“All Human Life is There”: An Introduction to The Regal Throne by Nicholas Dobson

Nicholas Dobson’s The Regal Throne — Power, Politics and Ribaldry, a guide to Shakespeare’s Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V, moves from high political intrigue to lowlife bar-room badinage; from self-indulgent regal decline to elevated and inspirational kingly valour. Dobson explains each scene of all four plays in detail with copious quotations from Shakespeare’s text throughout and substantial explanatory notes.

The former News of the World used to boast that: ‘All human life is there’. However, someone had fixed their flag there long before the deceased news beast. For Shakespeare across his plays expertly travailed every tortuous highway and byway of the human condition. You need a laugh? Shakespeare’s there for you. Wonder why power often fails to bring expected peace of mind but instead can often bring out the worst in us? Shakespeare shows. For although these dramas were written over 400 years ago, we meet the characters in them every day.

The play cycle Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 and Henry V is a case in point. For, in Richard II, we see the King paying the price for abusing his power, by losing it – along with his Crown, throne and life. As Richard ruefully remarks near the end of Act V: ‘I wasted time, and now doth time waste me’. But we see another side of power with his successor, Henry Bolingbroke. For, shrewd politician as he is, Bolingbroke storms back to England, ignoring Richard’s banishing order on him, and schmoozes his way to the top. As Richard painfully remarks, Bolingbroke courted the common people, ‘. . . did seem to dive into their hearts into their hearts/With humble and familiar courtesy’, ‘Wooing poor craftsmen with the craft of smiles’.

Nevertheless, despite achieving his coveted ‘regal throne’, power brought no ease to King Henry IV. For his reign was blighted by insurrection as he became autocratic, wielding the ‘scourge of greatness’ on those who helped him ascend the throne. So buyer’s remorse quickly became rebellion. As Henry Percy, ‘Hotspur’, urging armed resistance, tells close relatives, they put down ‘Richard, that sweet lovely rose’ and instead planted ‘this thorn, this canker, Bolingbroke’.

But whilst the insurrections ultimately failed, they didn’t allow King Henry to sleep easy. For, midst his palatial luxury, the king struggles with insomnia and wonders why if ‘many thousand of [his] poorest subjects/Are at this hour asleep’ why sleep ‘no more wilt weigh [his] eyelids down/And steep [his] senses in forgetfulness’. The king sadly concludes that whilst the low in the land can lie happy: ‘Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.’

But, giving regular relief from insurrectional turbulence and dark political games, Shakespeare introduces us to a motley crew of drunken, lecherous thieves, braggarts and ne’er-do-wells, amongst whom is the stand-out comic hero of all time, that witty master of merry misrule, Sir John Falstaff. The young Prince Henry (Hal) gives us a good picture of Falstaff early in Henry IV Part 1 where the overweight Sir John, presumably waking from a drunken sleep, asks what time it is. Prince Hal light-heartedly chides him:

‘Thou art so fat-witted, with drinking of old sack [sherry] and unbuttoning thee after supper and sleeping upon benches after noon. . . What a devil hast thou to do with the time of the day? Unless hours were cups of sack and minutes capons and clocks the tongues of bawds and dials the signs of leaping-houses [brothels] and the blessed sun himself a fair hot wench in flame-coloured taffeta. . .’.

Apart from exchanging witty banter, the low-lifes (along with the Prince) plan a spot of highway robbery that night. But although Prince Hal appears to be sharing the general good humour, he knows exactly what he is doing. For, as he makes clear at the end of the scene, whilst acting the madcap is fine for now, he will certainly reform when required. And then the contrast will have a dramatic effect. For when he throws off his ‘loose behaviour’:

‘. . . like bright metal on a sullen ground,

My reformation, glittering o’er my fault,

Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes

Than that which hath no foil to set it off.’

Prince Hal concludes by making it clear that whilst he will ‘offend, to make offence a skill’, he will redeem time ‘when men think least [he] will’. He certainly proves as good as his word. For at the end of Henry IV Part 2, as newly crowned Henry V, he ruthlessly casts off Falstaff, his former father of misrule, telling him: ‘I know thee not, old man’. The King indicates that he has now ‘turn’d away [his] former self’. As Prince Hal correctly predicted, this astounds those who had written him off. For, at the beginning of Henry V, the Archbishop of Canterbury tells us that whilst ‘The courses of his youth promised it not’, no sooner had the breath left his father’s body than the former Prince Hal’s ‘wildness, mortified in him/Seem’d to die too’. For:

‘Never was such a sudden scholar made;

Never came reformation in a flood. . .

As in this king.’

From someone whose ‘addiction was to courses vain’ Hal had in fact become a learned, wise and fully-rounded king. Nevertheless, whilst the king’s madcap phase seemed to be solely for fun, it had a serious side. For it enabled him to deal man-to-man with all types and classes of people. Indeed, per Kipling, to ‘walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch’. This was crucial in Agincourt where as ‘royal captain of this ruin’d band’ of sick, hungry and weak soldiers – his ‘band of brothers’ – he led them to victory. Even then though, he took no personal credit for this. For the victory was that of God only. So the king ordered:

‘. . .be it death proclaimed through our host

To boast of this or take the praise from God

Which is his only.’

The Regal Throne — Power, Politics and Ribaldry will take you through every scene of each of the four plays. It explains just what is going on, giving the meaning of all unfamiliar words. The book also contains extensive quotations throughout with over 3000 optional end-notes which offer further information for those that want it. I therefore hope that The Regal Throne guides you helpfully on an enjoyable voyage through these remarkable plays. For their penetrating insight also shines a bright light onto our own life and times.

Nicholas Dobson was a lawyer for thirty-five years, his first degree being English studies. Fascinated by Shakespeare’s astounding breadth and depth of insight, the richness of his language, and his uncanny knowledge and instinct about the myriad nooks and crannies of the human condition, he was prompted to write a guide to the four plays where Shakespeare’s gallery of rogues, ne’er-do-wells and heroes engage in political rivalry and dark skulduggery. 

The Regal Throne — Power, Politics and Ribaldry is available to order on our website.


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