We turn, then, to the first of our three kings. When Richard II opens, the threat of rebellion is already present, but from Thomas Mowbray rather than the later usurper, Henry Bolingbroke (who is first seen as the chief witness against Mowbray). Richard’s handling of this matter is at first ambiguous – he temporarily banishes both men – yet he seems to have good reason to worry. Richard notes the public’s mourning at Henry’s departure and how he appears to prey on the crowd’s sympathy (1.4.23-26). But while Richard banished his cousin from the kingdom, he cannot banish him from his thoughts. Instead, at the death of Henry’s father, John of Gaunt, Richard seizes John’s property to ensure Henry can never inherit. But as the Duke of York warns (2.1.186-208), in a kingdom without lawful succession of father to son, not even the kingship is sacred. Bloom notes that, “the first two acts are intended to establish Richard as an evil king who deserves to lose his throne.” He continues,
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)
Yet only in the end do we see just how subtle Shakespeare’s views and purpose can be, as Cowan goes on to show:
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)
Shakespeare thus proposes a third way to deal with a ‘bad king’: reform him. Throughout the play, Carlisle seeks to do just this, respecting the inherent authority of the office, while recognizing the imperfectability of the one who holds it (3.2.27-62). Character is the only sure foundation for leadership. The primary political purpose of Richard II, then, is to set forth “a thoroughly traditional English concept of the sacredness and authority of the office, with the king deemed answerable not only to parliament and law but to the higher powers of justice and love” (Cowan 77). Royal humility is therefore the key to royal character, noble support, and popular consent.
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 seeks to avoid the consequences of his actions at home by seeking glory and honor at the expense of other peoples. Unfortunately, for both Henry and for England, “Rebellion engenders rebellion” (Trafton 103), and so the subject of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 is a three-pronged uprising that is far more costly for Henry and his country than he could have possibly imagined. But while such consequences are not intentional, they are preventable. Pride can be temporarily overcome by greater pride, but such a victory comes with greater consequences as well. Richard’s pride leads to the death of a king; Henry’s pride nearly destroys a nation.
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,
To Hal, then, “justice” is merely a tool to control the masses, to unite the affections of his people to himself as an individual, rather than to his royal office. Hal therefore rejects both Richard’s arrogant self-righteousness and Henry’s proud piety and turns to naked, self-willed pragmatism.
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.