Circa 16th Century

When Richard II was first performed in 1595, it would have had heavy political impact especially upon thoughts on the issues of Kingship. Shakespeare drew upon the feelings originally penned by the likes of Erasmus (highly respected at the time on points of Kingship and G. Buchanan (The Powers of the Crown in Scotland). The public’s attention had been drawn to the position of a King and his power after the reign of Henry VIII who detached himself and England from the Catholic church in 1532.

This act provoked thought amongst literary types, who recalled that the King had been intended as the ruler by appointment of God, and so should conform to the church. The power and inherent goodness of Kings was questioned, and such writers show this. Erasmus, being a humanist, concentrated heavily in The Education of a Christian Prince (1516) upon the removal of celestial qualities which had been bestowed upon the title of “King” through the ages. He questioned what a prince was, more than “the physician of the state”, meaning that the royal family was in place to protect the interests of the country as a body politic.

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Richard denies this responsibility at the beginning of the play (I. 1 line 154) when he is showing his worst qualities. Erasmus continues to reinforce the human values necessary for Kingship saying that even if “princely authority is stripped from him [the virtuous prince] will still be great]”. However in Richard’s case he becomes a greater man after the removal of his title and in harmony his successor (Bolingbroke) becomes a lesser man once he is King.

This is a somewhat cynical portrayal by Shakespeare, though it is historically accurate for the most part, and demonstrates well that were “a necklace, a sceptre, royal robes [and] a train of attendants all that made a king, [there is nothing to stop] the actors who come on stage decked with all the pomp of state from being called king”. Richard admits the falsity of kingship in his deposition speech (IV. 1 lines 206-9), showing how the icons and myths surrounding a king can so easily be removed, and whatever is left is the man who should be judged.

Religion is also brought into this power equation, both by contemporary theologians such as John Calvin (who said that “the ordinance of God [is to be set against the rule of] the outraging licentiousnesse of Kinges”), and by the play itself. God is argued by Richard to be the divine decider of kings, as part of the Mythology of Kings, and Gaunt (“God’s is the quarrel; for God’s substitute, [hath] caused his death”) and the church (represented by the Bishop of Carlisle) agrees.

Bolingbroke and his followers are opposed to this (joined by Gaunt in his “inspired prophet” speech), as they believe the King should be a man of the people (like Bolingbroke), so that he can take care of the country well. After the rebellion against Richard II, the head of state was more careful not to incite such feelings, for example through church indoctrination (Elizabethan Church Homilies were anti-rebellion), and so such pro-monarchist characters as Richard represent such views and we are shown the error of their ways (seemingly) by the fates which befall them.

Erasmus shows this view, warning that: “There is but one death for all – beggars and kings alike. But the judgement after death is not the same for all. None are dealt with more severely than the powerful. ” Richard is shown this most severely in the mortal plane when he is first “worthily deposed [for] these accusations and grievous crimes” [IV. 1 lines 222-7] sent to the Tower for his crimes. Buchanan also agrees, telling that God gives to Kings “no consideration that is denied to beggars”.

Shakespeare also seems to be not the first to use the gardening analogy, as it also appeared in The Book Named the Governor by Thomas Elyot (which was released in eight editions within 50 years, therefore clearly popular), where Elyot says he shall “use the policy of a wise and cunning gardener”.

Shakespeare uses the gardeners in Act III, Scene 4 to portray the garden as different aspects of Richard’s reign and his kingdom, such as “the noisome weeds [i.e. flatterers] which without profit suck the soil’s fertility [the country’s good qualities] from wholesome flowers [the corrupted king Richard]”. Elyot describes the gardener as “wise and cunning” because he needs to be selectively discriminating in his “lopping away [of superfluous branches] that bearing boughs may live” [III. 4 lines 63-4], that is to say, he must be harsh on some, but only those who are not needed and are holding back the more useful.

This idea seems a common one at the time, and is put forward using another popular image of the body politic by George Buchanan, who says that a king should act fairly “by nourishing and gently assisting the weakened members and by diminishing the fullness and excess of that which does no good”. By such close comparison with contemporary sources, the changing politics in the play can be seen, and this also gives us perhaps an insight into Shakespeare’s own view of monarchy at the time.

The issues attached) to power are complex and ongoing, but Shakespeare shows some of the problems that it can cause, while using a medium that is much more accessible to the general public than the writings of a certain Dutch humanist thinker. As a politically influential play, it could be said to have succeeded as it challenged many commonly held views, without being too extreme as to be dismissed as radical. Show preview only The above preview is unformatted text This student written piece of work is one of many that can be found in our AS and A Level British History: Monarchy & Politics section.