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Of course, the real victim in all of this is the kingdom itself. As the Bishop of Carlisle exhorted Parliament before it deposed Richard II:
My Lord of Herford here [Henry Bolingbroke], whom you call king,
There is simply no end to treason’s slippery slope, and the consequences – religious, moral, and political – affect more than the traitor’s private universe. The deep foundation of government being shattered, no ruler can speak with the ancient moral authority; there is no king, everyone does what is right in his own eyes (Jdg 21:25). This dissipation is, of course, rooted in the actions of the kings themselves.
The first decline of public spirit is Bolingbroke, whose usurpation of the crown can be cited (as it is by Falstaff) as a warrant for self-seeking on every hand. The second cause is Hal, who refuses to shore up law and ceremony to stay the confusion, but instead spreads unease by allowing, or even promoting, expectation of an indefinitely protracted period of self-seeking from the throne. (Alvis, “Spectacle” 116)
Law (which is nothing if not a restraint upon our selfish desires) is difficult to enforce when the king himself is unrestrained. The underlying fault of these kings is their subjection of the spirit to the polis, of virtue to power; a subjection that is Machiavellian in both its spirit and its letter.
In Shakespeare, we see the emergence of a line of political men—notably Henry IV and Henry V—who are partly Machiavellian, and partly Christian, and whose Christianity and Machiavellianism subsist in a certain kind of harmony . . . . Their self-interest has taken on a patriotic cast, and they expect God will forgive their sins. They think He will recognize the merging of this self-interest with a new, national conception of the common good. (Jaffa 41)
Yet, both historically and poetically, such blessings never materialize. English harmony, patriotism, and the common good have always found their expression in “God, King, and Country,” and in rejecting the first two the third is not far behind. “The folk are no longer unified by a common purpose; they can be flattered into consent by an ambitious monarch; faction rises against faction among the lords; what finally ensues is cousin against cousin and father against son” (Cowan 87). And so, righteous Carlisle’s blood cries out against those who refused to listen to his pleas. In the words of Bloom, “A long and bloody path leads from Richard to Henry VIII, a path on which Englishmen learn that kingship is founded on nobles and commoners as well as on God” (66).
Shakespeare’s Henriad is more than a tragic sort of historical fiction; it is a gem of political wisdom. Therein the poet reminds us of the classical valuation of politics as the means to true happiness in virtue. But he does not do so by lecturing didactically, much less by exalting what is honorable in human government. Instead, he shows the royalty of preceding generations at its worst, to make clear to his generation their own place in the providential order of things. In his presentation of such figures, we come to understand that Shakespeare holds neither to the camp of ‘divine right,’ nor that of ‘popular sovereignty.’ Instead, “Shakespeare’s paradigmatic regime requires only that those who possess authority also possess a high degree of practical wisdom and devotion to promoting the public good” (Alvis, “Introductory” 19). Yet Richard, Henry, and Hal never measure up to this ideal because of their own pride and perverted sense of justice; and both their souls and their kingdom pay the price.