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Succession’s Kendall is Shakespeare’s Prince Hal gone terribly wrong

How Succession’s finale referenced Shakespeare to bring out Kendall’s crumpled ambitions.

Kendall is seen in profile, outside, with a figure in the background.
Jeremy Strong as Kendall in Succession’s finale.
HBO
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

There’s a moment in the series finale of Succession that has such eerie Shakespearean resonances, it took my breath away. The scene in which Kendall sits down at his dead father’s office chair is a perfect mirror image of the scene in Henry IV, Part 2 in which callow, untried Prince Hal puts on his father’s crown. The parallel brings out all the petty smallness of character, the meanness and the dirty, crumpled ambitions that Succession evokes so well.

By now it’s become a cliché to say that Succession is Shakespearean, but the statement is nonetheless accurate. The show began with a nod to King Lear: Aging patriarch Logan Roy, a Murdoch-like figure who has cultivated a massive media empire, is trying to decide which of his three children to give his company to, like Lear carving his kingdom into three unequal parts for his daughters. The cast’s actors refer to Shakespeare’s parts in interviews to try to explain their roles, and the characters themselves make frequent mocking quotations.

“I land the deal, I kill Kendall, I’m crowned king. Just like in Hamlet,” plans Roman at one point. “If that happens in Hamlet. I don’t care.”

It doesn’t happen in Hamlet, and what comes after Kendall sits in Logan’s chair doesn’t happen in Henry IV, Part 2, either. The parallel makes it clear that Kendall believes himself to be Shakespeare’s celebrated, heroic Prince Hal. The tragedy of Kendall is that he combines all of Hal’s freezing cold detachment with none of his real abilities.

The shadow of succession hangs over the Henriad

Henry IV, Part 2 is one of a series of Shakespeare’s history plays sometimes called the Henriad. They focus on England’s King Henry V, a 15th-century monarch who famously spent his adolescence drinking and carousing, living life as a playboy, before unexpectedly growing up immediately upon his ascension to the throne. He would eventually become beloved for a series of major military victories against France. Shakespeare calls Henry V Hal when he’s a prince.

In Henry IV, Part 1, Hal spends most of his time hanging out with charming, drunken, irresponsible old Falstaff. For Hal’s father, King Henry IV, or Bolingbroke, this behavior is a major problem. Bolingbroke is a strong and effective king, but he’s also a usurper who took the throne after overthrowing weak King Richard II. The plan is that Hal will redeem his father’s reign. As the son of a king, he’ll have a stronger claim to the throne than Bolingbroke did; he’ll also have the benefit of learning how to reign from his father. Hal, Bolingbroke hopes, will rule both by divine right and by force, uniting the best of Richard II and Bolingbroke. But he can’t do that if he spends all his time getting wasted at the tavern.

Logan-like, Bolingbroke feels that Hal is not a serious person. He frets over how ill-suited Hal is to take over the throne. He tells Hal he wishes the martial Hotspur was in the line of succession instead of Hal. “Now, by my scepter, and my soul to boot / He [Hotspur] hath more worthy interest to the state / Than thou, the shadow of succession,” Bolingbroke says bitterly in Henry IV, Part 1.

Like the Roy siblings, Hal is convinced that once he actually ascends to the throne, he’ll be great at the job. His playboy act, he tells the audience, is just that: an act. He is fully prepared to take on the responsibilities of kingship once the time comes, and he is certain that his sober reign will be all the more impressive for his misspent youth. “When this loose behavior I throw off,” he explains, “My reformation, glitt’ring o’er my fault / Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes / Than that which hath no foil to set it off.”

We catch a glimpse of how attractive the idea of kinghood is to Hal in the self-crowning scene in Henry IV, Part 2. Hal finds his father asleep in bed, the crown lying on his pillow next to him, and becomes convinced that his father is dead.

“Thy due from me / Is tears and heavy sorrows of the blood,” Hal says to what he believes is Bolingbroke’s corpse. “My due from thee is this imperial crown / Which, as immediate from thy place and blood / Derives itself to me.”

He plucks the crown off the bed and puts it on, and at once is overwhelmed with desire for it. “Put the world’s whole strength / Into one giant arm, it shall not force / This lineal honor from me,” he declares.

Then his dad wakes up and yells at him, and Hal starts crying and assures him that he never wanted the crown and in fact hates it and just wants his father to be alive. We’re shown enough, though, to be aware of some amount of ambivalence on Hal’s part here.

