Divine right of kings

The power of the monarch

Throughout the middle ages and beyond, monarchs were seen as being God's deputies on earth, and having a ‘divine right' to rule. Henry VIII was able to act as he did largely because he had absolute power, and an attack on him, even a verbal one, was considered to be treason.

Although there were meetings of Parliament, and had been for hundreds of years, Parliament did not convene unless summoned by the King; this practice continued through the reign of Elizabeth I and beyond.

For most English (and European) citizens of Shakespeare's day, the ruler was accepted as head of the nation by divine appointment.

More on attitudes to the monarch: There were inevitably rebellions, but whereas nowadays anti-government protests are common, and in England are accepted as part of the democratic process, under Elizabeth I, and her successor James I, such rebellions were seen as against God's command.

In 1547, 1563 and 1571 a series of sermons was published in England by the government, and sent out to be read in churches, attacking those who disobeyed the monarch.

‘An Homily Against Disobedience and Wilful Rebellion' explained that, just as God gave laws to mankind who should obey God in all things, and that humans were expelled from the happiness of the Garden of Eden through disobedience, so the earthly ruler should receive due obedience from his (or her) subjects if the realm was to remain in ‘felicity'. (See Big ideas: Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, ‘Second Adam'.)

The question of divine right in Hamlet

Claudius refers to the belief in God's protection of kings when, in Act IV scene v, he is confronted by the furious Laertes, whom Gertrude tries to hold off:

‘Let him go, Gertrude; do not fear our person.
There's such divinity doth hedge a king
That treason can but peep to what it would.'

This is of course terrible hypocrisy, since an awareness of the ‘divinity' surrounding Old Hamlet had not prevented Claudius from killing him.

By putting these words in Claudius's mouth, Shakespeare makes us aware of at least part of the dilemma facing Hamlet: should he ‘kill a king', the crime of which he accuses Gertrude as well as Claudius in Act III scene iv, even a king who is a murderer:

‘A cutpurse of the empire and the rule
That from a shelf the precious diadem stole,
And put it in his pocket?'

What makes a good king?

The nature of kingship is debated through many of Shakespeare's plays. In Act IV of Macbeth, Malcolm lists the virtues that suit a king as:

‘Justice, verity, temperance, stableness,
Bounty, perseverance, mercy, lowliness,
Devotion, patience, courage, fortitude.'

In Hamlet, there is a deliberate contrast made between the previous king, Old Hamlet, and his usurping brother Claudius:

Even before he knows of the murder, in Act I scene ii Hamlet compares them:

‘My uncle/ My father's brother, but no more like my father/ Than I to Hercules.'

When confronting his mother in Act III scene iv, he shows her two physical, as well as verbal, contrasting pictures:

‘Look here, upon this picture, and on this,
The counterfeit presentment of two brothers.
See, what a grace was seated on this brow —
Hyperion's curls, the front of Jove himself,
An eye like Mars to threaten and command,
A station like the herald Mercury
This was your husband. Look you now, what follows:
Here is your husband, like a mildewed ear,
Blasting his wholesome brother.'
More on Shakespeare's intention: Shakespeare may here use references to pagan gods, rather than to the Christian God, but his meaning is clear; Old Hamlet was truly a noble representative of God on earth, while Claudius is totally unfit for the role.

By the last scene of the play, Hamlet seems to have decided that:

  • It is right to get rid of a usurping and corrupt monarch
  • It is evil to let such a man continue to infect the whole country with his corruption:
‘Is't not perfect conscience
To quit him with this arm? And is't not to be damned
To let this canker of our nature come
In further evil?'

The topicality of Hamlet

Hamlet was written at the end of Elizabeth's reign, after many plots against her life from catholic supporters of her cousin Mary Stuart. People were also concerned about who might try to take the throne after the death of this childless monarch.

The idea that there were some rightful and God-chosen claimants — such as James I, who certainly believed strongly in the Divine Right of Kings and himself as evidence of it — and others who were not, was a very relevant issue for Shakespeare's audience.

Many started to question the idea of divinely-given earthly power, although it persisted among monarchs and the Papacy.

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