Shakespeareemploys the tragedy of King Richard II to offer us a political critique ofhis contemporary sovereign, Queen Elizabeth I. He raises the question ofwhether hereditary title and supposed divinity of office are legitimatefoundations for a just political system. In this way Richard II not onlyputs politics on stage, but on trial. The importance of lineage is prevalent throughout the text; in thecharacter index each individual is defined in relation to their ancestralextraction 3. This can be seen clearly as the characters interactMowbray:”Setting aside his high blood’s royalty/I do defy him, and spit at him.
” (I. I. 58-60). As I have said above Richard II is being employed in this play to offer usa critique of the legitimacy of hereditaryrule,thecontroversysurrounding his own coronation makes him the perfect candidatefordramatisation. He became King of England at the age of eleven, inaccordance with the legal doctrine of primogeniture. 4This meant thathis older and wiser uncles had to step aside to let a young boy rule.
Thetension created by this genealogical chance happening can be seen, alongwith many other instances, in the conversation between John of Gaunt, oneof Richard’s discontented uncles, and the Duke of York. Despite Richard’slineage and ‘divinity’ he is criticised for his youthful impatience andeconomic exploitation of the lords, both are factors that suggest badgoverning. Gaunt:”(Kings are) Feared by their breed, and famous by theirbirth. ” (II.
I. 52). 5″(To Richard) Landlord of England are you now, not King”. (II. I. 104).
York: “The king is come, deal mildly with his youth. Young hot colts being raged do rage the more”. (II. I. 69-70).
The importance of Gaunt’s words are heightened by the fact that they arehis last; it was a commonly held view amongst the Elizabethan’s that adying mans words were prognostic6. By having a dying man criticiseRichard’s inherited reign, Shakespeare is reinforcing the attack. It isclear that hereditary rule has led to jealousy and inappropriate governmentfrom the outset. This jealousy has a violent reciprocal effect and itestablishes the stimulus for the first action of the play; when HenryBolingbroke accuses Thomas Mowbray of murdering Richard’s uncle, The Dukeof Gloucester. Bolingbroke:”Further I say, and further will maintain,That he did plot the Duke of Gloucester’s death”. (I.
I. 98-100)The genealogical significance of this murder is rooted in the fact thatGloucester was a potential threat to Richard’s power, because he too wasundone by Richard’s coronation. York alludes to the fact that Richardhimself had ordered the execution. The truth of this is still underdebate. York:”The king (would) cut off my head with my brother’s”(II.
II. 102-103). Despite, or maybe because of, his familiar relation to Mowbray andBolingbroke Richard asks them to swear on the King’s sword not to rebelagainst him and his decision to banish them both. Richard:”Return again and take an oath with thee/(Never) To plot, contrive, or complot any ill” (I. III. 178&189).
For our purposes this act signifies two important things; firstly thatRichard’s political power is in doubt, otherwise his decree would have beenenough, and secondly that Richard is aware of it. Not only are Richard’sability as a ruler and authenticity being questioned in the play, so is thesecond constituent of his kingship, his Divinity. The second part of my essay is concerned with tracing the progressionof Richard’s divinity from Act 1 to 5. In Act I we can explore aspects ofRichard’s divinity through an examination of action and language. Richardacts as god’s representative on earth, or in John of Gaunts words “God’sSubstitute”. In the duel between Bolingbroke and Mowbray it is clear fromthe outset that individual talents would have little or no part to play inthe outcome, the battle had transcended mortal restrictions and taken on amore metaphysical importance.
It became a chivalric fight in which truthand justice will decide the winner. The interaction of Richard in thefight is similar to that of God in the biblical tale Bolingbroke makes anallusion to in his attack on Mowbray. Bolingbroke:”(Gloucesters) blood, like sacrificing Abel’s cries”. (I. I.
106). 7Only Richard can stop or decide this battle on earth, in the same way onlyGod can decide good or evil in heaven. In Cain and Abel’s instance thepunishment was banishment from his land, in Mowbray and Bolingbrokes case,the same. God: “You will be a restless wanderer on the earth”(GenesisIV. IV. 12).
Richard:”We banish you from our territories (to) tread the strangerpaths” (I. III. 139&143). Bolingbroke’s response is a very relevant line from the lord’s prayer:Bolingbroke “Your will be done (On Earth as it is in Heaven)” (I. III.
144). The language employed by Richard and those who address him also reinforceshis divinity. Bolingbroke sums up the power of Richard’s language perfectlyin the phrase “Such is the breath of kings”. Richard, as do all monarchs, refers to himself in the plural8.
