Henry IV Part 1–Prince Hal: Shakespeare’s Self-Made Man (Part 1)

Following through with something I mentioned in my analysis of Richard II, I’ve decided to write a series focusing on how Prince Hal/ Harry/ Henry V must reach the throne with the support of the realm behind him, rather than merely assuming an absolute right to his throne. By maneuvering around his father’s deposition of Richard II while pretending to be a taverngoer whose company has corrupted him, Hal successfully reaches the throne in a way that does not undercut his own claim to it. Unlike several of Shakespeare’s kings/would-be kings (Richard II, Henry IV, Claudius, Hamlet), Hal reaches the throne in a non-contradictory way–appropriate for representing the historical Henry V, who was generally regarded as the quintessential monarch of whom any 16th century Englishman could be proud. Through his clear-sighted, intentional planning, as well as his following through with his long-term goal and highest values in a consistent way, Hal/Henry V becomes a paradox in Shakespeare: a self-made king.

Of course, hereditary kingship is never the best of situations. It is debatable whether Hal truly wants to wear the crown or is merely making the best of his situation. Even if he does not care to be king, he would be a threat to any other contender for the throne; thus, his requisite action is the same whether he wants the throne or not. Unlike other kings, who must deal with the contradictions that helped them to the throne, Prince Hal’s problems are actually his father’s. 1HIV opens with Henry IV (previously the forceful, determined Bolingbroke) expressing weariness that his countrymen simply will not let him pursue a campaign to to do penance at Jerusalem for deposing Richard. The conflict between the divinely chosen kingship and the king chosen by the people continues (and will continue until the end of Henry V), and his father’s perceived trespass upon the former–buttressed by the according revolts of the latter– is arguably Prince Hal’s main thematic antagonist. More pronounced than in RII, here there is a reciprocity between the two views of kingship: the people will not support a man they believe does not have the sanction of God. In this view, rebellion is both crime against land and sin against Lord. Despite previous arguments that Richard II misused the throne, Henry IV is still seen as a usurper by the unsatisfied “commons” mentioned by Northumberland at Richard’s trial (RII 4.1.272). Far from unifying England, Henry has divided it–all the more since the Scots and Welsh have seized upon the late events to pursue their own goals against the English crown.

Ironically, many of the Englishmen now leading the fight against Henry IV’s rule (esp Northumberland, his brother the Earl of Worcester, and his son Harry “Hotspur” Percy) supported him in the previous play. In his Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare (1970), in which he provides a historical and cultural context for most of the key passages throughout the corpus, Isaac Asimov addresses the issue: “[Since] Bolingbroke was made King by act of Parliament instead of by act of God through line of birth…almost anyone else could be made king” (302). Thus Henry IV’s previous consideration of and reliance on his subjects becomes a liability, and men like Northumberland, who Richard previously called the “ladder wherewithal | The mounting Bolingbroke ascends my throne” (RII 5.1.55), become a source of apprehension.

Enter Prince Hal. Shakespeare presents Harry’s main obstacles in the form of foils: in order to be considered worthy of the throne, he must assume the manner of his military foil, Hotspur, and he must forego his antic relationship with Sir John Falstaff in favor of a more stately relationship with his father. In examining how the prince acts within his long-term goal of reaching the throne in a legitimate way, I will focus on the prince’s true view of Falstaff as inimical to his path to kingship, as well as what their relationship accomplishes for the aspirant Henry V.

