See, we have these two guys. One of them is king. The other one is king by the end of the play. Their names are Richard and Henry. No, I haven't already written this text, this is a new one. Yes, I've already written about Richards and Henrys and being king and not being king and wanting to be king and not wanting to be king and killing each other because a Richard or a Henry wants to be king instead of a Richard or a Henry. We might be tempted to blame Shakespeare for lacking imagination (ha! Shakespeare?! Lack imagination?!) but in fact it's history that lacks imagination, both in naming its kings and killing them off. So much so that “the faces of kings and usurpers become blurred, one after the other,” as Jan Kott puts it (p. 9) in what he calls the Great Mechanism – history that repeats itself and “forces itself on us in a most powerful manner” (p. 10).
So what's special about this Richard and this Henry? Well, they're the first ones (never mind that Richard is the II and Henry is the IV). They're the ones who start off the whole War of the Roses thing. My question here isn't “which one of them should have been king?” No, my question is “did either of them get what he wanted and how and why?” That's trickier and as always Shakespeare doesn't make it easy for us.
To complicate things, there's also a York (I know, I know, there's always a York). He doesn't know which of the kings to support so he supports both of them. Sort of.
Here's the story. King Richard exiles Bolingbroke (the guy who becomes Henry IV) for some reason or other. York says, “You shouldn't have done that but I'm loyal to you anyway.” Bolingbroke's dad, John of Gaunt, dies, Richard rushes off to his castle to take over all the land and jewels and silver and things. Bolingbroke comes back with an army and says, “I want my inheritance – land and castle and wealth and title from my dad.” Richard says, “Oh, I'm scared of you, you can have the crown too.” Bolingbroke says, “Huh?” but there he is, the king. So he says, “Cool,” and York says, “You shouldn't have done that but I'm loyal to you anyway.” The Henry says, “Maybe if I want to stay king, someone should off Richard. So someone offs Richard and Henry says, “Oh dear, now I have a guilty conscience.” The End.
I'm only simplifying things a little. Really. But it does clearly show that the real question is: Why did Richard give in so easily and when he had done so, why did he continue to cling to his kingship? (Yes, there is an echo here – you will hear Bolingbroke's grandson, Henry VI, dithering in the future about whether or not to be king, written about in an earlier text on this blog.)
The answer, I believe, will be found in Kott's Great Mechanism. The individuals Richard – unpopular, greedy, lyrical – and Bolingbroke – pragmatic, stolid, boring - are simply caught up in the grinding wheels of history.
Let's trace these two men's steps towards the clash:
Richard is king, having inherited the crown by divine right from his father Edward III. He doesn't question this. But he is aware, quite early on in the play that Bolingbroke is appealing to the people and so is a threat to his, Richard's, power. Richard and his cronies have
Observed his courtship of the common people,
How he did seem to dive into their hearts
With humble and familiar courtesy (Act 1.4).
Thus even before John of Gaunt accuses Richard of being a bad landlord of England, ruining the country through bad management - “Landlord of England art thou now, not King” (Act 2.1), Richard voices the fear that Bolingbroke is going to claim England because his, Richard's, contract is running out:
A brace of draymen bid God speed him well...
...As were our England in reversion his,
And he our subjects' next degree in hope (Act 1.4).
Richard is already, in his own eyes, in trouble. Returning from Ireland a couple of acts later, and hearing that Bolingbroke has returned without permission from exile, Richard at first blusters that he's king by God and no “thief” or “traitor” will change that:
Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm from an anointed king (Act 3.2).
But as soon as he hears that the Welsh troops, who had supported him in Ireland, have defected to Bolingbroke, he falters: “Have I not reason to look pale and dead?” (Act 3.2) He rallies briefly: “I had forgot myself. Am I not king?” (Act 3.2). But when Scrope arrives and hints that he comes with bad news, Richard crumbles: “Say, is my kingdom lost?” (Act 3.2)
And by so saying, it is. When he hears that Bolingbroke has had three of Richard's closest supporters executed for ransacking and destroying his (Bolingbroke's) property and misrepresenting his intentions to the king (although Richard doesn't know of this explanation, only that his supporters are dead), Richard exclaims rashly, “Our lands, our lives, all are Bolingbroke's” and immediately sinks into his melancholy abdication:
...let us sit upon the ground,
And tell sad stories of the death of kings (Act 3.2).
