Richard II – A Cautionary Tale of Improper Forms of Kingship

A number of commentaries on Shakespeare’s Richard II are devoted to the dialectical nature of the play, stressing the opposition of many of the elements in the drama. Studies have been written which demonstrate that the play is concerned with the opposition of the medieval order, represented by Richard, and the emerging modern order, represented by Bolingbroke. Similarly, other critics see the play as a conflict between a man of action and a man of words. Others see the play as a statement on the power of the king versus the powers of the aristocracy. Some see the play as the opposition between a king verging on madness, and a cold, calculating member of the peerage represented by Bolingbroke. More recent criticism has focused on the play as an allegory for the tyrannical rule of Elizabeth, or as a suppression of the freedoms of speech and press during Elizabeth’s reign.

The diverse theories which delineate the dialectical nature of the work are both informative and well-reasoned. Rather than viewing the play as a series of dichotomies, I will argue that the play views both Richard and Bolingbroke as essentially failed rulers for having limited the liberty of their subjects and exposed the state to unnecessary questions relating to the legitimate uses of power and of monarchical succession. Finally, I will argue that the play, presented in this light, would serve as a warning to Elizabeth regarding the use of her power and her inability to provide a successor to the throne.

The notion that the play represents a conflict between the medieval values of Richard and the more modern views of Bolingbroke is summed up by Henry Jacobs in his paper “Prophecy and Ideology in Shakespeare’s Richard II” as follows:

It is a commonplace to observe that Shakespeare’s Richard II traces out a fundamental shift in the nature of kingship and the justification of rule. This movement, which reflects both Tudor perspectives on history and Elizabethan political theory, signifies the transition from a medieval to a Renaissance concept of kingship and power. In this theoretical matrix, Richard II plays the role of the unsuccessful medieval monarch while Bolingbroke acts the part of a successful Renaissance prince. (Jacobs) (3)
In a similar vein, R. Morgan Griffin in his paper “The Critical History of Richard II,” writes that traditional readings of Richard as a proponent of medieval values, and Bolingbroke as a proponent of Renaissance values, persisted through the mid twentieth-century to the exclusion of the exploration of other themes in the work, and notes that:

Tillyard in particular loads the dichotomy of Richard and Bolingbroke with contrasts and goes so far as to suggest that each king represents a distinct historical era, Richard the end of the Middle Ages and Bolingbroke the arrival of the Renaissance. (24)
Critics have viewed Bolingbroke as a man of action, while Richard is seen as an ineffective man of words, or a poet. William Stubbs, bishop of Oxford in the nineteenth century, wrote what was considered to be a definitive biography of Richard II. Stubbs is responsible for the characterization of Richard as a man of contemplation and ineffective leadership, as George Osborne Sayles notes in his paper “King Richard of England: A Fresh Look.” Sayles notes that: “To Stubbs, Richard was ‘habitually idle’ and ‘loved pleasure and ease,’ and this is now the conventional story in all our history books” (29). Discussing Richard’s attributes as a leader, Sayles remarks that “The same contention that the King was incompetent in the governance of his realm is attached to him throughout the years” (29-30). Sayles later goes on to develop a thesis that Richard was, in fact, a much more effective leader than is generally acknowledged. Noting that conventional readings of the play emphasize the differences in the personalities of Richard and Bolingbroke, R. Morgan Griffin notes that: “According to the conventional scheme, Richard is the weak, effeminate poet-king, a medieval relic who relies on language and ceremony to rule; Bolingbroke is the taciturn, violent, and politic representative of a new Machiavellian style of leadership” (25).

The antipathy between the king and the aristocracy is frequently cited in criticism of the play. Historical fact lends additional credence to this line of criticism, since Richard and the “Appellants” as well as other members of Parliament, were frequently at odds during the king’s reign. George B. Stow, in his paper “Stubbs, Steel, and Richard II as Insane: The Origin and Evolution of an English Historiographical Myth,” once again citing Bishop Stubbs, makes the following point concerning Richard’s relation with the aristocracy:

