This was my first time reading this play, and it was very intriguing. King Richard II is a complex character, who in my eyes is both despicable and pitiable. While he is definitely a tyrant and blinded by his authority and power, he is also kind of simple and easily played by manipulative individuals in court. It was almost like you start out hating him, but as the play unfolds, you realize that he, like everyone, is not all bad, but has made bad choices and often lacks the foresight to anticipate the consequences of his actions.
Anyway, for this post, I figured I would focus on issues of divine rule and tyranny as expressed in the play, a topic whose importance never seems to diminish.
Early in the play, Richard asserts that he is a divine ruler, and that “sacred blood” flows through him. He also hints that he is just and acting in the best interest of the realm.
Mowbray, impartial are our eyes and ears:
Were he my brother, nay, my kingdom’s heir,
As he is but my father’s brother’s son,
Now, by my sceptre’s awe, I make a vow,
Such neighbour nearness to our sacred blood
Should nothing privilege him, nor partialize
The unstooping firmness of my upright soul:
He is our subject, Mowbray; so art thou:
Free speech and fearless I to thee allow.
(Act I, scene i)
Tyranny and hypocrisy often occur in conjunction, and this is the case with Richard. While he ascended to the throne because of heredity (essentially, he inherited the throne), he is quick to deny another person’s inheritance, as evidenced by his swift seizure of Gaunt’s estate to fund his military campaign.
The ripest fruit first falls, and so doth he;
His time is spent, our pilgrimage must be.
So much for that. Now for our Irish wars:
We must supplant those rough rug-headed kerns,
Which live like venom where no venom else
But only they have privilege to live.
And for these great affairs do ask some charge,
Towards our assistance we do seize to us
The plate, corn, revenues and moveables,
Whereof our uncle Gaunt did stand possess’d.
(Act II, scene i)
York is quick to point out the hypocrisy in Richard’s actions, warning him that to follow this course will have repercussions.
O my liege,
Pardon me, if you please; if not, I, pleased
Not to be pardon’d, am content withal.
Seek you to seize and gripe into your hands
The royalties and rights of banish’d Hereford?
Is not Gaunt dead, and doth not Hereford live?
Was not Gaunt just, and is not Harry true?
Did not the one deserve to have an heir?
Is not his heir a well-deserving son?
Take Hereford’s rights away, and take from Time
His charters and his customary rights;
Let not to-morrow then ensue to-day;
Be not thyself; for how art thou a king
But by fair sequence and succession?
Now, afore God–God forbid I say true!–
If you do wrongfully seize Hereford’s rights,
Call in the letters patent that he hath
By his attorneys-general to sue
His livery, and deny his offer’d homage,
You pluck a thousand dangers on your head,
You lose a thousand well-disposed hearts
And prick my tender patience, to those thoughts
Which honour and allegiance cannot think.
(Act II, scene i)
It is this disregard for the rights of others and the hubris of thinking himself above his subjects which is Richard’s tragic flaw, leading to his demise.
This is a critical lesson for leaders today, both in the political and business spheres. The moment you place yourself above others, and deny another person’s rights to advance your own goals and initiatives, you set yourself up to be knocked down. Every action has a consequence, be it good, bad, or indifferent. Nothing occurs within a vacuum, and leaders would do well to remember this.
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