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Representations of Kingship and Power in Shakespeare's Second Tetralogy

Amanda Mabillard

Since it is impossible to know Shakespeare’s attitudes, beliefs, and play writing methodology, we can only present hypotheses, based upon textual evidence, regarding his authorial intention and the underlying didactic message found in the second tetralogy of history plays. In constructing his history plays, Shakespeare most likely relied upon the Chronicles of Froissart, and, primarily, Holinshed, but he altered and embellished the material found in these sources. Through an examination of both the plays and Shakespeare’s sources, we see that many of the changes are implemented to promote a deliberate political philosophy. The plays make the statement that the best possible ruler must be both anointed and politically shrewd. A monarch’s license to rule is not based simply on his or her divine right of succession, but also on his or her ability to shoulder the responsibility that comes with being divinely appointed – to lead the people wisely, placing the welfare of the nation above personal desire.

This philosophy seems to be a combination of Tudor and Machiavellian theories on the nature of kingship and power. Moreover, it is possible that this didactic message linking all four history plays in the second tetralogy was constructed as a reaction to the succession problem and the potentiality that Elizabeth and her council might choose an heir lacking in one or both of these areas. Thus, the plays, to a large extent, can be read as a collective guide to help Elizabeth select the next ruler of England.

In order to assess the credibility of the argument that the plays contain the didactic message that a ruler needs the combination of divine right and leadership qualities, we must examine the three main characters, Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V, as found in the chronicles and in the plays.

Overall, the Richard II found in Shakespeare’s play differs little from the Richard in the histories of Holinshed and Froissart. The historical events of Richard’s reign are kept in sequence and no significant changes are made to his character. However, it is the small and subtle changes to the chronicles that so effectively reshape the focus of the play from a simple report on history, to a dramatic lesson on the responsibilities of monarchs.

Many of the embellishments Shakespeare makes to the information he found in Holinshed’s Chronicles are directed towards stressing and reaffirming Richard’s status as a divinely sanctioned king. The first and most striking example is the way the character of Gaunt changes. Shakespeare’s portrayal of Gaunt is one of the few instances where he dramatically alters the source material of Holinshed1. In the Chronicles, Gaunt is a disorderly and rapacious magnate. However, in Richard II, Gaunt is the voice of reason, wisdom, and, above all, patriotism. It is likely that Shakespeare relied on the Chronicle of Froissart for his characterization of Gaunt. The following passage from Froissart’s Chronicle shows the similarities:
The duke of Lancastre was sore dyspleased in his mind to se the kynge his nephewe mysse use himselfe in dyvers thynges as he dyd. He consydred the tyme to come lyke a sage prince, and somtyme sayd to suche as he trusted best: Our nephue the kynge of Englande wyll shame all or he cease: he beleveth to lyghtly yvell counsayle who shall distroy hym; and symply, if he lyve longe, he wyll lese his realme, and that hath been goten with moche coste and travayle by our predecessours and by us; he suffreth to engendre in the realme bytwene the noble men hate and dyscorde, by whom he shulde be served and honoured, and this lande kept and douted . . . The Frenchman are right subtyle; for one myschiefe that falleth amonge us, they wolde it were ten, for otherwise they canne nat recover their dommages, nor come to their ententes, but by our owne means and dyscorde betwene ourselfe. And we se dayly that all realmes devyded are destroyed; . . . in lykewise amonge ourselfe, without God provyde for us, we shall destroy ourselfe; the apparaunce therof sheweth greatly. (John Froissart, Chronicles [London:, Macmillan, 1899], vi, 335-36).
"So also we are told by Froissart that Gaunt did not attempt to avenge the murder of his brother the Duke of Gloucester, but ‘wisely and amiably he appeased all these matters’. . ." (Peter Ure, Ed. Richard II [London: 1956], p.xxxiv). In these passages from Froissart is a Gaunt who greatly resembles Shakespeare’s character, but Shakespeare further enhances Gaunt’s patriotism and loyalty to the king in order to place the emphasis on Richard’s divine right to rule. In many of his speeches in the play, Gaunt emphatically expounds the importance of the Divine Right of Kings. The first of these speeches comes at the beginning of Act II, as Gaunt speaks with the Duchess of Gloucester. Gaunt knows Richard was an accomplice in the murder of Gloucester, but still he refuses to support any action that would put Richard’s crown at risk:
Gaunt. . . . To stir against the butchers of his life!
But since correction lieth in those hands
Which made the fault that we cannot correct,
Put we our quarrel to the will of heaven . . .( I, ii, 3-6)
God’s is the quarrel; for God’s substitute,
His deputy anointed in His sight,
Hath caused his death; the which is wrongfully,
Let heaven revenge; for I may never lift
An angry arm against His minister. (I, ii, 37-41)
Protecting Richard’s position as God’s vicegerent is extremely important to Gaunt. For whatever crimes Richard has committed, it is the responsibility of God alone, not Richard’s subjects, to judge and punish him for his offenses. Gaunt’s condemnation of disobedience to Richard because of Richard’s divine right to the crown exemplifies the Tudor political thought of the sixteenth century. The Tudors adopted the theory of the Divine Right of Kings in the attempt to maintain a strong government, and to counter the Papal authority as the state attempted to break away from the church. The theory became the foremost doctrine of the time regarding the nature of kingship, and rests on four main statements: (1) the monarchy is a divinely ordained institution; (2) heredity right is indefeasible (the right acquired by birth to rule must not be forfeited through any acts of usurpation); (3) kings are accountable to God alone; (4) non-resistance and passive obedience are enjoined by God (under any circumstances resistance to a king is a sin, and ensures damnation. (John Neville Figgis, The Divine Right of Kings, [London: 1923], p.8). The vehicles for the expression of Tudor propaganda were usually homilies and sermons. For example, in 1547, under Edward VI, a collection of homilies was produced that included An Exhortation concerning Good Order and Obedience to Rulers and Magistrates. It declares the following:

It is intolerable ignorance, madness, and wickedness for subjects to make any murmuring, rebellion or insurrection against their most dear and most dread sovereign Lord and King, ordained and appointed by God’s goodness for their commodity, peace, and quietness. (As quoted in B.L. Joseph, Shakespeare’s Eden [London: 1971], p.176)

Turning our attention once again to Richard II, we see that Gaunt’s words to the Duchess of Gloucester match the sentiment found in the following excerpt from a sermon by Hugh Latimer, the famed Bishop of Worcester, written in 1551:
God hath sent us a noble king in this his visitation; let us not provoke against him. Let us beware; let us not displease him; let us receive with all obedience and prayer the word of God. . . .I hear say ye walk inordinately, ye talk unseemly, otherwise it becometh Christian subjects: yea take upon you to judge the judgments of judges. I will not make the king a pope; for the pope will have all things that he doth taken for an article of our faith. I will not say but the king and his council may err; I pray daily that they may not err. It becometh us, whatsoever they decree, to stand unto it, and receive it obediently. . . . (Hugh Latimer, Sermons [Cambridge: 1950], p.148)
Gaunt’s speeches in Act II, scene I, are (as any theater-patron at the time would recognize) foreshadowing the actions of Bolingbroke and the suffering that will occur as a result. Bolingbroke will make countless other English men and women feel the repercussions of his act of deposing the rightful King Richard.

