All Commentary
Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Crown, Church, and Rent-Seeking

Shakespeare's "Henry V"

Shakespeare’s Henry V—a favorite of theater companies and movie studios—begins with an invocation of the muse of fire, presumably because only her powerful heat and light can provide the inspiration necessary for Shakespeare’s great task of bringing forth so “great an object”  on “this unworthy scaffold.” The prologue promises, after all, that we are about to see the armies of two great monarchies clash at the famous battle of Agincourt. A plea for divine aid seems only reasonable.

After all that buildup, however, the opening scene of the play has to be one of the dullest stretches in all of Shakespeare’s writing. Promised a ferocious battle with knights and horses and blood and thunder, we are given instead more than one hundred straight lines of a highly technical legal discussion between the Bishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely. It is historically accurate. It is important. And it is exceptionally tedious.

It is tedious, that is, unless you are familiar with one basic piece of Public Choice theory.

Gain without Mutual Benefit

One its core concepts is the idea of rent-seeking. Unlike profit-seeking, which aims at mutually beneficial trade, rent-seeking is the attempt to use the political process to capture a bigger slice of wealth for oneself. Unlike trade, there is no mutual benefit. No wealth is created. The only profit is to the rent-seeker, and possibly his cronies. With that in mind, the opening scene of Henry V is gripping. It is no longer more than one hundred lines of fifteenth-century legal trivia. It is more than one hundred lines of some of the most explicit, uncensored, behind-the-scenes rent-seeking action in literary history.

The Bishops of Canterbury and Ely are revealed, in the midst of events, discussing a bill that had been originally proposed during Henry IV’s reign and was revived by Parliament during the second year of Henry V’s reign. The bill, as explained by both Shakespeare and his historical source, Holinshed’s Chronicles, proposed that the Crown seize lands that had been donated to the church. The land would then go to support:

Full fifteen earls and fifteen hundred knights,

Six thousand and two hundred good esquires

And to relief of lazars, and weak age

Of indigent faint souls past corporal toil,

A hundred almshouses right well supplied;

And to the coffers of the king beside

A thousand pounds by th’year. [H5, 1.1.12-19]

These are, then, some enormous rents that are up for grabs. Henry and Parliament stand to profit enormously. The churchmen are noticeably and understandably worried, noting that “This would drink deep” (1.1.20). Observing that Henry V is “a true lover of the holy Church,” as evidenced by his recent rejection of his immoral past, the Bishops express their hope that his reformation means he will be “swaying more upon our part” (1.1.73) than the part of parliament.

A Most Attractive Offer

We learn almost immediately, however, that Henry V’s tendency to support the church in this matter is not simply the result of some new-found holiness of purpose. The Bishop of Canterbury has:

. . . made an offer to his majesty

Upon our spiritual Convocation

And in regard to causes now in hand

. . . As touching France, to give a greater sum

Than ever at one time the clergy yet

Did to his predecessors part withal. [1.1.75-81]

In other words, the clergy has persuaded Henry V to take their side by offering him a large sum of cash to help him invade France. They offer further incentives for him to align with them in the following scene, which Shakespeare again quotes almost directly from Holinshed, when the Bishop of Canterbury provides a lengthy and complicated legal justification for the English monarch’s claim to the French throne.  The clergy, in other words, are engaging in a little bit of competitive bribery. To hang on to their land, they need to make Henry V an offer he can’t refuse.

A Symbol to His Subjects

For Shakespeare’s audience, and for readers who are familiar with the plays that detail the youth of Prince Hal and his ascension to the throne as Henry V, this rent-seeking behavior is extremely troubling. As the bishops’ talk of the King’s moral reformation reminds us, the moment he takes the throne Henry V rejects the drunken carousing companions of his youth—most notably the famously charming and dangerous hooligan, Sir John Falstaff. Henry V means this rejection to stand as a symbol to his subjects that he has “turned away my former self” in order to become a noble and honorable king.

But will rejecting Falstaff end the problem of rent-seeking? Once Henry V has made the choice to clear himself of his old rowdy associates, can he forget about the complications raised by Public Choice theory? Public Choice theorists argue that rent-seeking, like all the other perils of politics, is a problem that is, at best, only temporarily solvable. The nature of government and political interaction—whether in fiction or in history or in the contemporary political landscape—is such that the moment one rent-seeker is removed, another springs up. It seems to me that we don’t have to go very far in Henry V to see that, no matter what Henry V wants his subjects to think, rents are being sought and awarded as often as ever—they’ve just gotten bigger and more deadly for those who are caught in the middle.