King Richard the Third

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Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of King Richard the Third. Quarto. (The Norton Shakespeare: Histories, 3rd ed. 384-465).

Of Interest: English Monarchy Timeline | RSC Resources | ISE Resources | S-O Sources | Holinshed’s Chronicles | More’s Richard III | “King under the Car Park” | 100 Years’ War Timeline | Historical Figures | Wars of the Roses | Key People | Edward III’s Family Tree

Introduction to Richard III’s Era: The Wars of the Roses (1455-87)

Shakespeare prefers to deal with the dynamics of royal power from a distance. By the Tudor-Stuart era, which featured a centralized royal court, the feudal infighting of older times had diminished, so it was reasonably safe to deal with the religious and dynastic struggles that had marked medieval Britain. Shakespeare took an especially strong interest in the stretch of history from Richard II (1377-99) to the Lancastrian King Henry IV (1399-1413) who deposed him and passed the kingdom on to his son Henry V (1413-22), victor of the Battle of Agincourt in 1415,[1] and on through the Wars of the Roses (1455-87). The fighting saw the Lancastrian King Henry V’s incapable successor Henry VI (1422-61, 1470-71)[2] and his strong queen, Margaret of Anjou, trying to hang on in the face of Yorkist opposition led by Richard Plantagenet, Third Duke of York (1411-60 and then by his sons Edward (the future Edward IV, 1461-70, 1471-83) and Richard of Gloucester (the future Richard III, 1483-85).[3]

The backdrop of the Wars of the Roses (1455-87) is the wider Hundred Years War (1337-1453), which saw England and France (assisted by other European powers) fighting over which country should control France. That wider conflict started when Charles IV of France died in 1328 without male heirs, and his sister Isabella claimed the French throne for her son and Charles’s nephew, the young king Edward III of England (1327-77). The French Barons disputed this possibility because, in their reading, Salic law[4] provided grounds for disallowing succession to the throne by royals whose claim traced solely to a female. The French throne went to King Charles’s paternal cousin Count Philip of Valois instead, who was also (unlike Edward III) a native Frenchman. The English, for their part, never fully relinquished their claim to France, so war raged on in several phases across eleven decades. The final phase was the so-called Lancastrian War (1415-53), which began when Henry V invaded France and achieved stunning victories, only to die of dysentery in 1422[5] while in France and then have his son Henry VI lose nearly all of the territory that his father had won.

The English “Wars of the Roses” (1455-87) began in the wake of this last phase of The Hundred Years’ War. Social problems at home in late-feudal England, combined with the loss of territories and prestige in France, served to destabilize the English throne, paving the way for the fierce factional struggles to capture it which make up the Wars of the Roses. Mid-fifteenth-century England was marked by savage infighting and betrayal between these two great branches of the Plantagenet line descended from Edward III: the houses of Lancaster (named after an earldom created by King Henry III in 1267 for his second son) and York (named for the First Duke of York, Edmund of Langley, fourth son of Edward III). The action started in earnest in May 1455 when Richard, Third Duke of York, captured Henry VI during the First Battle of St. Albans and was granted the title of Lord Protector by Parliament. Then, in July 1460, the Earl of Warwick, Richard Neville, captured King Henry VI again during the Battle of Northampton. Richard, Third Duke of York tried to seize the throne, but ended up being killed at the Battle of Wakefield in late December 1460. Nonetheless, “York” met with dynastic success: from 1461-71, and then from 1471-83, his son reigned as Edward IV.

Briefly in 1471, thanks mainly to Warwick’s disillusionment and anger over the king’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville and other issues, Edward IV was booted from the throne and replaced with Henry VI and Queen Margaret. But Edward came on with an army and killed Warwick at the Battle of Barnet in April 1471 and then won a decisive victory at Tewkesbury in May 1471. The captured Henry VI and his heir Edward of Westminster, Prince of Wales ended up dead—the son in battle and Henry probably murdered at the behest of the reinstalled King Edward IV. This Yorkist king ruled securely from 1471-83, when he died of an illness, thereafter to be replaced, at least technically, by his young son Edward V.

Technically and very briefly, that is: in less than three months in 1483, the young heir’s Uncle Richard of Gloucester managed to move him out of the way and, along with the earlier judicial elimination by Edward IV of his brother George, Duke of Clarence (historically, in February 1478), the way was clear for Richard’s seizure of the crown in June 1483. Henry Tudor[6] became the focus of many English noblemen’s hopes for turning out the wicked King Richard III, which he did at the Battle of Bosworth Field in August 1485. The Lancastrian Henry Tudor ruled as Henry VII (1485-1509), and united the claims of York and Lancaster by marrying Edward IV’s daughter, Princess Elizabeth. From 1485 through the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, we are in the Tudor Era. One might think that King Edward  III’s having produced five sons who survived to adulthood[7] would ensure continuity in the transferal of power, but that was not the case. In a dynastic order, should the sovereign or the immediate heir die, the intricate web of royal relations is touched, and it begins to vibrate. If multiple claims to the throne are plausible, the lurking spider Ambition soon comes out to prey. Essentially, the Wars of the Roses concerned the ambitions of a privileged group of men and women closely related to King Edward III.

While King Richard III ruled only for a little more than two rebellion-marked years and much—perhaps even all—of his evil reputation from 1485 onward is the product of authors such as Raphael Holinshed and Sir Thomas More, those two years from 1483-85 were all the time he needed to attract the attention of one William Shakespeare. From there, it was just a hop-skip to poetic immortality. The reign of Richard III deals with an historical subject familiar to many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries. The playwright borrows his story in the main from the Holinshed Chronicles and Sir Thomas More’s brief biographical account, both of which portray the king in a negative light.[8] Still, Shakespeare was capable of reading between the lines of the chroniclers, so he must have understood that nearly everyone involved in the action had divided loyalties and mixed, often selfish motivations.

The resultant qualities of backbiting, edginess, and ambivalence emerge in The Tragedy of King Richard the Third, but Shakespeare’s skill as a storyteller drives him to generate sympathy for some of the doomed characters at strategic points in the action. The diabolical and strangely charming Richard of Gloucester aside, some of the worst rascals in the play are gifted with genuinely moving passages. The real Duke of Clarence, for example, was disloyal to his brother Edward IV—he shifted back and forth between Edward and Warwick the Kingmaker when those two men were engaged in their deadly feuds. Clarence would probably just as well have deposed Edward and taken the throne for himself, but fortune did not favor him and he never had Edward’s highest regard, which went to Richard.[9] All the same, in Act 1, Scene 4 of Shakespeare’s play, Clarence speaks mesmerizing lines about a fearsome nightmare on the eve of his murder, moving us to pity him: from “Methought I saw a thousand fearful wrecks, / Ten thousand men that fishes gnawed upon …”[10] and forward for many lines, our attention belongs to Clarence.

As for Queen Margaret of Anjou (1430-82),[11] when she was trying to maintain her afflicted husband Henry VI on the throne and thereby preserve a path for his heir (the couple’s ill-fated son Edward, Prince of Wales), this Frenchwoman, who wielded great power in England during her husband’s frequent periods of infirmity, treated it like a foreign country, allowing her armies to pillage their way through conquered territories.[12] A deadly foe to the future Richard III’s father Richard, Third Duke of York, Margaret, as Kendall describes her, was a “dynast” to the core, her conduct invariably governed by a “savage instinct to protect the birthright of her child.”[13] In Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Parts 1-3 and then in Richard III, however, she is accorded considerable respect, and in Richard III, shespeaks with prophetic accuracy about the villainous end of others. “These English woes,” says Margaret near the end of a lengthy diatribe, “will make me smile in France.”[14] This and many other passages show Shakespeare freely reconfiguring the historical characters in his play, suiting them to the needs of a production designed foremost to please an audience.

But again with regard to Shakespeare’s Richard,[15] this character, with his razor-sharp asides and flair for theater, is well-suited to the needs of Tudor mythology, even if the play as a whole hardly amounts to propaganda. Queen Elizabeth I, after all, was the daughter of Henry VIII, the heir of the Lancastrian Henry VII, who emerges as an icon of early English nationalism of the sort Queen Elizabeth I would come to depend on during her reign (1558-1603). To be fair, perhaps we should attribute the subtlety and deviousness of Shakespeare’s Richard to the author’s understanding that in real life, Richard would have had a difficult childhood not unlike Elizabeth I’s harrowing youth. Worst of all, his father Richard, Third Duke of York rashly claimed the throne and paid with his life for the miscalculation. That kind of loss leaves a terrible mark upon an eight-year-old child. So the future Richard III’s Machiavellian qualities can to a great extent be put down to sheer necessity, the times being what they were. What Shakespeare’s Richard calls “Tear-falling pity”[16] was not encouraged, except perhaps when someone on one’s own side of the fence happened to be the victim, in which case the savagery of the mortal foe could be called out for what it was. Of course, one was already in search of opportunities to visit the same barbarity on the enemy.

All said, there was no place for naiveté or excessive tenderness in the heart of English sovereigns or their supporters. That seems to be true not only in Shakespeare’s dramatic creations but also in real life. Once we enter the character Richard of Gloucester’s world, which coincides with Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Parts 2-3 and Richard III, we are, as he, “in / So far in blood that sin will pluck on sin”[17] and must bear witness to just how vicious things can become when a political culture is broken as badly as late-medieval England’s was. Aristotle nobly thought that politics was the way to the good life. Reading history and studying Shakespeare makes us painfully aware that it can pave the way to other places, too.

Act 1, Scene 1 (385-88, Richard soliloquizes about his lot, puts on a duplicitous show of affection for brother Clarence, and informs us of his plans to “bustle” in a brotherless world and marry Anne Neville, widow of Edward, Prince of Wales.)

To open the first scene, Richard, still the Duke of Gloucester, makes his famous “winter of our discontent” speech (385, 1.1.1-41), which resembles his monologue at the end of Henry the Sixth, Part 3, where, in Act 5, Scene 6, he kills the defeated Henry VI In the Tower of London and offers a sinister prayer for future success: “since the heavens have shaped my body so, / Let hell make crooked my mind to answer it.”[18] In Richard Loncraine’s film production starring Sir Ian McKellen,[19] this speech is partly public rhetoric, but in the text, it is spoken as a soliloquy. Richard justifies his wicked ways by pointing to his contorted body. Like that of many villains, his evil is fueled by a sense of injured merit and a demand for compensation. He is part of the illustrious House of York, and one of his brothers is no less than Edward IV, the present King of England.

The real Richard of Gloucester was loyal in action to his older brother Edward IV,[20] but Shakespeare’s Richard, as the second part of his soliloquy makes clear, cannot truly be part of the “we” to which the first part of his speech refers. Near the end of the Third Part of Henry the Sixth, Richard says starkly, “I have no brother, I am like no brother.”[21] He is by his own understanding an unappreciated outsider to his family and to the scene of joyous expectation that he describes. Others may enjoy the time, but Richard’s deformities and personality defects render that impossible for him. He was “stamped” (385, 1.1.16) in a certain unfortunate way, and so his course must be separate. Where others revel in strength and victory, Richard sees only a “weak piping time of peace” (385, 1.1.24). He is a man “unfinished” (385, 1.1.20), as he says, and just as his own physical elements seem to have been mixed up and confused from birth, his peculiar genius is to embrace the gale-force winds of anarchy and chaos, staying always somehow ahead of his fellow royals. Richard lives in a time full of opportune chaos and confusion. These things are his very elements, and they will furnish him with everything he needs to advance his cause. That quality accounts for his ability to marshal “drunken prophecies, libels, and dreams” (385, 1.1.33) against his brothers Clarence and Edward IV, setting them off against each other.

Another thing to notice about this soliloquy surfaces at its end, when Richard bids his scheming ideas to hide themselves as his brother Clarence enters: “Dive, thoughts, down to my soul …” (385, 1.1.41). Although Richard can do little about his appearance, he is a master of disguise when it comes to language and moral sentiment. He is one of Shakespeare’s most skillful actor kings.

How does Richard play upon his brother Clarence? His underlying assumption is that anyone close to power wants still more of it and therefore cannot be trusted. This assumption he applies to Elizabeth, Edward IV’s queen, and blames her for Clarence’s imprisonment: “Why, this it is when men are ruled by women” (386, 1.1.62) After all, she has two young sons by Edward who stand to inherit the throne. Historically, Elizabeth Woodville, whose first husband was Sir John Grey, seems to have been a Machiavellian upstart. She understood power and wanted to augment her family’s influence. Edward’s marriage to her, in fact, had already made her powerful enemies. Her family has been newly planted in the soil of English royalty, and its only real chance, as we can see from the vicissitudes of the great houses of York and Lancaster, is to grow quickly and strongly. That is the way Richard portrays her, for the most part. He makes witticisms at her expense, carrying forward the grudge between the Woodville faction and himself dating from the last two parts of Henry VI. While keeper Brackenbury’s discomfort grows, Richard takes shots at Elizabeth and her kin as well as at the king’s mistress Jane Shore: “We say that Shore’s wife hath a pretty foot … / … / And that the Queen’s kindred are made gentlefolks” (387. 1.1.93-95).

Towards the end of the first scene, Richard tells us in good stage-villain fashion precisely what he plans to do. Clarence must be executed just before King Edward IV dies; with his elder brothers out of the way, Richard will be free to marry Anne Neville, the daughter of the late kingmaker Warwick (Richard Neville) for political advancement. His troublesome relatives, he says, must pack off and “leave the world for me to bustle in” (388, 1.1.151).

The thing that keeps this play from slipping into melodrama is the brilliance and exuberance of Richard’s language, as evidenced in the scheming passage just alluded to. Richard III is one of those villains whom the neoclassical moralist critic Samuel Johnson worries about—his ebullience doesn’t keep us from condemning him, but it carries us along to a disturbing degree.[22] Like Ben Jonson’s Volpone, Shakespeare’s Richard is always in the know, always ahead of the pack. No one likes to side with losers who are in the dark, who never have the right word for the right occasion, and whom fortune seems to have abandoned. Renaissance poets understood, as of course did the ancients from Homer onwards, that shunning the unlucky, although it’s cruel, is often the safest course of action. Bad luck is contagious, and incompetence loves company. No wonder we sometimes side with the villains for a time: knowledge gives us a sense of power and immunity. As modern critic Stanley Fish writes in discussing Paradise Lost, Christian poetry often labors to surprise us with our own propensity towards sinfulness, at our seemingly endless capacity—even knowingly—to be taken in by situations we should recognize as dangerous, and by the rhetoric and charming personalities of villains we know to be such.[23]

Act 1, Scene 2 (388-94, Anne laments the death of Edward and Henry VI, and is courted strangely by Richard, who marvels at his actorly performance.)

Anne Neville laments over King Henry VI’s body and remembers her slain husband Prince Edward (388-89, 1.2.1-30). Henry VI died, or rather was snuffed out, not long after the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471 after having been out of power for a decade, with one very brief restoration by Warwick. Edward, Prince of Wales was either killed during battle or upon discovery by Clarence’s men, and Warwick was killed during the battle. The widow Anne makes the first of several references to Richard as poisonous and monstrous, cursing him to greater ill than she can wish even “… to adders, spiders, toads, / Or any creeping venomed thing that lives” (389, 1.2.18-19).

Immediately, she is confronted with the devil himself when Richard appears from nowhere to charm her in a long and famously improbable dialogue (389-93, 1.2.32-211). That dialogue is a contestation of absolutes, with the lady declaring her supreme disgust for Richard and he playing up the absoluteness of her beauty and even claiming it spurred him to kill the prince and Henry VI: “As all the world is cheerèd by the sun, / So I by that; it is my day, my life” (391, 1.2.127-28). Anne has been dangerously left in the lurch by the death of powerful men, so underlying the invective are the mechanics of power. Richard is offering her a place in the new order of things. He tries to make her believe in her own personal charm as a moving force behind great events. Her eyes, as he tells her, have moved him to weep when even the pitiful story of his brother Rutland’s death, or the murder of his father the Duke of York by Queen Margaret’s faction, failed to do so (392, 1.2.151-56). He treats her like the Helen of Greek myth: Helen, in Christopher Marlowe’s telling in Doctor Faustus, possessed “the face that launched a thousand ships.”[24]

At the center of this strange argument between Anne Neville and Richard of Gloucester is the latter’s stagey insistence (after a first call to die by her hand) that she “Take up the sword again, or take up me” (392, 1.2.169), which elicits not violence but only, “Though I wish thy death, / I will not be the executioner” (392, 1.2.170-71). What follows is even more improbable, with Richard offering Anne a ring, and Anne ambivalently offering him hope of success and even expressing some gladness to see that this bad man has “become so penitent” (393, 1.2.207).

Towards the end of the second scene, Richard again speaks only to himself and the audience, expressing nothing short of disbelief at his success—or rather at the success of his performance. He waxes metadramatic, seeming to join Shakespeare the playwright in patting himself on the back: “Was ever woman in this humor wooed? / Was ever woman in this humor won?” (393, 1.2.214-15) As the Norton textual gloss implies, the word “humor” logically refers both to the fact that Anne is grieving and to Richard’s strange, theatrical way of courting her.

Does Richard believe the lady finds him “a marvelous proper man” (394, 1.2.240) and that he has now become fashionable? Perhaps the fashionable thing is power, which, as the late diplomat Henry Kissinger said, is “the great aphrodisiac.”[25] The most generous way to construe Anne’s apparent fickleness is to acknowledge that although she is not personally weak, by position she is a pawn in a deadly dynastic chess game. In truth, the wedding between Richard and Anne took place in July 1472, whereas the battle during and after which Edward, Prince of Wales and King Henry VI died occurred a little over a year earlier, in May 1471. But strict timelines aside, Anne’s sudden, implausible change of heart may be Shakespeare’s way of characterizing the devastating effects of the dynastic violence of the Wars of the Roses on even the deepest human feelings and loyalties. Richard seems to understand that Anne, who is coveted as a ward by Clarence because he wants her estates as Countess of Warwick, is incapable of opposing him. We should note here that the historical Anne Neville was a girl of about sixteen at the time, not an adult counter to the also young but wily Richard. Thus, his gesture of offering her a blade with which to kill him may be less risky than it appears.