Gaunt’s transformation from Holinshed’s greedy aristocrat who cares little for the commonwealth into Shakespeare’s patriotic voice of Tudor England is the most significant example of Shakespeare’s additions and alterations implemented to stress the importance of Richard’s ordained right to rule. However, there are other additions in the drama that also work to this end. In Holinshed’s Chronicles, it is reported that York is left in charge while Richard is in Ireland, and that he raises a small army to confront Bolingbroke and his men. But it is in vain because York’s army refuses to fight against the beloved Bolingbroke. York then "came foorth into the church that stood without the castell, and there communed with the duke of Lancaster" (Holinshed, Chronicles [New York: AMS Press,1965], p.102), and he listed as one among the many who came "flocking unto him eueire part." (Chronicles, p. 102). York’s feelings are ambiguous in this passage. He clearly obeys his orders and tries to fight Bolingbroke, but he seems to change sides and join Bolingbroke without compunction or hostility. In Richard II, however, York’s dislike of Bolingbroke’s actions is clear:
York. Tut, tut! Grace me no grace, nor uncle me no uncle!
I am no traitor’s uncle, and that word ‘grace’
In an ungracious mouth is but profane. . . .
Coms’t thou because the anointed king is hence.. .
York, in the play, is outraged that Bolingbroke would consider rebelling against Richard. His speech draws attention to Richard’s anointed status. Having no choice, York goes along with Bolingbroke, but he is bitter: "It may be I go with you./But yet I’ll pause/For I am loath to break our country’s laws." (II.iii.166-168).

Another addition Shakespeare’s makes to the drama not found in the sources is a speech given by Richard. Richard’s brief initial confidence before Salisbury brings the news that his men have joined Bolingbroke is mention briefly in Holinshed. However, the speech Richard gives is created by Shakespeare, and further illustrates Richard’s divine right:
[Bolingbroke’s] treasons will sit blushing on his face,
Not able to endure the sight of day,
But self-affrighted tremble at his sin.
Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm off from an anointed king. (III. ii. 51-55)
It is obvious that all of the additions Shakespeare makes to his play, discussed so far, are primarily intended to show how terrible the crime of rebellion is against a legitimate ruler. But the additions also illustrate the importance of legitimacy itself. Richard has gained the throne by the law of primogeniture, and has license to control England because he is a divinely-ordained king. Although Richard, as we will see, is grossly incompetent at managing the affairs of the realm, he is legitimate; he has right on his side, and, therefore, he has one of the qualifications that make a successful ruler.

What Richard is lacking is the ability to make shrewd political decisions. He is ordained and has the rightful authority and obligation to lead his subjects, but, being weak and self-absorbed, he cannot fulfill his duty. His ineffectiveness is shown in the Chronicles of Holinshed, but to a far lesser extent than in the play. Many additions Shakespeare makes to Richard II are designed to emphasize Richard’s divine right, but so too are many passages added that bring to light Richard’s flaws in the area of governance. Subsequently, the additions illustrate that Richard is not the best possible ruler because he does not have the combination of legitimacy and political savvy.

In the Chronicles, Holinshed reports that Richard II banishes Bolingbroke because Bolingbroke cannot solve his quarrel with Mowbray peacefully. It seems a necessary decision in the Chronicles – Richard desires to end the argument, and no other motive of Richard is implied. But in the play, Richard makes the following speech after Bolingbroke is banished that impugns his motives behind the removal of Bolingbroke:
He is our cousin, cousin; but ‘tis
When time shall call him home from banishment,
Whether our kinsman come to see his friends.
Ourself and Bushy here, Bagot and Green,
Observ’d his courtship to the common people—
How he did seem to dive into their hearts
With humble and familiar courtesy; . . .
As were our England in reversion his,
And he our subjects’ next degree in hope. (I.iv.19-36)
It is apparent that Richard’s motivation in the play for banishing Bolingbroke is jealousy. Although severely punishing a man so beloved by the people for a minor offense is political folly, Richard does not seem to take this into consideration. He shows his weakness as a ruler by allowing his emotions to shape his decisions. This passage also illustrates that Richard has not been able to interact effectively with the English people; he has done nothing to gain their support. This estrangement from the common people is politically disastrous. The necessity of having the support of the common people is the basis of several chapters in Machiavelli’s The Prince (Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince [New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1988], Ch. VIII-XV). In both the play and The Prince we see that the ability to influence public opinion is the key to political success, a concept that Richard cannot grasp.

Holinshed’s Chronicles recount how Richard had to ‘farme the realm’ and impose blank charters on the people as a source of revenue: "And the charters were sent abroad into all shires of the realme, whereby great grudge and murmuring arose among the people . . ." (Chronicles, p. 90). Holinshed does not say for what purpose Richard used the money. Shakespeare, however, adds the following passage:
Richard. We will ourself in person to this war;
And, for our coffers, with too great a court,
. . .We are enforc’d to farme our royal realme,
The revenue whereof shall furnish us
Our affairs in hand. If that come short,
Our substitutes at home shall have blank charters . . .(I, iv, 41-48)
To take the money of his already poverty-stricken subjects and use it to finance the war in Ireland is a politically-disastrous decision.2 Machiavelli writes that confiscating the property of his subjects frivolously is the worst mistake a ruler can make (Machiavelli, p. 64). It is likely no coincidence that Shakespeare chooses to emphasize Richard’s use of the money for a cause so unacceptable to the people.

Richard’s lack of political ability is also the basis for the inclusion of a speech by York in the play. In Holinshed’s Chronicles, it is reported that York was displeased with Richard, but the reason why he was displeased are not given. In Richard II however, Shakespeare’s provides us with this information, giving a detailed account of Richard’s faults:
York. [Richard’s ear] is stopp’d with other flattering sounds,
As praises, of whose taste the wise are fond,
Lascivious meters, to whose venom sound
The open ear of youth doth always listen—
Report of fashions in proud Italy,
Whose manners still our tardy apish nation
Limps after in base imitation. . . .
. . . there’s no respect how vile—
That is not quickly buzz’d into his ears.(II.i.17-30)
A few lines later, Gaunt reaffirms this description of the effeminate king:
. . . Thy deathbed is no lesser than thy land,
Wherein thou liest in reputation sick;
. . . A thousand flatterers sit within thy crown,
Whose compass is no bigger then thy head . . .
O, had thy grandsire with a prophet’s eye
Seen how his son’s son should destroy his sons,
From forth thy reach he would have laid thy shame,
Deposing thee before thou wert possess’d. . . .(II.i.93-107)
It is possible that these speeches were added by Shakespeare for purely dramatic purposes, but, more plausibly, the lines spoken by York and Gaunt were inserted to illuminate the political foibles of Richard, a ruler led by self-serving flatterers, and more concerned with fashion than public opinion or the good of the realm. These passages echo the words of Machiavelli:
What will make [the ruler] despised is being considered inconstant, frivolous, effeminate, pusillanimous, and irresolute: a ruler must avoid contempt as if it were a reef. He should contrive that his actions should display grandeur, courage, seriousness and strength . . . A ruler who succeeds in creating such an image of himself will enjoy a fine reputation; and it will be difficult to plot against him or to attack him. . . A ruler will effectively protect himself from this danger if he avoids incurring hatred and contempt, and keeps the people satisfied with him. It is essential to do this . . . (Machiavelli, p.64).
Richard believes that his status as anointed king is the only attribute he needs to govern successfully, and so he makes no effort to display those traits that both the Prince and the play deem vital. Through greed, complacency, and naiveté, Richard loses the support of the populous and incurs their contempt, and subsequently, leaves himself vulnerable to plots and attacks.

