Loyal Fathers and Treacherous Sons: Familial Politics in Richard II - Essay

William Shakespeare


(Shakespearean Criticism)

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.


(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

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,...

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 3337 words.)