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Loyal Fathers and Treacherous Sons: Familial Politics in Richard II

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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.


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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 recall the opening of King Lear, which likewise sacrifices psychological realism in order to represent an almost mythic or paradigmatic familial encounter. In Lear we hear of father, daughter, husband, sister, love, and bond; in Richard II, of father, mother, son, uncle, aunt, king, forgiveness, and trespass: both scenes reiterate the designations of relationship in such stark and simple terms that we cannot miss them. But in Richard II, as in Lear, once Shakespeare has called our attention to family matters, he deviates from the expected pattern in order to represent disorder within the family and the state.

Although V.ii centers on familial relationships, as prologue to a father's denunciation of his son as a traitor before the King, the father and son never address one another in terms of their kinship roles. This treatment contrasts with that of Holinshed, Shakespeare's main source throughout, who refers to York and Aumerle as father and son, as well as with Shakespeare's representation of the Duchess of York, who although historically only Aumerle's stepmother,7 explicitly and repeatedly designates Aumerle as "my son." By contrast, York calls his son "boy" or simply addresses him without name or title, and he uses a good many terms of opprobrium and explicit rejection—"Villain, traitor, slave" (V.ii.72).8 Even before he learns of Aumerle's plot to kill King Henry, York emphasizes Aumerle's name rather than his own paternal relationship to him, stressing Aumerle's trespass against the King and York's obligation to that King. When the Duchess says, "here comes my son Aumerle" (V.ii.41), York replies:

                     Aumerle that was,
But that is lost for being Richard's friend;
And, madam, you must call him Rutland now.
I am in parliament pledge for his truth
And lasting fealty to the new-made king.

York's only expression of his paternity is a subjunctive rejection of that relationship: "Away, fond woman, were he twenty times my son, / I would appeach him" (V.ii.101-2). To a degree that approaches caricature, then, York stresses his fealty to the King over his duty as a father, as he refuses to acknowledge his disobedient son. Whereas the Duchess responds as a mother, York responds as a subject, one whose loyalty to the monarch overwhelms every other consideration.

But York is also a father, and therein lies the conflict dramatized both savagely and parodistically in Act V. In the schematic divergence between mother / son and father/son relationships, Shakespeare gives us a family drama, an archetypal representation of the forgiving, indulgent mother and the rigorously judgmental father. The Duchess is almost willfully naive, suggesting of the hidden document York plucks from Aumerle—"'Tis nothing but some band that he is ent'red into / For gay apparel 'gainst the triumph day" (V.ii.65-66)—while the Duke is rigidly, almost perversely, insistent on his obligation to the King and to the state over his obligation to his son and wife.

In plotting treason, Aumerle threatens not only the King but, as York's reaction implies, also the authority of his father. But rather than emphasizing the son's challenge to that patriarchal authority, as is the case with Bullingbrook and John of Gaunt earlier in the play, Shakespeare stresses here the father's harsh reaction: in the face of the son's still potential disobedience against father and king, it is the father, not the son, who is active and hostile, and his anger and shame at his offspring's transgression threaten, Kronos-like, that heir with extinction.

Duch. Why, York, what wilt thou do?
Wilt thou not hide the trespass of thine own?
Have we more sons? or are we like to have?
Is not my teeming date drunk up with time?
And wilt thou pluck my fair son from mine
And rob me of a happy mother's name?
Is he not like thee? Is he not thine own?
York. Thou fond mad woman,
Wilt thou conceal this dark conspiracy?
A dozen of them here have ta'en the
And interchangeably set down their hands,
To kill the King at Oxford.

York's extreme reaction goes beyond simple loyalty to the King to a desire to annihilate the son whose trespass threatens not merely to dishonor but to destroy the father.

Mine honor lives when his dishonor dies,
Or my sham'd life in his dishonor lies:
Thou kill'st me in his life; …

The father's horror and revulsion, expressed in a desire to purge his family of guilt and shame, are clearly also related to his concern for the realm: his reference to honor and his plea for his son's death may recall the famous example of Lucius Junius Brutus, a paradigm of loyalty and integrity who killed his own sons in order to preserve the Roman republic (an incident that Shakespeare refers to in Julius Caesar I.ii.15-19). But the contrast between the Roman republic which Junius Brutus tried to save and Bullingbrook's own usurped realm may cast York's actions in an ironic light. V.ii and iii clearly manifest the sort of chaos that, Tudor homilists argued, would be created throughout the kingdom by chaos at the top,9 and the representation of civil war in terms of the family—as in the scenes of 3 Henry VI in which a son has killed his father and a father his son—here reaches a new kind of specificity and insistence, as the strong and binding duties of parent and subject become mutually inconsistent.

