The divine right to rule is an important issue in both Shakespeare’s “Richard II” and “Henry V”. In each play by Shakespeare, the kings are prone to making a series of mistakes or succumbing to certain weaknesses and are judged by their peers both in terms of human error as well as how their actions fit into the concept of divine right to rule. For example, throughout Shakespeare’s Richard II, the concept of divine right remains prominent and is questioned by some characters, including Richard himself, as the play progresses.
Intricately woven into the idea of Richard II being the king appointed by God is the somewhat parallel sense that the natural world itself revolves around the king and his relationships with others. There are several metaphors Shakespeare invokes that refer to the natural world, the most obvious of which is the analogy that suggests that Richard’s roots run deep and are a vital part of the “body" of England. In Richard, the symbolic significance of blood is important as blood in “Richard II” by Shakespeare is considered sacred and so too is the position of King that God himself has delegated to Richard’s lineage and kingship. The resounding message by the end of this Shakespeare play is whether or not divine right is a stable concept and if it should be questioned, especially when a supposedly divinely elected king has violated certain moral and royal principles.
The idea of moral, royal, and social principles being violated by a divinely elected leader is also important in Shakespeare’s Henry V. Although the two stories of kingship are quite different they deal with the same basic themes. Once Henry V claims his position, he completely abandons the life he led previously and subsequently is no longer a friend to those who are “lower" than him, which violates certain unspoken codes or friendship and loyalty. Even though he does this, his actions can also be seen as the fulfillment of divine destiny and his actions, which may seem cruel, are just manifestations of God’s will.
Throughout the Shakespeare’s text there is a tension between what is morally right and what is correct behavior for a king and this implicitly questions the nature of divine rule in that we must now reconsider how a king with such power is now given sanction to be violent and cruel because of his position. Another interesting parallel between both plays by Shakespeare, Richard II and Henry V is that the idea of sacred blood and the “tree" with long roots are connected to divine rule. Since kingship is considered something divinely granted and so is nature, the two must be intertwined by proxy. In these ways the two texts bear remarkable similarities despite the drastic differences in plot.
Even at the beginning of Shakespeare’s Richard II, it is clear how many of those who surround Richard remain convinced of his divine right to rule England. Characters such as Gaunt, despite the protestations of the Duchess of Glouster, are unwilling to take action against Richard because of his status as status as a divinely appointed King. For example, even though Gaunt appears to be convinced of Richard’s involvement in the murder of his brother, he still claims that the punishment will be a matter for God to handle, not ordinary mortals. It is to this end that he states, “Put we our quarrel to the will of heaven" (Richard II I.ii.6) indicating that he does not wish to trespass upon that which he considers the divine will of God. He claims that Richard is but a “substitute" for God and even though he is distressed about the death of his brother, he still says, “I may never lift / an angry arm against His minister" (Richard II I.ii.40-41). The fact that he calls Richard “His" minister explicitly states that Gaunt sees Richard as God’s ordained minister, thus for one of the first times of many, we see how the widespread belief in Richard’s status as divinely appointed allows him to literally get away with murder.
This sense of Richard’s protected status under the name of “divine right" seems to gain even more sanction as certain Church officials become involved with the declining king. For example, the powerful Bishop of Carlisle, when discussing Richard’s fate, claims that Richard is still the God-chosen leader of England, He invokes Richard’s name, calling him in one of the important quotes from “Richard II” by William Shakespeare, “the figure of God’s majesty, / His captain, steward, deputy elect, / Anointed, crowned, planted many years" (Richard II III.ii.125-127). It should be noted that the Bishop invokes not only the religious sanctity of Richard’s divine position, but he also puts it is both military and natural terms. He refers to Richard as a “captain" and thus a militaristic head or leader of divine will. Furthermore, he uses the idea of Richard’s position as being “rooted" which indicates that the concept of divine right is embedded in the very soil and essence of England, almost as a tree with long roots (which are a metaphor for the roots of the sacred royal blood) that is firmly planted in the very foundations of the country.
This idea of a “tree" of sacred blood that is connected to divine rule also emerges in Henry V. For instance, when the Dauphin’s advisor tries to tell him about the gravity of his mistake in insulting the young prince, he tells him that Henry’s days of freedom were simply the soil that provided him the future flower of his kingship. He also states in one of the important quotes from “Henry V” by William Shakespeare, “As gardeners do with manure hide those roots / that shall first spring and be most delicate" (Henry V II.iv.39-40) which indicates that Henry’s wild years were simply a disguise for his future greatness, or the manure that was masking a great flower. Here his roots are firmly entrenched in soil that seems to understand its purpose, showing that God and the earth work together in the creation and maintenance of a divine ruler. >>>>