This is a man who gives up easily! When he and Bolingbroke finally meet face to face, Bolingbroke confirms, as he has steadfastly done throughout, that he is unfailingly loyal to Richard on one condition:
Provided that my banishment repealed
And lands restored again be freely granted (Act 3.3)
and that “My gracious lord, I come but for my own” (Act 3.3). Richard immediately answers:
Your own is yours, and I am yours, and all...
What you will have I'll give, and willing too...(Act 3.3)
At this point Bolingbroke effectively becomes King Henry IV. Is he surprised? Maybe, maybe not. Is this what he had wanted all along? Bloom considers this obvious (p. 256). Katharine Eisman Maus, in her introduction to the Norton edition, has a much more nuanced take on Bolingbroke's intentions: “Bolingbroke himself seems a bit obtuse about his own purposes...it is unclear whether he initially realizes that his return from exile commits him not merely to regaining [his] estates but to a more thorough attack on Richard's sovereignty” (page 977). Bolingbroke, unlike Richard, is not a big talker. He seems to say what he means and nothing more. Would he have gone to war if Richard had refused to grant him his inheritance? Undoubtedly. But I find Maus more convincing than Bloom, and tend in fact to see Bolingbroke as quite free from evil intent. He bends over backwards to give Richard chances to remain king. Even as Richard officially cedes the crown Henry does not seize it. True to character, Richard is wordy and eloquent:
Here, cousin, seize the crown.
Here, cousin. On this side my hand, on that side thine...
...and full of tears am I,
Drinking my griefs, whilst you mount up on high (Act 4.1)
Bolingbroke replies: “I thought you had been willing to resign.” Richard thereby eloquizes further about handing over his royal woes with the crown while at the same time keeping them and one can imagine that the correct and stolid Henry is inwardly sighing and rolling his eyes when he patiently but firmly repeats: “Are you contented to resign the crown?” (Act 4.1)
Richard dithers some more but hands over the crown. It's official. Henry is king.
He quickly shows himself to be determined, decisive and ruthless but not, I think, as Bloom would have it, a hypocrite (page 256). Henry is very much aware that everything must be official – he compels Richard to publicly confess his crimes against “the state and profit of this land (Act 4.1, my emphasis). Official and final. He does indeed order – obliquely but nevertheless – the murder of Richard, but he is not being hypocritical when he then regrets it's necessity and vows to
..make a voyage to the Holy Land
To wash this blood off from my guilty hand. (Act 5.6)
He spends the rest of his life, in his two future plays, Henry IV Part One and Henry IV Part Two,regretting the murder of Richard.
So. There we have it. The path upon which “Richard never stops doing Bolingbroke's work for him, yielding up a kingdom” making “Bolingbroke's job so much easier for him” (Bloom page 259 and 263-4). But what of Kott's Grand Mechanism? How do these two really rather fascinating individuals fit into it, and in fact obligingly do what historical change demands of them?
Kott himself places the conflict in the moment in Shakespeare's time “when power was changing hands. Authority comes either from God, or from the people” (page 12). This is made very clear in the play with repeated references from Richard and his supporters as having the divine right to rule, and constant observations from both sides that Bolingbroke appeals to the people for support, and gets it. Maus also points this out: “Whereas Bolingbroke thinks of power as emanating from 'below' – from the king's subjects, from the deployment of material resources – Richard thinks of it as descending from 'above,' from the God whose representative on earth he was born to be” (page 976).