York, not highly developed as a character, functions schematically in the play, revealing in his extreme and divergent reactions the dilemma of the loyal subject. The family farce of V.ii and V.iii, it is important to note, immediately follows York's initial description of the progress into London of Bullingbrook and Richard, a rather schizoid account that arouses pity for Richard upon whose "sacred head" "dust was thrown," but that also expresses admiration for "great Bullingbrook," an "aspiring rider," "mounted upon a hot and fiery steed" (V.ii. 30, 7, 9, 8). Although York describes Richard in pitiful terms, he gives little sign of personal anguish, attributing his own clam resignation to the will of God (V.ii.34-36); for the aged Duke, the choice is already made, fixed, and easily stated in a rhyming couplet:

To Bullingbrook are we sworn subjects now,
Whose state and honor I for aye allow.

York appears here as a literalist and something of an amnesiac, one who believes in loyalty to the king, whoever that king may be: the King is deposed; long live the King. His position manifests the absurd consequences of a notion of absolute loyalty divorced from the complexity of human reality and history. The scenes in which York and Aumerle oppose one another are comic, but their dilemma is tragic: the psychic conflict that cannot be expressed in the limited figure of York himself emerges in painful and bizarre dramatic action. York, who has sympathized with Richard, now perversely exercises ruthless authority over his own son even as that son enacts those sympathies.10 One might argue that York's betrayal of his King leads to the betrayal of his son, that in disavowing his father's brother's son, he also inevitably disavows his own offspring and nearly destroys himself.

Clearly in V.ii and V.iii Shakespeare is at pains to depict a familial structure gone wrong, a hostile and repressive father, but he shows these as deriving from a realm in which questionable authority—in the dual forms of usurpation and treachery—leads to domestic and national chaos. Although York here is savagely authoritarian, exerting a futile, even filicidal, attempt to suppress disorder, his role earlier in the play is that of a more neutral11 articulator of the principle of primogeniture and of the sanctity of the laws of inheritance—hence his sense that Bullingbrook must not be denied his inheritance and that Richard's sovereignty is to be respected. Initially a guardian of order, a wouldbe champion of justice, York, like that other articulator of divine order John of Gaunt, is impotent to restrain Gaunt's own son. After some wholly ineffectual blustering, York acquiesces easily to the new order, one in which Bullingbrook maintains a fluid and highly politic relation to principle. It is York who announces to Bullingbrook that Richard "with willing soul / Adopts thee heir" (IV.i.108-9) and he who believes, or at least allows himself to say to Richard, that "tired majesty did make thee offer: / The resignation of thy state and crown" (IV.i. 177-78). In Acts IV and V York may be seen as wholly insensitive, a fool and a timeserver, or as a more genuinely troubled but impotent father and subject; but however we see him, York's conflicting reactions suggest not simply or even primarily his own folly and weakness but the breakdown of the structure of obligations that appears seriously in Act IV as Bullingbrook becomes king and farcically in Act V as he sits in judgment on the family of York. Richard II represents the moral chaos engendered by Bullingbrook's usurpation and the impotence of Richard's articulation of principle without effective action. Henry rules a kingdom in which father must turn against son and son against father; Richard, failing to rule, creates an impossible dilemma for his most loyal subject.

The most striking aspect of V.ii and V.iii, the absurdity of the action, is reinforced by an extreme simplicity of language, which stands in sharp contrast to the ceremonial rhetoric, the "poetry" for which the play is so famous. While Shakespeare uses a narrow range of diction to emphasize the familial tensions at issue, he also uses the few deviations from such simplicity to point up the discrepancy between facade and reality. In a scene in which characters address one another in the simplest of familial and human terms—uncle, aunt, cousin, woman, boy—and in the most basic terms of the realm—King, liege, traitor, villain, true man, we immediately notice Henry's address to York, which builds from these terms of kinship to a more ornate style:

O loyal father of a treacherous son!
Thou sheer, immaculate, and silver fountain,
From whence this stream through muddy
Hath held his current and defil'd himself!
Thy overflow of good converts to bad,
And thy abundant goodness shall excuse
This deadly blot in thy digressing son.