Well, all these historical matters aside, Richard is exuberant, and why shouldn’t he be delighted with himself? He that is “not shaped for sportive tricks” (385, 1.1.14) and whose villainy is stamped, as he and everyone else says, into the very fabric of his body, now plays the rogue in precisely the guise he had said was forbidden to him: that of a lover: “Shine out, fair sun, till I have bought a glass, / That I may see my shadow as I pass” (394, 1.2.248-49). This is Richard at his best and worst: protean, ebullient, unpredictable, a rider of chaos involving events and the human heart. In the theater of cruelty and power, the clever can represent themselves as they would be and stand a good chance of carrying their audience with them.

The overt meaning of the language here is straightforward: the villain is so delighted with his performance as a great actor on the stage of life that he wants to watch himself as he goes to work on his hapless fellow beings. But perhaps Richard is also recalling to himself his opening soliloquy’s “son/sun” metaphor, a usage that may in turn remind us not only of his alleged attitude towards his brother Edward IV but also of a moment in Shakespeare’s earlier effort, The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York and the Good King Henry VI (Henry VI, Part 3), wherein three suns mysteriously appear in the sky, prompting Richard and Edward to wonder if it betokens unity amongst the sons of the great Duke and claimant of the throne.[26] Might Richard’s present reference to the shining sun be an oblique allusion to Clarence, shortly to be dimmed forever thanks to his younger brother’s unholy ambition?

Act 1, Scene 3 (394-402, Dysfunctional family dinner: Richard and Queen Elizabeth Woodville savage each other, Margaret curses the lot of them; Richard admits in soliloquy that he’s responsible for the dissent he says others are creating.) 

In this long scene, the royal family gather and bicker over old crimes and divided loyalties. Queen Elizabeth Woodville and Richard go at each other’s throats with intensity. The reason for her anger is palpable: she says to Richard, “You envy my advancement and my friends’” (396, 1.3.75). Richard dares them all—Elizabeth, Rivers, and Gray—to go straight to Edward IV and air their grievances, reminding them pointedly that while their faction for a time supported the cause of the Lancastrian Henry VI, he remained loyal to his elder brother: “I was a packhorse in his great affairs … / … / To royalize his blood I spent mine own” (397, 1.3.122-125).

Queen Margaret of Anjou, the indomitable widow of Henry VI and mother of the slain Edward, Prince of Wales, puts in an appearance, serving as a dire example of one who has held and lost great power and place. She herself is not innocent, having been responsible for the death of Richard of Gloucester’s father the Duke of York when he tried to get himself crowned king. What we have at present is not so much a solution to the power struggle between the great houses of York and Lancaster as an uneasy truce. In any event, Queen Margaret rails at all assembled: “Hear me, you wrangling pirates, that fall out / In sharing that which you have pilled from me” (388, 1.3.157-58). Her cutting prophecy regarding Elizabeth Woodville will turn out to be truer than she can guess: “after many lengthened hours of grief, / Die neither mother, wife, nor England’s queen” (399, 1.3.204-05).

What do these people really want? we might ask, since it’s obvious that power does not bring security in its train. Their pursuit of ultimate power sometimes resembles the quest for sexual experience as described in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129: “The expense of spirit in a waste of shame / Is lust in action.”[27] Near the end of the third scene, Richard yet again steps in with a soliloquy explaining how he is behind the vicious maneuvering he ascribes to others, hiding it all the while with false piety: “thus I clothe my naked villainy … / And seem a saint when most I play the devil” (402, 1.3.332-34; see 401-02, 1.3.320-34). The pair of murderers he has summoned now arrive, waiting for Richard’s orders to make away with George, Duke of Clarence.

Act 1, Scene 4 (402-08, Clarence has a strange vision and is murdered by Richard’s agents.)

This scene contains the remarkable dream vision of Clarence (402-03, 1.4.9-60). One purpose it serves is to generate sympathy for Clarence, who in historical terms doesn’t seem to have been a particularly warm and fuzzy character, or even a trustworthy one.[28] In this speech, he is given beautiful poetry of the sort that one wants to detach from its context and enjoy for its own sake. We may remember Shakespeare’s song in The Tempest, in which Ariel whispers to Ferdinand that his supposedly drowned father Alonso of Naples “… doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange.”[29] Clarence dreams of a sea-change, but one of a more dreadful aspect: “Methought I saw a thousand fearful wrecks, / Ten thousand men that fishes gnawed upon. / Wedges of gold, great anchors, heaps of pearl, / Inestimable stones, unvalued jewels” (403, 1.4.23-26). He never really sees to the bottom of his brother’s deceitful behavior—this is shielded from him even in his dream, as we can tell from the way he describes Richard’s part in his vision: “Methought that Gloucester stumbled, and in stumbling / Struck me, that thought to stay him, overboard…“ (402, 1.4.17-18). That is a classic piece of dramatic irony since we know something Clarence doesn’t. His dream is strangely beautiful, but it does not yield him clarity about the end of his life. It does not rise to the level of full prophecy. The keeper may be injecting a little humor when he asks Clarence how he had time to notice so much detail while drowning in his vision (403, 1.4.32-33).

The second part of the speech (403, 1.4.40-60) shows that Clarence is riddled with guilt over his betrayal of brother Edward IV in favor of Warwick and his complicity in the death of the Prince of Wales. The word “shadow” (403, 1.4.50) invokes the ghost of Edward, Prince of Wales, who demands retribution for his death, supposedly by Clarence’s own hand.

After Clarence has recounted his dream, two unnamed murderers enter to make away with him. They may remind us of characters from a medieval morality play in their anxious banter regarding a half-personified Conscience (404-05, 1.4.91-40). These two men are operating at a much lower level than Richard or the other noble characters in the play, and the inferior quality of their station renders them insecure. They show a spot of moral conscience—something Richard seems to lack, judging from his soliloquies to this point—but it doesn’t go very far.

Also on display in this part of the scene is Shakespeare’s macabre sense of humor: Clarence, not knowing that he is about to be dumped into a cask of wine to make sure he’s dead, says to his assassins, “Give me a cup of wine” (405, 1.4.147). Playing the penitent, Clarence tries to sweet-talk the two killers out of their plan, but as they point out, a man who has done such things as he has done has no business employing religious rhetoric (406-07, 1.4.182-205). In sum, Shakespeare may be playing with our sympathies in his handling of Clarence. Doubtless the fine poetry this character is given generates sympathy for him, but Shakespeare at least partly undermines that sympathy with several mentions of the role that the historical Clarence played in the Wars of the Roses. That a person’s penitence is situational does not necessarily render it thoroughly false—perhaps penitence is always to some extent situational. Still, it complicates matters, a thought we may carry forward when, at the beginning of Act 2, King Edward IV takes on the role of reconciler. It is difficult to put much stock in Edward’s pious declaration that he is, to borrow a phrase, “a uniter, not a divider.”[30] The Wars of the Roses were about insidious divisions between interrelated feudal houses.

Act 2, Scene 1 (408-11, Edward IV tries to make peace amongst all factions; Richard blurts out that Clarence is dead, devastating Edward.)

This scene plays with some irony. Here we have Edward IV trying desperately, in the most unpromising of circumstances, to practice the art of dying well, and it comes off badly. He wants his factious relatives to embrace and to exchange loving words; he apparently even wants them actually to mean those words and gestures. As he tells Richard, who plays along initially with magnificent rhetoric of amity, “Brother, we have done deeds of charity …” (409, 2.1.48). But once again, Richard masterfully sows the seeds of chaos and discord, injecting at just the right moment to deflate Edward’s piety the fact that Clarence is dead, supposedly by order of the king himself: “Who knows not that the noble Duke is dead?” (409, 2.1.77) At the scene’s end, Richard even insists to Buckingham that the pale visages of everyone around should be interpreted as an emblem of guilt (411, 2.1.133-36). Edward IV is shattered, and announces in the presence of all assembled, “O God, I fear Thy justice will take hold / On me and you, and mine and yours for this” (411, 2.1.129-30). The king’s penitence may be genuine, but it cannot prevent the consequences of past violence. It is a commonplace in Shakespeare’s tragedies and history plays that blood, once shed, draws more blood: violence and sin generate spirals of still more violence and sin. That is a lesson Shakespeare surely learned from the Bible, which teaches it from Genesis onward: “Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him” and God reproached him for it with, “the voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me, from the earth.”[31]

Act 2, Scene 2 (411-14, the Duchess of York, Queen Elizabeth Woodville, and Clarence’s children all lament their griefs, but not in unison or harmony: the Duchess says only her grief encompasses all the sad events.)

Again, what seems to be genuine grief is undercut by a long history of unkindness and injustice. Richard’s mother, the old Duchess of York, Queen Elizabeth Woodville, and the children of murdered Clarence engage in a lamentation-fest (412-13, 2.2.33-87). One-line or stichomythic exchanges of the sort we find from lines 71-77 are typical of early Shakespeare. The form of the dialogue works very well in this case since the point seems to be to draw out the shallowness or inadequacy of the characters’ grief, the essentially self-centered and factional nature of it. The children will not weep for Elizabeth because she did not weep for the death of Clarence, while the Duchess insists that her grief is alone general while everyone else’s is merely particular: “Alas, I am the mother of these moans. / Their woes are parceled; mine are general” (413, 2.2.79-80).

All the same, we should not discount the genuine pathos of the scene; it functions at two heterodox levels. Shakespeare’s first goal must have been to please an audience, and so it is unlikely that he would completely undercut a good tearjerker scene like the present one. His audience members were not historians, after all, though it would be wrong to claim they were unsophisticated. Many people in attendance were probably capable of catching the subtleties in Shakespeare’s handling of historical and emotional registers. And there’s always Richard, of course, with those mean-spirited asides of his, making it plain just how insincere he is when he trots out his moralistic rhetoric and protestations of good will. Shakespeare will often counterpoint statecraft, violence, and villainy on a grand scale with small-scale, intimate domestic scenes showing the consequences for the powerless, but we will have to wait for the fourth scene to witness anything of that sort.

Act 2, Scene 3 (414-15, citizens share their anxieties about the future: to them, the changes to come portend danger and uncertainty.)

Three citizens air their thoughts and anxieties about Edward’s death and what is to come. In this, they function like a chorus, and they sense that the great will not be able to restrain themselves from seeking still greater power. Says the third citizen, “full of danger is the Duke of Gloucester, / And the Queen’s kindred haughty and proud” (414, 2.3.27-28), and as for the general atmosphere, his pronouncement is, “By a divine instinct men’s minds mistrust / Ensuing dangers …” (415, 2.3.42-43). Dynastic and inter-dynastic change will come, but it is something to be feared.

Act 2, Scene 4 (415-17, Queen Elizabeth Woodville is informed that Rivers and Gray have been sent to the Tower; she sees “the ruin of our house” and no escape from Richard.)

While the princes are on the way to London, the Duchess of York subtly reinforces the old Tudor propaganda about Richard’s evil nature (415, 2.4.16-20), the better to underscore the genuine pathos of Queen Elizabeth’s situation. If even a tough woman like Margaret of Anjou (Henry VI’s widow) has been sidelined by the loss of her men, what will happen to Elizabeth and her children by King Edward IV? When Elizabeth hears that Gloucester and Buckingham have slyly committed Lord Rivers and Lord Gray to Pomfret, she senses with dread that she and hers are caught up in Richard’s web of intrigue and blood, and there’s no way out: “Ay me! I see the downfall of our house. / The tiger now hath seized the gentle hind” (416, 2.4.48-49).

Act 3, Scene 1 (417-22, Richard makes conversation with the young princes on their way to the Tower, and convinces the cardinal to separate them from their mother; Richard and Buckingham resolve either to bring Hastings over or chop off his head.)

The third act as a whole hinges upon the sense of pageantry and carefully managed theater shown by Richard and Buckingham; they advance Richard’s cause by means of sophistical arguments and false shows of religious piety.

Here in the first scene, Richard has a merry-seeming conversation with the young Prince Edward, and among the most striking parts of it is the one in which the prince declares, “Methinks the truth should live from age to age …” (419, 3.1.76). Buckingham makes easy work of the Cardinal’s scruples about snatching the youth out of sanctuary with his mother (419, 3.1.44-56). The effect is comic since it shows how simple a thing it is to take advantage of those who—unlike Richard and Buckingham—take the rules seriously. But of course Cardinals were by no means non-political figures, so another way to interpret the Cardinal’s complacency is that he knows which way the wind blows.

Obviously, what everyone wants is the settled appearance of legitimacy, and they are likely to go along with the plans of whoever seems most likely to deliver it. Prince Edward’s comment about “the truth” particularly rankles Richard because the child has the temerity to insist that the deep truth should live on from age to age, and that historical truth is not simply a matter of what has been written down for posterity. Richard is right in the middle of staging his own inevitable accession to power in front of everyone who matters, no doubt believing that so long as he can arrange the visual feast to everyone’s liking, the near-term historical record will break his way. By implication, perhaps, we are to understand that those who look on while Richard schemes his way to the kingship know what is really going on, and will one day find the courage to say so. Prince Edward also sets himself up as the future king who will wash away England’s humiliation over the loss of French territory originally procured by Edward III and Henry V (419, 3.1.91-93). Most appropriately, his little brother York fears that he “shall not sleep in quiet at the Tower” (420, 3.1.142) thanks to the unhappy ghost of uncle Clarence.

Towards the end of the first scene, Richard and Buckingham engage in an almost obscene exchange whereby Buckingham accedes to the murder of William Lord Hastings and may claim when Richard is king the earldom of Hereford, “And look to have it yielded with all willingness” (422, 3.1.195; see lines 188-97).[32]

Act 3, Scene 2 (422-25, Lord Hastings reacts angrily to Catesby’s suggestion that Richard should be king, unsuspectingly sealing his own fate.)

Lord Stanley has a fearful dream about Richard the boar and fears the separate councils by which decisions are being taken (422, 3.2.7-12), but Hastings will have none of it. By messenger, he tells Lord Stanley that once they reach the Tower, “he shall see the boar will use us kindly” (422, 3.2.31). Perhaps more so than anyone else in the play, Hastings seems incapable of discerning Richard’s true character. Even so, his response to Catesby’s insinuation that Richard should become king is swift and unmistakable: “I’ll have this crown of mine cut from my shoulders / Ere I will see the crown so foul misplaced” (423, 3.2.41-42).

This is not to say that Hastings is an admirable or innocent man—any such notions are quickly rendered impossible by the way he takes the condemnation of his enemies in this scene. Hastings considers himself secure in Richard’s good graces, and he supposes there is a place for him in the new order heralded by Richard. The way Shakespeare handles Hastings resembles something straight from The Mirror for Magistrates,[33] or from an old morality play—prideful and triumphant one moment, humiliated and cut down the next. We notice that, as so often, Shakespeare gives both sides of the argument regarding the validity of prophecy—on the whole, his plays give the nod to popular superstition. It is mainly villains like Edmund in King Lear who scorn such powers of prophecy, witchcraft, and the like.[34] Throughout the second half of his career, Shakespeare wrote during the reign of King James I, who was a great believer in witchcraft and even wrote a learned treatise on the subject.[35]

Act 3, Scenes 3-4 (425-28, Rivers, Gray, and Vaughan are executed at Pomfret; Richard corners Hastings at a meeting and orders him beheaded: forcing allegiances on the eve of irrevocable action.)

In these two scenes, several of Richard’s enemies meet their end. In the third scene, Rivers, Gray, and Vaughan go to their deaths at Pomfret (425, 3.3.1-23). In the fourth scene, Richard, informed that the Lord Chamberlain, William Lord Hastings, will not assent to shoving aside the young prince in favor of his so-called protector, devises a ridiculous piece of theater that ends with the present death of Hastings. This man’s crime is failing to respond appropriately to Richard’s rhetorical question in council, “I pray you all, what do they deserve / That do conspire my death with devilish plots / of damnèd witchcraft, and that have prevailed / Upon my body with their hellish charms?” (427, 3.4.64-67) Hastings’s conditional response beginning with an “If” costs him his head. Anyone who doubts Richard’s claims about the malignant conspiracy of the queen’s party against him is thereby tagged as neatly aligned with the conspirators. The real purpose of this mini-drama is, as we can see, to force others in the room into a show of support. This is no time for bet-hedging, and even Lord Stanley must follow along in Richard’s train of sycophants, leaving the hapless Hastings by himself, awaiting execution.[36]

Act 3, Scene 5 (428-30, Buckingham and Richard dupe the Lord Mayor about Hastings’s sudden execution, and trashes his deceased brother Edward IV’s reputation.)

Yet another excellent piece of theater is here: Buckingham and Richard nicely allay suspicion, taking in the Lord Mayor with their feigned alarm and specious claim that Hastings’s execution was untimely (429, 3.5.38-43). The scene may remind us of the one in Macbeth where Macbeth has just killed the two servants who will falsely be blamed for Duncan’s murder, and he claims to repent what he has done rashly.[37] Many of Richard’s accusations revolve around sexual innuendo, and we may suppose this topic is especially satisfying to him, if we recall his opening soliloquy. Here, his character assassination of Edward IV is particularly vicious, as he rehearses the claim that his own brother Edward was not the legitimate issue of their father Richard, Third Duke of York (429-30, 3.5.82-91).

Act 3, Scene 6 (430, a scrivener explains why Richard’s plot is going so smoothly: “none dare call it treason,” as John Harington would say.)

