Shakespeare’s Support of the Monarchy
Written for December 6, 2006
Much debate has risen throughout recent years about William Shakespeare’s views on kingship. While the common notion is that Shakespeare respected kings and their authority, some people think that Shakespeare feelings were actually the direct opposite. These people believe that Shakespeare found discreet ways to deride royalty through the presentation of characters in his plays. However, this relatively new belief is untrue. Despite minor subtleties in Henry IV, Part I that may be incorrectly interpreted as royal mockery, Shakespeare ultimately supported and respected the monarchy.
On the surface of this play, it is clear that Shakespeare respects the monarchy simply by the title: Henry IV. The play is not entirely about Henry IV, but more about Prince Hal or Hotspur, yet Shakespeare paid homage to the King by using his name for the title. Shakespeare also honored the King by giving his character the opening and closing speeches of the play. Both of these speeches are important because they set the stage for the story to come – his opening speech for Part I, and his closing speech for Part II. Shakespeare even condemns disloyalty to the crown in the King’s closing speech: “Rebellion in this land shall lose his sway” (5.5). One who disrespects the monarchy surely would not write that rebels will not prevail.
King Henry IV strongly exercises his authority and protects his status in Act III, Scene II, when he confronts his son, Prince Hal, about his disreputable behavior. While Prince Hal may be acting disgracefully, the King certainly does not condone this conduct. The King makes evident that the Prince’s actions are not fit for royalty and tells him about his negligence by saying,
“God pardon thee! yet let me wonder, Harry,
At thy affections, which do hold a wing
Quite from the flight of thy ancestors.
Thy place in the council thou hast rudely lost,
Which by thy younger brother has supplied” (3.2).
Henry blatantly expresses his displeasure with his son’s behavior, as he does not want the family to lose its honor. Shakespeare must have felt similarly, as he did not allow the Prince’s mischief to continue.
Prince Hal’s transformation throughout the play adds to the honor Shakespeare bestows upon the royal family. Even the Prince knows this and says to himself, “My reformation, glitt’ring o’er my fault, / Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes / Than that which hath no foil to set it off” (1.2). He knows that he should not act the way does and is willing to change himself. He is aware that the change from his misconduct to his majestic behavior as king will make him look quite impressive. Hal upholds his own promise and gradually transforms into a stately young man. He begins by rejecting Falstaff’s mockery of Henry in their role-play, and he instead seriously plays the part of his father. He takes part less and less in Falstaff’s common games and mischief. By the end of the play, the Prince becomes an accomplished leader and soldier in his father’s army, and he defeats the enemy, Hotspur. Prince Hal’s actions are finally praiseworthy.
The reverence of the monarchy is also displayed through the staunch loyalty of the King’s supporters. When Sir Walter Blunt comes to the rebel camp to deliver a message from Henry, Hotspur ingratiates himself with Blunt in an attempt to wheedle him into joining the rebel side. However, Blunt stands firm and says, “And God defend but still I should stand so, / So long as out of limit and true rule / You stand against anointed majesty” (4.3). The respect that Blunt has for Henry is so strong that he resolutely stands up for himself and the King in the midst of his enemies. Later, Blunt sacrifices his life for the King at the hands of the rebel Douglas. Blunt’s veneration was so passionate that he had the courage to defend Henry with both his words and his life.
Any doubts about Shakespeare’s support of the crown are entirely unjustifiable. Shakespeare’s faithfulness toward the monarchy is made clear through his presentation of characters in Henry IV, Part I. The actions of King Henry are honorable, and the transformation of Prince Hal from mischievous to magnificent deserves appreciation. Shakespeare promotes royal allegiance and respect through the noble words and sacrifice of Blunt. There is no question that William Shakespeare firmly supported and respected the monarchy.