Such hyperbolic praise applied to York clearly overshoots the mark and thus points up the irony of Henry's words, for if Aumerle is a traitor, so is Henry; so is York. Such a statement might equally well have been addressed to John of Gaunt, the loyal father of a treacherous son, for as the Bishop of Carlisle puts it: "My Lord of Herford here, whom you call king, / Is a foul traitor to proud Herford's king" (IV.i. 134-35).

The second noticeable deviation from the stylistic norm occurs when the Duchess of York argues that, although she and York both kneel before the King, her posture is true, whereas York's is hypocritical, a mere gesture not supported by his heart. The speech issues in a quibble on the word "pardon":

Duch. No word like "pardon" for kings'
 mouths so meet.
York. Speak it in French, King, say "pardonne
Dost thou teach pardon pardon to
Ah, my sour husband, my hard-hearted lord,
That sets the word itself against the word!

The Duchess's words of course anticipate those of Richard, as he speaks of the "thoughts of things divine [which] … intermix'd / With scruples … set the word itself / Against the word" (V.v.12-14).12 But whereas Richard's soliloquy represents the conflict as internal ("scruples and thoughts of things divine … set the word against the word"), the Duchess's speech suggests a much broader framework in which letter and spirit, loyalty and obligation diverge. The Duchess's assertion that her husband's kneeling before the King is merely an empty gesture, emblem of a petition he would not actually wish to have granted, has its antecedent in the scene in which Bullingbrook kneels before Richard, and Richard comments: "Up, cousin, up, your heart is up, I know, / Thus high at least, although your knee be low" (III.iii.194-95). Henry's empty but politically astute gesture in III.iii not only anticipates but casts an ironic light on the kneeling of his loyal subjects in V.iii, for whereas Henry's kneeling is in show, theirs is in frantic earnest. Whereas Richard judges Henry's kneeling inappropriate because it contradicts the latter's wishes and the actual power relationship (though not the reverence due a king), Bullingbrook is embarrassed by the unseemliness of two figures of age and reverence, aunt and uncle, kneeling before him, acting out the inevitable impiety flowing from his usurpation.

As Henry sits in judgment on Aumerle, with Aumerle's father seeking punishment and his mother seeking mercy, the Duchess invokes a larger realm of judgment with her effusive statement, "A god on earth thou art" (V.iii. 136). Gratitude is involved, surely, perhaps flattery; but if the Duchess means to say that the King is God's deputy, her statement is also charged with irony, for this god on earth has usurped that other whose balm could not be washed off; and this god, like his predecessor, will shortly be the instigator of murder. The reference to divine judgment, intended by the speaker to magnify its object, can only point up its frailty and weakness, can only suggest that Henry, though more effective than his kingly cousin, manifests the same human fallibility.

The Aumerle scenes are significant for the rest of Richard II in their representation of the structure of political power and in the representation of familial roles, not as separate issues but as inescapably intertwined, and painfully cyclical: to put it unkindly, before Aumerle could be a traitor to York's king, Henry, York must have denied York's and Aumerle's king, Richard. It is also worth noting that the dramatic emphasis in V.ii and V.iii is rather more on the parents, on their reaction to their son's trespass, than on the fault of the son. And it is the parents in this scene, supposed images of justice and mercy, rather than the son, the supposed traitor, who are in danger of appearing absurd; it is the parents who suggest also the link to the past, and hence the long sequence of guilt.

Both in parodic language—either too ornate or excessively simple—and in gestures such as kneeling, imploring pardon, knocking and entering, repeated to the point of farce, V.ii and V.iii transform Henry's new order, his well-managed kingdom, into a comic interlude. Although its language and action seem at first awkwardly out of place in the ceremoniousness of Richard II, both gestures and language in fact resonate with the rest of the play, acting in counterpoint to the more obviously serious treatment elsewhere of the central issues of these scenes—the emphasis on guilt and innocence, the relations between fathers and sons, the inseparability of familial and political issues.


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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 son the only remaining Lord Appellant against Richard, the father supposed to exert authority in loco regis. This opening invokes the line of authority in this patriarchal and monarchical society, in which son is subject to father, and even kings, however they may act at other times, at least pretend to speak respectfully to their fathers' brothers.14 But these lines also testify to strain within, for Richard appears to assume that the son is subject to the father and that youth reveres age, even though what follows bears out how difficult these principles are to maintain against the rising strength of the son, and even though—or especially since—Richard himself has not honored such principles.

