Whence Comes Legitimacy?
#notmypresident.#thisisnotnormal. The hashtags’ sentiments are echoed by respectable Democrats such as civil-rights leader John Lewis: “I don’t see this president-elect as a legitimate president.” Elected without a popular majority and shadowed by concerns about foreign interference, our 45th president entered office with many of his opponents believing he simply did not have the right to assume its powers.
Refusal to accept the legitimacy of its duly elected leader has become something of a habit in America, beginning with the impeachment of President Clinton in 1998, then extending to the 2000 Florida “chads” election of George W. Bush and the “birther” calumny promoted by Donald Trump himself against President Barack Obama. And now Trump. Even spurious charges can stick if they play on preexisting or partisan-induced doubts about the legitimacy of a given authority.
So what is this mysterious quality, “legitimacy”? In Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” the bastard Edmund questions why it should have any meaning at all. But legitimacy is a crucial element of any polity, whether democracy, dictatorship, monarchy, or oligarchy. Any regime may command obedience, and get it, inspired by fear—or by love. A legitimate government does not require recourse to such intense emotions. It is obeyed because its authority is internalized by the people. But once questions of legitimacy are raised, they cannot be unasked. What happens then? Can they be answered in ways that can preserve legitimacy or restore it?
Four hundred years ago, William Shakespeare contemplated this question in a series of history plays that speak with extraordinary clarity to the problem of legitimacy in a modern context—for Shakespeare was a modern like us, though he lived before the spread of modernity’s distinctive illusions that may blind us to similar clarity about our situation.
Kings in Christendom traditionally relied on the blessing of the church to legitimize their rule. But when Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, severed the connection with Rome, he cut as well the cord that connected him to the ultimate source of his authority. To compensate, the Tudors, and later the Stuarts, embraced a hypertrophied theory of divine right, according to which the monarch is answerable only to God Himself, and not subject either to the church or even God’s own law. But like papal claims to infallibility that followed the loss of temporal power, the theory protested too much. It was not a sign of the monarchy’s strength but of its fragility.
The tenuous basis of royal authority at its apparent apogee is the background to Shakespeare’s Henriad, the series of plays from “Richard II” through “Henry V.” Among other things, these are an extended meditation on what source of legitimacy might be found in a fallen world where authority has no explicit connection to the divine.
Why do I say that these plays are such a meditation? In part because the Henriad repeatedly but ironically echoes another story of successive kings: that of Saul, David, and Solomon. And that story forms the basis, in Western thinking, of the idea that a ruler’s legitimacy derives from divine election.
A biblical origin for divine right is itself ironic, because the Israelite monarchy was birthed in ambivalence. According to the biblical text, the original Mosaic model of government was theocracy, with God as the sole sovereign, and a prophet from the priestly tribe His mouthpiece on earth. After Moses’ and Joshua’s deaths, there was no legitimate successor—in the words of the Book of Judges, every man did as he thought right.
Leadership did emerge in times of crisis. Whenever the people fell prey to a warlord from another tribe, the Lord would raise up a judge or hero—Othniel, Ehud, Deborah, Gideon—to throw off the foreign yoke. But these judges and heroes came from nowhere and returned to nowhere. Their authority lasted only as long or as far as a successful battle.
This situation obtained until the threat from the Philistines, invaders from across the sea who had established themselves in the coastal plain, became too great to be opposed in this ad hoc fashion. The Israelite people turned to their most recent hero—Samuel, a judge, priest, and prophet—to give them a king “to judge us, like all the nations,” which is to say: to rule, and to do battle with their enemies on their behalf.
Samuel was not pleased with this request. A king would change radically the relationship between the people and their true sovereign, God. Samuel warned of the ways a king would abuse the people: seizing their sons and their daughters, their grain and their cattle, and pressing them into his service. But these material consequences were not the heart of the matter, which was that God would no longer be king over the people but rather king over the people’s king.
But the people would not be dissuaded. So, with God’s reluctant blessing, Samuel chose them a king in the person of Saul. It is telling that Saul is presented as a bit of a joke: plucked from obscurity among the smallest tribe largely for his height and his apparent simplicity. Moreover, while Saul’s military victories compared well with earlier heroes, the text focuses on how his transgressions of Samuel’s authority—performing propitiatory sacrifices before going into battle, despoiling the Amalekites rather than obliterating them—justified his loss of authority. Up to this point, the king’s legitimacy depended on following divine law, as interpreted by God’s authentic prophet, Samuel.