Though it would be a stretch to say Prince Hal does not enjoy his time with Falstaff in the tavern, I cannot help but note telling seams in his humorous back-and-forth with the knight that suggest something deeper than the frivolous irresponsibility everyone else sees in the prince. Most of these “seams” appear in moments when Hal is frank about his determination to be a just king. After a few subtle references to prison by the prince, Falstaff asks “shall there be gallows standing in England when thou art king?…Do not thou hang a thief” (1HIV 1.2.61-65). Hal answers with “No; thou shalt” (1.2.66). The double entendre–between Falstaff’s hanging a thief and hanging as a thief–unnerves the knight, who promptly assumes the Hal means the former and will make him a judge of thieves. As the banter continues, Hal persists in jabs toward Falstaff’s future meeting with justice. Quoting Proverbs 1.20–that “wisdom cries out in the streets, and no man regards it” (1.2.92-93), Hal implies wisdom’s consolation in the succeeding verses, that because men like Falstaff have not heeded her, she “will also laugh at [their] calamity; | [She] will mock when [their] dread comes” (NASB Pv 1.26). From the start, Hal subtextually implies his intention that Falstaff meet with justice in the future. Falstaff responds with mock hurt feelings –exaggerated for sympathy, as is everything the knight does–speaking as if the prince has corrupted him (rather than the public view of his corrupting the prince). Hal ends the banter by segueing into their previous plans to rob a group of travelers (which, consistent with his underlying royal character, he does not do, instead robbing Falstaff and the other robbers as a joke and subsequently repaying the travelers with interest–2.4.562-563).

All of the jesting can be (and has been for centuries) interpreted as within the context of a genuinely affectionate relationship between Hal and Falstaff. However, at the end of the scene Prince Henry shows his true colors as one who “will awhile uphold | The unyoked humour of [Falstaff’s] idleness,” that, like the sun behind clouds, “when he please again to be himself, | Being wanted, he may be the more wondered at, | By breaking through the foul and ugly mists | Of vapours that did seem to strangle him” (1.2.199-207). This true Harry must have been a happy surprise to English audiences who, knowing the stateliness he would need to assume as Henry V, had thus far only heard undisciplined things about and from the young man. Keeping the character consistent with the (probably exaggerated) legends of Henry V’s sudden change upon coronation, Shakespeare balances his wantonness with hidden integrity. From the start, only the audience gets to see Harry as the hero who, in his own words from Henry V, has “laid by [his] majesty, | And plodded like a man for working days” (1.2. 277-278). In her relevant (though, admittedly, dated) essay “From Madcap Prince to King” that appeared in the 1969 issue of Shakespeare Quarterly, Elsa Sjolberg identifies Hal’s first soliloquy as containing “Shakespeare’s design for the development of the character of Prince Hal” (13-14). Sjolberg identifies why Hal must be so intentional about his path to kingship, saying “the fact that he is the heir of Henry IV will not make his throne secure. His personal qualifications must excel those of both King Richard and King Henry, peace must be restored, and the hearts of the people won, or the kingdom will not really be his” (16). This is why everything, even Hal’s apparent love for Falstaff, must be interpreted through his initial soliloquy. Rather than irresponsible dissolution, his time in the taverns is essential to his intentional, ruthlessly-held priority of reaching the throne in a way that will garner support from the other members of court–i.e. earning the consent of the governed even more than did his father (see my previous blog post).

Harry’s candid statements of how Falstaff will meet justice once he is king–which Falstaff never lets himself takes seriously, instead interpreting as merely harsh jesting–continue as the tension grows between the king’s expectations for Harry and his history with Falstaff. Before meeting with his father and revealing his true intention to be the prince Henry IV wants, Harry continues to hint at his underlying disdain for Falstaff in an appropriately Shakespearean scene: a play within the play. Rehearsing how Hal’s meeting with the king will go, he and the knight assume and then trade roles, with Hal eventually speaking as his own father to Falstaff, playing the prince. All insults from Hal are, not inappropriately, interpreted by the knight as coming from the performed king, rather than Hal, himself. However, after arguing against being denied Hal’s company, saying that to “banish plump Jack, [Henry IV would] banish all the world,” Harry pointedly says “I do, I will” (2.4.495). The scansion of the brief line momentarily shifts the scene from casual prose to iambic pentameter; furthermore, the implicit three-foot pause in the line shows that, either before the statement or after, one of the characters is speechless. Does Hal blur the lines of character and speak immediately as himself, unblinkingly sure of his decision to banish Falstaff from his presence, or does Hal hesitate, realizing that he must do so, speaking the line only after a six-syllable pause of reflection? Based on previous moments where Harry shows a secret contempt for the knight, as well as on his consistent values of justice (however close to the chest he holds them), I lean toward the former reading–which I know might make Hal “repellant” to many because of the “deep political calculation” it would imply, to use Azimov’s reaction to the idea (AGS 334). Nonetheless, the long-term planning required and carried out by Harry necessitates a knowledge of the values he is fighting for, and of which, because of his degrading view of kingship, Falstaff is a philosophical antipode.

