(1) ‘Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown’ (Henry IV Part 2.) Discuss the range of political success and failure, authority and weakness displayed by TWO of the monarchs of the Richard II – Henry V series of history plays.
When we first see Richard II it is in the aspect of a monarch who is ‘every inch the king’ (King Lear,) he hold court amid ceremony and tradition, the first view we have of him is in a setting much like that of the opening scene of king Lear, the king is the judge, administering the justice of his realm, like Lear, he is seen initially in a position epitomising power and kingly status, and like Lear, this power and sense of kingship will be put to the test, the results of that justice will blossom, the decrees of the king will have direct impact upon the king himself. Richard’s first act is to arbitrate between the dukes Mowbray and Hereford, Hereford (Henry Bolingbroke) has accused Mowbray of the murder of his and Richard’s uncle, Thomas Duke of Gloucester, and of other treasonable offences, such as retaining a private army, and plotting against Richard; Richard asks them to each forget the accusations and be friends, but his argument lacks conviction. Richard’s speech is indecisive – indifferent to the murder of Gloucester; the two men openly argue in Richard’s presence – showing Richard to be a weak monarch.
Richard does not consider the merits of their argument, or any facts of Gloucester’s death, but decrees the men to trial by combat, a sign that Richard’s justice is antiquated and unsound, based upon Richard’s personal beliefs in the influence of divine order, much in the same manner as does King Lear in expecting his treacherous daughters to honour him as king after having placed himself under their power.
Richard seems more concerned with reconciling the two men than investigating their claims, or seeking justice:
‘Wrath kindled gentlemen, be ruled by me,
This we prescribe, though no physician-
deep malice makes too deep incision-
Forget, forgive, conclude and be agreed.
Our doctors say this is no month to bleed.’
Richard is passive to the affairs of state, he cannot control or command with real efficacy, instead, he pleads with the supplicants, then decrees that they must fight under God’s arbitration, his belief that ‘God will provide’ justice as well as a resolution indicates his lack of control over the situation, and his inability to see true justice administered, it is ironic that Richard insists he will determine the outcome of the situation, when in fact he has consigned the outcome of the dispute to a justice of chance:
‘We were not born to sue, but to command,
which since we cannot do, to make you friends
be ready, as your lives shall answer it,
At Coventry upon St. Lambert’s day.
There shall your swords and lances arbitrate…
we shall see
Justice design the victor’s chivalry.’
In Act 1, scene 2, John of Gaunt comforts The widowed Duchess of Gloucester, she begs him to revenge her dead husband, Gaunt’s brother, but Gaunt reveals that Richard himself had the powerful noble slain out of jealousy; Gaunt calls Richard ‘God’s substitute,’ suggesting that Kings are exempt from the moral and social order of ordinary men, and that only heaven can enforce justice on Richard:
‘God’s is the quarrel – for God’s substitute,
His deputy anointed in His Sight,
Hath caused his death, the which if wrongfully
Let heaven revenge, for I may never lift
An angry arm against his minister.’
Like the gardeners later, the analogy is made between a minister: the King and, his congregation – the implication is that Richard has abused the privileges of kingship, and, as Gaunt predicts, he will face a retribution for his unjust behaviour.
In the duel scene, (Act 1 Scene 3) we witness one of the few violent episodes in the play. Despite the belligerent nature of the conflict, however, there is a great sense of ceremony about the proceedings, a sense of tradition and moral justice accompanies the fight – epitomising the facade morality of Richard’s court:
‘Marshall, demand of yonder champion
The cause of his arrival here in arms,
Ask him his name, and orderly proceed
To swear him in the justice of his cause…’
Richard is a man who relies upon his own sense of divine inviolate worth, and despite the hints at corruption and murder suggested by Gaunt, he professes his own purity repeatedly. Richard states that he is the instrument of divine moral justice to both parties in the fight:
‘Such nearness to my sacred blood
Should nothing privilege him nor partialize
The unstooping firmness of my upright soul.’