Then the story takes a surprising turn. Samuel promises the kingship in secret to a young man from the more powerful tribe of Judah. A charismatic warrior and poet, David becomes a favorite of King Saul, but his popularity eventually prompts a wary Saul to plot his death. David flees, taking refuge among the Philistines, still among Israel’s most fearsome enemies. There he builds a martial reputation, recruits an honor guard, and waits until Saul and his son, Jonathan, meet their doom on the slopes of Mt. Gilboa.
If faithful obedience is what legitimizes a king, then a rakish adventurer like David would seem a strange choice. But not only is David chosen, he is chosen on very different terms than Saul was—terms not seen since the promises made to the patriarchs. Moses, the paradigm of the reluctant prophet, has his greatness thrust upon him. So do Joshua and the various judges who followed him, down through Samuel: each has a divine charge to fulfill, but none is blessed with a divine promise. And Saul, as noted, derived his authority from Samuel.
Not so David. Far from demonstrating Samuel’s continued authority, his secret crowning was a passing of the torch. After this, prophets may chastise kings—Nathan, David’s court prophet, scourges him for his sins. But they will never again make and dispose of kings as divine favor bids them. That promise is eternal. Eternity is not harmony—as Nathan prophesied, the sword never departed from David, who had to contend with rebellion by his own son, Absalom, as well as by the northern tribes. But God never threatens David with the loss of election.
David’s son, Solomon, was the first dynastic heir in Israelite history. His claim was not uncontested—his brother, Adonijah, had himself crowned first, and Solomon’s own claim rested on a deathbed conversation that only his mother, Bathsheba, and Nathan—neither a neutral party—were privy to. One of the first stories told of Solomon upon his accession to the throne reveals just how tenuous his own authority was.
This is the famous story of the two women contending for a baby. Each claims to be the rightful mother. Obviously, they cannot both be telling the truth—but since he cannot resolve the matter by interrogating the facts, Solomon orders the baby cut in half and split between the two claimants (which would be right and proper were the baby a piece of land or a chest of treasure). One woman accepts the verdict, while the other renounces her claim to save the child, which King Solomon says proves her to be the true mother.
The story is presented as evidence of Solomon’s wisdom, the trait for which he is best-known. But the text also says that when the people heard the story, “all Israel … feared before the king.” The next verse (1 Kings 3:1) calls Solomon king over all Israel. Why was this a fearful judgment?
The tale is an allegory—of civil war. The two mothers are rivals for the throne. Anyone who would accept division of the kingdom is not a true mother, whereas anyone who cleaves to an authority that he or she would otherwise reject in order to preserve the kingdom is a true parent. Given the history of civil turmoil during his father’s reign, Solomon had every reason to deliver a stern message with a coldly Hobbesian pragmatism: accept my rule over the whole kingdom even if you once opposed me, or prepare for the sword.
This, Solomon seems to have known, was an insufficient basis for preserving his regime. And so Solomon set out to establish it on a more secure basis, by building the temple that his father had been forbidden from building because of his personal sins.
The signal distinction of a temple—highlighted by God Himself when he contemplates David’s desire to build one for Him—is that it does not move. While God lived in a tabernacle, He could travel the earth but return to dwell among the people as a fellow nomad. Fixing God’s dwelling place meant that God no longer came to the people. They would come to Him, in the city where He lived.
Meanwhile, a temple associated with a royal palace implied that the palace dynasty ruled with the favor of the temple’s deity. In a context where one deity is the lord of all the universe, this meant that now there was only one legitimate temporal authority. And that authority was the king of the Davidic line.
Whether this ideology actually originated in Solomon’s time or reflects the concerns of a later period is less important than its endurance. Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, lost the northern tribes to Jeroboam (who set up his own rival “temples” in Dan and Bethel). But Jeroboam’s was only the first of several dynasties in Israel, and when Israel fell, its tribes were lost to history. David’s dynasty was both the first and the last in Judah.
And after the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, the promise to David continued, transformed from something immanent to something transcendent. With his temple, Solomon asserted that his father’s heirs were the only legitimate rulers of Israel. It’s destruction returned rule to God—but with a promise that, at some future date, legitimacy would be restored. In the meantime, all kings were regents, ruling by divine providence rather than by divine right.