Their two differing perspectives on how Hal’s kingship will be–concretizations of their general views of kingship (indeed, England) itself–continue to contrast through the end of the play, most notably during the climactic battle of Shrewsbury. To quote my undergraduate thesis on the subject, “When preparing to meet the King against Hotspur, Prince Hal doffs his irresponsible disposition and asserts before Falstaff ‘The land is burning; Percy stands on high; | And either we or they must lower lie,’ to which the knight replies ‘Rare words! Brave world!’ (1HIV 3.3.200-204). Appropriately, Hal reveals his capacity for behaving as ambitiously as a prince should at the end of the tenth scene of a nineteen-scene play– near the exact center. Hal’s change in tone, signified by the sudden shift to iambic pentameter, signals his assuming the responsibility of his title. Hal’s change shocks Falstaff enough to produce similar verse in him, out of respect for the now-assertive Prince of Wales; the lines are the first iambic pentameter Falstaff speaks in the play. Such a change in him stresses the difference between his perception of Hal in his wild hours and the underlying reality.” On the battlefield, Prince Harry does not show the same patience for Falstaff’s unserious lifestyle has he did in the taverns. Indeed, several times he is spoken of by one enemy–Sir Richard Vernon–as contrasting sharply with his sullied reputation. In moments that gall the antagonist, Hotspur, who believes himself superior to who he believes to be nothing but a wastrel prince, Vernon reports that Harry mounted his horse “as if an angel dropt down from the clouds…If he outlive the envy of this day, | England did never owe so sweet a hope, | So much misconstrued in his wantonness” (4.1.108; 5.2.67-69). Whereas in private he humored Falstaff, before his future subjects (even his enemies) Harry is what a prince ought to be–something we have known since his first scene. Indeed, alone after killing Hotspur and thinking Falstaff dead (merely a ruse), Harry still speaks with the contempt of his future office: “I should have a heavy miss of thee, | If I were much in love with vanity” (5.4.105-106). Acknowledging how he might have reacted in his tavern character, Harry nonetheless spares little time and few words on the knight–who, upon learning he lives, Harry impatiently allows to take credit for killing Hotspur, thus implicitly allowing the prince to further escape even beneficial scrutiny on his continued route to the throne.

Despite the fun Prince Hal has in his back-and-forth with Falstaff, he cannot be the unjust king Falstaff wants him to be. If he must wear the crown, Hal resolves to do so in a legitimate and uncontested way. In “Hal and Hamlet: the Loneliness of Integrity” (Jonson and Shakespeare, 1983), Derek Marsh calls Hal’s tactics a “studied defiance…an attitude more of disillusion than dissolution, which is borne out by his performance of his chosen role…[Hal] cannot change the fact of his father’s usurpation; all he can do, really, is wait for his own succession, try to equip himself to be a good king without associating too closely with the court, or allowing himself to be dragged into the real anarchy that Falstaff and his companions represent” (21-24). By pretending to be an irresponsible wastrel to the public, Harry is able to secretly improve his princely situation and future kingship from outside of court. In Henry IV Part 1 he instigates his tactic of lowering others’ expectations and then surpassing them dramatically so as to garner support by the contrast. In this way, Prince Hal can be listed with other literary, cultural, and historical heroes who assume either a low position or a dissolute public opinion to secure their future goals–i.e. Hamlet, Lear‘s Edgar, Atlas Shrugged‘s John Galt, Francisco D’Anconia, and Ragnar Danneskjold, LOTR‘s Aragorn, Bruce Wayne/Batman,and, indeed, Jesus Christ (I’m sure I’m missing many–comment with others!).

