Shakespeare Notebook 2023: “Richard II”

This has been a good week for me in Matthew Franck’s “Shakespeare in a Year” reading plan, as Richard II is possibly my favourite Shakespeare play (it oscillates between that and The Tempest). I have, in fact, written about Richard II on this blog before, back in December 2021.

To steal my plot summary from that post, for the unfamiliar: King Richard II (1367-1400) banishes two noblemen, Henry Bolingbroke (his cousin) and Thomas Mowbray, who each accuse the other of murdering Richard’s uncle, the Duke of Gloucester. A series of bad decisions stemming from his own arrogance and flippancy gradually erode Richard’s authority as king. It is eventually revealed that he was the one behind Gloucester’s death. When Bolingbroke’s father, John of Gaunt, dies, Richard seizes his lands to pay for a war in Ireland. Scandalised, Bolingbroke returns to claim his birthright. Richard’s authority erodes to such an extent that he is forced to abdicate, and Bolingbroke is crowned King Henry IV. Thinking Bolingbroke wants Richard dead, Exton, one of his supporters, murders the deposed king. Guilt-ridden, Bolingbroke pledges to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to atone.

The play’s overriding theme is, undoubtedly, that of legitimate rule. What gives a king his right to sovereignty? Heredity? God? The people? “Richard II is interested in the idea of kingship rather than in ruling. Like a writer of minor poetry–he is good at that–he is interested more in the idea than in the act”–so said W.H. Auden of the eponymous lead.[1] Shakespeare, however, never seems to resolve the question, deftly redirecting our sympathies for both Richard and Bolingbroke throughout.

As I remarked in my aforementioned earlier piece on Richard II, and much as with Edward III, the previous play in Franck’s reading plan, questions of legitimate rule and sovereignty in the late 16th century simply cannot be considered without reference to the Reformation.

The Divine Will… of the People?

The play can seem somewhat scandalous, given that it was written and performed under the reign of Elizabeth I–a Protestant queen regarded as a bastard by most of Roman Catholic Europe. Indeed, the play goes even closer to the bone: Richard’s downfall is made out, in part, to be down to his penchant for favourites. “A thousand flatterers sit within thy crown,/Whose compass is no bigger than thy head”–this is the charge of his uncle, John of Gaunt (2.1.100-101). An excessive interest in favourites was widely regarded as one of Elizabeth I’s chief vices, at times posing a genuine threat to her continued rule. Indeed, the day prior to Essex’s Rebellion in 1601, carried out by one of her former favourites, the Earl of Essex, supporters of Essex staged a production of Richard II as “a gesture of encouragement and defiance.”[2] Apparently, the Queen was well aware of the similarities between herself and Richard, remarking once to the keeper of records in the Tower of London, “I am Richard II, know ye not that?”[3]

What’s more, Richard was a childless monarch with no clear successor, whose eventual departure from the throne led to strife and bloodshed (both within this play in the subsequent Henry IV plays). The comparison to Elizabeth here should be obvious.

Richard II, then, can seem a somewhat anti-monarchist play. Richard squanders his authority, and loses the goodwill of his people, which Bolingbroke has in spades. When news of Bolingbroke’s growing support comes to Richard, the King first takes solace in his anointing:

“Not all the water in the rough rude sea 
Can wash the blam off from an anointed king. 
The breath of worldly men cannot depose 
The deputy elected by the Lord” (3.2.54-57) 

And yet, as time goes on, Richard concedes, in some measure at least, that a king cannot be king without the consent of his people:

“Strives Bolingbroke to be as great as we? 
Greater he shall not be. If he serve God 
We’ll serve Him too, and be his fellow so.  
Revolt our subjects? That we cannot mend. 
They break their faith to God as well as us.” (3.2.97-101) 

Richard never truly concedes his rights as king, or the people’s duty to honour him as such, but acknowledges the political reality that he cannot govern. He puns often throughout the latter half of the play on how he has now been “subjected” to so much–Bolingbroke, the people, grief, failure, a weak body. He accepts political reality, counseling his wife who resists the inevitable even more than him:

“Learn, good soul, 
To think our former state a happy dream,
From which awakened the truth of what we are
Shows us but this. I am sworn brother, sweet,
To grim Necessity, and he and I
Will keep a league till death.” (5.1.17-22)

And yet, perhaps Shakespeare’s greatest achievement in the play, is that he makes us hugely sympathetic to Richard despite his obvious flaws and equally resentful toward Bolingbroke despite his obvious virtues. Indeed, no sooner is Richard dead at the hand of Exton than the latter expresses his regret:

“As full of valour as of royal blood.
Both have I spilled. O, would the deed were good!
For now the devil, that told me I did well,
Says that this deed is chronicled in hell.” (5.5.113-114).