This understanding was inherited by Christianity, descended, like rabbinic Judaism, from Israelite religion. When Pope Leo crowned Charlemagne Holy Roman Emperor in 800, the echoes of Samuel’s coronation of David (and the implicit snatching of the crown from Irene of Byzantium, much as Samuel withdrew it from Saul) sounded throughout Christendom. It was, on the one hand, an assertion of the primacy of the pope over temporal rulers. But it also made clear that temporal rulers had divine sanction, and that blessing could descend upon a barbarian Frank if God so willed.
Could that election be withdrawn? Or was divinely granted legitimacy permanent? Legitimacy implied the ability not merely to enforce the law, but to make it, to command obedience even of those it might seek to dispossess of its traditional prerogatives and property. This is just what Samuel warned the people about when they asked for a king to rule over them. And it is just what transpired when the concept of divine right came to the fore in England, 2,500 years after the reign of King Solomon.
The Tudor monarchs were not the first English kings to assert royal authority against the rival claims of feudal lords or the church hierarchy. Henry II had the “troublesome priest” Thomas Becket disposed of; King John faced down rebellious barons by declaring himself the pope’s vassal (and allegedly flirting with conversion to Islam).But the first contest ended with Henry agreeing to the Compromise of Avranches that restored clerical privileges and immunities (and submitting to ritual flogging at Becket’s tomb), while the hapless John was compelled to sign the Magna Carta.
Rather, the Tudors were the first to succeed in making that assertion stick, severing the connection with Rome and bringing the barons permanently to heel. Under the Tudors and especially the Stuarts, the concept of divine right became the official ideology of the state. (James VI of Scotland even wrote a book on the subject before assuming the English throne.) In effect, they asserted an authority comparable to the line of David: based on an irrevocable divine promise, answerable only to God for their behavior.
But were they so? How could they assert such authority with no Samuel to anoint them? Did divine favor descend on a murderous usurper merely because he wore the crown?
Shakespeare must have brooded on this haunting question for some time. Early in his career, he wrote a series of history plays recounting the Wars of the Roses in a manner highly congenial to Tudor sensitivities. While the actions of the Yorkists and Lancastrians were as brutally thrilling as the popular Game of Thrones, those actions are contained within an essentially providential structure. The violence, climaxing with Richard III’s tyrannical reign, is punishment for the original sin of deposing Richard II. Once the land has been purged by the scourge of God, the tyrant is dispatched in turn by God’s servant, Henry VII, founder of a new legitimacy.
This is all very neat, but also retrospective. Per Hegel, the owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk, and actions that appear to be violations of the right may be understood, after the fact, as providential. But what are we to do now if our ruler is a tyrant? How can we be assured now that his rule is legitimate? Or, to put it another way, where was Henry VII’s—and Elizabeth’s—Jerusalem temple?
To contemplate deposing kings was dangerous, and the Tudors were far from lenient on such matters. Nonetheless, from whatever internal compulsion may have moved Shakespeare as an artist, he set out to explore it, returning to the original sin that began the wars that concluded with Henry VII’s accession: the overthrow and murder of Richard II.
“Richard II” opens with two nobles, Henry Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray, accusing each other of treason. Shakespeare’s audience would have known that Richard himself may have been implicated in the crime at the heart of the dispute (the murder of Bolingbroke’s kinsman), as Bolingbroke’s father, John of Gaunt, himself suspects. Richard unsuccessfully commands the noblemen to reconcile, then sanctions their trial by combat. But before the combat can commence he calls a halt and banishes them both.
The effect of this business is to establish that Richard lacks authority in his person. He claims the inherent right to command, but his commands are not readily obeyed. And when he resorts to punishment, it is resented as capricious and unjust—all the more so when it becomes clear that his ulterior motive is to seize Bolingbroke’s lands when his aging father dies.
On his way to the grave, and awaiting Richard’s arrival, Gaunt introduces a new and important theme to the play, explicitly claiming the mantle of Samuel:
Methinks I am a prophet new inspired
And thus expiring do foretell of him:
His rash fierce blaze of riot cannot last,
For violent fires soon burn out themselves
What follows is his famous peroration on the glories of England, ending with the sad conclusion that, thanks to Richard, the poor country had “made a shameful conquest of itself”—an echo of Samuel’s warnings to Israel of what a king would do to them. Gaunt has no power comparable to Samuel’s to remove Richard. But by foretelling deposition, and calling himself a prophet in doing so, he articulates this possibility as something other than treason but rather as divinely sanctioned.