In Holinshed’s Chronicles, Richard steals Bolingbroke’s property, and Holinshed mentions that "this hard dealing was much disliked by all the nobilitie, and cried out against of the meaner sort; but namelie the duke of York was therewith sore mooued . . ." (Chronicles, p. 102). Shakespeare, however, embellishes what is found in the Chronicles and creates a speech by York designed to forewarn Richard that his decision to confiscate Bolingbroke’s land will have dire consequences:
York: . . .If you do wrongfully seize Herford’s rights,
Call in the letter-patents that he hath
By his attorneys general to sue
His livery, and deny his off’red homage,
You pluck a thousand dangers on your head,
You lose a thousand well-disposed hearts. . .(II.i.200-206)
Richard rejects York’s warning and superciliously replies:
Think what you will, we seize into our hands
His plate, his goods, his money, and his lands (II, i, 208-210)
Once again, Shakespeare adds passages not found in any of his sources; passages befitting the didactic purpose of the play, intended to illustrate Richard’s political mistakes and his lack of concern for governing properly. York’s warning is a reiteration of Machiavellian doctrine: "What will make [the ruler] hated, above all else, is being rapacious and seizing the property. . .of his subjects" (Machiavelli, p.64). According to Machiavelli, above all else, the confiscation of property is the worst action a ruler can take. Richard, playing perfectly the role of an incompetent ruler, does not even give it a second thought 3 .

By Richard’s insistence that he need do nothing for the good of the nation except sit on his divinely-appointed throne, he has committed the crime of gross negligence against his subjects. The effect Richard’s behavior has on the country is evident in the garden scene, unique to Shakespeare’s play:
Servant: Why should we in the compass of a pale
Keep law and form and due proportion,
Showing, as in a model, our firm estate,
When our sea-walled garden, the whole land,
Is full of weeds, her fairest flowers chok’d up,
Her fruit trees all unprun’d, and her hedges ruin’d,
Her knots disorder’d, and her wholesome herbs
Swarming with caterpillars. (40-46)
In this extended metaphor for England, we see that just as a garden must be tended continually with loving care by the gardener if it is to grow and bear fruit, so must the country be tended by its ruler to ensure it functions properly. Thus, this passage captures both the central moral message of the play, and the deep sadness that Richard’s subjects feel as he allows his England to deteriorate. The servants, in keeping with the play’s message that the deposition of a king is always wrong, do not condone the usurpation by any means – they simply wish things had been different:
Gardner: . . . Bolingbroke
Hath seized the wasteful king. O, what pity is it
That he had not so trimm’d and dress’d his land
As we this garden! We at time of year
Do wound the bark, the skin of our fruit trees,
Lest, being overproud in sap and blood,
With too much riches it confound itself.
Had he done so to great and growing men,
They might have liv’d to bear and he to taste
Their fruits of duty.(III.iv.53-63)
The only recourse for the Gardner and Servant is to ponder how life would be different if Richard had put the needs of the people before his own. Richard’s selfishness and lack of Machiavellian political sophistication have thrown the country into crisis, and will cost him his own life. Thus, we see that Shakespeare’s changes serve to illustrate both the importance of Richard’s status as an anointed king, and the disastrous consequences that result from his inability to make shrewd political decisions. Richard has only one of the facets that makes a successful ruler.


In the second tetralogy, King Henry IV is politically shrewd – he is the antithesis of Richard II. Henry has all the characteristics of a great Machiavellian despot and, were this enough, he would be the consummate ruler and have a peaceful reign. But, unfortunately, Henry IV comes to the throne as a usurper and an illegitimate monarch. He does not have the Divine Right of Kings and, moreover, he was responsible for the death of God’s anointed Richard. Because of these factors, Henry’s ability to rule is diminished, and instability is the order of the day.

Henry Bolingbroke’s political sophistication becomes apparent early in Richard II through Shakespeare’s dramatic manipulation of his sources. In the Chronicles, Holinshed mentions briefly the common people’s love of Bolingbroke:
A woonder it was to see what number of people ran after him in euerie towne and street where he came, before he took the sea; lamenting and bewailing his departure, as who would saie, that when he departed, the only shield, defense, and comfort of the commonwealth was vaded and gone (Chronicles, p.89).
In the play, however, Shakespeare creates a speech for Richard that reveals not only the tremendous affection the people have for Bolingbroke, but, more significantly, it reveals how he has gained their favor:
How he did seem to dive into their hearts
With humble and familiar courtesy;
What reverence he did throw away on slaves,
Wooing poor craftsman with the craft of smiles
And patient underbearing of his fortune,
As ‘twere to banish their affects with him.
Off goes his bonnet to an oyster-wench;
A brace of draymen bid God speed him well
And had the tribute of his supple knee. . .(I.iv.25-33)
Although he does not yet have his sights set on the crown, Bolingbroke is using his political savvy to gain the support of the masses. He is already living up to the ideal Machiavellian statesman whose primary goal is "to seem merciful, trustworthy, humane, upright and devout" (Machiavelli, p.62). In giving these lines to Richard, a man who desperately needs the loyalty of the people but who cannot see the importance of Bolingbroke’s method of manipulating the people’s affection, Shakespeare creates a moment of great irony.

Bolingbroke’s leadership qualities are again the focus of attention at the beginning of Act IV in Richard II. Shakespeare relies on Holinshed’s report of Aumerle being accused by Bagot of the murder of Gloucester 4. But, in Richard II, unlike in the Chronicles, the historical event is manipulated so that it resembles the confrontation between Bolingbroke and Mowbray earlier in the play. Its position right before the deposition scene has great significance. "Just as Bolingbroke had earlier in the play accused Mowbray of complicity in the death of Gloucester, now Bagot confronts Aumerle with the same charge, and challenges are thrown down on either side. Richard’s inability to handle just such a conflict between powerful nobles had been one of the causes of his downfall. Bolingbroke, however, is complete master of the situation. This scene, writes John Palmer, was ‘clearly designed to show that Bolingbroke has the political tact and resolution in which Richard has proved so grievously deficient.’" (Irving Ribner, The English History Play [London:1965], p.160)

In the drama, after Bolingbroke has seized the crown, he feels it necessary to voyage to the Holy Land to wash the blood off his guilty hands (Richard II, But Holinshed reports that Henry went on a crusade only during the final year of his reign, and there is no mention of why Henry decides to leave, other than to destroy the infidels. While it is obvious that Henry feels remorse for his actions, it is not likely that this is the sole motivation for his sojourn abroad. His true reason for leaving is better seen in his speech which opens Henry IV, Part I:
So shaken as we are, so wan with care,
Find we a time for frighted peace to pant,
And breathe short-winded accents of new broils
To be commenc’d in stronds afar remote.
No more the thirsty entrance of this soil
Shall daub her lips with her own children’s blood . . .
Those opposed eyes/Which like the meteors of a troubled heaven,
. . . Did lately meet in the intestine shock
And furious close of civil butchery,
Shall now in mutual well-beseeming ranks
March all one way . . .(I.i.1-15)
Henry may be remorseful for usurping the throne and ordering the murder of Richard, but his method of penance seems to be too charged politically for guilt to be the main reason for his actions. Henry is using the crusade as a way "to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels"(Henry IV, Part II, IV.v.213). "The crusade will serve . . . to calm the political passions which he has himself exploited . . ." (Derek Traversi, Shakespeare: From Richard II to Henry V [Stanford: 1957], p.51), and it might serve as the foundation for a solid reign. In this instance, the connection to Machiavelli is striking:
Nothing enables a ruler to gain more prestige than undertaking great campaigns . . . In our own times Ferdinand of Aragon, the present King of Spain is a notable example. . . . This man attacked Granada at the beginning of his reign, and this campaign laid the foundations of his state. First of all, he began the campaign . . . when he was not afraid of being opposed: he kept the minds of the barons of Castile occupied with that war . . and, meanwhile, he was acquiring prestige. . . . Moreover, he continued to make use of religion, resorting to a cruel and apparently pious policy of . . . hunting down the Moors . . . he [also] attacked Africa; he invaded Italy; and recently he has attacked France. (Machiavelli, p.77)
Henry is the archetypal Machiavellian ruler, and his attempt to wage a crusade is sheer brilliance according to Machiavellian doctrine. However evident Henry’s abilities are in the above passage, no scene in the play illustrates Henry’s political astuteness better than when Henry confronts his son, Hal, in Henry IV, Part I. The basis of this scene comes from Holinshed. He writes that the tales Henry had heard about Hal "brought no small suspicion into the kings head, least his son would presume to vsurpe the crowne . . ." (Chronicles, p.154). It is then reported that they reconcile. Shakespeare, building upon this historical reconciliation, includes a speech by Henry who describes how he achieved power:
Opinion, that did help me to the crown,
Had still kept loyal to possession,
And left me in reputeless banishment,
A fellow of no mark nor likelihood.
By being seldom seen, I could not stir
But like a comet I was wondered at;
That men would tell their children ‘This is he.’
Others would say, ‘Where? Which is Bolingbroke?’
And then I stole all courtesy from heaven,
And dressed myself in such humility
That I did pluck allegiance from men’s hearts . . .(III.ii.42-52 )

