Richard the Second: “Non sans Droit?” by Paul Rycik
The motto which I titled this post means “Not Without Right.” I chose it because it’s Shakespeare’s family motto, but also because in my view, Richard the Second is a play about the Divine right of kings; it asks whether kings are appointed by God, and if so, does that mean that they are free to do what they want, and whether or not they can be deposed. Today I want to examine how these questions are addressed in the play. I’ll do this by showing you passages from the text on video with a few notes by me. These recordings are by the Royal Shakespeare Company, England’s premiere acting troupe.
Picture #1- The Wilton Diptych
This picture from the National Gallery in London illustrates admirably how Richard, who was the son of the Black Prince, the greatest warrior in English history, truly believed he was appointed by God. It depicts the 10 year-old king in full golden robes, being blessed by the Baby Jesus, the Virgin Mary, John the Baptist, Edward the Confessor, and St. Edmund. As I said before, Richard was only 10 when he was crowned; he believed he was God’s representative his whole life.
Video #1– Act IV, Scene I Richard Pasco playing Richard the Second
This is a recording of the famous Deposition Scene in which Richard must give his crown up to Henry Bolingbroke. It is clear from the text that Richard considers this not only treason but a form of blasphemy. This is evidenced in such passages where Richard compares himself to Jesus, another king betrayed by his followers.
“So Judas did to Christ, but he in 12 found truth in all but one, I in 12,00 none,”
Richard is in no doubt that he is appointed by God, and anyone who tries to question or depose him is damned.
Other characters take differing views on the divine right- the gardeners don’t believe in divine right- to them, a kingdom is ruled by men, not divine incarnations. They are pragmatic and think Richard’s claims foolish
Video #2 Act II, scene I- Patrick Stewart speaking as John of Gaunt
John of Gaunt believed in divine right, that’s why he killed Woodstock. In this famous speech, Gaunt reveals his passion for England, how he believes it has a special place among nations, and that a king’s duty is to protect it. But, when Richard sells land, Gaunt is forced to question how can a king be divine if his actions are wrong. He even suggests that Richard is no longer worthy of his royal blood: “O, spare me not, my brother Edward’s son; that blood already, like the pelican, hast thou tapped out and drunkenly caroused.”
Picture #2 Henry Bolingbroke from the 1975 production of Richard II
Bolingbroke’s motives are secret throughout the play. We don’t know if he always intended to seize the crown, whether he was forced to by his followers, or if he was forced to because Richard put him in an impossible position- his father’s lands seized by the crown and himself an exile. Equally enigmatic is if Bolingbroke believes in divine right. If he does, Bolingbroke must feel unimaginable guilt, especially in the scene when Richard is deposed. (Act IV, i) In the scene, Richard warns Bolingbroke that God will damn him for betraying his king, “The deposing of a king and cracking the strong warrant of an oath, marked with a blot, damned in the book of heaven.”
Once Richard is dead, Bolingbroke is forever shaken, paranoid, and fearful of assassination. My thinking is that Bolingbroke did believe that what he did was truly terrible and he spends the rest of his life mourning over it. This is why in the next play, Henry IV, Bolingbroke, now the king, says one of the most famous lines Shakespeare ever wrote: “Uneasy is the head that wears the crown.”
As you can see- there are several differing viewpoints on the issue of divine right- some people believe in it, some don’t. Thus the issue is never resolved because no one is proven right. I’ve written before that on controversial issues, Shakespeare never presents one view stronger than the other; he gives voice to every side of an issue and merely shows the conflict that happens when these characters fight with each other. It is up to the audience to choose sides.
Interesting Side note: The Deposition Scene I referred to earlier has a very disreputable history- it was considered anti-government because the censors claimed it favored the deposing of kings. One of the Queen’s favorite lords, the Earl of Essex ordered the scene played on February 7th, 1601 for that purpose. He planned to use it to rally the people and start an armed rebellion against the queen. Shakespeare’s entire company was arrested and interrogated as co-conspirators. Fortunately, they got away with it, as this document shows:
Document: Examination of Augustine Phillips, February 17, 1601
Shakespeare’s company claimed that the only reason they put on the play was that the lords offered more cash than the usual fee for performing at court. They got the government to buy their story, but, (as scholar Michael Wood claims), maybe the Queen wasn’t fooled- she asked them to perform the same play, right before Essex’s execution. When he died, she was reported as saying: “I am Richard the Second, know ye not that.”