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.