Shakespeare’s Hollow Crown: The Burdens of Kingship for Plantagenet Kings


Having just written two blogs on Henry Vth and touched on this subject, I wanted to explore Shakespeare’s re-occurring theme of the burdens of kingship in his history plays with particular reference to Richard II and Henry IV, Parts I and II and on into Henry Vth and Richard III.

Richard II’s famous monologue sums up the perils of medieval kingship thus:

For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,

Wonderfully concise and arresting lines which powerfully express the fears which weigh on the troubled mind of that particular king but which could easily be understood and empathized with by many Shakespearean monarchs from Lear and Macbeth to the Lancastrian Henrys and his Richard III.

The symbolic image of the crown itself is a constant motif throughout Shakespeare’s history plays. It is the physical embodiment of the office of the king, the visual signifier of where power lies or should lie. It is also, rather like Tolkien’s One ring, a character in its own right. It is a burden and a curse and the harbinger of death and personal torment for the wearer even as it beguiles and eludes and tempts the people who covet it or are desperate to retain it on their heads.

Later in Richard II there is the crucial scene where Richard is forced to formally and publicly renounce his kingship and hand over the crown to Bolingbroke. Here Shakespeare writes with such mastery and understanding about the burden of wearing the crown yet the impossibility of laying it down when the time comes to let it pass to another.


Give me the crown. Here, cousin, seize the crown;
Here cousin:
On this side my hand, and on that side yours.
Now is this golden crown like a deep well
That owes two buckets, filling one another,
The emptier ever dancing in the air,
The other down, unseen and full of water:
That bucket down and full of tears am I,
Drinking my griefs, whilst you mount up on high.

The crown itself is the focus of all eyes in the scene as power and kingship are transferred from one man to another; one eager to claim it and the other most unwilling to part with it until it becomes an almost unbearable tension of opposites on either side of the hollow ‘O’. The vacant air within the circlet is like the eye of the storm, still but surrounded by a swirling tempest of emotions and ambition.

Richard conjours up the metaphor of the deep well within the centre of the crown and their two souls being suspended like buckets, one disappearing into the abyss as fortune’s wheel raises the other up. This is a clever metaphor as it alludes to several other re-occurring images in the play. Richard’s tears are mentioned on several occasions during the course of his slow descent into despair and here they are the liquid who’s weight drags him down into the dark pit. The imagery of water and cleansing is another which is noticeable in the ‘Hollow Crown’ trilogy of films. Richard was particularly fastidious, washing his hands before the scene where he banishes Mowbray and Bolingbroke for their quarrel and again wading through the surf as he returns to England after the campaign in Ireland. He talks about those courtiers who have become so many Pontius Pilates, washing their hands of their anointed king, even as they pity him.

Purification is also intrinsically linked to the rites of his coronation as well and to another famous line in the play where Richard declares that

Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm off from an anointed king;

Shakespeare stresses again and again that what makes Richard so alone in the midst of his troubles, what detaches him from reality and turns good men against him when he is arrogant and magisterial, is the divine nature of his conception of kingship. The mystical experience of being anointed has turned his mind and does something to all those kings who share that experience. They do not walk the Earth as other mortals do even though they are as subject to mortal ills as any other man. They are touched by God and that alters them for all time.


Now mark me, how I will undo myself;
I give this heavy weight from off my head
And this unwieldy sceptre from my hand,
The pride of kingly sway from out my heart;
With mine own tears I wash away my balm,
With mine own hands I give away my crown,
With mine own tongue deny my sacred state,
With mine own breath release all duty’s rites:
All pomp and majesty I do forswear;

As a viewer you feel the enormity of Richard’s pain as he says these lines because you see what it costs him to speak the words and how he literally does ‘undo’ himself. The burdens which he lays aside – the crown and sceptre – are not easily handed over because they are the outward symbols of his divine status but the other things are even harder to lay off. The balm on his anointed body, the unsaying of the sacred rites of his coronation oath leave a residue within his soul that can not be fully washed away or discarded because he has absorbed them into the very fibres of his being. He has made a pact with God and that can not be unmade whatever may happen to his temporal body.

