The “chief thing” of Providence, says Calvin, is that God “directs everything by his incomprehensible wisdom and disposes it to his own end.” This means that God does not merely “sit back” and watch history unfold; rather, He unfolds history. Providence, then, is the “preservation and government” of “all [God’s] creatures and all their actions.” In his first tetralogy, Shakespeare enacts the Providence motif. His characters are the “intermediaries” which fulfill the predetermined end for the Yorks and Lancasters. When we look at the four plays, therefore, we should expect to find support for supernatural events, Biblical principles, and, most importantly, good conquering evil, since “none is good, save one, that is God.”
Throughout the plays, a supernatural world, parallel to the world of Shakespeare’s characters, is demonstrated by appearances from spirits. By doing this, Shakespeare shows that the visible world is dependent upon the invisible world. Joan of Pucelle, for example, calls upon Satan to help her defeat the English. She pleads with his demons, only to discover they are reluctant to help. So first she offers to “lop a member off and give it you”; then to permit them to “take my soul-my body, soul, and all” (IH6 V.iii.15,22). Once the spirits forsake her, Joan bewails, “Now the time is come that France…let her head fall into England’s lap” (25-26). Not only does Joan think France is lost, but Shakespeare himself supports her claim. Immediately after her statements, the English and French fight and Joan is captured. And a scene later Shakespeare will let the dominating French warrior be burned at the stake. If the playwright did not think spiritual beings determine the visible world, why not just let a fight ensue, Joan be captured, and finally burned? Why did she have to conjure up devils only to be denied assistance? And, once denied assistance, why does Shakespeare make her lose the next battle? The brilliant playwright has shown that France’s success depended upon supernatural control.
If we closely examine Suffolk’s death, Providence will again leap from Shakespeare’s pen. Leading up to his death, Suffolk first had to be physically threatened by “Warwick, with the men of Bury” (IIH6 III.ii.239-240). Salisbury then informs King Henry of the scuffle, saying Suffolk will be killed unless he “straight be done to death, or banished [from] fair England’s territories” (244-245). Henry VI “happens” to opt for the second choice, and gives Suffolk three days to vacate the island. No one knows how long before the three days ended that Suffolk was put on his death ship- but it had to be a precise time, though, because any old boat would not do. It had to be a vessel with a particular mate named Walter, in order to fulfill the supernatural prophecy, “by water shall he die, and take his end” (IIH6 I.iv.32). So, for Suffolk to die the king had to banish him, he had to leave England at a particular time, and board a particular ship, upon which was a particular mate whose name “coincidentally” verified the spirit’s prophecy. But Shakespeare does not end his argument for Providence there. After boarding the ship, the mainland war affected the sea which “by chance” caused the Lieutenant and his crew to “bring forth the soldiers…[for] here shall they make their ransom…or with their blood stain this discolored shore” (IIH6 IV.i.8-11). Suffolk initially says he will pay this self-ransom. However, he quickly forgets his place and acts the haughty aristocrat by revealing his name and insulting the crew. This “accidentally” infuriates the Lieutenant; so he levels charges against the arrogant duke before ordering Walter to behead him. Why has Shakespeare woven such an intricate web to kill Suffolk? And considering the fact that two other fulfilled prophecies came from the same spirit, what is Shakespeare communicating? The answer is clear: Suffolk did not die from fate or fortune, but from a pre-determined plan. The events are so intertwined and complex that chance is rendered obsolete (unless every character is in cahoots). And the mere fact that it took the mind of Shakespeare to weave this web demonstrates that it is impossible “that all events come to pass under the operation of a blind necessity,” as the Stoic notion of fate suggests. Once again, Shakespeare plays the theologian and argues for an intelligent and mysterious plan.
Since Providence is mysterious, the Judeo-Christian tradition emphasizes the necessity of human prayer. The reason Jesus tells us to pray “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done” , for instance, is because we do not always know what God’s will is until it occurs - hence C.S. Lewis’ comment that prayer changes us, not God. This marriage of prayer and Providence is powerfully enacted by Shakespeare in the final play of his first tetralogy. Richmond’s army is preparing to war with Richard’s. Prior to falling asleep the night before the battle, Richmond prays to God, asking Him for victory the following morning. “Look on my forces with a gracious eye…[and] make us Thy ministers of chastisement, that we may praise thee in the victory,” Richmond petitions (R3 V.iii.109-114). He concludes by commending his soul to God “ere I let fall the windows of mine eyes” (R3 V.iii.116). Immediately after he does fall asleep, the ghosts of Richard’s victims comfort him but curse Richard. Three times Richmond is encouraged to “flourish,” and seven times Richard is condemned to “despair and die.” The results of these visitations is that Richard awakens restless, exclaiming, “O coward conscience, now dost thou afflict me” (R3 V.ii.179). On the other hand, Richmond arises saying he has had the “sweetest sleep and the fairest-boding dreams that ever ent’red in a drowsy head” (R3 V.ii.227-228). And the rest is history – Richmond and Richard fire up their troops for battle, and, in the end, Richmond is victorious. Why didn’t Shakespeare make the ghosts just torment Richard while he slept? Why did they have to comfort Richmond? After all, Richard was asleep twenty lines before Richmond even prayed. We see again that the fate of each man was not by blind chance, but by supernatural, prayer-answering necessity.
Apart from these specific scenes of Providence in action, though, we also observe general Biblical principles supported by Shakespeare. Henry VI and Richmond, the tetralogy’s most holy men, trust in God’s Providence. The former declares “To whom God will, there be the victory” (3HVI II.ii.15). And we have already seen the faith of Richmond in the preceding paragraph. Both men are vindicated by Shakespeare, Henry after his death with the cursing of his slayer, and Richmond on the battlefield. This must happen because “all things work together for good to them that love God.” Also, according to Romans 2:11 “there is no respect of persons with God.” His judgments are just and fall on all humans. And we read this in all four plays. Every sort of person, whether clergy or king, ruthless or peaceful, is stricken with judgments of death or banishment, as illustrated by Winchester, Humphrey, Talbot, and Margaret. The Bible also declares that “God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.” Henry VI, for example, gives into his nobles’ hatred of Gloucester, and thus becomes an accessory to the duke’s murder. Then the king is later murdered. Richard Duke of York attempts to usurp the crown, slaying many in his quest. Then he is slain. Richard III unrelentingly murders all who stand in his way for the crown. Then he is killed. The Cardinal conspires to murder Humphrey. Then, not only does he die of a sudden illness, but he shows no sign of repentance on his deathbed, thus forfeiting his soul for blaspheming his holy office. But in this darkness of death and treachery shines the greatest Biblical principle which Shakespeare rightfully reveals just before the curtain falls: “The light of the righteous rejoices; but the lamp of the wicked will be put out shortly.” In the end, God and His people are victorious. Peace prospers. Thus, Shakespeare, through Richmond, claims this Divine End for the end of his plays: “O now let Richmond and Elizabeth, the true succeeders of each royal house, by God’s fair ordinance conjoin together! And let their heirs (God, if thy will be so) enrich the time to come with smooth-fac’d peace” (R3 V.v.29-33).
William Shakespeare’s first tetralogy is beautiful for its poetry and prose; intelligent for its complex plot and character development; and profound for its philosophical and theological probing. After reading the plays, one can only marvel at the master craftsman. Perhaps, though, we miss the mark if we end our amazement with Shakespeare’s genius. Maybe we should be astonished at the Mind behind his mind – the Playwright behind the playwright.