Loyal Fathers and Treacherous Sons: Familial Politics in Richard II
Loyal Fathers and Treacherous Sons: Familial Politics in Richard II
Sharon Cadman Seelig, Smith College
The last act of Shakespeare's Richard II contains a pair of scenes that constitute a problem for the director and a puzzle for the critic, material so out of keeping with the rest of the play that even one of the dramatis personae is made to remark that difference. In the earlier scene (V.ii) the Duke of York first lamentingly retells Richard's passage through the streets of London and then discovers his son Aumerle's involvement in a plot to assassinate Richard's successor King Henry. In the next scene, which begins with Henry's inquiry after his "unthrifty son," Aumerle, York, and the Duchess of York all plead with the King, with York begging for rigorous and prompt justice, the Duchess and Aumerle, for mercy. These paired scenes, the only funny (if not the only embarrassing) things in this perhaps excessively serious play, contain numerous elements of the absurd: an old man trying to get his boots on while suffering the verbal assaults of his wife, a three-way race to the King, an entire family hobbling about on its knees, refusing to rise until its contradictory petitions are granted.1 The scenes are so odd that even Henry Bullingbrook, not usually noted for his sense of humor, is moved to comment:
Our scene is alt'red from a serious thing,
And now chang'd to "The Beggar and the
My dangerous cousin, let your mother in,
I know she is come to pray for your foul sin.2
In its labeling of this material as a scene, an artificial construction, Bullingbrook's distancing remark provides the kind of explicit reference to the fictional quality of the dramatic illusion that we are accustomed to find in Shakespeare's comedies;3 in pointing to the comedic nature of the scene the remark answers our immediate question as to whether Shakespeare could have intended anything so silly but leaves us wondering just what his reasons were. V.ii and iii have been variously described as savage farce, as deliberate parody, even as evidence of boredom and fatigue.4 But these scenes, which indeed differ strikingly from the rest of the play in language and tone, nevertheless form an integral part of it: they underscore an often neglected aspect of the play and demonstrate in parodic fashion the moral and personal consequences of the larger dramatic action.5
Richard II, usually seen as a play about the balance of power between king and usurper, about the right and the power to rule, is in a significant sense also a representation of the struggle for power between fathers and sons, an issue that has long been seen in the Henry IV plays but that is equally important, though differently presented, here. Most explicitly in the Aumerle scenes but also throughout the play, characters struggle for dominance over others whose differences of attitude or loyalty are sharpened and defined by intimate familial bonds.6 This emphasis on familial rivalry is linked to another basic fact of human nature—the irreducible human frailty that is stressed from the beginning to the end of the play and that forms a matrix for our judgment of characters and action. Richard II frames its discourse in terms of sin, so that both the actors and the commentators are seen to be, as the Queen says of the Gardener, "Old Adam's likeness" (III.iv.73), part of an ongoing cycle of betrayal and death.
Shakespeare takes care throughout Richard II to stress familial relationships, not only, as one would expect, to establish who the characters are, but more pointedly to emphasize the bonds and the power struggles of their interaction. This is so from the very beginning of the play, when Richard refers to Henry as Gaunt's son, and a few lines later, when Richard establishes his own relationship with Henry in emphatic and convoluted terms, the effect of which is to make the relationship seem even closer than it is, to make Bullingbrook and Richard more like brothers than cousins:
Were he my brother, nay, my kingdom's heir,
As he is but my father's brother's son, …
The Duchess of Gloucester similarly exaggerates the closeness of relationship when she is effect equates the crimes of patricide and fratricide, asserting to Gaunt, "Thou dost consent / In some large measure to thy father's death, / In that thou seest thy wretched brother die" (I.ii.25-27). And of course, given the cast of characters, there are frequent references to cousins and uncles throughout Richard II. But nowhere is this familial emphasis more marked than in V.ii and iii.
The repeated references to familial bonds in the Aumerle scenes may...
(The entire section is 2718 words.)
Although in thinking of Richard II we may think first of the central dramatic contest between Bullingbrook and Richard, that central action is in fact framed by conflicts between fathers and sons, between Gaunt and Bullingbrook at the opening of the play and between York and Aumerle at the end, and that action, as we shall see, is articulated by Richard himself as a contest between father and son.
The emphasis on conflicts and contests between male parents and their offspring may be detected from the opening lines of the play, lines in which Shakespeare characteristically anticipates the matter of the whole.13
Old John of Gaunt, time-honored Lancaster,
Hast thou, according to thy oath and band,
Brought hither Henry Herford thy bold son,
Here to make good the boist'rous late appeal,
Which then our leisure would not let us hear,
Against the Duke of Norfolk, Thomas
With swift economy, these lines represent the qualities of both Gaunt and Bullingbrook—the father aged, "time-honored," revered; the son, "bold," "boist'rous," more obviously potent; the father presumed to be in charge even though the action of the son has precipitated the scene;...
(The entire section is 1552 words.)
Amid this plethora of fathers and sons, one character stands notably sonless. But it is he who most clearly expresses the connection between such relationships and the heart of the play:
Cousin, I am too young to be your father,
Though you are old enough to be my heir.
As his own formulation suggests, Richard is neither wise enough nor potent enough to retain his crown. He has fathered no children, a point underscored by Northumberland's response to the Queen's plea that she and Richard be banished together: "That were some love, but little policy" (V.i.84). Richard's chief reproductive act is to people the little world of his mind with a generation of still-breeding thoughts in little world of his mind with a generation of still-breeding thoughts in the soliloquy of Act V. That his native kingdom is the realm of fantasy is implied by his using the image of physical reproduction to represent what is after all a form of cognitive generation:
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
(The entire section is 3337 words.)