Richard’s unexpected disillusion of the duel suggests his inconstant and rash character; Richard decides to banish the two men rather than have them fight, although the reason for this is unclear. It may be that Richard has sensed Henry Bolingbroke’s suspicion of Richard’s own involvement in the murder of their uncle, Gloucester – Gaunt’s brother, and Richard may have seen Bolingbroke as a threat to his own position, had Bolingbroke proved Mowbray guilty in combat, and then exposed the true murderer, who had instructed Mowbray to murder Gloucester, namely Richard himself. If this is true, then Richard proves himself a cunning manipulator, who under the guise of mercy appears impartial and unimplicated regarding the Gloucester incident.
Despite this cleverness, however, Richard demonstrates his inadequacy as king by reducing the sentence of exile for Bolingbroke – suggesting that although there may be reasoning behind his actions, they are still determined by momentary wiles; Richard plays with his the privileges and the power of kingship, at the expense of his own consistency and reputation.
In Act 1, scene four, Richard reveals his true, uninhibited amorality – he reveals his dislike for Bolingbroke, and an awareness of his cousin’s ambitious nature. This contemptuous outlook contrasts sharply with the supposed merciful banishment earlier, and accentuates the appearance of Richard as a man who cannot be ruthless when ruthlessness is required, and is passive when threatened (he could have had the suspicious Bolingbroke quietly murdered,) his actions are defined by personal whim and a desire to appear to the court as beneficent and commanding in the arbitrary role of supreme justice. In reality, Richard fully suspects Bolingbroke ambitions:
‘Ourself and Bushy
Observed his courtship to the common people,
How he did seem to dive into their hearts,
With humble and familiar courtesy…’
Despite Richard’s awareness of Bolingbroke’s popularity, he does not seem to consider him any real threat, believing his position as king inviolate.
Richard states that he will finance his Irish expedition with illegal and violent extortion:
‘Our substitutes at home shall have blank charters,
Whereto, when they shall know what men are rich,
They shall subscribe for them large sums of gold…’
Richard’s earlier concern with Gaunt’s plea to reduce the exile of Bolingbroke contrasts sharply with Richard’s contemptuous indifference with his uncle’s deteriorating health:
‘The lining of his coffers shall make coats
To deck our soldiers for these Irish wars…
Come gentlemen, lets all go visit him,
Pray God we may make haste and come too late!’
In act 2, scene 1, Gaunt tells Richard that his days are numbered as king, predicting his eventual fall:
‘Oh no, thou diest, though I the sicker be.’
Gaunt tells Richard that he is king only by right of power, and is above the law – rather than, as Richard boasts, anointed by God:
‘Landlord of England art thou now, not king,
Thy state of law is bondslave to the law.’
The image of a pelican, supposed a predatory and scavenging bird is echoed from other plays here – notably King Lear, who describes his cruel daughters as ‘pelicans,’ Gaunt describes Richard using animal imagery to describe his amorality and unrestrained desire to dominate and possess, particularly seen in the reference to Richard’s murder of Gloucester, of whose power Richard was envious:
‘That blood already, like the pelican,
Hast thou tapped out and drunkenly caroused.
My brother Gloucester, plain, well-meaning soul…
Live in thy shame, but die not shame with thee!’
Richard’s declaration that he will have Gaunt’s lands following his imminent death indicates his inability to deal tactfully with Bolingbroke, who as Gaunt’s son should inherit Gaunt’s estates. By stubbornly claiming Gaunt’s properties, Richard provides Bolingbroke with a personal and legal excuse to contend with Richard for power – a claim he later uses as justification for his uprising against Richard:
‘Towards our assistance we do seize to us…
The plate, coin, revenues, and movables,
Whereof our uncle Gaunt did stand possessed.’
At the close of scene 1, Northumberland reveals to Richard’s nobles that Bolingbroke has massed an invasion fleet from Brittany, and will invade as soon as Richard leaves for Ireland. In Act 2.2 we learn that Richard’s nobles have fled to Henry following his landing at Ravenspurgh. Richard has lost the backbone of his support to Bolingbroke, he has been unable to retain the loyalty of his supporters because of his refusal to listen to the advice of men such as York and Gaunt Bushy comments:
‘ For us to levy power
Proportional to the enemy
is all impossible.’
