Blood spills out many paradoxical meanings within Shakespeare’s history plays. As a natural, biological component, it elevates monarchs to supernatural statuses, whilst simultaneously subjecting them to their own imposed legal systems. These are some of the themes that this essay will analyse.

Shakespeare shows that blood generates ‘entitlement – to property and to power in the realm,’[1] which relies upon hereditary inheritance. But though the inherited “title” intrinsically signifies identity, Bolingbroke stating ‘I was banished Hereford’[2] and that ‘my answer is to ‘Lancaster’’ (Richard, II.iii.70), his invasion presents a genuine debate between treason and desire for retribution. For Richard’s assertion that ‘[y]our own is yours, and I am yours, and all’ (Richard, III.iii.195), not only emphasises royal dominance over legal inheritance; it corrupts it. Despite being ‘the pinnacle of the feudal system and the upholder of its semiotic code,’[3] by demanding ‘obedience’ rather than remaining ‘bound to his subjects by the reciprocal bonds of fealty,’[4] he breaches baronial liberties legislated by the Magna Carta. In seizing Bolingbroke’s inheritance, Richard’s absolutist actions hollow out the socially-grounded ceremonial power of blood altogether. Once Bolingbroke acknowledges this figurative emptiness through asking ‘Wherefore was I born?’ (Richard, II.iii.121), society can equally deprive Richard. He must acknowledge ‘[o]ur lands, our lives, and all are Bolingbroke’s’ (Richard: III.ii.147), as Parliament attempts to reclaim symbolism and social equilibrium – that is, ‘[c]orporate sovereignty, the supreme authority of rex in parliament.’[5] This socially-defined significance of blood dominates Harry’s claim to France; where French society stipulates ‘‘[n]o woman shall succeed in Salic land,’’[6] the English reinstate the legitimacy of Harry’s great-great-grandmother’s bloodline for their benefit. Thus Essex maintains that Charles, the “legitimate” French ruler, merely usurps ‘borrowed glories’ from Harry, ‘the native and true challenger’ (Henry, II.iv.79/95). But to realise the unified identity indicated by the phrase, ‘[n]o king of England, if not king of France’ (Henry, II.ii.189), Harry must assuage ceremony in favour of action. To “win” his French subjects, he must enact the Machiavellian politics of being ‘feared rather than loved and [using] cruelty when necessary,’[7] and “Anglicise” their opinions through bloodshed. Essex states ‘if you hide the crown/ Even in your hearts, there he will rake for it’ (Henry, II.iv.97-8). Social demand for symbolic appeasement through ceremony still remains imperative, as Harry’s strengthening of his biological connection to France through marriage becomes ‘our capital demand’ (Henry, V.ii.96). Thus whilst inheritance provides materially, blood is vested with greater psychological ramifications, where the ‘symbolic order’ of entitlement ‘cannot be destroyed by an act of individual will, not even the sovereign’s.’[8]

Royal inheritance also encompasses the legacy of one’s forefathers. Accordingly, Richard biologically musters his “conquering blood” from Edward III and the Black Prince, despite the ‘heavy responsibilities of emulation’[9] this generates from his subjects. For his “bleeding” of England through taxation leads York to juxtapose Richard’s failures with his ‘triumphant father’s hand’ (Richard, II.i.182), and how his father ‘frowned […] against the French,/ And not against his friends,’ (Richard, II.i.179-80). This ‘overbearing authority of the patriarchal past,’ therefore governs the present, although Richard ‘simply rejects history altogether,’[10] by negating primogeniture, leading Gaunt to state that Edward would have ‘Depos[ed] thee before thou wert possessed’ (Richard, II.i.107). Gaunt thus condones Richard’s usurpation in order to maintain the sanctity of the royal legacy. Indeed, by denying the aristocracy their inheritance, then Richard’s own must surely be ‘morally annulled.’[11] Harry too must ‘renew [the] feats’ of the ‘former lions of [his] blood’ (Henry, I.ii.116/124), and embody the role of “conqueror-expansionist” to avoid Richard’s fate as warden to a cannibalising state. By devastating French social order, Harry generates comparisons from Charles about being ‘bred out of that bloody strain/ That haunted us in our familiar paths’ (Henry: II.iv.51-2), and thus becomes this ‘genuine resurrection of an ancient kingly spirit.’[12] For a contemporary audience, Edward’s rule is effectively ‘a powerful Elizabethan fantasy simply because it represented a single source of power in the state,’[13] and his bloodline demands that Richard and Harry (and eventually Elizabeth) unleash their hereditary potential for tyranny upon anyone who crosses them – excluding their own subjects.

