Tag Archives: deposition

A King Undone


I have always liked period pieces, and have spent years reading historical novels, mostly covering the time from 900 to 1600 in Western Europe, so I recently started rereading Holinshed’s Chronicles. I say “reread” because I once had a Shakespeare professor who had us read the corresponding parts of Holinshed’s, Hall’s, More’s, etc. (you get the idea) for each play. But until now I had never read all of it. Because I obviously have entirely too much time on my hands, I have done just that, and was once again drawn to Richard II’s reign, which had always been my favorite of Shakespeare’s history plays. I am also partial to the Henry IV ones, but I honestly have difficulty keeping them straight, as in what happens in which part (does Hotspur die in Part I or II?), leading me to treat them as one big play for continuity’s sake. Richard II, despite being the first part of, well, everything except John, I have always seen as it’s own autonomous unit. And I have never stopped loving his self-choreographed dethroning.

Granted my favorite parts of Richard II were pure invention, and nowhere accounted for in history, an anointed king in a time where legitimacy of the throne was of utmost importance dethroning himself in such stylized fashion is stunning, and in a most strange way, humorous. In some of his most breathtaking speeches, that move me now as they did then, when looking deeper towards their meaning it appears that Richard, in his over-embellished unsceptoring, said more than he had intended, illustrating his incompetence to the last.

I am not here so much trying to make an argument or draw conclusions, as this is not an academic paper, nor will it probably ever be. However, I can’t help but draw a parallel between parts of Acts 3 and 4, as the former is in a sense a rehearsal for the latter. Richard’s dethroning, while self-orchestrated, had begun before he ever had an audience- his emphatic and melancholic displays of emotion in 3.2 build to 4.1, confirming a deposition that in his head has already occurred. The two scenes present the image of a mere mortal awaiting his grave while wearing the symbolic robes of majesty and serve to question the legitimacy of the king’s anointed divinity and invulnerability.

From the beginning of the play until his death Richard demonstrates his belief in the ideology of a king being the deputy of God, oblivious to the emptiness of such a conviction. However, despite his grandiose language, Richard is constantly depicted as nothing more than a human, bound to die and deprived of any holiness. He tries to consolidate his humanity with divinity in constant Christological references, and with each ironically draws more attention to the former. As his nobles are being executed by Bolingbroke and the rest are turning against him he compares the traitors to “Three Judases, each one thrice worse than Judas,” and later cries out against these nobles “So Judas did to Christ: but he in twelve / Found truth in all but one; I, in twelve thousand, / none.” When divinity can no longer be found to uphold his right to the crown he finds allusions to legitimize his claim to power, dramatizing them in attempts to fortify their meaning, and by comparing himself to Christ, Richard is not only claiming a supreme metaphysical status and authority, he is also anticipating his own martyrdom. He does not expect to repossess his kingdom, he expects to be murdered, but he will do so on his own dramatic terms, forcing Bolingbroke to participate in a scene that will later be the cause of his own unrest. If his analogies are dissected, while comparing himself to Christ Richard uses the imagery of Judas, unwittingly bringing to the mind his own betrayal of his kingdom, and not that of Bolingbroke, or his nobles, to him while he admits to finding himself a “traitor with the rest,” perpetuating the image and directly applying it to himself.

He takes great pleasure from the power and symbols of his station, but he is unwilling or unable to assume its obligations, and thus not fulfilling his kingly duties to par of what is expected. While he is not the first, nor last, ineffective king of England, he has his throne questioned and usurped against primogeniture and lineage, and though this will plague Henry IV’s reign until his death, the fact that his son will rule successfully, continuing an indirect line speaks to the legitimacy of King as God’s anointed. However, this is a reading of the commentary the play makes, and not to be confused with any authorial intent since the line of succession is not fabricated for the stage but follows chronologically the history of England. Nevertheless it is important to realize that there are certain theatrical additions made specifically by Shakespeare which appear in no chronicle, and have no basis in fact. Richard’s self dethronement is one. 

Upon Richard’s return from Ireland his cause is lost as king, but to him, and to the world in which he lives, there is only one form of government; Richard is incapable of seeing himself as anything other than a king born to “respect / Tradition, form and ceremonious duty,” and this belief may shift, but fails to ever fully change. In being deposed Richard demonstrates the weakness and folly in the idea of divine monarchy, suggesting that the king is not perhaps favored by God, but is a man, like all others, capable of transgression and liable to the consequences. Here the time period when this is written must be taken into account. During Richard’s reign, lineage and succession were extraordinarily important, however, the idea of a king’s divine right to rule was primarily promulgated by the Tudors (several kings later), who used this concept to unify the land and maintain control (keeping in mind that Henry VII, the first of the Tudors, was the last king to “win” the crown). Considering Shakespeare wrote this play while Elizabeth I, also a Tudor, was on the throne, the concept played a far more important role in the play than it had done historically, and incidentally made the dethroning scene all the more powerful, while perhaps also providing a reason for its inclusion aside from an excuse for some great theatrics.