(According to Stubbs) ‘There can be little doubt that the proceedings of 1397 and 1398 were the real causes of Richard’s ruin…He had resolutely and without subterfuge or palliation, challenged the constitution.’ This ‘grand stroke of policy,’ continues Stubbs, ‘has remarkable significance. It was a resolute attempt not to evade but destroy the limitations which for nearly two centuries the nation, first through the baronage alone and latterly through the united parliament, had been laboring to impose upon the king.’ (608-9) (1)
In the view of several critics, Bishop Stubbs was also responsible for the first characterization of Richard as being insane. John M. Theilmann, addresses this issue in his paper entitled “Stubbs, Shakespeare, and Recent Historians of Richard II,” when he notes that “Richard II, one of the most puzzling kings of late medieval England, has been the subject of controversy ever since his abdication in 1399. He has often been portrayed as a tyrant or, at times, a madman by historians” (107) (italics mine). In his paper, Stow stresses that Stubbs’ views of Richard II were colored by his Whig leanings. He further notes Stubbs’ influence in the development of the theory of Richard as insane when he states that:

Stubbs’ contemporary, J.R. Green, took much the same approach, stating that ‘the brilliant abilities which Richard shared with the rest of the Plantagenets were marred by a fitful inconstancy, and insane pride, and a craving for absolute power.’ (109) (italics mine) (Theilmann)
In contrast to Richard’s “insanity” is the view of Bolingbroke’s cold, logical personality which is pointed out in R. Morgan Griffin’s paper: “Hence, in one essay, Bolingbroke is the embodiment of the ‘new, effective,’ and Machiavellian way of governing…” (26). (2)

Considerations that the play may, in fact, be a commentary on the reign of Elizabeth I are supported by the acknowledgement, made by the queen herself, that aspects of her reign were similar to those of Richard. Samuel Schoenbaum, in his paper “Richard II and the Realities of Power,” notes that the queen remarked to one of her courtiers, Thomas Lamberde:

Such considerations (that they play may have served as a commentary on Elizabeth’s reign) serve only to whet pursuit and the trail, in truth, is not an utter blank. ‘I am Richard II, know ye not that?’ the Queen declared in Lamberde’s presence, and she was not the first to make the comparison. (49)(Schoenbaum)

Theories that the play may have been a comment of Elizabeth’s reign find support in the fact that Richard’s deposition scene was missing from the published copies of the play during the queen’s lifetime. Similarly, critics point to the performance of the play by members of the Duke of Essex’ party on the day before the aborted revolution staged in 1601, and the prohibition against publishing speculation on the succession, as indications that the play was seen as a comment on Elizabeth’s reign. Phyllis Rackin, in her paper “The Role of the Audience in Shakespeare’s Richard II,” notes that English audiences would have drawn parallels between the action in Richard II and current events during the reign of Elizabeth:

But history is also presented in Richard II as a current action, a living process that directly involves and implicates the audience in the theatre. Queen Elizabeth’s often-quoted comment, ‘I am Richard II, know ye not that?’; the suppression of the deposition scene during her lifetime; the fact that Essex’s followers saw fit to sponsor a performance of Richard II on the afternoon before their rebellion – all these things indicate that for Shakespeare’s contemporaries this play was not simply an exercise in historical recreation or nostalgia. (262)(Rackin)
While the review of critical literature which posits that the play is engaged in a dialogic process between opposing factions is not exhaustive, I believe that enough of the literature has been presented to establish that this line of scholarship has met with success. Rather than (Rackin)arguing against this scholarship, I acknowledge that several useful insights can be gained in viewing the play in this manner. As R. Morgan Griffin argues, however, viewing the play as a dialectic between Richard and Bolingbroke (or as a series of dialectics) can lead readers to(overlook other aspects of the play “…in accentuating the differences between the two kings, critics sometimes reduce Richard and Bolingbroke to mere diametric opposites and hence unwittingly recapitulate the grand theories of Elizabethan culture…” (24).

I will argue that while viewing the play as a series of dichotomies yields several valuable insights, the primary theme of the play is that neither Richard nor Bolingbroke represent effective rulers. I will further argue that the play is concerned with the limitation of baronial rights on the part of Richard, which constitutes a loss of liberty, and the unlawful succession on the part of Bolingbroke, which constitutes a breakdown in the state and loss of freedom for the populace. Finally, I will argue that while evidence of the play as a criticism of Elizabeth’s realm is not conclusive, the play nevertheless presents an unfavorable commentary on aspects of her reign and that the play suggests parallels with her rule.



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