Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1194
Shakespeare's examination of kingship in Richard II focuses mainly on the conflict between the legal and divine right to rule, and the effectiveness of the ruler. Many critics agree that in Richard II King Richard is legally the rightful king; that he is commonly recognized by other characters in the play as having the divine right to rule; and that despite these rights, King Richard does not show himself to be an effective ruler. It is this opposition between Richard's right to rule and his failure to do so effectively that is the subject of much critical debate. In addition to examining this conflict within the play, some critics conjecture that the way in which Shakespeare presents these issues reflects his thoughts on the rule of the monarch who served during Shakespeare's lifetime: Queen Elizabeth. It has been noted that Bolingbroke and Richard both represent aspects of kingship which can be related to Queen Elizabeth: Bolingbroke acts like a ruler and has the popular support of the people, whereas Richard holds the right to rule. Additionally, the historical Richard II was often compared to Queen Elizabeth in the later years of her reign as she, like Richard, had no heirs, and the problem of succession was on the minds of the people. Due to the similarities between both Bolingbroke and Richard to Queen Elizabeth, some feel that Shakespeare felt compelled to render both Bolingbroke and Richard in a sympathetic manner. The audience is drawn to Bolingbroke's power and kingly air and has a sense that he has been unjustly banished and disinherited. At the same time, we may feel pity or sympathy for Richard. He is viewed by many to be weak, but not evil, and he receives bad counsel from corrupt advisors. Additionally, he is the rightful king, even though it is argued that he deludes himself into thinking that having the noble appearance and rights of a king override his responsibility to his people. Some critical commentary suggests that Shakespeare did not favor either view of kingship and that he presented both Bolingbroke and Richard in an ambiguous manner so as to explore both sides of the issue.
Just as critics have debated the question of whether or not Shakespeare advocates the rights of the king over the king's effectiveness, others have questioned whether the divine right overrides the sovereign's legal obligations. Is Richard above the law, since he and many other characters believe he has been ordained by God to be king? Some critics have noted that even while characters such as Gaunt and York acknowledge Richard's divine right to rule, the same characters also recognize that Richard has failed to act like a king. The play cites several instances where Richard breaks the law: he is implicated in the death of Gloucester, and he breaks the inheritance laws by confiscating Gaunt's estate rather than allowing the transfer of Gaunt's money, land, and title to his son Bolingbroke. It has been suggested that while the commonwealth may have held that its king is sanctioned by God and the law, the people had no procedure for compelling a king to abide by the law. The result of Richard's disobeyance of the law, despite the fact that he is not legally punished, is that he loses the support of his people, and he gives his subjects the license to break the law themselves. Bolingbroke does just that when he returns illegally from exile. The nature of kingship is further examined when a king (Bolingbroke) ascends the throne with the support of the people but without legal or divine sanction.
Language, Imagery, and Symbolism
Often examined as a way of highlighting important themes in Richard II, the language, images, and symbolism used in the play are all complex and rich in meaning. Some critics have noted the way these elements reflect the theme of Richard's fall, and Bolingbroke's corresponding rise. Words and images that evoke the sense of rising and falling are used heavily throughout the play in word pairs—such as "ascend" and "descend," "high" and "low," and "sky" and "earth"—and in images such as ladders, scales, and buckets in a well, one rising and one falling. Another set of images used includes those related to the elements of nature: fire, water, earth, and air. Richard is initially associated, as the sun-king, with fire and Bolingbroke with water, as a flood, until their fortunes are reversed. The shift in the elemental imagery underscores the transfer of power from Richard to Bolingbroke. Other critics have shown that images related to growth and vegetation similarly emphasize the passage of power from the old and sterile ruler (Richard) to the young and fertile Bolingbroke. Additionally, commentators have noticed Biblical images and parallels that suggest the fall of humanity in the characters of both Richard and Bolingbroke.
Other critics have focused specifically on the play's language. A common observation among critics is that in many ways, such as the contrast in the play between formal, rhymed verse and blank verse, the play emphasizes that a distance exists between words themselves and their true meaning. Others suggest that this discrepancy between language and reality is dramatized through the character of Richard, who loses his faith in the power of language and learns that words do not express fact but only desires or wishes—that the word "king" itself does not give the one who bears that name the authority of king.
Ceremony and Play-Acting
Richard II's emphasis on ceremony and role-playing has been examined by a number of critics. Richard seems to be playing the role of king, more concerned with the nobility of his appearance than with the reality and responsibilities of kingship. Some critics have argued that the play suggests that kingship itself is a sham, that a great gulf exists between the appearance of royal authority and the reality of political power. Others contend that the play is about playing, that Richard and Bolingbroke both produce or set the scenes in which they appear. Another critic examines the effect of the somewhat comic, farcical scenes—in which Aumerle's plot against Bolingbroke is discovered and announced to Bolingbroke—on the rest of the play's treatment of ceremony and play-acting. It is argued that rather than mocking the seriousness and gravity of the play, this comic interlude forces the audience to rethink and more deeply value the ceremonial displays of kingship which surrounds the interlude.
The way many characters in the play use ceremonies or theatricality as a mask to conceal their true nature and intentions is also another area of study. It has been observed that Richard, for example, makes use of theatrical antics and language as a diversionary tactic in order to avoid going through with "unkinging" himself and to continue to deny the reality of what is happening. He refuses to read the charges against him as Northumberland demands (in Act IV, scene i), claiming that his eyes are filled with tears; he is blinded by them. He seems to be evading the truth about his crimes against the state, but at the same time, he says he sees in himself a traitor.
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