Shakespeare emphatically maintains this monarchical “otherness.” With his ‘sacred blood’ (Richard, I.i.119), and Parliament cheering him as ‘Judas did to Christ’ (Richard, IV.i.161), Richard inherits not only the status of King, but also of the Redeemer. The Sacrament becomes synonymous with him: Mowbray takes it in repentance for plotting regicide, whilst the rebels administer it before ‘set[ting] down their hands’ (Richard, V.ii.98) in revenge against Bolingbroke. It effectively foreshadows Richard’s “crucifixion” by his own people. According to contemporary opinion on ineffective rulers, ‘GOD will either displace him, or of an euill Prince make him a good Prince,’[14] and therefore, Richard’s prophecy against his enemies that God ‘shall strike/ Your children yet unborn and unbegot’ (Richard, III.iii.86-7) underlines Tudor propaganda that his deposition was an ‘historical fait accompli which was sinful and which ultimately resulted in the […] Wars of the Roses.’[15] Harry is anachronistically aware of this myth, and his quest for God to ‘pardon blood’ (Henry, IV.i.282), (namely the paternally-inherited sin of Richard’s murder) makes Richard a ‘sacrificial victim whose power is paradoxically established through the subjugation of martyrdom.’[16] But ironically, Harry generates the image of godliness through his own means, when he ‘recognises and is in control of his own human infallibility.’[17] Where Richard differentiates his bloodline from commoners, Harry makes biological connections with this ‘band of brothers’ (Henry, IV.iii.60) at Agincourt to assert himself as “warrior of the people.” Whilst the portrayal of his body as a ‘frail and worthless trunk’ (Henry, III. vi.140), may be a dramatically ironic allusion to his true illegitimate status, Harry may actually be conjuring the public relations ‘‘fantasy’ of brotherhood which sealed the aspirations of […] state alignment.’[18] Where his populist persona addresses the issue of general consanguinity, with his nobility or in disguise he stresses the necessity of royal distinction, saying his death will generate ‘oppression and contempt,’ and lead ‘his whole kingdom into desolation’ (Henry, II.ii.168-9). Again, Harry cannot escape the biological trappings of titles, as his Anglo-French child is seen to allay conflict between the nations and ‘[c]ombine [his] realms in one’ (Henry, V.ii.332). His heir’s physical body unites with the “body politic,” ‘a mystical, everlasting embodiment of the state,’[19] whereby his territorial corpus not only exceeds Richard’s, but also gives Harry hope for his own redemption, in that social unity can once again distract from debates over monarchical legitimacy.

Erasmus states the monarch must be ‘physician to the state,’[20] which Richard initially seems to embody. His desire to see justice prevail ‘without letting blood’ (Richard, I.i.153) suggests the healer, rather than the source of violence and civil conflict. But by relying on ‘[o]ur doctors [to] say this is no time to bleed’ (Richard, I.i.157), Richard confuses the extent of his prescribed duties as King. In denying the duel for the sake of civil unity, he prevents ‘referral of the cause back to the authority of divine justice,’[21] and consequently further condemns society. He later retorts that God will ‘in heavenly pay/ A glorious angel’ for every English traitor (Richard, III.ii.56-7), only to be dismayed that ‘the blood of twenty thousand [Welsh]men’ is lost to him’ (Richard, III.ii.72). Thus blood becomes the unit through which mortal power is gauged and signifies Richard’s futile realisation that as God’s deputy and the personification of God’s divine will, it is he who should have led the corporeal into victory – and he who has lost this opportunity. Bolingbroke threatens ‘bleeding war’ (Richard, III.iii.93) without fear of retribution because Richard’s poor governing has yielded ‘a contagion, producing an epidemic of surfeit and corruption.’[22] Thus becoming fallible to his own laws, Richard is merely a self-inflicted, gangrenous wound, whose final act of murder becomes just as puny in terms of resistance as his death. However, Harry’s status increasingly elevates as he subjects to legality. He doesn’t murder political threats like Richard, but ‘deliver[s]’ them ‘to her laws’ (Henry, II.ii.172-3), realising that that ‘[k]ings are only the location of authority, not its origin.’[23] For Elizabethan audiences, that origin remained with God, and Harry readily acknowledges the victory at Agincourt ‘is none but thine,’ (Henry, IV.viii.106). Despite such piety, he still willingly sheds ‘guiltless drops’ of blood (Henry, I.ii.25) based on legal justification. Harry’s multi-national army ‘[o]f heady murder, spoil, and villainy,’ (Henry, III.iii.109), becomes a judicial vehicle of ‘the divine with the necessity of military might.’[24] Under him, the four British nations’ collaboration of ‘foreign conquest [becomes] the most effective way of uniting an internally divided state,’[25] under the banner of one collective nation. For domestic stability, Richard defers violence where Harry embraces it – but despite the latter’s superiorities, his premature death seems an inevitable consequence befitting his inherited status of usurper.

