The Price of Kingship

English Renaissance historians saw Henry V (1386-1422) as the most successful of English kings.  But when William Shakespeare took Henry as the subject of three plays—parts 1 and 2 of Henry IV and Henry V—he used him to ask what successful kingship requires, and what it costs.  What happens when a prince with a shaky title to the throne needs to establish himself as an ideal ruler, and what does he sacrifice?


Bill Oram

William Allan Oram, the Helen Means Professor of English, will focus on Shakespeare’s Henry in “The Price of Kingship in Shakespeare’s Henriad,” in the 56th annual Katherine Asher Engel Lecture, on Tuesday, Feb. 11, at 5 p.m. in Seelye Hall, room 201.

“Shakespeare treats Henry, who lived almost 200 years earlier, as a Renaissance monarch, one almost obsessively concerned with how he is seen” Oram says. “The play suggests that he gives up more than he realizes in order to legitimize his rule.”

The Engel Lecture is granted annually to a Smith faculty member who has made a significant contribution to his or her field.  The lecture was established in 1958 by the National Council of Jewish women in honor of Engel, its onetime president and a 1920 Smith graduate.

Oram completed bachelors degrees in English from Yale College (1965) and Merton College, Oxford (1967), and a doctorate in English from Yale University (1973).  He has taught at Smith since 1971, and teaches courses in Renaissance literature, utopias and science fiction.  He found himself increasingly interested in Shakespeare’s Prince Hal (the future Henry V) as he taught a course with historian Howard Nenner, Roe/Straut Professor in the Humanities, on the problem of legitimacy in Renaissance kingship, particularly as it was treated by Shakespeare and Sir Thomas More.

“I think,” said Oram, “that if I hadn’t had the experience of doing the course with Howard, arguing about the texts with him, I would not have thought so much about what happens to Prince Hal as he makes himself into Henry V.”

Recognized in 2011 by the International Spenser Society with the Colin Clout Lifetime Achievement Award, Oram is the coordinating editor of The Yale Edition of the Shorter Poems of Edmund Spenser and author of Edmund Spenser. He is an editor of Spenser Studies, and has authored articles on Spenser, Milton, Shakespeare and other Renaissance writers..

A reception will follow the lecture in Seelye Hall 207.