He is shown to be a murderer, a thief, a wastrel surrounded by flatterers, lacking in all the familial pieties—a monarch without care or conscience. He is convicted before our eyes of all the accusations made against him, and this portrait is relieved by no charming features. Bolingbroke’s schemes are thereby given the color of justice. (Bloom 62; see our first post for works cited)
We complete the play with compassion for Richard and with terror at the sacrilege committed against his person . . . . The play, finally, makes us see . . . that Richard has been a bad king who abused power, but that his deposing is an offense that could destroy all England. (Cowan 72)
Yet Henry Bolingbroke learns this truth only too late. He returns early from his exile merely to regain his rightful inheritance (Richard II 2.3.128-135), but when he realizes that he has both the support of the people and the assembled strength of the nobles, he loses his initial humility and prudence, and overreaches his rightful station to seek the crown itself (4.1.113). His “just cause” becomes self-righteousness, which degenerates into self-interest and self-assertion. Thus, Richard II is a tale both of Richard’s hubris and of “Bolingbroke’s grasping of the crown and thereby his loss of innocence. He thought he would purge the throne of a stain left on it by Richard’s having committed the sin of Cain, but he is constrained to commit the same sin in order to found his rule” (Bloom 59). Just as Richard is condemned for murder, theft and pride, Henry founds his reign on pride, murder and hypocrisy, and thereby commits moral and political suicide.
And by deposing the king and showing pleasure at his murder (Richard II 5.6.40) he removes all traditional grounds of legitimacy. “It is ridiculous to suppose that Henry can command instinctive loyalty. That is exactly his problem. Attachment to him must be born of wisdom, beneficence, and strength, for he is beginning afresh without the sanctions which were available to Richard” (Bloom 67). Henry has founded his reign upon violence, and so violent he must be, or else lose the authority he has seized. Henry finds that he cannot rely solely on the conservative customs of monarchy, nor on the filial obligation owed to him as king, so he must instead provide an outlet for his violent nature as well as a means to fulfill the expectations of his subjects. So at the close of Richard II, the newly crowned king finds himself drawn to the Crusades:
Just as Henry does not try to restrain that [violent] impulse in himself, his political program aims not at restraining his subjects but rather at channeling their violence outward toward foreigners. Peace is not his goal but rather a ‘well-beseeming’ foreign war which will remove the destruction from England, and from Henry himself. (Trafton 101)
Henry’s eldest son, Henry Monmouth, provides our final example of the moral and political causes and consequences of rebellion. Richard hides himself beneath the veil of divine right, regardless of his injustice. Henry Bolingbroke, does his best to keep up the conventional customs so that he might at least appear to be just. Henry Monmouth, however, follows a third path: he knows what it means to be just, but waits for the perfect moment to reveal just how just he can be. Prince Hal reveals his intent in the second scene of 1 Henry IV.
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted he may be more wonder’d at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapours that did seem to strangle him . . . .
So when this loose behaviour I throw off,
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;
And like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glitt’ring o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly, and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off. (1 Henry IV 1.2.192-210)
Yet here, Hal merely exemplifies what has already been implied by the examples of his immediate predecessors: you cannot be just without doing what is right and doing it for the right reasons. Each of these kings struggles in his own way with an understanding of justice that “would subordinate all his actions, public or private, to the good of England” (Alvis, “Spectacle” 117). But once this natural and divine standard is rejected one can only turn inwardly, for to reject good government is to reject its sacramental reflection of a higher reality. To the mind of the young prince, “God will favor Henry not because he is king but because he is Henry” (Alvis, “Spectacle” 118). But Hal receives no such favor. When confronted with his sins, Richard repents but loses his kingdom, Henry regrets but loses his soul, and Hal languishes on, neither penitent nor sorrowful, master of many but slave to all.