As Richard continuously refuses to placate Northumberland’s incessant insistence that he verbalize his crimes “Committed… Against the state and profit of the land” it becomes apparent that kingship is a burden which Richard must earn the right to bear, and he has nothing but his royal birth and title to justify his misconduct, bringing to light the discrepancies between history and Shakespeare’s contemporary mindset. Birthrights are not enough to redeem Richard from his crimes and faults; by overstepping his bounds as he becomes careless with his duties he shows the reality of the powerlessness behind his absolute divinity. The crimes he has committed do not reflect his personal shortcomings so much as those of his royal degree, insinuating the imperfections of kingship. In the end, “unkinged” Richard, stripped of his authority, finds himself exposed as a sham, and worse, a criminal. Thus, as he finally perceives his pending downfall in Act 3 he is in fact seeing his image of self being erased and tries to hold on to it by invoking the empty security of the royal name, a symbol at this point without substance. While his grandeur is based upon his anointed status that presumably lends him a sort of mystical power above ordinary man, Bolingbroke, through his usurpation, highlights the falseness of this belief.

The deposition scene is Richard’s last attempt at maintaining a semblance of kingly control, evoking an earlier scene where he states that the words of men, mere breaths, cannot testify against God’s anointed, and this is exactly why the deposition is so necessary, allowing Richard, God’s anointed, to relinquish his own crown. As he, with his “own breath release[s] all duteous oaths,” he lives in the world of ceremony. However, such a world is necessary to the maintenance of power; even though the crown is usurped in terms of politics and reality, Richard must create a theatrical ceremony as a means of accepting his fate of being “nothing.” Bolingbroke participates in this spectacle as he does not remove the crown by force, but asks if Richard is ready to resign it, to which Richard replies “Ay, no; no ay” denoting his final realization that yes, he must resign, but in doing so he gives up more than his position, he gives up himself. Without the crown, there is no I, no Richard, indicating the shallowness of the position in which the title of king only symbolizes a greater entity but does not embody it since it can so quickly depart from the bearer along with any meaning it captures, which will become the most evident during the relinquishing of kingly paraphernalia. There lies no divinity in Richard himself, only despair and a great sense of loss.

Richard is not foolish enough to think he can maintain the crown, and by Act 3 he is already premeditating his downfall. However, in doing so he begins relying on a different set of images dependent upon his human, fleshy qualities, in hopes of preserving them by separating them from his regality, and in a sense saving a part of himself, as he is transformed from a “deputy elected by the Lord” to an “antic… grinning at his pomp,” and finally into a man “T’undeck the pompous body of a king.” Ironically only as he is falling from power does he realize that his mystical conception of kingship needs a material foundation, and his role as head of the state depends on “the blood of twenty thousand men.” His language shift from the divine to the natural as he focuses on his human attributes of “[living] with bread… [tasting] grief, [needing] friends.” He is coming into contact with the part of himself that has been buried underneath the title of king, and over time lost, acknowledging the reality of the frailty of the anointed king who infuses himself with “self and vain conceit,” and his speech is essentially a dress rehearsal for a real act of deposition soon to follow as he is prematurely shedding his insignia and exposing his “flesh and blood” that is subject to death. Until this point Richard perceives blood to be the means by which he is heir to the throne. Due to his misconception of divinity he fails to see the physical properties of blood that go beyond his inherited position, but rather make him into a human being. A crown cannot rest upon nothing. This will be a point missed by several more kings to come, where they do not divorce their lineage from their right to rule, believing the former is cause for the latter – as will much later be evident in Charles I. Yet, long before Charles there will be other kings, namely Richard III, who will disassociate blood from privilege, and that too will prove disastrous. The ideal, as perhaps is always the case, lies within a consolidation of the two where the rightful heir, determined by blood, also happens to be a competent ruler. This scenario will also be seen several more times, beginning with Henry V (a legitimate son regardless of how Bolingbroke took the throne), and demonstrated again through Henry VIII who holds the throne well after his father successfully steadies the realm, and most notably again in Elizabeth I. Thus the deposition scene, while not historical, functions within the play to highlight a truth about kingship that will at one point prove true though history.

Yet even as he dismounts from his aspirations of kingship he cannot fully move from his perspective of divinity, acting instinctively in defense of his life, and adapting a style of self-sacrifice that plays all the ranges from omnipotence to despair. Despite the reality of his situation, in his mind he is not overthrown, but abdicates as an innocent victim of circumstances and a martyr for his people. Further, the prospect of death is not simply an escape from an intolerable reality, but an active assertion of individual integrity by means of which a “subjected” individual can positively extricate himself from the power of others. In other words, if Bolingbroke possesses his life and land at least Richard can direct his own deposition and ultimate death where he will occupy a property that no one else can covet or share: the grave. However, ironically, the grave is associated with hollowness, a layer of outer coverings concealing some hidden emptiness or corruption within, which is the dominant image of Richard’s entire kingship once emptied of its real content of effective political and military power. It appears with every step Richard takes towards maintaining or gaining control over any part of the situation, he draws more attention to his absolute incompetence; he cannot even die properly.

