The Glass Kingly Image in Richard III and Henry IV

In both parts of Henry IV and Richard III, Shakespeare’s kingly figures are responsible for unification under times of inner turmoil and corruption. Shakespeare’s kings must convince their subjects that a temporary period of strife is a prerequisite for lasting peace and unity. The plays illustrate that, in order to gain support for his daunting task, an able king requires masterful rhetorical persuasion and a noble demeanor. In Richard III and both Henry IV plays, the defeated kingly figures lack one or both of these requirements. Conversely, the emerging crowned kings in these histories — Henry VII and Henry V — respectively display mastery in rhetorical and moral posturing. After failed attempts at repression, Richard’s conscience cracks his empowered veneer, while Prince Henry successfully refigures his ethos. Prince Henry seeks to piece together the broken image of nobility; Richard seeks to manipulate yet ultimately to dismantle the glass image. Only Richmond, although briefly noted, perfectly fits the kingly image and actually ends civil conflict — thus restoring unity.

In ­both Henry IV volumes and Richard III, Shakespeare’s kingly figures engage in a serious of auditions in which each attempts a display of rhetorical and moral posturing. In Richard III, the auditions are both public and private, while they are largely the latter kind in Henry IV. Prince Hal’s auditions are private in the familial sense — his father, the dying Henry IV, is his judge. In all cases, the hopeful kingly figures seek to sell their audience two proposals — one, that conflict necessarily precedes peace and, two, that victorious unity is imminent. The choice of conflict differs between the histories. In the Henry IV volumes, Prince Henry eventually continues his father’s strategy of exporting the conflict. In this view, a king is wise to “busy giddy minds in foreign quarrels,” rather than tear his own kingdom in civil war (IV.v.213–14). Conversely, both Richard III and Richmond promise an internal war to end all civil strife and restore lasting peace.

In Richard III, the exiting King Edward IV fails his audition in an unconvincing charade of peace and rekindled harmony in a discordant court. The discordance between the court’s members is a microcosm of national disunity. As death looms, Edward IV seeks to make his “friends at peace on earth” so he can die saying “I have done a good day’s work” (II.i.6). Edward exercises neither any rhetorical persuasion nor moral valor. Clearly, Edward wishes the disorder a nightmare that will vanquish, a misfortune easily amended, thus allowing him to rest peacefully. Richard’s news of Clarence’s death breaks Edward’s tranquil illusion and the newly awakened king leaves an ominous departure: “I fear justice will take hold on me and you, and mine and yours for this,” (II.ii.132–133). The daunting reality of internal misdeeds has the final say over Edward’s charade and proves that the day’s work is unfinished. Richard takes up the work, yet his script is very different.

Richard performs his own series of auditions, all of which are means to achieve his own scripted end — kingship. These auditions range from farcical (his “reluctant coercion” unto the throne) to perversely persuasive — his wooing of Princess Elizabeth via her mother. In both cases, he plays the expected roles appropriately, appealing to the right ethos and sensibilities in each scenario. Although Richard essentially won the role of king before the audition, his script evokes the national wish for a virtuous son of York who will restore the “noble ancestor/from the corruption of abused times/unto a lineal true derived course” (II.vii.197–99). While the performance was sloppy and the audience unenthusiastic, Richard — the “foul defacer of God’s handiwork” — is crowned the rightful heir, a pure one who will restore the natural, national, and familial order (IV.iv.51).

Richard’s audition before Queen Elizabeth, for the role of husband to her daughter, is a similar appeal to natural, national, and familial restoration. Richard exhibits a devious passive aggressive rhetorical persuasion that wins over Queen Elizabeth’s contending and formidable verbal defense. Initially, Richard’s rhetorical advances seem impenetrable against Elizabeth — she counters each appeal to the aforementioned domains of life. On the national front, she answers that the “peace” Richard’s alliance to her daughter will bring is “purchase[d] with still lasting war” (IV.iv.343–44). On the natural front, she contends that “Hell and Richard,” — the antitheses to heaven and nature — will determine how long “everlasting” love lasts (IV.iv.353–54). Concerning the familial sphere, Elizabeth insists that the princess will never find the man who slew her brothers and uncles a pleasing husband (IV.iv.338–342). Finally, after Queen Elizabeth has exhausted Richard’s rhetorical appeals to natural destiny/God, nation, family, even his own integrity, he swears to the least contestable sphere — the future.

Richard demonstrably broke his oaths to God, country and family — his fidelity to future commitments is an open matter. Initially, Elizabeth is reserved against this tactic and affirms that “times misused o’erpast” negate promises of times to come (IV.iv.396). Finally, Richard concedes to Elizabeth yet warns that, unless he marries her daughter, “death, desolation, ruin and decay” are unavoidable consequences (IV.iv.407–11). Richard’s premonitions of future evils and chaos break Elizabeth — she fears for her faith and fate, nation, and family. Elizabeth distrusts Richard, yet the future is uncertain and she fears that Richard’s forebodings will materialize. Richard’s winning rhetorical mechanism, his preferred persuasive means, is a fear that manipulates uncertainty.

Uncertainty in the future encumbers Henry IV — he fears the fate of his kingdom, seemingly absent a noble successor in his son Prince Henry. Thus, in both volumes, Prince Henry is continually auditioning for his father’s trust. Prince Henry promises a future change: “I shall hereafter, my gracious lord, be more myself” (III.ii.92). The departing king laments that his son lacks the honor of Hotspur Percy, the “glass” image of nobility and honor (II.ii.21). Prince Henry persuades his father that he will “exchange [Percy’s] glories” for his own past “indignities” (III.ii.145–46) Indeed, Prince Hal both defeats Hotspur in battle and casts off past indignities like a nightmare.