Already in this first scene, we see that precisely the sort of apparently well-ordered relationship here sketched engenders emulation and rivalry. Gaunt clearly asserts the principle of filial obedience as he addresses his son: "When, Harry? when? / Obedience bids I should not bid again" (I.i.162-63). And Bullingbrook, in firmly refusing to withdraw his challenge, gives as one of his reasons his position vis-a-vis his father: "Shall I seem crestfallen in my father's sight?" (I.i.188). The language implies an obligation to maintain the family honor in the sight of the one from whom such obligations are derived, but also a sense of pride verging on rivalry, for it is precisely in his father's sight—or in comparison with his father—that the son must assert his potency.

The quality of the opposition between Gaunt and Bullingbrook is figured in their dialogue in I.iii; as Bullingbrook prepares for exile, father and son take characteristically opposed viewpoints. Gaunt urges mind over matter, the control of one's circumstances by one's attitude to them, asserting in effect the power of the imagination over events, and taking a position on the power of language and naming remarkably like that of Richard, a king who-exerts control not by action but by verbal representation:

Think not the King did banish thee,
But thou the King. ….
Go, say I sent thee forth to purchase honor,
And not the King exil'd thee; …
                          (I.iii.279-80, 282-83)

Bullingbrook energetically and impatiently rejects such counsel, asserting a characteristically pragmatic approach: the power lies not in the mind, not in the name, but in the reality of the event:

O, who can hold a fire in his hand
By thinking on the forsty Caucasus?
Or cloy the hungry edge of appetite
By bare imagination of a feast?

Given the similarity between Gaunt's and Richard's positions, Henry's preference for action over words is ultimately a matter of opposition to both father and king. Gaunt's final words in this scene—"Come, come, my son, I'll bring thee on thy way" (I.iii.304)—are an affirmation of relationship and support which again reasserts the pattern of authority and dependency, and so underscores both the close kinship and the opposing stances of father and son.

Bullingbrook's farewell to his father before the abortive contest with Mowbray appears more orthodox, as Bullingbrook describes his father as an inspiring force to his labors, but this affirmative language is also tinged with the phallic overtones of war, as the father is made new in the son, as his name and spirit, by implication in decline, are regenerated and refurbished by a son whose accomplishments may well exceed those of his father:

O thou, the earthly author of my blood,
Whose youthful spirit, in me regenerate,
Doth with a twofold vigor lift me up
To reach at victory above my head,
Add proof unto mine armor with thy prayers,
And with thy blessings steel my lance's point,
That it may enter Mowbray's waxen coat,
And furbish new the name of John a' Gaunt,
Even in the lusty havior of his son.

Gaunt's "When, Harry? When? / Obedience bids I should not bid again" (I.i.162-63) meets with failure not only because even in Renaissance England grown men did not obey their fathers' commands like model children,15 but because Bullingbrook, although in one sense the embodiment of his father's spirit, also occupies an antithetical position in the play. Gaunt is the articulator of a harmonious and providential order, most obviously in his evocation of "This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England" (II.i.50), but also in his stern stand against the Duchess of Gloucester's pleas for vengeance for her husband's murder, in his assertion that "God's is the quarrel," and his refusal to "lift / An angry arm against His minister" (I.ii.37,41). And it is Gaunt's son who clearly stands as the force that challenges that order, as the breaker of divinely sanctioned descent, the usurper of the crown from the anointed king. In rising against Richard, Bullingbrook also rises against his own father, for Gaunt supports Richard's kingship, if not his management, and seeks to stand a surrogate father to him, hoping on his death bed to "breathe my last / In wholesome counsel to his unstayed youth" (II.i.1-2), and, loving him, as Richard's other uncle York says, as much as his own son.16

Fathers and sons, chiefly represented in this play by York and Aumerle, Gaunt and Bullingbrook, are also joined by others. Gaunt and Bullingbrook have scarcely left the stage when the Earl of Northumberland introduces "my son, young Harry Percy" (II.iii.21); and Bullingbrook himself later inquires, "Can no man tell me of my unthrifty son? /'Tis full three months since I did see him last" (V.iii.1-2). Hal's prodigality, more fully developed in Henry IV, figures here as part of the complex of paternal-falial relationships, for like Bullingbrook before him, Prince Hal has his own notions of honor, an honor that must be maintained vis-a-vis his father, though clearly against his counsel. By placing this scene in the midst of the interaction between York and Aumerle, Shakespeare points up that Henry too has a rebellious son, one who deliberately flouts his father's conception of honor by taking as his lady "the common'st creature" from "the stews" (V.iii.16-17) and so enacts a king of parodic counterpoint to Aumerle's more serious challenge to paternal and kingly authority.

