Home  »  Volume V: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part One  »  § 5. Dramatists and the Divine Right of Kings

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XIV. Some Political and Social Aspects of the Later Elizabethan and Earlier Stewart Period

§ 5. Dramatists and the Divine Right of Kings

The dramatists of the age were monarchists to a man; and, though, of course, their sentiments herein accorded with their interests, it would be shortsighted to ascribe the tenacity with which they adhered to the monarchical principle of government merely to a servile attachment to the powers that were; indeed, with these they were not unfrequently in conflict. The stedfastness with which these popular poets upheld the authority of the crown as the pivot on which the whole state machine turned is evident from the fact that their whole-hearted loyalty was transferred, without halt or hesitation, from Elizabeth to James, as it afterwards descended from him to his successor. Its root, no doubt, was some sort of belief in the “divinity” that “doth hedge a king”; but, as the personality of the speaker who, in Hamlet, makes use of this famous phrase, may, perhaps, serve to indicate, the divine authority to which appeal is made was derived less from any claim of birth than from the fiat of Providence, commanding the assent of the people. By means, as it were, of a dispensation from on high, accepted by the “countrymen” of successive kings and dynasties, in the person of the sagacious Henry IV and, still more, in that of his heroic son, the royal authority of the house of Lancaster was established in disregard of the principle of legitimate right, and, again, disestablished in the person of Henry VI, the gentle scholar equally unfit to hold a sceptre and to wield a sword. The sovereign ruling by such an authority as this is he whom the people are bound to obey—not the chief of some faction of turbulent barons using him either as their captain or their puppet; for it is the fitness recognised and acclaimed by the people which warrants the confidence with which he assumes and maintains supreme control. Such seems to be the cardinal principle of the English monarchy as it stood under the Tudors, and the spirit to which the dramatists remained true, even when they expressed it in the elaborate forms proclaimed as orthodox under the first two Stewarts.