In Act 2 scene 3, Henry persuades his uncle the Duke of York at Berkeley castle to permit the revolt, claiming that Henry wants only to claim the lands and titles stolen by Richard from Gaunt. York suspects Bolingbroke’s ambitions, but says he will neither hinder nor help Bolingbroke. As Richard’s regent whilst in Ireland, this is perhaps the most exemplary indication of Richard’s fall from popularity and authority:
York: ‘ I have had feelings of my cousin’s wrongs,
and laboured all I could to do him right…’
In act 2 scene 4, Richard’s tardy return from Ireland to meet the revolt is met as a sign of imminent doom by the Welsh Captain, who describes discord in nature as accompanying the tide of change following the revolt; Richard has behaved unnaturally, and the disturbance he has created in the social and moral world is reflected in the natural:
Welsh Captain ‘These signs forerun the death or fall of kings…
Farewell, our countrymen are gone or fled,
As well assured Richard, their king is dead.’
The execution of Bushy and Green by Bolingbroke at Bristol reveals Bolingbroke’s sense of power and authority in administering justice; the executions are a sharp contrast to the old feudal trial-by-combat justice that Richard entertained with Bolingbroke and Mowbray. The actions of are decisive and ruthless, unlike Richard whose actions are inconclusive and weak by comparison. The implication is that Henry is king in all but name, despite his continuing insistence that the Dukedom of Lancaster is his aim. This act serves to demonstrate a contrast between Richard, who clings to his kingship whilst deprived of power, and Henry who now has that power, Bolingbroke takes on the manner of a king:
‘Bring forth these men…
Bushy and Green, I will not vex your souls,
Since presently your souls must leave your bodies.’
In Act three, scene 2, Richard returns from Ireland, discovering that his Welsh army has disbanded, and his supporters defected to Bolingbroke. As we often see in Richard, he swings between exuberant arrogance for Bollingbroke, confident that his cause will win simply because of his divine right – and the total despair of the fallen hero, whose tragic flaw (or hubris) has been his undoing:
‘Now the blood of twenty thousand men
Did triumph in my face, and they are fled…’
Salisbury tells Richard that the Duke of York and the Welsh army have defected to Bolingbroke, Richard consoles himself by asserting his divine status as king:
‘Is not the king’s name twenty thousand names?’
Scrope reports Bolingbroke success in raising an English army, at which point, Richard begins a transformation into despair:
‘Discharge my followers, let them hence away,
From Richard’s night, to fair day.’
Richard’s fall from power seems to bring out a sense of nobility and endurance lacking when he held power, York comments that Richard truly looks like a King now that he is in the face of adversity, like King Lear, he has had to realise the true corruptible nature of the world and vulnerability of kings as men to appreciate what it means to be king:
York: ‘Yet looks he like a king! behold his eye,
As bright as is the eagle’s…
Richard himself repents his past mistakes and wishes he could have dealt more fairly with his country and nobles:
‘…O, that I were as great
As is my grief, or lesser than my name!
Or that I could forget what I have been!
Or not remember what I must be now!’
Richard attempts to ease matters by granting Bolingbroke Gaunt’s lands, and accompanies him to London; in act Three Scene 4, Richard’s Queen learns of this from gardeners at the duke of York’s garden – at this point, Shakespeare compares Richard to a gardener who has been invested, like Adam to tend the garden of England:
Gardener: ‘Our sea-Walled garden, the whole land,
Is full of weeds, her fairest flowers choked up,
Her fruit trees all unpruned, her hedges ruined,
Her knots disordered, and her wholesome herbs
Swarming with caterpillars.’
This is an example of the measured, lyrical style seen in the play, as a literary expression of the state of the kingdom. Blank verse is used – drawing attention to the gardeners with their uncharacteristic dialogue, suggesting the metaphorical, deeper meanings behind the gardener’s talk.
