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He gives him only passive fortitude, the virtue of a confessor rather than of a king.

William Shakespeare. The tragedies

In his prosperity we saw him imperious and oppressive, but in his distress he is wise, patient, and pious. In his fall, Richard is not wise but eloquent, not patient but driving toward death, not pious but a kind of Christ parody. Give me that glass, and therein will I read. No deeper wrinkles yet? Hath sorrow struck So many blows upon this face of mine, And made no deeper wounds? Was this face the face That every day under his household roof Did keep ten thousand men?

William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet - Google книги

Was this the face That like the sun, did make beholders wink? A brittle glory shineth in this face, As brittle as the glory is the face, [Dashes the glass against the ground. It may seem fantastic to suggest that the aura of Christopher Marlowe seeps into the rhetoric and psychology of Richard II, but this was a complex trick that Shakespeare was to play again. Formally, Richard II is a tragedy, as Johnson took it to be, but it is the tragedy of a self-indulgent poet rather than the fall of a great king. The dashing of the glass is also the destruction of the legitimate royal countenance, yet when Richard is murdered we do not experience the shock of a monarch dying.

It is the death of the poet who has not matured into the possession and representation of wisdom. The two central characters of the whole sequence are Bolingbroke, later Henry IV, who appears in the first three, and his son, later Henry V, who appears in the second, third and fourth. The second part of Henry IV looks as though it were written mainly to meet a demand for more Falstaff. Still, each play does look back to its predecessors, so there is a unity to the sequence, whether planned in advance or not.

And, as the Epilogue to Henry V tells us, the story ends at the point where the earlier sequence began. We can see that there were not many Romeo and Juliet situations: in the aristocracy at that time you simply married the man or woman who would do most for the fortunes of your family. Shakespeare speaks of seven sons: the other two, both called William, died early on. The daughter of the second son, Lionel, married into the family of Mortimers; her daughter in turn married Hotspur of the Percy family. That was the issue that the revolt against Henry IV, which involved Hotspur so deeply, depended on.

However, he succeeded in establishing the Lancastrian house as the royal family, and was followed by his son and grandson. Apart from what the conspirators say, the fact that Bolingbroke seized the crown from Edmund as well as Richard is played down in this sequence, but there is a grimly eloquent speech from this Edmund, dying in prison, in 1 Henry VI although Shakespeare, if he wrote the scene, has confused him with someone else.

The Yorkist line came from the fourth son, Edmund, Duke of York, whose dramatic switch of loyalties from Richard to Bolingbroke, and the resulting conflict with his son Edward, called Aumerle, is the real narrative turning point of Richard II. Whether Richard III did this, or whether the story came from the Tudor propaganda machine, is still disputed: in any case Shakespeare bought it.

Richard III, after a reign of about two years, was defeated and killed in battle by the Duke of Richmond, a descendant of John of Gaunt through a later wife. Because of his descent from John of Gaunt, his victory technically restored the House of Lancaster, but one of the first things he did was to marry the Yorkist heiress Elizabeth, and the marriage put a symbolic end to the war by uniting the red and white roses.

There was another well-known contemporary play on this subject, Thomas of Woodstock anonymous. This play is probably a source for Shakespeare, as it seems to be earlier, although it loads the case against Richard more heavily than Shakespeare does.


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According to this play Woodstock lost his life because he was too persistent in giving Richard II advice, and Richard was as much involved with his death as Mowbray. The cutting out of the deposing scene could have happened anyway, because of the official nervousness about showing or printing such things, but there is evidence that the play was revived during the conspiracy of Essex against Elizabeth, perhaps for the very purpose the censors worried about, that of accustoming the public to the thought of deposing a monarch.

This tragedy was played forty times in open streets and houses. It is perhaps a measure of her sense of insecurity, even at this period of her reign, that she thought there was. Considering the early date of the play mids, probably , it is most unlikely that there was any contemporary allusion, but if the Essex group did revive the play for propaganda, this scene would have backfired on them, as it says that a capable ruler ought to cut ambitious nobles down to size before they get dangerous.

William Shakespeare : An Overview of his Drama

In Richard II Shakespeare had to make a marriage of convenience between the facts of medieval society, so far as they filtered down to him from his sources, and the Tudor mystique of royalty. That mystique regarded government by a central sovereign to be the form of government most in accord with both human nature and the will of God. It is true that no English sovereign except Henry VIII ever had the unlimited power that was very common on the Continent then and for many centuries thereafter.

The Greek equivalent of Messiah is Christ, and Jesus Christ was regarded as the king of the spiritual world, lawful kings in the physical world being his regents. If a lawful king happened to be a vicious tyrant, that was ultimately the fault of his subjects rather than of him, and they were being punished through him for their sins. Bolingbroke uses this image when he is making his first act as the next king, in ordering the execution of Bushy and Green; it is repeated in a contrasting context by Richard: Not all the water in the rough rude sea Can wash the balm off from an anointed king III.

Well, in some circumstances you do. John thereby becomes by default the lawful king, and when he dies his son Prince Henry becomes his legitimate heir. The strongest man in the country at the time is Falconbridge, bastard son of Richard I, who would have been king if he were legitimate, and could probably seize power quite easily in any case. You may not find this particular issue personally very involving, but the general principle is that all ideologies sooner or later get to be circumvented by cynicism and defended by hysteria, and that principle will meet you everywhere you turn in a world driven crazy by ideologies, like ours.

This is the central theme of Richard II. We also learn that Richard had a very undesirable lot of court favourites, spent far too much money on his own pleasures, and at the time of the play was involved in a war in Ireland that had brought his finances into a crisis. In the Middle Ages the effective power was held by the great baronial houses, which drew their income from their own land and tenants, many of them serfs; they could raise private armies, and in a crisis could barricade 22 Northrop Frye themselves into some very strong castles.

