Kingship In The Renaissance
In Shakespeare’s time kingship was a complicated concept which varied from country to country in Europe, accounting for hereditary monarchy, the divine right of kings, primogeniture and elective monarchy. Within those divisions were subdivisions of where the king’s power came from, for example, from God, from the state, or from documents which regulated and checked the king’s power such as the Magna Carta in England. Niccolo Machiavelli’s work Il Principe (The Prince) (c.1513) muddied these unclear waters even further as his concept of kingship was divorced from any moral obligations which an individual ruler felt he had to either himself or his people, and instead was located solely on how to gain and retain power, by any means necessary.
Shakespeare was certainly aware of Machiavelli’s writings on kingship.  In one of his earlier plays, Henry VI Part III, the Duke of Gloucester, soon to become one of the great Shakespearian villains, Richard III, who is plotting to secure the Crown, remarks that he will, ‘set the murderous Machiavel to school.’ (3. 2. 193). The horror of Richard is that he usurps the Crown from the hereditary line, and is even prepared to change history to bolster his position.
This situation is similar to the one facing the young Prince in Hamlet. While absent at university in Wittenburg he is ‘usurped’ by Claudius despite being the hereditary heir to the throne. To an English Renaissance audience who had become accustomed to the hereditary monarchy of the Tudors, such an action would have the ring of a Machiavellian plot. However, the Danish throne itself was not subject to the same rules of kingship as the English throne. Instead, the Danes had a form of elective monarchy; therefore under their own rules the election of Claudius to the throne would not, in itself, be illegal.
The main problem is that Claudius has killed the king in order to obtain his position. It is the gross action of regicide which is the catalyst for the cataclysmic events that will result in the destruction of the entire Danish royal family. For most of the European monarchies of the seventeenth century the divine right of kings, and the proposition, that all their powers were ordained by God was common ground across virtually the entire spectrum of political thinking in early modern Europe.  A King under the system of divine right was answerable only to God, and even if the king abused those powers, he still could not legally be removed from power because it would be the actions of mere mortals, and not the will of God himself. Thus the violent removal of old Hamlet is made worse because it is against God’s will. Indeed, James VI of Scotland who would become the next king of England went as far as to argue in his Basilikon Doron, that no king, however unruly and tyrannous, could fail to keep society in better order than it could be by his removal. For if there was no king, then nothing was unlawful to anyone. 
The phrase: The King is dead, long live the King, was a poignant declaration of the perpetual nature of kingship and was first introduced into English royal funerals with the Tudors.  This understanding of the transference of power from king to king helps to explain Hamlet’s enigmatic lines, ‘The body is with the king, but the king is not with the body. The king is a thing –.’ (4. 2. 25-6). Under the Renaissance idea of kingship the body politic was joined to the king, but the king was not joined to the body politic, but a thing apart.  This political interpretation of the two roles accounts for Hamlet’s words, but it also demonstrates awareness of the Tudor attempts to cement the hereditary line into English political consciousness.
Shakespeare’s great skill is that in Hamlet he is aware not only of English concepts of kingship, but is conscious of, and adept at including, European ideas on kingship to add levels of political theory which complicates the play even further.
1. For Machivelli’s advice to those who would use illegal means see The Prince
, Chapter VIII ‘Those who come to power by crime’. Return to text
J. H. Burns, The True Law of Kingship: Concepts of Monarchy in Early Modern Scotland
. (Oxford, 1996), p. 237 Return to text
4. Jerah Johnson, ‘The Concept of the ‘King’s Two Bodies’ in Hamlet
’, Shakespeare Quarterly Vol. 18
(1967), p. 433 Return to text