and Containment,” King John: New Perspectives, ed. Deborah T. Curren-Aquino, Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1989, 66).

  36. It is for this reason that Elinor accuses Arthur of bastardy (2.1.122-23; a charge with no counterpart in TR). Such accusations abounded in the succession debate. Charges, for example, that James's grandmother was illegitimate because her father was already married when he married her mother, Margaret Tudor, were urged both in support of and against James's claim to the throne. The illegitimacy would break the line from Margaret Tudor to James that descended through his father, Lord Darnley, but, since James's link to her could also be established through his mother, Mary Stuart, the charge did not completely defeat his claim. It would, however, have broken the line from Margaret to Arabella, her granddaughter, James's closest lineal rival. (See Wentworth, Treatise, 11-12; and Wilson, 2, 6). The accusation of bastardy was also pivotal to the claim of Edward, Lord Beauchamp, son of Lady Catherine Grey, because he was next in the Suffolk line. His status was widely regarded as doubtful and “Elizabeth steadfastly refused to recognize his parents' marriage” (Helen G. Stafford, James VI of Scotland and the Throne of England, New York: Appleton-Century Co., 1940, 27). Questions were also raised about the legality of the marriages of Catherine's mother and grandmother (see Levine, 126f.; Wilson, 6; and Parsons, Part II, 130f.).

  37. The French king Philip also uses physiognomy, to reinforce Arthur's claim and undermine John's (“Look here upon thy brother Geoffrey's face” 2.1.100; See also 101-2), opposing Arthur's “living blood” (2.1.108) of Geoffrey John's older brother, to John's empty title (“How comes it then that thou art call'd a king?” 107).

  38. See Parsons, Part II, 91.

  39. A statute during Edward III's reign codified the medieval common law principle precluding inheritance by a foreigner, the rule having originated in response to the loss of Normandy in 1204 as a way of depriving Frenchmen of their English land (25 Edward III, c. 1; see Frederick Pollock and E. W. Maitland, The History of English Law, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968, 1: 458-67; Levine, 99). The act barring aliens contained an exception for children of the king, the scope of which became a disputed issue in the succession controversy, namely, did it extend to more remote descendants? For discussion by the pamphleteers of this rule and its application to succession see Wilson, 7; Parsons, Part II, 5, 111f., 199f., and 214; and Wentworth, Treatise, 9f. and 43f.

  40. Levine, 102. A succession tract from 1565 cited John as precedent for its argument against Mary Stuart, asserting that Arthur was excluded by his foreign birth (Axton, 25).

  41. Wilson, 2.

  42. Quoted in Stafford, 150.

  43. Axton, 76-77; Stafford, 21.

  44. Stafford, 39-40, 175, 250-51.

  45. Contrast TR, Pt. 1, 440-51, 525-57. Shakespeare's King Philip gets the lines Arthur speaks in TR challenging the Citizens of Angiers to decide who their king will be (2.1.199-200, 361; TRI Pt. 1, 718-19).

  46. Shakespeare's Arthur only tries to quiet his mother's objections to the agreement; in TR Arthur himself pointedly objects to negotiations over his status (Pt. 1, 765-67).

  47. Holinshed, for example, pointedly describes Arthur's response to John's solicitous appeal to ally with him (“his naturall uncle”): “Like one that wanted good counsell, and abounding too much in his owne wilful opinion, Arthur made a presumptuous answer” (W. G. Boswell-Stone, Shakespeare’s Holinshed: The Chronicle and the Plays Compared, New York: Dover Publications, 1968, 59).

  48. In contrast to TR, Shakespeare dwells on John's giving Hubert the order to kill Arthur (3.3); he renders the exchange between Hubert and Arthur over John's order to blind Arthur in much less philosophical and more personal terms (4.1); he more closely links the backlash from the self-defeating second coronation with Arthur, his imprisonment, and the report of his death (4.2); and he makes Arthur's death the axis around which the five moons prophecy and the reaction of the people revolve (4.2).

  49. These lines have no counterpart in TR. Though more inclined to John's point of view, Holinshed confirms Pandulph's logic: “So long as Arthur lived, there would be no quiet in those parts” (60).

  50. In similar fashion Parsons questions what he regards as “but a common vulgar prejudice … against strangers” by laying out the tyrannical performance of several native English monarchs (Part II, 197-98, 214f.).