The scrivener can’t believe that anyone is taken in by Richard’s transparent absurdities in justification of his conduct. But as he suggests, the problem is not that nobody perceives the truth; it is that no one dares to acknowledge it openly: “Why, who’s so gross / That sees not this palpable device? / Yet who’s so bold but says he sees it not?” (430, 3.7.10-12) Shakespeare’s contemporary Sir John Harington (a godson of Queen Elizabeth I) puts the matter succinctly in one of his epigrams: “Treason doth never prosper, what’s the reason? For if it prosper, none dare call it Treason.”[38] Had Richard succeeded as King, what record of him would have come down to Shakespeare’s time? Certainly not the one Shakespeare offers us here since, after all, he writes in defense of Elizabeth’s Tudor line, founded by the illustrious Lancastrian Henry VII.

Act 3, Scene 7 (430-35, Theater of Power: Buckingham woos Richard to accept the crown; Richard accepts with false modesty and reluctance.)

Here Shakespeare has outdone himself in the representation of villainy: Buckingham’s quip about Richard’s role being that of a woman who must “Play the maid’s part: say no, but take it” (431, 3.7.45) is followed by some fine stagecraft in which Richard of Gloucester walks around with his Bible, flanked by priests, and utters ridiculous bits of false piety such as, “my desert / Unmeritable shuns your high request” and “Alas, why would you heap these cares on me?” (433-34, 3.7.133-34, 182) By reverse logic, the taking of power is once again compared to an aggressive sexual act—the very thing Richard sounded so resentful about in his opening soliloquy. While Buckingham and Richard’s exchanges are often short to the point of stichomythia (one-line exchanges), the dialogue becomes fittingly prolix as the two rogues finish off their pageant in front of the Lord Mayor and some leading citizens. As so often, Shakespeare’s supposed prolixity turns out to be situational: it’s needed here because the characters must not say too frankly what they really mean, aside from blunt and repeated assertions about the Princes’ illegitimacy and Edward IV’s depraved dalliances. Finally, Richard is able to utter his supremely comic line, “I am not made of stones” (435, 3.7.202), and the affair is ended successfully, with the coronation planned for the next day.

Dynastic rivalry can be a nasty, root-and-branch extirpatory affair just as much as it can be a matter of delicate intermarriages and intricate understandings between rival houses. Here, it isn’t enough that Richard should succeed; he must appear holy while others are slimed beyond recognition and utterly destroyed.[39] It isn’t only the living bodies of his rivals that he must deal with; their posthumous image and report must be degraded for his benefit. How powerful an anxiety this business of popular image and report was for Richard is highlighted by ordinary people’s failure to respond to the lies fed them by Buckingham regarding King Edward IV and the princes. Story and spectacle are enormously significant accompaniments to the getting and maintaining of power, and Shakespeare, a reader of Holinshed’s Chronicles especially but also of some other accounts of English royal history, must have understood how important a force popular images and oral history were as a potential threat to the official stories set forth by monarchs and their supporters. They could result in direct rebellion on the part of the people themselves, or they could serve the interests of rival factions. Richard, a Machiavel before Machiavelli, is striving to avoid becoming not simply feared rather than loved, but outright hated, and he willingly uses religious props and language to achieve that goal.

Act 4, Scene 1 (435-37, Anne Neville explains her acceptance of Richard’s suit; Queen Elizabeth Woodville fears for her princes in the Tower: royal women’s perspective.)

This act begins with a concentration on the misfortunes of the women in the play. Anne Neville, who is now married to Richard,[40] claims that her “woman’s heart / Grossly grew captive to his honey words” (437, 4.1.73-74) so that he won her over on the spot, improbable as that may seem. In the First Folio version (but not in the Quarto version that the Norton editors use), Elizabeth Woodville ends the scene with haunting lines about her two vulnerable sons imprisoned in the Tower of London: “Pitty, you ancient Stones, those tender Babes, / Whom Envie hath immur’d within your Walls, / Rough Cradle for such little prettie ones….”[41] In the Quarto version, the aged Duchess of York gets the final word, and she longs for peace in death, after a life filled with grief upon grief (437, 4.1.88-91).

How right is Elizabeth Woodville to fear for her sons? Did Richard really order the princes killed? It was common speculation that he had the princes murdered when he became king, but there is no solid evidence to prove it. Certainly, he stood to benefit from the deed, but as Paul Murray Kendall points out in his biography of Richard III,[42] so did Buckingham (i.e., Henry Stafford). The bodies were never definitively discovered (though some remains were discovered in 1674 and then in 1789), so the whole affair remains a mystery.[43]

Act 4, Scene 2 (438-40, Now king, Richard solicits Buckingham’s complicity in murdering the princes; Buckingham balks and deserts when Richard refuses him Hereford; Richard tells Catesby to float a rumor that Anne is dying—he must marry Elizabeth Woodville’s daughter; Richard chooses Tyrrell as his agent and declares himself immune to “tear-falling pity.”)

The newly crowned Richard III compounds his wickedness as the pace of events picks up, broaching the need with Buckingham of doing away with the young Edward V and his brother: “shall we wear these honors for a day?” (438, 4.2.5) and fuming to himself when Buckingham hesitates in consideration of his own selfish interests: “Buckingham / No more shall be the neighbor to my counsel” (439, 4.2.41-42).

Richard also gives an oblique order to Catesby to make away with Anne, his queen: “Rumor it abroad / That Anne my wife is sick and like to die” (439, 4.2. 48-49). There is no historical evidence for this assertion aside from popular suspicion and Tudor propaganda, but it makes for compelling drama. Shakespeare’s villain Richard glosses his actions revealingly: always a major concern with Shakespeare is that those who fail to act instead of just talking and planning quickly end up on the sidelines, or worse. It was a Renaissance commonplace that a well-born person’s formation should be oriented towards action. Unlike, say, Shakespeare’s Richard II, Richard III is a master of words and deeds; he isn’t one to be caught sitting on his hands when something needs doing. It’s easy to see this when he sums up the logic underlying his alleged murder of Anne: “I must be married to my brother’s daughter, / Or else my kingdom stands on brittle glass” (439, 4.2.58-59). But Richard’s mastery is short-lived, and his own words suggest the reason Shakespeare offers for his failure to hang onto the kingdom he has stolen for more than a few years: “I am in / So far in blood that sin will pluck on sin. / Tear-falling pity dwells not in this eye” (439, 4.2.61-63). A man who admits that his soul is dead cannot hope to remain unhated for long, and when political rulers make themselves hated, they are not far from disaster.

James Tyrrell is King Richard’s choice for the matter of the princes currently being held in the Tower of London, and this bad man is quick to pledge his assistance: “’Tis done, my gracious lord” (439, 4.2.79), he tells Richard in advance of the deed. The scene ends on a sour note between the king and distrustful, impatient Buckingham, who has already returned to claim the Earldom of Hereford that Richard had promised him in exchange for his support (440, 4.2.87-90). The answer from a distracted Richard (who is more concerned at the moment with recollecting Henry VI’s prophecy about Richmond becoming king) is a contemptuous no. Richard simply says, “I am not in the giving vein today” (440, 4.2.116), prompting Buckingham, once alone, to ask himself, “Made I him king for this?” (440, 4.2.120) And with that, the allegiance of Henry Stafford, Second Duke of Buckingham to King Richard III is at an end.

Act 4, Scene 3 (441-42, Tyrrell has had the princes killed; Richard tallies his villainous accomplishments; Buckingham has turned traitor and joined Richmond’s army.)

We are told that James Tyrrel has contracted with his subordinates Dighton and Forrest to effect the murders—this is information from Holinshed and/or Thomas More’s study of King Richard III[44]—and are treated to another of the play’s more lyrical passages, this time about the piteous nature of the princes’ death: “Their lips were four red roses on a stalk, / Which in their summer beauty kissed each other” (441, 4.3.12-13; see lines 1-22). Richard promises Tyrrel a great reward, and moves on to sum up his own accomplishments, among which are that “The sons of Edward sleep in Abraham’s bosom, / And Anne my wife hath bid the world goodnight” (441, 4.3.38-39). Buckingham has by now turned traitor to him with an army in the field along with the Bishop of Ely and Henry, Earl of Richmond. 

Act 4, Scene 4 (442-53, Queen Margaret scorns Elizabeth Woodville, yet advises her how to curse her enemies; Richard works at convincing Elizabeth to agree to a match with her daughter.)

The play’s women again congregate (from pp. 441-45, 4.4.1-141, until Richard enters), this time with bitter effect: Queen Margaret of Anjou, Henry VI’s widow, stands beside Elizabeth Woodville, widow of Edward IV, to sharpen the pangs of her grief over the death of her husband and the disappearance of her two sons by the king. Margaret feels Elizabeth’s pain, and feeds upon it at length: as she says, it will make her glad on foreign soil: “These English woes shall make me smile in France” (445, 4.4.109), France being the erstwhile center of Margaret’s hopes for power in England. In response to Elizabeth’s request for advice on how to curse deeply, Margaret speaks chillingly: “Forbear to sleep the nights, and fast the days. / Compare dead happiness with living woe …” (445, 4.4.112-13, see lines 112-17).

The real Margaret died in August 1482 in France, so she didn’t live to see Richard III’s demise, but Shakespeare situates her so as to sharpen our sense of the cruelty of the times, with their fierce dynastic rivalries and constant betrayals: the old feudal, chivalric order had long since begun the process of ripping itself apart, with the nobility casting aside all responsibility to their subjects and ravaging the land in a quest for individual and familial gain. It seems that nobody in the disintegrating order Shakespeare describes is willing to serve for the correct reasons. Nobody’s place is acknowledged by anyone else as rightful and permanent—all is scheming and self-interest. Shakespeare is perfectly capable of idealizing the old order: consider his favorable treatment of Henry V, victor of Agincourt in 1412.[45] Still, whatever the historical inaccuracies of the play Richard III and leaving aside its Tudor bias, the overall picture it presents of this final episode of The Wars of the Roses seems just.

Another thing to notice in this scene once King Richard enters is the curious dilation of his rhetoric even as its effectiveness diminishes to nothing. He first endures his mother the Duchess of York’s terrible curse: “Bloody thou art; bloody will be thy end; / Shame serves thy life and doth thy death attend” (446, 4.4.184-85), and then it’s on to the business at hand with Elizabeth Woodville. It takes King Richard a good long time to convince Elizabeth of absolutely nothing (446-50, 4.4.188-347). Their at times curt, at times long-winded exchange amounts to wrangling over Richard’s desire to marry the widowed queen’s daughter, also named Elizabeth, lest the girl’s hand be given to Henry, Earl of Richmond. Richard ends up pathetically swearing by the future, when, of course, he will become as mild as mother’s milk. The frequent repetition of the words “myself” and “yourself” in this exchange play up, respectively, Elizabeth’s distrust of dynastic bloodlines as a measure of safety (in her experience, they portend peril as much or more than safety since the language of fealty, honor, and birth has become a cipher), and Richard’s need for others to regard not his personal misconduct but the majesty of the king’s “other body,” the one that symbolizes or incarnates the whole people.[46] Richard’s cynical way of expressing this doctrine of “the king’s two bodies” is to conclude his pitch, “Urge the necessity and state of times, / And be not peevish-fond in great designs” (450, 4.4.333-34). He wants Elizabeth to act with regard for the imperatives of statecraft and policy; namely, his own safety as a dynast.

Finally, King Richard receives mixed news about the impending battle, and pins down Lord Stanley, or so he thinks, by holding his young son hostage: “Look your faith be firm, / Or else his head’s assurance is but frail” (452, 4.4.409-10). The real Stanley, by the way, seems to have been a slippery character, as evidenced by his dubious loyalties to both Edward IV and Warwick when those two feuded.[47]

Act 4, Scene 5 (453, Lord Stanley learns about the augmentation of Henry, Earl of Richmond’s supporters; Stanley asks Sir Christopher to tell him the vital news that Elizabeth Woodville consents to a match with her daughter.)

Stanley gathers information from the priest Sir Christopher regarding Henry, Earl of Richmond’s movements and the addition to his ranks of those nobles who are falling away from King Richard (453, 4.5.1-20). Stanley also wants Sir Christopher to pass along secretly the news that Elizabeth Woodville consents to the proposed match between Henry, Earl of Richmond and her young daughter Elizabeth (453, 4.5.17-19).

Act 5, Scene 1 (454, Buckingham is executed at Richard III’s order.)

Henry Stafford, Second Duke of Buckingham goes to the block at last, with a morality-play-style flourish, Queen Margaret’s curses on his lips: “Wrong hath but wrong, and blame the due of blame” (454, 5.1.29).

Act 5, Scene 2 (454-55, Henry, Earl of Richmond addresses the lords in his army confidently.)

Richmond addresses his lords, expressing moral disgust at the usurping reign of “The wretched, bloody, and usurping boar, / That spoiled your summer fields and fruitful vines …” (454, 5.2.7-8) and radiating confidence on the eve of battle: “In God’s name, cheerly on, courageous friends, / To reap the harvest of perpetual peace / By this one bloody trial of sharp war” (455, 5.3.14-16). If we place pro-Tudor and Lancastrian bias aside (for the battle being recounted did,at least, mostly end the gut-wrenching Wars of the Roses), Shakespeare and his audience must have felt the hollowness of any such statement made about ending humankind’s propensity to settle their differences by extreme violence. We in the twenty-first century look back with sadness upon the serial carnage that followed the conclusion of “the war to end all wars” in 1918, and we have little reason to predict that things will become more peaceful in the near future.

Act 5, Scene 3 (455-63, Richard speaks with Catesby and Norfolk, expressing confidence; Richmond draws up battle plans in his tent; Richard fires off a threat to Stanley, and asks his men to help him arm for battle; Stanley praises Richmond; Richmond prays for victory and sleeps; meanwhile, Richard suffers a guilt-ridden nightmare, and awakens in a panic; Richard confesses his fear to Ratcliffe; Richmond wakes up refreshed by a dream and delivers a speech to his troops; Richard broods, but harangues his army with a defiant speech; Richard is told that Stanley has deserted him; battle is imminent.)

In the third scene, Richard expresses confidence of his own, saying to Catesby and Norfolk, “the King’s name is a tower of strength, / Which they upon the adverse party want” (455, 5.3.12-13). He gives Norfolk and Catesby their final orders and sends with a herald’s attendant a threat to Stanley reminding him that his little son’s life hangs in the balance: “Bid him bring his power / Before sun-rising, lest his son George fall / Into the blind cave of eternal night” (456, 5.3.58-60). Around midnight, Ratcliffe is to come and help Richard suit up for battle.

Meanwhile, Richmond’s mind is also directed towards the struggle at hand: “I’ll draw the form and model of our battle …” (456, 5.3.39). As the battle looms, Stanley offers Richmond encouraging words, though he must be circumspect in his movements because King Richard still holds his son hostage: “on thy side I may not be too forward …” (442, 5.3.92; see lines 81-100). Richmond intends to lie down for a nap soon, but not before he prays for success, asking God, “Make us Thy ministers of chastisement / That we may praise Thee in the victory” (457, 5.3.111-12). He will rest well, enjoying the “sweetest sleep and fairest-boding dreams / That ever entered in a drowsy head,” (460, 5.3.225-26), as he tells his lords, and in that dream will “their souls whose bodies Richard murdered” (460, 5.3.228) visit him to cheer him on to victory.

By contrast, around the same hour, King Richard’s tortured conscience rears, forcing him to confront the same ghosts that come so pleasantly to the sleeping Richmond. All the king’s victims constitute a nightmare that at least  momentarily shakes the practiced warrior’s confidence. Visiting him in succession are eleven shades: those of Prince Edward, King Henry VI, Clarence, Rivers, Gray, Vaughan, the little princes, Hastings, Anne Neville, and Buckingham (443-44). Buckingham’s final couplet speaks sufficiently for all the injured parties: to Richard he says sternly, “Dream on, dream on, of bloody deeds and death. / Fainting, despair; despairing, yield thy breath” (459, 5.3.169-70), while to Richmond he is kind: “God and good angels fight on Richmond’s side, / And Richard falls in height of all his pride” (459, 5.3.173-74). Richard wakes up and tries to sort through his confused thoughts, saying, among other things, “And if I die, / no soul will pity me. / And wherefore should they, since that I myself / Find in myself no pity to myself?” (460, 5.3.199-201)[48] Then Richard confesses his terror to Ratcliffe (460, 5.3.210-17), and his life now takes on its final, medieval shape, that of a pride-induced fall from the height of Fortune’s Wheel to the plummet of sin and wretchedness. He will stand alone in the midst of an army of men who do not love or honor him, and there’s no way out of his fatal predicament—at least none that an unrepentant sinner such as he could accept. King Richard bids Ratcliffe follow him on an eavesdropping tour of the camp tents, the purpose of which will be to discern “if any mean to shrink from me” (460, 5.3.220). He hopes by this shift to allay his fear.

As Shakespeare pans, so to speak, from the horrid scene that reveals King Richard III’s terror, Richmond is shown haranguing his assembled troops in set-piece style: his is the language of moral right, spoken by a man who’s certain that providence is on his side and that his enemy is a mere usurper and tyrant: “if you fight against God’s enemy, / God will, in justice, ward you as His soldiers” (461, 5.3.251-52).

Richard, too, now harangues his troops in set-piece style. Before he addresses them, he says to Norfolk, “Conscience is but a word that cowards use” and “Let us to it pell mell; / If not to heaven, then hand in hand to hell!” (5.3.307, 310-11). To the whole army, Richard’s language is a combination of stubborn possessiveness and strong contempt for the enemy. The opponents, he says, are “A sort of vagabonds, rascals, and runaways, / A scum of Bretons and base lackey peasants …” (462, 5.3.314-15). Shall such trash, asks Richard of his men, “enjoy our lands, lie with our wives, / Ravish our daughters?” (463, 5.3.334-35) This is the last hurrah of a desperate rogue addressing men who already hate him. Aside from what he says to his great lords, Richard really makes no appeal to camaraderie between him and his troops: since when has this selfish monarch ever done anything for common Englishmen? He served Edward IV’s cause for a time, but otherwise, Richard’s only concern has been for himself, and he is leading hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of men to their deaths to extend his own wicked reign.