Perhaps then, unity is the greatest illusion offered by blood. Society benefits under a strong, legitimate king who fosters mutual respect with his subjects as part of their divinely-prescribed duty. Yet Richard’s weak kingship breeds fear of civil conflict, and any who challenge him in the name of ‘our lives, our children, and our heirs’ (Richard, II.i.246), frustratingly risks the same consequences. Every current royal action becomes intensively linked to ancestry and God – both of which must remain superior. In the political vacuum of illegitimate kings that follow the demise of Richard’s feudalistic world, the plebeian government gains absolute authority over biologically-bound titles. Harry both unites and distracts them from the inherent, non-divinity of his own blood by becoming the model king Richard could not; “piously” adhering to the legal system and offering the fantasy of military bloodshed. In a world where anyone can now claim the ‘[t]he farcèd title’ of King, (Henry: IV.i.245) Harry must become the ‘sly Machiavellian prince […] pretending to be a Christian hero-king fighting a just war-all in order to establish a patriotic basis for his illegitimate rule.’[26] For society always remains ‘the Grand Mechanism, which transforms the executioner into a victim, and the victim into an executioner,’[27] and Richard realises (as the supreme mortal incarnation of social order) that ‘Death’ is ultimately trapped ‘within the hollow crown/ That rounds [his] mortal temples,’ (Richard, III.ii.156-8). Regardless of whether the king or the assassin acts first, the blood sacrifice must always be made in order to maintain society’s collective need for symbolic purpose.


[1] Catherine Belsey, ‘Making Histories’, in Shakespeare’s History Plays: Richard II to Henry V, ed. Graham Holderness, (Basingstoke: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1992), 103-120 (p. 109).
[2] William Shakespeare, Richard II, II.iii.112, in The Norton Shakespeare: Based the Oxford Edition, ed. Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008). All further references are to this edition and are given parenthetically in body of the essay.
[3] Paul Hammond, The Strangeness of Tragedy, (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press Inc., 2009), p. 31.
[4] Shakespeare: Icon Critical Guides: Richard II, ed. Martin Coyle (Cambridge: Icon Books Ltd. 1998), p. 155.
[5] Andrew Gurr, ‘Coriolanus and the Body Politic,’ in Shakespeare Survey, ed. Kenneth Muir (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), 63-70 (p. 63).
[6] William Shakespeare, Henry V, I.ii.39, in The Norton Shakespeare: Based the Oxford Edition, ed. Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008). All further references are to this edition and are given parenthetically in body of the essay.
[7] Roger Boesche, Theories of Tyranny: From Plato to Arendt, (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996), p. 160.
[8] Belsey, ‘Making Histories’, p. 109.
[9] Graham Holderness, Shakespeare: The Histories, (Basingstoke: Macmillian Press Ltd., 2000) p. 142.
[10] Holderness, Shakespeare: The Histories, p. 188.
[11] Holderness, Shakespeare: The Histories, p. 188.
[12] Clayton G. Mackenzie, Emblems of Mortality: Iconographic Experiments in Shakespeare’s Theatre, (Lanham: University Press of America, 2000), p. 33.
[13] Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, ‘History and Ideology: Henry V’, in Shakespeare’s History Plays: Richard II to Henry V, ed. Graham Holderness, (Basingstoke: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1992), 182-199 (p. 191).
[14] John Jewel, ‘AN HOMILIE AGAINST disobedience and wilfull rebellion’, Anglican Library, 1:1 (1999). Available at [accessed 22 December 2011].
[15] Irving Ribner, The English History Play in the Age of Shakespeare, (Abingdon: Routledge, 2005), p. 156.
[16] Holderness, Shakespeare: The Histories, p. 203-4.
[17] Margaret Healey, William Shakespeare: Richard II, (Plymouth: Northcote House Publishers Ltd., 1998), p. 8.
[18] Ian Ward, Shakespeare and the Legal Imagination, (London and Edinburgh: Butterworths, 1999), p. 64.
[19] Richard II, ed. Anthony B. Dawson and Paul Yachnin, (New York: Oxford University Press Inc., 2011), p. 17.
[20] The Erasmus Reader, ed. Erika Rummel, (Toronto and London: University of Toronto Press, 2003), p. 271.
[21] Holderness, Shakespeare: The Histories, p. 182.
[22] Healey, William Shakespeare: Richard II, p. 7.
[23] Belsey, ‘Making Histories’, p. 110.
[24] Danielle Marler, ‘Kingship in Shakespeare’s Second Tetralogy: The Amalgamation of Divine Right and Might’, Lake Forest College, (no date) . Available at [accessed 3 January 2012].
[25] Graham Holderness, ‘Introduction’, in Shakespeare’s History Plays: Richard II to Henry V, ed. Graham Holderness, (Basingstoke: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1992), 1-34 (p. 29).
[26] Tim Spiekerman, Shakespeare’s Political Realism: The English History Plays, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001), p. 125.
[27] Jan Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary, (Warsaw: Polish Scientific Publishers, 1964), p. 39.

Image: The Hollow Crown: Richard II, BBC, 2012