Shakespeare and Divine Right
In Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V, Shakespeare appears on a micro level not to support divine right as characters throughout the plays consistently disrespect God and try to act above Him, yet when viewed more holistically it is clear that Shakespeare does support the divine right of kings because these actions that try to act above divinity have negative consequences. While reading each play, it may seem that Shakespeare is against the divine right of kings. In Richard II it seems obvious that he supports divine right as the rightful king, king Richard, is usurped by Henry Bolingbroke for at first glance what appear to be just reasons. Throughout Richard II, but the other three plays as well, characters continually act in defiance of religion or unjustly use it in order to further their own agendas. However it only seems this way when considering these specific, individual moments of impiety; in other words to read of Shakespeare as against divine right is to read too close to the text and not consider the bigger picture. When these plays are considered as a whole, Shakespeare actually emerges a supporter of divine right as the rejection of it is effectively what has caused each of the main conflicts in the plays. Shakespeare believes in divine right, and shows us its utility by painting for us a bloody, violent, and unstable picture of what happens when it is not followed.
Henry IV shows many cases of disrespect for divine right, culminating in the actual usurpation of it from King Richard II by the new King Henry IV. Before this, however, the characters in the play continually reject the power of God for the power of themselves. For example, Bishop Carlisle in Richard II says that “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 English shall manure the ground.” (161). For this response, that the divine right king should stay, Carlisle is taken away and arrested of treason. This is evidence that divine right is rejected, as any opposition to Bolingbroke ascending to the throne, even from a bishop, is met with punishment. Before this as well, when Bagot is asked who else was involved in killing the Duke of Gloucester and nearly every Lord in the scene throws down their gages in preparation to fight, we see disrespect for God. Previously when gages were thrown down between Bolingbroke and Mowbray, John of Gaunt refused to help kill Mowbray because he said justice for him was up to God. Now that Henry is king, however, we evidently see men taking justice into their own hands rather than trusting in God. Next, in Henry IV pt. I, Henry says he wants to go on a crusade: “friends, As far as to the sepulcher of Christ— Whose soldier now, under whose blessèd cross We are impressèd and engaged to fight,” (7) but then upon being told by Westmoreland that “A post from Wales loaden with heavy news…the noble Mortimer…Was by the rude hands of that Welshman [Glendower] taken,” Henry quickly decides that “It seems then that the tidings of this broil Brake off our business for the Holy Land.” (9). Henry places his political duties to the country in front of his religious duties to God to go fight in the crusades. This is consistent with him putting himself, whom he and many of the common people believe to be a better politician than Richard, on the throne instead of respecting God’s chosen king. This theme continues in Henry V when the even the clergy of the church put their own practical interests over their duties to God. Granted, the bill they want to circumvent is an unjust one in which Henry V hopes to use their money, land, and men to buy new nobles who will be loyal to him. However, in order to keep their possessions, the Bishop of Canterbury has “made an offer to his Majesty— Upon our spiritual convocation…[telling him of] The severals and unhidden passages Of his true titles to some certain dukedoms, And generally to the crown and seat of France,” (15-17). In other words, the Bishop is willing to incite a war that will kill tens of thousands of people in order to pursue his own self-interest in his property and men. At this point, not even the men of the church respect the will of God and are now beginning to further their own political interests in making deals with the illegitimate king. The Bishop of Canterbury making deals with Henry V is a far cry from the Bishop of Carlisle objecting to Henry IV’s coronation. Across each of these plays, countless examples show that the characters themselves do not respect divine right. However, does this mean that Shakespeare does not support it?
Reviewing each of these cases in which the characters rejected God, Shakespeare shows how doing so reaps negative results. Arresting Carlisle for defending the rightful king Richard means arresting someone for defending the man who was perhaps the better king. The lords taking judgement into their own hands (rather than God’s) results in the threat of violence. Henry V focusing on politics rather than the crusades results in war just the same, but with a much less noble cause. The bishops seeking their own benefit rather than the greater good, as God would promote, results in an incredibly bloody war. Furthermore, the question must be posed, has England become a better place under Henry IV and V than it was under Richard II? In Henry IV we can see the rebels’ discontent in Hostpur, who himself a part of the revolution that helped get Henry into power insults him saying “To put down Richard, that sweet lovely rose, And plant this thorn, this canker, Bolingbroke?…[I am] Nettled and stung with pismires, when I hear Of this vile politician, Bolingbroke.” (39-43). When Henry V becomes king, and the quarrel is not with rebels but with the French, the French Dauphin does not respect him either, as shown by the message from the French ambassador that “In answer of which claim [to France], the Prince our master Says that you savor too much of your youth…he therefore sends you, meeter for your spirit, this tun of treasure” (33-35). The treasure turns out to be tennis balls for Henry V to play with, an insult at his immaturity as king. Without a doubt, neither Henry IV or V is respected as a king. The actions which each commits in favor of their political interests over any religious obligation as well do not turn out to make the country any better than it was under Richard, and do so at a great cost. Featuring characters who commit actions against God is not showing Shakespeare’s disapproval of divine right, but rather the harm caused by those decisions are Shakespeare’s way of showing that he actually supports divine right.
The kingdom of England under Richard II was supposedly corrupt, but the only evidence given comes from the ambitious Bolingbroke. However, even if it was corrupt, when Bolingbroke came to power many characters acted out against or attempted to be above God (including Bolingbroke’s rise to power itself.) These actions had harmful consequences, as the country descended into war fighting off two separate bands of rebels as well as engaging in another war with the French. Removing the divine right king created civil war, as well as war abroad. England did not become a better place after the divine right king was replaced by the supposedly more politically savvy king (Henry IV). Although it may appear that Shakespeare does not support divine right as so many of his characters disrespect God, when all four plays are considered together it is apparent that Shakespeare included these actions against divinity to show the negative consequences of them in order to present his support for divine right kings.
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