In the early encounters between Gaunt and Bulling-brook, as in the later encounter between York and Aumerle, and even in Bullingbrook's allusion to his own son, we see a father clearly articulating a principle of order—obedience to himself, fealty to the King, submission to God—which he is impotent to enforce, and which also is plainly flawed, in practice if not in theory. The tension between the verbal articulation of these principles on the one hand and the action and characters on the other further weakens any sense that Shakespeare's play might exist simply as an expression of the kind of Tudor doctrines of order described by Tillyard; rather it depicts the flawed quality of human action throughout the generational and social order.

Richard II is filled with rebellious acts, not only of subjects against the King, but of sons against fathers. We may see in such proliferation not simply a spreading of images of disorder but also a prompting to question the basis of order. The rebellion or impudence that so perturbs fathers in this play may be seen as a mimetic exaggeration that points up the falsity of honor as it is defined first by Richard and then by Henry. Even the nature of sonship is somewhat unstable: for all that I have spoken of fathers and sons, it is worth noting that Aumerle appears in the first half of the play as a character in his own right, as an independent supporter and adviser of Richard, and only in Act V emphatically and paradigmatically as a rebellious son, as one whom his father sees as in need of chastisement. Such a transformation makes one question whether the moral chaos of England can convert a grown man into a boy, as his father calls him, whether misrule disorders human development, or whether fathers characteristically view rebellion as regression, a notion supported by Henry's reference to his son as "young wanton and effeminate boy" (V.iii.10).


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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

Moreover, the unusual character of Richard's world is shown by his making the brain, the rational cognitive force usually associated with the male, subordinate to the feminine soul (anima). Richard appears then not so much as father, as controlling force, but as female, as the maternal figure, who on his return from Ireland kisses the earth: "As a long-parted mother with her child / Plays fondly with her tears and smiles in meeting" (III.ii.8-9).

If Richard, who should be king and father, represents himself as mother to his realm, we might expect Bullingbrook to emerge as father. But characteristic of the schematic parallels and contrasts so common in Richard II, it is Bullingbrook who first speaks intimately and lovingly of the earth: "Then England's ground, farewell, sweet soil, adieu; / My mother, and my nurse, that bears me yet!" (I.iii.306-7). Of course Bullingbrook's approach to the ground of England is in general much more vigorous: though he leaves as a son, he returns as a gardener, one whose first action is to deal ruthlessly with "Bushy, Bagot, and their complices, / The caterpillars of the commonwealth, / Which I have sworn to weed and pluck away" (II.iii.165-67). As we see in the Gardener's speech it is precisely Richard's inability to engage in the husbandman's characteristically controlled violence, to "cut off the heads of too fast growing sprays, / That look too lofty in our commonwealth" (III.iv.34-35) that has led to his "fall of leaf" (III.iv.49):

                [We] at time of year
Do wound the bark, the skin of our fruit-trees,
Lest being over-proud in sap and blood,
With too much riches it confound itself;
Had he done so to great and growing men,
They might have liv'd to bear and he to taste
Their fruits of duty.

Wishing that he could "purge this choler without letting blood" (I.i.153), Richard fails to demonstrate the pruning and severing skills necessary to physician, gardener, and king. Having no natural son to challenge him, Richard also lacks the power to dominate his rival; whereas Bullingbrook, Richard's contemporary, is old enough to "know the strong'st and surest way to get" (III.iii.201). Richard has neither the years nor the wisdom to be Bullingbrook's father. Thus Bullingbrook, though not Richard's son, becomes his heir, rising up against him more powerfully and unambiguously than against his own father, with consequences for the whole structure of familial and civil relationships.

For all that Richard II raises questions about the right and the power to rule, it does so, as I've been arguing, through relationships between fathers and sons, relationships that are on the one hand starkly schematic and on the other morally and psychologically ambiguous. Shakespeare's play shows us two prodigal sons, King Richard and Prince Hal, prodigal in their wasting of time and resources and in their failure to follow the advice of their elders, and it shows us two rebellious sons, Aumerle and Bullingbrook. It gives us loyal and ineffectual fathers—Gaunt, York, and even in a sense, Richard. Both Aumerle and Bullingbrook are disobedient sons who act out the desires or visions of their fathers: Aumerle, though he is denounced by his father for treason, in fact enacts the kind of loyalty to Richard suggested by York's earlier speech to Bullingbrook ("I am no traitor's uncle" [II.iii.88]) and by his poignant description of the desecration of Richard in V.ii. And Bullingbrook embodies all too clearly Gaunt's fears of the consequences if Richard ignores Gaunt's fatherly advice. This is a play then in which sons are 'disloyal' in a way that their fathers either do or would explicitly disapprove, but in which sons, rising against their aged fathers, nevertheless prove true to their fathers' earlier desires, allegiances, or predictions.