I’ve already voiced my contempt for kingship (and any other form of legalized slavery–i.e. gov’t that does not consistently recognize individual rights). However, in Shakespeare’s pre-Locke England, the king–or rather, the idea of kingship–is the highest value. Thus, Prince Harry’s purging of the throne from his father’s contradictions is his way of preserving his integrity as a man of values. From this perspective, for all his comic relief Falstaff is in some ways a worse king killer than other regicides like Bolingbroke, Claudius, or Macbeth. He doesn’t want to kill a king to become one: he wants to bring monarchy to the level of the tavern, as can be seen in his assumptions that Hal’s coronation will mark an age of amnesty for thieves and wastrels. If Henry IV’s throne is insecure, how much less secure would be the throne of Henry V if the unscrupulous Falstaff had his way with it? It would be worse than insecure: in an England where princes and pickpockets are fundamentally equal, the throne would not be worth the effort of usurping. I exaggerate only in order to show why Hal must treat Falstaff as he does, as well as to identify how much was at stake for the English audience in Shakespeare’s ending the play with Harry in a noble light. Falstaff is a beloved character, but it was Henry V that would have made them proud to be English. Thus, it is upon his intentional character growth that Shakespeare must focus from the start, and it is inevitable that Falstaff be left behind in Harry’s effort to earn his throne.

As with any post on this blog, I do not pretend to exhaust the topic. If you have perspective or ire, or if you have a source suggestion, leave a comment!


Richard II: An Implicit Case for Individual Rights?

While at Oxford in 2008, I wrote a series of essays on Shakespeare’s history plays. The arguments in many of those essays became my undergraduate thesis, which partly centered on Prince Hal’s uniqueness in the Histories as a king who earns his throne. Upon re-reading my nascent essay on Richard II, I am struck by how much the monarch of that play resembles the kind of king that, in the two generations after Shakespeare, many British–and later, American–citizens would revolt.

Admittedly, the subject of Shakespeare’s involvement in the political philosophy of his time deserves more study than I have done on the subject, my being an as-yet informal student of political history. Shakespeare, himself, is generally known as a historical enigma; add that to the fact that the Protestant Reformation in England carried with it more than a little statist repression (see Asquith’s Shadowplay for more on the topic). The England of Shakespeare was not the England of John Locke–and even he wrote under threat of death. However, it would be foolish to treat the two writers as of separate traditions. Whether or not Shakespeare intended to leave a mark on what would become a bloody debate regarding the role of kingship in the next century, leading to the first and second civil wars of the Anglosphere (we Americans proudly know the second as the American Revolution–see Inventing Freedom by Daniel Hannan), his Histories can easily be read within the context of the post-Renaissance political developments of the Western world.

A key–if not the key–issue debated in 16th and 17th century was the role of kingship as it related to the citizenry. In the first of his Two Treatises of Government, Locke overthrows the position of Sir Robert Filmer, who had argued that because God gave Adam preeminence over Eve and their progeny in Genesis, 1) men are kings in their home, and 2) the King, as “father” of the realm, has divinely-granted absolute authority. In one of the most influential Bible studies in history, Locke debunks, often humorously, both Filmer’s premise of arbitrary male authority in Eden and his subsequent conclusions. In his second treatise–again, since it is to scripture that he goes for authority, it’s essentially a Bible study, executed using the Aristotelian logic that would lead to the progress of the following two centuries–Locke presents a more standalone argument for what a government should be. It is in his second treatise that he lays out the role of gov’t as 1) existing by virtue of the consent of those governed and 2) for the purpose of safeguarding man’s essential individual rights to life, liberty, and property. These principles led, we know, to Thomas Jefferson’s penning of the American Declaration of Independence.

What changed between Shakespeare and Jefferson? I contest that it was more than just who had what political power (e.g. king vs parliament). What shifted–like an idea whose time had come, as Hugo might say it– was the conception of man’s objective identity. No longer did people see a fundamental difference between a king and a citizen. The king, by Locke and Jefferson’s definition, was a citizen, himself, who only had authority by virtue of those he governed. It was as if the great-souled man of Aristotle’s Ethics had pulled back the curtain on Plato’s Republic and revealed its philosopher kings not as wizards but as, themselves, mere men.