The seemingly intractable problem of competing loyalties here is emphasised by the fact that Exton, in 2 of the 3 scenes in which he appears, refers to both Richard and Henry as “King”–as if both still legitimately hold the title (the ambiguity of who people mean when they refer to “the King” recurs a number of times elsewhere). It is only when Richard is dead that Exton calls him “Richard of Bordeaux” in the final scene.

So, some scattered thoughts here in light of some Protestant thinking (and I pray the reader’s indulgence, and remind you that “scattered thoughts” is all these Shakespeare Notebook entries are).

Undoubtedly, Richard II was taken as a controversial play in its day, giving vent to those who wished to challenge the rule of Elizabeth I (although principally those who did so on political grounds, rather than as recusant Romanists). It would surely have seemed scandalous and seditious to suggest that the monarch may lose their crown through the will of the people. And yet England’s break with Rome, and Elizabeth’s ongoing defiance of her excommunication, can be seen as a pitting of the popular will of the English against the more explicitly “divine” will of Rome. Perhaps more than any other monarch at the time, Elizabeth would have been keenly aware of her dependence upon the assent of the people to her rule, given her alleged bastardy and hairy moments such as the Spanish Armada in 1588 when it emerged that English Catholics ultimately preferred not to rise up against her.

Yet it is not a simple case of a “civil” will vs. a “divine” will. In Reformation thought, the civil will of a people is no less divine than that of the Church, since both are instituted by God for different reasons. It is for this very reason that the Reformers asserted so strongly that the pope did not have jurisdiction over political matters. The only proper political authority is the civil magistrate–and this magisterial authority is not an inarguable rule of divine fiat, but something which ultimately arises from the whole people. The Reformation reclamation of this view was anticipated in the Middle Ages by Marsilius of Padua in his incendiary 1324 work Defensor Pacis. Audaciously channeling Aristotle, he opens the work thus:

“Now we declare according to the truth and on the authority of Aristotle that the law-making power or the first real effective source of law is the people of the body of citizens of the prevailing part of the people according to its election or its will express in general convention by vote, commanding or deciding that something be done or omitted in regard to human civil acts under penalty or temporal punishment.”[4]

And yet, even with this reclaimed view of the importance of popular consent in government, it is undeniably the case that the Reformers had a high view of popular obedience to civil authorities even when those authorities do us wrong. This is, in part, because the undesirability of anarchy was largely agreed to be far worse than that of tyranny (a thought we moderns find hard to grasp–most of our imagined dystopian futures are authoritarian rather than lawless).

Glenn Moots summarises Luther’s views on this matter in the chapter on “Resistance and Rebellion” in our recent Davenant Press book Protestant Social Teaching:

“So long as the civil magistrate does not presume ecclesiastical or spiritual power, Luther says, we should even be prepared to suffer wrong at his hands…Luther is so insistent on civil obedience that in his Larger Catechism, he goes so far as to call the civil ruler a father over many people–equating the civil ruler with parents whom the Decalogue commands us to obey.”[5]

This seems to make some sense of Exton’s immediate regret over Richard’s death, as well as Bolingbroke’s continual reluctance to actually take the throne throughout the play–and indeed of our own sympathies for Richard in his downfall. “We forgive him too because he suffers so articulately, so expressively, and in such melodious and perfectly controlled verse. We think of him as a voice, and a voice with tears in it.”[6]

Once again, I make no claim to Shakespeare advancing a thoroughly Protestant political theology in his play–but he cannot be read without such things in mind.

  1. W.H. Auden, Lectures on Shakespeare, ed. Arthur Kirsch (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 72.

  2. Stanley Wells, “Introduction” in Richard II, The New Penguin Shakespeare, ed. Stanley Wells (London: Penguin Books, 1969), 13.

  3. Wells, “Introduction”, 13.

  4. Marsilius of Padua, “Defender of the Peace” in Reformation Theology: A Reader of Primary Sources With Introductions (Landrum: Davenant Press, 2018), 15.

  5. Glenn Moots, “Resistance and Rebellion” in Protestant Social Teaching: An Introduction, ed.Onsi Aaron Kamel, Jake Meador, and Joseph Minich (Landrum: Davenant Press, 2022), 49-50.

  6. Wells, “Introduction”, 8.

*Image Credit: Unsplash


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