Act 5, Scene 4 (463-64, the battle rages, with Richard now fighting on foot: “My kingdom for a horse!”)

One thing we can’t say of Richard is that he is a physical coward: Shakespeare grants him a king’s death, betrayed by many but hacking his way valiantly through a host of false Richmonds to get to the real one: he twice shouts out “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” (463-64, 5.8.7, 13)[49] What does this famous call mean? Probably not, in the fashion of irrational exuberance, that he would trade his entire kingdom for a horse, but instead that “My entire kingdom, my reign as king, depends on whether I can get my hands on a horse right now.” Richard III needs something simple and material without delay, or all is lost—such is the fragility of human strength, and such the power of fate, or providence. Then, too, this interpretation honors the turn-on-a-sixpence nature of many medieval battles, at least as Shakespeare represents them: strategy and tactics matter just as they do today, but the king’s personal courage is also considered a major factor in how a battle turns out. Richard III is diabolically plucky, but in spite of his pluck, he cannot commandeer the beast he desperately requires, and so will end his brief, troublesome reign. The scene concludes with Richard, on foot, still seeking out the real Henry, Earl of Richmond for single combat.

Act 5, Scene 5 (464-65, King Richard III goes down fighting Henry, Earl of Richmond; Stanley presents Henry with the crown; Henry issues a pardon to all who return and promises to unite the houses of Lancaster and York, and end the long spell of violence in England.)

At last, as they fight on Bosworth Field,[50] Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, cuts down the Yorkist Richard III, and proclaims the time of troubles at an end: “The day is ours; the bloody dog is dead” (464, 5.5.2). Henry will pardon all those who are willing to be reconciled, and marry princess Elizabeth of York, the daughter of the deceased King Edward IV by Elizabeth Woodville, and thereby unite the houses of Lancaster and York: “Now civil wounds are stopped, peace lives again. / That she may long live here, God say ‘Amen’” (465, 5.5.40-41). This happy union is what keeps Shakespeare’s play from being a tragedy: its centering on Richard of Gloucester finally gives way to the triumph of Tudor history.

However crafty and bold King Richard III may have been, in the arc of Shakespeare’s play he becomes the creature of his own evil deeds, doomed to repeat them with less and less control over the outcome, until disaster can no longer be kept at bay. Only his death at the hands of Henry Tudor, along with Henry’s intra-dynastic marriage, puts an end to the bloody chaos of the Wars of the Roses. The lesson thereby conveyed seems strongly Augustinian: sin begets sin, and free will negates itself thereby, so that all of Richard’s cunning schemes and furious action come to naught. Like all things evil, Shakespeare’s model of badness Richard of Gloucester ultimately has no substance, no staying power.[51]

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan, eds. The Norton Shakespeare: Histories + Digital Edition. Third edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93859-3.

Copyright © 2012 / 2024 (Revised) Alfred J. Drake

Endnotes


[1] A major victory for England during the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453). The basic historical narrative in this introductory account claims no originality, and the author has where necessary drawn upon various sources such as Wikipedia, Britannica, and several sites covering the history of the United Kingdom.

[2] Henry VI was born in December 1421, so he was a baby when his father Henry V died in 1422. The boy’s uncle Humphrey of Lancaster, Duke of Gloucester (1390-1447) functioned as Lord Protector during Henry VI’s minority.

[3] Richard, Third Duke of York was the son of Richard of Conisbrough, Third Earl of Cambridge and the grandson of Edward III’s fourth son Edmund of Langley, First Duke of York.

[4] See Britannica’s entry on the millennium-old Salic Law, which (at least as it came to be adapted and interpreted) barred the succession to the throne of anyone whose claim came from a woman. Accessed 3/4/2024.

[5] Henry V was just short of his 36th birthday when he died.

[6] Henry Tudor was the son of Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond, and descended from John of Gaunt through his mother Lady Margaret Beaufort.

[7] The sons were Edward the Black Prince (Duke of Cornwall, Prince of Wales), Lionel of Antwerp (Duke of Clarence), John of Gaunt (First Duke of Lancaster), Edmund of Langley (First Duke of York), and Thomas of Woodstock (Duke of Gloucester).

[8] See the exact beginning of the Holinshed account at Holinshed’s Chronicles (Holinshed Project), and Sir Thomas More’s Richard III. (Luminarium.org.) For an interesting account of Richard III’s recent exhumation, examination, and reinterment in a place befitting his status and historical significance, see “Richard III: The King under the Car Park.” Matthew Morris. University of Leicester. Accessed 2/23/2024. (YouTube).

[9] Kendall, Paul Murray. Richard the Third. New York: Norton, 1956. The author covers Clarence in some detail. See in particular 92-96, 142-49.

[10] Shakespeare. The Tragedy of King Richard the Third. Quarto. In The Norton Shakespeare: Histories, 3rd ed. 384-465. 403, 1.4.23-24.

[11] Queen Margaret plays a key role in Henry VI, Parts 2-3, Shakespeare’s setup plays for Richard III.

[12] Kendall, ibid. 43.

[13] Kendall, ibid. 31.

[14] Shakespeare. The Tragedy of King Richard the Third. Quarto. In The Norton Shakespeare: Histories, 3rd ed. 384-465. 445,4.4.109.

[15] Richard of Gloucester becomes King Richard III by Act 4, Scene 2; he is sometimes called simply “Richard” for brevity’s sake. Henry Earl of Richmond will at various points be called Richmond, Henry, or Henry Tudor: by the end of the play, he becomes King Henry VII.

[16] Shakespeare, ibid. 439, 4.2.63.

[17] Shakespeare, ibid. 439, 4.2.61-62.

[18] Shakespeare. The Third Part of Henry the Sixth. Folio. In The Norton Shakespeare: Histories, 3rd ed. 230-96. 5.6.78-79.

[19] Shakespeare. Richard III. Film dir. by Richard Loncraine. United Artists et al. 1995.

[20] Murray, ibid. See Ch. 6, “The King’s Man.” 89-106.

[21] Shakespeare. The Third Part of Henry the Sixth. Folio. In The Norton Shakespeare: Histories, 3rd ed. 230-96. 294, 5.6.80.

[22] Johnson, Samuel. “Preface to Shakespeare.” Project Gutenberg e-text. Accessed 3/4/2024. Johnson the moralist writes sternly of Shakespeare, “His first defect is that to which may be imputed most of the evil in books or in men. He sacrifices virtue to convenience, and is so much more careful to please than to instruct, that he seems to write without any moral purpose.”

[23] Fish, Stanley. Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost. 2­nd ed. Houndmills and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1997.

[24] Marlowe, Christopher. The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. Folger Shakespeare Library. Accessed 3/4/2024.

[25] Kissinger, Henry. “Power is the great aphrodisiac.” Quoted in The New York Times, Jan. 19, 1971. Accessed 2/23/2024.

[26]  Shakespeare. The Third Part of Henry the Sixth. Folio. In The Norton Shakespeare: Histories, 3rd ed. 230-96.229-30, 2.1.20-42.

[27] Shakespeare. The Sonnets. In The Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems, 3rd ed. 656-709. 700, “Sonnet 129,” lines 1-2.

[28] Kendall, ibid. The author covers Clarence in some detail. See in particular 92-96, 142-49.

[29] Shakespeare. The Tempest. In The Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems, 3rd ed. 397-448. 386, 1.2.404-05.

[30] The phrase belongs to President George W. Bush.

[31] See Genesis 8:8, 8:10. The 1599 Geneva Bible. Biblegateway.com. Accessed 2/28/2024.

[32] Kendall, ibid. 299-300. Buckingham already possessed half of the Earl of Hereford Humphrey de Bohun’s huge estate, but he wanted the rest of it, which had gone to King Henry IV. Kendall explains that when Henry VI and the Prince of Wales died, Buckingham felt the rest of the estate belonged to him by right. Richard apparently granted this wish, but made it provisional upon an act of Parliament for somewhat complicated reasons relating to Henry VI’s lost title to the estate. Kendall says that Buckingham “must have been satisfied with this provision” (300). In Shakespeare’s play, Richard balks at his subordinate’s urging, thereby angering him. The playwright has clearly taken this information from Holinshed’s account of Richard’s reign: “And forsomuch as the title, which he claimed by inheritance, was somwhat interlaced with the title to the crowne by the line of king Henrie before depriued, the protector conceiued such indignation, that he reiected the dukes request with manie spitefull and minatorie words.” This makes dramatic sense; but then, Holinshed also airs an equally plausible supposition: “Verie truth it is, the duke was an high minded man, and euill could beare the glorie of another; so that I haue heard of some that say they saw it, that the duke, at such time as the crowne was first set vpon the protectors head, his eie could not abide the sight thereof, but wried his head another way.” Gutenberg e-text. (Holinshed, Raphael. Chronicles … “Richard the Third.”) Accessed 3/8/2024.

[33] See Mirror for Magistrates, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2. Hathitrust. 3/4/2024.

[34] Gloucester’s illegitimate son Edmund shows contempt for his father’s naïve faith in astrology, saying in soliloquy, “I should have been that / I am had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on / my bastardizing.” Shakespeare. King Lear. Folio with additions from the Quarto. In The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies, 3rd ed. Combined text 764-840. 774, 1.2.118-20.

[35] King James I. Daemonology. 1597. Project Gutenberg e-text. Accessed 3/4/2024.

[36] Such shows are common under authoritarian regimes. Stalin’s infamous “show trials” come to mind, as might, more recently, a chilling 1979 video showing Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, then VP, seizing power and brutally condemning his enemies one by one. Accessed 2/28/2024..

[37] Shakespeare. The Tragedy of Macbeth. In The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies, 3rd ed. 917-69. 935, 2.3.103-04.

[38] Harington, Sir John. “Of Treason” from The Letters and Epigrams of Sir John Harington. Accessed 2/24/2024.

[39] The maxim, “It is not enough that I should succeed; others must fail” has been attributed to any number of authors.

[40]  In real life, that event occurred in late spring 1472.

[41] Folger Shakespeare Richard III. Act 4, Scene 1. First Folio, 1623. Lines not numbered. Accessed 2/28/2024.

[42] Kendall, ibid. See Appendix 1: “Who Murdered the Princes?” 465-95. Kendall briefly discusses Henry VII, but finds the case for his guilt weak; he appears to consider Buckingham the most likely culprit.

[43] With regard to this question about the fate of the young princes Edward and Richard, the debate continues. One interesting conversation is logged at Ars Technica, “We now have evidence….” (Jennifer Ouellette, 2/9/2021. Accessed 2/28/2024.

[44] Sir Thomas More. The History of King Richard III. 1513. Luminarium.org. Accessed 3/4/2024. See also Holinshed, Raphael. Chronicles … “Richard the Third.”) Accessed 3/8/2024.

[45] Shakespeare. The Life of Henry the Fifth. Folio. In The Norton Shakespeare: Histories, 3rd ed. 790-857.

[46] Ernst Kantorowicz, W. C. Jordan, et al. The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2016; orig. pub. 1957.

[47] Kendall, ibid. 95-96.

[48] Richard III’s fearful attack of conscience renders his thoughts in a way that does not really call upon any sense of interiority. In Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), Harold Bloom cites this orderly, speechified rendering of conscience as characteristic of Shakespeare’s earlier period; from Hamlet onward, circa 1600-01, says Bloom, the playwright learned to convey a sense of interiority that—where necessary—avoided such grammaticality and logical coherence in favor of silences and broken or partial but suggestive utterances. Sometimes, as the romantic poets would later insist, the fragment, the part, signifies more than the whole. See Bloom’s chapters “Shakespeare’s Universalism” (1-17) and “Richard III” (64-73).

[49] Perhaps the best rendition of this famous line comes from a modern production directed by Richard Loncraine: Sir Ian McKellen’s Richard III shouts it as the wheels of his 1930’s-era jeep spin uselessly in battlefield mud.

[50] See “The Battle of Bosworth Field.” Historic-uk.com. Accessed 2/29/2024.

[51] Augustine of Hippo. The Enchiridion: On Faith, Hope, and Love. See Ch. IV, The Problem of Evil, which provides a useful summary. Trans. Albert C. Outler, 1955. Accessed 2/29/2024.. See also Augustine’s The City of God, Vol. 1, Book Twelve. Trans. and ed. Marcus Dods. Gutenberg e-text. Accessed 2/29/2024.

The Second Part of Henry the Fourth

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Histories

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Shakespeare, William. The Second Part of Henry the Fourth. (Norton Histories, 2nd ed. 673-757).

Of Interest: English Monarchy Timeline | RSC Resources | ISE Resources | S-O Sources | Holinshed “Henry IV” | Historical Figures | 100 Years’ War Timeline

Why Shallow ? He is partly a foil for Falstaff, believe it or not.  Even Jack sees through his old acquaintance’s claims to a riotous youth, his selective and creative memory about his own personal past.  Shallow is “shallow” because the currents of time, for him, run thin – there’s no depth or authenticity in him.  Falstaff is privileged for a while to be near the royal sunshine, at least while it’s clouded over.  He meets some of the great people of the times, like Henry IV’s sons as they march across the stage of English history.  But not Shallow.

The disorder of rebellion has transformed men from their proper selves – a theme that provides some of the more powerful rhetoric in the play.  The Archbishop comes in for criticism most of all since he turns his religious authority towards taking down the king.  This kind of distortion from right office and proportion is the dark potential in historical change.  Hal, by contrast, is more like Jove hiding himself to practice his deceptions before returning to Olympus.  He is friends with that old lord of misrule, Falstaff, who is constantly described as being almost like “Vice” in a morality play, but it turns out, as we are told from the outset, to be true that Hal is in league with providence and that his sense of time is redemptive.  Misrule is an education for him, a pattern by which to judge the wrongdoers he will later need to deal with sharply.  A prince royal or a king may be “but a man,” but it seems we aren’t to judge him on quite the same temporal scale as we judge others.

The source of Henry IV’s fear, we know already from the first play, is guilt because he had initiated his own rule at the expense of Richard II’s death, and the consequences have been violent revolt.  Now that peace is restored, he fears his heir will unleash the spirit of revelry and greed upon the kingdom, achieving only an anarchic reign rather than true succession, which had been the king’s best hope for a happy continuation of his dynasty.

In Act 4 note the parallel with Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane – could you not wait with me even for an hour?  Yet we see the inappropriateness of this reference because Henry IV is no angel, considering how he came by the crown.

The play stages reflections on the private personal mythologies of men like Falstaff and Justice Robert Shallow, mythologies that have currency and scope only within such characters’ restricted social circuits.  But we know that such “personal mythologies” are by no means limited to small or middling characters; recall Owen Glendower’s sureness that the very heavens quaked with prodigies at his birth, or the manner in which Harry Monmouth, Bolingbroke, i.e. Henry IV, came by his crown.  Ever the public-relations expert, he is dealing with the necessity of crafting a legend and an image that the people will accept, casting this image before himself as an interpretive guide to his actions present, past, and future.  It seems that some (like Henry IV and Falstaff) are more self-conscious about this “creative” process, and try to use it to their gain, while others, like good Master Shallow, engage in it more or less unconsciously, to cover up the void of their present existence. (We notice Shallow’s concern for advancing age, the yawning grave – something Falstaff has shrunk from, too.)  Some, like Henry IV, see the limitations and perils of this drive to mythology, too.  Perhaps they use it after the manner of Plato’s well-intentioned philosopher kings in The Republic.  I suppose Falstaff is in his way just as reflective, though of course his way of dealing with it is to turn to cynicism and moral relativity that can have dire consequences for those who serve him, like the poor ragamuffins who are “peppered with shot” under his cowardly command.  Falstaff has certainly mixed with the great, taking his part in the weaving of history, thus showing that they are not gods.  Ultimately, Hal’s promise to maintain the lie that graces Falstaff’s absurd pretensions can’t be sustained: the great events and their aftermath demand better, and he is swept aside with nothing but a vague promise of possible rehabilitation, redemption.  But we know from Henry V that old Jack dies a sad, broken man, lost in his abandonment by the prince he loved.

The sentimental moments in WS’s portrayal of Falstaff are genuine, but their scope is ruthlessly limited by events and great personages from the tapestry of English history.  This is something his plays’ very structure is determined to bring home to us.  Word and sentiment can’t be permanently subordinated to action, and in the end, the world is not to be sacrificed to a quibble or a quibbling character.  On a more existential level, this “roasted manning-tree ox with the pudding in the middle” Jack, brimming with life and overflowing, bursting his proper confines, is reduced to his true dimensions: the ones left him by a life poorly lived and a decaying mass of flesh.  Everyone, as the meanest soldier in King Henry IV or V’s army might have told him, “owe God a death.”  It’s his privilege that no less a man than Prince Hal informs him of his responsibilities.

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake

The Life and Death of King John

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Histories

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Shakespeare, William. The Life and Death of King John (1594-96; Norton Histories, 2nd ed. 529-94).

