When I was taking classes on Shakespeare in college, my professor worked really hard to make the plays accessible to us. He ensured we got all the jokes (especially the dirty ones) and could relate what we were reading or watching to our own lives and understanding of the world.
And then we got to Act IV, Scene 5 of Henry IV, Part II and I saw just how different the mindset and worldview really was.
For those unfamiliar with the plays (the real history is a bit more complex), here’s how all of this started: Richard II of England banished his cousin Henry Bolingbroke over a feud. When Bolingbroke’s father the Duke of Lancaster died, Richard seized all his lands and wealth, angering the nobility. Bolingbroke came back and waged war against Richard. Ultimately he took the crown–adopting the title of Henry IV–and an ambitious nobleman tried to ingratiate himself to the new king by killing the old one. Henry was horrified and vowed to cleanse himself of this sin.
Then in Henry IV Part I and Part II, we get to meet his son Prince Hal. Hal is an entertaining fuckup who runs around with some unsavory sorts, much to his father’s anger and disgust. Then as rebellions and plots mount against his father, Hal has to step up so that ultimately in the scene I linked to above he’s ready to take the crown from his dying father. Okay! All makes sense. All is working. Except…
….Henry IV still feels guilty over taking the throne. He is not a “true” king. He feels that all the hardships he’s faced have been punishment for his sin in taking what was not his. Hal absolves him of this guilt by pointing out that he, the son of the king, will take his place as the next rightful king:
My gracious liege,
You won it, wore it, kept it, gave it me;
Then plain and right must my possession be;
Which I with more than with a common pain
‘Gainst all the world will rightfully maintain.
And lo, his father finds peace at last.
Which was baffling and nonsensical to this 21st century college student. Why did this absolve him? Why was it wrong for Henry IV to take the throne by force, but good and proper for his son to inherit it and defend it with force? Seeing this whole monarchy thing as a bunch of bullshit anyway (U! S! A! U! S! A!), I couldn’t find much difference between a guy sitting on the throne because he killed to get there and a guy sitting on the throne because he was killing to stay there.
Yet within the context of the play–and the monarchist propaganda Shakespeare was wisely writing–it does make sense. In all those attempts to make the play as accessible as possible, I’d been warping Shakespeare to my point of view instead of trying to open my eyes to different ones. To endorse taking the crown by force would be to question the very legitimacy of the crown. If someone with an army just had to march against Elizabeth I and be considered the true and proper monarch, what the hell was the point in having a monarch? Might as well pick kings and queens in mud wrestling competitions. (Has anyone written that yet? If not, I call dibs.)
Henry IV could never be a legitimate king, then, because for him to be legitimate would give ammunition to all would-be usurpers. Yet Prince Hal would become Henry V, who wasn’t just a popular king. He was a Lancastrian king. Elizabeth I was descended from Margaret Beaufort, great-great granddaughter of the Duke of Lancaster…Henry IV’s father. Delegitimize Henry V and you delegitimize Elizabeth I. Obviously, Shakespeare couldn’t do that.
(There’s a lot of delicious history to dig into here that I could go on at length about, such as Henry IV declaring Beaufort’s line ineligible for the throne, but let that be another post.)
So Shakespeare had a real creative conundrum. Henry IV had to suffer for being a usurper, yet his line had to be recognized as the proper inheritors of the crown. Through Prince Hal’s legitimate inheritance, the slate was wiped clean and the sin of his father absolved. Taking it further, the new King Henry would turn his back on those he once loved to dedicate himself to service to his kingdom rather than his own heart.
Presume not that I am the thing I was,
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I have turn’d away my former self;
So will I those that kept me company.
– Henry IV, Part II, Act V, Scene 5
Through this sacrifice and betrayal of self, the new king fully accepts the crown and its burden. He brings full legitimacy to the Lancasters (and thus Shakespeare brings legitimacy to Elizabeth I), while somehow making the audience’s collective heart break for this jerk who just inherited a country and told off his closest friend.
Now that’s skill.