How does Shakespeare’s Richard II put politics on stage?

On Literature in History 2: Richard II

Due 14/05/99

Richard II is a play of sensibility, which is unique in Elizabethan literature for two reasons; firstly it looked to the 14th century for inspiration and secondly it emphasised the importance of emotions. This switch in narrative focus makes Richard II a play, which is concerned with the exploration of personality and intrigue, as opposed to merely dramatically relating historical action. Shakespeare was writing in the Elizabethan age; which preceded the demotion of the monarchy to status of figureheads[1]. For this reason then England’s entire political system was autocratic and revolved around the present King or Queen, they had absolute power[2]. For this reason an evaluation of monarchy, was an evaluation of politics. Hereditary and divine rights endorsed their power. Shakespeare employs the tragedy of King Richard II to offer us a political critique of his contemporary sovereign, Queen Elizabeth I. He raises the question of whether hereditary title and supposed divinity of office are legitimate foundations for a just political system. In this way Richard II not only puts politics on stage, but on trial.

The importance of lineage is prevalent throughout the text; in the character index each individual is defined in relation to their ancestral extraction [3]. This can be seen clearly as the characters interact

Mowbray: “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 us a critique of the legitimacy of hereditary rule, the controversy surrounding his own coronation makes him the perfect candidate for dramatisation. He became King of England at the age of eleven, in accordance with the legal doctrine of primogeniture.[4] This meant that his older and wiser uncles had to step aside to let a young boy rule. The tension created by this genealogical chance happening can be seen, along with many other instances, in the conversation between John of Gaunt, one of Richard’s discontented uncles, and the Duke of York. Despite Richard’s lineage and ‘divinity’ he is criticised for his youthful impatience and economic exploitation of the lords, both are factors that suggest bad governing.

Gaunt: “(Kings are) Feared by their breed, and famous by their birth.” (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 are his last; it was a commonly held view amongst the Elizabethan’s that a dying mans words were prognostic[6]. By having a dying man criticise Richard’s inherited reign, Shakespeare is reinforcing the attack. It is clear that hereditary rule has led to jealousy and inappropriate government from the outset. This jealousy has a violent reciprocal effect and it establishes the stimulus for the first action of the play; when Henry Bolingbroke accuses Thomas Mowbray of murdering Richard’s uncle, The Duke of 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 that Gloucester was a potential threat to Richard’s power, because he too was undone by Richard’s coronation. York alludes to the fact that Richard himself had ordered the execution. The truth of this is still under debate.

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 and Bolingbroke Richard asks them to swear on the King’s sword not to rebel against 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 that Richard’s political power is in doubt, otherwise his decree would have been enough, and secondly that Richard is aware of it. Not only are Richard’s ability as a ruler and authenticity being questioned in the play, so is the second constituent of his kingship, his Divinity.

The second part of my essay is concerned with tracing the progression of Richard’s divinity from Act 1 to 5. In