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An important question that preoccupies the characters in Shakespeare’s “histories” and which links these plays is whether the king of England is divinely appointed—that is, whether he is God’s “deputy anointed in his sight,” as John of Gaunt says in Richard II (I.ii.38). If such is the case, then the overthrow, deposition, or, worst of all, murder of a king is akin to blasphemy. In Shakespeare’s works, as in the classical Greek tragedies (such as Aeschylus’s Oresteia), such an act may cast a long shadow over the reign of the king who deposes or murders his predecessor, and even over his descendants.
This shadow, which manifests itself in the form of literal ghosts in plays such as Hamlet, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, and Richard III, also looms over Richard II and its sequels, Henry VI, Part 1; Henry VI, Part 2; and Henry VI, Part 3. In the play that bears his name, Richard II is haunted by a politically motivated murder—not that of an actual king but that of his uncle, Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester. After Richard II’s eventual overthrow, the new king, Henry IV, is, in turn, haunted by his own responsibility for Richard’s overthrow and eventual murder. This shadow hangs over both plays that bear Henry IV’s name. Only after Henry IV’s death does his own son, Henry V, symbolically prove himself worthy to wear the crown and rule as king of England.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Henry IV, Part 1!