A righteous coup? The puzzle of Richard II

Who says Shakespeare is not relevant today? Who says only Hamlet plays to our modern perspectives, while the other plays fall in to the contextual quagmire fitted for the works of Fletcher and Jonson?

Earlier this month, now former President of Egypt, Morsi, was deposed by the military with a mandate from the people. According to the BBC, his government was accused of spying, destroying the economy, and attacking military barracks amongst other offenses. Naturally, there was those opposed to this action, and since 3 July, 2013 riots have broken out between Morsi supporters and those who ousted him, while political wrangling continues about how to sort out the country. This is not a political piece, and my only stance on the matter at the time is that I hope a resolution is reached that prevents further innocent deaths. The part that interests me, and the connections that form between this current affair and Shakespeare is the external reactions. The US (and others) have carefully tiptoed around the word coup, being careful to not use it because the great democratic world does not support the coup of a democratically elected official – which Morsi objectively was, rightfully or wrongfully. This was, objectively again, a coup. The question is: was it a rightful coup? Is there such a thing?

Let’s look at IV.i in Richard II (R2). As soon as Henry Bolingbroke announces that he will ascend the throne as King Henry, fourth of that name, we see a rebuke from the Bishop of Carlisle; probably the most scathing critique in this play of critical rhetoric:

“Marry. God forbid!
Worst in this royal presence may I speak,
Yet best beseeming me to speak the truth.
Would God that any in this noble presence
Were enough noble to be upright judge
Of noble Richard! then true noblesse would
Learn him forbearance from so foul a wrong.
What subject can give sentence on his king?
And who sits here that is not Richard’s subject?
Thieves are not judged but they are by to hear,
Although apparent guilt be seen in them;
And shall the figure of God’s majesty,
His captain, steward, deputy-elect,
Anointed, crowned, planted many years,
Be judged by subject and inferior breath,
And he himself not present? O, forfend it, God,
That in a Christian climate souls refined
Should show so heinous, black, obscene a deed!
I speak to subjects, and a subject speaks,
Stirr’d up by God, thus boldly for his king:
My Lord of Hereford here, whom you call king,
Is a foul traitor to proud Hereford’s king:
And if you crown him, let me prophesy:
The blood of English shall manure the ground,
And future ages groan for this foul act;
Peace shall go sleep with Turks and infidels,
And in this seat of peace tumultuous wars
Shall kin with kin and kind with kind confound;
Disorder, horror, fear and mutiny
Shall here inhabit, and this land be call’d
The field of Golgotha and dead men’s skulls.
O, if you raise this house against this house,
It will the woefullest division prove
That ever fell upon this cursed earth.
Prevent it, resist it, let it not be so,
Lest child, child’s children, cry against you woe!” (Richard II, IV.i)

Carlisle does not think there is any justification for usurpation. He “prophetically” alludes to the troubles that the usurping dynasty will bring to England, which would last until the death of Richard III almost two centuries later. Someone could have stood up and said a very similar speech in defense of Morsi, or the many others, deemed tyrants, that were deposed by a rival power. The central conceit of R2 is usurpation justifiable – is just as relevant today as it was in c. 1595 when this play was written. Is Henry Bolingbroke the hero who ushers in a glorious future for England, or a traitor who breaks the law by returning to England before his banishment is passed, massing an army, forcing the king to abdicate, and sending someone to kill said deposed king?

Who has the power to decide who has the power?