However, in his failure to disassociate himself from his position he depicts himself as being in command over death, and even his own emotions, such as grief, not merely possessing these attributes that make him human, but rather presiding over them as if reading from a script, once again relying upon ceremony to conduct himself. His emotions cannot be usurped or deposed, for in the end he is “King of those,” much like all the water in the sea cannot “wash the balm off from an anointed king,” so thus his grief serves as testimony to a role he once played, and in undoing himself with his own divine tears, in all their power, he manages to wash away the balm in a ceremonious cleansing ritual comprised of performative declarations. Further, in Act 3, still before fully accepting his fate, he proposes to “tell stories of the death of kings,” establishing the topic of his speech, and then proceeding to conduct a brief survey of the variety of regicidal possibilities, foreshadowing, and in a sense dictating, how his own will fit the genre. He speaks of those “depos’d… slain… haunted… poisoned,” but all were “murdered- for within the hollow crown… Keeps Death his court,” mirroring the deposition scene with Bolingbroke two scenes later. His word choice when discussing the possibilities of death lend him a sinister reach where past and present are consolidated within the idea that Richard might haunt Bolingbroke after having been deposed and murdered. Since “haunted” lacks the finality of “slain” or “kill’d,” it is a manifestation of Richard’s last attempts at lingering, or remaining near the seat of power; in the next act he will stage his deposition in the guise of a willing abdication.

Richard’s slow and shaky acceptance of his circumstances leads him towards the deposition where, ironically, through the relinquishing of power he has his most powerful moment on stage as he coordinates the movement of regalia across the stage from himself to Bolingbroke. Through this symbolic handling of the consecrated items, Richard in fact bestows the monarchy and the sanctions of power onto them, apart from any one man. As he removes the “heavy weight from [his] head, / And this unwieldy scepter from [his] hand” they take on a life of their own as the king becomes a lay figure, consequently leaving the throne not for Bolingbroke, but empty. In this way the mystery and power of the kingship itself is aggrandized at the expense of the (or any) king’s humanity, which has been broken down into its constituent parts. As Richard yields, “resigns,” and finally undoes himself in an inversion of a coronation ceremony, publicly giving up the ornaments and trappings of his kingship, the position is transformed and perhaps reduced, into a role, absolutely separated from the man holding it. If the physical display is not convincing enough, the idea extends even to his language where his word ceases to mean anything, and he becomes an amorphous undefined nothing, the human equivalent to the mere breath to which his once substantial speech has dwindled. And in anticipation of such a transformation he insists on every detail of his deposition being observed and understood, refusing to permit any aspect of the process by which power is stripped from him to remain unnoticed.

What is interesting to note, however, is that when the unkinging is over it accomplishes a change, but not so much in the definition of monarchy as a perception of it. The monarchy remains stable, unaltered; the regalia may take on a life of their own, separate from man, but he who wears it still holds power. The king is divorced first from his realm, the body politic, by conspiracy and rebellion, then from his own sense of his royalty, and finally from the consecrated ornaments of his office and person which are passed across the stage as if they are only props in a performance. However, Richard himself devalues these objects by insisting upon turning everything into such a performance. While in Act 3 he wants to “talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs,” in Act 4 he begins orchestrating stage directions to “seize the crown.” What started as another flamboyant theatrical gesture, like his cataloging the ways in which a king may die, moves to an insight deeper than he could have anticipated or intended. Through his extravagant speeches Richard unmasks the frailty of the anointed king.

Whether or not Richard is worthily deposed (not to be confused with the question of his effectiveness, which I think is a different issue altogether), or if he in fact yields his authority, or if he is unworthily deposed, is not resolved by the playtext that simply interrogates the meaning of kingship, offering no clean-cut, uncomplicated solutions to the problem. As aforementioned, this is less of a conclusive analysis than a discussion on the stated (and unstated) implications of two parallel scenes; the play ends with a shift, not of power, but the conception of it, that moves towards a Machiavellian direction. It will take several more kings to re-balance the ideology of divine rule with this Machiavellian power, once again directing attention towards the Tudors who succeeded in doing just that.Tellingly, Shakespeare leaves off his Histories with Henry VIII, unwilling (or maybe unable) to further illustrates the significance the throne had in the minds of his contemporaries. Yet, even if the histories had continued, one for each king (or queen) since Henry VIII, within each, every instance of kingship could be reexamined in accordance to Richard II’s ultimate message where the glory of majesty, and the idea of the kingly self, once lay shattered on the floor of Westminster Hall.