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“That Bearing Boughs May Live”: What Did King Richard II Author for the World?

It is 2020, the Summer of #BlackLivesMatter, and this week, in a moment of uncommon synchronicity, the theater company who would (in another non-Covid-19 world) be performing at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park are instead presenting King Richard II to homebound Internet streamers. Today’s resonance of the Bard’s words testifies not only to word craft but also to boldness, for King Richard II articulates revolution against repressive political and theological systems. Moreover, its nuanced language cultivates sympathy, allowing us, in the words of Shakespeare scholar Ayanna Thompson, “to grieve the loss of something even if we think it’s the right thing to get rid of,” as pertinent to “Defund the Police” protesters as their counterparts in 1776 America, 1789 Paris, 1791 Haiti, and 1917 Moscow (The Public). King Richard II asks its audience to consider the legitimacy of overthrowing a Pope-anointed monarch without damning the usurper’s mortal soul, and within the play’s text, King Richard II authors his downfall and plots a guide for future revolutionaries to follow.

Nigel Saul details the murderous “scheme… hatched by Richard and his courtiers to engineer the overthrow of Lancastrian power” before Bolingbroke’s succession, a prospect that “filled [the King] with alarm” (Saul 38-39). Shakespeare’s echoes the King’s duplicity when he tells Bushy, Green, and Aumerle that “The lining of [John of Gaunt’s] coffers shall make coats/To deck our soldiers for these Irish wars./Come, gentlemen, let's all go visit him:/Pray God we may make haste, and come too late!” (Shakespeare 1.4.62-64). The reckoning comes when King Richard II learns, upon returning from Ireland, the banished Bolingbroke is back to claim his inheritance and encircled by allies. Richard, still kingly, proclaims “Not all the water in the rough rude sea/Can wash the balm off from an anointed king;/The breath of worldly men cannot depose/The deputy elected by the Lord” (Shakespeare 3.2.54-57). Kantorowicz describes this moment as a portrayal of “the indelible character of the king’s body politic, god-like or angel-like” (27), however a string of “tidings of calamity” (Shakespeare 3.2.105) shake King Richard II to his core, a transformation from exaltation to “a [pale] nothing, a nomen” (Kantorowicz 29). Faced with mass desertions, the king appears to lose not only his authority but his very identity. “How can you say to me, I am a king?” (3.2.177) he asks his loyalists, and then bids them to “Discharge my followers: let them hence away,/From Richard’s night to Bolingbroke’s fair day,” seemingly defeated even before Bolingbroke challenges him, a self-subversion that becomes the theme of the rest of the story (3.2.218). Indeed, as Pye states, “the central question in the drama is whether sovereignty can prove itself by mastering its own subversion” (577).

What follows is a Passion play, complete with references to crosses, Judases, and Pilates, culminating in a scene where the now self-deposed Richard II defies “his onlookers to read the moment of his undoing” and dashes a mirror to the ground (578). This pivotal moment marks the end of King Richard II’s dual personhood, and the king, first “immortal because legally he can never die” (Kantorowicz 4) becomes “the king that… suffers death more cruelly than other mortals” (30). This transformation from a conniving leader to a pitiable creature is dramatic, engaging, and evocative. He seems to wish to dispense with his crown like an unused dropped gage. A poignant moment of abject misery occurs when Richard, bereft of his kingship and, from his perspective, his very identity, asks “What more remains?” (4.1.222). In response, because annihilation of self is apparently not enough, Northumberland charges his former sovereign with crimes like those Nigel Saul relates, accusations the king cannot read through tear-blinded eyes, but those sins spawn a measure of doubt, and Pye suggests a “more extravagant possibility that [the king’s] grief, and his crime, are not his own” (581). Pye argues the king is “dispossessed of his shame,” because through self-deposition, Richard II has been “rob[bed]… of the power to claim the guilt as his own”; Pye labels this dispossession the “perfect crime[,] one that elides itself as it is committed” (591). It is a particularly vexing danger overshadowing every revolutionary’s intent: Even if oppressive leaders, confronted with their misdeeds, peacefully surrender power, the true oppressor may be the society that created them, and, thus, the same fate may befall the revolutionaries.

In any case, responsibility for King Richard II’s downfall appears to be a legal tautology in English law. Kantorowicz, quoting Sir William Blackstone, explains a king “’is not only incapable of doing wrong, but even of thinking wrong: he can never mean to do an improper thing: in him is no folly or weakness’” (Kantorowicz 4). Thus, only King Richard II could author his downfall. A more interesting question is how the play has influenced history, and while it is reckless to exaggerate its impact on revolution, supporters of Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, did pay Shakespeare’s company to perform the play on February, 7, 1601, the day before a planned rebellion, a bald attempt to, in the words of Francis Bacon, “bring from the Stage to State” (Albright 709). Unfortunately for the earl, Queen Elizabeth I also asked for an encore performance the day of his execution.

 (583 original words, excluding these.)

Works Cited

Albright, Evelyn May. “Shakespeare's Richard II, Hayward's History of Henry IV, and the Essex Conspiracy.” PMLA. Modern Language Association, Sep. 1931, Vol. 46, No. 3, p. 709.

Stable URL: http://www.jstor.com/stable/457855

Kantorowicz, Ernst. “Shakespeare: King Richard II.” The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology. Princeton University Press, 2016, pp. 24-41.Preview the document

Pye, Christopher. “The Betrayal of the Gaze: Theatricality and Power in Shakespeare's Richard II.” ELH, vol. 55, no. 3, 1988, pp. 575-598.

Shakespeare, William. “Hamlet.” The Norton Shakespeare: The Essential Plays/Sonnets, edited by Stephen Greenblatt et al. 3rd Edition. W.W. Norton & Company. 2016.

The Public. Richard II.  https://publictheater.org/productions/season/1920/richard-ii/ [1]



[1] Ayanna Thompson’s interview is in the first segment of the four.

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