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Oftentimes when writing historical fiction, authors take creative liberties in their works. William Shakespeare was no different when he wrote his history plays. In Shakespeare’s English Kings, Peter Saccio discusses such discrepancies. In the course of this essay, the degree of victimization of King Richard II will be explored. As Saccio points out, “Richard was the victim of multiple treacheries in Wales, whereas Shakespeare’s Richard, although in a difficult position, is challenged by more honorable opponents and accompanied by more faithful supporters” (Saccio 30). The paper will pursue an answer to the purpose of Shakespeare’s modification of history in Richard II, and will analyze how those changes affect the play.
First it is important to outline the discrepancies—that is, to contrast the real figures with Shakespeare’s characters in light of their relationships with Richard. According to Saccio, Northumberland promises Richard at Conway that Bolingbroke would let him keep his crown and his power in return for his rightful inheritance, but then ambushes the king when he comes (Saccio 29). Shakespeare does use Northumberland in his role as Bolingbroke’s messenger; however, the playwright completely leaves out the ambush. Instead, Richard willingly comes at Bolingbroke’s call, knowing that his reign as king has ended. He remarks to his cousin Aumerle, “What must the king do now? Must he submit? / The king shall do it. Must he be deposed? / The king shall be contented” (3.3.143 – 45). For all his faithfulness in the play, though, the real Aumerle was a traitor. The king’s cousin accompanied Richard II to Ireland, delayed his return, and was the one to advise the splitting and dismissal of the army. After effectively diminishing Richard’s strength, Aumerle went to Bolingbroke (Saccio 29).
Moreover, one of the more peripheral figures, Thomas Percy, the brother of Northumberland, never actually appears in Richard II. Rather, he is frequently referenced by other characters, and is said to have defected to Bolingbroke after Northumberland is declared a traitor: “The Earl of Worcester / Hath broken his staff, resigned his stewardship, / And all the household servants fled with him / To Bolingbroke” (2.2.58 – 61). In history, Percy deserts Richard II at the same time as Aumerle (Saccio 30). Each of these changes were calculated in order to influence the audience’s perception of King Richard II.
Shakespeare portrays Richard II as a flowery, luxurious man, with an almost sinister undertone—it is heavily implied that he ordered the death of his uncle, the Duke of Gloucester—and a penchant for making bad decisions. Throughout the play Richard has a tendency to rely not on himself, but on his disputed divine right, which in the end falls apart. He attempts to force others to understand his rule is sanctioned by God, and promises divine retribution to those who betray him; however, even Richard has moments of doubt wherein he feels abandoned by God or that his divine rule is nonexistent. He laments, “Throw away respect, / Tradition, form, and ceremonious duty; / For you have but mistook me all this while. / I live with bread like you, feel want, taste grief, / Need friends. Subjected thus, / How can you say to me I am a king?” (3.2.172 – 77). The only one other than Richard, it seems, who advocates the sanctity of God’s chosen king is Carlisle. Both in history and in the play he protests Bolingbroke’s usurpation of the throne, though Shakespeare certainly added his theatrics to the affair. Arguably, either character’s views could be an intimation of Shakespeare’s own views on the subject, though it is more likely that he is not a believer in divine rule.
The fact that Shakespeare modifies history to make Richard II seem less of a victim than he really was is a statement in itself. It presents a more favorable outlook on the deposition of the king, though does not necessarily imply he is sided with Bolingbroke. By making Richard incapable of keeping his crown through his own faults, rather than a combination of those and the betrayals of his friends and family, Shakespeare presents a weak, undeserving king. This also may have been mere tact. Perhaps Richard’s having allies is less upsetting for Shakespeare’s audience, and easier to write. Without a support system, Richard would have been truly alone, and the play might have ended sooner and much more morosely.
The degree of victimization of King Richard II in history and in Shakespeare’s work is a slight factor that changed the overall tone and message of the play. In the play, Richard’s one constant was Aumerle, who outlived him and carried on his stance of loyalty beyond the king’s death. It is largely this dynamic that lessens the severity of Richard’s being betrayed, and warps the audience’s perspective of his deposition. Shakespeare used the power of creative liberty to his advantage in this case.
Saccio, Peter. Shakespeare’s English Kings : History, Chronicle, And Drama. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. eBook Academic Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 19 Oct. 2016.
Shakespeare, William. Richard II. Ed. Frances E. Dolan. New York: Penguin Group, 2000.
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