Richard II: The Fall Of A Weak And Ineffectual Ruler Literature Reviews Examples
Type of paper: Literature Review
Topic: Politics, Anne Of Green Gables, Crime, England, Power, Ruler, Shakespeare, People
At the end of Shakespeare’s Richard II, newly crowned King Henry feels guilty for instigating the death of Richard, and promises to take a pilgrimage to Jerusalem as penance, to cleanse his consciousness of being involved in the murder. However, it is clear that Henry IV is a ruthless and pragmatic Machiavellian ruler, and is willing to do whatever it takes to become king and consolidate his power. Richard II, on the other hand, is a weak and indecisive leader. He is politically unsophisticated, alienates his allies, ignores counsel, abuses his power, and leaves his kingdom for Ireland at the most inopportune moment, setting the stage for his overthrow. Throughout the play, Shakespeare actively foreshadows his death. Richard, however, is completely oblivious. He seems delusional and disconnected, unable to recognize the danger of his behavior or the severity of his political situation. It is clear that Richard has little political support, and Bolingbroke is a more effective political player. In the Machiavellian world of royalty, Richard II did not follow the rules of politics, was instrumental in his own inevitable demise, and should have been deposed.
Richard commits many political blunders, but in the first scene act II, he ignores the sage advice of the dying Gaunt, who only wants to offer “wholesome counsel to unstaid youth” (2.1. 684). However, Guant knows his advice will fall on deaf ears, and tells the Duke of York that Richard is surrounded by yes-men and flatterers. Gaunt also foresees the fall of Richard, because "His rash fierce blaze of riot cannot last. / For violent fires soon burn out themselves" (2.1.715-16). Gaunt believes Richard is politically unstable, because he is unwise, brash, impatient and impulsive. He also fears that Richard is leading England to destruction, offering a poignant speech about his country on his deathbed: This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle, / This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, / This other Eden, demi-paradise / This fortress built by nature for herself/ against infection and the hand of war/blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England./ Is now leas'd out--I die pronouncing it / Like to a tenement or pelting farm" (2.1.723-43) Guant is dying, and he believes his beautiful England is doomed because Richard is not a politically astute or rational leader. In his speech, Gaunt uses nature imagery to imply that Richard is almost cancerous, destroying and eating his fertile England from the inside. He believes England is a healthy organic and natural kingdom, that is being bought and sold by greedy power hungry people with "inky blots and rotten parchment bonds" (2.1.746). England is being destroyed by its own ruler, and "hath made a shameful conquest of itself" (2.1. 748) Later, the nature metaphor is further explored when the kings gardener reflects that Richard was not good at caring for his garden, his kingdom. (3.4.1895-98). An elder gardener asks his apprentice “Why should we in the compass of a pale/ Keep law and form and due proportion/Showing, as in a model, our firm estate,/When our sea-walled garden, the whole land, /Is full of weeds, her fairest flowers choked up (3.41904-09). It is clear that even the common people sense that Richard is a bad king. In short, Guant believes his nephew, Richard II, is a corrupt king. As a rich, reasonable, respected and influential noblemen, Gaunt’s views offer a unique perspective on Richard’s misrule. On his deathbed, he tells Richard that he wastes money, does not care for his people, taxes them too much, and only listens to his lackeys, who only want power for themselves. Richard tells Gaunt that if he were not his uncle, he would kill him. However, Gaunt is dying, and is not concerned. Gaunt is offering a truly honest, unbiased and unmotivated opinion. Gaunt knows Richard intimately, has personal knowledge of the politics of England, and has nothing to lose. From this, the reader can gauge what kind of ruler Richard II really was.
Gaunt is not the only nobleman who feels Richard is a horrible ruler. Ignoring the counsel of Guant is a serious political mistake, which is compounded when Richard seizes Gaunt's estates to support his wars in Ireland, which infuriates all the nobles, who fear he will do the same to them. It is already clear the people do not like the King, feels he taxes them too much to fund his incessant wars. Richard also angers his fellow nobles, who he must rely on for their loyalty, financial support and troops. Lord Ross, The Earl of Northumberland, and Lord Willoughby commiserate at the end of act II, and confide in each other they are planning to join a coup staged by Bolingbroke. The nobles all agree that Richard is out of control, and Lord Willoughby believes that “The king's grown bankrupt, like a broken man” (2.1.948).