Once he is no longer the king he is nothing. Yes, he has lost his titles and lands and estates, he has lost his retinue and household, his wife and his inheritance but more than these he has lost his identity. Even a poor beggar has a name but who is ‘Richard’ now that he has been stripped of every aspect of the elaborate construction which made him an icon to his people?

Writing for the court of ‘Gloriana’, Shakespeare knew that his audience would implicitly understand the nature of this construction of the king. The king was constantly under scrutiny from everyone from the pope, prelates of the church, his family and related nobility through every strata of his own subjects to foreign ambassadors, legates, rival monarchs abroad, the chroniclers and the commentators and philosophers. Sound kingship was judged on a variety of core qualities – courage on the field of battle, leadership both in war and in political decision making, piety and respect for the church but tempered by the ability to manage the power of the bishops and the pope, the exercise of judgement and prosecution of justice and, in England particularly, the need to carry parliament with you when making new laws or raising revenues and taxes. Beyond these practical attributes though the king must impose his divinely sanctioned will through his person. He must be still, stand tall, wear his robes of state with panache and know instinctively how to address every degree of rank and estate of man who he dealt with. He became the living embodiment of the state of his nation so that any perceived flaw in his person became a slight on his people. Ill-health, mental instability, poor physique, old age all wore down the iconography of the king and were read like an omen of doom hanging over the nation. When Henry IV is dying his son Clarence recounts portents about the death of kings seen in the landscape. We can find other links between the king and his land which I will discuss later which imply the close bond between the body of the monarch and the physical land which his rules over.


The river hath thrice flow’d, no ebb between;
And the old folk, time’s doting chronicles,
Say it did so a little time before
That our great-grandsire, Edward, sick’d and died.

We can begin to see the burdens of kingship already. In a feudal society the king must be all to his people. Henry Vth’s lines, spoken on the eve of Agincourt ring in our ears:

Upon the king! let us our lives, our souls,
Our debts, our careful wives,
Our children and our sins lay on the king!
We must bear all. O hard condition,
Twin-born with greatness, subject to the breath
Of every fool, whose sense no more can feel
But his own wringing! What infinite heart’s-ease
Must kings neglect, that private men enjoy!
And what have kings, that privates have not too,
Save ceremony, save general ceremony?

The history plays bring out the deep sense of weariness that hangs about the king. Bolingbroke barely rests the crown upon his head before he is confronted with evidence of treachery from within his own family and must decide who to punish and who to absolve. We see him realize that it was far easier to be Henry Bolingbroke, for all his troubles, than to sit in judgement like Solomon and listen as a father and mother plead for either punishment or clemency for their errant son before his throne. You feel that, for the first time, he understand what it was to be Richard II when he listened to the private enmity between two great lords and weighed up all the factors before he made the decision to exile both. Richard made an error of judgement and this lead to his being overthrown and deposed. Bolingbroke now feels the full weight of his kingship too because every decision could be the one that tips him off balance and marks the beginning of the end for him.

Another vitally important ‘character’ in these plays is England herself. Shakespeare’s works are suffused with a deep sense of love, admiration and pity for his homeland and his kings shoulder the responsibility for decisions which might make ‘poor England bleed’. Shakespeare loves every fold in the land, every barn and blade of grass that make up his England and we are to understand that good kings feel this depth of emotional attachment to their land as well. Richard II seizes up a handful of English earth and commands it to work against Bolingbroke and his rebels, to block his path with spiders and snakes in what seems like a pact between the king and the very earth of his kingdom. The king is ‘England’ and England is her king.

There are many allusions in Richard II to the coming conflict which would divide the country in bitter civil war for generations. Richard is warned by York about what he will unleash in taking Lancaster’s lands and properties when Old Gaunt dies and then Bolingbroke is also given a stark prophecy by the Bishop of Carlisle if he should usurp the throne from his cousin:


let me prophesy:
The blood of English shall manure the ground,
And future ages groan for this foul act;
Peace shall go sleep with Turks and infidels,
And in this seat of peace tumultuous wars
Shall kin with kin and kind with kind confound;
Disorder, horror, fear and mutiny
Shall here inhabit, and this land be call’d
The field of Golgotha and dead men’s skulls.
O, if you raise this house against this house,
It will the woefullest division prove
That ever fell upon this cursed earth.
Prevent it, resist it, let it not be so,
Lest child, child’s children, cry against you woe!