This play of questioning rhetoric begins with a high debate, which forces the audience from the outset to pick sides: to decide for themselves who is right and who is wrong. The debate is not between the foils of this play – Henry Bolingbroke (sometimes called Henry Hereford, later called King Henry IV) and King Richard II – but rather Henry and Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk. In this first scene, Henry accuses Mowbray of plotting treason against King Richard, as well as having a part in the death of the Duke of Gloucester. Now, we must always remember that the audience of 1595 was for the most part far more acquainted with the history than we are (save for historians specializing in 13th and 14th century English politics). So if we take only what Shakespeare presents us, we have Henry Hereford, at this father’s behest, accusing Mowbray of treason, and Mowbray denying it. Henry is the better speaker of the two, and he has his father to back his case, so even though neither combatant backs down and it almost results in a duel (wait for it), Henry earns more of the king’s favour – he is less in the wrong than Mowbray and is thus sentenced to a banishment of ten years (later reduced after pleas from his father), while Mowbray is permanently exiled. If we look at the scoreboard: we should sympathize more with Henry because he did nothing wrong, he was just hot-headed: we should despite Mowbray for plotting treason and trying to deny it: we should see King Richard II as a just man who spares their lives and imposes banishment instead (there art they happy?).

But let us for a moment throw history into the mix and try to puzzle this out. Henry and Mowbray were both part of the Lords Appellant: without getting into too much back story, they both has a part in a treasonous plot. Henry’s father, Gaunt, became aware of this and begged his son to inform the king – and the rest follows pretty much as Shakespeare wrote it. The key piece of information here is that knowledgeable people going into this play can watch the first scene knowing full well that Henry is no less guilty than Mowbray, he just played the game better. Incidentally, it was also well known that King Richard was the one who had Gloucester killed, which muddies up the waters even further.

Sure, Shakespeare may have revised history to portray the Lancaster family in a better light; while Henry was not Queen Elizabeth I’s direct ancestor, John of Gaunt was. However, the muddling of history, the initial debate, and sudden banishment of the two combatants could underscore everything that follows in this play.

John of Gaunt dies following the banishment of his son, Henry. Before his death he delivers a solemn speech on the state of England, this one most likely is a token to Elizabeth’s grandmother. Then everything goes to pieces. Richard steals all of Gaunt’s lands and titles that should have gone to Henry, ships off to Ireland to quell a rebellion, meanwhile a group of his lords defect to Henry’s camp. Henry has come back prematurely to England and is massing an army in order to gain his lands and titles back. The events move in quick succession as Richard loses and Henry gains. As he gives his crown to Henry, Richard symbolizes the events of the play through one of his metaphors – as he is prone to.

Now is this golden crown like a deep well
That owes two buckets, filling one another,
The emptier ever dancing in the air,
The other down, unseen and full of water:
That bucket down and full of tears am I,
Drinking my griefs, whilst you mount up on high. (IV.i)

I don’t need to describe the transfer of power in any great detail, but suffice it to say that as the transfer of power shifts, so does the Author’s sympathy. If we are supposed to see Henry as the victim in the first scene, Richard attempts to gain our sympathy throughout Act III, as he loses more and more, until he is reduced to his last stronghold, crying out that he is the rightful king, that he is being usurped, and that what is happening is an affront to God. And while Richard remains unlikable at this point, and surely not a good king, we cannot deny the truth in his sentiments.

Because we thought ourself thy lawful king:
And if we be, 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;
For well we know, no hand of blood and bone
Can gripe the sacred handle of our sceptre,
Unless he do profane, steal, or usurp.
And though you think that all, as you have done,
Have torn their souls by turning them from us,
And we are barren and bereft of friends;
Yet know, my master, God omnipotent,
Is mustering in his clouds on our behalf
Armies of pestilence; and they shall strike
Your children yet unborn and unbegot,
That lift your vassal hands against my head
And threat the glory of my precious crown.
Tell Bolingbroke–for yond methinks he stands–
That every stride he makes upon my land
Is dangerous treason: he is come to open
The purple testament of bleeding war;
But ere the crown he looks for live in peace,
Ten thousand bloody crowns of mothers’ sons
Shall ill become the flower of England’s face,
Change the complexion of her maid-pale peace
To scarlet indignation and bedew
Her pastures’ grass with faithful English blood. (III.iii)

Again, we can hear Morsi’s voice, and the voice of many other deposed rulers before him. Richard stole from his subjects, bestowed favours on personal friends, disregarded the well-being of his kingdom: does that make him any less a legitimate king? Who is Henry to take what is his right (thought to be right handed down form God)? Shakespeare forces this question on us: forces us to consider the limitations of power, and tackles the question that political philosophers have tackled since – let’s say – Plato: what to do with an unjust monarch.

