Murder of the King in Hamlet, Richard II, Henry VIII, Macbeth and Julius Caesar
Kings are everywhere in Shakespeare, from Hamlet to Richard the Second, from Henry the Eighth to Macbeth; many of the plays contain a central element of a king or autocratic head of state such as Julius Caesar, for example. They focus more specifically on the nature of that person's power, especially on the question of removing it; what it means on both a political and psychological level, how it can be achieved, and what will happen afterwards. This is not surprising, considering the times Shakespeare was living in: with the question of who ruled and where their authority came from being ever more increasingly asked in Elizabethan and Jacobean times the observations he makes are especially pertinent.
Kings and kingship also lend themselves well to drama; the king is a symbol of the order (or disorder) of the day and a man who possesses (almost) absolute authority and the status that accompanies that, whilst in contrast he is also a human being with the ordinary weaknesses of that condition. Shakespeare is also said to have loved the drama of killing; according to legend he would "make a speech when he killed a calf" in his father's abattoir (Richard Wilson: 'A Brute Part'.) The dramatic image of sacrifice is particularly prevalent in Julius Caesar; Brutus says:
" Let us be sacrificers but not butchers, Caius.
We all stand up against the spirit of Caesar;
And in the spirit of men there is no blood:
O! then that we could come by Caesar's spirit,
And not dismember Caesar. But, alas!
Caesar must bleed for it. "
( II.i.166-171 )
Many images of sacrifice are present throughout the play, such as the servant returning and saying to Caesar:
" They would not have you stir forth to-day.
Plucking the entrails of an offering forth,
They could not find a heart within the beast."
( II.ii.38-40 )
Brutus and Cassius do not have any desire to kill Caesar but they feel he is a sacrifice that must be made.
This image of sacrifice is very important when we look at the reasons for killing the king. During the English Civil War the Puritans are reputed to have commonly recited the chant
" 'Tis to preserve his Majesty
That we against him fight."
( Mack: Killing the King; pg 308 )
The thinking behind this came from an idea that had been around for many centuries but which had become more and more prevalent in Elizabethan times, actually setting a legal precedent as a defence then, often when the monarchy wished to reclaim lands sold by a usually young, inexperienced sovereign. Lawyers of the court claimed that the king had two bodies; firstly the body natural, prey to the follies and frailties that all human beings were capable of, but then superseding that the body politic which was infallible and immortal. The perfection of the body politic overruled any failings of the body natural. The body politic of the sovereign...