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Richard III: The Kings That Were Killed

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Several of Shakespeare’s plays, including historical and tragedy, involve the political intrigue which results in the killing of a king. While the action revolving around this event may involve many more obvious themes, it is interesting to note the common idea which Shakespeare invariably includes when his play addresses the killing of a king. Each character who murders, or is the instigator of the murder of, a king and takes his place faces the consequences for his actions. Often, Shakespeare makes these consequences more or less severe according to how involved the character is in the murder and how “pure” his motives may have been. However, regicide is never taken lightly in these dramas and no matter how good the motive.

There are three noteworthy plays involving the killing of kings in which the murderer takes over the office. In Richard II, Henry Bolingbroke first deposes King Richard II and then implies that it would be easier if he was dead. He is the least involved in the killing of the former king and his punishment is the least severe, as is seen in Henry IV Part One and Henry IV Part Two. In Macbeth, King Duncan of Scotland is murdered by Macbeth. Macbeth does not even have the excuse of deposing an evil king, only the promise of three witches that he will rule. His triumph is extremely short lived. Finally, the tragedy of Hamlet Prince of Denmark begins after Hamlet’s royal father has died and it is only later that his unhappy ghost makes it clear that King Claudius, brother to the dead king and uncle to Hamlet, is the murderer. Ironically, this play also ends with the killing of a king, although Hamlet dies immediately and is unable to take up his rightful throne. The murder of Claudius is closer to revenge than anything else.

Shakespeare takes a very serious view of the role of kings in all of these plays. It is a station not to be abused, but this works on both sides of royalty. A king is not to misuse his power, but those serving beneath him are supposed to defend him even if they do not entirely like his decisions. What becomes less clear is whether or not he approves of supplanting an evil or dangerous king. When Macduff speaks to Malcolm, the rightful heir to Duncan, about being king, Malcolm tests Macduff’s loyalty by pretending to be unimaginably vicious and evil. When Malcolm asks if “such a one be fit to govern” (Macbeth 4.3.101), he approves of Macduff’s answer: “Fit to govern? / No, not to live!” (4.3.103-104). However, Macduff does not go so far as to wish the death of Scotland’s rightful heir. He merely declares: “These evils thou repeat’st upon thyself / Hath banished me from Scotland” (4.3.111-112). He would rather leave than stay in a country so corrupted by a wicked king, but he does not go so far as to wish the king removed or killed.

Such is not the case for Henry Bolingbroke, future Henry IV. Bolingbroke has just cause to be angry at the king. King Richard has exiled him from his home and then proceeds to steal his rightful inheritance after his father dies. Bolingbroke returns, however, breaking his vow to remain in exile, but still planning to restore his own honor which has been besmirched by the thoughtless king. He tries to justify his return: “As I was banished, I was banished Hereford, / But as I come, I come for Lancaster” (R2 2.3.113-114), but the defense rings hollow. He is clearly ignoring his vow to seek retribution for an unconscionable wrong. Perhaps it is a fair trade, and as he moves through England, he is hailed the conquering hero whereas Richard is the bitter, tragic, failed king. However, it is worth taking notice when such august figures as the Duke of York bemoan the state of affairs. York is not happy with the actions of King Richard, but he does not believe he should be deposed: “Alack the heavy day / When such a sacred king should hide his head!” (R2 3.3. 8-9). It is the young, ambitious crowd that flocks behind Bolingbroke. He allows himself to dream of royalty. Closely related as he is to the king, he is not Richard’s heir. But that does not deter him.

King Richard II has lost his former arrogance almost entirely. He bows before superior forces, despite his previous declarations that “Not all the water in the rough rude sea / Can wash the balm off from an anointed king” (R2 3.2.54 – 55). Richard is not as arrogant when faced with Bolingbroke’s army, but he tells Henry: “No hand of blood and bone / Can gripe the sacred handle of our sceptre, / Unless he do profane, steal, or usurp” (R2 3.3.79-81). Bolingbroke goes forward despite this implication of profanity on his part. When Richard is deposed, he goes into exile and Exton, acting on a perceived word from Bolingbroke, now King Henry IV, kills him.