The king must protect ‘the common weal’, he must be a father to his people and choose the true course for the nation to follow. It is his responsibility if his wars are unjust and his people are lead into unholy bloodshed and it is also his care and burden to see that his subjects are governed well, left to their husbandry of the land and unmolested by rival lords and their ambitions. A weak king brings woe to his people. An ambitious king who stirs up civil strife fails his people by bringing rebellion and disorder. A king who listens to flatterers and promotes favourites exposes his people to poor government and disaster. A barren king who fails to provide a clear line of succession opens the way to dynastic feuds and civil war as does a king who dies leaving a child to follow him.

In Henry IV part I and II Shakespeare explores the burdens of sons and shaping your successor whilst retaining full command and authority. Henry IV has become a distrustful and crabby old man. The constant battle against rebellions and plots has twisted his nature and his relationship with his eldest son and heir has deteriorated into rage and despair and outright defiance on the part of Prince Hal. Where a king should form his son in his own image but never allow him to become presumptuous, Henry IV’s desire to control all aspects of his regime has driven Hal away to the taverns and into the arms of an alternative father figure who is the antithesis of every qood quality that a king should possess. You sense that Henry IV knows all this in his heart but can not help but repeat the same mistakes at every encounter with his son. Exasperation and slipping authority combined with illness and exhaustion are the means by which he loses his grip on his son and ultimately his life too. Henry IV like Richard III suffers from insomnia due to his particular fears. Like Henry Vth during the long watches of the night, both these kings are troubled by their fears. Shakespeare compares their wakefulness to the lowly wretches who can sleep soundly on their pallets because their consciences are clear and unburdened by great responsibilities.


O partial sleep, give thy repose
To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude,
And in the calmest and most stillest night,
With all appliances and means to boot,
Deny it to a king? Then happy low, lie down!
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.

Shakespeare links emotional turmoil with the death of old men in these plays . Old Gaunt dies a broken man due to his son’s harsh treatment and exile. Falstaff turns his face to the wall when his Hal repudiates him publically. Henry IV dies due to his disappointment and despair over his son’s behaviour.

HENRY IV on Hal’s debauchery:

Most subject is the fattest soil to weeds;
And he, the noble image of my youth,
Is overspread with them: therefore my grief
Stretches itself beyond the hour of death:
The blood weeps from my heart when I do shape
In forms imaginary the unguided days
And rotten times that you shall look upon
When I am sleeping with my ancestors.

In another scene about the transition of power from one king to another Shakepeare uses the symbol of the crown itself again. Prince Hal believes his father to have passed away and so takes the crown and places it upon his own head, only to have his father stir and wake again.


Thy wish was father, Harry, to that thought:
I stay too long by thee, I weary thee.
Dost thou so hunger for mine empty chair
That thou wilt needs invest thee with my honours
Before thy hour be ripe? O foolish youth!
Thou seek’st the greatness that will o’erwhelm thee.
Stay but a little; for my cloud of dignity
Is held from falling with so weak a wind
That it will quickly drop: my day is dim.
Thou hast stolen that which after some few hours
Were thine without offence; and at my death
Thou hast seal’d up my expectation:

The words that Henry IV speaks are a mirror to those spoken by his deposed cousin, Richard II. It is so bitter a thing to relinquish the crown, even to his own son, that it feels to him like a deposition. Hal will overturn his statutes and usurp his throne and bring all to ruin. Yet as soon as Hal assumes the sacred office of king his personality is altered. His relationship with his brothers changes in an instant.


This new and gorgeous garment, majesty,
Sits not so easy on me as you think.

