Shakespeare And KingshipIn writing his history plays, Shakespeare was actually commenting on what he thought about the notion of kingship. Through his plays, he questions the divine right of kings, which the kings and the aristocracy used heavily in their favour to win the people’s love. In Macbeth, King Richard II and King Henry IV part 1, Shakespeare shows us his opinion of kingship in general.
Although the plays are written about individual kings, I think that Shakespeare used the plays as an opportunity to voice his opinion on kings and kingship in general. This was assisted by the fact that he was not prohibited by the true events, because it is well known that all of Shakespeare’s plays were written purely for entertainment value, not as a historical record of what occurred.
The main notion of kingship that Shakespeare attacks in Macbeth, King Richard II and King Henry IV, is the divine right of kings, where the kings claimed that they were God’s counterpart on Earth, and a ‘step up’ in divinity from the other aristocrats and the common people. In his plays, Shakespeare depicts the kings, and Hal, in King Henry IV, as people who were not, or at least did not act like the direct descendants of God. In Macbeth, he commits treason and murder, the two worst crimes of the day, and neither Duncan nor Macbeth were saved by God, who, according to the theory of the divine right of kings, should have saved Duncan and then Macbeth. When they were killed, they were both king, and therefore the right-hand man of God, the creator, who controls the entire world and who could have stopped them from being killed.
In Richard II, Richard bankrupts the country with his blatant mismanagement and his excessive spending on his ‘favourites’, who are already rich aristocrats, while ignoring the common people who are living in poverty. Richard’s behaviour leads to both the aristocracy and the common people disliking him. The aristocrats disliked him because he was bankrupting the country, which they did not like because they were proud to be English and wanted their country to dominate for many more years. The common people disliked Richard because they were living in poverty while Richard was spending huge amounts of money on people who were already wealthy. What Richard did is not the sort of behaviour that is expected from God’s representative on Earth, and S…
…he other extreme of kingship – while Macbeth and Richard disregarded the common people, Hal was one of the common people. King Henry fits right into the middle and I think would, by Shakespeare’s standards be a perfect king, if only his claim to the throne could not be questioned, particularly the murder of Richard and the “voyage to the Holy Land | to wash this blood from my guilty hand” , which he still hadn’t done in the opening scenes of King Henry IV, about a year later.
Much of the things that the kings in the plays do may not be an altogether true representation of what they, or even the kings of Shakespeare’s day were like. Most of what Shakespeare comments on is his personal opinion – it is he that thinks the kings mistreated and disregarded the common people and he that did not believe in the divine right of kings. It is also important to remember that all of Shakespeare’s plays, even the historical ones were above all, written to be entertaining and to impress the Elizabethan audience that they were aimed for. Shakespeare did not write the plays as historical references, but instead as interesting and exciting plays that would make for good, entertaining theatre.