In Act four, scene 1, Richard sends York to announce his decision to abdicate and pass the crown to Bolingbroke. On Henry’s request, Richard himself arrives to publicly abdicate; during this inevitable affair, Richard demonstrates strength and dignity, reminding Bolingbroke and his supporters of their betrayal of him as king. Richard’s speech convinces The Bishop of Carlisle, Duke Aumerle and their followers to attempt another coup to restore Richard, suggesting that he has earned their admiration since his fall from power.
In Act five, scene 4, Sir Piers of Exton plans to murder Richard at Pomfret, and in act five we see Richard meditating on his failures as king, and trying to reconcile himself with his probable death, Richard’s groom enters, and tells Richard of Bolingbroke’s coronation – Richard predicts that Bolingbroke will fall:
‘Since pride must have a fall, and break the neck
Of that proud man that did usurp his back?’
Richard declares that he has lost patience with Bolingbroke and his keepers, he beats the servant bringing him food, Exton and his men enter, who murder Richard; during the fight, Richard takes an axe from a guard and kills two men before he is cut down. Richard dies with the dignity and valour of a king, and predicts that the unlawful king will fall, and England with him:
‘That hand shall burn in never quenching fire
That staggers thus my person: Exton, thy fierce hand
hath with the king’s blood stained the king’s own land…’
Ultimately, Richard has to be viewed as a bad king, whose inability to rule justly, to satisfy those around him and to control events in a decisive manner lead to a tragic fall from grace. It is the tragedy of Richard’s fall that prompts our sympathy for him; since from this process, Richard emerges with a new awareness of moral order, and realises how his own mistakes have been his undoing. Like Lear, he only truly understands his own vulnerability when it it too late, and his power has been stripped away, leaving him a man without an identity. Richard ‘s success lies largely in his later development, his callous treatment of Gaunt and Bolingbroke,and his indescisive administration all mark his reign upto the abdication as unsucessful. It is only when adversity has overtaken Richard that his character develops, demontrating Rchard’s courage and ability to keep sane – unlike Lear during his gradual fall from power.
Richard’s reign is not successful, his authority and political power have few high points, but he does retain the respect of many nobles, including York, who describes him as a true king at Flint:
‘Yet looks he like a king, behold his eye!’
Ultimately, Richard is seen by many of the nobles as the rightful king, and successor to william I, this is reflected in Carlisle’s horror at the deposition, suggesting that Bollingbroke will never entirely fill the place of Richard as king.
In henry V, we see a marked contrast in character to Richard II.
Henry, or Hal, the son of Henry Bolingbroke considers his claim to the French throne under ‘Salic Law’, and must decide how to respond to the insults of the French Dauphin; the result is a descision to go to war with France, and preparations are made at Southampton for a fleet to cross the channel.
In Act 1 scene 1, we see Hal’s resolve and patriotism as King and – he seems to exude the same regal aspect as Richard II, but does so with regard for the opinions of his nobles, and supposedly, the greater good of his country. Hal repeatedly asks the Archbishop of Canterbury if he has the right to force his claim:
‘May I with right and conscience make this claim?’
There is a great sense of legitimacy generally about Hal’s court; we must remember that Hal is the rightful heir to Bolingbroke, and as such is a lawful and natural king, who has inherited by descent, unlike Bolingbroke, who seems never to have the total loyalty and status as king possessed by his son. Hal is seen here working with the consent of his nobles:
Exeter: ‘Your brother kings and monarchs of the earth
Do all expect that you should rouse yourself
As did the former lions of your blood.’
Hal is also seen working with the church, perhaps the ultimate symbol of moral, political and spiritual legitimacy:
Canterbury: ‘O let their bodies follow my dear liege,
With blood and sword and fire to win your right;
In aid whereof, we of the spirituality
Will raise your highness such a mighty sum…’
In this respect, it may almost seem as if Hal is being manipulated by the ambitions and intrigues of court, and popularism of anti-French feeling amongst the nobility. His shrewd questioning and probing into the legitimacy of the situation suggests however that Hal is not to be led easily, and is seen only to make his decision after the insult from France, when the Dauphin sends tennis balls with his ambassadors:
‘We will in France, by God’s grace, play a set
Shall strike his father’s crown into the hazard.’
