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: 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.
‘A 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'.
James I was particularly keen on the idea that the king ruled by divine appointment. In their coronation ceremony, monarchs were anointed. The idea of anointing kings was based on the Bible, and English kings since Edgar in 973 had 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.'
Leontes and Polixenes have precisely this power, but The Winter's Tale shows that kings themselves are governed by heavenly powers, (represented by Apollo and his Oracle) to which they must defer and submit. Leontes in particular is guilty of tyranny, whereas heaven offers not only justice, but also grace and mercy. Hence the key significance of the word ‘grace' in the play.
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 The Winter's Tale, the question of what a ruler should be like, and the importance of not abusing one's authority, is brought to the audience's attention again and again – in the first half of the play mainly through the irrational actions of Leontes, and in the second half by the violent threats of Polixenes.
- English Standard Version
- King James Version
1When Saul returned from following the Philistines, he was told, Behold, David is in the wilderness of Engedi. 2Then Saul took three thousand chosen men out of all Israel and went to seek David and his men in front of the Wildgoats' Rocks. 3And he came to the sheepfolds by the way, where there was a cave, and Saul went in to relieve himself. Now David and his men were sitting in the innermost parts of the cave. 4And the men of David said to him, Here is the day of which the Lord said to you, Behold, I will give your enemy into your hand, and you shall do to him as it shall seem good to you. Then David arose and stealthily cut off a corner of Saul's robe. 5And afterward David's heart struck him, because he had cut off a corner of Saul's robe. 6He said to his men, The Lord forbid that I should do this thing to my lord, the Lord's anointed, to put out my hand against him, seeing he is the Lord's anointed. 7So David persuaded his men with these words and did not permit them to attack Saul. And Saul rose up and left the cave and went on his way. 8Afterward David also arose and went out of the cave, and called after Saul, My lord the king! And when Saul looked behind him, David bowed with his face to the earth and paid homage. 9And David said to Saul, Why do you listen to the words of men who say, Behold, David seeks your harm? 10Behold, this day your eyes have seen how the Lord gave you today into my hand in the cave. And some told me to kill you, but I spared you. I said, I will not put out my hand against my lord, for he is the Lord's anointed. 11See, my father, see the corner of your robe in my hand. For by the fact that I cut off the corner of your robe and did not kill you, you may know and see that there is no wrong or treason in my hands. I have not sinned against you, though you hunt my life to take it. 12May the Lord judge between me and you, may the Lord avenge me against you, but my hand shall not be against you. 13As the proverb of the ancients says, Out of the wicked comes wickedness. But my hand shall not be against you. 14After whom has the king of Israel come out? After whom do you pursue? After a dead dog! After a flea! 15May the Lord therefore be judge and give sentence between me and you, and see to it and plead my cause and deliver me from your hand. 16As soon as David had finished speaking these words to Saul, Saul said, Is this your voice, my son David? And Saul lifted up his voice and wept. 17He said to David, You are more righteous than I, for you have repaid me good, whereas I have repaid you evil. 18And you have declared this day how you have dealt well with me, in that you did not kill me when the Lord put me into your hands. 19For if a man finds his enemy, will he let him go away safe? So may the Lord reward you with good for what you have done to me this day. 20And now, behold, I know that you shall surely be king, and that the kingdom of Israel shall be established in your hand. 21Swear to me therefore by the Lord that you will not cut off my offspring after me, and that you will not destroy my name out of my father's house. 22And David swore this to Saul. Then Saul went home, but David and his men went up to the stronghold.
1And it came to pass, when Saul was returned from following the Philistines, that it was told him, saying, Behold, David is in the wilderness of Engedi. 2Then Saul took three thousand chosen men out of all Israel, and went to seek David and his men upon the rocks of the wild goats. 3And he came to the sheepcotes by the way, where was a cave; and Saul went in to cover his feet: and David and his men remained in the sides of the cave. 4And the men of David said unto him, Behold the day of which the LORD said unto thee, Behold, I will deliver thine enemy into thine hand, that thou mayest do to him as it shall seem good unto thee. Then David arose, and cut off the skirt of Saul's robe privily. 5And it came to pass afterward, that David's heart smote him, because he had cut off Saul's skirt. 6And he said unto his men, The LORD forbid that I should do this thing unto my master, the LORD's anointed, to stretch forth mine hand against him, seeing he is the anointed of the LORD. 7So David stayed his servants with these words, and suffered them not to rise against Saul. But Saul rose up out of the cave, and went on his way. 8David also arose afterward, and went out of the cave, and cried after Saul, saying, My lord the king. And when Saul looked behind him, David stooped with his face to the earth, and bowed himself. 9And David said to Saul, Wherefore hearest thou men's words, saying, Behold, David seeketh thy hurt? 10Behold, this day thine eyes have seen how that the LORD had delivered thee to day into mine hand in the cave: and some bade me kill thee: but mine eye spared thee; and I said, I will not put forth mine hand against my lord; for he is the LORD's anointed. 11Moreover, my father, see, yea, see the skirt of thy robe in my hand: for in that I cut off the skirt of thy robe, and killed thee not, know thou and see that there is neither evil nor transgression in mine hand, and I have not sinned against thee; yet thou huntest my soul to take it. 12The LORD judge between me and thee, and the LORD avenge me of thee: but mine hand shall not be upon thee. 13As saith the proverb of the ancients, Wickedness proceedeth from the wicked: but mine hand shall not be upon thee. 14After whom is the king of Israel come out? after whom dost thou pursue? after a dead dog, after a flea. 15The LORD therefore be judge, and judge between me and thee, and see, and plead my cause, and deliver me out of thine hand. 16And it came to pass, when David had made an end of speaking these words unto Saul, that Saul said, Is this thy voice, my son David? And Saul lifted up his voice, and wept. 17And he said to David, Thou art more righteous than I: for thou hast rewarded me good, whereas I have rewarded thee evil. 18And thou hast showed this day how that thou hast dealt well with me: forasmuch as when the LORD had delivered me into thine hand, thou killedst me not. 19For if a man find his enemy, will he let him go well away? wherefore the LORD reward thee good for that thou hast done unto me this day. 20And now, behold, I know well that thou shalt surely be king, and that the kingdom of Israel shall be established in thine hand. 21Swear now therefore unto me by the LORD, that thou wilt not cut off my seed after me, and that thou wilt not destroy my name out of my father's house. 22And David sware unto Saul. And Saul went home; but David and his men gat them up unto the hold.
The Bible describes God as the unique supreme being, creator and ruler of the universe.
The belief that the authority of a king / monarch comes directly from God, taken by some kings to mean that they were above the law of the land and to disobey them was to disobey God / sin.
The image of God on his throne in heaven surrounded by his angels and ministers to whom he makes announcements and where he may be petitioned.
The place described in the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament, in which God placed his first human creatures, Adam and Eve.
Archaic term meaning great joy, happiness or contentment.
In the Old Testament Kings and Priests were ceremonially anointed (touched with holy oil) to show that they belonged to God and as a sign of receiving God's power.
God of prophecy, music, the arts, medicine and archery.
A source of wisdom. In classical mythology, certain sources were identified and it was believed specific gods spoke through the priests and priestesses. The Oracle at Delphi was probably the most famous of these.
In many religions, the place where God dwells, and to which believers aspire after their death. Sometimes known as Paradise.
1. The quality of being just. 2. Fairness. 3. The administration of the law.
Undeserved favour. The Bible uses this term to describe God's gifts to human beings.
The showing of pity and compassion; in particular, the grace and forgiveness offered by God to sinful humans if they repent of their wrong-doings.