Richard is young, stubborn, regal, and enjoys being king. However, he does not understand the intricacies of politics. His inevitable defeat at the hands of Bolingbroke is made ominously clear throughout the play; it is obvious things will not end well for Richard. As a result of this dark cloud, the reader has the opportunity to assess the reasons why everyone is plotting Richards overthrow. Richard truly acts and feels like a divine monarch, who has doubt that he is the legitimate king. Moreover, Richard II does not seem aware or conscious that he is in danger, despite numerous warnings and a decaying kingdom. As a King in a politicized court, full of intrigue, murder and power struggles, Richard seems unaware of the dangers and blissfully unaware he is about to be usurped. He may have been involved in recent murder of the Duke of Gloucester, and he was aware that nobles – such as Bolingbroke and Mowbray are not content. His kingdom is in disarray. He then leaves England for Ireland at the worst possible time, setting the stage for Bolingbroke’s triumphant return. This is another reason Richard was instrumental in his own downfall and deserved to be usurped.
Bolingbroke, on the other hand, is politically astute. He is good at navigating the complex political landscape of the royal court, and understands how important it is to have the nobility on his side. In times of war and strife, the troops are provided by feudal lords. Richard II alienated the only people who could protect him. In Ireland, only York is left to protest his interests. When Bolingbroke arrives, his allies are there to support him. Furthermore, he is clever enough to assure York that he does wish to stage a coup, or usurp Richard, he merely wants his estate returned to him. He quickly changes his story when he recognizes his strength and popularity. Upon seizing power, Bolingbroke acts like a true king. He kills his opponents and Richards supporters, including the Earl of Wilshire, Bushy and Greene. He has no respect for his opponents, calling them “The caterpillars of the commonwealth,/ Which I have sworn to weed and pluck away (2.31323). Again, Shakespeare compares political leadership to gardening, and Bolingbroke is a serious gardener, who kills his opponents like weeds. He throws Richard in prison, and consolidates his power.
Finally, the way Richard easily and melodramatically admits defeat shows that he was a weak and insipid king, without much of a backbone. Let's talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs/Let's choose executors and talk of wills:/And yet not so, for what can we bequeath/ Save our deposed bodies to the ground? /Our lands, our lives and all are Bolingbroke's, And nothing can we call our own but death (3.2.1555-61) Richard feels sorry for his loss of status, and becomes melancholy. For a ruler who loves waging war, he is not much of a fighter. Isabel asks him why he accepted defeat so easily, and is surprised that he does not even seem angry. He advises her to flee to France, and tells Northumberland that his treachery will be rewarded in kind, and come back to haunt him and the other noblemen involved in the coup. Confined to his cell, Richard begins to go crazy, imagining psychological games. Overall, he was an ineffectual ruler, blinded by authority, and possibly a little insane, which tends to run in royal families. King Henry IV feels guilty about his murder, ordering Exton to wander aimlessly, forever a guilty man. He promises to go to Jerusalem to atone for his involvement, which suggests that Richard was not hated, or a terrible person; he was just a horrible king and political strategist.
Political treason and Machiavellian machinations are at the heart of Richard II, and Shakespeare seems to suggest the Bolingbroke will be a different kind of ruler as Henry IV. Before Richard II is even over, rebels are burning towns and a plot to assassinate Henry IV is foiled, and we learn that the future of England’s royal family will continue to be intriguing. Young Prince Hal is up to no good. Henry IV however, seems to have it all under control in a way that Richard never could. Unlike Richard, Henry IV seems like a practical, pragmatic and decisive king. In contrasting the two kings, Shakespeare makes it clear that politics is a complex game, and Richard was overthrown because of his own incompetence.
Shakespeare, William. Richard II. Toronto: Bantam, 1988. Print.