William Shakespeare is perhaps the single greatest writer in the English language. His themes and his characters stand both as representatives of his own age as well as windows into ours. Such timelessness allows each generation to see something of itself in his work, leading to a realm of study and enjoyment that is in a perpetual state of flux. One trend, which has emerged within the last generation or so, reveres Shakespeare not only for his affective power as a poet, but also for his wisdom as a philosopher, particularly in his views on things political. That politics is a concern for Shakespeare at all should be apparent by the subject of many of his plays, particularly his histories and tragedies, though even in a comedy like The Tempest we glimpse something political.
Yet Shakespeare is neither a political pundit nor an artist with an axe to grind. Instead, he views politics in the classical sense, “in terms of education, manners, morals, religion, and ethics” (Alvis, Introductory 8), an emphasis supported by his repeated use of Greek, Roman, and Christian sources throughout his works (Alvis, Introductory 5). Of his several works, The Henriad (Richard II, Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V) is particularly conducive to such an emphasis. Throughout these plays, Shakespeare presents the causes and consequences of rebellion in a way that invites us to delve into the religious and moral aspects of what is now regarded as a purely political act. Our discussion here will examine these aspects by focusing on the character of each of these kings before tracing the consequences of their choices for the kingdom as a whole.
In modern democracies, such as our own, politics and religion maintain distinct and distant spheres. Yet for the audience of Shakespeare’s day, government was always religious (even sacramental) in its form and function. Toward the end of Richard II, a parliament has convened to try and convict Richard of crimes against the nation so that Henry Bolingbroke might assume the throne “Without suspicion” (4.1.157). The king’s only defense comes from the aged and loyal Bishop of Carlisle:
What subject can give sentence on his king?
Carlisle begins by invoking the nobles’ sense of justice. Any one of them would cry foul if he were summarily arrested, prosecuted and executed by the authorities. The bishop, however, is not merely concerned with the illegality of their actions; he reminds them that their relationship to the king is divinely sanctioned. God Himself has providentially set Richard on the throne, placed him as their lord and master, and has set them under his authority. To remove Richard from the throne is to usurp God Himself and to deny His authority and their need for His favor.
Here, Carlisle draws on the teachings of the apostle Paul himself, a passage commonly used throughout history as prima facie evidence for the ‘divine right’ of kings:
Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. (Rom 13:1-2 NKJV)
In other words, our outward submission is indicative of an inward reverence; when we submit to the authorities, our soul is in harmony with God’s providential will. But as is seen in the sentence that follows, the opposite is also true: outward resistance indicates a disorder of the soul, a rejection of God’s will both for the individual and the community—both of which incur judgment. Rebellion, then, says as much about the rebel as it does about the ruler.