Struggle for Power and Kingship

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Words: 3489 |

Pages: 8|

18 min read

Published: Jul 2, 2018

Words: 3489|Pages: 8|18 min read

Published: Jul 2, 2018

When Edmund challenges himself to conjure the worst prophecy he can think of for the forthcoming eclipse, he not only anticipates the plot of King Lear, but also highlights the fears of Tudor political society as

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Unnaturalness between the child and the parent; death, dearth,

Dissolutions of ancient amities; divisions in state, menaces and

Maledictions against king and nobles; needless diffidences,

Banishment of friends, dissipation of cohorts, nuptial breaches,

And I know not what.

These fears do not question the valediction of the different state apparatuses, rather more the disruption of order. Menaces and maledictions against a king are immediately an act of malevolence irrespective of their aims purely because they seek to upset the political balance (Edmund's fictive prophesy clearly has a certain perversion in respect of his own intentions). Here, kingship is seen as an end - the head of the body politic, God's representative on earth whose legality is not to be questioned. This assumption of a particular order inevitably leads to a host of problems; society will need to reconcile the actions of a king, no matter whether they are deemed wrong or right, and judge whether the claims of a potential usurper are valid.

For if a credible alternative to the current king is found, then this immediately defines kingship as a means to achieving greater ends rather than simply a position to be held. And if a candidate is deemed more worthy than the current king, it remains to be considered by which criteria they are being judged. In the past century, ideology has provided leaders with legitimacy; the narrower concerns of Shakespearean monarchs would have involved maintaining law, order, religion and defence. The internal aims of a king or aspiring king may not be altruistic; the personal drive for power, with its psychological benefits is always a considerable factor when dealing with networks of human relations. A covert politic manifesto may not be in the service of the state and would require a great deal of skill in using the mechanisms of politics to employ it from the position of the king.

Nowhere are these issues addressed more cogently than in King Richard II and King Richard III, where five contrasting kings feature in power struggles which were still relevant in Shakespeare's world and brought together ideas of divinity, the state, ambition and the self.

An obvious and crucial difference between the two plays is that one of the titular characters is king, and the other wishes to be king. Richard II's position of power provides him with the strength of power, but the problem of being judged by the results of his policies, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, on the other hand can afford to make idle promises about what he intends to do. Evidence of Richard II's political outlook is unlikely to be stated at length, as this would not really serve Shakespeare's intentions as a professional dramatist, yet there is evidence of his pursuit of particular policies.

Although Shakespeare only uses the war in Ireland as a function of the narrative, he frames it's inclusion in terms that show Richard as a monarch who is defending his realm, as a part of his responsibilities as king; "We must supplant those rough rug-headed kern, / Which live like venom" . Green describes them as "rebels" , and were Richard to tolerate them, he would be jeopardising the security of the state. The moral validity of the war is of no concern to a king, whose responsibility is to the exclusive ruling order, however, whilst the suppression of the rebellion is prudent, the means by which he finances the war is contrary to the system he is preserving, and the crucial error which leads to his downfall. Although the audience never learns of what Northumberland calls "These accusation and these grievous crimes / Committed by your person and your followers / Against the state and profit of this land" which Richard is asked to read out, many of his follies are evident from the discussion between the rebel nobles.


The commons hath he pilled with grievous taxes

And quite lost their hearts. The nobles hath he fined

For ancient quarrels and quite lost their hearts.



Wars hath not wasted it, for warred he hath not,



He hath not money for these Irish wars,

His burthenous taxations notwithstanding

But by the robbing of the banished duke.

This financial impropriety not only displays a lack of political skill, but is indicative of a king who regards his power as absolute and indisputable. The rebellion of the nobles therefore shows they regard kingship not as an incontrovertible end, but a means to justice, lawful succession and financial prudence. The treatment of Bullingbrook would be of particular concern to the nobles as the injustice of his banishment, the opposition to his marriage and the loss of his inheritance in an attack on the society on which their position is based. Richard's position as absolute ruler is compromised from the outset with his involvement in the murder of the Duke of Gloucester.

A fratricide cannot surely claim authority from God, and thus renders his position as lawmaker flawed. He compounds this initial injustice with the banishment of Bullingbrook and the subsequent theft of Bullingbrook's inheritance from John of Gaunt. Such a disturbance of the patrimonial line of succession is a serious breach of his responsibilities, as even the conservative Duke of York warns Richard; "how art thou a king / But by fair sequence and succession?".

