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.

Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.