. . . The skipping king, he ambled up and down,
With shallow jesters, and rash bavin wits,
Soon kindled, and soon burnt, carded his state,
Mingled his royalty with cap’ring fools . . .
Enfeoff’d himself to popularity [low company] . . .
So when he had occasion to be seen . . .
. . . seen, but with such eyes
As sick and blunted with community,
Afford no extra gaze,
Such as is bent on sun-like majesty,
When it shines seldom in admiring eyes . . .(III.ii.60-78)
The key reason why Henry’s political abilities are essential to govern successfully is given in the above passage. Henry, because of his desire to keep the favor of the common people, will perform any action, and assume any persona. It does not matter if he is insincere, as long as he conveys the right sentiment to the people , as long as he appears "merciful, trustworthy, upright, humane, and devout" (Machiavelli, p.63). He understands that "the common people are impressed by appearances . . . [and that] everywhere the common people are the vast majority and the few 5 are isolated when the majority and the government are at one." (Machiavelli, p.63).

His political sophistication, i.e. his awareness of the necessity of the people’s support, will lead him to make decisions based on what will benefit the state and the common men and women, unlike Richard, "the skipping king", who turns a blind eye to the needs and wants of his subjects, and repeatedly makes foolish decisions based on envy, avarice, and gullibility. The contrast between the characteristics of a good versus a bad ruler, outlined in The Prince, can apply directly to Richard II and Henry IV as presented in the tetralogy: "one is considered . . . effeminate and weak, another indomitable and spirited; one affable, another haughty; one lascivious, another moderate; one serious, another frivolous . . . " (Machiavelli, p.55). It should me noted that, as Lily B. Campbell points out 6, in Holinshed’s Chronicles, after Henry comes to the throne, he seems to lose his political savvy, and incurs the wrath of many subjects:
But yet to speake a truth, by his proceedings, after he had attained to the crowne, what with such taxes, tallages, subsidies, and exactions as he was constreined to charge the people with . . . [the people] did sundrie times rebell against him, he wan himself more hatred . . . than had been possible for him to haue weeded out and removed . . . " (Holinshed, p.157) 7 .
In Henry IV, Part I, however, Shakespeare does not indicate that Henry has lost his rapport with the common people, or his political sophistication. In the play a handful of his nobles rebel, but it is because they are power hungry, not because Henry is an ineffectual ruler. Moreover, while the play does not mention any of the political mistakes Henry makes in Holinshed’s Chronicles, there are several instances in the play that support the claim that Henry has not lost his abilities as a competent and intelligent leader. In the play, Shakespeare places more emphasis on Henry’s role in crushing the rebellion at the end of Henry IV, Part I than does his sources. In Holinshed, Henry is whisked away by the Earl of March 8, who "perciuing [Hotspur’s] purpose, withdrew the king from that side of the field" (Chronicles, p.146) so that he would be safe. But, in the drama, Henry IV is at the front, in command, and ready to fight along side his son Hal. Henry IV has the final word in Henry IV, Part I, assuring us that he himself will see to it that the rebels are subjugated:
Myself and you, son Harry, will towards Wales,
To fight with Glendower and the Earl of March.
Rebellion in this land shall loose his sway,
Meeting the check of such another day,
And since this business so fair is done,
Let us not leave till all our own be won. (Henry IV, Part I, V.iv.39-44)
Henry’s mastery of the Machiavellian rules on successful leadership is what would enable him to be the consummate monarch if it were not for his illegitimacy.

Usurping the crown is the cause of Henry IV’s troublesome rule. Not only does the crime plague his thoughts, but it seems to have cursed his reign with rebellion, and tainted future generations. In Holinshed’s Chronicles, the Bishop of Carlisle gives as speech before parliament in support of Richard as he does in Richard II. Holinshed reports that Carlisle "a man both learned and wise, and stout of stomach, boldlie shewed forth his opinion concerning that demand; affirming that there was no amongst them worthy to meet of giue iudgment upon so noble a prince as King Richard . . . (he said) there is not so rank a traitor, nor so errant a thief [than Bolingbroke] . . . I say, that the duke of Lancaster, whom ye call king, hath more trespassed to King Richard than King Richard hath doone . . . to him . . ." (Chronicles, p.116). Carlisle’s outrage is clear in the Chronicles and passage bears great resemblance to Carlisle’s speech in the play. However, Shakespeare adds the following dialogue:
My Lord of Hereford here, whom you call king,
Is a foul traitor to proud Hereford’s king.
And if you crown him, let me prophesy,
The blood of England shall manure the ground
And future ages groan for this foul act. . . .
Disorder, horror, fear, and mutiny
Shall here inhabit, and this land be call’d
The field of Golgotha and dead men’s skulls.
O, if you raise this house against this house,
It will the woefullest division prove
That ever fell upon this cursed earth. (Richard II, IV.i.135-148)
In the drama, Carlisle does not only oppose Henry’s assent to the throne, he prophesies that England shall pay dearly for crowning Henry. Once again we see a reflection of Tudor doctrine that warns against rebellion, with disturbers of the social order about ‘to disinherit their innocent children and kinsman their heirs forever.’ (Sermons, p.511). The houses Carlisle refers to are those of Lancaster and York, and the trouble their division brings is the War of the Roses. But this will have the effect of dividing the larger ‘house’ which is England herself, and therefore, Carlisle’s words are also reminiscent of the biblical teaching found in Mark, 3.25: "And if a kingdom be divided against itself, that kingdom cannot continue/And if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot continue."

It is not just the future generations that will suffer as a result of the usurpation. Henry’s reign itself will be plagued with disorder, despite his political abilities. In a meeting with Northumberland, not found in any of Shakespeare’s sources, Richard warns that "The time shall not be many hours of age/More than it is, ere foul sin gathering head/Shall break into corruption.Thou shalt think/though he divide the realm and give thee half/It is too little, helping him to all." (V.i.57-60). Richard’s prophesy is accurate. Those nobles that helped Henry to the throne who ‘knowest the way to plant unrightful kings/ wilt know again’ and they will turn on Henry as Henry turned on Richard.