Whether Bolingbroke wanted Richard to be outright murdered is somewhat questionable. It can be seen that he wants him dead: “I hate the murderer, love him murdered” (R2 5.6.40), but he does not play an active enough role in Richard’s death to dub him murderer. Many years later, Bolingbroke makes it very clear that he feels himself entirely responsible for Richard’s death and he is repentant: “How I came by the crown, O God forgive” (2H4 4.5 218). He has paid his dues for his crime. He spends almost the entirety of his reign fighting for his crown and he passes it off to his son to enjoy the fruits of his hard work. Shakespeare seems to think that this was fair enough retribution for supplanting a king. Richard is, admittedly, a terrible king in many respects and Henry does not have a direct hand in his murder. But the fact remains that warnings and portents are constantly supplied all throughout Richard II, implying the dangers of taking the throne, and the life, of God’s ordained king, evil though he may be: “But ere the crown he looks for live in peace / Ten thousand bloody crowns of mothers’ sons / Shall ill become the flower of England’s face” (R2 3.3.95-97). These are prophetic words. Shakespeare makes painfully clear what the price will be. Bolingbroke seems willing to pay it, and pay it he does.

The murder of King Duncan in Machbeth is a much more clear picture of foul treason against a just king and the penalty paid by the murderer. Macbeth is an ambitious character from the beginning, but has nothing to complain about under the rule of King Duncan. He has just been given Cawdor’s title at the beginning of the play for his valiant deeds, speaking of Duncan’s faith in him as a worthy subject. However, Macbeth has loftier goals than gaining more titles under Duncan’s rule. The three weird sisters indicate that Macbeth “shalt be King hereafter” (Macbeth 1.3.50), and he is “rapt withal” (1.3.57). The idea takes hold instantly. However, it takes Macbeth more than the witches’ words to push him towards action: “If chance will have me King why chance may crown me / Without my stir” (1.3.143-144). He is enthralled with the idea, but only when his wife pushes him to act on the perfect chance given him, the arrival of the king at his house, does he finally commit the murder of the king.

Macbeth is unique in that he does not even try to justify his deeds. Perhaps this is because there is no justification. Duncan is, by all indications, a good king. Shakespeare gives a progression of indications as to the clear wickedness of this regicide. The fact that Macbeth’s prophecy is given to him by three witches ought to have been warning enough. Banquo sees the danger: “Oftentimes, to win us to our harm, / The instruments of darkness tell us truths” (1.3.123-124). Macbeth ignores this warning entirely. After speaking with his noble and trusting king, Macbeth admits immediately to having nefarious plans: “Stars, hide your fires; / Let not light see my black and deep desires” (1.4.50-51). Before the king is murdered, Macbeth sees a spectral dagger and as the deed is done, Lady Macbeth hears the ominous cry of an owl. Everything done here is dark and there is the sense of black magic surrounding the act: “wicked dreams abuse / The curtained sleep. Witchcraft celebrates / Pale Hecate’s offerings (2.1.50-52), reminiscent of the three witches whose hands are in this deed.

There is a stark difference between this and the killing of Richard II. Henry Bolingbroke is still guilty of killing a king and suffers for it, but he does everything openly with an army of supporters at his back. He proudly declares his right to depose the king. He believes he is doing what is good for himself, but also what is right for England: “necessity so bowed the state / That I and greatness were compelled to kiss” (2H4 73-74). There is little shame and no compelling need to hide everything in darkness.

Macbeth gains his crown when both sons of Duncan flee in fear of their lives. However, unlike Bolingbroke, he fails to keep it, Shakespeare’s indication that Macbeth has no right to it. His support dwindles quickly as the forces rally around Malcolm, the rightful heir. Whereas Bolingbroke’s opponent, the supposed heir Mortimer, is vanquished and he is able to hand his throne to his son and continue his line, Macbeth has no heir. His entire, brief reign is, in effect, sterile. It ends in a battle where he loses his life to Macduff. Ironically, both his rise to the throne and his death are inspired by the prophesies of the malicious weird sisters. Their final words tell him to fear no man born of woman. Macbeth does not remember Banquo’s words and trusts the manipulative witches. Macduff, who was “from his mother’s womb / Untimely ripped” (Macbeth 5.7.15-16), defeats the unworthy king . Macbeth is dead and Malcolm ascends to the throne. Macbeth is remembered as nothing more than a “usurper” (5.8.55). In this case, the murder of the king ends with the supplanter being killed and the rightful heir taking his place as king. This is as just an ending as can be created.