Henry is changed and out go Falstaff and his companions at the ale house. He knew the burdens that awaited him on his father’s death and we are a witness to this in the scene where he looks at the crown beside his father’s head on the pillow and states that it has robbed him of many hours of rest. Hal has been living like there is no tomorrow because he knew that all his former life would come to a sudden end once he assumed the role of king. Not such a fool as his father had thought all those years, he is actually was astute and immediately shoulders his new responsibilities and rises to the challenges of his office. History would see him eclipse his father and become an iconic symbol of kingship for generations to come.

In the last of his Plantagenet kings, Shakespeare explores the dark side of ambition. His Richard III seizes the throne without any justification, motivated by evil desires and twisted ambition to outshine his golden brother and remove his sons. Seen in the context of the other plays it would seem that Shakespeare needed to create an unjust, power hungry king to balance out the weakness and vacillation of Richard II, the weary pessimism of Henry IV and the brilliant glory of Henry Vth. Shakespeare distorts Richard’s limbs as a visual and literary device to prove his evil nature and lack of worth. Kings are tall and fair and well-made, they do not limp their way to their thrones over the bodies of those they slew to get there.

ANNE on the dead Lancastrian King Henry VI:

Poor key-cold figure of a holy king!
Pale ashes of the house of Lancaster!
Thou bloodless remnant of that royal blood!
Be it lawful that I invocate thy ghost,
To hear the lamentations of Poor Anne,
Wife to thy Edward, to thy slaughter’d son,
Stabb’d by the selfsame hand that made these wounds!

So much for Henry VI, consigned to his grave as a transparent ghost of a king, the pale ashes of his ancestors who displayed none of the attributes required to survive the rigors of kingship.

King Richard is haunted by the ghosts of those he has murdered on the eve of Bosworth and wakes from his nightmares in a sweat.


By the apostle Paul, shadows to-night
Have struck more terror to the soul of Richard
Than can the substance of ten thousand soldiers
Armed in proof, and led by shallow Richmond.
It is not yet near day.

There is no great speech though about the burdens which fret the king’s repose. Shakespeare doesn’t want the viewer to feel any sympathy for Richard’s wakeful night though he is an anointed king too yet we see no coronation and no reference to his anointed state because his must be a usurper through and through. Shakespeare transfers his empathy to Richmond. An unworthy king has no right to pine over the burdens which he must bear even if he will go out and fight on the field of battle to protect his crown the next day. Richmond gets the rousing speech to the troops, not Richard, and once more the symbolic image of the royal crown is transferred from Richard’s dead head to Richmond’s. Derby avoids any comparison with ladders or kingmakers in this play unlike Northumberland or Buckingham in Richard II or Richard III.


Courageous Richmond, well hast thou acquit thee.
Lo, here, this long-usurped royalty
From the dead temples of this bloody wretch
Have I pluck’d off, to grace thy brows withal:
Wear it, enjoy it, and make much of it.

So in this cycle of history plays we see how Shakespeare rolls the notion of kingship around his mind and draws out various strands to focus on.  Kings are set apart from all other men, even their own families. They are symbolic, iconic, sacredly ordained to rule their subjects by God’s will yet also cursed with the burdens and responsibilities of their royal state. They are rather to be pitied than envied and as Richard II says all murdered by one means or another due to the office they hold. Power makes a poor partner in life. For all their pomp and ceremony, all their wealth and status, these kings are poor wretches and it is hard not to agree with this assessment. How much happier their lives would have been away from the corruptions and intrigues of court. Would any of them have not desired to take off the weight of their crowns and live a few hours as an ordinary man?

The crown is a symbol of the crushing weight of their kingship. It is like armour that they must wear in the heat of a long day which burns as it protects, it is the residence of death, the deep well full of tears and the thing which denies them ease and remains totally unconcerned with their personal survival or well-being. To wear a crown is to be set apart, marked out and exiled from ordinary life. Pomp and ceremony walk hand in hand with judgement and responsibility and all are burdens that the king must bear alone until his death releases him.


One Response to “Shakespeare’s Hollow Crown: The Burdens of Kingship for Plantagenet Kings”

  1. giaconda Says:

    Reblogged this on murreyandblue.


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