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Kingship In King Lear And King Henry Iv, Part I

1736 words - 7 pages

Though the concept of kingship is rather unfamiliar and even alien to the contemporary democratic society, it was and still is a topic of great importance to English society. And during the Elizabethan era, no collection of renowned works helped to emphasize this notion more than Shakespeare’s plays – plays such as Macbeth, Hamlet, the Tudor history plays, and even King Lear. There are some who have argued that Shakespeare orchestrated these plays as a means of teaching his audience about political power; the responsibilities of a just ruler; the duties of the subject; and the qualities of a true king. However, Paul M. Shupack makes the argument that there are in fact two perspectives by which we can examine the idea of kingship: “In one sense the king embodied a perpetual corporation. The other sense saw the king as a human being, serving as king by the grace of God, but sill a frail human being” (69). In other words, a king is a king simply because God chooses him and bestows upon him divine right, or a king is simply a man – one who is backed by God, but is nonetheless as corruptible and fallible as any other mortal leader. Therefore, the latter view sanctions the idea that a king does not wield absolute power nor is he given absolute protection from his failures and shameful qualities. For a Shakespearean scholar, the question to be entertained then is, by which perspective did Shakespeare construct his plays?
Identifying the particular view that Shakespeare held when he wrote his plays requires delving into the plays themselves and understanding both the characters and challenges that surround the concept of kingship. Furthermore, we may examine two of his plays that are fundamentally different in nature, but are yet inextricably linked by the same notion of kingship: King Lear, a tragedy, and King Henry the IV, Part I, a history. In order to deconstruct the complexity of this task, one can say that both perspectives attempt to answer differently for two logically separate questions: who is the rightful ruler and what may a rightful ruler do (Shupack 70). The first perspective states that the rightful ruler is the one chosen by blood and by God, and that he may do anything within the limits of his divine right. The second perspective would answer that the rightful ruler is one who deserves to wear the crown, and that he wields authority, but only so long as he doesn’t abuse it. A thorough investigation of King Lear, and King Henry IV, Part I, yields a substantial amount of evidence that answers both questions well, but points heavily towards the idea that a King is indeed imperfect, and quite capable of disturbing his own reign.
Perhaps the most striking way by which Shakespeare dictates the limitations of kingly authority is by holding the king accountable for his crimes. As evidenced by both plays, rebellion and a challenge for the crown is the minimum punishment a king must face if he has wielded his power arrogantly or has lapsed...

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