One of the fundamental cultural beliefs of Shakespeare’s time was the medieval conviction that a king’s position on the throne was divinely sanctioned. As such, the monarch was the linchpin between the microcosm (our daily existence) and the macrocosm (the surrounding universe). Moreover, the strength and stability of the kingship was reflected on those two planes. A strong royal presence manifested itself in a stable world, while a throne in chaos was mirrored by a kingdom equally in disorder.
Throughout Shakespeare’s plays, however, especially the two series of four plays that dramatize English history from 1399 to 1485, we see the growing politicization of this sacred position. Leading figures of the Renaissance, such as the political theorist Machiavelli, contributed to an environment in which the unquestioned authority of divine right was increasingly vulnerable to the force of popular approval, as well as to the machinations of political contention. Thus although the principle of “divine right” still held sway over Shakespeare’s time and thought, the nature of the office became complicated by individual struggles for authority.
This conflict dominated Shakespeare’s era; nonetheless, the playwright dramatized aspects of the issue against a variety of historical settings. For instance, in the first scene of King Lear, which takes place during the timeless generations of ancient England, Lear responds to his daughter Cordelia’s refusal to flatter him by reminding her and all listeners of the source of his royal stature:
The [mysteries] of Hecat and the night;
By all the operation of the orbs,
From whom we do exist and cease to be…
(I, i, 109–112)