But what if this reconception of regal authority can be seen in Richard II? Once again, Shakespeare would be one proverbial step ahead of his time.

Before I speak on the play, let me say that Richard II is one of my favorite plays. Starting from the first lines, it involves an enormous amount of subtext and political intrigue as the two fundamentally opposed perspectives on kingship conflict. The drama of the play comes from just that: it is not a battle of indistinguishable characters seeking the same goal, but of two diametrically opposed philosophies. It is this that allows for the amount of emotion in the play. Though he knows that Richard’s method of rule must be replaced, Henry genuinely loves his cousin (arguable, I know), and Richard’s later understanding that his rule is at an end is, despite his being the villain, sympathetic (of course, one could argue that Richard is the protagonist and Henry the passive aggressive antagonist. As such, the play could be read as an argument for the absolutist claim. However, the subsequent Henry plays would debunk this). In Richard, Shakespeare represents the emotional agony of someone who is forced to face a contradiction upon which they have built their whole life (here, that one man may have an automatic authority over others). Despite the evil of his contradiction, Richard is nonetheless a very noble man; Richard II is by no means Richard III. It’s an incredible play, and the more I’ve read it the more I’ve found that every moment contributes in some way to the plot. It is also, technically, a “perfect” play: Every single line is iambic pentameter (if I’m wrong, please correct me).

In the first scene, Richard might appear a caricature of kingship: opulent, domineering, presumptuous, and using duty to his person as his answer to every argument. As I wrote in my 2008 essay, “The tension in the play builds around Richard’s presuming he may act as God because of his assumed divine right to the throne…Richard sorts himself with God, saying that by revolt, his subjects ‘break their faith to God as well as us’ (3.2.102)… According to him, ‘The breath of worldly men cannot depose | The deputy elected by the Lord’ (3.2.56). His emphasis on ‘worldly’ shows that he considers himself higher than mankind.” That Richard sees no problem with his perspective reads as naively pathetic to us now. However, the king as the center of English identity, from which every other Englishman derives his worth, was a concept fully believed not only by Englishmen in the 14th century, but by many other nations that centered around a bloodline. Historically, those of us who believe in fundamental individual rights are the strange ones.

Before addressing Richard’s application of this high view of himself to his treatment of others’ property, allow me to step back to the post-Locke context of the modern day. How a person treats others’ right to their own property reveals what they really think of peoples’ right to their lives and liberty. To say people have a right to life and to liberty but not to the property (all or each article thereof) that their life and liberty have produced is a gross contradiction in terms, and it is the basis of centuries of immorality and bloodshed (look up “Khmer Rouge” for just one of many 20th century examples). Conversely, if you have ever looked at your paycheck or something you bought with it and felt a moment of pride in your work, you were not being a materialist: you were experiencing the kind of life which you have a right to achieve by virtue of your being a human. That feeling is the legacy of Aristotle, Paul, Locke (and, I’m arguing here, possibly Shakespeare), and every other writer/thinker that has said or assumed that each individual man and woman has a right to exist and that his/her life is an objective good, an end in itself not to be used by others. Of course, it would be anachronistic to expect Richard to recognize this, much less articulate it. At the time, property was granted to various members or friends of the royal family in the form of dukedoms and earldoms. The idea of work and innovation giving individuals a right to the products thereof was not even a conception. However, if placed on a scale, Bolingbroke’s treatment of his subjects comes much closer to the recognition of the importance of individual citizens than does Richard’s. Indeed, Shakespeare appears to recognize the shift: despite the way his English are preoccupied with absolutist divine will in kingship, it is nonetheless Richard’s illegal seizure of Henry’s land upon his father’s death that causes the king’s technically tragic downfall.