  51. In TR, for example, Lewis's hypocrisy toward the English lords is enacted at length in front of the audience, while in Shakespeare it is only briefly reported (TR, Pt. 2, 503-61; King John 5.4.10-39).

  52. Hurstfield, 378.

  53. Hurstfield, 373-74, 384-87.

  54. His right is rendered more doubtful in TR by his admission that he could win England only “by treason” (Pt. 2, 1167-71) the term implying John's legitimacy.

  55. Hurstfield, 372. Just how this condition was perpetuated, and how fraught with political implications, is evidenced by the case of James's rival the Scottish Arabella of the Stuart line. In the years just before Elizabeth's death there were various plots, all foiled, to marry her to one or another descendant of the Suffolk line in a last ditch effort to shore up both these claims. After James's accession, in 1610, she finally succeeded, secretly marrying William Seymour of the Suffolk line. Their imprisonment upon discovery of the union by the Crown testifies to the continuing threat competing claims represented to James, claims that could be solidified and enhanced by marriage. Except for a brief escape, Arabella languished in jail until her death in 1615.

  56. The contemporary bearing of the threat of violence in the play is urged by the anachronistic references to cannon (e.g., 1.1.16, 2.1.77 and 210), not invented until long after John's reign.

  57. Wentworth, Exhortation, 21 and 25. He viewed the prospect as imminent on Elizabeth's death: “The breath shall be no sooner out of your body (if your successor be not settled in your life-time) but that al your nobility, counsellors, and whole people will be up in armes with all the speede they may” (101-2). Like others, he cited the Wars of the Roses as precedent for the “mercilesse shedding of rivers of innocent blood” and “the endlesse bloodie battailes” he foresaw (20, 104).

  58. Stafford, 196-97, 213. In that year he told his Parliament he was prepared to resort to arms, that he knew his right and would venture all for it (Hurstfield, 393)

  59. Parsons, Part I, B.3r-B.3v. Thomas Wilson echoes this view:

    Well I wot that a slender tittle oftentime sufficeth for clayming and gayning of a Kingdome where there is power and opportunity to gett the possession once, as hath been seen often in that poor Island, first by William the Conqueror, and often since that in the struggling of the houses of Lancaster and Yorke, where many times Might hath overcome Ryght.


  60. Elinor recognizes the distinction when she quips that John's title turns on “your strong possession much more than your right” (1.1.40).

  61. William Camden, Annales, The True and Royall History of the Famous Empress Elizabeth, Queene of England France and Ireland (London: Benjamin Fisher, 1625) Book I, 14. The principle, of course, reflected pragmatic considerations growing out of the immediate need for a king. As the legal historians Pollock and Maitland comment about John's accession: “Those barons who had not rejected John did the obvious thing, chose the obvious man as their leader. It was not a time for constitutional dissertations” (Pollock and Maitland, 1: 523).

  62. TR handles the double coronation very briefly (Pt. 1, 1480-96, and 1538f.), omitting the negative reaction Shakespeare dwells on.

  63. Writers' views about the process were, of course, inextricably intertwined with their advocacy of specific candidates: those who favored claimants more distant in blood were much more likely to advocate opening up the process to allow for other considerations (see Axton, 92). For example, Wentworth's Pithie Exhortation, probably written in 1587 when, from a Protestant point of view, the succession was clouded by the Catholic Mary Stuart's claim and the uncertain religious posture of her son James, advocates much greater power for Parliament than does his Treatise—written 7 or 8 years later, by which time James's Protestantism had been established—downplaying Parliament's role and emphasizing James's right to succeed.

  64. One measure of the continuing influence of these ideas in Parsons' work is the republication of parts of it in disguised form in 1648 and 1655 as part of the debate over republican government in England.

  65. See Christopher Hill, “The Many-Headed Monster,” in his Change and Continuity in Seventeenth-Century England (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975), 181-204.

  66. That involvement, according to the historian Mortimer Levine, “made it almost impossible for Elizabeth, no matter what she felt her authority should be, to settle the succession without Parliament” (Levine, 196; see also 147-151). Almost, but Elizabeth, as we have seen, was successful in keeping the discussion of her successor, let alone its determination, out of the representative public forum, Parliament. By the time Elizabeth's death finally occurred, Parliament was wholly excluded from naming the successor, that denomination officially accomplished by a proclamation signed by but fifteen nobles and privy councillors (Guy, 454).