Richard, though, is blithe to danger. He believes that he has a special charism, a divine election that will protect him, personally, from any threat. Disdaining advice, he seizes Gaunt’s property, then sails to Ireland to suppress rebellion there. While he is gone, Bolingbroke violates the terms of his exile, returning in arms to reclaim the property that Richard had seized. Almost immediately, the other noble houses flock to his support.
So when Richard returns to England, he instinctively falls back on that imagined charism, that grace of God, to restore his authority. But he realizes, too late, that it doesn’t exist. Within a few speeches in a single scene, Richard goes from this:
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 …
Cover your heads and mock not flesh and blood
With solemn reverence: 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: subjected thus,
How can you say to me, I am a king?
Richard is not merely a weak or wicked king. His lack of personal authority puts to question the very notion of authority. How can you say, “that man is a king,” when, if put to a test, his authority depends on mere “tradition, form and ceremonious duty”?
What remains of the play is the ceremony of usurpation, imprisonment, and murder of the Lord’s deputy. Richard’s resistance is more formal than forceful. When Bolingbroke is still proclaiming that all he seeks is his own right, Richard speaks the truth: Bolingbroke has the power. All the crown would do is formalize that fact. Through Richard’s beautiful poetry, we feel the significance of these actions both on a personal level (the king is a man, after all) and on a political level. For if a king rules only by might, and not by right, then how can his rule be legitimate?
Here’s how Henry Bolingbroke—now Henry IV—answers:
Lords, I protest, my soul is full of woe,
That blood should sprinkle me to make me grow:
Come, mourn with me for that I do lament,
And put on sullen black incontinent:
I’ll make a voyage to the Holy Land,
To wash this blood off from my guilty hand:
March sadly after; grace my mournings here;
In weeping after this untimely bier.
Bolingbroke is chasing the same charism of divine favor that Richard has already taught us was an illusion. And the parallels to David, with whom the notion originates, are clear. Bolingbroke already shared David’s prehistory: son of a powerful house, former royal favorite, exiled for being a threat, returns to claim the crown. Now, just as David sought to secure divine favor by building God a temple in his conquered capital of Jerusalem, so Henry IV seeks to wash his sins, and legitimize his rule, by repeating David’s conquest.
He never undertakes it. Instead, as with David, the sword never departs from his house. For the entirety of the next two plays, Henry IV contends with rebellion. The northern nobles ally with the Scots to plant a more pliant king than Henry on the throne. And he also has to worry about dissension in his own house. His son, Hal, a wastrel in Richard’s mold, seems so dissolute to the King that he wonders aloud:
Why, Harry, do I tell thee of my foes,
Which art my near’st and dearest enemy?
Thou that art like enough, through vassal fear,
Base inclination and the start of spleen
To fight against me under Percy’s pay,
To dog his heels and curtsy at his frowns,
To show how much thou art degenerate.
Henry IV wonders if in Hal he has nurtured an Absalom. But as Hal protests, “Do not think so; you shall not find it so.” And though he tries on his father’s crown prematurely before his father passes, his apparent baseness is no degeneracy, but a new kind of wisdom.
The final comic turn of Henry IV’s life arrives with his demise, and with it a final Davidic parallel. The dying King protests that he cannot expire in England, as it was prophesied that he would die in Jerusalem—only to learn that the room in which he rests is nicknamed, “Jerusalem.” As David did for Solomon, King Henry gives Hal some deeply cynical political advice, and then is gone. All hail King Henry V.
The series of plays from “Richard II” through “Henry V” are often referred to as the “Henriad.” The Henry in question is not the fourth but the fifth of the name, whom we first meet as Hal. On one level, they form Hal’s bildungsroman, the story of a prince coming of age into the responsibilities of kingship. But if there is a correspondence between the “Henriad” and the “Davidiad,” then Hal is Solomon, the wise and calculating ruler who follows the charismatic founder of a new dynasty and consolidates his rule. And the nature of Hal’s wisdom is central to the argument of the plays.
From his very first appearance in “Henry IV, Part 1,” Hal is looking for a way to be a leader in a world without legitimate foundations. We meet him in a tavern in Eastcheap, a seedy London neighborhood, after a night carousing with Sir John Falstaff, for whom he clearly harbors a deep affection, but also a wariness of letting this dangerous tutor get too close. After verbally sparring with Sir John, and planning a bit of mischief with his friend Poins, he speaks to us in soliloquy:
I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyoked humour of your idleness:
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wonder’d at,
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapours that did seem to strangle him.
If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work;
But when they seldom come, they wish’d for
And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.
