Drama & Demigods: Kingship and Charisma in Shakespeare’s England


Shakespearean charisma, with its medieval roots in both religion and politics, served as a precursor to Max Weber’s later understanding of the term. The on-stage portrayal of charismatic kingship in the twilight of the Tudor dynasty was not coincidental; facing the imminent death of a queen, the English nation was concerned about the future of the monarchy. Through the depiction of the production and deterioration of royal charisma, Shakespeare presents the anxiety of a population aware of the latent dangers of charismatic authority; while Elizabeth managed to perpetuate an unprecedented degree of long-term charismatic rule, there could be no certainty that her successor would be similarly capable. Shakespeare’s second tetralogy — known as the Henriad — examines this royal charisma as it appears both under crisis and in the process of what Weber would later characterize as routinization. While Henry IV (Bolingbroke) originally makes use of charisma to ensure his succession to Richard II’s throne, he loses his charismatic authority in the process. Henry V, by contrast, makes use of deliberate crisis — his claim to the French crown — in order to restore royal charisma. Henry V’s success, however, cannot last, and his son’s reign is a disastrous reminder that charisma is, as Weber will later argue, inherently unstable.

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© 2011 by the authors; licensee MDPI, Basel, Switzerland. This article is an open access article distributed under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/).