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Shakespeare’s history plays tend to focus on the drama of the rise and fall of kings, as we see in both Richard II and Henry IV Part 1. While the outcome of these stories was known to the theatergoers of his time, Shakespeare retold these stories not only to dramatize the historic events, but to draw and present themes that emerge from them as well. Throughout these plays, Shakespeare use the image of the sun to represent the glory of kingship, and moreover, to represent the frequent pattern of rise and fall that is inevitable in the lives of each king—Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V. Just as the sun rises in the east every morning and sets in the west every evening, we can see that the rise and fall of these kings is unavoidable. Comparing the kingship to the sun is significant in that it emphasizes how quickly and suddenly one’s luck can change, a theme that is evident in many Shakespeare plays including Richard II and 1 Henry IV, and which is examined in this string of rising and falling kings.
In Richard II sun imagery is used mostly to depict King Richard’s sudden yet inevitable downfall, which the play is centered around. The play opens with King Richard’s throne seeming secure, but by Act II we as readers see that the tides have quickly turned and that his kingship is in danger, and by Act III, so does King Richard realize this. When Lord Salisbury visits Richard to give him the news that his army has left him, he says to King Richard,
One day too late, I fear me, noble lord,
Hath clouded all thy happy days on earth.
O, call back yesterday, bid time return,
And thou shalt have twelve thousand fighting men!
To-day, to-day, unhappy day, too late,
Overthrows thy joys, friends, fortune and thy state… (III. ii. 67-72).
Lord Salisbury tells Richard here that just the day before, his army of twelve thousand men fled and now it is too late because Bollingbrook has gained the support of the people. The imagery that Lord Salisbury uses is interesting when he says that just the one day “hath clouded all thy happy days on earth,” those happy days being those of his reign, of course (III. ii. 68). This unhappy day on which Richard’s men abandoned him is described as the cloud, then, because it holds him back from shining like the sun as king. Lord Salisbury realizes the magnitude of this all when he says that this day “overthrows thy joys, friends, family, and state” which exemplifies the theme of how quickly life can change—as quickly as the sun rises and falls (III. ii. 72). This is a crucial turning point both in Richard II’s life and in the play, as it marks the beginning of his deposition (or the rise of the house of Lancaster) and Richard’s transformation from a vain king to a mournful poet. The sun imagery subtly used in these lines highlights the theme of sudden transformation: in this one pivotal day, Richard’s luck has turned around as Bollingbrook nears the kingship and the sun is beginning to set on Richard II’s reign.
Richard II reminds us that just as soon as one king falls, another rises.
In their first meeting since Bollingbrook’s return, Bollingbrook uses the sun metaphor to describe Richard in a new light: “See, see, King Richard doth himself appear, / As doth the blushing discontented sun / From out the fiery portal of the East, / When he perceives the envious clouds are bent / To dim his glory…” (III. iii. 62-66). Unlike Richard’s earlier prediction in Act III scene ii, in which Bollingbrook would be the one blushing when his “sun” rose due to his treasonous acts, Bollingbrook is defiant and challenging toward Richard, expecting to usurp the throne and “dim” Richard’s glory. Shortly thereafter, during their encounter, Richard realizes that it is too late and his cousin will soon seize the throne, and says to an inattentive Bollingbroke, “Down, down I come, like glist’ring Phaeton” (III. iii. 178). In this single line, Richard captures the metaphor of the sun as ever rising and falling like kings, and simultaneously accepts responsibility for his downfall by alluding to Phaeton, the sun-god, who brought about his own death. Quickly this glistening sun image is transferred, along with the glory of kingship, to Henry. We first see the sun language refer to Henry IV in Act IV, scene i, when Richard bitterly laments to Henry during the deposition, accordingly: “God save King Henry, unking’d Richard says,/ And send him many years of sunshine days!” (IV. i. 220-221). Richard II wishes King Henry a long and glorious reign when he sends “many years of sunshine days.” No longer is Bollingbrook depicted as a “cloud,” but as he now essentially possesses the throne, he is compared to the sun.