So, when this loose behavior I throw off
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;
And like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glittering o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I’ll so offend, to make offence a skill;
Redeeming time when men think least I will.
It’s a marvelous speech, and it’s the point where the actor playing Hal needs to make his first important choice: whether to play him as fully confident in this plan of action or as trying to convince himself that he has a plan. Either way, Hal’s story is not one of a prodigal son returned, but of a prince who understands the power of that story, and how to use that power to his advantage.
Why is Hal hanging out in Eastcheap with the likes of Falstaff in the first place? Falstaff is his tutor in the nihilistic truth revealed when Richard II was deposed: that no one has inherent authority. Falstaff is Shakespeare’s greatest deflator of authority, notably in his soliloquy against honor, which cannot heal a wound, nor benefit the dead who earned it dying. If everyone believed that, of course, no king could ever raise an army to defend his kingdom—but the heroes who do seek honor above all wind up, like Hotspur, as corpses.
But Falstaff’s deepest mock follows the Gadshill robbery, the prank Poins and Hal plotted in their first scene. Falstaff and his men plan to rob a group of travelers, and Hal and Poins are to help them. Instead they hide until the robbery is complete, then emerge, disguised, and set upon Falstaff to rob him. The point of this, explained in advance, is to catch Falstaff in the outrageous lies he will undoubtedly tell to explain how he lost the stolen money—which, indeed, he spins to great comic effect.
When Falstaff’s confabulations are done, Hal reveals that it was he and Poins who robbed him. Falstaff’s lies are exposed. But it takes more cunning than that to catch Sir John:
By the Lord, I knew ye as well as he that made
ye. Why, hear you, my masters: was it for me to kill the heir-apparent? should I turn upon the true prince? why, thou knowest I am as valiant as Hercules: but beware instinct; the lion will not touch the true prince.
To drive the point home, Falstaff then plays Henry IV chastising his son, only to have Hal depose his “father” and play him himself to chastise Falstaff. We remember Richard’s words, “Not all the water in the rough rude sea can wash the balm off from an anointed king”; but after this scene the balm is well and fully off. Falstaff knows the essential hollowness of the crown, which is exactly why Hal studies under him—not be fooled as Richard was into believing he is more than what he actually is.
But Hal is absorbing a positive wisdom as well—a skill that will serve as a new if fragile basis for authority. One night, he stays up carousing with a bunch of drawers—lads who work the taps. When Poins asks why, he says, “when I am king of England, I shall command all the good lads in Eastcheap.” He concludes:
I am so good a proficient in one quarter of an hour, that I can drink with any tinker in his own language during my life. I tell thee, Ned, thou hast lost much honour, that thou wert not with me in this sweet action.
This is not the battlefield honor that Falstaff will mock. Hal has won the friendship of a group of young working-class men not by separating himself from them, teaching them that he has a special balm upon him that commands obedience, but, on the contrary, by behaving as if he were no better than they, and particularly by learning their language. There is more to be learned in the “base court” than Richard, who refused to descend, could have known.
Hal takes this language lesson along with the Dauphin’s mocking tennis balls all the way to Agincourt. There, he must lead a polyglot army of English, Scots, and Welsh against the French. The differences in their English are made much of, but Hal, now Henry V, pointedly identifies with them all, even calling himself Welsh for having been born in Monmouth.
He must also lead an army of all classes, and once again Henry goes out of his way to establish himself as beyond class distinctions, most famously in the “band of brothers” passage from his St. Crispin’s Day peroration, but also when he wanders incognito through the camp to read his men’s morale on the eve of battle. The trope of a king in disguise is an ancient one, but Shakespeare uses it to novel effect. Henry learns not only the true state of his kingdom, but his true position as king.
At the end of his wanderings through camp, Henry encounters three ordinary soldiers, nervous about the next day. They ask the disguised king what his commander thinks of their chances.
KING HENRY V: Even as men wrecked upon a sand, that look to be washed off the next tide.
BATES: He hath not told his thought to the king?
KING HENRY V: No; nor it is not meet he should. For, though I speak it to you, I think the king is but a man, as I am … no man should possess him with any appearance of fear, lest he, by showing it, should dishearten his army.
The tension and the humor of the situation alike lie in our awareness that Henry actually is the king. But it’s also a masterful bit of reverse psychology, manipulating the soldiers into protecting the king rather than themselves. It’s also a confession, a way for Henry to reveal his own human frailty without undermining the indomitable image he has maintained.
