Canadian Royal Heritage Trust

A National Educational Charity

Shakespeare and His Monarchs

 

by Garry Toffoli

 

This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,

This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,

This other Eden, demi-paradise;

This fortress, built by Nature for herself,

Against infection and the hand of war;

This happy breed of men, this little world,

This precious stone set in the silver sea,

Which serves it in the office of a wall,

Or as a moat defensive to a house,

Against the envy of less happier lands;

This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,

This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,

Fear’d by their breed and famous for their birth,

Renowned for their deeds as far from home,

For Christian service, and true chivalry,

As is the sepulchre in stubborn Jewry

Of the world’s ransom, blessed Mary’s son:

 

Thus William Shakespeare, the greatest playwright of the English speaking peoples, sets the stage for his royal history. His work is timeless yet written with an eye to the times he lived in. Monarchy and partriotism were inseparable to Shakespeare and the threat of, and victory over, the Spanish Armada are clear in this passage.

Shakespeare made theatre fashionable at court. He understood the monarchs he served and, in turn, was influenced by them. The Merry Wives of Windsor was written to revive the popular Falstaff at Elizabeth I’s command. In 1603, during the reign of James I, the Burbidge Players, with whom Shakespeare had always been associated, were created the “King’s Men”. Othello was first performed at Whitehall Palace and MacBeth was also written for a royal command performance.

King James’s father-in-law, the King of Denmark, was to visit the Court. Hamlet was to be performed in his honour. James requested something about Scotland as well, thus Shakespeare wrote his story of MacBeth. In it the witches prophesy that Banquo would beget kings. James’s family, the Stuarts, were the descendants of Banquo.

But Shakespeare is more closely associated with the reign of Elizabeth I. His history of the Wars of the Roses, which comprised eight plays – Richard II, the two parts of Henry IV, Henry V, the three parts of Henry VI and Richard III – was partly an attempt to support the Tudors’s, and thus Elizabeth’s, place on the Throne. His play about the second Tudor king and father of Elizabeth I, Henry VIII, written either late in Elizabeth’s reign or possibliy in the reign of James I, ends with a tribute to the newly-born Princess Elizabeth (who would become Queen Elizabeth I) worthy of any 21st Century political spin doctor.

 

This royal infant, – Heaven still move about her! -

Though in her cradle, yet now promises

Upon this land a thousand thousand blessings,

Which time shall bring to ripeness. She shall be

(But few now living can behold that goodness)

A pattern to all princes living with her,

And all that shall succeed: Saba was never

More covetous of wisdom and fair virtue

Than this pure soul shall be: all princely graces,

That mould up with such a mighty piece as this is,

With all the virtues that attend the good,

Shall  still be doubled on her: truth shall nurse her;

Holy and heavenly thoughts still counsel her:

She shall be lov’d and fear’d: her own shall bless her:

Her foes shake like a field of beaten corn,

And hang their heads with sorrow: good grows with her.

In her days every man shall eat in safety

Under his own vine what he plants; and sing

The merry songs of peace to all his neighbours.

God shall be truly known; and those about her

From her shall read the perfect ways of honour,

And by those claim their greatness, not by blood.

 

But the plays also tell the fate of kings in the Christian theme of fall through sin, consequent suffering and sacrifice, and final redemption. They are, therefore, more morality plays based on history, and a distorted history at that, than truly historical plays.  That in no way diminishes their genius as theatre or as moral lessons.

Shakespeare believed in divine order, and that chaos ensued when order was overthrown. Although deservedly unpopular, Richard II presents the divine authority of kings which Englishmen, under the usurper Bolingbroke, are about to challenge with tragic consequences.

 

So when this thief, this traitor Bolingbroke,

Who all this while hath revell’d in the night,

While we were wand’ring with the antipodes,

Shall see us rising in our throne, the East,

His treasons will sit blushing in his face,

Not able to endure the sight of day,

But, self-affrighted, tremble at his sin.

Not all the water in the rough rude sea

Can wash the balm from an anointed king:

The breath of worldly men cannot depose

The deputy elected by the Lord.

For every man that Bolingbroke hath press’d

To lift shrewd steel against our golden crown,

God for his Richard hath in heavenly pay

A glorious angel: then, if angels fight,

Weak men must fall; for Heaven still guards the right.