Of the unthrifty prodigals, Hal and Richard, one returns to the fold and ultimately becomes king; the other, following evil counselors, is deposed. Of the rebellious sons who rise against the King, the one, Aumerle, is rejected and chastised by his father; the other, Bullingbrook, is chastised and crowned. Such messages as there are here are surely ironic ones, for the consequences of rebellious acts are sharply divergent.

The very schematic quality of Richard II emphasizes its paradigmatic and potentially moralistic aspects; yet despite the clarity of its oppositions—Bullingbrook against Gaunt, Bullingbrook against Richard, York against Aumerle—the play also complicates these oppositions in its intricacies of language and character. Bullingbrook, who in his own person challenges the received order, rising up against the values represented or affirmed by his father, also affirms the principle of orderly descent: "If that my cousin king be King in England, / It must be granted I am Duke of Lancaster" (II.iii.123-24). And Gaunt, the most eloquent spokesman for harmonious order, is also the depicter of disorder and the father of the usurper, a usurper whose first act in returning to England is to claim his father's title. Gaunt's superficially clever manipulation of events through language, more probably a device to comfort his son than the result of conviction, in fact becomes truth:

Think not the King did banish thee,
But thou the King.

Bullingbrook, a son who in becoming king achieves the language of paternal authority, points to ways in which the laws of inheritance, of orderly succession, favor him; his father's words show how disorder and incipient rebellion are always with us, in fact or in potentiality. In a complicated passage that suggests an uncanny resemblance between generations, between past and future, Gaunt unwittingly prophesies "how his son's son should destroy his sons" (II.i.105), but not foreseeing by what means, not seeing that the accusation he makes against Richard will serve against his own son as well.17

In Richard II the issues of filial and paternal conflict are intertwined with questions of political order and power. Shakespeare sets before us in both tragic and comic fashion the effects of rebellion and murder—in the disarray caused by Bullingbrook's rebellion and in the absurd farce of the Langleys' disordered familial structure. Neither 'comic relief nor comical ineptitude, V.ii and V.iii portray in effect the moral chaos of treachery and rebellion, the results of the getting as distinguished from the begetting of power. Yet while setting such painful consequences before us, Shakespeare does not suggest that it should simply be otherwise or that it could easily have been so. For in representing in parodic form the disorder of the realm, V.ii and V.iii also point to the inevitable quality of human fallibility. King Henry, who seizes effective control of the realm in that great scene in which Richard maintains control of images (IV.i) is, like his predecessor, king over disorder and human conflict.

This truth is borne out not only in the familial scenes of V.ii and V.iii, the absurdity of which Henry alerts us to but cannot transform,18 but also in IV.i, in which the throwing down of gages likewise threatens to become farce. The accusations against Aumerle by Bagot, Fitzwater, Percy, and yet "Another Lord" recall the mutual accusations of Mowbray and Bullingbrook in Act I, an encounter in which the King has the power to stifle conflict but not to resolve it. The scene suggests not so much a new era as a repetition of the past: Richard attempts to bury the crime of Gloucester's murder, allowing the accusations to be brought to knightly combat and then averting a verdict all too likely to implicate him; Bullingbrook is more eager to reach the truth, but he too finds that the quest ends in a cul de sac, for Norfolk, who might resolve the challenge by speech or action, is dead. In both cases the truth remains hidden, while the act itself, though buried in obscurity (Bagot refers to "that dead time when Gloucester's death was plotted" [IV.i.10]), casts a long shadow.

Our questions, then, about right and wrong in Richard II are forced aside by images not of guilt and innocence but of guilt and guilt, images that echo throughout the play. The murder of Richard at Bullingbrook's behest and of Gloucester at Richard's are associated with the primal crimes of fratricide and patricide, by language that recalls the death of Abel at the opening of the play (I.i.104) and the sin of Cain ( at the end,19 in Mowbray's reference to Henry as of Richard's blood (I.i.58-59) and Henry's attempted disclaimer (I.i.70-71). The ambivalent words with which Henry greets the news of Richard's death are appropriate to such an intimate crime:

Though I did wish him dead,
I hate the murtherer, love him murthered.

