Stephen JordanStudent number: 12395856 “For sorrow ends not when it seemeth done. ” In light of the Duchess of Gloucester’s insight, assess Richard II as a play about kingship. In Shakespeare’s famous history, Richard II, kingship is a very prominent theme that can be observed throughout the play’s entirety. The play’s titular character is the centre of the play’s concern with this theme as he is used by Shakespeare to question the validity of kings and how they should behave.
This essay shall examine how Richard II is a play that uses the embellishment of historical events and important figures to cast an inquisitive light on the authority, authenticity and actions of monarchs and their suitability for leadership. As we know, in the era Shakespeare wrote of, it was widely believed that royalty were chosen by God, and were seen as holy leaders bestowed a divine right. This play reveals the shortcomings of kings and allows for an examination of kings in relation to their people, their responsibility and their power. Not all the water in the rough rude sea/ Can wash the balm off from an anointed king;/ The breath of worldly men cannot depose/ The deputy elected by the Lord”: (3. 2. 3) King Richard as a character comes across as naive, arrogant and reckless in his power. He is so self-assured by his position that he truly believes he is a “deputy” of God. He obsesses over his image as perceived by his people and can submit to his jealously of the more popular Duke Henry Bolingbroke, his cousin.
In addition to these unappealing character traits, Richard is also notorious for his exorbitant spending on lavish material things. Shakespeare’s general depiction of the character offers a negative portrayal of kingship if the position is treated with neglect as it is in this case. Amanda Mabillard says in her essay (Representations of Kingship and Power in Shakespeare’s Second Tetralogy) that although Richard completely lacks political ability, he is an ordained ruler, he has the position, power and responsibility to rule his people successfully yet he is too selfish to triumph in his role as king.
She goes on to say that there is a balance of passages in the play that have opposing points, one side proclaiming his divine right as king, and on the other denouncing him as an unfit leader in terms of governance. I agree with her analysis of the character and the play. I feel her essay highlights the juxtaposing of monarchic inheritance as a qualification for kingship versus the need for a sensible and practical leader. Henry Bolingbroke in the play represents everything which Richard isn’t, passionate, practical and popular amongst the people.
Despite not having achieving the role of king conventionally, his stepping into the position after deposing of Richard seems justified given his natural leadership qualities and suitable personality traits. I feel that Shakespeare is conveying a message dealing with the power of monarchs in Richard II that is interesting. In offering a struggle between the hereditary acquisition of kingship versus the need for the most suitable candidate and ultimately declaring a winner of the two, he makes a bold statement. Another aspect through which kingship can be examined throughout the play is the use of rhetoric.
Richard is a character who is very poetic in his speech, conscious of words and their role in his life. Samuel Weingarten writes (The Name of King in Richard II) of the strange obsession Richard has with the symbolism of the words he uses relating to his regality and criticises the character for not acting upon the responsibility these words carry. He goes on to assess how Richard is fond of verbalising an assertion of his authority and connecting the symbols of his kingship (sceptre, throne, crown) to his speeches as speaking aloud seems to reassure him of the power and authenticity of his position.
Even after Richard’s throne and power is taken from him by his peers and opposition, Bolingbroke, he struggles to comprehend the implications of these events in terms of his own kingship. Subconsciously it can be seen that he still holds an obsessive grip on the word king, the name king, and his association with it. Consciously he is rendered into an existential crisis; “And by and by/Think that I am unkinged by Bolingbroke/And straight am nothing”. Weingarten goes to assert that Bolingbroke displays an empiricism in contrast to Richard’s verbalism.
I feel this is easy to agree with from the evidence of the play, Richard is very conscious of how to exact a poetic rhetoric in public that he neglects to prioritise the content of what he says to further achieve power or popularity. Bolingbroke, on the other hand, speaks factually and practically, yet could not be called a stranger to twisting words to achieve his own political ends. Richard lacks the necessary political shrewdness to make him an apt king whereas Bolingbroke has had it since long before his brief exile, along with the love of the populace.
I think Richard II is a play that offers easy access to the messages Shakespeare offers dealing with kingship and power. There is the battle between divine right to be king and the necessary leadership skills qualifying for the position delineated in the play. I believe there is also a display of how power can often corrupt when given to those who haven’t earned or simply cannot control it, yet it suits others who are passionate to use it for more economical ends.
From the sources I have read that deal with these subjects the essay written by Mabillard would have us believe that Shakespeare did intend for Richard II to stir up the idea that a ruler must possess leadership qualities in addition to the divine right of the job. This is easily examined in the play in the way characters other than Richard speak of his position with a reluctant reverence, he is rooted to the position as he was anointed in the name of God and therefore is above the judgement of other men.
However, this does not stop these characters from criticising his failed endeavours and excessive spending, and his continual failing eventually leads to his subjects arranging of his being usurped. In Weingarten’s essay, a close reading of the text gives him and the readers of an essay an insight into the importance the word king is within the play for those reading it and for the character Richard who deems its symbolism to be of great importance and uses it arrogantly when speaking of himself.
Weingarten regards Bolingbroke and Richard his contesting and rivals in the way they are semantically equipped. Richard’s need to avoid the reality of his office by sinking deeper and deeper into his denial using positive exaggerations about the wealth and happiness of his state whereas the reality is he imposes new and unfair taxing and the common people and his subjects have grown to dislike him.
He ruminates too often on the minor details and this contrasts heavily with Bolingbroke who does not associate himself with being a wordsmith, but rather a man of fact and pragmatic judgement that will benefit himself and aid him in acquiring power. These are the ways Shakespeare has portrayed his kings, the dethroned Richard never shakes off his love for a sense of power and the symbol that define it, thus being truly corrupted by his power. Bolingbroke the usurper is hailed as the practical, tactical mind who focuses more on the actions sprouting from his passion rather than expressing his passion.
In conclusion, I feel that it is justifiable to claim that Shakespeare wrote interesting take on kingship and power considering the era he wrote the play in. There is a discernible political opinion on kingship and monarchies within the play that makes this text all the more enjoyable to read and assess. It can be said that kingship is thoroughly displayed by the play to be a multi-faceted office with selected rulers being good or bad as kings.
The play also demands readers understand how power plays a part in motivating both Bolingbroke and Richard and that power and authority are questionable things. Bibliography: Shakespeare, William. Complete Plays. New York. Fall River Press. 2012. Mabillard, Amanda. Representations of Kingship and Power in Shakespeare’s Second Tetralogy. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2000. Date accessed: 23/02/2013. Weingarten, Samuel. The Name of King in Richard II. College English vol. 27 no. 7. April 1966. Pages 536-541