 

Although it is Richard who falls and Bolingbroke who takes the Throne as King Henry IV, the usurper’s reign, and those of his successors, are not to be easy. The Bishop of Carlisle sets the stage for the Wars of the Roses between Lancastrians and Yorkists that is to follow.

 

I speak to subjects, and a subject speaks,

Stirr’d up by God thus boldly for his king.

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,

And future ages groan for this foul act:

Peace shall go sleep with Turks and infidels,

And in this seat of peace tumultuous wars

Shall kin with kin and kind with kind confound;

Disorder, horror, fear and mutiny,

Shall here inhabit, and this land be call’d

The field of Golgotha, and dead men’s skulls.

O, if you rear this house against this house,

It will the woefullest division prove,

That ever fell upon this cursed Earth.

 

Shortly before his death Richard pleads for remembrance – a plea that will be fulfilled.

 

In Winter’s tedious nights sit by the fire

With good old folks, and let them tell thee tales

Of woeful ages long ago betid;

And, ere thou bid good night, to quit their grief,

Tell thou the lamentable fall of me,

And send the hearers weeping to their beds.

For why, the senseless brands will sympathise

The heavy accent of thy moving tongue,

And in compassion weep the fire out;

And some will mourn in ashes, some coal-black,

For the deposing of a rightful king.

 

In 1601 Shakespeare himself was unwittingly involved in treason. His patron, the Earl of Southampton, was a follower of the Earl of Essex, who plotted against Elizabeth. Southampton asked the Burbridge Players to perform Richard II, the play about deposing a monarch, on 7th February. This they did, not knowing that 8th February was to be the day of the attempted coup. The plot failed, Essex was beheaded, Southampton implicated though spared, and the Players, including Shakespeare, exonerated. But Shakespeare was shaken by the betrayal of his friend and patron, and there were to be no more heroes in his remaining plays.

But that event was still in the future. Let us return to Shakespeare’s history. The usurper’s son, King Henry V, is Shakespeare’s ideal – the hero with the common touch who unites King and people through example. His speeches to the troops on the battlefields of France remain among the most stirring martial passages ever written.

 

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more,

Or close the wall up with our English dead!

In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man

As modest stillness, and humility;

But when the blast of war blows in our ears,

Then imitate the action of the tiger:

Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood.

Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage:

Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;

Let it pry through the portage of the head

Like the brass cannon; let the brow o’erwhelm it

As fearfully as doth a galled rock

O’erhang and jutty his confounded base,

Swill’d with the wild and wasteful ocean.

Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide;

Hold hard the breath, and bend up every spirit

To his full height! – On, on, you noblest English,

Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof,

Fathers that, like so many Alexanders,

Have in these parts from morn till even fought,

And sheath’d their swords for lack of argument!

Dishonour not your mothers: now attest

That those whom you call’d fathers did beget you.

Be copy now to men of grosser blood,

And teach them how to war! – And you, good yeomen,

Whose limbs were made in England, show us here

The mettle of your pasture: let us swear

That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not,

For there is none of you so mean and base

That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.

I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,

Straining upon the start; The game’s afoot:

Follow your spirit; and upon this charge,

Cry – God for Harry! England! and Saint George!

 

and

 

If we are mark’d to die, we are enow

To do our country loss; and if to live,

The fewer men the greater share of honour.

God’s will! I pray thee, wish not for one man more.

By Jove, I am not covetous for gold;

Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;

It yearns me not if men my garments wear;

Such outward things dwell not in my desires:

But, if it be sin to covet honour,

I am the most offending soul alive.

No, faith my coz, wish not a man from England:

God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honour,

As one man more, methinks, would share from me,

For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!

Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,

That he which hath no stomach to this fight,

Let him depart; his passport shall be made,

And crowns for convoy put into his purse:

We would not die in that man’s company

That fears his fellowship to die with us.

This day is call’d the feast of Crispian:

He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,

Will stand o’ tip-toe when this day is nam’d,

And rouse him at the name of Crispian.

He that shall live this day, and see old age,

Will yearly on the vigil feast his neigbours,

And say, To-morrow is Saint Crispian:

Then will he strip his sleeve, and shew his scars,

And say, These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.

Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,

But he’ll remember with advantages

What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,

Familiar in his mouith as household words, - 

Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,

Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester, -

Be in their flowing cups freshly remember’d.