Although Henry's speech may be read as simple hypocrisy, it also underscores the blood relationship between the two kings and reminds us of the rivalry that forces one to challenge and overcome the origins to which one is inescapably bound:

Lords, I protest my soul is full of woe
That blood should sprinkle me to make me

In seizing Richard's crown, Henry has overcome both father and brother, the father whose kingdom he inherits, the brother who is his father's brother's son. He commits an act of obvious impiety, yet also of ritual strengthening, for the blood he sheds makes him grow. In the murder of Richard has he "furbish[ed] new the name of John a' Gaunt … in the lusty havior of his son" (I.iii.76-77)?

In using the paradigms of father and son, of brother and brother to represent rebellion in the family and in the state, Richard II suggests that the political patterns we see are part of essential, fallen human nature. In language that points to repeating cycles of murder, Bullingbrook begins by accusing Richard indirectly of the murder of a brother and ends, in effect, by committing that act himself. To the perpetrator Exton Henry assigns not only the guilt of murder but also Henry's own guilt of fratricide as he bids him "With Cain go wander thorough shades of night" ( When the Duchess of York ends V.iii by saying, "Come, my old son, I pray God make thee new" (V.iii. 146), she not only raises the issues of guilt and expiation, sin and regeneration, which have been present from the first scene of the play; her words also suggest the old Adam, in whose likeness the gardener and we all are made, the "old man" in us that, in the formulation of St. Paul, must be made new by the sacrifice of Christ.20 In using such theologically weighted language in his concluding scenes, Shakespeare returns this play, with its many configurations of fathers and sons, to the archetypal rivalry between brothers and to the original father and his sons. In so doing he gives us a picture of unchanging, cyclical guilt, of unavoidable human frailty, of the effects of sin, perpetuated through generations. This framework suggests that the king who depicts himself in IV.i as martyr and Christ figure is not sinless but rather involved in an infinitely regressing cycle of blame. And it reminds us that our judgments of the two rulers of the play, balancing authority and acumen, right and obligations, cannot be expected to yield a victim and a perpetrator, but a dynamic relation of guilt and guilt.

The near-tragic farce of V.ii and V.iii, which outlines in parodic form the familial and theological aspects of the conflict, playing them in another key, underscores the centrality of these issues in the play as a whole. The taking of the kingdom and the murder of the king are not just political and moral actions but also familial; they take place not only on the large scale of political power but on the intimate scale of domestic conflict, as figured in the violence York would do to his own son, in the violence he fears his son's actions will do to the kingdom. In this complex of relationships there are no easy answers. Just as it is not clear that the King is right and the usurper wrong, so it is not clear that father or son or brother deserves to dominate, but Shakespeare uses these familial conflicts to enrich and intensify our response to a drama which is political and moral but also deeply psychological, reciprocal, Notesand eternal.21


1 I acknowledge with pleasure Sheldon P. Zitner's witty and astute account of these scenes in "Aumerle's Conspiracy," Studies in English Literature, 14 (1974), 239-57.

2Richard II, V.iii.79-82. The text quoted throughout is The Riverside Shakespeare, ed G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

3 See the discussion of this point by Leonard Tennenhouse, Power on Display: The Politics of Shakespeare's Genres (New York: Methuen, 1986), esp. Chap. 1.

4 Cf. Zitner, 243-44, 253-54; M. W. Black, "The Sources of Shakespeare's Richard II" John Quincy Adams Memorial Studies, ed. J. G. McManaway et al. (Washington, 1948), p. 208; Variorum edition of Richard II, ed. Matthew W. Black (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1955), p. 216n; and Joan Hartwig, "Parody in Richard II" Shakespeare's Analogical Scene: Parody as Structural Syntax (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1983). Waldo McNeir, "The Comic Scenes in Richard II," Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, 73 (1972), 815-22, suggests that these scenes of Richard II mark a new level of maturity on Shakespeare's part, an ability to mingle comedy and serious purpose to create meaning. While concurring with McNeir's sense of the importance of V.ii and V.iii to the play, I would disagree with his view of the Duchess as chiefly a figure of fun.

5 I use the term parody in the sense outlined by Joan Hartwig, who describes scenes that are bound to the rest of the action less by narrative action than by analogy (p.3). She points out that parody, "derived from the Greek word 'paroidia,' … originally meant a song placed beside or against" (p. 5), and that, like emblem, parody "simplif[ies] in order to expose complexities" (p.10).

