Shakespeare's Richard II Essay

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Shakespeare's Richard II

One of the most interesting dynamics explored within William Shakespeare's drama Richard II is the dichotomy inherent in the way that kingship structures subjectivity. The play, set within medieval Europe, takes place during the time when the king was largely seen as a divine agent of God himself. Therefore, among his subjects, the king was viewed in much the same way that God was, while his subjects were viewed in much the same way that common people are viewed in respect to a divinity as omniscient and omnipotent of God. The dichotomy existent in this relationship is that the subjects are essentially powerless, while the king is all-powerful. Yet this particular play is an anomaly in this conventional medieval view of the nature of kingship and subjectivity because Richard II's actions are anything but akin to God's. He is selfish, impecunious, and at times immoral -- which leads to his eventual overthrow and subjectivity. An analysis of this drama displays the inherent tension in what is not simply the overthrow of Richard II, but also the overthrow of this divine right of kingship, which demonstrates the fact that kingship ultimately makes for ideal subjectivity as demonstrated by Richard's behavior.

In order to understand how Richard's downfall represents an overthrow of the very system of the divine right of kingship and its implications for subjectivity, it is first necessary to demonstrate that this right is acknowledged by all of the principle characters in the drama -- most importantly by Richard himself. Even at the stage in the play when it is quite clear that Richard has lost everything in his kingdom -- the loyalty and fealty of his subjects, trusted alliances, even the awe and reverence of those within his presence -- but the title of king, he still believes (and acts) as though that title itself is enough to repel any sort of threat posed by Henry Bolingbroke, the usurper. It is because of the conception of the divinity of the king's right to authority that Richard was able to maintain this belief, which the following quotation proves. "Because we thought ourself thy lawful king:/…how dare thy joints forget/To pay their awful duty to our presence?/If we be not, show us the hand of God/That hath dismissed us from our stewardship" (Act II, Scene iii). This quotation, in which Richard addresses the party of Bolingbroke while the former is sequestered at Castel Flint, demonstrates the close interrelation between kingship (law) and divinity. In this passage, Richard demands that Bolingbroke and his party genuflect in the presence of their king. Additionally, he states that the only way they could not do so is if he were not king, which is contingent upon the "hand of God" revoking his kingship. This quote is all the more revealing of this interrelation between kingship and divinity because Richard knows at this point that he has no secular means of defending his claim of king. Yet he clearly believes that he does not need any. Therefore, this passage infers that the nature of subjectivity is immutable, it is bound by an act of God, and it requires nothing less than an act of God to surmount.

Yet this belief is ultimately contingent upon a king's actions, which should ideally accord themselves with divine nature, or at least the propagation of right in the best interest of the kingdom it represents. It is because Richard's actions are not in accordance with this basic principle that existed throughout England during the time this work of drama was set that Henry even dared to systematically take all the pieces of his power. The relationship between the king's actions and the facilitation of the divinity of his right to govern is prevalent within works of non-fiction as well, as the following quotation from King James VI and I shows.

…there is not a thing so necessarie to be knowne by the people of any land…as the right knowledge of their alleageance, according to the forme of government established among them especially in a Monarchie (which forme of government, as resembling the Divinitie, approacheth nearest to perfection (260).

This quotation proves that subjects are to have allegiance to their monarch. Furthermore, this passage evinces a parallel between a monarchy and God, which underscores the notion of the divine right of king's to rule. This quotation also alludes to the nature of subjectivity in the context of kingship by stating that it is "necessarie" for people to pledge allegiance to king. Such allegiance is emphasized by the fact that an allegiance to a king is one of the closest things towards perfection, or towards an allegiance to the (dis)embodiment of perfection, God. As such, there is a strict sense of obeisance required on the part of subjects, who must obey their king.

Therefore, when attempting to determine how kingship structures subjectivity, it is important to analyze not only how subjects address their king, but also how kings address their king; this latter king is, of course, God. Analyzed from this perspective, Richard is a subject well before his reign was displaced by that of Bolingbroke. Furthermore, it is extremely interesting to note that despite how much he invokes the name of God and his given right to govern as the King of England, he seems to have a similar degree of reverence, fealty, and respect for God, which is evinced within the following quotation. "The breath of worldly men cannot depose / the deputy elected by the Lord" (Act I, Scene ii). This quotation elucidates the conceit of the king as akin to God amongst his citizens by referring to his status as "elected" by the divinity. However, this passage also alludes to the relationship between a king and the supreme king, God, in which the former is a mere "deputy" of God. In this interpretation, God is the supreme king who has elected an earthly king merely to carry out his will. That will is described in King James VI and I in no uncertain terms, as the following quotation, in which the author describes a king's duties for his subjects, indicates. "…to procure the weale of his people…to maintaine concord, wealth, and civilitie among them…caring for them more than for himself…(261-262). This quotation implies that a king must take care of his subjects as a duty performed for God. A king, therefore, is subjected to the will of God in taking care of his subjects. The king has a great deal of responsibility for his citizens that he must perform, which is a sacred pledge that he is to uphold for God himself. When one considers this perspective, it becomes apparent that the first tier in the structure between kingship and subjectivity occurs between the king and God -- this relationship then is mimicked by the king's subjects in their treatment of him.

However, as stated earlier in the paper, for all of his moralizing and poetic reflection on the nature of kingship and subjectivity, Richard II actually is a poor example of a king and one who fails to "standeth and liveth more" (King James VI and I 262) for his subjects than for himself. Still, due to the nature of the way in which kingship structures subjectivity, his subjects are extremely hesitant to formally usurp his power and transgress the conventional roles of their relationship with Richard. All of the actions that Bolingbroke performs while systematically appropriating Richard II's power, garnering the favor and allegiance of his soldiers, executing the men who still had allegiance to him, is performed in the name of the king. Even when he finally confronts Richard II at Castel Flint, he does so with a degree of respect that is in accordance with the way a subject is supposed to treat his king, which the following quotation implies. "Thy thrice noble cousin/Harry Bolingbroke doth humbly kiss thy hand; And by the honourable tomb he swears/…His coming hither hath no further scope/Than for his lineal royalties and to beg/Enfranchisement immediate on his knees:" (Act III, Scene iii). The crux of the matter of this quotation is that Bolingbroke and his party are actually lying. They have come for Richard II's crown; everyone present on this occasion is aware of this fact. Yet the manner in which they broach the subject, the manner in which they speak to Richard II, is in accordance with the structure of the way subjects are supposed to speak to their kings. The connotations of humility and respect reflected in the imagery of kissing Richard's hand and genuflecting shows this structure.

Richard's reaction to this approach of Bolingbroke, which is befitting of the former's status as king coupled with the fact that he has no more supporters and no chance of withstanding Bolingbroke's overthrow by means of arms, is largely based on the structure of kingship and subjectivity. The only difference is that from this moment of the play on, the king (Richard) is a subject…

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