The rebellion of Henry’s allies in Richard II comes early in Henry IV, Part I. Henry’s plans to travel to the Holy Land are interrupted by the trouble brewing at home. While it is true that these men all have personal reasons for rebelling, we cannot help but think that there is divine guidance at work, fulfilling Richard’s prophesy, causing Henry’s reign to be tumultuous. The structure of the plays certainly supports this theory. Richard II died in 1400, and Shakespeare ends Richard II with Henry just beginning his reign. But at the start of Henry IV, Part I, it seems that no time has passed since the death of Richard. The excursion to the Holy Land is still in Henry’s mind, and the action seems to take up right where it left off in Richard II. However, in the sources, it is reported that the opening scene in the play occurred years after Henry obtained the crown. Henry, in the drama, is immediately faced with the rebellion prophesied in Richard II once he takes office, and this subsequently gives a greater credibility to the idea that the rebellion is more a divine punishment than a simple, typical uprising that could happen to any king at any time.

In addition to the external trouble he faces as king, Henry IV has to face his inner distress and guilt over his crime of usurpation. In a scene unique to Shakespeare, we see King Henry in his nightgown, unable to sleep, lamenting that ‘uneasy lies the head that wears the crown’ (IV.v.31). This scene exemplifies the mental state of Henry. He is depressed, afraid, and suspicious of everyone, even his son. His disturbed conscience is most likely a result of ordering the murder of another human being, but it also stems from his realization that he does need the divine right to rule – a truth that he ignored on his journey to power. His mental unrest is due to the guilt he feels over usurping a crown intended only for those who are ordained by God through the law of primogeniture. If Henry had lived much longer, is seems likely that his mental state, which is a direct result of being illegitimate, would have destroyed him, and inevitably hindered his decision-making abilities, which would have been bad for England.

Because he is not the rightful heir to the throne, Henry’s reign is tainted with disorder, both civilly, and in his own mind, and these problems hurt the nation and the people – this is why Henry fails as king. Without this necessary license to govern, it seems likely that, no matter how many rebellions Henry could quash, that many more would arise as part of his divine punishment. Although he is a strong, intelligent leader, and has all the savvy and sophistication needed to have a successful rule if that were the only criteria, that fact that he is illegitimate hinders his ability to be the perfect monarch.


If the plays indeed work toward teaching what attributes the right ruler for England must have, we learn this lesson best by watching Henry’s son, Hal. The political savvy and consecrated authority finally unite in the character of Henry V. From the first time we see him, with the lads in Eastcheap, we see he is already much like his father; much like the Machiavellian Prince. In the Chronicles, Holinshed mentions that Hal caroused with pickthanks and rabble-rousers "with whome he spent the time in such recreations, exercises, and delights as he fancied" (Chronicles, p.141). But the time Hal spends in Eastcheap, drinking and stealing, is not reported in the Chronicles. The scene is no doubt incorporated into the play for the sake of comedy, but it also shines a light on Hal’s nature and his motivation for consorting with the likes of Falstaff. We soon see that Hal is not simply having a good time – Hal is politically motivated:
So when this loose behavior I throw off,
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes,
And like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glittering o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly, and attract more eyes,
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I’ll so offend, to make offence a skill,
Redeeming time when men least think I will. (I.ii.214-223)
What Hal reveals in this speech is not, as some suggest, a sinister nature and a desire to betray his friends, but, instead, he reveals his plan to achieve popularity amongst the people he knows he will one day rule. Hal has every intention of leaving behind his life of wine and petty theft. His mischievous behavior is merely part of a political maneuver to look as good as possible when he does finally gain power. In addition, his association with Falstaff and the others gives him a relationship to the common people that will be vital to his reign as Henry V. This passage foretells how successful Hal will be when he obtains the throne. In the words of Machiavelli: . . . "experience shows us that in our times the rulers who have done great things are those who have set little store by keeping their word, being skillful rather in cunningly confusing men . . . " (Machiavelli, p.61).

Later in the play, in more passages unique to Shakespeare’s work, we see just well Hal’s plan has worked. During the battle to crush the rebels, Hotspur and his men are expecting to see the ‘nimble-footed madcap Prince of Wales' (IV.i.97-109). What they do see, however, is regal Hal, in full gear, ready to fight, and they are amazed:
Hotspur: Where is [Henry’s] son,
. . . And his comrades that daff’d the world aside
And bid it pass?
Vernon: All furnish’d, all in arms,
All plumed like estridges that woo the wind;
Bating like eagles having lately bath’d,
Glittering in golden coats like images,
. . . And gorgeous as the sun at midsummer:
. . . I saw young Harry with his beaver on,
His cushes on his thighs, gallant’ly arm’d,
Rise from the ground like feathered Mercury,
And vaulted with such ease into his seat,
As if an angel dropp’d down from the clouds . . .
And witch the world with a noble horseman. (IV.i.94-110)
This rather normal scene of a prince in armor, mounting his horse, would not strike awe into the hearts of seasoned soldiers if it were not for Hal’s cunning plan to ‘falsify men’s hopes.’ His reformation has indeed attracted many eyes. Even when Hal simply challenges Hotspur to a duel, he receives praise:
Vernon: No, by soul, I never in my life
Did hear a challenge urg’d more modestly . . .
. . . And, which became him like a prince indeed,
He made a blushing cital of himself,
And chid his truant youth with such a grace
As if he master’d there a double spirit
Of teaching and learning instantly. (p.121)
Thus, not only has Hal’s time in Eastcheap brought him closer to the common people, but it has helped him seem like an extraordinarily strong and valiant future ruler in the eyes of the nobility.

When Henry does inherit the throne he maintains the wonderful image he has molded for himself in Henry IV, Part I, and he proves to be a shrewd decision-maker. He is also a good military strategist (I.ii.136-139). Although it is not explicit, there seems to be some potent Machiavellian maneuvering occurring in the scene with the Dauphin. Before the Dauphin comes in to state his case, Henry has already decided to invade France. He says:
Now we are well resolved, and by God’s help
And yours, the noble sinews of our power,
France being ours, we’ll bend it to our awe
Or break it all to pieces . . . (I.ii.221-225)
Henry, according to the above passage, has every intention to move full force against France. However, he still hears the Dauphin, so that he might seem deliberative and merciful:
We are no tyrant, but a Christian king,
Unto whose grace our passion is as subject
As is our wretches fett’red in our prisons.
Therefore with frank and uncurbed plainness
Tell us the Dolphin’s mind.(I.ii.241-245)
But when the Dauphin presents to Henry what he calls "a tun of treasure", and it consists of nothing more than tennis balls, Henry is outraged and refuses to be lenient. This series of events is chronicled in Holinshed, but they take on a deeper significance in the play when viewed in conjunction with Henry’s passion to be the perfect ruler.

The Dauphin could not have made things easier for Henry. With this inane gift, he has insulted Henry and has given him the motive he needs to fight a war that is deemed necessary on suspicious grounds 9 without remorse. Henry can now assume his "lion persona" (Machiavelli, p.65), and show his strength:
When we have match’d our rackets to these balls,
We will in France, by God’s grace, play a set
Shall strike his father’s crown into the hazard.
. . . And tell the pleasant prince this mock of his
Hath turn’d his balls to gunstones, and his soul
Shall stand sore charged for the wasteful vengeance
That shall fly with him . . .
Some might think that this reaction comes merely because Henry has been insulted and that he is acting out of personal spite, but if we consider the whole portrayal of Henry as the cunning man who ‘falsifies men’s hopes’ to achieve political advantages, we must assume that his actions are based on more than feeling personally embarrassed. To react so harshly for no other reason than ridicule would be a move Richard II would make. As we saw in the early part of Henry IV, Part I, when he gained the reputation of a lowly rabble-rouser, Henry can take ridicule if it brings him further to a desired political end. It is not so much the insult that prompts him to wage a full-scale assault on France, rather, it is that the insult gives him the justification for declaring war.