From the beginning of Henry IV, the sun metaphor is quite apparently used to describe Prince Harry in his transformation and rise to being heir to the throne. In Henry IV, both Harry and King Henry use the ubiquitous image of the sun being blocked by clouds to describe themselves. Harry uses the sun metaphor quite explicitly in his first soliloquy to indicate his intended rise to power and glorious, dramatic transformation that he sets up for himself by hanging around in the taverns with a group of lowly thieves:
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wondered at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapours that did seem to strangle him (I.ii.173–)
In this monologue Hal reveals only to the audience that he is using these lower-class people and deceiving them for his own benefit, creating great dramatic irony and anticipation. Harry compares himself to the sun being blocked by the clouds (these tavern-going men) but nonetheless can “break through” these lower-class “friends” of his and rise to power when need be. It is interesting to note the difference in Harry’s use of the sun metaphor—Harry, unlike Richard II, believes that as the metaphorical sun, he has control over the actions of the sun and clouds. Rather than the clouds undesirably blocking his light, Harry says that he purposefully lets those clouds do so when he says that he “doth permit the base contagious clouds/ To smother up his beauty from the world” (Act I. ii. 75). Just as the sun allows itself to be covered by clouds so that the people who miss its light will be all the happier when it reappears, Harry too plans to eventually emerge from the clouds of his lower-class friends. Although King Henry believes that he is an immature party-boy, wasting his time in the taverns, Harry sees a great opportunity in spending his time with the lower-class people. Henry is simply waiting for his moment to right all the wrongs of his father’s reign with a perfectly timed return to glory, which occurs as planned when he defeats Hotspur in battle. The usurpation of the throne from Richard II did not leave much room for his father’s success, therefore Hal realizes he must create a way to win over the hearts and minds of the English people and create peace under one ruler. Having proven that he accepts his royal duties during the course of this battle in which he defends his father, Harry can shine through these clouds and radiate his full regal glory by the end of the play.
Prince Harry is not the only character with “clouds” in Henry IV; for King Henry, the clouds that loom over his kingship are a result of doubts regarding the legitimacy of his reign. To King Henry, Harry’s succession to the throne will banish these doubts of legitimacy, so the clouds clear and give way to their sunlight by the end of the play. Harry’s win in battle therefore clears the sky of not just Harry’s clouds, but also those of King Henry, and is monumental in legitimizing their hold upon the throne. King Henry conveys this to Harry in their first meeting during Act III, scene ii, when he tells Harry that he has been
seen, but with such eyes
As, sick and blunted with community,
Afford no extraordinary gaze
Such as is bent on sunlike majesty
When it shines seldom in admiring eyes…
For thou has lost thy princely privilege
With vile participation. Not an eye
But is aweary of thy common sight,
Save mine, which hath desired to see thee more (III.ii.77-87).
These lines echo those of Harrry in Act I, and remind the audience of Harry’s aspiration to soon shine as king. The audience knows that Harry purposefully as not been “sunlike” in order to further heighten his glorification when he does clear his clouds of “vile participation” (III. ii. 85). As anticipated throughout the play, Harry does live up to his soliloquy in Act I, and in defeating Hotspur, clears his clouds and supposedly his father’s as well. King Henry believes that through Harry’s eventual succession the clouds of illegitimacy will clear, but it is not necessarily true that this is the case. Regardless, Henry IV primarily focuses on the sudden “transformation” of Harry, which is complete by Act V, in which he defeats Hotspur. Now Harry can shine in “sunlike majesty” like his father does with the glory of kingship.
In both Richard II and Henry IV the metaphor of the sun is frequently used to denote the glory and height of the kingship itself. More importantly, though, the stories of Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V show that the nature of the kingship and the sunny days that go along with it is fleeting. Shakespeare’s use of the sun imagery in this way makes these themes of changing fortunes and overthrown kings even more poignant and evident to the audience, as surely everyone understands the nature of the sun. Kings rise and fall as quickly as does the sun, and each king’s eventual fall is as inevitable as nightfall.
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