Discuss the relationship between Richard II and its source ‘How kyng Richarde the seconde….’

The relationship between Richard II and The Myrroure for Magistrates is considered here predominantly in the context of the differences between the two texts.1 The function of each text is discussed initially, the didactic purpose of the Myrroure contrasted with the function of Shakespeare’s play as, primarily, theatrical entertainment. The conflicting accounts of certain events from Richard’s reign are looked at subsequently and the manner in which they reflect the different function of the texts. Finally, consideration is given to the different way in which the Myrroure and Richard II each reflect upon the theme of kingship through their portrayal of Richard’s reign. In relation to each of these points of discussion, it is argued that Richard II delivers a more complex, multi-dimensional portrayal of character, events and themes than the Myrroure.

The Myrroure is imbued with moral didacticism and Richard II’s reign is employed to encourage rulers to govern virtuously and lawfully. Rulers must abide by ‘right’ and ‘lawe’ (l. 32), observe ‘faythful counsayle’ (ll. 35) and beware ‘false Flatterers’ (l. 33). Richard, however, is portrayed as a king who ‘ruled all by lust’ (l.31), ‘passing not a straw’ (l. 35) to those who sought to counsel him. He himself recounts how ‘I set my mind to feede, to spoyle’ (l. 37) and ‘my realme I polde’ (l.41), as a result of which he was ‘brought to care’ (l. 30). The form of the poem reinforces its didactic function. The use of a single voice results in a largely one-dimensional portrayal of Richard, no allowance made for alternative perspectives. The reader is ‘told’ all and ‘shown’ nothing, not permitted to observe if Richard’s actions contradict his words.2 It is significant that this voice is Richard’s. His message can be contradictory, for he does see his murder as ’causeles’ (l. 116) and his opponents as ‘traytrous’ (l. 114). Yet the overwhelming force of his own argument is that his reign was characterised by ‘vices’ (ll. 2 & 34), and that he ‘fell / to make the living wise’ (l.23). The strict, consistent rhyme scheme drives home the didactic message of the poem, as does the repeated use of alliteration, such as ‘shame sueth sinne’ (l.18).

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Shakespeare’s Richard is a more complex, contradictory character, reflecting the theatrical purpose of the play. Richard is ‘shown’ as well as ‘told’ which, particularly during the first two Acts, results in conflicting impressions of him. In Act 1 Scene 1, he appears as the regal, ‘impartial’ (1.1.115) king, ‘not born to sue, but to command’ (1.1.196). The following scene begins to undermine this, as ‘God’s substitute’ (1.2.37) is implicated by Gaunt in the death of the Duke of Gloucester. Richard’s appearance in the richly formal third scene reinforces his initial, regal portrayal but subsequently, his expressed desire for Gaunt’s ‘physician… / To help him to his grave immediately’ (1.4.58-59) and Gaunt’s own violent indictment of this ‘unstaid youth’ (2.1.2) finally and fatally undermine the ‘showing’ of Richard as a majestic, benevolent ruler.

Conflicting voices compliment the contradictions between what Richard says and does. Gaunt’s indictment of Richard, ‘in reputation sick’ (2.1.96) is given added weight by his previous refusal to act against the king, for ‘God’s is the quarrel’ (1.2.37). While the suggestion that Richard is ‘basely led by flatterers’ (2.1.242) and that he was ‘misled’ by Bushy and Green, the ‘caterpillars of the commonwealth’ (2.3.134) provides for a more sympathetic assessment of a perhaps youthful and na�ve sovereign, the weight of words and symbolism contribute to a negative portrayal of his rule. As Gaunt is inherently loyal to his sovereign, so is York, and yet York advises Richard that by his actions he will ‘lose a thousand well-disposed hearts’ (2.1.207). The garden scene in Act 3 also serves as a symbolic representation of the disordered state of England under Richard’s reign:

Full of weeds, her flowers choked up,

Her fruit trees all unpruned, her hedges ruined’ (3.4.45-46)

