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Shakespeare “Richard II” and “Henry IV” Essay


Historical reports indicate that Kings, like the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt claimed to be gods or at least descended from them. Due to this fact many a time their coronation ceremonies were for the primary intention of demonstrating divine approval of their ascension to the throne (Cannon, Cannon and Hargreaves 2009). This doctrine was spelled out even more clearly in the sixteenth century when estates and parliaments had begun to express a challenge to royal authority.

In British history the most explicit exposition of this right was made by James VI of Scotland in two separate treatises. These treatises namely, The Trew Laws of Free Monarchies and Basilikon Doron maintained this view of Divine Right in relation to the Monarchs.

He moved to England in 1603 while maintaining the same view under the name James I (Cannon, Cannon and Hargreaves 2009). Evidence of this is seen in his speech to parliament in 1610 when he informed the parliament that Kings exercised a resemblance of divine power on earth and as such were accountable to none but God.

On the contrary, a Machiavellian view to power considers the strength of a leader by the degree to which the leader is independent of others and their ability to maintain domination over people (Denhardt, Denhardt and Aristigueta 225).

According to this view of leadership, politics and power are human enterprises and as such are outside the realm of God or fate. The founder of this line of thought argued that because State is paramount then whatever means necessary to perpetuate power must be used by the leader (Denhardt, Denhardt and Aristigueta 225).

This position suggests that a ruler should be ruthless where necessary so long as they are able to keep their subjects united and loyal. This approach is most probably responsible for the philosophy of “the end justifies the means (Denhardt, Denhardt and Aristigueta 225).” Having introduced these various points of view the rest of the discussion will now attempt to place the rulers in the plays into either of the categories.

Richard II

It has been observed that the play Richard II marks an exciting advance in the development of the author’s artistry. The play has an unusual formality of structure and tone and an impressive eloquence used to express the mystique of kinship more emphatically than any of the other earlier histories (Forker 1). The story depicts in vivid terms the dethronement of an unsuitable anointed monarch by an illegitimate but more suitable ruler.

In the play the author manages to bring the power and ordered grandeur as centered on the throne into a tragic conflict that emanates from human weakness and political inadequacy of the ruler Richard II (Forker 1). In so doing the author manages to bring the audience to consider the disturbing possibility of the fact that hereditary monarchy may be unviable. The unique thread in the play is the stress laced on the divinity that was thought to hedge kings. This comes to light given the abandonment of the historical practice and the probing of the concept of divine right as seen in the unstable ruler who places his entire trust in theoretical protections (Forker 1).

In the play the author manages to point to the king’s reputation for empty pomp and ceremonial posturing that leads the reader to understand the Kings vanity (Bergeron 85). In the play the author also helps to point out that despite the pomp and ceremony, Richard II is actually a sham of kingship.

This is evident in the fact that much as the lay depicts Richard as the King he does not play this role as efficiently as Bolingbroke (Bergeron 104). In fact this leads Bolingbroke to admit at the end of his reign that most of the era has been like an act in a play.

However, in relation to the question of whether the play depicts a Machiavellian or doctrine of divine right it would appear that the play tends to display more of the doctrine of divine right. This is seen in the lavish coronation ceremony accorded to the new King, Richard II (Bergeron 89).

It is reported that following this ceremony Richard appears to see new heaven and new earth. In light of this the new King begins to see himself a savior as he redeems and pardons various subjects. Evidence of this is seen when a banished murderer throws himself before the king’s horse as the procession makes an entry into the city (Bergeron 90).

Such scenes are again repeated in the city itself as the mayor and sheriffs parade themselves before his judgment and confess various sins. The play manages to depict the manifestation of the new King as some kind of Jesus within the city.

These dramatic actions of the new King serve to form complex relationships between Richard and the subjects gathered around to watch the events unfolding. These activities also serve the purpose of entertaining and impressing the new king. The King serves as the most important piece of the action as the subjects come to be entertained by his actions and explanatory speeches (Bergeron 90). In these repeated pageants the city grants Richard majesty and glory as he comes to judge errant members of the public.

However, despite all the pomp depicted by the King in the play there are numerous occasions in the play that the author uses to point to the aspect of divine right as held by the King. In one scene after the king’s return from Ireland and discovery of Bolingbroke’s rebellion, the Bishop of Carlisle reassures the sovereign of the ability of the power that made him King to keep him King (Morrison 117).

This statement by the Bishop appears to suggest to the sovereign that he has been made King by Divine Right and as such will remain sovereign.

Following this reassurance by the Bishop it is further observed in a statement by the King in a proclamation that suggests not all the water in the sea can wash the balm of an anointed King (Morrison 117). Again in this statement it is evident that the sovereign suggests the role of Divine Right in relation to his reign. He continues to make similar statements in mentioning that the speech of worldly men cannot depose the deputy elected by the Lord (Morrison 117).

As the plot of the play thickens it emerges that the subjects may have began to rebel to which the King suggests that if this has come to pass then the subjects has broken allegiance with God (Morrison 117).

In this statement as well it is evident that the King had a firm belief in the doctrine of Divine Right in relation to ruling his Kingdom. However, as the plot thickens and it becomes apparent that his throne is threatened the King abandons his claims of divinity. This is indicated in his statement to his remaining supporters when he mentions that he lives on bread just as they do (Morrison 117).

In summary, in the play Richard II the author uses very rich poetic imagery to depict the story of an inept ruler and his eventual disposition from the throne in England. Among the potent themes used in the play is that of blood, which is portrayed in two basic shades. The blood of kinship and inheritance which serves to grant Richard II the throne of England, and the blood of violent murder and conflict which eventually strips him of the throne (Morrison 120).

