Richard II: An Implicit Case for Individual Rights?

While at Oxford in 2008, I wrote a series of essays on Shakespeare’s history plays. The arguments in many of those essays became my undergraduate thesis, which partly centered on Prince Hal’s uniqueness in the Histories as a king who earns his throne. Upon re-reading my nascent essay on Richard II, I am struck by how much the monarch of that play resembles the kind of king that, in the two generations after Shakespeare, many British–and later, American–citizens would revolt.

Admittedly, the subject of Shakespeare’s involvement in the political philosophy of his time deserves more study than I have done on the subject, my being an as-yet informal student of political history. Shakespeare, himself, is generally known as a historical enigma; add that to the fact that the Protestant Reformation in England carried with it more than a little statist repression (see Asquith’s Shadowplay for more on the topic). The England of Shakespeare was not the England of John Locke–and even he wrote under threat of death. However, it would be foolish to treat the two writers as of separate traditions. Whether or not Shakespeare intended to leave a mark on what would become a bloody debate regarding the role of kingship in the next century, leading to the first and second civil wars of the Anglosphere (we Americans proudly know the second as the American Revolution–see Inventing Freedom by Daniel Hannan), his Histories can easily be read within the context of the post-Renaissance political developments of the Western world.

A key–if not the key–issue debated in 16th and 17th century was the role of kingship as it related to the citizenry. In the first of his Two Treatises of Government, Locke overthrows the position of Sir Robert Filmer, who had argued that because God gave Adam preeminence over Eve and their progeny in Genesis, 1) men are kings in their home, and 2) the King, as “father” of the realm, has divinely-granted absolute authority. In one of the most influential Bible studies in history, Locke debunks, often humorously, both Filmer’s premise of arbitrary male authority in Eden and his subsequent conclusions. In his second treatise–again, since it is to scripture that he goes for authority, it’s essentially a Bible study, executed using the Aristotelian logic that would lead to the progress of the following two centuries–Locke presents a more standalone argument for what a government should be. It is in his second treatise that he lays out the role of gov’t as 1) existing by virtue of the consent of those governed and 2) for the purpose of safeguarding man’s essential individual rights to life, liberty, and property. These principles led, we know, to Thomas Jefferson’s penning of the American Declaration of Independence.

What changed between Shakespeare and Jefferson? I contest that it was more than just who had what political power (e.g. king vs parliament). What shifted–like an idea whose time had come, as Hugo might say it– was the conception of man’s objective identity. No longer did people see a fundamental difference between a king and a citizen. The king, by Locke and Jefferson’s definition, was a citizen, himself, who only had authority by virtue of those he governed. It was as if the great-souled man of Aristotle’s Ethics had pulled back the curtain on Plato’s Republic and revealed its philosopher kings not as wizards but as, themselves, mere men.

But what if this reconception of regal authority can be seen in Richard II? Once again, Shakespeare would be one proverbial step ahead of his time.

Before I speak on the play, let me say that Richard II is one of my favorite plays. Starting from the first lines, it involves an enormous amount of subtext and political intrigue as the two fundamentally opposed perspectives on kingship conflict. The drama of the play comes from just that: it is not a battle of indistinguishable characters seeking the same goal, but of two diametrically opposed philosophies. It is this that allows for the amount of emotion in the play. Though he knows that Richard’s method of rule must be replaced, Henry genuinely loves his cousin (arguable, I know), and Richard’s later understanding that his rule is at an end is, despite his being the villain, sympathetic (of course, one could argue that Richard is the protagonist and Henry the passive aggressive antagonist. As such, the play could be read as an argument for the absolutist claim. However, the subsequent Henry plays would debunk this). In Richard, Shakespeare represents the emotional agony of someone who is forced to face a contradiction upon which they have built their whole life (here, that one man may have an automatic authority over others). Despite the evil of his contradiction, Richard is nonetheless a very noble man; Richard II is by no means Richard III. It’s an incredible play, and the more I’ve read it the more I’ve found that every moment contributes in some way to the plot. It is also, technically, a “perfect” play: Every single line is iambic pentameter (if I’m wrong, please correct me).

In the first scene, Richard might appear a caricature of kingship: opulent, domineering, presumptuous, and using duty to his person as his answer to every argument. As I wrote in my 2008 essay, “The tension in the play builds around Richard’s presuming he may act as God because of his assumed divine right to the throne…Richard sorts himself with God, saying that by revolt, his subjects ‘break their faith to God as well as us’ (3.2.102)… According to him, ‘The breath of worldly men cannot depose | The deputy elected by the Lord’ (3.2.56). His emphasis on ‘worldly’ shows that he considers himself higher than mankind.” That Richard sees no problem with his perspective reads as naively pathetic to us now. However, the king as the center of English identity, from which every other Englishman derives his worth, was a concept fully believed not only by Englishmen in the 14th century, but by many other nations that centered around a bloodline. Historically, those of us who believe in fundamental individual rights are the strange ones.

