Review of Peter Lake's How Shakespeare Put Politics on the Stage: Power and Succession in the History Plays
Yale University Press, 2017
Our fascination with Shakespeare and his world shows little sign of abating. However, while the comedies and tragedies remain hugely popular, the history plays are often viewed as of less interest —thinly-disguised propaganda primarily designed to give legitimacy to the Tudor dynasty. This is particularly the case with the so-called First and Second Tetralogies, the two groups of four plays each that deal with the beginning and end of the Wars of the Roses. The period which preceded the death of Richard II and the accession of Henry IV is the setting for the first group, while the second group is focussed on the circumstances surrounding the death of Richard III and the accession of Henry Tudor. Murder, judicial execution, personal and familial revenge, and political duplicity are all captured —sensational events which have often been interpreted as an attempt by Shakespeare to both excite the audience and bolster the Tudors. However, as Peter Lake shows, there is so much more for us to take from these plays.
Shakespeare was not attempting to replicate the political reality of the pre-Tudor era. Although the plays are set in a period with which his audience would have had an immediate connection, their themes are more universal, complex issues like loyalty, ambition, and the role and behaviour of those who, whether by right of birth or by conquest, are placed in positions of power. While we can now look back on more than two hundred years of royal succession by right of birth alone, the succession from the time of King John onwards was bedevilled by rebellion, war, and many acts of disloyalty and internal family feuding. When Shakespeare was writing these plays in the 1590s, the one great unspoken political issue was the royal succession, intertwined with the religious conflict between the Catholic Church and its Protestant rivals, against the background of a European political landscape dominated by France and Spain.
Peter Lake describes the issue of the succession embedded in these plays in fine detail. Of especial fascination is the way that he links the first and last plays of each tetralogy with the often overlooked King John. While Lake explores several other avenues in the book, his ideas concerning the role of the monarch in these plays are particularly interesting; Shakespeare raises difficult questions regarding succession and deposition, as well as the many moral dilemmas which have to be resolved by a government in the face of political failure. Peter Lake helps us to look at Shakespeare’s portrayal of kingship in these three plays in new and sometimes controversial ways.
In King John we find a monarch who, although close to the succession, has seized the throne by political manoeuvres and not by right. Early in the play it is established that Arthur (John’s nephew, son of his elder brother Geoffrey) is the rightful heir to the throne, supported by the French king. In the very opening speech the French envoy refers to John as “the borrow’d majesty,” and then describes what he calls Arthur’s “lawful claim.” Lake examines this emphasis on the law in depth, as a theme shared by all three plays. John, the unlawful king, must concentrate his mind and actions on retaining his usurped position. The next play under discussion, Richard II, turns this situation around. Richard is the lawful king, but many of his activities are both immoral and illegal, an abuse of his royal authority. This question is even more fraught with difficulty: what should one do when the lawful ruler acts outside the law in a way that threatens the stability of the country that he leads? The final play, Richard III, returns to the initial dilemma. A senior member of the royal household, this time through deliberate acts of murder and terror, usurps the crown and leads the country into armed conflict. Again Shakespeare poses the question: when is it morally justified to challenge the authority of a king who claims (despite this background) to be appointed by God?
The plays’ themes of kingship are like a cat’s-cradle. The strands interweave and fail to connect, or link together and gather strength. However, the ultimate triumph or defeat of each king is connected to both his legitimacy and his adherence to the rule of law. In King John, for example, the beginning emphasis on the protagonist’s unlawful grasp of the crown is soon reinforced by a scene in which the sons of Faulconbridge dispute their inheritance, as the eldest is revealed to be Richard the Lionheart’s bastard. When asked if he wishes to pursue his unlawful claim, he finally renounces his right to the inheritance and embraces his Plantagenet genealogy, accepting his birthright as the illegitimate son of a king held in high regard, but whom he may not succeed. In contrast, John —flouting these same rules of inheritance— has denied the rightful king the throne.
In an intriguing passage Lake draws out the parallels between Shakespeare’s portrayal of John and the political reality facing Elizabeth in the 1590s. Elizabeth and her advisors were always conscious of the threat posed by Mary Stuart and their Catholic enemies abroad. Both John and Elizabeth ascended the throne on the basis of a dubious will; both had a living relative with a better legal claim upon it; both subsequently managed to imprison that claimant; and both had the claimant killed in such a way that they could legitimately claim (publicly at least) no responsibility. Lake cogently argues that Shakespeare portrays John’s situation essentially from a Catholic standpoint, and that contemporary audiences in the 1590s would have been quick to spot the parallels. (It might be significant to note that several scholars have hinted at Shakespeare’s possible Catholic sympathies before, pointing to his mother’s Catholic family and his father’s 1592 fine for failing to attend church as evidence of this.)
In the same play the role of the papal legate Pandolph is more political than religious. He disrupts the harmony between John and his French counterpart when he announces John’s excommunication, and he goes on to play the part of commentator, foreseeing the impact of Arthur’s death as the final destruction of John’s kingship. He tells the uncertain Dauphin at one point:
“John hath seized Arthur: and it cannot be That whiles warm life plays in that infant’s veins That misplaced John should entertain an hour, One minute, nay, one quiet breath of rest.”