Words involving "just" appear in the play a total of nine times, and their use highlights the uncertainty of the rights of kings, as different character use the word in different senses. When Bullingbrook describes the blood of the Duke of Gloucester crying out to him "for justice and rough chastisement" he intends it in the most modern sense as correctly convicting Mowbray as the murderer of Gloucester according to moral law. Similarly, Northumberland's reply to the contention that Bullingbrook is poor in terms of title and money is "Richly in both, if justice had her right" . Alternatively, Richard uses "just" as a synonym for "loyal": "we create, in absence of ourself, / Our uncle York lord governor of England; / For he is just and always loved us well", or in relation to his personal application of law, as he responds to Gaunt: "Why at our justice seem'st thou then to lour?" (emphasis added).

The other usage is that in reference to a divine or natural justice, to which Richards publicly appeals for to decide the contest between Bullingbrook and Mowbray "Since we can not atone you, we shall see / Justice design the victor's chivalry" , Richard then overrules this justice by deciding the contest himself. After being captured by Bullingbrook on the basis of having corrupted the king, Green consoles himself by declaring that "My comfort is that heaven will take our souls / And plague injustice with the pains of hell" . Green knows he is not being executed for corrupting the king, but for supporting Richard's right to the throne, his appeal to heaven raises the issue of divine right that provides the greatest obstacle to Bullingbrook. The idea of divine appointment is now an utterly flawed concept, but was very much a belief in Shakespeare's world.

The issue was not to be used as a flexible political tool, but was deemed essential to the structure of power. In Act IV, Carlisle, as a Bishop, puts the case most forcefully that God alone can judge the king and that Bullingbrook, as a subject of the divine king, is automatically a traitor. His defence is lengthy, logical, and eloquent and presents Bullingbrook with a problem. The answer comes abruptly from Northumberland: "Well have you argued, sir, and for your pains / Of capital treason we arrest you here" , thereby the argument is ended by force and the matter ignored. However, the issue remains and underscores much of the debate in Henry IV Part 1 and 2 and even in Henry V it plays upon Henry's conscious enough for him to declare "...Not to-day, O Lord, / O, not to-day, think not upon the fault / My father made in compassing the crown!" .

Where Richard may have neglected his secular duties as king, there are indications that Bullingbrook will be able to fulfil them. Richard himself notes Bullingbrook's popularity with the common man: "How he did seem to dive into their hearts / With humble and familier courtesy, / What reverence he did throw away on slaves". Richard regards this behaviour as an unnecessary extension of the role of a nobleman, which debases his rank and is dubious in its intention. However, it demonstrates a political ability that Richard lacks, and displays Bullingbrook's comprehension of what power is built on.

It can be argued that Bullingbrook regards power as built from below, whereas Richards sees it simply descending from above in the tradition, irrefutable chain. Whether Bullingbrook is ingenuous or not does not diminish the fact that popular support prevents suspicion and the sort of unjust measures Richard has to resort to. This political attitude is extended when Bullingbrook declares he is prepared to pardon Mowbray and welcome him back to England.

"...Norfolk be repealed. Repealed he shall be / And, though mine enemy, restored again / To all his lands and signories" . This respect for Norfolk's hereditary rights transcends their personal differences and restores the order of the state. By maintaining the established order, Bullingbrook highlights the concept of the kings' two bodies, where the position of king as head of state is confirmed as a structural end of the hierarchy of power, but the man who occupies the role is expected to employ means for this status quo to continue. Bullingbrook's apparent political subversion, is in fact a measure to ensure the system of power remains the same, after all, Shakespeare was writing whilst the succession of the English throne was a matter for concern and less than 60 years after Richard II, England was king-less. If Bullingbrook's ascent fits neatly into a Foucauldian power/subversion relationship and the continuation of the political structure was ensured, then the techniques used to gain power are of greater interest, and none of Shakespeare's protagonists display a greater mastery of political manoeuvring than Richard III.

