Sunday, May 15, 2011

Shakespeare: King Henry IV part 1 & 2

Henry IV of England
The next GBWW on political theory are Shakespeare's plays King Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, which seemed at first like an odd diversion from political philosophy.  However, I can appreciate how these two plays complement the previous readings.  In 1399 King Henry IV usurped the crown from his unpopular relative King Richard II.  Henry IV then spent the remaining years of his life trying to suppress rebellions throughout his kingdom.  One can imagine all the legal and political questions Henry IV has to address, not to mention the irony of having to suppress revolts similar to the one he participated in.  What make those rebels different from Henry IV overthrowing Richard II?  There is only one great difference: now Henry IV is the king. 

Many of Shakespeare's plays deal with the overthrow of rulers, as for example Hamlet and MacBeth. Interestingly, both King Cladius in Hamlet and MacBeth have to worry about being overthrown, similar to Henry IV.  The question should therefore be, "by what right does a king govern?"  Hobbes and others would say by the majority consent, but he would add that no subject can rebel against a sovereign.  John Locke and Thomas Aquinas would like counter that the rebellion of Henry IV against Richard II is justified since the former king does not maintain the common good.  However, this is a delicate and subjective arguement. I think this is the most fascinating question raised by Shakespeare's interpretation of history.  There is even some Machiavelli in King Henry's son, Prince John, who tricks rebel leaders into surrendering and then has them executed. 

After King Henry IV dies his son, Prince (Hal) Harry, assumes the throne as Henry V.  The transition is peaceful, but Shakespeare's description of Prince Harry's wild youth would make one wonder if he is ready for the responsibility of governing a kingdom.  Fortunately Prince Harry will depend more on his royal council for guidance than on his previous drinking companions like Falstaff.  It is this dual persona that I think it quite fascintating.  Nearly everyone, including his father, feels that Prince Harry would rather spend his time in a bar associating with characters of ill repute rather than shouldering the burdens of a king.  Even if Harry does become king, many fear he will bring ruin to England.  However, as King Henry V, Prince Harry actually becomes one of England's greatest kings.  Therefore, having spent his formative years in the association of commoners does not appear to have diminished in any way Harry's noble character or innate ability to lead.  In fact he may be a greater king for having  had these experiences. 

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