Would Shakespeare’s audience have made the link between this and Elizabeth’s relationship with Mary? Almost certainly, and while with the hindsight of history we are aware of Elizabeth’s subtle political manoeuvrings, leading to Mary’s execution, the issue remains a significant one. At its heart is the sobering truth that the monarch has conspired in the untimely death of the only legitimate rival for the throne.
Richard II is the first play in the tetralogy and deals with the events leading to the Wars of the Roses. In a reversal of the situation facing John, Richard is the lawful, legitimate successor, confronted with internal division and conflict as a direct result of his own behaviour. The play is rightly popular with audiences for several reasons, not least the way in which, in the latter part, Richard dissects his own kingship and mortality. In a famous speech in Act 3 he suggests, “Let’s talk of graves, of worms and epitaphs,/ Make dust our paper, and with rainy eyes/ Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth,” and later describes the fate of all monarchs in this manner:
“For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground, And tell sad stories of the fate of kings How some have been deposed, some slain in war, Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed, Some poisoned by their wives, some sleeping killed, All murdered.”
Yet this humane conceit is in stark contrast with the Richard of the play’s beginning, and Peter Lake makes explicit the subtle nuances that Shakespeare has woven into the character. Richard is the lawful and rightful monarch. However, while the factions within his realm do not question this, they are dissatisfied with the manner in which he rules. By his own admission, he has spent too much on his lavish court and followers: “For our coffers with too great a court/And liberal largesse are grown somewhat light.”
To this failing must be added the background to the action at the start of the play, defining not only this work but also the plays which follow, namely the murder of Richard’s brother, the Duke of Gloucester. Lake details all Richard’s failings as drawn by Shakespeare, in a picture of a kind of tyranny with which Shakespeare’s audience would have been familiar (the perceived actions of past English kings, their foreign enemies, and even the Pope himself). This is a tyranny based not upon the usurping of a royal throne, but actions the antithesis of what a people should expect of their ruler: murders, banishments, judicial executions of rivals, and the illegal seizure of a substantial inheritance are all examples of Richard’s duplicity. However, his authority —largely accepted— to rule as ‘God’s Anointed’ causes many to hang back from full rebellion. John of Gaunt, especially, makes this point explicit when he refutes Gloucester’s widow’s request to avenge her husband’s murder:
“God’s is the quarrel; for God’s substitute, His deputy anointed in his sight, Hath used his death; the which if wrongfully, Let heaven revenge, for I may never lift An angry arm against his minister.”
When Richard is eventually overthrown and Bolingbroke becomes Henry IV, the new king is burdened with the legacy of his unlawful accession. He has taken royal authority away from the rightful king by force: his reign will be predicated on illegality, so that his heirs will also hold the crown without the support of the law of the land. One cannot help but reference this back to Elizabeth and her Catholic enemies. To them she was the illegitimate product of a marriage not recognised by the Church, daughter of a king whose father had no right to the crown. Shakespeare is careful not to take sides, merely suggesting parallels and allowing the audience to draw their own conclusions.
Peter Lake continues to examine these themes throughout the history plays, until we arrive at the concluding play of the second tetralogy, Richard III. Throughout the preceding plays in this group (Henry VI Parts I, II and III) the character of Richard develops as a shrewd political player who begins as a minor figure intent on maintaining his position, until he can see a path —albeit one requiring significant guile and amoral actions—to achieve his goal of royal power. We are all familiar with the popular perception of Shakespeare’s Richard as the demented hunchback intent on grabbing power at whatever price, but Lake argues convincingly that the character is much more nuanced than we might expect, although he is still partly the pre-Tudor despot who is rightly overthrown.
At the start of the play Richard has taken the throne unlawfully, is implicated in the murder of his brother, and is then complicit in the disappearance of his nephews, the rightful heirs before him. While these events are unfolding Richard is the personification of the Machiavellian ideal: he sees the political reality, knows what he has to do to seize power, and is both willing and able to do it. However, as Lake explains, once he has achieved his ambition, the self-doubts begin to overwhelm him. He starts to question everything, even his own authority. Again, Shakespeare brings into sharp focus the notion of lawful royal rule, and how it may bend but not be broken. Richard has taken the throne without a legal right, and subsequently, in the final act, succumbs to one who claims the throne through combat, supposedly an expression of God’s divine right to appoint the monarch. So the Wars of the Roses are at an end, a sequence which began with the unlawful removal of the legitimate king who, through his behaviour, had brought about his own downfall, and it now ends with the beginning of a new era, the death in battle of a king who had seized the throne through murder and intrigue. Both reigns, so Shakespeare seems to claim, were fated to end in disaster because they ultimately betrayed their allegiance to the rule of law.
While this is a book primarily aimed at students and academics concerned with the complexities of Shakespeare’s political plays, there is much for the interested amateur to enjoy. It is a long book, and best taken in sections, as I have attempted to demonstrate in this review. However, the scholarship on display is admirable, and the arguments clear and well-constructed. Those with an interest in the political dynamics which drove Shakespeare to shape his plays as he did, and who wonder just how he managed to balance the expression on stage of radical ideas about kingship, the rule of law and the will of the people with living in the uncertain and often violent political reality of late Elizabethan England (where even to talk about the succession could lead to imprisonment, torture and even death), will find this book deeply thought-provoking.—Paul Flux