Of Interest: English Monarchy Timeline | RSC Resources | ISE Resources | S-O Sources | Holinshed “King John” | Historical Figures 

Historical Gloss Regarding King John: John’s reign is significant not only for his forced signing of the Magna Carta in 1215 (whereby angry feudal nobles wanted to check some of his arbitrary powers), but also because his loss of most of England’s French territories helped to set the stage for Europe’s Hundred Years War from 1337-1453 – mainly a struggle between the French kings of the House of Valois and England’s Plantagenet rulers, who claimed the right to France after the death of the last direct ruler in the French Capetian line.  What John lost, subsequent English kings, such as Edward III and Henry V, tried to get back, culminating in the loss of nearly everything in France by Henry V’s son, the hapless Henry VI, whose reign saw the English Wars of the Roses that ran for a few decades beginning in the mid-1450s.  This English struggle, then, dovetails with the Hundred Years War: Henry VI’s incompetence, it’s reasonable to infer, contributed to the English nobility’s dissatisfaction and determination to replace him with someone more capable (and of course of their own faction).  In Shakespearean terms, the heroic Henry V successfully reversed the misfortunes of John, only to find his son (of I, II, and III Henry VI) throwing it all away; from thence it’s a short step to the territory covered by Richard III, in which play the Yorkist King Edward IV has already taken out his Lancastrian predecessor and is to be succeeded by his younger brother Richard of Gloucester, who as Richard III is soon toppled by Henry Tudor.  This Henry VII (Tudor) founds the line culminating in the long, illustrious reign of Shakespeare’s own Queen Elizabeth.  In a sense, the French victory in the Hundred Years War proved hollow – the conflict was fought mainly on French soil and devastated the population, while England prospered in spite of all the violence, giving it an advantage as the early modern period in Europe began.

Act 1, Scene 1

538.  At the outset of the play we find Queen Eleanor (i.e. Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry II’s widowed queen) immediately undercutting King John’s claim to the throne he already holds.  It is not that she wants him to give up the crown, but rather that she is trying to shape his understanding of his position.  It is not about “right” but rather about “strong possession” (40).  That is the only thing keeping young Arthur and his mother Constance from succeeding (Constance, Duchess of Brittainy is the widow of Geoffrey II, Duke of Brittany – this man was John’s elder brother, as was Richard the Lionheart).  Queen Eleanor is a Machiavellian before Machiavelli.

539.  Enter Philip the Bastard, who is mentioned only once or twice in the Holinshed Chronicles but who Shakespeare decides to make a major character in his own play, one that as A. R. Braunmuller points out in his essay “King John and Historiography” (ELH 55, 1988: 309-32), is invented almost whole cloth and steps out boldly but then fades into near irrelevance to suit Shakespeare’s interests.  The younger Falconbridge lays claim to what should logically be Philip’s inheritance from Robert Falconbridge, and Philip’s manner of defending his patrimony rises to genuine comedy.  Philip simply compares his own personal appearance to that of his unattractive younger brother, and insinuates and then states outright that he is indeed the illegitimate offspring of King Richard I.  Queen Eleanor and King John can see “perfect Richard” (89) in the face of this saucy man, and they hear the departed King in his voice and manner.  King John goes along with Philip rather than his younger brother: it does not matter whether or not Philip is legitimate, it only matters that he was born while his mother was married to Robert Falconbridge. 

540-41.  But that isn’t what Queen Eleanor is interested in, and neither is it Philip’s real concern: she asks him point blank whether he would rather inherit his Falconbridge patrimony or be considered “the reputed son of Coeur-de-lion, / Lord of thy presence, and no land beside” (136).  Philip is invited to follow Queen Eleanor since she is “a soldier and now bound to France” (150).  The play is not very historical, although as Braunmuller says, it should be noted that the original Chronicles themselves are re-imaginings of earlier historical records and serve the needs of the present, like a work of drama.  But this reimagining of Queen Eleanor strikes me as accurate in spirit: she was a martial character, a strong woman and capable politician who was always up to something regarding her husband King Henry II, at one point even encouraging her sons to rebel against him and ending up in custody because Henry did not trust her.  (She died in 1204, though the play makes it seem as if she passed away shortly before her son King John falls mortally sick in 1216.)  Well, Philip makes the stronger choice and is told by John, “Arise Sir Richard and Plantagenet” (162).  It is better to be the grandson of Eleanor of Aquitaine than to be the legitimate son of a nobleman.  It’s clear that he and Eleanor agree in political matters: “have is have, however men do catch” (173).  And with this observation they are off for France.

542.  They do not depart, however, before Philip makes a number of witty observations on the transformation he has just undergone.  He now has the power to transform others, he tells us – he can make an ordinary Joan a lady, and join in the flattering and deception that he calls “worshipful society” (205).  He may be illegitimate, but he is not, as he points out, “a bastard to the time” 207).  There is a big difference between Philip and someone like Paroles in All’s Well That Ends Well.  The latter character understands nothing but flattery and fashion, but Philip is savvy, and he knows these things are merely tools: though you use them, you must not be taken in by them yourself.  That’s the sort of advice Machiavelli gives the Medici: know the difference between your public and private qualities and behavior.  We can see this when he says, “though I will not practice to deceive, / Yet to avoid deceit I mean to learn; / For it shall strew the footsteps of my rising” (214ff).  In his essay “Of Great Place,” Sir Francis Bacon writes the following: “All rising to great place is by a winding stair; and if there be factions, it is good to side a man’s self whilst he is in the rising, and to balance himself when he is placed.”  Philip doesn’t need to be told this since he already knows it.

543-44.  Philip’s next task is to square things with his mother, which involves getting her to admit she bore a child by a man not her husband.  Since the man in question was a king, this proves not to be too difficult a task.  Philip makes his mother’s admission a chivalric cause: “If thou hadst said him nay, it had been sin. / Who says it was, he lies: I say ’twas not” (275).  Oscar Wilde has a character in one of his plays insist that there are some temptations one must give in to or risk being diminished, and it seems that both Philip and his mother agree.

One thing worth noting about the entire first act is that not very much of it is about King John.  At times, he does not even seem like the most important character in the play.  This is not necessarily a flaw in Shakespeare’s dramatic art, but may rather be a statement about the turgid nature of the historical era Shakespeare is covering.  The Chronicles from which he borrows often give confusing, difficult reasons for historical events, and the monarchy was by no means as centralized in feudal times as it would become later on in the Early Modern Age.  King John “Lackland” (so-called as the youngest of Henry II’s sons) set the stage for a few centuries of English history thanks to his losses in France, losses that subsequent kings of England would try to erase.

Act 2, Scene 1

544.  The beginning of the first scene is taken up with the stale set-piece rhetoric of the French party.  King Philip and Austria make bold claims about how they’re going to help Constance and her young son Arthur, and it is announced that King John, Queen Eleanor and her granddaughter Blanche and “all the unsettled humours of the land” (545, 66) are on the way to Angers.

546.  King John and King Philip trade contentious claims, King Philip describing Arthur’s face as if it were a text in which is read the ruin of King John.  Queen Eleanor rails away at Constance, and Philip the Bastard mocks Austria, whom he will later kill during a battle.  Poor Arthur understands what the fuss is about, but the boy is modest and just wishes he were back home and not the pawn in an argument between two mighty kings. 

548.  The Citizen spokesman of Angers insists that the town is loyal, but it will prove loyal only to the man who demonstrates the greater military capacity (550, 270ff).  In other words, Angers values what Queen Eleanor called “strong possession,” not necessarily legitimate right.  In this play, de facto trumps de jure any day.  Without wanting to run afoul of the censors over at the Revels Office, Shakespeare seems always to have had a keen understanding of this basic fact of European history; he didn’t need Chairman Mao to tell him that “political power grows from the barrel of a gun” (or a spear, or cannon, or whatever).

550.  A battle follows, and the only clear thing is that it isn’t clear who won.  Philip’s rhetoric at the bottom of 551 does nothing to change this.  He revels in battle, but the two kings desperately want the matter clarified.  It seems at first as if they are going to accept his advice: “Be friends a while, and both conjointly bend / Your sharpest deeds of malice on this town” (379).  However, the Citizen promptly undercuts Philip by proposing a match between Queen Eleanor’s granddaughter Blanche and the Dauphin.  They do not seem particularly impressed with all the high rhetoric that has passed from the kings’ lips to their battlements, and in fact Philip is impressed with the Citizen (554, 467-68).  So much for King Philip’s statements such as, “shall your city call us lord / In that behalf which we have challenged it, / Or shall we give the signal to our rage, / And stalk in blood to our possession?”  (549, 263ff) This in itself is a pale matchup with similar threats in Henry V.  I am thinking of Act 3, Scene 3, lines 104-20 of that play (page 795 in Norton Histories); the initial lines run, “Therefore, you men of Harfleur, / Take pity of your town and of your people, / Whiles yet my soldiers are in my command …” (3.3.104-06)

556.  Anyway, the Citizen’s plan strikes both King John and King Philip as excellent, and the promise is made.  Philip the Bastard is bemused by it all, how easily these great men turn to something very like wrangling over the price of some object: “Mad world, mad kings, mad composition! / John, to stop Arthur’s title in the whole, / Hath willingly departed with a part…” (562).  He puts it all down to “Commodity, the bias of the world” (575).  His only reason for being scandalized, he admits, is simply that his turn has not yet come to turn a buck.  Situational ethics is all the rage.  As Philip puts it, “whiles I am a beggar I will rail, / And say there is no sin but to be rich, / And being rich, my virtue then shall be / To say there is no vice but beggary” (594ff).  Up to this point, Philip’s character is consistent; it is that of an ambitious joker but also a man of considerable bravery.  He livens up a play that is after all heavy with conventional dialogue and light on action.  The most interesting character isn’t John but Philip, and indeed his supposed father Richard the Lionheart (famous for his participation in the Third Crusade with King Philip of France against Saladin) may have had some illegitimate offspring, but there’s no evidence Philip existed aside from a few passing mentions in the Holinshed Chronicles.  

Act 2, Scene 2

557.  In the brief second scene, Constance can hardly believe the deal that has just been struck at her expense, and as so many royal characters do, she blames the messenger, who in this case is Salisbury.  She sounds to me a bit like Richard II, Shakespeare’s poet king who likes to “sit upon the ground, / And tell sad stories of the death of kings” (499, 3.2.151ff).  Constance complains, “Here I and sorrows sit; / Here is my throne; bid kings come bow to it” (558, 73-74).

Act 3, Scene 1

559-60.  In the first scene, Constance gets in a few good digs at Austria, seconded by Philip the Bastard at line 55.  But it is with Pandolf that the real troubles begin since he comes from Pope Innocent III demanding that King John install Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury.  John responds as if he doesn’t know the English Reformation of the early 1530s hasn’t happened yet (Martin Luther’s European Protestant Reformation began in 1517), insisting that no earthly force can “task the free breath of a sacred king” (74), and other words to that effect.  John refuses to back down even when threatened with excommunication, but King Philip will bow to the power of the Pope.  Pandolf claims to the perplexed French king that “All form is formless, order orderless, / Save what is opposite to England’s love” (562, 179ff).  Once again, Constance can hardly believe what happens but this time the development is one she welcomes since it places the question of Arthur at center stage again.  In essence, Constance is supporting the Pope for her own personal dynastic reasons.  King John, of course, is infuriated with King Philip for this falling away so soon after a bargain has been struck.  Just as the Norton editors have written, the undermining of almost every determination and action is the recurrent theme of this play.  High words are spoken, arms are taken up, and deals are made, only to be annulled by the next character who walks onto the stage.  We are not exactly being treated to a providential representation of the historical process.

Act 3, Scenes 2-3

564-66.  In the second scene, Philip the Bastard informs us that he has killed Austria.  He has also, he tells King John, rescued his grandmother Queen Eleanor.  Then in the third scene, King John announces that it’s time for Philip to return to England and shake some money out of the stingy Church.  It’s clear that the young man is delighted at the prospect.  He is becoming John’s loyal lieutenant and right-hand man – not bad for a fellow who probably didn’t even exist!  Now comes John’s pitch to “gentle Hubert” (565, 19), whom of course he takes to be anything but gentle.  John’s father Henry II is famous for supposedly having muttered in his anguish over resistance from Thomas à Becket, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?”  But King John takes a more direct approach: he tells Hubert that Arthur is “a very serpent in my way” (566, 61), and then makes it even more plain by intoning the word “Death” at line 66.  He sounds more like Richard III informing Buckingham that he wants the sons of Edward IV done away with than Henry II.  It’s chilling to hear him then say to Arthur, “Hubert shall be your man, attend on you / With all true duty” (566, 73).

Act 3, Scene 4

567-68.  In the fourth scene, King Philip is facing the news that the French have lost, though this is not based on historical precedent.  Anyway, Arthur has been taken prisoner, and Constance embraces death with high rhetoric, trying to fire up King Philip.  She unbinds, binds and then undoes her hair again, almost like a madwoman, and King Philip utters the common Shakespearean charge that she is indulging herself in excessive grief.  But Constance insists that the form of her body should mirror the state of her mind: “I will not keep this form upon my head / When there is such disorder in my wit” (569 101ff), and Philip worries that she might do herself violence.

569-70.  Also in the fourth scene, the Dauphin gets a lesson in realpolitik from Pandolf, the legate of Pope Innocent III.  With Arthur out of the way, the Dauphin will be free along with Blanche to make the same claim that Arthur would have made.  Again, this is not historical but rather something Shakespeare adds for dramatic purposes.  The public, explains Pandolf, begins to hate King John, and their belief that he has done away with Arthur will condemn him in their eyes.  Pandolf is making the point that as soon as the French march upon England, John will have to get rid of Arthur.  Furthermore, Pandolf says, Philip the Bastard is infuriating the Church and further alienating them from the king.

Act 4, Scene 1

570-73.  What we get is an idyllic portrait of young Arthur, Duke of Brittany, one that melts the heart of Hubert, who tries without success to be the stony agent of King John’s desires.  I have read (in A.R. Braunmiller’s article mentioned above) that the sheer confusion involved in this representation – namely the idea that the punishment is to put out Arthur’s eyes, whereas we had thought he was to be killed outright – may in fact be a deliberate repetition of the confusion or multiplicity of causes found in Shakespeare’s source material.  This kind of confusion, runs the idea, may have been one way to keep ahead of the Master of the Revels (the Elizabethan/Jacobean censor’s office).  I don’t know if that’s the case, but it’s possible. 

In any case, this scene is interesting for its representation of Hubert’s conscience.  Camille Wells Slights writes well in her essay The conscience of the King: Henry V and the reformed conscience (Philological Quarterly, Winter 2001) that “Conscience was usually defined as the part of practical understanding that applies inherent knowledge of the basic principles of good and evil to particular actions, judging past actions and legislating future ones” and again that with regard to Shakespeare’s histories, “conscience is the nexus where internal self-awareness and external political action, the obligations of obedience and the authority of personal judgment converge.”  These remarks are very appropriate for the scene we are now reading: Arthur’s words awaken Hubert’s “mercy,” which up to now has supposedly been dead inside of him.  The Elizabethans do not have a fully developed language for the internal operations of the self, but what seems to be happening here is that some interior awareness on Hubert’s part awakens his emotions and leads him to disregard the political duty he had sworn to King John.  He keeps trying to treat the action in a mechanical way, referring to the instrument he needs to use, but his cold resolution is no match for the boy’s piteous language, which even bestows a Macbeth-like weirdness to the heated poker that Hubert means to use: “All things that you should use to do me wrong / Deny their office…” (573, 117-18).  In the end, Hubert decides to let Arthur live and disguise his act of mercy from the king – which of course would have been a good thing, if anything ever went as planned in this play.  Just as Lysander of A Midsummer Night’s Dream says about erotic pursuits that “the course of true love never did run smooth,” so the best-laid plans of the characters in King John seem always to go running off in some direction those characters never would have guessed.

Act 4, Scene 2

573-75.  This is a momentous scene, and a tragic setup for the fortunes and spirits of King John.  At its beginning, we find him being re-crowned, much to the displeasure of great lords such as Salisbury and Pembroke, who consider it an excessive gesture, especially since they suspect that he has ordered the murder of Arthur.

576-79.  King John takes the measure of this situation and utters a medieval sententia: “they burn in indignation.  I repent. / There is no sure foundation set on blood, / No certain life achieved by others’ death” (103-05).  Just when he has realized this, the news comes that both Queen Eleanor and Constance are dead.  Historically, this is not accurate since Eleanor of Aquitaine died in 1204, which is nowhere near the end of John’s reign.  But no matter, the scene is dramatic, not historical.  From this point forwards, John will seem adrift, hardly knowing what to do, even though Philip gets him to pull himself together for the moment, if only to hear further bad news.  It seems that the common people are “Possessed with rumors, full of idle dreams, / Not knowing what they fear, but full of fear” (145-46).  John’s answer to this is to order one of their prophets hanged.  The king is still optimistic about the noblemen, at least: “I have a way to win their loves again” (577, 168).

King John is at first angry with Hubert and his conscience troubles him terribly (578-79, 246-49); he believes, of course, that he has carried out his task, but Hubert soon disabuses him of this belief.  In brief, John finds what he did impossible to face; like Macbeth, he is frightened to think of what he has done, and dares not look upon it.  No, John must blame his subordinate instead.  This is not an unusual reaction amongst the powerful – Queen Elizabeth I, for example, basically denied issuing the death warrant that sealed the fate of Mary Queen of Scots (the later James I’s mother), even though there is no doubt that she signed the order because Mary was considered a threat to her continued reign.  Anyway, John is overjoyed to hear that Hubert is not as bad a fellow as he looks and did not do the bloody deed.

Act 4, Scene 3

579-82.  Arthur decides to make an escape attempt, but falls upon the hard pavement and dies.  Salisbury discovers the body, and Philip is as stunned as anyone else: “It is a damned and a bloody work, / The graceless action of a heavy hand – / If that it be the work of any hand” (580, 57-59).  Hubert then shows up and is promptly accused of murdering Arthur, but he vehemently denies it.  The Bastard still suspects him and now says something we might not have expected him to say, given his character for the first three acts or so: “I am amazed, methinks, and lose my way / Among the thorns and dangers of this world” (582, 141-42).  Gone is the flippant and courtly adventurer: Philip is genuinely shocked to see the broken body of little Arthur lying upon the ground.