France has mocked the monarch – which is mocking England herself. And his loving, patriotic subjects will not stand for that. Moreover, Henry’s reply, full of pomp and righteous indignation, convincingly passes the blame onto the Dauphin. Henry makes it seem that whatever Henry does to France is the Dauphin’s fault entirely. Henry declares, because of this rather trivial insult, it is God’s will that he fight with France: "But all this lies within the will of God/To whom I do appeal and in whose name/Tell you the Dauphin, I am coming forth/To venge me as I may and to put forth/My rightful hand in a well-hallow’d cause" (II.i.289-293 ).

Some critics believe that Henry’s reason for going to France is entirely noble and moral. As Lily B Cambell writes: "Henry IV has advised his son to ‘busy giddy minds/With foreign quarrels;’ but that advice is passed over in the new play, and both Shakespeare and Henry V are justifying the war on high moral grounds . . . " (Lily B. Campbell, Shakespeare’s Histories [London: 1964], p.261). Textual evidence, however, does not seem to support this argument. Before the Dauphin’s messenger arrives, Henry does discuss matters with the archbishop and does seek his solemn advice, asking "May I with right conscience make this claim", and, of course Canterbury agrees, but the decision to wage war is not really based on moral high ground – their lengthy deliberation is more a formality than a solemn concern that they have the moral right to invade France. This becomes apparent especially if we consider that the archbishop clearly has a personal desire to wage war. Canterbury’s assertion that his complicated and legalistic [and dubious] argument makes Henry’s claim to the French throne ‘as clear as the summer’s sun’, has to be read ironically. (Charles Boyce, Shakespeare A to Z [London: 1992], p. 200).

In addition, Henry’s desire to receive from Canterbury the permission to go to war – to ‘with right conscience make this claim’ – stems more likely from a need to put the weight of the decision on someone else’s head, rather than a true desire to ensure he has a completely rightful and moral claim to the French land. "That the archbishop and not Henry makes the argument [to wage war] demonstrates Henry’s manipulative nature; he places the onus on the archbishop. He cautions him in I.ii.13-28, that the justification of war is a mighty responsibility, but he refuses to accept that responsibility when Williams makes a similar point in IV.i." (Bryce, p.266). Thus, in this scene, it appears that Henry has proven to be a true Machiavellian ‘prince’; he now has license take his fathers advice and busy the giddy minds of his subjects in foreign quarrels, and also to obtain a large amount of precious land for the realm, and he has rested the onus on the heads of the Archbishop of Canterbury and on the Dauphin of France while he will go on to accept all the praise in true Machiavellian style.

Once on the campaign, it becomes obvious that Henry knows well the art of war. And, according to Machiavelli, "being proficient in this art is what enables one to [maintain] power . . . . A ruler who does not understand military matters cannot be regarded highly by his soldiers, and he cannot trust them." (Machiavelli, p.52). In the Chronicles, Holinshed reports that Henry "sent the word, that, except they would surrender the towne to him the morrow without anie condition, they should spend no more in talke about the matter. Yet at length the king was contented to grant them truce vntill nine of clocke the next sundaie . . . (Chronicles, p.155). But, in the play, Henry does not tell others to ‘send them the word’, he himself goes to the gates of the town and yells a warning to the people:
If not [surrender]—why, in a moment look to see
The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
Defile the locks of your shrill-shreaking daughters,
Your fathers taken by the silver beards
And their most reverend heads dash’d to the walls,
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes . . . (Henry V, III.iii.33-37)
Henry does not leave the dirty work up to others, he moves right in and does it himself – in a way that only Henry could, using his showmanship to achieve the capture of the town. In the play, moreover, the response of the town is immediate. Henry does not need to grant the people days to decide as he does in Holinshed. Not only does Henry get the town without a fight, but he no doubt looks all the more powerful and amazing in the eyes of his soldiers because of this shrewd political move.

Combined with his incredible ability to govern with strength and intelligence, Henry is also a legitimate king. His father knows that the stain of his usurpation will not affect Henry V:
By what by-paths and indirect crook’d ways
I met this crown; and I myself know well
How troublesome it sat upon my head:
To thee it shall descend with better quiet . . .
. . . For all my reign hath been but a scene
Acting that argument; and now my death
Changes the mode: for what in me was purchas’d,
Falls upon thee in a more fairer sort;
So thou the garment wear’st successively. (Henry IV, Part II, IV.v.183-200)
Henry V, with a clear conscience and the Lord on his side, has the Divine Right of Kings. He has God's permission to govern England as seen in the following passages: "By me kings reign, and princes decree justice" (Proverbs 8,16) and ". . . to the intent that the living may know that the most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomever he will, and set it up over the basest of men." (Daniel 4,17) 10 Although Henry V has this divine right, and is accountable only to God, he believes that his license to rule is not based simply on his status as anointed king, but based equally on his ability to shoulder the responsibility that comes with this appointment, leading the people justly by making shrewd and calculated political decisions. Richard II is sanctioned, but he uses his power, not to promote England and make her and her people stronger, but to satisfy his personal desires. Richard’s motivation behind his political decisions is at times jealously, greed, and vanity, but never is it concern for the realm.

Conversely, Henry IV, at least outwardly, appears to make all his political decisions based on what is best for the nation, knowing that he alone can shape England’s destiny. Even the usurpation Henry believes to be in the best interests of the people. At first, his intentions are to see justice done and ‘weed out’ those flatterers who led Richard astray: "You have misled a prince, a royal king/A happy gentlemen in blood and lineaments/By you unhappy and disfigured clean." (Richard II, I.i.8-10) When Richard presents him with the crown, he accepts it, no doubt partially out of greed, but primarily out of the belief that he can serve England better. 11 However, as a usurper, Henry IV does not have the legal or moral right to rule because he has not obtained the crown through the law of primogeniture, and therefore, lacks the divine privilege of rule granted to only those who gain the throne legitimately.

As a result, Henry IV has a reign tainted with both external and internal, mental disorder. He has incurred the wrath of God, as foretold by Richard, York, and Carlisle 12 , and it seems that no matter how many rebellions he could stop with his leadership capabilities, that many more would arise, as his divine punishment dictates that he will have no peace. Thus, when Henry V ascends the throne with the unification of Richard’s divine authority and his father’s political sophistication, we see the perfect monarch ruling over England, and we see also the amalgamation of two divergent political philosophies. In the tetralogy, the rigid Tudor doctrine which places emphasis completely on a ruler’s accountability only to God combines with the diametrically opposed Machiavellian theory that only an exemplary statesman has the right to govern. This fusion of these two opposing political philosophies makes the tetralogy a work of political theory, and the subtle manner in which the plays promote this theory, makes the tetralogy a work of genius.