The strength and conviction Hal shows in deciding he will go to war has been made after much consideration, taking into account the feelings of his court and the financial cost of war; this has not been decided rashly, or in an undecided fashion, but is the result of reasoning and conviction.
Hal is highly regarded by his court, who consider him a noble and legitimate monarch, the comment of the Dauphin that he is still reckless perhaps angers Hal, inflamed by the Dauphin’s contemptuous refusal to Acknowledge Dukedoms to Hal once possessed by his great grandfather King Edward:
Hal: ‘And we understand him well,
How he comes over us with our wilder days,
Not measuring what use we made of them…
But tell the Dauphin I will keep my state,
Be like a king and show my sail of greatness.’
Hal’s response to the Dauphin’s insult adds to the justifiction for war, and we are unsure whether Hal really takes the formal justifications seriously, or whether or not he simply plays along with the situation to take advantage of events to justify his own ambition to begin a war with France.
The question of justification for the invasion of another country is discussed purely in terms of cold legitimacy, hireditary right and patriotism. France is the hereditary enemy, and French xenophobism when combined with every other justification seems to legitimise the war on France as a question of kingly duty and patriotism.
In this respect, Hal is seen as the figurehead of the nation, he is seen in the semi-divine terms of a national hero; this aspect of Hal is suggested in Act 2 scene 1, when low life characters are seen voicing support for Hal. Even the populous love and respect their king:
Nym: ‘the king is a good king…’
The appearance of thre loyal subjects in this act contrasts with the discussion of three traitors in the previous chorus at the end of act 1, suggesting the loyalty of the common people for their king..
When the traitors are met by Hal, he tells Scroop to realease a man who attacked the royal party, when the traitors suggest punishment, Hal tells them they have condemned themselves. Unlike Richard II, who banishes Bolingbroke and Mowbray, Hal deals ruthlesly with any threat, and has the traitors executed:
‘Get ye therefore hence,
poor miserable wrethches to your death,
the taste God whereof his mercy give
You patience to endure.’
Hal is seen at this point as an avenging angel, a divine agent to set at rights his claim to the kingship of France, he is conceived by Shakespeare as a man whose every action seems righteous, without self-doubt and with the welfare, or at least honour and nobility of England at heart. He never seems to regret past actions, save perhaps in his younger days, and only truly questions the neccessity of war when on the battlefield with his troops. Until then he is the archetypal knight-king, or Crusader, epitomising material strength and power, but in the name of religion and legitimacy; these aspects of Hal are seen repeatedly in his speeches and in the prologue/chorus, where Hal becomes the essence of patriotism and national strength in the coming war. Hal’s is a simple, but apparently flawless character, and must be seen in terms of the play’s context as an ideal, a rousing chilvraic epic of national unity and self-affirmation. The repetition of classical and Biblical ferefences invest Hal with divine purpose and charisma – especially in his portrayal as a ‘Mars,’ with whom ride the four horsemen of the Apocalypse:
‘Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of mard, and at his heels,
Leashed in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire
crouch for employment.’
1. prologue 5-8
One of Hal’s most powerful allies is propoganda and popular beleif, his reputation and pouplarity is almost a religion amongst every aspect of court and commons:
Cambridge: ‘Never was monarch better feared and loved
Than is your majesty; there’s not, I think, a subject
That sits in heart-grief and uneasiness
Under the sweet shade of your government.’
Hal as a true representative of God, or divine morality is seen in highly militant and retributional terms, his surety of character and sense of purpose is strengthened by his resolve to settle things quickly and ruthlessly, seen in his execution of the traitors, his rejection of Falstaff to persue matters of state and embrace the resposibilities of his own maturity, and in his resolve to fight the French, rather than abdure their insults. His morality is in fact much like that of the Old Testament, harsh, retributional and ruthlessly effetive. Hal ensures success through consistent ruthlessness; thus, he hangs Bardolph as an example to his army to retain order. In Act three scene three he threatens to destroy Harfleur and massacre it’s citizens if the town does not surrender:
‘Your fresh virgins and your flowering infants –
What is it then to me if impious war,
Arrayed in flames like to the prince of fiends,
Do with his smirched complexion all fell feats
Enlinked to waste and desolation?’