Before addressing Richard’s application of this high view of himself to his treatment of others’ property, allow me to step back to the post-Locke context of the modern day. How a person treats others’ right to their own property reveals what they really think of peoples’ right to their lives and liberty. To say people have a right to life and to liberty but not to the property (all or each article thereof) that their life and liberty have produced is a gross contradiction in terms, and it is the basis of centuries of immorality and bloodshed (look up “Khmer Rouge” for just one of many 20th century examples). Conversely, if you have ever looked at your paycheck or something you bought with it and felt a moment of pride in your work, you were not being a materialist: you were experiencing the kind of life which you have a right to achieve by virtue of your being a human. That feeling is the legacy of Aristotle, Paul, Locke (and, I’m arguing here, possibly Shakespeare), and every other writer/thinker that has said or assumed that each individual man and woman has a right to exist and that his/her life is an objective good, an end in itself not to be used by others. Of course, it would be anachronistic to expect Richard to recognize this, much less articulate it. At the time, property was granted to various members or friends of the royal family in the form of dukedoms and earldoms. The idea of work and innovation giving individuals a right to the products thereof was not even a conception. However, if placed on a scale, Bolingbroke’s treatment of his subjects comes much closer to the recognition of the importance of individual citizens than does Richard’s. Indeed, Shakespeare appears to recognize the shift: despite the way his English are preoccupied with absolutist divine will in kingship, it is nonetheless Richard’s illegal seizure of Henry’s land upon his father’s death that causes the king’s technically tragic downfall.

Again, from my essay, “[Richard] says, upon going to war, because ‘our coffers, with too great a court | And liberal largess, are grown somewhat light, | We are enforced to farm our royal realm’ (1.4.43-45). Ironically, Richard is self-aware enough to acknowledge his extravagant spending. Yet, he has no guilt in using the country’s taxes on himself and his bureaucracy. He absolves himself from blame by speaking as if he has no choice, but is ‘enforced’ to tax his subjects. That he believes the country to be at his disposal is shown in the crop metaphor. However, according to his subjects, he has not contributed to the land in ways that will benefit it. According to Northumberland, Richard has ‘basely yielded upon compromise | That which his ancestors achieved with blows’ (2.1.253-254). Richard has done nothing to fortify or expand England, as his predecessors did (to whom he is consistently compared in the play’s early acts).” Of course, one of the problems with kings is that they do not produce anything. Outside of war, the only way they can maintain their lifestyle–much less survive–is on the taxes of their subjects. Richard’s assumption of his subjects’ property as his due is contrasted with the conquests of his predecessors (who, notably, did not take their kingship for granted). Of course, the desire to fault Richard and the other kings for their need to either make war or tax their subjects is anachronistic (capitalism, which improves peoples’ lives through voluntary trade for mutual benefit and which requires the recognition of individual rights, would not be invented for several centuries). Nonetheless, the way Richard treats the subject of taxation–and by extension, the lives of the people who produced the money that is taxed–fundamentally differs from that of his successor, Bolingbroke.

Contrasting with Richard is his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, who, with his drastically different populist tactics, foils Richard until he is crowned Henry IV. Richard banishes and divests Henry of his inheritance early in the play to fund his suppression of Irish rebels and to cover up the murder of their uncle, Thomas of Gloucester, secretly ordered by the king before the play’s opening (remember what I said about subtext and intrigue?). Bolingbroke returns to reclaim his inheritance and, with the politic help of several members of court (who wish to protect their own lands from royal seizure), claims the crown as the next member of the royal line–once Richard defects. Although his path to the throne is by no means direct, nor complete (Richard never publicly admits fault in his crimes, thus leaving Henry’s succession legally incomplete–a fact that will haunt his son, Prince Hal, for three subsequent plays), it nonetheless represents a different view of kingship than that of Richard. Richard derides Bolingbroke for his “courtship to the common people” (1.4.25); yet, it is that consideration for his fellow lords and subjects that garners Henry the support–one might say, consent–that leads him to the throne.

The ousted Richard has some of the most passionate (and pitiful) lines of the play: it is in prison where he is most starkly faced by the contradiction that led him there. However, he never truly faces it; instead, he continues to interpret everything through the ownership of others by kings. “Our lands, our loves, and all are Bolingbroke’s, | And nothing can we call our own but death,” (3.2.152-3). Richard cannot conceive of existence without kingship. If kingship is viewed as an absolute right to rule and live off the work of others, then according to Richard’s psychology, having a self unrelated to others is an impossibility. Without people to rule, Richard cannot exist. He identifies this irony–that by wearing a crown a king becomes a nonentity: “within the hollow crown | That rounds the mortal temples of a king | Keeps Death his court” (3.2.161-3). He preoccupies his final scenes with mourning, and he meditates on images of death. Though he knows Henry cannot allow him to live, his fetishization of the end of his life goes beyond mere fear of how Bolingbroke will deal with him. Having been removed from his only conception of logical existence (i.e. a ruler who implicitly needs his subjects), he focuses on non-existence. Expanding his own experience to include what he assumes each man must feel, he says “Nor I, nor any man that but man is, | With nothing shall be pleased, till he be eased | With being nothing” (5.5.39-40). Rather than seeing his contradiction as the source of his troubles and checking his premises to correct it, he concludes that there is no possible way for humans to be satisfied. Thus, only in death will they be pleased (a contradiction in terms, since the non-existent cannot “be” anything).