Hal does genuinely love his father, just as he genuinely loves his drinking buddy Falstaff. He also genuinely wants to be king.

At the end of the play, Bolingbroke is dead and Hal has become King Henry V. Falstaff comes rushing in joyously to greet his friend, and Hal repudiates him. “I know thee not, old man,” he says. Responsibility and ambition together have forced him to give up both his father figures at once. That is Hal’s tragedy.

Hal’s redemption comes from the fact that, after all that, he actually does become a great king. He wages war against France and wins an impossible military victory. “​​He today that sheds his blood with me / Shall be my brother,” he declares in the celebrated St. Crispin’s Day speech as he urges his badly outnumbered men forward.

For the Roy family, being brothers isn’t exactly something to celebrate.

When Kendall tries to dad it, he always goes wrong

Kendall has been channeling his father for a few episodes by the time he sits down in Logan’s chair in the series finale. He’s developed more confidence and showmanship than he displayed while Logan was still alive: nailing the presentation for Living+, delivering a genuinely affecting eulogy at Logan’s funeral. With that confidence has come increasing callousness.

“You fucked it,” he tells Roman brutally of the deal between the Roys and the president-elect. “You tried to dad it. You failed.” When he learns Shiv is scheming to make sure Waystar is sold rather than help Kendall stay on as CEO, he yells that she’s a piece of dirt. Some of Logan’s sadism has become the “poison” that “drips through” in Kendall’s relationship to the world. Increasingly, it seems as though Kendall believes sadism is a necessary component of his newfound competence, like Hal denying Falstaff in order to be a good king.

Still, Kendall hesitates before he sits in Logan’s chair in front of Shiv and Roman, glancing up at them for their okay. They give it to him at once: “It’s not a magic chair,” Roman tells him sarcastically. It’s not, but it is a symbolic chair.

As Kendall gets increasingly comfortable with his new seat, Shiv looks more peeved, narrowing her eyes at him when he props his feet up on the desk. The unease that will lead her to make the decisive vote against Kendall is beginning to brew in this moment, watching him look comfortable in Logan’s old chair.

Kendall, meanwhile, is beginning to glow with confidence and power that verges on the edge of violence. Minutes after he sits down at Logan’s desk, he pops open Roman’s stitches during an ambiguous hug of love and domination.

Kendall, like Hal, wept with grief upon his father’s death. And, like Hal, he is enamored with the idea of holding on to his father’s throne. He feels it is his due for the same reason Hal feels his reign will be more legitimate than his father’s: He’s the eldest boy. (Never mind that Connor, the actual eldest boy, is right there.) Surely, surely, Kendall can combine the vicious force of Logan’s reign with the divine right of kings and bring a just and prosperous reign to Waystar Royco?

“Put the world’s whole strength / Into one giant arm, it shall not force / This lineal honor from me,” Hal says once he has the crown on his head, and when Shiv starts to move to take the chair from Kendall, he screams at her with the same furious commitment.

The part of Hal’s story that Kendall doesn’t get is the redemption. Hal redeems his betrayals and his ambitions by virtue of his prowess as a great military leader and king. But no one around Kendall thinks he has the stuff to make that kind of leader.

“I don’t think you’d be good at it,” Shiv tells Kendall plainly when he demands to know why she won’t give him her vote to make him CEO. It’s a reasonable stance to take: Kendall consistently fails at all his wheelings and dealings. He is constantly trying to dad it, and he is constantly fucking it in the process.

Perhaps part of why Kendall seems so sure to fail comes with the other major place where his story diverts from Hal’s: their friends. Falstaff provided Hal with a refuge from political scheming and ambition, because all he cared about was pleasure. By the finale, Kendall has long since alienated all the emotional connections he has to the world outside Waystar Royco. The closest thing he has to a Falstaff is Shiv and Roman, who carouse joyously in their mother’s house with him one night and then double-cross him the next. Kendall is what happens when all Hal’s Falstaffs want to be king, too, and everyone who says Hal wouldn’t do a good job as king is probably right.

The Henriad is designed to grapple with the problem of what it means to be a good king. As its three successive kings cycle on and off the stage, it circles around the question of whether seizing power or inheriting it make you good at wielding it.

On Succession, the fact of having inherited their power leaves the Roy siblings disqualified from being able to use it well at all. Logan gave them enough money and social capital to insulate them from ever having to experience true consequences, while he wielded his brutal personal force over them like a whip to keep them from ever learning to do the same. In the end, Kendall can give the St. Crispin’s Day speech, but he can’t ever actually lead anyone into battle.

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