Hal constantly seems the pious and patriotic monarch, his justification for war comes from the support of his nobles, the insistence of the clergy in his rights under Sallic law, the insults of the Dauphin and the resulting injured pride of England and his ancestors. Hal blames the French for the war, suggesting that the French king holds his throne unlawfully, and that Harfleur can only expect destruction if it fails to surrenderto it’s true lord, since Hal will be unable to control his men upon taking the town!:
‘Therefore men of Harfleur,
take pity of your town and of your people
Whiles yet my soldiers are in my command.’
Many of Hal’s claims as justification for the war sem unsound: on taking Harfleur, with little chance of taking France, Hal is offered lands and titles in France for peace, rougly equal to what he demanded of the French king before the war, he refuses, and continues the fight. Similarly – his claims of an uncontrollable army are unsound, he hangs Bardolph for stealing from a church, suggesting an ability to at least enforce order in the army.
Hal therefore manipulates situations and language to best effect, taking advantage of every justification available to get everything he wants whilst appearing a noble and righteous king, Hal’s ability to use language to suggest concord with France after conquoring her is seen in Hal’s meeting with Princees Kate:
‘In loving me you should love the friend of France; for I love France so well that i will not part with a village of it; I will have it all mine: and Kate, when france Iis mine, and I am yours, then france is yours and you are mine.’
Hal wanders amongst the troops on the eve of Agincourt, probing the thoughts of his soldiers, he dresses as a common man, and questions the soldiers about the king and the righteousness of the war; one man suggests that if it is an unrighteous war, Hal will be juged on the day of Reckoning:
Bates: ‘ Now if these men do not die well it will be a black matter for the king, that led them to it, who to disobey were against all proportion of subjection.’
Hal reveals his ability to inspire his men in the Crispin’s day speech, he addresses his soildery as ‘brothers,’ insisting that England is united in this army, under a righteous, Christian king. This speech typifies the kind of rousing speeches used by Hal to sway opinion and encourage affection and loyalty for himself from the people, strengthening his own ego amonst mases and nobles:
‘We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’re so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition.’
Hal’s success is more than a story of personal strength and loyalty, but one of god-given right and piety in the face of French arrogance – France is seen as a provocative aggressor, rathen than a nation threatened with conquest; to resolve this predicament, we are presented with the final union of the two nations in the marriage of Hal and Kate. This almost fairy-tale ending softens the harsh patriotic ruthlesness of the play, and introduces a more intimate and human aspect to Hal, who may be seen in the full context as a beligerent and belevolent king, a warrior and a husband, through whom England will find a resolution to the war.
Ultimately, the two kings contrast sharply: whilst Richard is weak and indesicive, Hal is conclusive and sefinately the stronger character. Whilst Richard lacks resolve, Hal is unhesitant in choosing the most roothless of available options to ensure success.
Like Bolingbroke, Hal possesses ruthless efficiancy in his undertakings, but unlike Bolingbroke, hal is not disturbed by self doubt, and does not question his own right as king as his father did after usurping Richard. In many respects Richard’s reign is wholly tragic, with little political success or sense of real, lasting authority – Richard’s weakness to make enemies, then allow them to destroy him is seen in reverse in Hal, who continualy gains support from all quarters of scociety, invites the masses and nobles to be his ‘brother’ and share in his glory, and resoundingly crushes any opposition he meets, such as the hanging of bardolph and execution of the traitors, and also his threat to anihilate Harfleurs. Hal is also able to reconcile enemies, he can be a statesman nd diplomat as well as patriot, seen in his marriage to Kate of France. This ability to bring concord out of his own destruction virtually excuses Hal for justification in an agressive war.
Ultimately, the two kings are very different, perhaps reflected in their differing plays – Henry is a hero, his play is a patriotic yarn, and celebration of national strength; Richardd’s play is more objective and perhaps historically accurate – but is presented as a tradgedy on par with Shakespeare’s great tradgedies, most strikingly similar to Lear.