Divine right of kings

 The power of the monarch

The King in the Medieval ParliamentThroughout the Middle Ages and beyond, monarchs were seen as being God’s deputies on earth, having a ‘divine right’ to rule; the monarch had absolute power, and an attack on him or her, 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 James 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. 
James I was particularly keen on the idea that the king ruled by divine appointment. In their coronation ceremony, monarchs are anointed. The idea of anointing kings is based on the Bible, and English kings since Edgar in 973 have been anointed after this biblical pattern. In 1 Samuel 24:6 the military hero David refuses to harm King Saul because Saul had been anointed, and later David has the man killed who finally killed Saul. 
In The True Law of Free Monarchies (1598) James had written: 
      Kings are justly called gods, for that they exercise a manner or resemblance of divine power upon earth: for if you will consider the attributes to God, you shall see how they agree in the person of a king. God hath power to create or destroy make or unmake at his pleasure, to give life or send death, to judge all and to be judged nor accountable to none; to raise low things and to make high things low at his pleasure, and to God are both souls and body due. And the like power have kings: they make and unmake their subjects, they have power of raising and casting down, of life and of death, judges over all their subjects and in all causes and yet accountable to none but God only.    

The King and his kingdom

The most obvious point about a king is that he rules over a specific territory. For instance, the King of France is often referred to in King Lear as simply France. Lear's identity is bound up with being a ruler, and the play explores what happens to his sense of self when he gives up the territory that makes him a king.
Before Lear hands over his kingdom to Goneril and Regan, he represents his state and its health and prosperity is intimately bound up with him as its monarch. In King Lear, we see the physical and spiritual chaos that ensues upon the king's abdication. Shakespeare's first audiences may well have been reminded of the scene in Richard II in which two gardeners compare the order they keep in their garden with the king's neglect of his kingdom.

The king and power

Whilst a king reigns his word is law. Lear learns that, as soon as he gives away his kingdom, people (such as Oswald) stop respecting and obeying him. Kings were often thought of as having a spiritual and mystical power as well as power that was political and legal. For instance, from the time of Edward the Confessor, it was believed that a king's touch could cure the disease of scrofula. 

The humanity of kings

Shakespeare explored tensions between the private lives and public roles of his powerful characters in many of his plays. Because a king was powerful in so many ways, the contrast between the public pomp and ceremony and the private man beneath the finery was bound to be highly dramatic.
In King Lear Shakespeare reveals the depth of suffering to which Lear's common humanity renders him susceptible. When he strips off his robes he reveals himself to be a man just like any member of the audience. In one scene he appears to be indistinguishable from a naked beggar.
In King Lear Shakespeare shows that kings are at their most vulnerable and human when they are beset by a combination of family and political problems. When Lear gives away his kingdom to Goneril and Regan, he exposes his humanity to their cruelty and is not protected by his kingly status and all the private and public power which that had bestowed upon him.

What makes a good ruler?

The question of what makes a good ruler 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.’    
King Lear is a ruler who has commanded respect and loyalty in the past (from Kent and Gloucester for example) yet whose faculties are declining with ‘the infirmity of his age’ – in the first act of the play he is seen to be impetuous and irrational, a man who ‘hath ever but slenderly known himself’.
It is only when the trappings of power are removed that Lear learns the importance of equal justice for everyone in his (former) kingdom, the significance of not being blinded by appearance and rank. Only when he suffers does the audience witness Lear’s capacity for justice, mercy, devotion, courage and fortitude (to quote form the list above), but by then these qualities are relatively ineffective in their impact on wider society.
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.