6 Some attention has been paid to the emphasis on familial relationships by David Sundelson, Shakespeare's Restoration of the Father (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1983); Robert B. Pierce, Shakespeare's History Plays: The Family and the State (Columbus: The Ohio State Univ. Press, 1971); James Winny, The Player King (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1968), pp. 74-82; and Harry Berger, Jr. "Psychoanalyzing the Shakespeare Text: The First Three Scenes of the Henriad," in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, ed. Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman (New York: Methuen, 1985), pp. 210-29. Sundelson, whose chapter is entitled "Fathers, Sons, and Brothers in the Henriad," emphasizes not father-son relationships but rather the quasi-fraternal rivalry of Richard and Bullingbrook; Pierce affirms the importance of familial issues but finds the Aumerle scenes "rather frivolous self-parody" (pp. 157-58); Berger's very helpful essay does not treat the Aumerle scenes but deals with the opening of the play in ways that have contributed significantly to my thinking about it.

7The Riverside Shakespeare, note to Richard II V.ii.90-93.

8 York places special emphasis on titles and designations of kinship: he calls not only Aumerle but also Bullingbrook "foolish boy" (II.iii.97) and denies kinship with him (II.iii.87-88) for presuming to disobey Richard and return to England in the King's absence; Bullingbrook, by contrast, insists on the title and the relationship it implies, repeating "My gracious uncle" (II.iii.85 and 106). York also rebukes Northumberland for omitting Richard's title:

                       The time hath been,
Would you have been so brief with him, he
 would Have been so brief [with you] to shorten you,
For taking so the head, your whole head's

9 See Graham Holderness's discussion in Shakespeare's History (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1985), Chap. 1.

10 Norman Rabkin, Shakespeare and the Common Understanding (New York: The Free Press, 1967), pp. 87-88, makes the point that Aumerle acts out his father's sympathies.

11 York's word, happily for my argument, is "neuter" (II.iii.159); earlier in this scene he verbally asserts the power of the King, but soon admits that he lacks the physical force to do so: "this arm of mine / Now prisoner to the palsy" (II.iii.103-4).

12 The Duchess's accusation of her husband also points to another central issue of the play—the efficacy of words and of gestures, the question whether, as in Richard's notions of kingship, words are potent, meaningful, and magical, or whether they are merely words, whether such gestures as York engages in are merely superficial verbal formulae, or whether they are the outward signs of an inner reality.

13 See Berger's discussion of the implications of this opening scene, pp. 214-18.

14 Berger, p. 215, notes the ironic edge to Richard's language in I.i.1-7, in a speech that balances obvious bluntness against ostensible reverence.

15 Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex, and Marriage in England 1500-1800 (New York: Harper and Row, 1979), pp. 122-34, cites the extraordinary standards of obedience exacted by parents in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries; more recently, Bruce Young, "Parental Blessings in Shakespeare's Plays," Studies in Philology, 89 (1992), 179-210, deals with the more positive aspects of the hierarchical relationship between parent and child. The situation which Young describes, in which the parental power to impart blessing "did not necessarily imply unconditional submission to a parent's wishes … [nor] that the child's agency and identity were entirely subsumed within those of the parent" (p. 192), closely corresponds to the relationship between Bullingbrook and Gaunt in I.i.

He loves you, on my life, and holds you dear
As Harry Duke of Herford, were he here.

16 Gaunt says to Richard:

O had thy grandsire with a prophet's eye
Seen how his son's son should destroy his
From forth thy reach he would have laid thy
Deposing thee before thou wert possess'd,
Which art possess'd now to depose thyself.

17 Hartwig argues, p. 119, that Henry, in contrast to Richard, is in control of the scene, but Henry is in fact at the mercy of the insistently kneeling Duchess, whom he repeatedly urges, "Good aunt, stand up." As Hartwig subsequently acknowledges, the only way to get the Duchess to rise is to accede to her request, so that henry is represented "as a ruler whose powers are temporarily contained by comic routine" (p. 121).

18 Bullingbrook's association of Gloucester's blood with Abel's (I.i. 104), like his association of Exton's crime with Cain's, implies that the crime was committed by a brother; the first statement indicts Richard, the second, Henry himself. In each case the crime was authorized by a father's brother's son.

19 See Romans 5:12-21.

20 My thanks to William Oram and Gillian Kendall for their helpful comments on an earlier version of this essay.

Source: "Loyal Fathers and Treacherous Sons: Familial Politics in Richard II" in Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 94, No. 3, July, 1995, pp. 347-64.

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