Again, from my essay, “[Richard] says, upon going to war, because ‘our coffers, with too great a court | And liberal largess, are grown somewhat light, | We are enforced to farm our royal realm’ (1.4.43-45). Ironically, Richard is self-aware enough to acknowledge his extravagant spending. Yet, he has no guilt in using the country’s taxes on himself and his bureaucracy. He absolves himself from blame by speaking as if he has no choice, but is ‘enforced’ to tax his subjects. That he believes the country to be at his disposal is shown in the crop metaphor. However, according to his subjects, he has not contributed to the land in ways that will benefit it. According to Northumberland, Richard has ‘basely yielded upon compromise | That which his ancestors achieved with blows’ (2.1.253-254). Richard has done nothing to fortify or expand England, as his predecessors did (to whom he is consistently compared in the play’s early acts).” Of course, one of the problems with kings is that they do not produce anything. Outside of war, the only way they can maintain their lifestyle–much less survive–is on the taxes of their subjects. Richard’s assumption of his subjects’ property as his due is contrasted with the conquests of his predecessors (who, notably, did not take their kingship for granted). Of course, the desire to fault Richard and the other kings for their need to either make war or tax their subjects is anachronistic (capitalism, which improves peoples’ lives through voluntary trade for mutual benefit and which requires the recognition of individual rights, would not be invented for several centuries). Nonetheless, the way Richard treats the subject of taxation–and by extension, the lives of the people who produced the money that is taxed–fundamentally differs from that of his successor, Bolingbroke.

Contrasting with Richard is his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, who, with his drastically different populist tactics, foils Richard until he is crowned Henry IV. Richard banishes and divests Henry of his inheritance early in the play to fund his suppression of Irish rebels and to cover up the murder of their uncle, Thomas of Gloucester, secretly ordered by the king before the play’s opening (remember what I said about subtext and intrigue?). Bolingbroke returns to reclaim his inheritance and, with the politic help of several members of court (who wish to protect their own lands from royal seizure), claims the crown as the next member of the royal line–once Richard defects. Although his path to the throne is by no means direct, nor complete (Richard never publicly admits fault in his crimes, thus leaving Henry’s succession legally incomplete–a fact that will haunt his son, Prince Hal, for three subsequent plays), it nonetheless represents a different view of kingship than that of Richard. Richard derides Bolingbroke for his “courtship to the common people” (1.4.25); yet, it is that consideration for his fellow lords and subjects that garners Henry the support–one might say, consent–that leads him to the throne.

The ousted Richard has some of the most passionate (and pitiful) lines of the play: it is in prison where he is most starkly faced by the contradiction that led him there. However, he never truly faces it; instead, he continues to interpret everything through the ownership of others by kings. “Our lands, our loves, and all are Bolingbroke’s, | And nothing can we call our own but death,” (3.2.152-3). Richard cannot conceive of existence without kingship. If kingship is viewed as an absolute right to rule and live off the work of others, then according to Richard’s psychology, having a self unrelated to others is an impossibility. Without people to rule, Richard cannot exist. He identifies this irony–that by wearing a crown a king becomes a nonentity: “within the hollow crown | That rounds the mortal temples of a king | Keeps Death his court” (3.2.161-3). He preoccupies his final scenes with mourning, and he meditates on images of death. Though he knows Henry cannot allow him to live, his fetishization of the end of his life goes beyond mere fear of how Bolingbroke will deal with him. Having been removed from his only conception of logical existence (i.e. a ruler who implicitly needs his subjects), he focuses on non-existence. Expanding his own experience to include what he assumes each man must feel, he says “Nor I, nor any man that but man is, | With nothing shall be pleased, till he be eased | With being nothing” (5.5.39-40). Rather than seeing his contradiction as the source of his troubles and checking his premises to correct it, he concludes that there is no possible way for humans to be satisfied. Thus, only in death will they be pleased (a contradiction in terms, since the non-existent cannot “be” anything).

Of course, I am expecting too much of Richard: he (and later, Bolingbroke) is stymied by the fact that a standalone man (i.e. one who does not derive his identity and worth in relation to a king or a people, but as himself, defined by his convictions and his own work, man qua man) did not exist yet in the English philosophical vocabulary. Even Bolingbroke, who underhandedly has Richard killed (a necessary evil that will become the central conflict for the next three plays), comes to view himself only in relation to the deposed Richard.

