In 1598, King James VI of Scotland first published his essay on the theory of kingship: The True Lawe of Free Monarchies: or, the reciprock and mutuall dutie betwixt a free King, and his natural Subiectes. James had been King of Scotland since 1567 (aged 1), coming into his majority in 1578 and gaining full control of his government in 1583. James wrote this tract based on his experience ruling Scotland, but also with the knowledge that he was heir to the English throne and that Elizabeth was in her 60s.

In this essay, James uses metaphysical arguments based on scripture to outline the mutual duty between monarch and subjects and to justify the theory of the divine right of kings. The divine right of kings is the absolutist idea that a monarch’s authority to rule comes directly from God and that he or she is not subject to any earthly authority. This is in contrast to the idea, popular with the Scottish kirk or church and espoused by James’s childhood tutor George Buchanan, that a monarch rules in accordance with some form of social contract with their people.

The True Law was first published in Edinburgh as a small octavo pamphlet. Another octavo edition was published in London in 1603, the year James was crowned King of England. It was later included in the large and lavish folio publication of James’s Workes (1616) shown here. As with Basilikon Doron, The True Law was widely read in England by subjects interested in the ideas of their new King.

The True Law of Free Monarchies and Shakespeare: Macbeth and King Lear

Many of Shakespeare’s plays pose difficult questions about the nature and authority of kingship that sometimes echo, interact with and even challenge some of the ideas in The True Law. For example, Macbeth seems like a play that supports absolute monarchy and the divine right of kings: at the end the usurper is destroyed and Duncan’s hereditary heir, Malcolm, is installed. Furthermore the play confirms the authority (in Scotland at least) of the Stuart line in the witches’ procession of kings. However, it was only Duncan and Macbeth’s great grandfather (the two are cousins) who introduced hereditary monarchy to Scotland, violently imposing it over the existing system of tanistry (election from within an extended royal family) to ensure the rule of his son (Duncan’s predecessor). Under tanistry, Macbeth’s claim to the throne would have been legitimate. James asserts in The True Law that even a tyrannical monarch must be obeyed, provided he is legitimate. By writing a Scottish play set in the time of Duncan and Macbeth, Shakespeare creates in Macbeth a tyrant king who could be variously interpreted as usurper or a legitimate king, depending on your point of view. As such, his overthrow can be interpreted as both a restoration of and a challenge to absolute monarchy.

There are several passages of The True Law whose ideas and imagery are echoed in King Lear. On p. 195, James explores the relationship between monarch and subject with the metaphor of the king as a father to his people. He also considers the wrath and correction (seasoned with pity) he feels a father should show to children who have offended. On pp. 204–05, James develops this theme, comparing the metaphor of the father as head of the family to that of the king as the head of a body composed of his subjects. He presents both of these ideas as laws of nature. He also discusses the natural love a father feels for his children and the duty children owe their father. James describes as ‘monstrous and unnaturall’ the act of a son rising up against the father, controlling him, killing him or cutting him off. As Lear does, James also looks to the animal kingdom and finds that only the viper strikes against its parent. Lear echoes this with his description of Goneril, ‘most serpent-like’ (2.4.161), and his wish, ‘that she may feel / How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is / To have a thankless child!’ (1.4.287–89).