Richard domination of Richard III is the force that drives the play, demonstrated from the outset by his opening soliloquy, which immediately outlines his intentions and nature. Of course, Richard's character predates the action of Richard III, and he features in Henry VI Part 2 and 3, as a loyal Yorkist. This is where the revelation of his self emerges as he declares

And yet, between my soul's desire and me--

The lustful Edward's title buried--

Is Clarence, Henry, and his son young Edward,


Why, I can smile, and murder whiles I smile,

(...) I can add colours to the chameleon,

Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,

And set the murderous Machiavel to

This conscious and unashamed understanding of his desire is what Stephen Greenblatt describes as "improvisation" , the ability to deceive by assimilating the surrounding culture through "empathy" and using it pragmatically to gain whatever is advantageous to your cause. Richard's confident boast that he can outdo the deception of the chameleon, Proteus and Machiavelli is exemplary of Greenblatt's idea of ?self-fashioning'.

Key to this idea is the dichotomy within Renaissance culture of "submission to an absolute power or authority" and "something perceived as alien, strange or hostile" , concluding that "self-fashioning occurs at the point of encounter between an authority and an alien" . In Richard's case, the ?alien' is authority and the ?authority' is himself. This perversion of these two concepts leads Ronald Levao to observe that "Richard is just as surely a demonic parody of Renaissance man's most optimistic self-image. He is the paragon of a world where malevolent desire replaces [altruistic love]" . The prospect of Richard as king supported by this combination of desire and skill is abhorrent to many of the other characters, who make frequent connections between Richard and the underworld, he is variously described as "dreadful minister of hell" , "son of hell" , "A hell-hound " and "Foul devil ".

Richard's concept of kingship is the antithesis of the ideal model, where the monarch is naturally virtuous and appointed by God. He desires the kingship for psychological pleasure, the Lancastrian dynasty that he opposed has been replaced with his own family, and so he turns his attentions on them, defining himself by his ability to disturb power. Richard's opening soliloquy is often cited as the revealing of his personality, his neuroses and his desire. Richard's understanding of his self is in relation to the power he desires; the ambiguity of the famous declaration "I am determin褠to prove a villain" provides the essence of Richard's character from both an internal and external perspective.

There is recognition from Richard of the determination and awareness required for success, and the realisation of his role as destabilising the power structure. Moreover there are overtones of the role of God in shaping Richard's destiny and the inevitability of his purpose as a product of a society that is prepared to usurp kings.

Richard has a dislike of the niceties of courtly behaviour that his deformity excludes him from. His deformity is of no political significance in itself, but the psychological complex it gives him would form the foundation of any psychoanalytical approach to his character. He does not regard the activities of Edward's court as symptomatic of decadent rule, which might be a valid political objection, but is possessed with an envy which leads to a rebellion against the forces of nature that have deemed him "not shaped for sportive tricks / Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass / ... Cheated of feature by dissembling nature" . Richard's positioning of himself in opposition to nature is echoed by opinion of him within the play: "Thou that wast seal'd in thy nativity / The slave of nature" .

Richard, Duke of Gloucester's opposition to court practices is shared by the Duke of York in Richard II, but on vastly different terms. York has a genuine political concern that the frivolities of court life contribute towards Richard's shortcoming as king: "... it [Richard's ear] is stopped with other flattering sounds, / As praises, of whose taste the wise are fond, / Lascivious metres, to whose venom sound / The open ear of youth doth always listen". York considers the "Reports of fashions in proud Italy" as an infiltration of alien and corrupting influences.

This difference between the elder generation of York and Gaunt as hard-headed men of state and Richard as a leader more inclined to poetry than war demonstrates Richard's tendency to self-centricity rather than use kingship as a means to further the prosperity of the England. Christopher Pye notes this indulgence when he comments that "Richard often seems drawn to the pathos of his fall than to any affirmation of his glory" . Indeed, Richard's eloquence during his descent from the throne contrasts with Bullingbrook's increasing taciturnity as he develops into a statesman.

Just as Bullingbrook's rise relies on increasing support through political legitimacy, Richard, Duke of Gloucester relies on his employment of political techniques. Levao accurately judges that "he outplays the others through his extraordinary agility, his ability to create a contrivance for every situation. At one moment he is a Petrarchan lover; at another a wise old uncle" . The Lord Mayor would also regard Richard as a man of the people; "Do, good my lord, your citizens entreat you" and religious adherent; "See where his grace stands, ?tween two clergymen" . Through illusion, Richard gathers support from powerful men like the Mayor and the Bishops ("[To the Bishops] Come, let us to our holy work again" ) and uses promises of promotion to ambitious men like Catesby and Buckingham to gain trusted lieutenants.