Philosophically, there is no way in Shakespeare’s plays for a man or woman to merely exist as a person: they are either a king of subjects, or subject to a king. Interestingly enough, by impinging upon Richard’s royal life, Henry shows contempt for and undercuts his own right to live as king–a concept that would, in subsequent centuries, be extended to every man by Locke. The repercussions of Richard’s deposition affect both Bolingbroke and his son, Prince Hal. Indeed, there is an argument that the entire purpose of Richard II is to set up the England of Prince Hal–only mentioned in act 5, scene 3–who will later complete the evolution of kingship from divine father to subject of his people’s consent. I encourage everyone to read the Henry plays. Developed across three plays, Prince Hal is arguably Shakespeare’s deepest and most nuanced character. A spoiler: as Bruce Wayne is to Batman, Prince Hal is to King Henry V. In Hal’s plays, kingship takes on a theretofore unknown requirement: it must be earned. Hal’s central conflict is how to reach the throne in such a way that the majority of his countrymen will support him–i.e. that the governed will consent.

If Shakespeare’s Richard II is to be placed in the philosophical chronology of 16th-18th century English thought, it must be as an examination of how a yet-barely conceived idea of subjects’ rights might affect the divine right of kings. In the character of Richard II, Shakespeare presents a king who sees kingship as the highest value in the English consciousness, and thus treats it as such, naively taking it for granted that his subjects agree (i.e. that they share his value system of “king > people”). Though a parasite, Richard is not malicious–that kind of king would not rise until Richard III. However, even in his own play Richard II seems out of date in his conception of English kingship. Richard II has been used many times as a vehicle for softly (at times blatantly) opposing tyranny, and it is only more poignant when critiqued by the later writings of Locke (not to mention other writers of the Anglosphere, such as Milton, Paine, Washington, or Jefferson). Of course, Shakespeare’s actual convictions are nearly impossible to discern–especially since theatre companies at the time were directly sponsored by royalty and noblemen. However, one wonders if his characters are reaching towards (or running from, in Richard’s case) a conception of the citizen that would take later generations to articulate. To say it is unfairly anachronistic to expect his kings to respect the rights of citizens is to unknowingly reveal the History plays’ contribution to the debate: the lack of options for Richard and Henry implies the possibility of another, less contradictory mode of national and individual identity. In their current England, either they rule, or they die. They cannot merely exist as citizens apart from the throne. Yet, the fact that we can speak of their characters as separate from the crown implies the opposite, as does the way that subsequent kings must rely on others for support. Indeed, what is so unique about Prince Hal (and initially considered a liability by his father, previous Bolingbroke King Henry IV), is that he spends his youth living as a citizen in the taverns. Though he is using Falstaff &co to conceal his strategy to reach the crown in a non-contradictory way (i.e. to earn it), his tactics imply a drastically different view of other Englishmen than that held by Richard II.

I fundamentally hate the idea of kingship, yet my favorite plays to read are Shakespeare’s histories. The many conflicts arise not just from actions between characters: they result from the problems of kingship. Even “correct” kingship (a conception that changes) creates conflicts, and it implies that the problem is not in the people who hold the crown but in the crown, itself. How would these character act if they lived in a country without kingship? I often wonder how high the industrious and able Hal might have gone were he born in late 19th century, early 20th century New York, or early ’90’s Silicon Valley. Similarly, were I to place Richard II in America, I cannot help but think of Woodrow Wilson, who, with his high-minded, Progressive idealization of the presidency, rejected the constitutional government of the American Founders, opposed racial integration (subsequently supporting the KKK–see Richard’s thugs, Bushy, Bagot, and Green), and tried to return America to Europe through the League of Nations. I’ll admit, the thought makes me cheer Richard’s deposition. My own tastes aside, Richard II is definitely worth reading, and we would do well to consider that we are reading from a post-Locke perspective. The characters would not have known what we mean by the individual rights of life, liberty, property, and pursuit of happiness–though we can see some characters, even kings, who might jump at the chance to enjoy them.