Date of Award

Spring 1984

Document Type



Languages & Literature

First Advisor

Henry Burgess

Second Advisor

Rev. Robert Butko

Third Advisor

Dennis Wiedmann


Both England and the United States have maintained a rich historical tradition of placing their leaders on a pedestal. England's history maintains the "Divine Right of Kings," while the United States maintains the "Divine Right of the Presidency." Renaissance England of 1350-1600 believed in the Divine Right of Kings within the scope of the Great Chain of Being. The chain linked England and the world to heaven through a human and earthly chain from God to earth. This chain formed a hierarchy. At the top of the chain, of course, was God. Below God, in descending order, were the angels, man, the animals and plants of the earth, and the four elements of earth, air, fire, and water. During the English Renaissance this notion of the Great Chain took on a whole new meaning. It was within each section of the chain that a separate heirarchy became established. Within the human section of the chain, the king was placed at the top, while the peasants were placed at the bottom. This "natural order of things" portrayed man as ordered according to his role in society: The chain stretched from the foot of God's throne to the meanest of inanimate objects. Every speck of creation was a link in the chain, and every link except those at the two extremities was simultaneously bigger and smaller than another: there could be no gap.1 If an important link in this chain was damaged or removed, tremors of vibration and unrest would result throughout the entire chain. A disruption in the natural order of things would take place. It was partially out of this concept of the Great Chain of Being that the Divine Right of Kings became established. In 800, when Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III, a new belief was born. The principle of the divine right theory placed the king underneath God. According to this theory, the king served under God, and was responsible only to him. In Renaissance England, the divine right theory gave the king even greater importance in the natural order, the Great Chain of Being. Thus, should a king be murdered or deposed, tremendous repercussions would be sent throughout the chain, as the political order of England and the natural order of the world would be disturbed. Twentieth Century United States has created its own version of the Divine Right ofKings. That is, we have created the "Divine Right of the Presidency." Every four years, we elect or reelect a man to the office of the President of the United States who will serve as our leader and, quite likely, may help toshape a lifestyle for the nation.Yet, the president goes beyond that. The president also serves as a religious symbol for the nation. As Michael Novak states in his book, Choosing Our King: I began with two convictions: that the presidency is the nation's most central religious symbol, and that American civilization is best understood as a set of secular religious systems.3 When we elect a man to the presidency, we engage in an event akin to religious ritual. Our identity is somewhat determined by the man we appoint.4 The president serves as the prevailing figure in American politics, in whom we may or may not place our highest expectations. Anything that a president says or does may be classified as symbolic: A President's actions are always symbolic because he is not only an executive officer but a carrier of meaning. Thus, in the electronic television age of the Twentieth Century we have given royalty a new life in the presidency. When William Shakespeare wrote The Tragedy of King Richard II in 1595 for his native England, he sought to explore the implications of the fall of Richard II and how it applied to the great chain and the divine right. How did these concepts apply? The actual fall of Richard II occurred in 1399 as England experienced crisis in civil war as it moved from the Middle Ages into the Renaissance. With the aid of Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland as his main historical source, Shakespeare examines the fall of Richard II and the rise of Richard's usurper, Henry Bolingbroke, in an historically accurate drama. Shakespeare poses to his audience a question of legitimacy versus competency Should the active Bolingbroke take the crown from the legitimate Richard, despite the king's obvious incompetence? If so, how will England suffer through the disruption in the natural order of things? In the middle 1970's of Twentieth Century United States, the decline of a contemporary ruler from office took place. Richard Nixon, the thirty-seventh President of the United States resigned from his post on August 9, 1974. Faced with the possibility of impeachment, Nixon reelected only two years before by one of the largest margins in presidential election history, resigned in disgrace. Accused with crimes involving obstruction of justice, Nixon decided to vacate the White House.