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Kings are everywhere in Shakespeare, from Hamlet to Richard the Second, from Henry the Eighth to Macbeth; many of the plays contain a central element of a king or autocratic head of state such as Julius Caesar, for example. They focus more specifically on the nature of that person’s power, especially on the question of removing it; what it means on both a political and psychological level, how it can be achieved, and what will happen afterwards. This is not surprising, considering the times Shakespeare was living in: with the question of who ruled and where their authority came from being ever more increasingly asked in Elizabethan and Jacobean times the observations he makes are especially pertinent. Kings and kingship also lend themselves well to drama; the king is a symbol of the order (or disorder) of the day and a man who possesses (almost) absolute authority and the status that accompanies that, whilst in contrast he is also a human being with the ordinary weaknesses of that condition. Shakespeare is also said to have loved the drama of killing; according to legend he would “make a speech when he killed a calf” in his father’s abattoir (Richard Wilson: ‘A Brute Part’.) The dramatic image of sacrifice is particularly prevalent in Julius Caesar; Brutus says: ” Let us be sacrificers but not butchers, Caius. We all stand up against the spirit of Caesar; And in the spirit of men there is no blood: O! then that we could come by Caesar’s spirit, And not dismember Caesar. But, alas! Caesar must bleed for it. ” ( II.i.166-171 ) Many images of sacrifice are present throughout the play, such as the servant returning and saying to Caesar: ” They would not have you stir forth to-day. Plucking the entrails of an offering forth, They could not find a heart within the beast.” ( II.ii.38-40 ) Brutus and Cassius do not have any desire to kill Caesar but they feel he is a sacrifice that must be made. This image of sacrifice is very important when we look at the reasons for killing the king. During the English Civil War the Puritans are reputed to have commonly recited the chant ” ‘Tis to preserve his Majesty That we against him fight.” ( Mack: Killing the King; pg 308 ) The thinking behind this came from an idea that had been around for many centuries but which had become more and more prevalent in Elizabethan times, actually setting a legal precedent as a defence then, often when the monarchy wished to reclaim lands sold by a usually young, inexperienced sovereign. Lawyers of the court claimed that the king had two bodies; firstly the body natural, prey to the follies and frailties that all human beings were capable of, but then superseding that the body politic which was infallible and immortal. The perfection of the body politic overruled any failings of the body natural. The body politic of the sovereign passed from one body natural to another when the reigning monarch died. This idea had originally been implemented to maintain the monarchy’s power between the death of one sovereign and the coronation of another: during the interim period only Christ was said to rule but this had led to the Pope claiming territory as Christ’s earthly representative. By Elizabethan times it was being used to account for or reverse a monarch’s actions or mistakes. However, the Puritans used the notion to justify killing a wicked king. They were not killing God’s anointed deputy, but merely the natural body in which it was resident and which had too many failings, perhaps, to deserve it. In a similar way the king is seen as a sacrifice that has to be made to enable change to take place in society. An improvement in the lot of the dispossessed and some degree of social change are only possible if the king’s power is removed. Lear is incapable of any empathy with the poor and disenfranchised until he is destitute himself (on the heath) and he is then powerless to do anything about their situation. Gloucester perceives, crucially, the limitations of a society that depends on empathy alone for its justice. He speaks of: ” The lust-dieted man………. That will not see Because he does not feel ” ( IV i 69 – 71 ) Pity and kindness in Lear are ineffectual, only the redistribution of wealth has any effect. Until he loses his powers as King, he is able to view the world just as he wishes and manipulate those around him to tell him whatever he chooses to hear, as we can see in the opening scene with his daughters. Cordelia, who is the only one not to comply with his wishes is quickly silenced by her disenfranchisement and subsequent banishment. Lear is to discover later however that things one does not wish to hear are not so easily banishable. Caesar seeks to usurp the democratic powers of the Senate and to be ‘crowned’ in the rest of the Empire. Although he endeavours to do this by inciting the masses rather than by asserting a divine right, he still desires absolute power. It is this that Shakespeare sees as corruptive, whether it is in the form of hereditary kingship or being elected as Emperor. Brutus says of Caesar “He would be crown’d: How that might change his nature, there’s the question:” ( II.i.12-14 ) The idea that the king is infallible is seen as a major problem by Shakespeare; indeed the king’s own belief in this is often his downfall; Richard the Second believes his position is untouchable; Julius Caesar refuses to heed the soothsayer, his wife’s dream or the