In such a situation a medieval king had a theoretical supremacy, but not always an actual one, and, as his power base was often narrower than that of a landed noble, he was perpetually hard up for money. So if he were stuck with a sudden crisis, as Richard II is with the Irish war, he would often have to behave like a brigand in his own country and find pretexts for seizing and confiscating estates. What kind of law does a lawful king represent who resorts to illegal means of getting money?

Or, who resorts to means that are technically legal, but violate a moral right? Depends on what the moral right is. In the demoralized state of the nation a de facto power begins to gather around Bolingbroke, and he simply follows where it leads, neither a puppet of circumstances nor a deliberately unscrupulous usurper. The rest of the play is the working out of this de jure and de facto dilemma.

As Shakespeare presents the issue, both sides are right. Henry becomes king, and makes a better king, as such things go, than Richard. Perhaps the only thing that would really resolve the situation is for Henry IV to go on the crusade he keeps talking about, because killing Moslems is so meritorious an act that it wipes out all previous sins, however grievous. John of Gaunt introduces the theme of crusade, as one of the things England was devoted to in its prime: he was doubtless thinking of the contrast between Richard and his namesake, Richard I, who spent so much of his ten-year reign fighting in the Third Crusade.

He carries on as best he can, and the comforting prophecy that he will die in Jerusalem turns out to apply to the name of a room in the palace of Westminster. It should be clear by now that Shakespeare is not interested in what we would normally think of as history.

What is really happening in history is extremely difficult to dramatize.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Shakespeare is interested in chronicle, the personal actions and interactions of the people at the top of the social order. And the centre of his interest is in the kind of dramatic performance involved in being a leader in society, more particularly a king. All social relationships are in a sense theatrical ones: as soon as someone we know appears, we throw ourselves into the dramatic situation that our knowledge of him makes appropriate, and act it out accordingly.

And what we all do, the prince makes history, or chronicle, by doing. But the theorist and the dramatist converge on two points: the dramatic nature of leadership and the fact that the qualities of the born leader are not moral qualities. What there is is a consistency that limits the variety of social relations to a certain repertoire: that is, Hamlet always sounds like Hamlet, and Falstaff like Falstaff, whatever their roles at the moment. Situations change, and the good leader does what the new situation calls for, not what is consistent with what he did before.

The reputation of being virtuous or liberal or gracious is more important for the prince than the reality of these things, or rather, as in staging a play, the illusion is the reality.

Totus Mundus Agit Histrionem

Bolingbroke begins and ends the play, and the beginning and ending are in a most symmetrical relationship. At the beginning there is to be a public duel, or trial by battle, between Bolingbroke and Mowbray, over the murder of Thomas of Woodstock. Although Mowbray belongs to the house of Norfolk, not York, here is in embryo the theme of the eight historical plays: two noblemen quarrelling among themselves, with the king driven to stratagems to maintain his ascendancy.

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William Shakespeare - Tragedies

Perhaps a shrewder monarch would have left them to fight it out, on the ground that a duel to the death would get rid of at least one dangerous nobleman, but Richard stops the duel and banishes both, Mowbray for life, Bolingbroke for ten years, later reduced to six. In the middle comes the scene of the queen and the gardener. Every fall of every consecrated ruler repeats the original fall of man. One corollary from this conception of a wheel of fortune is that in history it is only the past that can be idealized or thought of as heroic or peaceful.

We have to listen on a deeper level, picking up such things as the Cain imagery, to realize that the beginning and the end are much the same point. We feel this circularity of movement from the very beginning, the ordeal by battle that opens the play. Such ordeals, in medieval times, were surrounded by the most detailed ritual and punctilio. The combatants appeared before the king and formally stated their cases; the king would try to reconcile them; he would fail; he would then allow a trial by battle at a time and place duly stated.


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As the play goes on, the duel modulates to one between Bolingbroke and King Richard, but the same ritual formality continues, except that there is no longer any question of a fair fight. Bolingbroke realizes that one of the qualities of the leader is inscrutability, giving the impression that there are great reserves of power of decision not being expressed.

Of course many people look inscrutable who are merely stupid: Bolingbroke is not stupid, but he understands that the leaders who attract the greatest loyalty and confidence are those who can suggest in their manner that they have no need of it. Later, in 1 Henry IV, Bolingbroke is telling his son Prince Hal that, in the dramatic show a leader puts on, the one essential is aloofness.

To extend this in the direction of Richard II, if the individual man is A, and the symbol of the nation as a single body is B, then the real king is B, the consecrated and sacrosanct figure, the king de jure. But the stronger the king is as an individual, and the more de facto ability he has, the more nearly A will equal B, and the better off both the king and his society will be.

Richard has been brought up to believe in the sanctity of his office, and unfortunately that has not made him more responsible but less so. Hence he turns to magic and fantasy as soon as he is even momentarily frustrated. John of Gaunt tells him his flatterers have got inside his individual castle, and have cut him off from that identification with his society that every genuine king must have. Nobody could express the doctrine of the two bodies more clearly than John of Gaunt does: A thousand flatterers sit within thy crown, Whose compass is no bigger than thy head; 28 Northrop Frye And yet, incaged in so small a verge, The waste is no whit lesser than thy land.

But after the roll call of disasters has been recited to him he suddenly reverses his perspective, fascinated by the paradox that an individual, as vulnerable and subject to accident as anyone else, could also be the body of his whole kingdom.


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  5. In short, he turns introvert, and that is a dangerous thing for a ruler to be who expects to go on being a ruler.