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, 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. More on rebellion against the king?

James I was particularly keen on the idea that the king ruled by divine appointment. In The True Law of Free Monarchies (1598) he had already 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 Duke in Measure for Measure has precisely this power, being seen as God's Deputy on earth. When Angelo is given control, he is therefore the Deputy not only of the Duke but of God. Hence the significance of the word ‘grace' in the play: the rule of God was seen to exercise not only justice, but to offer grace and mercy.

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.'

In Measure for Measure the question of what a ruler should be like, and how best to exercise authority, is brought to the audience's attention again and again.

Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.