The reverse psychology is a bit too clever, though. Henry avers he “could not die any where so contented as in the king’s company; his cause being just and his quarrel honourable,” and gets rebuked: they cannot judge the justness of his cause, nor is it their job. If it isn’t just, their deaths—and the fates of their souls—fall on the king’s head, not theirs.
This burden is too heavy for Henry to accept, and he argues his way out of it before landing in a new quarrel for saying the king will never let himself be ransomed. The men scoff at the pretense of royal courage—and the matter nearly comes to blows. After they leave Henry exclaims:
Upon the king! let us our lives, our souls,
Our debts, our careful wives,
Our children and our sins lay on the king!
We must bear all. …
And what have kings, that privates have not too,
Save ceremony, save general ceremony?
This speech is the spiritual twin of Richard’s despairing “you have but mistook me all this while.” These soldiers see through Henry’s tricks and pretenses, both those he perpetrates in disguise and those he executes in full regalia. But they still believe that he has special powers—and that, Henry knows, is the ultimate pretense.
And so, with nowhere else to turn, Henry prays. Henry’s war for the throne of France, like the crusade his father sought, has the explicit sanction of the church. But the opening scene of “Henry V” can leave no doubt in the audience’s mind about the cynicism of that blessing, nor can the king delude himself that God is compelled to fight on his side. And so his prayer is more like one of Jacob’s bargains with God than of a man like Henry VII, who knows he is on the side of right. He begins by begging God not to think of the crime of regicide that got him the crown, and ends with a version of Claudius’s question in “Hamlet,” “may one be pardon’d and retain the offence?”
This, then, is Henry on the eve of battle. He knows the odds are against him. He knows that he has no special divine favor, his crown having been won by regicide, and that even a king with incontestable title has no guardian angel to protect his authority. That authority comes not from God, nor from personal virtue, but from ceremony. And it is Henry V’s novel insight to understand that after the deposition of Richard, that ceremony no longer means performing distance and exaltedness, but commonality. The king must drink with every tinker in the tinker’s language.
It is in this frame of mind that Henry V delivers his most rousing piece of rhetoric, the St. Crispin’s Day speech, which plainly recalls Gideon’s speech in Judges to own his happy few. We have come full circle, to a form of authority that is evanescent, dependent on personal charisma, heroism, and transient divine favor—and unlikely to be passed on to a successor. Indeed, as Shakespeare’s stage already had oft shown, it was not.
Elizabeth I was purportedly agitated enough by the first of these new histories to exclaim, “I am Richard II, know you not that?” Surely that was reason enough never to have written the thing? But Shakespeare wrote it anyway, and I contend the queen misplaced herself. She was not Richard II; she was Henry V.
Shakespeare was wise to the propaganda of his own earlier histories. The Tudor dynasty was founded on usurpation, political and ecclesiastical, and no amount of providential dressing-up could hide that. How could it endure without foundation? Only by learning a new politics. Bolingbroke gets called a “vile politician,” but his son is the one who exemplifies the new, democratic notion of legitimacy, a notion that survived the fall and restoration of the monarchy, and was transplanted to our own republic.
We tend to think of democracy as a set of processes that confer authority by the nature of their operation. In this, we treat our constitution as the Israelites did their temple. Cleansing it of idolatries, we imagine, will restore the land to prosperity. Elections are our urim and thummim, the means by which we divine the will of the People, our sovereign god, as invisible and inscrutable as the one worshipped in ancient Jerusalem. But these provide no more assurance of legitimacy than did Richard II’s balm, as evidenced by our present crisis.
How will that crisis be resolved? I will not presume to prophesy. If Trump proves another Richard III, a scourge of God upon all parties tainted by a chain of usurpations, and ends by immolating himself, it would surprise me not at all. But if he does so, we cannot count on the happy end Shakespeare gave to his play, the humpbacked usurper vanquished by a pure and cleansing Henry VII, universally acknowledged as legitimate by all the weary factions.
Henry V’s democratic charism is the only one we have left. We are fragmented into communities that seem almost unable to communicate with each other. But our system retains its authority only to the extent that it can produce leaders who drink with every tinker—white and black, rich and poor, urban and rural, native and foreign-born—in his, and her, language.
Noah Millman is a senior editor at TAC as well as its theater critic. He is currently working on a book about Shakespeare and the Hebrew Bible.
The online version of this article has been corrected with Henry II’s proper penance for disposing of Thomas Becket; it was the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV who sought readmission to communion in the snow.