Act 5, Scene 1

583-84.  Pandolf makes peace with King John in the Pope’s name, ceremonially giving him back his crown.  Now John is confronted with the horrible news that Arthur is in fact dead.  Philip tries to buck up his spirits and urge him to fight the French here on English soil, but John renders that advice irrelevant by pointing out that he has just made peace with the Pope.  The Dauphin no longer presents a threat.  Philip’s response to this is incredulous: “O inglorious league!”  (584, 65) John seems to put the affairs of state into Philip’s hands.

Act 5, Scene 2

584-88.  Salisbury laments that he must draw his sword against his own country (585).  The Dauphin is amazed to hear Pandolf declare that it’s time to pack up and go home because peace has been made with John.  He thinks he is playing with the best hand – why fold now?  On 587, Philip the Bastard is delighted that the young man isn’t listening to Pandolf; Philip is spoiling for a fight, and a fight he will have.  A battle takes place at the end of this scene.

Act 5, Scenes 3-5

588-90.  King John is in no state to manage affairs on the battlefield because he has come down with a fever, and even the news that the enemy’s ships were wrecked does nothing to cheer him up.  The rebellious English lords hear from the dying Count Melun that the Dauphin plans to cut off their heads if he wins, so they desert him and go back to King John.  The Dauphin remains optimistic in spite of his troubles.

Act 5, Scenes 6-7

591-94.  Now we are told on 591 that King John has been poisoned by a monk who was no doubt angry over the virtual ransacking of the Church by Philip.  The Lords have returned with John’s young son Henry, and by the beginning of Scene 7, John is near death: “all my bowels crumble up to dust; / I am a scribbled form, drawn with a pen / Upon a parchment, and against this fire / Do I shrink up” (592, 31-34).  There is perhaps something in this of guilt and visions of hellfire, as when John says, “Within me is a hell, and there the poison / Is, as a fiend, confined to tyrannize…” (593, 65-66).  But it’s also possible that the references to writing are a glance in the direction of the confusing historical record itself, as if the truth of King John’s thoughts and his reign burned along with his feverish body.  Philip still believes the main part of the fighting lies ahead after John’s death, but he is quickly informed that such thoughts are unnecessary since the Dauphin is willing to put the whole matter in Pandolf’s hands; the battle is ended.  Philip looks a little like the Superfluous Man at this point since his loyalty to John need no longer take such a martial form as previously.  But now he turns that loyalty to John’s young son, Henry III, and pronounces the play’s final judgment on the events that have passed: “This England never did, nor never shall, / Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror / But when it first did help to wound itself” (594, 112-14).  That judgment doesn’t have the ring of jingoism, even though the obvious primary reference is to the lords who temporarily took the side of the Dauphin against John; as it seems to me Philip indicated earlier, King John himself bore some of the blame for turning those lords away from him thanks to his plot against Arthur, amongst other things.   

Shakespeare’s source for this play seems to have been in part an anonymous work entitled The Troublesome Reign of King John, and that title says much: John’s reign was indeed a troublesome one in difficult, contentious times.  He is not at the end, nor was he ever, anything like the hero of this play, and in fact it makes sense to say that there really are no heroes to be found – not the admittedly strong women Queen Eleanor or Constance, mother of Arthur, not John, not the French royals, not Philip the Bastard, nor Arthur, who suffers such a pitiable fate.  I believe the Norton editors are correct to suggest that if some of Shakespeare’s other plays suggest something like a Tudor Providence, with history pointing towards the accession of the all-important Elizabeth of Shakespeare’s own time, The Life and Death of King John does not include itself in that Providence, but rather gives us a disturbing look at a process that seems at best structured by compounding frustrations and anguish unto death, and at worst random in its movement from one royal event and desire to the next.  John’s nascent Machiavellian craft comes to naught, and we are left with a strange feeling that nothing much has been settled or set up for future times, other than continued bad relations with France.

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake

All Is True (Henry VIII)

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Shakespeare, William. All Is True (Henry VIII). (Norton Histories, 2nd ed. 847-929).

Of Interest: English Monarchy Timeline | RSC Resources | ISE Resources | S-O Sources | Holinshed “Henry VIII” | Tudor Society Sources | H. B. Tree’s Court of Henry VIII | Historical Figures

NOTES ON SHAKESPEARE’S ALL IS TRUE, OR, HENRY VIII

Prologue and Act 1, Scene 1 (858-65, prologue emphasizes the fall of the great; Buckingham starts off the pattern: to Norfolk, he criticizes Wolsey bitterly, and they discuss the cardinal’s shortcomings, perhaps with some envy; Wolsey looks askance at Buckingham, is investigating his finances; Buckingham arrested on a charge of treason)

The prologue-speaker tells us that this play offers something for everyone: pathos, truth, and a medieval morality tale of illustrious men and women falling from a great height, sometimes when they least expect it: “think you see them great, / … / … then, in a moment, see / How soon this mightiness meets misery” (859, 27-30).  There’s plenty of history and pageantry in Henry VIII, subject to the usual telescoping and rearrangement of events we find in Shakespeare’s history plays, but the greatest emphasis will be placed upon the interplay of subtle and strong characters.  In general, I would say the play conforms, as the Norton editors say about the history play Sir Thomas More that Shakespeare seems to have had a hand in revising, to the Boccaccio-inspired tradition known as de casibus virorum illustrium: “[plays or stories] about the fall of illustrious men.”  This tradition in some form or another goes all the way back to classical times—what else is Plutarch, for example, doing in Parallel Lives, his side-by-side biographical sketches of famous politicians, rulers and generals?  Often, the emphasis is upon the mistakes made by the great that led to their downfall, the better to warn others not to make similar mistakes.  But sometimes, especially in a medieval context, the mistake just consists in being a post-lapsarian human being: first you’re at the top of Lady Fortune’s wheel, and then you’re at the bottom.

Edward Stafford, third Duke of Buckingham is the first to speak, and will be the first to fall.  This Duke (son of Henry Stafford, second Duke of Buckingham—the man who unsuccessfully rebelled against King Richard III in 1483 after having supported him in usurping the throne) explains that he did not attend the meeting of more than two weeks’ length between Henry VIII and the French King Francis I, a 1520 meeting known as Field of Cloth of Gold, which was meant to solidify the friendship between the two nations following the Anglo-French peace treaty of 1514.  Thomas Howard, second Duke of Norfolk describes the scene as the very “view of earthly glory” (859, 1.1.14).  Buckingham is not impressed, and he seems to resent Cardinal Wolsey’s role in arranging this meeting: “No man’s pie is freed / From his ambitious finger” (860, 1.1.52-53) says the aristocrat, and as for the ceremonies, he describes them as “fierce vanities” (860, 1.1.54).  Norfolk also offers some interesting analysis of their opponent: “There’s in him stuff that puts him to these ends” (860, 1.1.58), and this lord describes him as a spider spinning a web from his own merit (860-61, 1.1.62-64).  What is at the base of this great advancement?  Lord Abergavenny has a ready answer: it is the cardinal’s pride (861, 1.1.68).  One must realize that some of these great noblemen could themselves stake a claim to the English throne—Buckingham’s father, for example, had a claim through the Beaufort line.  So their resentment of the commoner Wolsey is palpable and understandable—the man’s father seems to have been a wealthy merchant, but not an aristocrat.  Yet, he has risen to a place closer to the king than any of them. 

The aristocrats don’t think much of the treaties made with France recently, in which the cardinal had a hand, just as he had a hand in urging King Henry to war.  The most recent wars against the French had lasted from 1512-14, and saw an English alliance with Pope Julius II’s Holy League to free Italy from France.

The bad blood between Buckingham and Wolsey evidently goes both ways: when the two pass each other, Wolsey eyes him suspiciously, and his words make it plain that he is plotting mischief for Buckingham: he wants to meet with the duke’s overseer or surveyor, and says, “we shall then know more, and Buckingham / Shall lessen this big look” (862, 1.1.118-19).  Norfolk tries to advise Buckingham with wise Baconian advice: “To climb steep hills / Requires slow pace at first” (862, 1.1.131-32).  Some readers may remember that Sir Francis Bacon, Queen Elizabeth I’s counselor, writes in his essay “Of Great Place” that, “All rising to great place is by a winding stair.”  But it all goes for nothing with Buckingham, who considers Wolsey nothing short of “corrupt and treasonous” (863, 1.1.156).  What is the justification for such an extreme claim?  Buckingham explains that he believes Holy Roman Emperor Charles V is in league with Cardinal Wolsey to break the peace with France (863-64, 1.1.174-90) since the emperor feels threatened by that amity.  No sooner does Buckingham broach this issue with Norfolk then he is, as if on cue, arrested for high treason (864, 1.1.199-202).  Buckingham realizes that the king has enlisted key subordinates against him, and realizes his day is over: “My life is spanned already. / I am the shadow of poor Buckingham” (864, 1.1.224-25).  Although Buckingham has been venting his resentment against Cardinal Wolsey throughout this scene, it seems fairly certain that his real enemy is none other than King Henry VIII, who surely does not trust this high-ranking nobleman.

Act 1, Scene 2 (865-70, Katherine and Norfolk complain to Henry about Wolsey’s 16% tax on commerce; Henry sides with them against Wolsey; Katherine questions Henry about the fall of Buckingham, and Henry explains his reasons for condemning him)

King Henry seems grateful to Cardinal Wolsey for stopping what he believes is a full-on conspiracy on the part of Buckingham, but matters are more complex than that.  Queen Katherine (that is, Catalina de Aragón, daughter of King Ferdinand of Aragón and Qeen Isabella of Castile) has it in for Cardinal Wolsey.  She informs Henry that the cardinal’s tax scheme has incensed his subjects, and Thomas Howard, second Duke of Norfolk backs her with a detailed account of economic and social unrest: he explains that the clothiers have had to lay off “The spinsters, carders, fullers, weavers, who, / … / … are all in uproar …” (866, 1.2.34-37).  Apparently, Cardinal Wolsey has levied a 16% tax that the commercial class has found unbearable, allegedly for the wars in France.  King Henry is not amused, saying “This is against our pleasure” (866, 1.2.69), and he overrules Cardinal Wolsey’s attempt at sage advice regarding how to take criticism: after listening to Wolsey, the king says only, “Things done well, / And with a care, exempt themselves from fear …” (867, 1.2.89-90) and issues a pardon to those who have failed to pay the tax.

Queen Katherine next focuses on Buckingham’s travails, and it seems that King Henry is disturbed at this man’s fall as well: “The gentleman is learnèd, and the most rare speaker …” (867, 1.2.112), he says, and can only point out that when corruption sets in the mind of such a man, the results are worse than they would be for an ordinary person (867, 1.2.117-20).  Buckingham’s surveyor confirms Henry’s suspicions with the claim that his master’s confessor Nicholas Hopkins has put it into his head that he should be king (868, 1.2.145-48).  Queen Katherine isn’t buying it, and she points out that this surveyor lost his job when the tenants complained about him (869, 1.2.172-74), but the surveyor drives home his point by insinuating that Buckingham referred to his father’s intention to assassinate King Richard III (869, 1.2.194-97), and that is quite enough for King Henry: “There’s his period— / To sheathe his knife in us” (870, 1.2.210-11).  Perhaps Henry, a monarch as close to wielding absolute power as any in England’s history, has a touch of paranoia.

Act 1, Scene 3 (870-72, Sands, Lovell, and the Lord Chamberlain mock French fashions and discuss Wolsey’s generosity in distributing favors)

This scene written by John Fletcher consists partly in mockery of French fashions, but there’s also ambivalent praise of Cardinal Wolsey.  Talking with Thomas Lovell (Henry VIII’s chancellor of the exchequer, perhaps retired from public life by now) and the Lord Chamberlain (Charles Somerset, titled Lord Herbert and first Earl of Worcester), Sands (William Sandys, who would become Lord Chamberlain in 1530) says of him, “Men of his way should be most liberal” (871, 1.3.61), implying that a great man of the church has much the same responsibility for spreading largess as secular lords.

Act 1, Scene 4 (872-75, Wolsey presides as monarch during a courtly masque, and correctly espies King Henry amongst the masquers; King Henry meets Anne Boleyn)

In this additional John Fletcher contribution, a courtly masque unfolds with Cardinal Wolsey playing the role of monarch and King Henry one of the masquers.  The most interesting moment occurs when the cardinal is tasked with choosing which disguised person is King Henry himself.  He chooses correctly, and turns over to him the place of honor, which action elicits from Henry the statement, “You are a churchman, or I’ll tell you, Cardinal, / I should judge now unhappily” (874, 1.4.91-92).  I suppose the statement is lighthearted, but there is menace in it: this commoner is as close as can be to King Henry, and that is a dangerous place to be.  It may be that “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown” (the phrase is spoken by King Henry IV, in II Henry IV, Norton Histories 718, 3.1.31), but the head that would seem to wear one is in still more peril.  At the end of the courtly performance, the year of which ought to be 1525 (but not in the play since Buckingham was executed in 1521, and that’s the subject of the next scene) King Henry asks a fateful question: “What fair lady’s that?”  (875, 2.1.93), and he receives the answer that the pretty lady is Anne Boleyn, who waits upon Queen Katherine.  (Mary Boleyn was one of the king’s mistresses even before this, so Henry has some familiarity with the Boleyns.)  He is instantly drawn to her.

Act 2, Scene 1 (875-79, Buckingham’s trial related by gentlemen; Buckingham reflects as he goes to the executioner’s block; rumors fly about King Henry’s “scruples” about his marriage to Katherine)

A first and second gentleman compare what they know about Buckingham’s trial.  The emphasis is on the manner in which the great lord has conducted himself throughout and on the malice and envy evinced by Cardinal Wolsey: says the first gentleman, “whoever the King favours, / The Card’nal instantly will find employment — / And far enough from court, too” (876, 2.1.48-50). 

On his way to the block, Buckingham recounts in a dignified way his tale of being restored to the honor of his house by Henry VII only to see that honor stripped away by that king’s son, Henry VIII.  His final advice has to do with liberality of counsel: even your friends, he says, “when they once perceive / The least rub in your fortunes, fall away / Like water …” (878, 2.1.129-31). 

The first scene closes with the information that King Henry is rumored to be expressing “a scruple” (879, 2.1.158) about his marriage to Katherine of Aragon.  That scruple, as the Norton editors point out, regards the fact that Henry’s brother Arthur was initially married to Katherine, but he died young and Henry wound up marrying her.  In effect, Henry married his sister-in-law.  But the real reason, thinks the first gentleman, is that Cardinal Wolsey is preparing “to revenge him on the [Holy Roman] Emperor / For not bestowing on him at his asking / The Archbishopric of Toledo …” (879, 2.1.162-64).  This Emperor, Charles V, was Katherine’s nephew.

Act 2, Scene 2 (879-83, Wolsey and King Henry plan to move on the divorce proceedings against Katherine; Wolsey’s conversation with Campeius shows the man’s unhealthy pride, arrogant concern for status; Henry reveals to Gardiner his continued admiration for Katherine)

King Henry looks to Cardinal Wolsey for comfort amidst his gossiping and sniping lords (881, 2.2.72-74), and both men are set to go forwards with the divorce proceedings against Queen Katherine.  Just how dangerously misplaced Henry’s trust is, we can catch by listening in on the conversation between Cardinal Wolsey and Cardinal Campeius from Rome: when the Roman cardinal asks him to verify his reason for transferring a certain Richard Pace away from his position as secretary to King Henry, Wolsey is not shy about his reason: “He was a fool, / For he would needs be virtuous” (83, 2.2.131-32).  This is followed by the prideful declaration spoken in proffered fellowship with Cardinal Campeius, “We live not to be griped by meaner persons” (883, 2.2.135), which sounds like something appropriate only for a prince to say, if at all.  At least for Henry, there’s probably some genuine emotion involved in his decision to abandon a virtuous queen, even if the king stage-manages his feelings for maximum political effect, as when he says to Stephen Gardiner (future Bishop of Winchester and, under Queen Mary I, Lord Chancellor), “Would it not grieve an able man to leave / So sweet a bedfellow?”  (883, 2.2.141-42)

Act 2, Scene 3 (883-85, Anne Boleyn gets sage, saucy advice from a worldly old woman about what she would willingly do to become Henry’s queen)

In the third scene, we hear a partly comic discussion between an elderly lady of the court and Anne Boleyn.  “I would not be queen” (883, 2.3.24), says Anne, to which the old woman offers nothing but scorn: “I would — / And adventure maidenhead for’t; and so would you, / For all this spice of your hypocrisy” (883, 2.3.24-26).  So the conversation continues, both before and after the Lord Chamberlain enters and informs the young lady that King Henry has decided to honor her with the title Marchioness of Pembroke and 1000 pounds per year, which was quite a lot of money (884, 2.3.60-65).  Anne seems both fearful and excited at the same time—an understandable response to the attentions of so great a figure as Henry VIII.

Act 2, Scene 4 (886-91, Katherine defends herself sharply against Wolsey, but leaves divorce proceedings; Henry absolves Wolsey of undue influence in urging the divorce; the proceedings are left unsettled because of Katherine’s absence; Henry feels “played” by Rome and longs for the return of the sympathetic Cranmer)

The divorce proceedings begin, and in spite of the old saw that those who defend themselves in court have a fool for a client, Queen Katherine proves herself an able rhetorician.  What Katherine wants is time to get some advice from her native Spain, but Cardinal Wolsey has a vested interest in keeping her from any such counsel.  About the cardinal’s intentions, Queen Katherine has no illusions: “You are mine enemy, and [I] make my challenge / You shall not be my judge” (888, 2.4.75-76).  The queen’s appeal is to Pope Clement VII (1523-34), not to anyone in this English court.  She accuses Cardinal Wolsey of having a heart “crammed with arrogancy, spleen, and pride” (888, 2.4.108), and makes an imperious, unstoppable exit from the court, declaring that she will never again appear there (889, 2.4.126-29).  Henry’s wistful response to this action is remarkable: “Go thy ways, Kate” (889, 2.4.130). 