augurers, so sure is he of his popularity. Shakespeare may have conceivably foreseen the downfall of the monarchy which would come in the 1640’s; largely as a result of Charles the First’s refusal to consider any new ideas or to alter his behaviour in the face of public outrage. Oliver Cromwell is reputed to have said to Charles “I beseech you in the boughs of Christ, Consider that you may be wrong.” (source unknown) Of course Charles refused to and was eventually executed. Absolute power is seen as being corruptive and stifling for the whole nation. The inability to consider the possibility of the monarch or the order of the day being flawed prevents change from being instigated. In Hamlet the motive for king killing is ostensibly revenge, but if we look further we can see that Elsinore is truly rotten and that Claudius’s absolute rule is certainly to blame for the state of affairs. We do not know how Denmark was before Old Hamlet’s death but we can be sure that things have not improved since Claudius has been in power. His autocracy can only be maintained by a multitude of corrupt means; his wickedness spreads like a slow stain throughout the court. Betrayal and disloyalty are commonplace; Hamlet discovers that he cannot even depend on his mother or Ophelia. His old friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have become spies for Claudius who even plot for his death. Parallels are surely intended here with the murder of Walter Raleigh by the Elizabethan court. They secretly informed the Spanish of his sailing route in the hope that they would murder him but when this failed Elizabeth had him judicially murdered in a fixed trial, almost identical to Hamlet’s death in a secretly fixed duel after the failure of the plan to have him executed by the English. The state controls its opponents by means most foul and nobody can stop it. If a person should dare to oppose the established power structure and wish to change it to kill or be killed appears to be the order of the day. However, the question of how to do this remains a problem that Shakespeare explores in depth. Due to the power of the monarch it is necessary to keep opposition hidden under a masquerade of either insanity in Hamlet’s case or well wishing in the case of Brutus and Cassius. Hamlet’s main fault though is his failure to do the deed whilst Claudius still does not perceive him as a real threat. His failure to act precipitates the death of most of the main characters including his own and the downfall of the entire court. Brutus and Cassius’s fault however is to shy away from completing the deed properly; by wishing to remain sacrificers rather than butchers they allow Mark Anthony to live and he simply takes Caesar’s place as usurping emperor : nothing has changed at all. Swift, decisive action and the brutality necessary to complete the task unconditionally are seen as essential. Shakespeare does not however view lightly the prospect of killing the king. There is much deliberation before such an act is carried out, in Hamlet’s case to the extent that the whole court must fall and Hamlet himself be mortally wounded before the deed is done. Brutus and Cassius also do much soul searching before reaching the conclusion that Caesar must be murdered. Although Hamlet could be interpreted as a warning against too much delay and deliberation, neither is Shakespeare advocating a complete lack of consideration of the possible consequences. It is obvious if one is to be successful, the act must be carefully planned and single-mindedly carried out. Brutus and Cassius allow their discomfort at being thought of as ‘butchers’ to prevent them from completing the act properly; the consequences are worse than if they had done nothing at all – Caesar is more popular than ever after his death and Mark Anthony simply fills his position. There is also an awareness of the psychological difficulty of killing the king. Hamlet’s agonising over committing the deed despite the seemingly overwhelming propelling factors show the many doubts that a king killer will go through. He kills Polonius instantly when he is behind the drape; whether this is because he does not think it is the King or because he does not have to look at him therefore making it easier to overlook the magnitude of the action if it were is debatable; nonetheless the contrast of this killing with Hamlet’s inability to act is striking. It is not killing itself that is difficult for Hamlet, it is the prospect of regicide that eventually, it could be said, really does begin to drive him mad. Neither does Shakespeare have an idealistic view of the consequences of king killing, even if we are to assume he is urging it. This in itself would not be an unreasonable thing to assume: Hamlet was certainly written for those who may have been contemplating it. It was first performed on a tour of the English Universities. Hamlet himself is a student at the University of Wittenburg, reputedly a hotbed of radicalism at the time Shakespeare was writing. Hamlet was also popular with young lawyers who used to congregate in Gray’s Inn in London. Of the fifty-five signatories to the kings death warrant, twenty-two had been at Gray’s Inn during the years when Hamlet had been the favourite student drama. Students and young lawyers also paid for the play to be performed during the Essex rebellion. Wherever revolution was brewing throughout the world Hamlet was acted out; as Polonius discovers, what