In the play blood is less frequently used to depict a hot blooded character. As a result of this the play tends to depict well an ominous atmosphere and helps to display the familial relationships that are essential in the play. However, in the play Richard II the author manages to depict division of loyalties within the family and the relationship to the crown (Morrison 120). The reduction of Richard from King to a non entity is seen to arise from his own nature with a little help from initiatives of Bolingbroke (Moseley 53).

Henry IV

It has been suggested by some that one problem that appeared to have preoccupied the author throughout his career was whether it was possible for high political office to be properly exercised without any effect to the person exercising it (Moseley 53). For this reason it is possible that the author took time to prepare plays on various perspectives on rulers and the effect of ruling on their personality.

However, in the play Henry IV, the King is presented as a very painstakingly careful ruler who cares very deeply about his land. In addition to this the play presents him as an individual given to working very hard ad seeking peace with as much justice as possible (Moseley 53). Despite of this he is devoid of his attractiveness from the era of Richard II. For this reason even acts for which he appears to deserve praise have come to seem as the fruit of policy as opposed to virtue.

The text suggests that he is an old man, cold and constantly in engaged in efforts to prove the truth. However, despite this cold summary the author also manages to paint him as a man and father who thinks and feels (Moseley 54). Unlike his predecessor Richard, he sees the crown as a heavy duty bestowed upon him and is aware that his path to the crown has left him morally tainted.

As a result of this it is reported that his head often lies uneasy and he barely trusts anyone. It is reported that he is a fundamentally decent individual though he has suffered betrayal by those whose hearts he won during his youth. He is aware of the guilt he bears in relation to what he did to Richard (Moseley 54).

The realm he presides over is torn by revolt and his life is characterized by constant battle against disorder. His opponents are hardly a bed of roses. It is reported that Worcester and Northumberland are clearly making attempts to see what they can get under the guise of avenging Richard while using the military clout of Hotspur (Moseley 54).

It is reported that Northumberland is shrewd enough to wait the results of the Hotspur/Glendower campaign before committing itself. On the other hand Hotspur is apolitical innocent whose rashness is being manipulated by others (Moseley 54).

In summary, the play bears the name of the Henry IV but is more concerned with the process of reforming Hal, the Prince of Wales. The text is involved in the themes that see Hal change from a carefree, fun loving individual to a responsible man prepared to accept the crown of England (Modugno 80). The play follows Hals transformation from the world of Falstaff’s tavern to one of the King’s court and the responsibilities that come with it.

The play depicts an England beset by rebellion and the possibility of war. There is disorder throughout Henry’s kingdom and this is evident both in the court and the common world that includes inns. The play traces the actions of Henry and Hal and the reestablishment of order in the Kingdom (Moseley 82).

As mentioned in the introduction a Machiavellian view of power is represented by the degree to which the leader is able of maintaining order while remaining independent of others. In this view of power whatever means necessary must be used to perpetuate power. It is possible to suggest that the play Henry IV tends to support the Machiavellian approach to power as opposed to one of Divine right. The main reason for this is first of all due to the guilt of Henry in relation to what he did to Richard (Moseley 54).

It is apparent that the Divine Right to the throne lay with Richard. In addition to that the Machiavellian approach seems to be supported in this play given the underhand tactics being used by Henry’s detractors such as Worcester and Northumberland. It has already been observed that the two are awaiting the outcome of a campaign against Henry in Hotspur/Glendower. It is based on this Machiavellian approach that Henry manages to overcome the erratic Hotspur (Moseley 87).

Works Cited

Bergeron, David M. Pageantry in the Shakespearean Theater. Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2011. Print.

Cannon, John, John Ashton Cannon, and Anne Hargreaves. The Kings & Queens of Britain. New York: Oxford University Press Inc., 2009. Print.

Denhardt, Robert B., Janet Vinzant Denhardt, and Maria Pilar Aristigueta. Managing Human Behavior in Public & nonprofit Organizations. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications Inc., 2002. Print.

Forker, Charles R. King Richard II. London: Thomson Learning, 2002. Print.

Modugno, Michael A. Henry IV, Part I (MAXNotes Literature Guides), Part 1. New Jersey: Research & education Association, 1996. Print.

Morrison, Michael. Richard II (MAXNotes Literature Guides). New Jersey: MAXNotes, 1996. Print.

Moseley, Charles. William Shakespeare: Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. Penrith:, 2007. Print.

This Essay on Shakespeare “Richard II” and “Henry IV” was written and submitted by user Ricardo Strickland to help you with your own studies. You are free to use it for research and reference purposes in order to write your own paper; however, you must cite it accordingly.

Ricardo Strickland studied at the University of New Mexico, USA, with average GPA 3.12 out of 4.0.

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Strickland, R. (2019, December 17). Shakespeare “Richard II” and “Henry IV” [Blog post]. Retrieved from

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Strickland, Ricardo. "Shakespeare “Richard II” and “Henry IV”." IvyPanda, 17 Dec. 2019,

1. Ricardo Strickland. "Shakespeare “Richard II” and “Henry IV”." IvyPanda (blog), December 17, 2019.


Strickland, Ricardo. "Shakespeare “Richard II” and “Henry IV”." IvyPanda (blog), December 17, 2019.


Strickland, Ricardo. 2019. "Shakespeare “Richard II” and “Henry IV”." IvyPanda (blog), December 17, 2019.


Strickland, R. (2019) 'Shakespeare “Richard II” and “Henry IV”'. IvyPanda, 17 December.

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