One of the voices is Richard’s and it contrasts with his voice in the Myrroure in the more ambiguous acknowledgement of his own vices. He agrees that ‘our coffers /…are grown somewhat light’ (1.4.42-43) and therefore he must ‘farm our royal realm’ (1.4.44) but does not suggest that this is inherently wrong. He is seemingly oblivious to the counsel of Gaunt and York and, though later in the play he does acknowledge his ‘follies’ and ‘offences’ (4.1.220), notably absent is any soliloquising on the evils he has committed and their consequences. Rather, he clings to the notion that he remains ‘rightful king’ (5.1.50). The most significant indictment of Richard by himself is his hypocritical attitude towards Gaunt and his desire for his demise. That Richard fails to demonstrably recognise his vices, however, can also argue for the portrayal of a na�ve king as opposed to an inherently evil one. These conflicting impressions of Richard permit the reader to form an opinion as to his character and behaviour and also permit an actor to portray the king in different ways.

The two texts also differ in the presentation of historical events. Shakespeare drew on a number of sources for Richard II, of which the Myrroure is but one.3 A consequence of this is that Shakespeare’s play can both adhere to and diverge from the presentation of historical events in each, depending on Shakespeare’s own intentions. Healy notes, for example, how Shakespeare has drawn upon historical sources in his association of Richard II with the Duke of Gloucester’s death and the intervention to halt the duel between Bolingbroke and Mowbray, while the sudden reduction of Bolingbroke’s sentence is ‘a complete Shakespearean invention’.4

Shakespeare does appear to draw upon the Myrroure in the portrayal of certain events. An example is the description of Worcester’s abandonment of Richard in the Myrroure, when he ‘did… / Bebreake his staff, my houselhold stay/Bad eche man shifte and rode him selfe away’ (ll.75-77) while in Richard II Bushy informs the Queen that ‘Worcester / Hath broke his staff, resigned his stewardship / And all the household servants fled with him’ (2.2.58-60). In the Myrroure, Richard describes how he surrounded himself with ‘false Flatterers’ (l.33) and ‘gaping Gulles’ (l.52), an aspect of Richard’s rule highlighted in Richard II; Gaunt declares to the king that ‘A thousand flatterers sit within thy crown’ (2.1.100). Similarities extend to the use of imagery, Richard acknowledging in the Myrroure that ‘Three meals a day could scarce content my mawe’ (l.39), Gaunt declaring the danger of such avarice, for ‘With eager feeding food doth choke the feeder’ (2.1.37).

However, Richard II and the Myrroure also differ in the presentation of events, particularly those relating to Richard’s deposition. The Myrroure treats Richard’s actual fall from power in cursory fashion, Richard complaining that ‘Henryes pride / Dyd cause me yeld him up my crowne and throne.’ (ll.85-6). Shakespeare, by contrast, presents the events leading up to Henry’s deposition as more complex, contrasting Richard’s apparent resignation of power with the suggestion that he struggles to do so. York declares to Bolingbroke that Richard ‘with willing soul / Adopts thee heir’ (4.1.99-10) and Richard does actively relinquish the symbols of power in a speech which utilises repetition and rhyming couplets to heighten dramatic impact.

With mine own tears I wash away my balm,

With mine own hands I give away my crown, (4.1.197)

Yet the impression created that Richard must formally relinquish power, rather than having it taken from him, through the repetition of ‘With mine own’; the dramatic manner in which Richard reverses a traditional coronation, which was considered an irreversible act;5 his suggestion that though he is no longer ‘King’, ‘heaven’ may ‘think him me’ (4.1.165-6); and his confused ‘Ay, no; no, ay’ (4.1.191) in response to Bolingbroke’s question ‘Are you contented to resign your power?’ (4.1.190) all combine to portray him as torn between recognition that he has no choice but to resign his kingship yet unconvincing in his willingness to do so. The more complex portrayal of historical events arguably points to Shakespeare’s own more ambiguous stance towards Richard’s deposition, as opposed to the impression the Myrroure gives of the justice of his removal.