Thereason for this is that the King was said to be composed of two halves, thebody natural and the body politic; coronation being the act of unification. The body natural is human and fallible, the body politic divine andinfallible. It would appear then at this stage Richard’s body natural isbeing seriously criticised by most parties, but as yet his body politic isunblemished. In-keeping with the Romantic tradition, Act III scene two, exploresRichard’s inner emotions. Having been overthrown by Bolingbroke and hissupporters, Richard must now concede his un-kingly fallibility. Richard:”I live with bread, like you feel wantTaste grief, need friends.
Subjected thus,How can you say to me I am a king. ” (III. II. 167). As was the case between Bolingbroke and Mowbray, Richard’s fate lays in thehands of god. Having lost, Richard beginstoquestionhisownspirituality, and in doing so question his own political legitimacy.
Despite this self doubt; in the following scene Richard relies on thedivinity of his political office to substantiate his worth. Having beenproven to be administratively incompetent, he attempts to prove himselfworthy by virtue of the fact that his position is divinely ordained. Richard:”(If I am not your king) show us the hand of god/For well we know no hand of blood and boneCan grip the handle of our sceptre”. (III. III.
78-80)Act Five scenes five and six, provide us with a huge insight into the stateof politics once Richard has been forced to abdicate. As I have saidbefore the king, whoever it may be at the time, should refer to himself inthe plural. It is important, then, to note that Richard ceases to do so. This can be interpreted as an acknowledgement by Richard that his politicalkingship is not sacredly ordained and for this reason that he should havebeen more prudent and less extravagant. However, in the following scene wesee that neither does King Henry Bolingbroke also refrains form using theroyal ‘we’.
Bolingbroke:”High sparks of honour in thee have I seen/Though I did wish him dead,I hate the murderer. ” (V. VI. 29&39-40). No form of political consensus is reached; Richard forsakes the divinity ofkingship whilst Bolingbroke maintains his respect for it by not employingthe royal ‘we’.
The political complexity of Richard II leads to no consensus; and inthis way it offers us more of a critique than a criticism of monarchicalpolitics9. I have suggested that Richard II is being subtly employed tocomment on Elizabeth I. The choice of Richard II is based on thesimilarities between the two monarchs. Due to the Queen’s celibacy, aroundwhich a cult was formed, there was a debate raging in Shakespeare’s timeabout who was to succeed her; as was the case with Richard. Thedetrimental effect of placing importance in sycophantic, and duplicitouscourtiers was also an issue that Elizabeth was, or rather should have been,concerned about. Elizabeth was aware of the potential of the play toincite rebellion, and so the deposition scene was removed from theproduction, whether or not she was conscious of Shakespeare’s intent isanother matter.
Richard II seeks to dramatise political history byenlightening the audience, and potentially the Queen herself, as to theflaws of an autocratic monarchy. This notion is encapsulated by Richard’sominously moralistic realisation: “I wasted time, now time doth waste me”. Word Count: 1,650. BIBLIOGRAPHY:Figgis, John Neville. The Divine Right of Kings, Harper and Row, Ed.
JohnNeville, 3rd Edition, 1965, New York. Keeble, N. H. Shakespeare’s Richard II, York Press, Ed. Jeffares, A. ,13th Edition, 1997, Singapore.
Shakespeare, William. Richard II, Penguin Press, Ed. Stanley Wells, 2ndEdition, 1997, London. Walters, Scott.
Richard II, The Underlying Issues, Ed. Scott Walters, 1stEdition, 1998, San Francisco. ———————–1 The establishment of Oliver Cromwell’s parliament in 1648 led to theexecution of King Charles; and from then on monarchical political powerdiminished. 2 An example of this power would be when Queen Elizabeth had Mary ‘Queenof Scots’ executed for insinuating that Elizabeth was a bastard daughter. 3 For example “Harry Percy: The earl of Northumberland’s son. 4 Essentially this means that the oldest living son or the immediate maleheir of the King at time of death is the rightful heir.
Because Edward theBlack prince, who was Richard’s father, died before he could become Kingthe duty fell to Richard as his immediate male heir/son. 5 There is an irony here, in that John of Gaunt, as did each of hisbrothers, gained power and wealth through inheritance. 6 Gaunt himself begins the speech with the lines “I am a prophet new-inspired”7 Cain kills his brother Abel; God banishes him for it. 8 For example : “Such neighbour nearness to our sacred blood” (I.
1. 119)9 Adding to the complexity of characterisation; Richard is not portrayedas outright evil, nor Bolingbroke pure. Empathy is felt for Richard in thedeposition scene, as is contempt for Bolingbroke’s betrayal of his oath ofobedience discussed earlier in the essay.