Thus, Hal eventually takes form as the “glass” image of kingship — restoring both his personal honor and his father’s corrupted reign. Henry’s appeals to the future, unlike Richard’s, are based in promises of restoration rather than threats of destruction. In truth, Henry’s goal is seemingly genuine restoration, whereas Richard’s only goal is destroying anyone that crosses his path to power. Richard’s battle arms are his conscience, and his sword his law. Richard never awakes from his own darkness — he is always what he is, “a villain” (V.iii.192). Hal awakes from his despised dream, no longer the dishonorable thing he was, and thus his father can finally rest easily, unencumbered by the crown.

Hal’s audition for his father’s crown is twofold — he persuades the dying king of his merits as both son and royal successor. His audition begins with a dress-rehearsal when he prematurely believes his father dead and wears the deceasing king’s crown. The rhetorically guile prince persuasively convinces his offended father that he tried the crown like an enemy — a guilty murder (IV.v.165–67). Prince Hal portrays himself as the conqueror, rather than usurper, of his father’s crown — the one who lifts the burden, the parasite that fed upon his father’s body and robbed the king’s rest. Thus, Hal asserts his untimely self crowning “the quarrel of the true inheritor” — a test of virtue (IV.v.168).

Hal passes his self-construed test, earning the role of King Henry V, and his penitent performance prompts a final confessional one on his father’s part. Henry IV admits to the “crooked ways” he crossed to meet the crown and “how troublesome it sat upon [his] head” (IV.v.184–86). He warns his son that gainful alliances will deteriorate into “quarrel” and “bloodshed,” thus “wounding supposed peace” (IV.v.193–95). The exiting king bids his successor to take the act abroad to the Holy Land — lest subjects, absent any distraction in foreign quarrels, reflect on evident domestic ills (IV.v.211–214). Thus, King Henry V continues his father’s reign of divergence. In constructing drama elsewhere, Henry IV and V simply distract their subjects from domestic disunity.

Only Richmond — though a peripheral and bookending character — both embodies the kingly image and ends the inner strife. Richmond’s victory, his ability to maintain his subjects’ trusts, is intrinsic to an implicitly evident virtue. The eventual Henry VII, avenging his father’s death, rests well the night before the battle — he is free from the guilt that torments Richard’s dreams. Rather, Richmond sleeps “the sweetest sleep and fairest-boding dreams” in which the souls of Richard’s victims cry him onto victory (V.ii.228; 231–32). Furthermore, Richmond trusts his subjects — he strategizes with them the night prior to the battle while Richard eavesdrops on his troops, seeking traitors (V.ii.222–23). Richard and Richmond’s respective intuitions regarding loyalties reflect a difference in their individual moral impetuses or inclinations.

In their respective orations, we transparently see the polar distinction between Richmond and Richard’s moral (or amoral) sensibilities. Although their rhetoric shares a common argument (the civil war is a perquisite for lasting peace and unity), the two sharply differ in their content. Richard’s speech is negative, based in threats — Richmond’s forces will disrupt your rest, “distrain” your land, “distain” our wives, and “ravish our daughters” — and meant to induce fear (V.ii.22–23). Richmond’s oration centers on the gains that reward the temporary sacrifice and thus inspires his battalion. He assures them, “you sleep in peace, the tyrant being slain,” your wives will welcome you, your sacrifice will spare future generations war, he assures his battalion (V.ii.257; 262–63). Although his assertions likely strike us naïve and mendacious, Richmond does successfully unite the “White Rose and Red” and, at least temporarily, stops the “civil wounds” (V.v.19; 40).

Shakespeare’s kingly figures are exaggerated depictions of good and evil, virtue and corruption, and the struggle between these polar tensions. In his rendering of Henry IV’s descent and Prince Hal’s kingly ascent, these poles mingle within the same characters. Richard III represents one extreme pole, the disfigured kingly image — the one who brings death, corruption, and hatred. Richmond represents the ideal king — the one who heals un-tethered bonds and unifies. Shakespeare dramatizes the ideal king so little, perhaps, because there is minimal, zero, experience of such a human ruler. Although his kingly figures vary in their pronounced features, their differing abilities or inabilities to fit the kingly image, they share a common denominator — rhetoric.

Namely, their rhetoric centers on delaying the present good to an unnamed future. In Richard III, Richmond seemingly materializes a visible unity in the present. Yet, there is even a hint that this unity is less a lasting affair than the ideal king proclaims — he himself asks God to “abate the edge of traitors” (V.v.35). Thus, guarantees of everlasting peace and unity in the mere temporal kingdom are premature. Perhaps Shakespeare believed that only one Kingdom, beyond mere human rule, only tasted and anticipated now, could safeguard such promises.

Works Cited

Shakespeare, William, Maynard Mack, and Sylvan Barnet. Henry IV, Part One. New York: Signet Classics, 1998. Print.

Shakespeare, William, Holland N. Norman, Mack, and Sylvan Barnet. Henry IV, Part Two. New York: Signet Classics, 2002. Print.

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy Of Richard The Third, With New And Updated Critical Essays And A Revised Bibliography. 2nd Rev. ed. New York: Signet Classics, 1998. Print.