What follows is a bit of court theater between King Henry and Cardinal Wolsey, in which Wolsey earnestly asks the king “whether ever I / Did broach this business to your highness …” (889, 2.4.145-46).  Henry duly lets him off the hook, and proceeds to offer a public explanation for his actions, calling upon the Bishop of Lincoln to testify to his deep anxiety over the matter in question—namely, the fact that Henry has married his widowed sister-in-law and regards it as a sin: “Thus hulling in / The wild sea of my conscience” (890, 2.4.196-97), insists Henry, he made his way towards the idea of divorcing Katherine.  When the court is adjourned due to Katherine’s absence, King Henry believes he is being played by the assembled cardinals in the interest of Rome, and this leads him to wish for the return of his trusted supporter Thomas Cranmer, soon to be Archbishop of Canterbury (891, 2.4.232-38).  This same man, we might note, would have a distinguished career during Henry’s reign, but would be burnt at the stake in 1556 by Henry’s daughter Queen Mary for his adherence to the Protestant cause.

Act 3, Scene 1 (891-95, Katherine at first resists the counsel of Wolsey and Campeius, but ultimately, she submits: a strong woman crushed by larger forces)

In this John Fletcher contribution, Cardinal Wolsey is at his height and Queen Katherine recognizes how far she has fallen.  The opening of the scene presents to us a queen still in strong command of her own image and bearing.  When Cardinal Wolsey tries to flatter her with fine Latin, her response is, “The willing’st sin I ever yet committed / May be absolved in English” (92, 3.1.48-49), and continues to resist Cardinals Wolsey and Campeius with wit and dignity.  What they offer in return is false good will and veiled threats.  Queen Katherine at first declares boldly, “I dare not make myself so guilty / To give up willingly that noble title / Your master wed me to” (894, 3.1.138-40).  But in the end, she recognizes she has no further recourse, surrounded as she is by pontifical jackals and threatened with the utter loss of King Henry’s affection: “The King loves you. / Beware you lose it not” (895, 3.1.170-71), says Cardinal Campeius to her, and it is impossible to miss the implication.  There is nothing left for Katherine to do but submit: “Do what ye will, my lords, and pray forgive me” (895, 3.1.174).

Act 3, Scene 2 (895-906, Wolsey’s enemies close in; Wolsey tries to steer the king away from Anne Boleyn and Cranmer; Wolsey mistakenly sends Henry letters detailing his personal wealth and his conniving with Rome to delay the divorce; Henry confronts Wolsey, who realizes his career is over and reflects on spiritual “end things”)

Now Cardinal Wolsey’s enemies appear to be encircling him—Norfolk, Surrey, Suffolk and the Lord Chamberlain open the scene by assessing the cardinal’s current position and their own prospects for unseating him.  Norfolk seems certain that presenting a unified front will sweep the cardinal away, but the Lord Chamberlain is more circumspect: the key thing is to “Bar his access to th’ King,” since this man of the cloth has, says the Lord Chamberlain, “a witchcraft / Over the King in’s tongue” (896, 3.2.17-19).  But it is known, as Suffolk points out, that some letters Cardinal Wolsey intended only for the Pope have been misdelivered and Henry has seen them.  In those materials, Wolsey has been found out trying to get the Pope to delay Katherine’s divorce and thereby keep Henry from furthering his affair with Anne Boleyn (896, 3.2.30-36).  We also find out that Cardinal Campeius has departed back to Rome without settling the matter of Henry’s divorce from Queen Katherine, and that soon-to-be Archbishop Cranmer has returned from Europe with affirmations that what Henry is doing is legitimate (897, 3.2.56-58, 63-65).  The upshot is that Katherine is now to be demoted to the titles “Princess Dowager” and “widow to Prince Arthur” (897, 3.2.70-71).

At the height of his power, Cardinal Wolsey presumes to himself to be the arbiter of Henry’s romantic affairs.  Thomas Cromwell (1st Earl of Essex) leaves his presence, Wolsey muses, “It shall be to the Duchess of Alençon, / The French King’s sister—he shall marry her. / Anne Boleyn?  No, I’ll no Anne Boleyns for him” (897, 3.2.86-87).  Cardinal Wolsey simply cannot stand this woman who has caught Henry’s eye; she is, in Wolsey’s view, “A spleeny Lutheran” and her ally Thomas Cranmer is “An heretic, an arch-one” (898, 3.2.100, 104).  He considers them enemies of the Catholic Church.

Meanwhile, King Henry is thinking unpleasant thoughts about the cardinal’s accumulation of personal wealth.  Those letters misdelivered into his hands contained, among other things, an inventory of the precious-metal plate owned by Wolsey (898-99, 3.2.121-29).  The exchange that follows is initially decorous, with Henry reminding Wolsey that his own predecessor, King Henry VII, honored him and that he himself has made the cardinal “The prime man of the state” (899, 3.2.163), but the civility soon gives way to threatening bluntness: giving him in quick succession a few of the incriminating papers, Henry offers his parting shot: “Read o’er this, / And after this, and then to breakfast with / What appetite you have” (900, 3.2.202-04).

Left alone, Cardinal Wolsey can do no other than reflect on King Henry’s anger: “What should this mean?”  (900, 3.2.204) When he sees the contents, Wolsey immediately realizes his best days are through: “‘Tis th’ account / Of all that world of wealth I have drawn together / For mine own ends …” (901, 3.2.211-13), and with it, he admits to himself, he had intended to make himself pope and pay off his allies in Rome.  But the worst of it is the fact that the king has searched into his conspiracy to delay the divorce with Katherine.  This is damning, and he responds politically, “… I shall fall / Like a bright exhalation in the evening, / And no man see me more” (901, 3.2.226-28).

There ensues a bitter argument between the cardinal and his enemies Norfolk, Suffolk and Surrey, with them demanding that he surrender the great seal that goes with his office and he peremptorily refusing to do so: “That seal / You ask with such a violence, the King, / … with his own hand gave me …” (901, 3.2.246-48). Calling him a traitor and murderer, the lords press their case and recount Cardinal Wolsey’s numerous offenses, all of them implying either subterfuge for personal ends or abuse of King Henry’s authority (903, 3.2.304-33). 

What follows is a classic after the manner of de casibus rhetoric.  Cardinal Wolsey sums up his career to himself, “I have ventured, / Like little wanton boys that swim on bladders, / This many summers in a sea of glory, / But far beyond my depth …” (904, 3.2.359-62).  He learns that Sir Thomas More has replaced him as Lord Chancellor (as of October 1529), and that Cranmer has been made Archbishop of Canterbury (late in 1532).  In addition, Henry has married Anne Boleyn (January 1533).  Wolsey’s response is in part, “All my glories / In that one woman I have lost for ever” (905, 3.2.49-10), and his main concern seems to be to protect his ally Cromwell and shield him from King Henry’s displeasure (905, 3.2.415-18).  Wolsey seems resolved to concentrate on the next world now that he’s been stripped of everything in this one: at the outset of his conversation with Cromwell, he had already said, “I know myself now, and I feel within me / A peace above all earthly dignities …” (904-05, 3.2.379-81).  The peace that he is talking about is that great curative, a newly clear conscience.  But there is also bitterness and self-reproach in his concluding words to Cromwell: “Had I but served my God with half the zeal / I served my King, He would not in mine age / Have left me naked to mine enemies” (906, 3.2.456-58).  With these words, the once great Cardinal Wolsey’s fall from grace is complete. 

Why did Cardinal Wolsey fall?  Perhaps it would make sense here to quote accurately from the 19th-century Liberal Party politician Lord Acton, who writes,

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.  (John E. E. Dalberg, Lord Acton,Letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton, April 5, 1887.”

The above quotation seems more precise than the old medieval saw, “pride goes before a fall.”  Acton’s Law flows from the older saying, of course, but it is easier to draw out the political implications from what Lord Acton says: holders of great offices tend to conflate their own desires and ambitions with the powers of the office they hold and even with the good of those subject to those powers.  Cardinal Wolsey, we may surmise, came to suppose that his own ambition to rise in the Catholic Church was consonant with the good of the church and that the authority he wielded in King Henry VIII’s name was one with his own interest to rise in English society and politics as well as with the best interests of Henry himself.  He put himself in an impossible position, trying to square the circle of these two “goods.”  Manifestly, King Henry did not consider his own interests as compatible with the imperatives of the Catholic Church, and he eventually ran out of patience with a servant, however exalted, who not only enriched himself by means of his office but also presumed to settle his sovereign’s romantic affairs for him.  Acton’s Law aside, the Shakespearean portrait we get of Cardinal Wolsey is not that of a thoroughly bad man and certainly not a monster: there is some dignity in Wolsey’s willingness and even eagerness to put his earthly authorities behind him and seek the absolution of heaven.  He died of an illness late in 1530, which spared him the ordeal of being put on trial for treason, a capital offense.

Act 4, Scene 1 (906-10, strange forsakings, changes: gentlemen say Katherine is banished to Kimbolton; Anne Boleyn is crowned queen; York Place renamed Whitehall)

This scene evokes the “strange fashion of forsaking” that Henry VIII’s machinations set in Tudor England: one of his courtiers, Sir Thomas Wyatt, was the author of the phrase I just quoted in his poem, “They flee from me, that sometime did me seek“ and it would be difficult to find a better phrase to describe the changes wrought by Henry’s desire for a male successor, among other things.  The various gentlemen whose voices traverse this scene tell us that Queen Katherine “was divorced, / And the late marriage made of none effect …” (907, 4.1.32-33); Katherine is ill and for her failure to appear during the divorce proceedings, she has been shunted off to Kimbolton in Cambridgeshire.  As for Anne Boleyn, the gentlemen have gathered to behold her coronation procession, for which the text offers fairly detailed instructions.  Says the third gentleman, the new queen consort is “The goodliest woman / That ever lay by man …” (909, 4.1.71-72), and this same observer goes on to describe the giddiness of the commonfolk at her crowning.  I’m not certain this is historically accurate since I recall having read that Anne Boleyn’s installment was by no means received with universal joy.  In any event, she returns as a queen to York Place, which the first gentleman, serving as unofficial censor for King Henry, points out must now be called Whitehall, now that the former Lord Chancellor and Archbishop of York, Cardinal Wolsey, is no longer its resident (909, 4.1.97-99).

Act 4, Scene 2 (910-14, Griffith informs the ailing Katherine of Wolsey’s death; the sleeping Katherine is treated to a vision of joyful spirits crowning her with a garland; her dying request to Ambassador Caputius is to take good care of her servants)

Griffith recounts for Katherine the death of the disgraced Wolsey, and her reaction at first is highly critical: “He was a man / Of an unbounded stomach, ever ranking / Himself with princes …” (911, 4.2.33-35), but she accepts Griffith’s offer to speak fairly of the man in turn: Griffith reminds her that whatever his faults, Wolsey was a true scholar, generous in giving, and magnificent in his acceptance of a newly humbled condition towards the end of his life (911-12, 4.2.48-68).  Katherine now responds generously, saying, “Peace be with him” (912, 4.2.75).  With that thought, we are on to the real significance of this scene, which is the manner of Katherine’s departure from the world.  She is granted in her sleep a visionary invitation to a banquet, the entirety of which seems to signify purity and joy, and, presumably, her salvation to come.  The stage directions describe this vision in some detail, with white-clad spirits holding a garland over her head which they pass one to another (912, 4.2.83ff). 

When Katherine awakens, she receives a visit at King Henry’s instance from her nephew Caputius, ambassador for the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.  Katherine’s requests are simple: bring up her daughter Mary well, and take care of the female and male servants who have so long attended to her.  Finally, to her woman Patience, she says, “Strew me over / With maiden flowers, that all the world may know / I was a chaste wife to my grave” (914, 4.2.169-71).  Shakespeare’s Catalina de Aragón dies as she had lived: a paragon of Franciscan Catholic virtue.  It would be hard to ignore the hit King Henry’s image takes from the pious passing of this woman he has betrayed, and whose virtue he well knew.

Act 5, Scene 1 (915-19, Archbishop Cranmer is fearful at being surrounded by his enemies, but King Henry promises to help him while still observing propriety of appearances; the birth of a female child is announced to Henry)

The scene begins with Lovell and Gardiner discussing their dislike for the new queen.  They’re glad that she is about to give birth, but would just as well that she not long outlive this duty.  Their feelings are similarly uncharitable towards Thomas Cranmer: says Gardiner, “it will ne’er be well — / … / Till Cranmer, Cromwell—her two hands—and she, / Sleep in their graves” (915, 5.1.29-32).  We may remember that the Catholic Cardinal Wolsey had called Cranmer a heretic in Act 3, Scene 2, and now Gardiner calls in the same: “A most arch heretic” (916, 5.1.45) who must be dealt with, and quickly.  The man is beset by his deadly enemies, and it looks as if the pattern with which we are familiar is beginning to reassert itself: leaving aside historical fact for a moment and just dealing with dramatic representation, we might ask, “will Cranmer go the way of all flesh according to the de casibus tradition?” 

Cranmer is fearful when King Henry takes him aside to inform him that various complaints have determined him to call his new archbishop before the Council and that he must in the meantime reside in the Tower of London (917, 5.1.98-109).  But we soon begin to realize that King Henry’s intentions towards Cranmer are friendly and even that there is a budding romance plot in the way the king deals with the challenge to Cranmer’s authority as archbishop.  Eventually, beyond the confines of this play and during the reign of Henry’s daughter Queen Mary (reigned 1553-58), Thomas Cranmer will die a horribly painful death, burnt at the stake for insisting on his Protestant beliefs.  But not in this play—King Henry promises Cranmer that he is keeping his enemies on a very short leash: “They shall no more prevail than we give way to” (918, 5.1.144).  King Henry will play the role of a savior, giving the beleaguered man a ring by which the king’s favor may be known and thereby get him out of the meeting at which his enemies are certain they have him cornered.  It seems almost as if Cranmer is an Arthurian knight on his way to an ordeal at the Chapel Perilous, where a magic artifact will come to his rescue just in time.  This is probably in part a nod to the Protestant sensibilities of Shakespeare’s audience, which 1had come to see Thomas Cranmer as a martyr for the cause against Catholic oppression.

At the end of the scene, the old lady who attends the queen informs King Henry that a child has been born, and introduces the matter of gender in comic fashion.  Henry is of course desperate to hear that he has at last been given a legitimate son to inherit his throne (in 1519 he had a son out of wedlock with one of his mistresses, Elizabeth Blount; the boy was named Henry Fitzroy and the king might have eventually succeeded in legitimizing him had a legitimate son not been born to him by Jane Seymour in 1537, but Henry Fitzroy died in 1536), and the old lady dangerously fans his hopes: she declares the new child to be “a lovely boy” (919, 5.2.165), but immediately has to confess that “’Tis a girl / Promises boys hereafter” (919, 5.2.166-67).  This old woman is quite a colorful character because after a performance like that, one would think she would be happy to have escaped the king’s wrath, but the scene ends with her pursuing Henry to complain about his measly reward of “an hundred marks” (919, 5.2.171).  The date of the future Queen Elizabeth I’s birth was September 7, 1533.  Her elder sister by Katherine of Aragon, Mary, had been born on February 18, 1516.  Mary, a woman of profoundly Catholic convictions, would become queen in 1553 upon the death of her little brother King Edward VI (leaving aside nine fractious days of rule by Jane Gray in July 1553 before Mary succeeded to the throne), who reigned only from 1547-53, and would be succeeded by Elizabeth upon her passing in 1558.

Act 5, Scene 2 (919-24, Archbishop Cranmer is first humiliated by his enemies in Council and then exalted with the aid of King Henry)

In this John Fletcher contribution, Archbishop Cranmer is forced to wait outside the Council chamber with common fellows.  This detail alone incenses King Henry, as I suppose it should.  The Lord Chancellor begins to make his case against Cranmer, who is rebuked for his teachings tending towards Reformation theology (921, 5.2.47-53).  He is informed that since otherwise nobody will feel free to offer evidence against him, he must reside in the Tower of London (921, 5.2.86-91).  

This exchange goes on for a while, but in the end, Cranmer simply produces the ring his royal supporter had given him, saying, “By virtue of that ring I take my cause / Out of the grips of cruel men …” (923, 5.2.133-34).  King Henry rounds off this piece of theater by taking his seat and sorely rebuking the members of the Council: when Surrey tries to calm him with a courtly “May it please your grace,” Henry cuts him short with “No, sir, it does not please me! / I had thought I had had men of some understanding / And wisdom of my Council, but I find none” (923, 5.2.168-70).  Henry proceeds to insist that all Council members embrace Archbishop Cranmer and put aside their grievances.  Which, of course, they do, knowing with whom it is they deal.  The scene ends with Henry longing to go see the christening of his new daughter, Elizabeth (924, 5.2.211-14).

Act 5, Scene 3 (924-27, the Porter and Lord Chamberlain complain about the many people crowding in to see the christening of the infant Elizabeth)

In this John Fletcher contribution, common people annoy the porter to no end, but they come nonetheless to enjoy the ceremony and the hospitality, such as it is.  Says the Lord Chamberlain, “from all parts they are coming, / As if we kept a fair here!”  (926, 5.3.62-63) And the porter characterizes them as, “the youths that thunder at a playhouse, and / fight for bitten apples …” (926, 5.3.55-56).

