Performing Authority: How to Have a Long, Happy Kingship after Usurping Your Predecessor

What is a king? Is he a divinely anointed figure? Or, is he the one who can rally the greatest number of swords to his name? Shakespeare’s Henriad raises each of these possibilities as it traces the deposition of Richard II and the subsequent rise of Henry IV, evaluating each in its ability to preserve social order. Ultimately, each approach depends on the willingness of the nation’s subjects to accept the reigning monarch’s justification of authority. As Richard II discovers in the play of the same name, if one’s subjects begin to doubt the motives of their king, then not even eons of tradition or the threat of God’s wrath can ensure his safety. However, as his successor, Henry IV, soon discovers, sheer force of arms does not prevent the rise of dissatisfied factions either. The key to continued stability seems to lie somewhere in the middle of absolute right and absolute might, implying a figure who can convince his citizens through a blend of duplicity and diplomacy that he is the best man to lead.

Due to the versatility required in this model of kingship, it is perhaps unsurprising that Shakespeare advances it using Hal, the wayward son of Henry IV. A child of both the tavern and the court, Hal is able to absorb aspects of both worlds to win him the popular support amongst his subjects. His willingness to learn their language prompts his lowly companions to see him as the “king of courtesy” (1 Henry IV 2.5.9) and grants him “command [of] all the good lads of Eastcheap” (2.5.13). In contrast, both Richard and Henry scorn this proximity, choosing instead to render the king as a distant, unapproachable figure. For instance, Richard remarks scornfully of Henry IV’s (then Duke of Hereford) interaction with the common people, “What reverence did he throw away on slaves” (Richard II 1.4.26). Ironically, once Henry ascends to the throne, he makes a similar comment, suggesting that if subjects becomes overly familiar with their king it cause them to become “glutted, gorged, and full” (1 Henry IV 3.2.84), and therefore less reverent. There is certainly evidence to support this. For instance, Falstaff’s over familiarity with Hal certainly encourages him to take advantage of the Prince’s assistance, especially when he is faced with a possible death sentence for stealing from a caravan. In the final act of the play, he even goes so far as to imply that Hal is a liar, claiming that he (Falstaff) killed Harry Percy, not Hal.

However, Hal’s comprehensive knowledge of both court life and tavern life also gives him intimate knowledge into the minds of his subjects, better preparing him to protect his throne from dissatisfaction. For instance, despite his rowdy, disreputable past, he wins his father back over as easily as he won the tapster in Eastcheap. Significantly he uses the same tool: speech. However, instead of the coarse slang of Eastcheap, he uses the eloquent speech of the court, demonstrating his clear understanding of his father’s mind. Hal belays his father’s concerns about his son by promising to wear “a garment all of blood, / And stain my favours in a bloody mask” (3.2.135-6), evoking both force and family, the elements on which Henry IV rests his right to rule. In this instance, Hal has essentially proven the effectiveness of his model of authority, overcoming his father’s reliance on might without resorting to divine right.

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One thought on “Performing Authority: How to Have a Long, Happy Kingship after Usurping Your Predecessor

  1. Courtney Kiesecker

    Great title, Elise. I completely agree about your points on Prince Hal, he seems to be the best candidate for the throne, whether he deserves it by “divine right” or just because he is next in line for the throne through lineage. The dichotomy between the tavern and the court life are essential tools for Prince Hal to rule justly, seeing as he knows the best of both worlds. What I really loved that Shakespeare did was utilize the different forms (prose for the tavern; iambic pentameter for the court), showing how rich and knowledgeable Harry is when it comes to his father’s, and in the future his own, subjects. The eloquence that he can conjure within the bounds of the court as well as the rough speeches he makes within the tavern sphere shows a intellectual character who can utilize both worlds within the play to the best of his ability, much more than his father can. Because Richard and Henry both fail to understand the common people within their kingdom, and only rule by the swords in their hands, the relationship and the authority is lost between the two worlds that are played out within both Richard II and 1 Henry IV.

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