This story shall the good man teach his son,

And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,

From this day to the ending of the world,

But we in it shall be remembered;

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers:

For he, to-day that sheds his blood with me,

Shall be my brother: be he ne’er so vile,

This day shall gentle his condition:

And gentlemen in England, now a-bed,

Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,

And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks

That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

 

While Shakespeare believed in and glorified the sovereignty derived from God of a monarch, and the monarch’s authority over his people, Shakespeare also understood and defined the line between the sovereignty of a king and the sovereignty of a person under God; the line between duty and the responsibilty for self.

 

Every subject’s duty is the King’s; but every subject’s soul is his own.

 

Though a great king, Henry V’s greatness could not expunge the sin of his father’s treason. That could only be done through the suffering and punishment of his own son, the saintly yet ineffective Henry VI, and indeed of all the English people. With legitimacy abandoned, success alone becomes the source of authority and Henry VI was not successful.

In Henry VI, Part Three, the King, buffeted by events he cannot control and paying the penalty that must be exacted for sins he did not himself commit, reveals the loneliness and burdens of a sovereign.

 

Would I were dead! if God’s good will were so;

For what is in this world but grief and woe?

O God! methinks it were a happy life,

To be no better than a homely swain;

To sit upon a hill, as I do now,

To carve out dials quaintly, point by point,

Thereby to see the minutes how they run:

How many makes the hour full complete,

How many hours brings about the day,

How many days will finish up the year,

How many years a mortal man may live.

When this is known, then to divide the times:

So many hours must I tend my flock,

So many hours must I take my rest;

So many hours must I contemplate;

So many hours must I sport myself;

So many days my ewes have been with young;

So many weeks ere the poor foals will yean;

So many years ere I shall shear the fleece:

So minutes, hours, days, months, and years,

Pass’d over to the end they were created,

Would bring white hairs unto a quiet grave.

Ah, what a life were this! how sweet! how lovely!

 

While Henry laments, he sees a man who has learned that he has killed his own father in this civil war of dynasties

 

O, piteous spectacle! O bloody times!

Whiles lions war and battle for their dens,

Poor harmless lambs abide their enmity.

Weep, wretched man, I’ll aid thee, tear for tear;

And let our hearts and eyes, like civil war,

Be blind with tears, and break o’ercharg’d with grief.

 

And then the King see a father who has unwittingly killed his own son and, looking upon the body, continues his lament.

 

O that my death would stay these ruthful deeds! -

O, pity, pity! gentle Heaven, pity! -

The red rose and white are on his face,

The fatal colours of our striving houses:

The one his purple blood right well resembles,

The other his pale cheeks, methinks, presenteth;

Wither one rose, and let the other flourish!

If you contend, a thousand lives must wither.

How will the country, for these woeful chances,

Misthink the King, and not be satisfied!

Was ever King so grieved for subjects’ woes?

 

Henry VI is overthrown by his cousin, King Edward IV of the House of York.  Henry then regains and loses the Throne a second time. He is subsequently murdered by Richard, Duke of Gloucester, the younger brother of Edward.  Gloucester, in Shakespeare’s version of history, is the archetype villain.  He contrives the murders of his other brother, the Duke of Clarence, and his nephews on his way to the Throne as King Richard III, but he is in turn killed at the Battle of Bosworth by the Earl of Richmond, Henry VII, who founds the Tudor dynasty. While Henry VII has only a tenuous claim to the Throne, Shakespeare portrays him as a hero with kingly qualities, Though a supporter of the Tudors, Shakespeare’s principles of legitimacy must still be satisfied for the sin against Richard II to be forgiven and order restored. The penance of blood has been paid and through that royal device of dynastic marriage, the Houses of Lancaster and York are reconciled. Henry Tudor of the House of Lancaster marries Elizabeth of York, the daughter of King Edward IV. Legitimacy returns, peace reigns under the Tudors, and, in the last lines of the play Richard III, Shakespeare’s chronicle of England’s kings in the Wars of the Roses ends in prayer.

 

O, now, let Richmond and Elizabeth,

The true succeeders of each royal House,

By God’s fair ordinance conjoin together!

And let their heirs (God, if thy will be so)

Enrich the time to come with smooth-fac’d peace,

With smiling plenty and fair prosperous days!

Abate the edge of traitors, gracious Lord,

That would reduce these bloody days again,

And make poor England weep in streams of blood!

Let them not live to taste this land’s increase

That would with treason wound this fair land’s peace!

Now civil wounds are stopp’d, Peace lives again:

That she may long live here, God say Amen!

 

Copyright (c) 2013 Garry Toffoli



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