In Richard II, Shakespeare analyzes the nature of kingship as embodied by the central characters of Richard and the Bolingbroke, challenging the feudal authority of divine right with the modern idea of statehood based on popular consent.
The inherent paradoxes of kingship are a predominant theme through the play. Richard, himself, says “thus play I in one person many people” (V. Iv. 31). This statement reflects the various roles a king must straddle. As a ruler, a king must be landlord and protector, judicial authority and representative of the people. A rule must also protect the interests of the nobles who enable the king to remain in power via their land and wealth. Fulfilling these roles is often problematic.
The philosophy of divine right adds another dimension to kingship as a king must be “God’s instrument on earth” (Opello and Rosow 136). Richard’s ultimate undoing results from his inability to balance the roles of kingship. Richard abuses his power by levying harsh taxes, and divorcing himself from his people. He lacks bravado and suffers from radical mood swings. Most importantly, Richard isolates the interest of the noble class, particularly after he banishes Bolingbroke and takes his inheritance.
Shakespeare uses the character of Richard to demonstrate the power and potential destruction of ruling by divine right. Throughout feudal England, and most of Europe, political power was gathered in absolute regimes- royal bloodlines originating from the wealthy lords and vassals of the dark ages (Porter 78). After the precedence of Charlemagne who was anointed as king of European Christendom by the Pope, monarchs claimed the throne by divine right as a means of providing legitimacy to their reign (78). In the play, Richard rules by divine right. Throughout the first half of the play, Richard is symbolized as holy. Gaunt calls Richard “his deputy anointed in his sight,” (1.2.37-38) meaning chosen by God.
Richard often invokes imagery of Christ when referring to himself. Reinforcing ‘state’ legitimacy through religion is based upon the political philosophy known as the great chain of being (Opello and Rosow 139). This philosophy is enrooted in Greek and Roman scholasticism and describes the human realm as being ordered in a hierarchical structure with God and king at the top, nobles and clergy in the middle, and peasants (commoners) at the bottom (Opello and Rosow 140). Entwining God and king ensures a king’s triumph over civil strife whereby “to question a king’s rule is to question God (Porter 83).”
As the play’s action unfolds and Bolingbroke’s affluence increases, Richard believes god will protect his reign. Richard believes himself to be a “deputy elected by the lord that worldly men cannot dispose” (III. iii. 50-57). Even Bolingbroke, Richard’s foil, “endorses Richard’s iconic conception of monarchy” (Porter 83). At his confrontation with Richard at Flint Rock Castle, Bolingbroke comments on Richard’s kingly presence, describing their clashing interests a “cataclysmic storm” with Richard illustrated as the dominant role of fire.
Bolingbroke’s politics signify he rise of the Machiavellian king. “Politics, Machiavelli declared, demanded that the ruler know the people and the people know the ruler” (Opello and Rosow 145). Bolingbroke, in contrast to Richard, demonstrates the right to rule by popular consent (consent of nobles). Bolingbroke lacks Richard’s contemplative personality and is seen as a man of action. He is popular with the nobles and commoners in way that Richard can only dream. Bolingbroke also often reflects the many roles of kingship but plays upon them like an actor on a stage. He caters to his audience. “Bolingbroke’s courtship with the common people relaxes the protocols of social hierarchy, demonstrating to the people of England that he is, despite his rank and royal blood, one of them” (Porter 97). Richard’s distance from his people reveals his limitations as a king just as Bolingbroke’s proximity to the people show his strength.
Though Bolingbroke is clearly better suited to be king, Shakespeare manages to advocate usurpation while simultaneously “suspending judgment on either Bolingbroke or Richard (Opello and Rosow 145). Richard’s fall from power coincides with Bolingbroke’s ascension. Yet, the taking of the crown, has its price. Since the king’s reign was, under divine right, directly linked to God, the king’s removal from power was thought would have dire consequences from the heavens.
This is emphasized by the Bishop of Carlisle prophecy if civil war should Bolingbroke take the throne. Also, as Bolingbroke’s power increases so does the sympathy for Richard’s character. At the end of the play, Richard is seen less as a villain and more as a tragic figure who crumbled beneath the weight of the crown. The audience begins to regard even Richard’s abuses of power as further evidence of his inadequacies as a ruler rather than by malicious intent. Shakespeare’s politics seem clear: “whereas rebellion is a crime, kingship is a sacred burden which one must earn the right to bear” (Opello and Rosow 147). Therefore, Richard II represents the crossroads of the modern world whereby feudal authority is cast aside for the right to rule by popular sovereignty.
Opello W. and S. Rosow. Politics of the Modern State. London: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2004.
Porter, Bruce. War and the Modern State: A Historical Perspective of Elizabethan Politics. London: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2007.
Shakespeare, William. Richard II. New York: Pinnacle Books, 2003.