What Makes a Good King?

Undoubtedly one of the major questions Shakespeare poses in this play is –what makes a good king? Although attaining a status of royalty, of course, derives largely from birthright, I think it is undeniable that Shakespeare is playing (quite literally) with how kings are assessed. What qualities do we associate with a “good king?” A “bad king?” Do certain individuals deserve to rule more than others? The lines are quite blurred.

The third act opens up with a character that we have not seen yet: Glyndwr. Glyndwr is, of course, another ruler. More specifically, he rules over Wales. Though truth be told I know very little about Wales, I would imagine that Wales contrasts quite a bit with Shakespeare’s England. As such, perhaps the country holds different standards for what makes a good ruler; nonetheless I think Glyndwr does a rather good job of illustrating some of the qualities that kings (perhaps) should possess. In Act 3, Scene 1, we get the following lines about Glyndwr: “At my nativity/The front of heaven was full of fiery shapes,/Of burning cressets; and at my birth/The frame and huge foundation of the earth/Shaked like a coward…/..all the courses of my life do show/I am not in the roll of commen men.” This passage suggests that Glyndwr rather ethereal, perhaps heroic, in nature. The idea that he is unlike common men and that he caused quite a stir at his birth suggests that he was almost destined for greatness. Arguably more telling than these words, however, is the description of Glyndwr that Mortimer provides: “In faith, he is a worthy gentleman,/Exceedingly well read and profited/In strange concealments, valiant as a lion,/And as wondrous affable, and as bountiful/As mines of India.” (3.1.160) Not only is Glyndwr unique among men, he is also learned, intelligent, and “valiant.”

The fact is, though, relatively quite little is said about Glyndwr since he is a more minor character. These few passages are the only substantial descriptions we get about him—a quality of the text that suggests that these traits outlined here are important. Worldly, heroic…but do these traits make Glyndwr a good king?

Overall, I think Shakespeare is employing an interesting device by contrasting all of these different monarchs/potential monarchs. Ultimately, what makes a king qualified or worthy of royalty is, of course, a very subjective matter, but I certainly think Shakespeare is on to something here—perhaps he is calling upon those monarchs who were in control during Shakespeare’s era to regard their actions more closely…or perhaps he was merely trying to concoct an interesting storyline. Either way, I think it is important to note these kinds of “kingly” traits of all the characters in the play—it is possible that each character’s degree of
kingliness” will serve an important role at the play’s resolution or, more generally, as the play progresses. Perhaps Shakespeare is trying to suggest something about what makes an individual worthy of royalty—or perhaps Shakespeare himself is trying to figure that out within these lines. Either way, the idea of what quantifies “kingliness” certainly seems a fitting theme in a play all about kings.


One thought on “What Makes a Good King?

  1. zacharyschiff

    I’m glad you mentioned Glyndwr, because even though he’s a minor character he’s one of my favorite characters in the play. Though, our interpretations of Glyndwr are a little different. To me he is a comic character who is wonderfully unaware of the absurdity of his behavior and speech. While we do get a description of the glorious and portentous circumstances of Glyndwr’s nativity, I think it’s crucial to observe that we get this description from Glyndwr himself. He imagines his birth (which he could not have been conscious for) as being such a great event that “the frame and huge foundation of the earth/ Shaked like a coward” (3.1.15-16). Hotspur disputes the causal relation between the birth of Glyndwr and such events, retorting, “Why, so it would have done/ At the same season if your mother’s cat/ Had but kittened, though yourself had never been born” (3.1.17-19).

    Hotspur is intolerant of his Welsh ally’s kooky mysticism and endless talk of wizardry. After Glyndwr has left the room, Hotspur tells Mortimer,

    I tell you what,
    He held me last night at the least nine hours
    In reckoning up the several devils’ names
    That were his lackeys. I cried, ‘Hum!’ and, ‘Well, go to!’,
    But marked him not a word.” (3.1.151-155)

    From Glyndwr’s perspective, Glyndwr is a terrifying and powerful wizard. From Hotspur’s perspective, Glyndwr is just a foolish old man who talks too much. Of course, this play is all about how different perspectives can reveal different truths. But I tend to side more with Hotspur in this matter, and I enjoy thinking of Glyndwr as a comedic character who knows less about himself than we know about him.


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