In addition to diverging with respect to the presentation of historical events, Richard II and the Myrroure differ in the presentation of kingship, a theme central to each of the works. Again, Richard II offers a more multi-dimensional approach than the Myrroure to the person of the king and his relation to the state and it’s laws.

The Myrroure approaches the theme of kingship in terms of the king as person in relation to others and the locus of the law, suggesting that a king is no different to other men and that, as such, is not the embodiment of law. This reinforces the argument that Richard’s is a just deposition by his subjects. Though Richard refers to ‘my realme’ (ll. 41 and 64), and ‘my Subjectes’ (l.44), he is also made of ‘carayn clay’ (l.18) and unprotected by ‘Hygh byrth, choyse fortune, force nor Princely mace’ (l.6). A king’s accession and maintenance of the throne is at the mercy of the aristocracy, as it is ‘the piers’ who both ‘set Henry in his state’ (l.101) and ‘easily put me downe of late’ (l.103). Richard observes that ‘realmes have rules’ (l.27), not kings; that kings ‘may beware/Good counsayle, lawe or vertue to despise’ (ll.25-6) and that he himself ‘forced not of vertue, right, or lawe’ (l.32). The law is not an instrument of the king but is universal and independent, to be observed by all, kings included, and the consequence of a ‘lawles life’ is a ‘lawles death’ (l.117).

Richard II approaches the theme of kingship in terms of the scope of the king’s power, which, as Katherine Eismann Maus has suggested, ‘was a crucial and unresolved political issue in sixteenth and early-seventeenth-century England’.6 Fundamental to consideration of this issue was the extent to which the king was perceived as God’s anointed subject on earth, only to be removed by God. The initial advocates of the inviolability of Richard’s position as sovereign are Gaunt and York. Both characters adhere to the belief that only God may remove Richard from the throne. As Gaunt states:

God’s is the quarrel; for God’s substitute,

His deputy anointed in his sight

Hath caused his death. (1.2.37-39)

York echoes Gaunt, comparing his allegiance to Richard to that to Henry:

T’one is my sovereign, whom both my oath

And duty bids defend; t’other again

Is my kinsman, whom the king hath wronged,

Whom conscience and my kindred bids me right. (2.2.112-115)

The assertions of York and Gaunt depict a hierarchical relationship between God, king and subject, a notion to which Richard certainly adheres:

Not all the water in the rough, rude sea

Can wash the balm from the anointed king.

The breath of worldly men cannot depose

The deputy elected by the Lord. (3.2.50-53)

This view of kingship is supported by reference to consequences of Richard’s deposition, Richard warning that ‘Ten thousand bloody crowns of mother’s sons / Shall ill become the flower of England’s sons’ (3.3.95-96). For the Elizabethan audience, looking back to the English Civil War, such words would have rung true and appear to point to Shakespeare’s support of the notion that the king may only be removed by God.

Yet Shakespeare also undermines this argument. Gaunt, one of the principal advocates of automatic allegiance to the king, dies abusing him roundly. As the king’s position appears increasingly tenuous, York declares his neutrality and subsequently manages to justify Richard’s deposition as the will of heaven, in doing so making the notion of an anointed king meaningless for it argues that an attempt to remove a king is the will of heaven if successful, treason if not:

But heaven hath a hand in these events,

To whose high will we bend our calm contents.

To Bolingbroke are we sworn subjects now. (5.2.37-39)

Conversely, and finally, the fact that Richard appears to voluntarily rescind can suggest that his deposition is indeed the will of heaven, his actions being God’s will exercised through him.

The two-dimensional approach to the theme of kingship contributes to the complexity of Richard II and it is this complexity which differentiates it from the Myrroure. The principal function of the latter is as a didactic text, its one-dimensional portrayal of character, historical events and the nature of kingship contributing to its didacticism. Richard II, in contrast, employs the same tools to provide for theatrical entertainment and also possibly reflects Shakespeare’s ambiguous stance towards the events of Richard’s reign, his person, and contemporary debates regarding the extent of a monarch’s power.


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