Where bribery or deception does not work, he turns to violence to eliminate opposition. The execution of men that have greater legitimacy to the throne - which originates in Henry VI Part 3 with the killing of Henry and Edward, Prince of Wales and continues with his brother Clarence and the key nobles Rivers, Grey and Vaughan - are productive political acts, regardless of their moral justification. This process of elimination presents Richard with the throne, and a problem which Richard has overlooked ? that of what to do with the kingship. His abuse of the political structure and the position of king may have satisfied his desires, but without a broader political outlook he has undermined the system of which he is part.

Richard's answer is to continue his brutality, by executing Buckingham for counselling caution in murdering the two boy princes. The murder of the princes and Lady Anne (who stands in his way of a more advantageous marriage with Edward's daughter, Elizabeth) is politically unnecessary and murder of women and children morally reprehensible. Because Richard regards being king as an end, not one justified by God, but by himself, his fall from power becomes inevitable in the light of what Levao sees as degeneration "from a creature of infinite variety into a creature of indeterminacy, his limitless power descending into formless desire" . The system that Richard was trying to defeat ultimately defeats him; the ghosts of the people he has murdered come back to haunt him, literally and metaphorically.

Some critics have noted the resolution of the play, with the success of Richmond, as a deflationary note on which to finish ? "the victorious Richmond is dreary and wooden compared even to a defeated Richard crying for a horse" . Yet, Richmond promises a more stable and just government from the Tudor dynasty, which was, of course, still in power when Richard III was written. The desire for a more charismatic figure to conclude the play emphasises the conflict between expecting drama from the narrative and the restrictions of depicting (relatively contemporaneous) historical figures.

All debate concerning the characters of men and the structure of narratives in these history plays must be done with the cautious reflection that they are not of Shakespeare's invention. He did not decide that the death of Edward IV would provide Richard with an opportunity to become king or invent the murder of Thomas of Woodstock to start the narrative of Richard II. Neither was he writing in a political vacuum ? the Tudors sought to demonise Richard III as his lack of legitimacy for the crown helps reinforce their dynastic origins, and Elizabeth drew parallels between herself and Richard II as heirless monarchs whose crown was about to move diagonally down the hierarchy. Martin Dzelzainis attempts to reconcile the lack of overt political thinking from Shakespeare by placing him within some kind of zeitgeist of "the agenda of the new humanism in the 1590's".

Dzelzainis deems it necessary to defend Shakespeare from the accusation that "he has nothing new to offer in terms of political thought, but is content merely to rehearse a familiar repertoire of doctrines and figures (the Tudor myth, the great chain of being, degree, obedience, the many-headed multitude, the Machiavel, the king's two bodies" . All these ideas may seem familiar and basic after over four centuries of development in political theory and action, but were undoubtedly of great relevance to Shakespeare's world.

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Bullingbrook and Richard, Duke of Gloucester may have performed similar functions in purely political terms, but the dramatic treatment that Shakespeare affords their characters expands and explores the central issue of the relationship between the individual and power. Shakespeare's views on the kingship are not radical, nor are they explicitly stated. His traditionalist view is one that is suitable to the lessons of history that teaches that man must work with the system, or prepare to be consumed by it, kingship could never be an end so long as certain functions are expected from it.


  1. Craig, W.J., ed. Shakespeare Complete Works. London: Oxford University Press, 1905.
  2. Dzelzainis, Martin, Shakespeare and Political Thought'. A companion to Shakespeare. Ed. David Scott Kasten. Oxford: Blackwell, 1999.
  3. Greenblatt, Stephen. Renaissance Self-fashioning: From More to Shakespeare. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1984.
  4. Harris Sacks, David, Political Culture'. A companion to Shakespeare. Ed. David Scott Kasten. Oxford: Blackwell, 1999.
  5. Levao, Ronald. Renaissance Minds and Their Fictions: Cusanus, Sidney, Shakespeare. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.
  6. Pye, Christopher. The Regal Phantasm: Shakespeare and the politics of spectacle. London: Routledge, 1990
  7. Shakespeare, William. King Richard II, ed. Andrew Gurr. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.
  8. Shakespeare, William. King Richard III, ed. Janis Lull. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
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Struggle for Power and Kingship. (2018, November 05). GradesFixer. Retrieved July 14, 2024, from
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