But why this conflict? What made Bolingbroke suddenly think he had the right to be king and actually get a whole lot of lords and commons on his side? The key is to be found in the words “material resources” in the Maus quote above and the word “profit” which I emphasized in Henry's words above. In a word, land. Who owns it and profits by it? By calling Richard a landlord, John of Gaunt is in effect accusing him “of forming an economic arrangement with his subjects regarding the land, and that this abnegates his responsibility towards it, for a tenement farm is one rented, not owned, by the farmer who works for it. This changes the king's status from supreme ruler above the law to mere subject of it” (Egan. Page 37, my emphasis). In other words, as owner and landlord, Richard must follow the law. And the law says that he cannot confiscate Gaunt's property. It belongs after Gaunt's death to his son Bolingbroke. This Egan places squarely in the historical development of “the replacement of a feudal set of values with their proto-capitalist substitutes” (page 38). One of the basic principles of the liberalism that was emerging in the 1700's is the individual's right to own property. We clearly see its roots here and the process had developed further in Shakespeare's day.
The nobles, and evidently the commoners, supported Bolingbroke because this is “a struggle between hierarchical and individualistic world views...The principle of the individual vanquishes the principle of hierarchy, the right to ownership defeats the right of authority” (David Margolies, quoted in Egan, page 39). As Kott clarifies it, Bolingbroke is “a 'positive hero', an avenger. He defended violated law and justice” (page 14). Further analysis would show that this is not just a question of principles but of economic development which leads to changing views of what law and justice are but that's too big for this essay. But as a representative of the new economic order Bolingbroke “is associated with a new, effective ...way of thinking about the manipulation of men and matter ( Maus, page 977). Again, my emphasis shows that it's not just thinking but economics in process.
The characters are caught up in this process. Richard on one side, Henry on the other and poor York caught in between, like most of us usually are. Egan points out that in Marxist terms York is struggling with the superstructure of this society in the midst of economic upheaval by trying to “suture the ideological rift created by epochal change” (page 43). In other words supporting and condemning Richard, supporting and condemning Bolingbroke, wringing his hands and weeping all the while.
Shakespeare, for obvious reasons, was not a Marxist. Nor could he predict the future. But he had an uncannily sharp eye for what was happening in his day and how it fit into the historical picture. It is endlessly fascinating the way Richard II can “be seen not merely as a personal or even a political victory, but as the uprooting of one worldview by another (Maus, page 977, and here again, I insist that these worldviews emerge within and because of the changing economic system). But while this grips our intellect, what is even more important is that at the same time as he clearly presents the “Marxist concern [of emphasizing] contradiction (Egan, page 44), Shakespeare grips us by giving us “living, frightened people” (Kott, page 20). Bolingbroke is the hero, yes, in many ways admirable and, all things considered, doing things for the right (sort of) reasons. But in the end he is wracked with remorse over what the Grand Mechanism has demanded of him. Throughout, York is wracked with not knowing which side to choose. And Richard, poor Richard, is wracked with the resounding crash from divine kingship to being nothing - “I must nothing be” (Act 4.1).
The greatness of Shakespeare's realism, Kott tells us, “consists in his awareness of the extent to which people are involved in history” (page 20). In Shakespeare “tragedy is suddenly projected onto the everyday level” (page 23).
We care because Shakespeare makes us care, not about the change in economic structure, but about York and Henry and Richard. We care because Shakespeare makes them real and human and people we know in a turbulent world. Like ours.
- The Norton Shakespeare, based on the Oxford Edition. Ed. Greenblatt, Stephen et al. Second edition, 2008.
- Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare, the Invention of the Human. Riverhead Books. 1998.
- Egan, Gabriel. Shakespeare and Marx. Oxford University Press. 2004.
- Eisman Maus, Katharine. Introduction in Norton edition.
- Kott, Jan. Shakespeare Our Contemporary. W.W. Norton and Companmy. 1964.
- BBC, 1978. Director: David Giles. Cast: Richard – Derek Jacobi; Bolingbroke – Jon Finch; John of Gaunt – John Gielgud; York – Charles Gray; Duchess of York – Wendy Hiller; Duchess of Gloucester – Mary Morris; Queen Isabella – Janet Maw. One of the earliest BBC productions and one of the best. Derek Jacobi is always superb and plays the flawed king perfectly. A better portrayal of Bolingbroke than this one by Jon Finch is hard to imagine. A thoroughly convincing production of this play which should be much more appreciated, and performed, than it is.
Seen on stage: no.