In both plays by Shakespeare, “Richard II” and “Henry V” the issue of divine right and the sacred blood that is supposed to link God to kings raises several important questions. Unlike with the case of Richard II, Henry’s claim to the throne is not a clear case and thus he spends his youthful years associating with commoners and thieves. In “Henry V”, the royal bloodline is at issue, but Henry is told by Canterbury, a religious representative, that the throne can be his since a king cannot inherit the crown from the bloodline of a female. Since his great grandmother was the daughter of France’s king, he thus becomes the legal heir to France’s throne and he is advised to fight to regain his god-granted position. When he learns this, there is a remarkable change in the young prince and he automatically assumes the arrogant characteristics of one who feels he has been divinely set into a position.

While Shakespeare’s Henry V is less full of direct references to the will of God, when looking at the play in terms of Richard II, the same ideas present themselves. Like Richard II, Henry V becomes instantly engulfed in his role and makes broad earth-shattering claims that indicate he realizes the extent of the power invested him both through his people and by God. For instance, when snubbed by the Dauphin, he states that the Dauphine will come to regret his joke about the young king and claims that the Dauphin will realize his mistake in one of the important quotes from “Henry V” by Shakespeare, saying, “when thousands weep more than did laugh at it" (Henry V I.ii.296). Seeing himself as a representative of God, this former underling now sees himself equal enough in power to take on someone else who was supposedly elected by God. Like Richard, Henry’s personality is shaped by his role and he grows exceedingly crueler as time passes and he is more engrossed in his position.

Although some of Henry V’s actions may be politically necessary at this point in this play by William Shakespeare, such as his murder of Scopes after the attempted plot, his treatment of some others seems out of character with the Henry the reader knew before he was granted his sense of divine right. For instance, when Henry wishes for the surrender of Harfleur, he makes the most terrible threats, causing the reader to wonder how God’s will could be affiliated with such terror. At one point he states to the governor that he imagine, “the blind and bloody soldier with foul hand / defiling the locks of your still-shrieking daughters…/ your naked infants spitted upon pikes" (Henry V III.ii.111-115). This is clearly a leader who believes himself to have the powers of life and death that God posses and that he can get away with such acts because of his divinely elected position. Luckily he does not commit these acts, but the fact that he states them is enough indication of his personal sense of divine rule.

In these Shakespeare plays, divine right and a sense of the king’s place within nature are at once inseparable concepts, even though at times they remain in conflict with one another. For example, the Duchess of Glouster is willing to put her understand of divine right aside as she attempts to convince Gaunt of the need for Richard’s punishment. Instead of refuting claims of divine right, she attempts to convince Gaunt of Richard’s crime against nature (and by proxy, God) by making Gaunt recall the idea of sacred blood. She states in one of the important quotes from “Richard II” by Shakespeare, “Edward’s seven sons, whereof thyself art one, / Were as seven vials of his sacred blood, / Or seven fair branches springing from one root" (Richard II I.ii.11-13). Again, the idea that Richard’s blood is part of a “tree" that has been planted by God and is sustained by the sacred royal bloodline is apparent. This is connected with divine right because it is, like the belief in the concept, firmly entrenched in the moral and political “soil" of England and any interruption of this “tree" might be detrimental to the future of England. In many ways, the Duchess is suggesting that this tree has been rotting from the inside as the sacred blood is being corrupted by Richard’s ways. Although the Duchess is unable to convince Gaunt of Richard’s need for punishment, she does her best to persuade him by using the ideology he holds dear, namely that Richard II is divinely appointed and connected through deep roots to something of great importance. This shows how there are some people under Richard’s rule that are beginning to doubt the idea of divine rule and at once are able to use its rhetoric while refuting the message.

Although divine rule in Henry V is not as explicit of a theme as it is in Richard II, both leaders certainly recognize both the presence of this notion and later, how the concept of divine right can be flawed. For example, Henry, before his great battle disguises himself as a regular soldier and walks among his men to gauge their responses to the war. At one point he seems to question divine rule and see himself as simply a man like any other who just happened, by circumstance, to be blessed with power. While in disguise he states, “I think the King is but a man, as I am. The violet smells to him as it doth to me… His ceremonies laid by, in his nakedness he appears a man" (Henry V IV.i.99-102). Like Richard, in the end he sees the differences between ceremony and ritual in kingship versus his status as a human being. There are many parallels between this and Richard’s late realizations as well. For example, in the beginning, like many of those around him, Richard is fully convinced of his divine right to rule England. In one of his most blatant admissions of his feelings about his position, he tells Amuerle, “Not all the water in the rough rude sea / Can wash the balm off from an anointed king; / The breath of worldly men cannot depose / The deputy elected by the Lord" (Richard II III.ii.54-57). This belief is still present, despite the fact that he is slowly losing ground and seeing that Bolingbroke, who seems utterly unafraid of going against the will of God’s elected leader, will challenge this notion.

By the end of this play by Shakespeare, it is clear that Richard has completely questioned the concept of divine right and when he has to shed his crown and turn over England to his enemy, he dramatically states, “Throw away respect, / Tradition, form, and ceremonious duty; / For you have but mistook me all this while. / I live with bread like you, feel want, / Taste grief, need friends. (Richard II III.ii.172-76). This is first time both the audience and Richard see that the concept of divine right is not as solid as it may have once appeared. Richard has been overtaken and the earth has not come to end with the severing of the sacred tree and bloodline. It is at this point, as well as at the assassination of Richard, that we see how Shakespeare might be criticizing the view that a King is the elect representative of God’s will.

Other essays and articles in the Literature Archives related to this topic include : Close Reading of a Passage in Othello by Shakespeare : Analysis of RaceThe Power of Words in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and OthelloAnalysis of the “To Be or Not to Be" Soliloquy in Hamlet by William ShakespeareAppearances Versus Reality in Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare