Shakespeare’s Plays of Deranged Authority: The King’s Three Bodies

Daniel Krier


Shakespeare’s plays are situated upon the threshold of two worlds: a declining traditional order torn apart by political rivalry and ascendant early-modern capitalism. The history plays dramatize infighting among warring factions of privileged aristocrats as well as revolutionary forces propelled by the rising commons and the politics of commodity. Legitimate authority is rarely secure among the kings perched upon Shakespearean thrones. In Shakespeare’s Henriad and King John, crowns are contested from the moment they are placed upon royal heads, inspiring Kantorwicz’s political theology: the corporeal body of short-lived kings is distinct from the sovereign’s sublime body that reigns without cease. “The King is dead, long live the King!”  A re-reading of Shakespeare’s plays of deranged authority reveals, as Lacan would predict, that his kings possess three bodies: corpo-“real,” imaginary, and symbolic. When fractured and animated by different characters, the king’s three bodies map onto Weber’s three modes of legitimate domination. In King John, the “imaginary” body of the king – the character most capable of acting with noble warrior honor expected of Kings – is the charismatic “Bastard” who can never ascend to symbolic legitimacy. The article ends with an analysis of the three bodies of sovereignty in the contemporary moment of deranged authority: Trumpism.


Critical Theory; Sociology; Shakespeare; Henriad; Political TheoryKing John; Trump

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ISSN: 1930-014X