At the time Shakespeare wrote the second tetralogy, Elizabeth I was nearing the end of her reign. She had not produced an heir and so she was faced with the arduous task of selecting the next king or queen from a wide and varied list of candidates. The succession struggle had raised the concern of the people and Parliament as early as 1566, and in 1571, an Act had prohibited the publication of books about claimants to the throne, other than those established and affirmed by Parliament because they might breed faction. However, neither Parliament nor Elizabeth could decide on any particular candidate at that time, and this indecision provided "the happy hunting grounds for the mischief-makers of international politics." (Joel Hurstfield, Freedom, Corruption, and Government in Elizabethan England [London: Cape, 1973], p.107). Because there was no one ideal candidate, the potentiality that Elizabeth might choose a successor who was not truly legitimate or capable of handling the highest office in the land, was of grave concern to many. 13 If we could find one reason for Shakespeare’s second tetralogy containing the didactic message that a successful ruler must have divine authority, and first-rate political decision-making abilities which will ensure that England stays strong, (as Henry V could), it would have to be that the plays are intended, in part, as a guide to Elizabeth in choosing her heir 14. And, out of all the possible successors, only one seemed to come close to fitting the criteria outlined in the tetralogy – James VI of Scotland.

Henry VIII, prepared for the possibility that his children could die without issue, declared in his will whom he though was rightfully in line to the throne. In his will Henry excluded the Stuart line altogether and left the crown to the House of Suffolk. Henry had shifted the succession to Mary, the younger daughter of Henry VII. "But her marriage to the duke of Suffolk was itself of doubtful validity", and moreover, Henry VIII’s will was considered faulty, and was at one point mislaid.(Hurstfield, p.107). Other candidates included Philip II of Spain, who was descended from John of Gaunt, and Philip’s daughter, the Infanta, (if Philip decided not to accept), and James VI of Scotland. Even Henry IV of France "added one more candidate with the polite observation that, since a bastard of Normandy had succeeded to the English throne in 1066, he could not see why a bastard of his own should not do the same thing when Elizabeth died." (Hurstfield, p.108)15 By all accounts if either a member of the Suffolk line or Henry IV’s son received the crown, they would be deemed illegitimate.

Philip of Spain had a more rightful claim to the throne, but it was still a precarious claim. Moreover, the English people had a deep dislike of Philip, and probably, the Infanta as well. 16 It was James VI who had the best claim under the law of primogeniture because he was descended from Margaret, the older daughter of Henry VII. Although James VI was technically a foreigner, he was the most legitimate candidate Elizabeth had to choose from. According to the Divine Right of Kings, the right of the lawful heir was indefeasible; to this heir the loyalty of the people was bound as wholly as to the ruling monarch. Thus, it follows that to deny James the throne would be to usurp the throne from its rightful claimant, and this would technically make the next monarch a usurper. Crowning James would ensure that the next king of England had the divine right to rule.

Not only did James have the authority to govern England, but he had those important Machiavellian qualities that Henry IV, Henry V, and even Elizabeth herself, possessed. "Politically, James’ conduct was eminently wise" (David Harris Willson, King James VI & I [London: Cape, 1966], p.75.), and we can draw on several examples during his reign in Scotland as evidence. Nothing, James would later confess, "of importance took place without his knowledge, for he had spies at the chamber doors of his councillors and was told everything that they said; and though he spent much time in hunting, he could . . . do more business in an hour than other men did in a day. . . . He had, moreover, another safeguard: had he promoted earls he could not have controlled them, but he had advanced only simple soldiers and gentlemen whom he could easily ruin if he wished." (Willson, p.48).

In 1548, his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots, sent M. Fontenay, the brother of the French secretary to meet with James ‘when Elizabeth reopened negotiations for a treaty that would provide for Mary’s release upon guarantee of her good behavior by James and by the King of France.’ (Willson, p.52). What should be noted about the visit for our purposes, is that Fontenay was amazed by James, declaring, "for his years [he is] the most remarkable Prince that ever lived. Three qualities of the mind he possesses in perfection: he understands clearly, judges wisely, and has a retentive memory. His questions are keen and penetrating and his replies are sound. In any argument . . . he maintains the view that appears . . . most just." (Willson p.54).

In 1584, James, in a display of political sophistication:
. . . retired to his cabinet and within the space of twenty-four hours produced a vigorous and remarkable rely [to catholic ministers]. Shrewdly . . .he denied all intention of .. . interfering in ecclesiastical affairs, but he denounced the intrusion of the clergy in matters of state, especially their treasonable and seditious sermons. Bishops he warmly defended as sanctioned both by the Scriptures and the primitive church. Stoutly . . . he denied the request of the clergy to be represented in Parliament by their own commissioners, and he prayed that God would purge them of indecent affections peculiar to their calling." (Willson, p. 71).
In addition, James, with great political savvy, handled the potentially explosive problem of keeping his status of claimant to the English throne while denouncing the execution of his mother. James was able to successfully calm the Scots, who felt deep resentment over the imprisonment of Mary, while, at the same time, keeping a personal, civil relationship with Elizabeth through correspondence. Elizabeth herself admired James’ ability to rule in Scotland. "She was constantly shocked by the evidences of indiscipline in Scotland: life was a difficult struggle for survival for a Scottish king: no small tribute to him that he did survive." (A.L. Rowse, The Life of Elizabeth, [London: Macmillan, 1951], p.268). 17

All this is not to say that James was a perfect ruler in Scotland, nor that he even came close to embodying the characteristics of a great statesman as did Henry V. While King of Scotland, James was, at times, more interested in art than in politics, and had an unusually strong passion for writing poetry and prose that took up much of his time. He was also a physically weak man, and could not possibly lead his men, if need be, into battle as did Henry V. Moreover, he did not have Henry V’s skill at appearing interested in the concerns of the Scottish people. However, since there was no Henry V duplicate to choose from, James, being the most rightful claimant, and having displayed adequate leadership qualities in Scotland, was indeed Elizabeth’s best possible choice according to the theory on the nature of kingship and power in Shakespeare’s second tetralogy of history plays.

Although the additions and alterations Shakespeare makes to his sources could be simply for the purpose of creating more exciting drama, it becomes apparent when viewing these changes collectively, that they all work toward the formulation of a political ideology. Since Shakespeare left no record of his personal thoughts on the monarchy, we can never know definitely what philosophy regarding kingship and power he intended to express in the plays. However, in light of the political climate in which Shakespeare was writing, and, primarily the textual evidence itself, it is quite probable that the plays were intended to promote the balanced combination of Tudor and Machiavellian political thought in order to illustrate that the best possible ruler has both the pre-ordained right to rule, and the innate qualities that enable him to rule with political sophistication, and, subsequently, the plays present an answer to England’s succession problem.


1. In addition to needing a character who could speak out against rebellion and usurpation, Shakespeare probably altered the character of Gaunt found in Holinshed to embody true patriotism and Tudor doctrine because Queen Elizabeth traced her lineage directly back to Gaunt.

2. Sure enough this decision would later be used as ammunition against Richard as he went before parliament.

3. In Act II, scene i , line 246-264, in the speech by Ross, we again see that Richard has lost the approval of his subjects, both commoners and nobles: "The commons hath he pill’d with grievous taxes/And quite lost their hearts. The nobles hath he fined/For ancient quarrels and quite lost their hearts."

4. See Hol. iii. 512/1/6

5. i.e., the discerning few, those who experience the realities of power, who are not taken in by appearances.

6. In her book, Shakespeare’s Histories (London: Methuen, 1980, p.213), Lily B. Campbell fails to include the whole passage as found in Holinshed, which clearly indicates that Henry IV was a ruler with whom the people were quite content:

The king was of a meane stature, well proportioned, and formallie compact; quicke and liuelie, and of a stout courage. In his latter days he shewed himself so gentle, that he gat more loue amongst the nobles and people of his realm, than he had purchased malice . . . in the beginning. (Holinshed, p.157).

