The Conscience of the King
Down to the time of Revolutions in America and in France at the end of the 18th century Kings (Queens and Consorts) enjoyed extraordinary power across and beyond Europe. Louis XIV of France famously equated himself with the state—“L’état, c’est moi”—but that was a modest claim. He was also identified with the Sun—“Le roi soleil”—and he, like the English Elizabeth of Shakespeare’s time, ruled “by the Grace of God.” No public opinion polls, no elections. Generally speaking, they reigned until they died. They were not subject to the Law; their word was Law. But they were not infallible. . . .and they certainly were not invulnerable. We will study five of the major Shakespearian plays that turn on the mystery (and the history) of kingship. Shakespeare’s fascination with monarchy may exceed that of his creature, Hamlet, who tells us that “The play’s the thing/Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.” So will we. Lecture, discussion, short essays written in and out of class.
William Shakespeare: Richard II, I Henry IV, Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear
(All Penguin/Pelican editions)