  67. While it is overstating it to say that important characters are always named in the dialogue, here there is a complete absence of any spoken textual link between the Citizen and Hubert, and thus no reliable way for the audience witnessing a performance to recognize and make meaning out of Hubert's identification with the Citizen. Such connections as are offered are instead the product of editorial speculation.

  68. In a pithy summary of the distinction between the two figures, Deborah T. Curren-Aquino remarked that “the voice in Angiers suggests a front-of-the-walls person, while the Hubert of subsequent episodes is more of a behind-the-scenes individual” (private correspondence).

  69. See the careful and detailed analysis of this point in William Shakespeare, King John, ed. L. A. Beaurline (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 188-92.

  70. Shakespeare omits the disclaimer of the Citizen in TR that “we comptroll not your title” (Pt. 1, 67-28).

  71. Act 3, scene 7 of Richard III employs the same visual logic of priority, though reversing its terms (“Enter Richard of Gloucester aloft …” s.d., 3.7.941). In both, the vertical superiority of the party whose consent is sought punctuates how decisive that consent is to the nomination of the monarch.

  72. Wentworth, Exhortation, 25.

  73. His rebuke has no counterpart in TR. In a similar vein Constable accused Parsons of “meddlinge in these matters above your reache and capacitye” (4). Elizabeth's punitive policy was premised on the same charge.

  74. The kings' alliance is Shakespeare's addition; it is not in TR.

  75. Their posture, which causes “slaughter to be coupled to the name of kings” (2.1.349), is echoed in the Vietnam War era justification that “we had to destroy the town to save it.”

  76. It is also a Citizen in Shakespeare's Richard III who, on the death of Edward IV, marks the danger of such ambition in competing claimants: “For emulation who shall now be nearest Will touch us all too near, if God prevent not.” (2.3-25-26)

  77. Verstegen points out that the extraordinary character of the prize they seek impels the contestants to extreme measures: “Who of them is it, that will not dare to venture the uttermost of his meanes, for the gayning of no lesse a thing, then is this kingdom of England”(51).

  78. See Rackin, 185.

Further Reading

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Axton, Marie. “Miraculous Succession: ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle’ (1601).” In The Queen's Two Bodies: Drama and the Elizabethan Succession, pp. 116-30. London: Royal Historical Society, 1977.

Maintains that Shakespeare's poem, The Phoenix and the Turtle is both politically and philosophically motivated. The poem addresses Shakespeare's attitudes toward kingship, love, and duty—the same attitudes, Axton asserts, that are found in Shakespeare's histories and tragedies.

Erskine-Hill, Howard. “The First Tetralogy and King John.” In Poetry and the Realm of Politics: Shakespeare to Dryden, pp. 46-69. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.

Studies the extent to which providentialism is explored in the Henry VI tetralogy and King John, arguing that a providential explanation is not explicit in the tetralogy. In King John, the critic contends, Shakespeare makes specific allusions to contemporary events and suggests that both the papacy and the monarchy are guided only by self-interest.

Jones, Robert C. “King John: ‘Perfect Richard’ versus ‘This Old World.’” In These Valiant Dead: Renewing the Past in Shakespeare's Histories, pp. 46-68. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991.

Examines the issue of legal heritage in King John, demonstrating that despite the clarity of Arthur's legal claim to the throne, the conflict between Arthur and King John reveals the troublesome nature of “right.”

Levine, Nina S. “‘Accursed Womb, the Bed of Death’: Women and the Succession in Richard III.Renaissance Papers (1992): 17-27.

Explores the significance of the absence of women at the close of Richard III, observing that throughout the Henry VI tetralogy, women played vital roles, yet Shakespeare chose to portray the “glorious beginnings” of Tudor rule from an exclusively male point of view.

Thayer, C. G. “The Silent King; Providential Intervention, Fair Sequence and Succession.” In Shakespearean Politics: Government and Misgovernment in the Great Histories, pp. 62-93. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1983.

Analyzes Bolingbroke's silence as well as his actions and what they suggest about his motivations and succession to the throne.

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