Of course, I am expecting too much of Richard: he (and later, Bolingbroke) is stymied by the fact that a standalone man (i.e. one who does not derive his identity and worth in relation to a king or a people, but as himself, defined by his convictions and his own work, man qua man) did not exist yet in the English philosophical vocabulary. Even Bolingbroke, who underhandedly has Richard killed (a necessary evil that will become the central conflict for the next three plays), comes to view himself only in relation to the deposed Richard.

Philosophically, there is no way in Shakespeare’s plays for a man or woman to merely exist as a person: they are either a king of subjects, or subject to a king. Interestingly enough, by impinging upon Richard’s royal life, Henry shows contempt for and undercuts his own right to live as king–a concept that would, in subsequent centuries, be extended to every man by Locke. The repercussions of Richard’s deposition affect both Bolingbroke and his son, Prince Hal. Indeed, there is an argument that the entire purpose of Richard II is to set up the England of Prince Hal–only mentioned in act 5, scene 3–who will later complete the evolution of kingship from divine father to subject of his people’s consent. I encourage everyone to read the Henry plays. Developed across three plays, Prince Hal is arguably Shakespeare’s deepest and most nuanced character. A spoiler: as Bruce Wayne is to Batman, Prince Hal is to King Henry V. In Hal’s plays, kingship takes on a theretofore unknown requirement: it must be earned. Hal’s central conflict is how to reach the throne in such a way that the majority of his countrymen will support him–i.e. that the governed will consent.

If Shakespeare’s Richard II is to be placed in the philosophical chronology of 16th-18th century English thought, it must be as an examination of how a yet-barely conceived idea of subjects’ rights might affect the divine right of kings. In the character of Richard II, Shakespeare presents a king who sees kingship as the highest value in the English consciousness, and thus treats it as such, naively taking it for granted that his subjects agree (i.e. that they share his value system of “king > people”). Though a parasite, Richard is not malicious–that kind of king would not rise until Richard III. However, even in his own play Richard II seems out of date in his conception of English kingship. Richard II has been used many times as a vehicle for softly (at times blatantly) opposing tyranny, and it is only more poignant when critiqued by the later writings of Locke (not to mention other writers of the Anglosphere, such as Milton, Paine, Washington, or Jefferson). Of course, Shakespeare’s actual convictions are nearly impossible to discern–especially since theatre companies at the time were directly sponsored by royalty and noblemen. However, one wonders if his characters are reaching towards (or running from, in Richard’s case) a conception of the citizen that would take later generations to articulate. To say it is unfairly anachronistic to expect his kings to respect the rights of citizens is to unknowingly reveal the History plays’ contribution to the debate: the lack of options for Richard and Henry implies the possibility of another, less contradictory mode of national and individual identity. In their current England, either they rule, or they die. They cannot merely exist as citizens apart from the throne. Yet, the fact that we can speak of their characters as separate from the crown implies the opposite, as does the way that subsequent kings must rely on others for support. Indeed, what is so unique about Prince Hal (and initially considered a liability by his father, previous Bolingbroke King Henry IV), is that he spends his youth living as a citizen in the taverns. Though he is using Falstaff &co to conceal his strategy to reach the crown in a non-contradictory way (i.e. to earn it), his tactics imply a drastically different view of other Englishmen than that held by Richard II.

I fundamentally hate the idea of kingship, yet my favorite plays to read are Shakespeare’s histories. The many conflicts arise not just from actions between characters: they result from the problems of kingship. Even “correct” kingship (a conception that changes) creates conflicts, and it implies that the problem is not in the people who hold the crown but in the crown, itself. How would these character act if they lived in a country without kingship? I often wonder how high the industrious and able Hal might have gone were he born in late 19th century, early 20th century New York, or early ’90’s Silicon Valley. Similarly, were I to place Richard II in America, I cannot help but think of Woodrow Wilson, who, with his high-minded, Progressive idealization of the presidency, rejected the constitutional government of the American Founders, opposed racial integration (subsequently supporting the KKK–see Richard’s thugs, Bushy, Bagot, and Green), and tried to return America to Europe through the League of Nations. I’ll admit, the thought makes me cheer Richard’s deposition. My own tastes aside, Richard II is definitely worth reading, and we would do well to consider that we are reading from a post-Locke perspective. The characters would not have known what we mean by the individual rights of life, liberty, property, and pursuit of happiness–though we can see some characters, even kings, who might jump at the chance to enjoy them.

Author: dustinllovell

Writing professor, literature and US history tutor, previous ESL instructor, and would-be novelist who enjoys/specializes in Shakespeare, 19th century lit, and philosophy (whether in print or via audiobook). Author of the novel Sacred Shadows and Latent Light (Wipf and Stock, Resources Imprint). Member of Heterodox Academy. Columnist for The Mallard.

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