In the case of Hamlet, the situation changes yet again. The murdered king does not appear during the play alive. His only words are given as a ghost after he is dead. Hamlet is mourning not only the death of his father, but the unnaturally quick marriage of his mother to his uncle and his uncle’s ascension as king. Shakespeare lays out a situation in which the act of murder is already completed and the usurper is in place on the throne. Also, in this instance, the murderer and supplanter, King Claudius, is not the main character of the story. Hamlet takes that role. He discovers the murder by way of the dead king who cannot rest because his death goes unresolved: “Murder most foul, as in the best it is, / But this most foul, strange, and unnatural” (Hamlet 1.5.25-26). Hamlet, who is the rightful heir to the throne, now has the duty to avenge his father’s murder.

In many ways, this seems similar to Macbeth. The murdered king’s son must do battle with the murderer, who now sits on the throne: “The serpent that did sting thy father’s life / Now wears his crown” (1.5.39-40). However, Hamlet does not prove himself as worthy a character as Malcolm. He does more planning and scheming than acting: “O, from this time forth, / My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!” (4.4.65-66). Hamlet truly deserves to be named a tragedy. Shakespeare once again lays out a progression of actions, but it does not end with the sense of justice and satisfaction that Macbeth has. The beginning establishes the murdered king, the villain, and the would-be heroic prince who must avenge his father’s death. But the ending does not seem quite fitting. The wicked King Claudius seems to move toward his just reward for his actions. Hamlet has a play put on in which a king is murdered in like situation to his uncle’s and Claudius is distraught. However, this might be as much because the evil king’s nephew proceeds to kill the newly crowned king as because of the likeness to his own deeds. Claudius knows something is wrong.

But again, Hamlet does not fit the character of a noble hero. He kills Polonius without knowing who it is and seems to regret it very little. He sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths in England with little qualm. He is constantly planning toward the murder of his uncle: “I have cause, and will, and strength, and means / To do’t” (4.4.45-46). Claudius is also planning Hamlet’s death. He makes use of Polonius’s grieved son Laertes. Ironically, Laertes parallels Hamlet in many ways. He returns home to the resounding “Laertes shall be king! Laertes king!” (4.5.108), a parody in that it ought to be Hamlet storming the gates and taking the throne. His father is murdered, once again ironic because it is Hamlet who has murdered him. Now he seeks revenge on the murderer.

In the end, the duel is between Laertes and Hamlet rather than between Claudius and Hamlet. Things have become tangled. Hamlet’s mother mistakenly drinks poison. Laertes and Hamlet both manage to cut one another with a poisoned blade, ensuring each other’s death. Hamlet does kill Claudius, but there is little sense of righteous judgment on the dying king and murderer. It is almost an afterthought, another bout of impulsive anger on the part of Hamlet: “The point envenomed too? / Then venom, to thy work” (5.2.310-311). The rightful heir does not ascend the throne. Hamlet dies and the country is, at least by Hamlet’s word, handed over to a foreign power. Horatio sums up the entire play:

Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,

Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters,

Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause,

And, in this upshot, purposes mistook

Fall’n on th’inventors’ heads. (5.2.370-373)

Shakespeare does not want this to be seen as natural or good. The story of Hamlet is a tragedy in that retribution, rather than swift and noble, is slow, convoluted, and eventually an almost unhappy accident. Hamlet murders a king who murdered a king, but no one is entirely sure where the good is in the situation.

Regicide is strikingly recurrent in Shakespeare. Its repercussions and intrigues deserve some attention. Shakespeare’s intricate drama allows for not only different situations in which to play out the murder of a king, but also gives multiple facets to the characters of the murdered rulers, their killers, and the relevant characters around them. It is never simple with Shakespeare. Each character’s motivation is inspired and driven by different circumstances. However, one underlying theme emerges in each of these three plays. Killing a king is a heavy and dangerous deed and the consequences will match the motive and the fairness of the act.

Works Cited

Shakespeare, William. “Hamlet Prince of Denmark.” William Shakespeare: The Complete Works. Ed. Alfred Harbage. New York: Viking Press, 1969. 933-974.

Shakespeare, William. “Macbeth.” William Shakespeare: The Complete Works. Ed. Alfred Harbage. New York: Viking Press, 1969. 1110-1135.

Shakespeare, William. “The Tragedy of King Richard the Second.” William Shakespeare: The Complete Works. Ed. Alfred Harbage. New York: Viking Press, 1969. 637-667.

Shakespeare, William. “The Second Part of King Henry The Fourth.” William Shakespeare: The Complete Works. Ed. Alfred Harbage. New York: Viking Press, 1969. 707-740.

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