Quote of the Week: 11 December 2017

We only want to be kings because we don’t fully understand what it involves?

BH Lee_1603Christopher Lee, 1603 (Review:  London, 2003)

Not THAT Christopher Lee, obviously!

In class, we’ve seen it in Edward II and, I think, Richard III.  There are hints of it for my younger students in Macbeth.  But I see it everywhere: in Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI.


In Twelfth Night, Malvolio tells us:

“be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em” (II.v)

Quite simply, the message I consistently get from EMP plays is that greatness – in this case being monarch – is never, ever, all it’s cracked up to be …

Consider Nietzsche’swill to power‘.

Those born great, like perhaps Henry V, have that will.  They appear to be able to control it, but find the cares of kingship and the expectations of a nation a heavy burden, as Henry does the night before Agincourt.

Others who have greatness thrust upon them need the will to power.  Without it, Kingship becomes an absolute nightmare.  I’m thinking here of Edward II and Henry VI, especially, but also Richard II.  These three share the desire to be people, individuals, rather than figureheads.  Result:  depositions, murders and long, reflective passages on the woes of kingship.

On the other hand, those who possess it can achieve greatness if they are sufficiently ruthless and Machiavellian: Richard III, Henry Bolinbroke, Macbeth (with his wife’s help).  But the will to power can easily become addictive, and if uncontrolled, can never be satisfied.  What is their reward?  Dissatisfaction, unease, preoccupation, as Bolinbroke finds at the beginning of 1 Henry IV:

So shaken as we are, so wan with care (I.i)

Heavily influenced by reading Ivor Brown‘s great book, full of educated guesses, I want to suggest one of my own.  Shakespeare will have seen a fair bit of monarchs in his time, and was clearly a perceptive man when it came to human nature, I can’t help speculating the extent to which the cares of kingship are based on what he could see in Elizabeth.

So, to this week’s quotation.  Lee’s book contains a lot of contemporary material, sometimes at the expense of the flow of his writing (which is why Shapiro’s 1599 and 1606 are more fluent and entertaining reads).

BH king-james-sixth

One of those contemporary documents is the introduction to James I‘s  Basilikon Doron’ or His Majesties instructions to his dearest Sonne, Henry the Prince.’ James, it seemed, enjoyed being king of England as much if not more than Elizabeth, but he still had stern words for his son:

‘[…] being rightly informed hereby, of the weight of your burthen, ye may in time begin to consider that being borne to be a king, ye are rather borne to ‘onus’ then ‘honos’ [burden rather than honour]: not excelling all your people so fair in ranke and honour, as  in daily care and hazardous paines-taking, for the dutifull administration of that great Office, that God hath laid upon your shoulders.’


Our plays bear this out, I think.  I don’t believe Shakespeare would have fancied the monarchy even if he had been offered it.

Shakespeare quotations taken from www.opensourceshakespeare.org

Author: Boar's Head, Eastcheap

Hyperactive English Teacher and Tutor; Shakespeare-obsessed 'Villainous abominable misleader of youth'; 'old white-bearded Satan'; Friend of the Orangutan

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