happens on stage will one day happen in reality. The Shah of Iran is said to have forbidden the production of Hamlet or Macbeth in modern times when he felt under threat from revolutionaries in his own country. Such is the perceived power of the plays. Julius Caesar is even more famous; Machiavelli said ” See what praise they heap on Brutus ” ( Wilson; A Brute Part ) Voltaire is said to have written a version that inspired the French revolution; Michelangelo carved a statue of Brutus as a homage to the murderer of a Medici duke. Brutus has always been seen as a model for would be revolutionaries. Hobbes said ” From reading about Brutus men have undertaken to kill kings ” ( Wilson: A Brute Part ) Caesar’s murderers were worshipped by sixteenth century intellectuals as the ancestors of the present struggle against absolute monarchy. The after effects of such an act are, however, much further reaching than the changes in the power structure it attempts to bring. Apart from inspiring countless others to do the same, as Cassius says to Brutus: ” How many ages hence shall this our lofty scene be acted over ? ” ( III i 111 – 112 ) king killing also has some less welcome consequences. Along with power comes responsibility as Claudius discovers. His conscience also torments him, perhaps because he killed his brother, but perhaps because he killed a king. After the king has been killed, the nature of kingship or any rulership is transformed. It proves the king is vulnerable and not protected by God. However with the indoctrination of the idea that the king was God’s ‘anointed deputy’ prevalent throughout society at the time, it would nevertheless be very difficult not to wonder if one had committed a far worse crime than murdering a man. Hamlet immediately wonders. after his father’s ghost has visited him if it were a demon sent to trick him, so wrong does this act seem to him. A ruler’s position is no longer seen as unchallengeable and indefinite, leadership is now necessarily transitory and subject to the whims of the masses. However, by far the most spoken about implication of regicide is the ensuing disorder in society. In King Lear we hear Gloucester’s account of a catastrophic redistribution of power and property ” These late eclipses in the sun…………. ……………..the king falls from bias of nature; There’s Father against child ” ( I ii 100 – 111 ) Indeed King Lear seems to be a damning indictment of what happens when a king loses his power, and in the nineteenth century Julius Caesar also came to be interpreted in this way, as a warning against upsetting the ‘natural’ order. However this interpretation quite overlooks the fact that it is Caesar who incites the crowd against the constitution. The disastrous consequences in the court at Elsinore could likewise be seen as a similar type of message, but it is Hamlet’s inability to act that is in reality responsible for them, not the killing of Claudius. Indeed if Hamlet had acted sooner there would quite conceivably have been less bloodshed and less likelihood of the subjects of the court becoming the ‘indifferent children of the world’ that Rosencrantz speaks of. Another problem of sacrificing the king to save the rest is the lack of a centre or focal point for society that it brings about. By killing the king society has rebelled against all authority; this throws into relief the frailty of everyone’s social positions: it is anyone’s game now. Therefore a balance must be struck between autocracy and anarchy. In England, after the Revolution and years of Cromwell’s Lord Protectorship ( not unduly different to kingship in effect ) Charles the Second was invited back as a constitutional monarch, in Elsinore it looks like Norway is about to impose its own monarchy on the Danish people, in Lear Albany is taking control by the closing scenes. Mark Anthony quickly turns the masses against Caesar’s killers and encourages them in their attempts to place a new emperor in his stead, renouncing the Senate’s power even though it is clearly not in their interests to do so. The consequences of removing the king all too often seem to be then his replacement by another. Shakespeare’s view appears to be that people feel some kind of need for this symbol, whether it be in the shape of a king, an emperor, a president or any other form. Perhaps this is where the great sense of tragedy in the plays stems from. E. Gordon Craig in ‘On the Art of Theatre’ says ” Maybe in the next three or four thousand years the word kingdom will have disappeared – Kingdom, Kingship, King – but I doubt it; and if it does go something else equally fine will take its place. It will be the same thing in a different dress. You can’t invent anything finer than kingship, the idea of the king. ” This may be true for many more than just the dramatist, Kings, Queens, and other more modern demagogues remain widespread throughout the world today and we are still far from the fairer, truly democratic world order the revolutionaries of the seventeenth century and many more since then have strived for.REFERENCES. Craig,E.G./ ON THE ART OF THEATRE Harvester Dollimore,J./ RADICAL TRAGEDY Harvester. Freer,C./ POETICS OF JACOBEAN DRAMA Hopkins University Press. Kirsch,J./ ROYAL SELF Putnams. Knight,G.W./ IMPERIAL THEME Methuen. Knight,G.W./ SOVEREIGN FLOWER Methuen. Mack,M./KILLING THE KING Yale Univ. Press. Wilson,R./A BRUTE PART (Lecture handout)


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