If Shakespeare offers an answer to this problem, it is found in Richard’s final soliloquy in Act V, scene v: in my opinion, one of the best soliloquies in Shakespeare. At this point, Richard has lost the crown and has been arrested and locked in the Pomfret Castle. Having nothing, he, for the first time, speaks to us directly:

I have been studying how I may compare
This prison where I live unto the world:
And for because the world is populous
And here is not a creature but myself,
I cannot do it; yet I’ll hammer it out.
My brain I’ll prove the female to my soul,
My soul the father; and these two beget
A generation of still-breeding thoughts,
And these same thoughts people this little world,
In humours like the people of this world,
For no thought is contented. The better sort,
As thoughts of things divine, are intermix’d
With scruples and do set the word itself
Against the word:
As thus, ‘Come, little ones,’ and then again,
‘It is as hard to come as for a camel
To thread the postern of a small needle’s eye.’
Thoughts tending to ambition, they do plot
Unlikely wonders; how these vain weak nails
May tear a passage through the flinty ribs
Of this hard world, my ragged prison walls,
And, for they cannot, die in their own pride.
Thoughts tending to content flatter themselves
That they are not the first of fortune’s slaves,
Nor shall not be the last; like silly beggars
Who sitting in the stocks refuge their shame,
That many have and others must sit there;
And in this thought they find a kind of ease,
Bearing their own misfortunes on the back
Of such as have before endured the like.
Thus play I in one person many people,
And none contented: sometimes am I king;
Then treasons make me wish myself a beggar,
And so I am: then crushing penury
Persuades me I was better when a king;
Then am I king’d again: and by and by
Think that I am unking’d by Bolingbroke,
And straight am nothing: but whate’er I be,
Nor I nor any man that but man is
With nothing shall be pleased, till he be eased
With being nothing. Music do I hear?


Ha, ha! keep time: how sour sweet music is,
When time is broke and no proportion kept!
So is it in the music of men’s lives.
And here have I the daintiness of ear
To cheque time broke in a disorder’d string;
But for the concord of my state and time
Had not an ear to hear my true time broke.
I wasted time, and now doth time waste me;
For now hath time made me his numbering clock:
My thoughts are minutes; and with sighs they jar
Their watches on unto mine eyes, the outward watch,
Whereto my finger, like a dial’s point,
Is pointing still, in cleansing them from tears.
Now sir, the sound that tells what hour it is
Are clamorous groans, which strike upon my heart,
Which is the bell: so sighs and tears and groans
Show minutes, times, and hours: but my time
Runs posting on in Bolingbroke’s proud joy,
While I stand fooling here, his Jack o’ the clock.
This music mads me; let it sound no more;
For though it have holp madmen to their wits,
In me it seems it will make wise men mad.
Yet blessing on his heart that gives it me!
For ’tis a sign of love; and love to Richard
Is a strange brooch in this all-hating world. (V.v)

What is Richard’s conclusion? Time alone has power. That we are all fleeting, changing metaphors, and power is an external force that disregards the physical form it inhabits? Why not? Rulers are always simultaneously good and bad – it’s just a matter of perspective, isn’t it?

Disappointed? Shakespeare wrote plays – the human aspect of life was always the most important. Richard was not a good king, but he also had a country crumbling around him when he took the throne. Henry had everything taken from him and simply wanted to get it back. These are human actions. Shakespeare doesn’t take sides or solve the world’s problems, he writes plays. This is why the common people’s voices are excluded from this play. This is why this lyrical history is consumed by metaphors. There is no answer, only symbol and perspective. So I will leave you with Mark Rylance’s performance of the above quoted soliloquy.



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