The English Shakespeare Captures the American Attitude Toward Rank in One Quote

“I think the king is but a man, as I am: the violet smells to him as it doth to me: the element shows to him as it doth to me; all his senses have but human conditions: his ceremonies laid by, in his nakedness he appears but a man.” —Henry V, Act IV, Scene 1

Throughout the history of the world, there has scarcely been a more persistent error than the belief in rank; that is, in the belief that certain people are automatically entitled and superior because of their birth and title, and other people are automatically inferior for the same reasons. Even after the advent of Christianity, which declared, “There is neither Jew nor Greek: there is neither bond [slave] nor free: there is neither male nor female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:28),” this error continued.

In Christianity, most particularly in Catholicism, every man and woman may (and must) be a saint, and the wholly uneducated Catherine of Siena or the deformed shepherdess Germaine or the former slave Pope Callixtus are as great and honored and admired saints as the Emperor Henry II and the nobly-born Clare of Assisi. Jesus was born to a poor woman and chose his apostles almost entirely from the “lower” levels of society. St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Robert Bellarmine championed popular sovereignty hundreds of years before the Declaration of Independence. Tocqueville credited Catholicism with beginning the movement of freedom and equality; and yet, Catholicism is often inseparable in people’s minds from a form of monarchy or aristocracy, and I know some Catholics even today who believe one has to be monarchist to be Catholic (as if Jesus’s Gospel were tied to a certain political system!).

Non-Catholic Christians have also been loyal to numerous tyrannical or monarchist systems which would seem to be precluded by their religion; Oliver Cromwell, for instance, was undoubtedly an absolute monarch and tyrant, and yet he ruled in the name of Christianity.

Yet how can anyone truly believe in the justice of this system? Even if one is not Christian, natural reason seems to me to disprove it. Aristocracy and monarchy are based on several principles. Firstly, they teach that a man is important because of who his parents were. This is nonsense. When I die, people will talk about what I said and did—it is that which makes people love or hate or be indifferent to me. Alexander the Great and Caesar Augustus and Vergil and Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo and Shakespeare and George Washington are not remembered and called great because of their parents. In fact, scarcely anyone knows the names of the parents of most of these people. We remember them because of what they themselves accomplished in their lives. And (being a Christian) when I stand before the Judgment Seat of Christ, it will not matter a whit who my ancestors were. It will only matter what I did and said.

Secondly, the aristocratic/monarchist system teaches that your title demands certain levels of respect. Now, I am a linguist, so I am the last person to deny that words have inherent meanings. But in this case—what does “king” mean? Or “duke” or “earl” or “count?” In most cases throughout history, the men who bore these titles displayed no superiority of virtue, taste, talent, mind, or achievement. In fact, very often they displayed an excess of vice, indolence, arrogance, and stupidity. What are these titles, then, but mere words or “handles” attached to the front of one’s name, which imply nothing special about one as an individual? I honor Alfred the Great and Louis IX and Vladimir and Victoria not because they were kings or queens, but because they did great deeds. And the greatest (and most virtuous) man of all history’s rulers, I believe, was George Washington—and he refused a crown.

Thirdly, aristocracy and monarchy imply that a man is qualified to rule or govern based on birth. A brief observation of history and human nature should show how preposterous this is. Charles Martel was capable, and the Frankish king he served was not, but Charles Martel never wore the crown, because he was not born a prince.

And now, to bring this article back to the Shakespeare quote. “I think the king is but a man, as I am. . .” This passage does have a certain irony, and a double meaning, because we know that the character speaking is in fact a king, King Henry V. Yet we must consider the context of this quote. Shakespeare is thought of as being extremely “high-class” now, but, though to a certain extent he wrote his plays for the rich (after all, he needed money and he also wanted to avoid execution), his primary target audience seems, just from the plays themselves, as well as history, to be the common man.

Partly this is probably because, unlike most other famous writers at his time, William Shakespeare was himself an ordinary man. Instead of going to university, he travelled the countryside with a group of actors and learned through observing people and their lives. Shakespeare was no noble or gentleman. He was an ordinary, working-class man; in fact, since acting was one of the more despised professions, he was probably considered by the nobles and gentry as pretty far down in the social scale. Yet he is the greatest writer of the English language.

This quote of his from Henry V would not have pleased the nobles or royals of the time. Arrogant and vicious Queen Elizabeth and her court would hardly have been pleased to think themselves no better than the servants who cleaned their chamber pots. This passage, then, must have been written for ordinary audience members.

The American philosophy teaches that it is what a man does which makes him worthy of praise and honor and power, not who his parents were or whether he has a gilded coat of arms. It bases this belief on the Judeo-Christian teaching that God creates every man equal in respect of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Every man has an immortal soul created by God. Every person in history is completely unique and unrepeatable. In practice, this belief is the American ethos infused with Judeo-Christian religion.

Every man—and woman—should be humble enough to know his faults and failings, and proud enough to know his inherent dignity. God has given us everything, but we still have a choice as to what we do with His gifts. The king or president will be measured by God with the same standard as every other man, and Shakespeare knew this. I wish clergymen and rich people and politicians and others nowadays knew it as well.

When we shall be stripped bare or “naked” before the Judgment Seat of God—when people will examine our lives after we are gone—we will only have our words and deeds to stand for us. “I think the king is but a man, as I am: the violet smells to him as it doth to me: the element shows to him as it doth to me; all his senses have but human conditions: his ceremonies laid by, in his nakedness he appears but a man.”