Because the play makes no mention of Henry losing the support of the common people, this portrayal seems to apply more appropriately to the fictional Henry. Indeed, there is no reason to assume that the passage that illustrates Henry’s later affability, in the play, applies to Henry’s whole reign.

7. As quoted in Lily B. Campbell, Shakespeare’s Histories, p. 213.

8. Interestingly, Shakespeare does not mention that the Earl performed this good deed for the king. March is still one of Henry’s enemies right to the end. This omission makes sense if we consider that it would lessen Shakespeare’s portrayal of the ‘valiant’ Henry IV in the drama.

9. Henry’s land in France is a dubious claim at best.

10. As John Neville Figgis points out in his book, The Divine Right of Kings, p.8, during the Tudor reign, the magistrates desired to prove that their theory was biblically supported. They often turned to the above biblical passages as proof of the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings. Other passages important to Tudor propagandists are: Samuel’s description of a king, on the Jewish nation demanding one; David’s refusal to touch "the Lord’s anointed"; the command to ‘render unto Caesar’s what is Caesar’s; and Christ’s words to Pilate ‘thou couldst have no power at all against me except it were given thee from above'; the behavior of the early Christians; and above all the direct enjoining by both St. Peter and St. Paul of obedience to constituted authority, "The powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God. And they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation." "Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake—whether it be to the king as supreme, &c." (I Pet. Ii. 13-17)

11. His patriotism is acknowledged in the opening scenes of Richard II. Henry seems to have a genuine desire to see justice done out of a love for England and the office of the monarchy: "First—heaven be the record to my speech!--/In the devotion of a subject’s love/Tend’ring the precious safety of my prince/And free from other misbegotten hate/Come I appellant to this princely presence." (Richard II, I.ii.29-34) I do not see this depiction of Henry the patriot change throughout the course of the tetralogy. It is interesting to note that historically, before Tudor doctrine had made the king infallible, nobles had the responsibility to uphold the dignity of the Crown:

"Homage and oath of allegiance are more by reason of the Crown than by reason of the king’s person, and are more bound to the Crown than to the person. And that appears from the fact that, before the estate of the Crown has passed by descent, no allegiance is due to the person. Wherefore, if it happen that the king is not guided by reason in regard to the estate of the Crown, his lieges, by the oath sworn to the Crown, are justly bound to lead the king back to reason and repair the estate of the Crown, or else their oath would be violated. . . ." (From Edward II’s Declaration of 1308, As quoted in The King’s Two Bodies)

Without the influence of Tudor political thought that forbids subjects to question the king, Henry IV would be considered to be simply doing his duty.

12. Shakespeare adds another significant warning in Act II, scene iv. The Earl of Salsbury and a Welsh captain, on the eve of Richard’s deposition, report: ". . . The bay trees in our country are all wither’d/And meteors fright the fixed stars of heaven/The pale faced moon looks bloody on the earth/And lean-look’d prophets whisper fearful change . . ." (lines 8-11). These types of portents appear again in Macbeth, (also in Act II, scene iv) when King Duncan is murdered: "Tis unnatural . . . A falcon, towering in her pride of place/Was by a mousing owl hawk’d at and kill’d. . . . ‘Tis said [horses] ate each other." (Macbeth, II.iv.1-10,13-20).

13. Although Elizabeth had made her decision to choose James as her next successor years before her death, the people of England were left in suspense right up until her death. As Neville Williams writes: "She had deliberately refused to name her successor for forty-four years and she was too determined a character, even though under the shadow of death, to make a mockery now of one of her few consistencies by breaking her silence." (Williams, 215).

14. Even if rumor favored James during the last days of Elizabeth, when Shakespeare wrote his tetralogy (between 1595 and 1599), there was no clear front-runner amongst the candidates ready to take the Crown.

15. There were many more candidates than can be listed here, but, suffice it to say that their claims become more and more dubious.

16. For a detailed account of why the people "hated the Spaniards", see Joel Hurstfield, Freedom Corruption, and Government in Elizabethan England (London: 1970) p. 121.

17. Furthermore, although Shakespeare could not have read James’ the Basilicon Doron, which was written in 1599, after he composed his tetralogy, this treatise on the duties of a monarch is more evidence to support the claim that James was, according to the second tetralogy, the best choice to succeed Elizabeth. While James was a firm believer in the Doctrine of Passive Obedience (as illustrated in his book The True Law of Free Monarchies (1598), James, in the Basilicon Doron, also places great importance in the Machiavellian doctrine that a king must use his title wisely, and that he must win the admiration of his people so that they will respect his authority. Written for his son, Prince Henry, the Basilicon Doron outlines the basis for good governance. James stresses that a king must abstain from vices, possess every virtue, and be the paragon of piety, self-control, and wisdom, for his people. Thus, James seemed, before Elizabeth’s death, the candidate best resembling the shrewd and legitimate Henry V. It is interesting to note that, although James, during the latter part of his reign in England, did not live up completely to the high ideals he espoused while king of Scotland, when he first went to England as King James I, he had the love and admiration of all his subjects. "Nothing was talked of but the religion, virtue, wisdom, learning, justice, and many other most noble and worthy praises of King James. . . . .[The people’s] contentment and relief were boundless" when James ascended the throne." (Willson, 156)

Works Cited

Allen, J. W. A History of Political Thought in the Sixteenth Century. London: Methuen, 1928.
Boyce, Charles. Shakespeare A to Z. New York: Roundtable Books, 1990.
Bullough, Geoffery. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare. New York: Columbia University Press, 1966.
Campbell, Lily B. Shakespeare’s Histories. London: Methuen, 1980.
Dollimore, Jonathan and Alan Sinfield. Political Shakespeare. Manchester: University Press, 1985.
Einstein, Lewis. Tudor Ideals. New York: Russell & Russell, 1962.
Figgis, John Neville. The Divine Right of Kings. Cambridge: University Press, 1914.
Froissart, John. Chronicles. New York: Macmillan & Co., 1899.
Holinshed, Raphael. Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland. 6 vols. New York: AMS Press Inc., 1965. Vol. 5.
Hooper, John. Early Writings of John Hooper. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1954.
Hurstfield, Joel. Freedom, Corruption, and Government in Elizabethan England. London: Cape, 1970.
James I, King of England. Basilicon Doron. Menston: Scholar Press., 1969.
Joseph, B. L. Shakespeare’s Eden. London, Blandford Press, 1971.
Latimer, Hugh. Sermons. Cambridge: University Press, 1944.
Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. Trans. Quentin Skinner. Cambridge: University Press, 1988.
Ribner, Irving. The English History Play in the Age of Shakespeare. London: Methuen, 1965.
Rowse, A. L. The England of Elizabeth. London: Macmillan & Co., 1951.
Shakespeare, William. King Richard II. Peter Ure, Ed. Cambridge: University Press, 1946.
-----------. Henry IV, Part I. Londdonn: Oxford University Press, 1917.
-----------. Henry IV, Part II. Lonndoon: Oxford University Press, 1921.
-----------. Henry V. London: Oxforrd University Press, 1918.
Tillyard, E.M.W. Shakespeare’s History Plays. Middlesex: Penguin, 1969.
Traversi, Derek. Shakespeare: From Richard II to Henry V. Stanford: University Press, 1957.
Wells, Robin Headlam. Shakespeare, Politics, and the State. London: Macmillan, 1986.
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Willson, D. Harris. King James VI & I. London: Cape, 1966.
How to cite this article:
Mabillard, Amanda. Representations of Kingship and Power in Shakespeare's Second Tetralogy. Shakespeare Online. 19 Aug. 2000. < > .


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