Shakespeare’s Sources – Henry IV part ii

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King Henry IV

Continuing from last week’s blog about Henry IV part 1 and Henry’s crusade this week we move into the next play, Henry IV part 2, but keep an eye on the theme of crusades. Here we see Henry more established in his reign planning, quite cold heartedly to use the crusade as a way “to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels”(Henry IV,  ii). In other words he is hoping to distract the squabbling locals with bigger concerns abroad to unite factions behind a common cause. This is pretty canny leadership and I note something that modern day politicians are also said to be doing.

Looks like things were little different in Shakespeare’s time because here we see Shakespeare referencing  another of his sources, Machiavelli’s The Prince. Machiavelli writes about leadership and his book exposes some of the common ploys used by leaders the world over. Machiavelli challenged the notion that people, kings and queens included were generally good hearted and exposed the manipulations that underpinned political decisions. This is what he wrote about foreign campaigns and their political use.

“Nothing enables a ruler to gain more prestige than undertaking great campaigns . . . In our own times Ferdinand of Aragon, the present King of Spain is a notable example. . . . This man attacked Granada at the beginning of his reign, and this campaign laid the foundations of his state. First of all, he began the campaign . . . when he was not afraid of being opposed: he kept the minds of the barons of Castile occupied with that war . . and, meanwhile, he was acquiring prestige. . . .Moreover, he continued to make use of religion, resorting to a cruel and apparently pious policy of . . . hunting down the Moors . . . he [also] attacked Africa; he invaded Italy; and recently he has attacked France.”

Shakespeare’s Henry is in many ways the archetypal Machiavellian ruler, his decision to wage a crusade is right in line with Machiavellian principles. Although we might cynically accept Machiavelli’s ideas today without being very surprised, in Shakespeare’s day his ideas were controversial, remember that the prevailing belief was that Kings and Queens had a divine right to rule, were closer to God that your average lay person and their actions were often thought to be guided by God. Machiavelli suggested that their actions might have been determined by rather more pragmatic concerns and Shakespeare in joining in the debate by showing his fictional versions of historical figures making often very canny decisions.

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Author:Liz Dollimore

Someone who loves listening to people talk about Shakespeare Liz tweets at @shakespeareBT
  • Cally27

    It sounds like Henry’s foreign & domestic policies would fit right into the contemporary world. We’ve come a long way?

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