Act 5, Scene 4 and Epilogue (927-29, Archbishop Cranmer delivers a prophecy about England’s future under Elizabeth I and James I; King Henry declares her christening a holiday)

John Fletcher moves briskly to the christening itself in this final contribution.  The scene is not historically accurate in that as a Tudor-era parent, King Henry almost certainly would not have attended, but the prophecy uttered by Archbishop Cranmer in the play is worth attending to since it makes sense to suppose that it is Fletcher and Shakespeare’s own appreciation of their late sovereign: “She shall be loved and feared.  Her own shall bless her; / Her foes shake like a field of beaten corn …” (928, 5.4.30-31).  In Elizabeth’s realm, says Cranmer, “God shall be truly known …” and she will leave her kingdom to a successor who “Shall star-like rise as great in fame as she was, / And so stand fixed” (928, 5.4.36, 46-47).  That, of course, would be King James I, formerly James VI of Scotland and the son of Mary Queen of Scots, whom Elizabeth had long imprisoned and would execute in 1587 for conspiring against her in the Anthony Babington-led plot of 1586.  (A much earlier conspiracy was the Ridolfi plot, which aimed to place Mary on the throne in 1570-71; another such attempt is called the Throckmorton conspiracy, dating to 1583.)  But all that is far into the future, and King Henry concludes the action by declaring a holiday (929, 5.4.74-76). 

It is Cranmer’s prophecy about a rosy future that lends this 1613 play an air of romance that makes it kindred to other dramas that Shakespeare composed around this time to wrap up his career: The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest, and The Two Noble Kinsmen.  The happy conclusion mellows our recollection of the misfortune and sorrow that have marked the downfall of the play’s great characters, mingling the whole into a bittersweet quality.

The epilogue reminds female viewers to appreciate the play mainly because of its fine representation of the virtuous Queen Katherine of Aragon, and male viewers to applaud by way of following their ladies’ example.  Indeed, we may well come to the conclusion that this splendid woman, and the guileful Cardinal Wolsey with whom she engages in a bitter contest, are really the focal point of the play rather than King Henry VIII himself.  The latter is an important figure, but perhaps not the emotional center of this historical drama.

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake

The History of Henry the Fourth (1 Henry IV)

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Shakespeare, William. The History of Henry the Fourth (I Henry IV) (Norton Histories, 2nd ed. 595-672).

Of Interest: English Monarchy Timeline | RSC Resources | ISE Resources | S-O Sources | Holinshed “Henry IV” | Historical Figures | 100 Years’ War Timeline

Act 1, Scene 1 (606-09, )

The play opens with a shaken King Henry IV, riddled with guilt over the death of King Richard II, repeating his pledge to turn the engines of war against foreign infidels in the Crusades. But there is to be no time for idealistic violence; the king’s past is upon him, and he must concern himself with matters at home. Harry Hotspur (whom Shakespeare makes out to be much younger than he really was) has saved the day for the king, who faces rebellious noblemen in the wake of his taking the throne from Richard, but now Hotspur tries to hang on to most of the prisoners he has taken. Nonetheless, the king cannot help but compare the gallant Hotspur with his own son Hal. While his soldiers face the obscene violence of Owen Glendower’s Welsh supporters, young Prince Hal shames his father with his “riot and dishonor” (85). The king could wish, he says, that this troublesome son were not a prince of the blood but rather a foundling left by a “night-tripping fairy.” Henry IV is at center stage of a violent, treacherous political theater, and his son is skipping about the kingdom seemingly without a care in the world, like another Richard II in the making.

Act 1, Scene 2 (609-13, )

The scene shifts immediately to the prince, but Shakespeare treats us to both sides of the young man—both the irresponsible jester and the king-to-be. John Falstaff is a lord of misrule similar to the sort of rogue you might find in late-medieval morality plays. Falstaff is eloquent and charismatic, but it is clear from the outset that he is not in charge even in his own quarters. Already, his friends are preparing to make a fool of him on Gadshill. He will become a robber robbed, and the reward for others will be, as Poins says, to listen to “the incomprehensible lies that this same fat rogue will tell”(186-87) when he is outed as a coward. Prince Hal will join in the fun, but he startles us with the self-possession that shines in his final speech of this scene: he “knows” his companions in a way that they do not know him. He comprehends their limited morality and lowborn status, and there can be no question of equality between such men as Poins, Falstaff, Peto, or Bardolph and the heir to the throne. Prince Hal’s father has always possessed the skills of an excellent actor, and continues to show a keen awareness for “public relations.” But Prince Hal demonstrates a clear grasp of this necessary aspect of kingship when he says, “I’ll so offend, to make offense a skill, / Redeeming time when men think least I will” ( 216-17). His virtues will shine more brightly because of his youthful flaws, like a diamond set in onyx. Hal is certain that time is his friend, and in this regard his sunny expectations make for the strongest contrast between him and his gloomy father, who has come to see time as more enemy than friend. For him, time brings not opportunity as it seemed to do in Richard II, but care and sorrow. As “Bolingbroke,” he took brilliant advantage of his exile and returned to triumph over the feckless Richard, but those days are gone.

Act 1, Scene 3 (613-20, )

The king has his hands full in trying to assert his dominance over Percy. Hotspur complains that he had intended to give up his prisoners, but his sensibilities were offended by the “popingay” (50) the king sent to inquire about them. This remark is a slap in the face to the king, who is outraged that Hotspur should make demands in favor of Mortimer, whom the king considers a traitor. After this freewheeling argument with Henry IV, Hotspur unburdens himself still more fully with Worcester and Northumberland, and we begin to see the seeds of further rebellion. Was it for this that Northumberland helped the present king to the throne? Worcester is already thinking such thoughts, and tries to turn Hotspur’s attention to a rational plan of attack. That’s no easy matter, given Hotspur’s high-spiritedness: “By heaven, methinks it were an easy leap, / To pluck bright honor from the pale-fac’d moon, / Or dive into the bottom of the deep…” (201-03), he exclaims, before Worcester is finally able to lay out a course of action that involves an alliance with the Archbishop of York and Mortimer. Worcester also explains the general logic of king/nobility relations in this difficult era: “The King will always think him in our debt, / And think we think ourselves unsatisfied” (286-87). There is no settled balance of power here; there are only uneasy, shifting alliances—apparently a typical state of affairs in feudal Europe (in spite of idealizing history books that talk about the Middle Ages as a time when everybody had a place and knew just what it was). Henry IV is a powerful king, but he came by his throne with help from others of no mean estate, and he will never feel secure in the loyalty of men who betrayed King Richard. The scene ends with Hotspur eagerly looking forward to the groans of battle—he is to factional strife as eager a suitor as Romeo to Juliet. Already, we begin to see a deep contrast between this hothead and the riotous, yet oddly self-possessed, Prince Hal, whose jesting ways we may come to see as flowing from the calm center of a hurricane of violence, betrayal, guilt, and consequentiality.

Act 2, Scenes 1-2 (620-24, )

Falstaff is easily winded—he has become a criminal weekend warrior, if indeed he was ever in shape to begin with. Structurally, we have cut from Hotspur’s deadly, vaulting ambition to this playful escapade on Gadshill. For Sir John, robbery turns out to be hard work, and frightening work at that.

Act 2, Scene 3 (624-25, )

Hotspur’s time is always cut short—time is not on his side, as it is for Prince Hal. It is obvious from the letter Hotspur is reading that some who do not wish the king well nevertheless find the rebels’ plot inadequate and hasty. When Kate enters, she tries to do what Portia later attempts with Brutus in Julius Caesar: she tries to get her husband to make her an equal partner in the dangerous venture at hand. But Hotspur will have none of this early modern feminism, and declines to fill Kate in on the details: “I well believe / Thou wilt not utter what thou dost not know, / And so far will I trust thee, gentle Kate” (110-12). Hotspur is affectionate with Kate, which lends him some vitality as a character, but he does not trust her, which limits his appeal.

Act 2, Scene 4 (625-27, )

Act 2, Scene 5 (627-39, )

This scene is full of playacting. Prince Hal teases a poor servant to warm up for his exchange with Falstaff, and then he declares that he will take on the persona of Hotspur and question Falstaff, who enters with a famous line, “A plague of all cowards, I say” (115). When Falstaff begins to recount his story, buckram men multiply. At last, the rascal claims he knew what was going on the whole time. Next we have a rehearsal for the father-son confrontation that the prince knows must soon take place. Falstaff does a poor job of imitating King Henry, so Hal switches roles with him. This comic playacting turns serious when the prince responds sharply to Falstaff’s plea, “banish plump Jack, and banish all the world” with “I do, I will” (480-81). When the sheriff shows up, Prince Hal promises Falstaff will make things right regarding the robbery at Gadshill. He even offers Sir John a place of honor in the coming wars, and insists that the men who were robbed will be compensated for their trouble. The heir to the throne has been trying out different styles, different perspectives and modes of conduct, but we can see that his thoughts have taken a turn for the serious now that his father’s moment of peril has come.

Act 3, Scene 1 (639-45, )

Hotspur’s charms are on display in this scene, but so are his flaws. He angers Owen Glendower by mocking the fellow’s penchant for mystical mutterings. Hotspur also quibbles about the amount of land allotted to him if the rebellion should prove successful, and even insists that the river Trent ’s course be altered to aggrandize his holdings. When Mortimer tries to explain how much restraint Owen Glendower is showing, given his irascibility, Hotspur is suitably unimpressed. The very course of nature must be altered to suit the prideful whims of these great men. In turn, he is accused by Worcester of “Pride, haughtiness, opinion, and disdain” (183). But Hotspur is at his best in jesting with Kate as Mortimer’s Welsh wife sings an incomprehensible tune in her native tongue.

Act 3, Scene 2 (645-49, )

King Henry now confronts his wayward son, laying bare the secrets of his success: Henry says he carefully managed his image with the common people, appearing so seldom and so impressively that, “I could not stir / But like a comet I was wond’red at” (46-47). The point King Henry makes is one that still applies today—whatever system of government a ruler may preside over, he or she cannot accomplish much without at least some regard from the public. King Richard evidently did not understand this basic fact of governance since he ruined his reputation with the nobility and cared little what the common people thought. King Henry bitterly compares his own son with Richard, and seems pleasantly surprised at the strong answer Prince Hal returns: “I will redeem all this on Percy’s head, / And in the closing of some glorious day / Be bold to tell you that I am your son” (132-34). He also assures the king that he understands something of the public relations lesson just given to him: “Percy is but my factor, good my lord, / To engross up glorious deeds on my behalf” (147-48). The march to battle begins on “Wednesday next.”

Act 3, Scene 3 (649-53, )

While Hal is gearing up for heroic exploits, Falstaff is quarreling with Mistress Quickly at the Boar’s Head Tavern. Sir John’s accusation against Quickly is a petty attempt to hide the fact that he owes her money, and his claim leads Hal to confess that he is the one who made himself acquainted with the worthless contents of Falstaff’s wallet. Hal informs Falstaff of the good news that he has procured him “a charge of foot” (186), i.e. a company of infantrymen, but Falstaff’s response indicates that he can’t see why the doings of the upper orders should inconvenience him—the aristocratic rebels, he says, “offend none but the virtuous” (191). His place is in the Tavern, and that’s where he would prefer to stay, knightly status notwithstanding. Falstaff’s orientation towards time is not providential, as Hal’s is, but is instead a form of denial: where T. S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock measure out his life in coffee spoons, Falstaff measures them with swigs of cheap liquor.

Act 4, Scene 1 (653-56, )

Things are going badly for the rebels since Hotspur’s father is ill and Glendower must delay his advance for two weeks. But Hotspur’s thoughts are only on his epic confrontation with “The nimble-footed madcap Prince of Wales” (95). Hotspur is spirited and noble, but he lacks the capacity for development and doesn’t possess the practical regard for facts that a successful ruler must: a man who doesn’t care whether thirty thousand or forty thousand soldiers will oppose him is unlikely to win his battles for long.

Act 4, Scene 2 (656-57, )

Predictably, Falstaff has pulled a scam on the king’s dime, threatening to draft only those men he knows will pay good money to get out of their service, and he has filled the actual places with poor fools who have no options. But he has picked up “three hundred and odd pounds” (14), a knavish bargain. The prince begins to show his disgust at Falstaff’s dangerous dishonesty, and calls his soldiers “pitiful rascals” (64). Falstaff is beginning to appear as the parasite he really is, and his jests will end in the death of others who have done him no harm. At least at this point, it is difficult not to question the prince’s maturity since, after all, he has freely given such an irresponsible rogue the authority to command soldiers.

Act 4, Scenes 3-4 (657-61, )

Hotspur continues, among his confederates, to abuse King Henry roundly, castigating him for his “seeming brow of justice” (83), and pointing out that Henry owes his crown to the very people he now finds against him, for what they consider excellent reasons. Scroop, Archbishop of York, determines that he had better take precautions against King Henry, who is aware of his being in league with the rebels.

Act 5, Scene 1 (661-64, )

King Henry confronts the rebel Worcester, and the emptiness of the latter’s claims soon become apparent: Worcester complains that Henry promised to take only the Dukedom of Lancaster of which the greedy Richard had deprived him, but then usurped the kingdom. Strictly, this is true, but it is also beside the point since the promise itself was ridiculous. It would be fair to point out that sometimes the nobility and the monarch quarreled and then patched things up (at least temporarily), but Henry’s step of invading English soil during his period of banishment seems too extreme for such patching-up to work. His endeavor was an all-or-nothing affair, I believe, and in Richard II his promise hardly seemed credible even when he made it. It’s also hard to see how someone like Worcester, supposedly a savvy political operator, could have failed to perceive the hollowness of Henry’s “promise.”

Prince Hal offers to settle the dispute by single combat with Hotspur, but this chivalric gesture goes nowhere, and Hal in turn points out that the king’s offer of reconciliation with the rebels stands no chance of being accepted. Falstaff is already sick of the whole affair, and after complaining to the prince, “I would ‘twere bed-time, Hal, and all well” (125), he is inspired in that gallant’s absence to utter his famous definition of honor: “honor is a mere scutcheon” (140). The play in its entirety by no means sides with Falstaff in supposing that honor is a hollow emblem, but this anti-heroic view is acknowledged as a useful counter-narrative to keep the “heroics” of the history cycle in perspective. It is of course an ancient view—one has only to think of Homer’s Thersites in The Iliad to gauge its impressive pedigree.

Act 5, Scene 2 (664-66, )

Worcester points out the obvious; namely, that the king can’t mean to keep the promise of clemency he has just made, and it’s decided to keep this part of the news from Hotspur. Hotspur is as ready as ever to fight.

Act 5, Scene 3 (666-68, )

Blunt has bravely died in the king’s stead, as Douglas, his killer, finds when Hotspur arrives on the scene. The prince has had enough of Falstaff’s cowardly behavior. Alone, he admits that he has got his whole company shot to pieces, and then his jest comparing a gun with a bottle of sack (wine) falls flat with the prince, who rails at Falstaff, “What, is it a time to jest and dally now?” (55) Falstaff is nonplussed, and willingly forgoes “such grinning honor as Sir Walter hath” (59). As he says, honor sometimes comes to a man in the fog of war, even though his intentions are on anything but gaining honor. The after-narrative may speak kindly of him.

Act 5, Scene 4 (668-71, )

Prince Hal’s redemption of time begins to show in his actions during this scene—disdaining help for his slight wound, he rescues his father from the sword of Douglas . The king’s actions had brought him to this, we might say—it had brought him to a confused battlefield where a determined enemy sought to end his usurped reign. The redemptive answer to this threat is the prince himself. Henry’s ultimate legitimacy, it might be inferred, is none other than Hal, who, as we know, will go on to become King Henry V, whose brief reign would bring glory to England against the French at Agincourt. We learn in this scene that some had said Hal wished his father dead, and now that ugly slander is put to rest. But the prince has still more work to do, and he soon finds himself facing his nemesis Hotspur, whom he kills and praises to the heavens.

Falstaff, in spite of his principles, is also in the thick of battle, and just before the prince kills Hotspur, Falstaff saves his own hide by playing dead when Douglas challenges him. The fat knight is offended when Hal notices him and more or less sets him forth as he really is: “Death hath not strook so fat a deer to-day, / Though many dearer, in this bloody fray” (107-08). Well, it isn’t even so much the insult that gets to Falstaff as the certainty that he is dead—to be dead, says Falstaff, is to be “a counterfeit” (115-16), and then comes the immortal line, “The better part of valor is discretion” (119-20), which sounds like a twisted variation on Aristotle’s definition of virtue as the mean between cowardice and foolhardiness. To make matters still more absurd, Falstaff decides he might as well claim he killed the already dead Percy, and abuses his corpse with his sword. Caught in the act by Lancaster and the prince, Falstaff can only lie through his teeth to the very man who actually did kill Hotspur. Strangely, even before he hears the horn blast that signals the enemy’s retreat, Hal agrees to go along with Falstaff’s ridiculous pretension: “if a lie may do thee grace, / I’ll gild it with the happiest terms I have” (157-58). This indulgence may seem strange when we consider how intently Hal had come to look forward to this defining moment: killing Hotspur constitutes completion of the “redemptive” project he has promised the king, and by all rights the act should be trumpeted across the kingdom, not dissembled to serve the private interests of a rogue like Falstaff. One of my professors at UC Irvine remarked that perhaps this odd moment is a nod on Shakespeare’s part to the messiness or fogginess of the chronicles themselves—how difficult it is to know “what really happened” during history’s great events! It’s also true that at least Hal knows, within himself, what he’s made of, though that’s only a partial explanation since a great prince is not a private person but a public figure. Perhaps, too, Hal’s actions flow from the deep sense of English history with which Shakespeare endows him.  He seems secure in his triumph now.

Act 5, Scene 5 (671-72, )

Prince Hal shows magnanimity in pardoning the Douglas for the sake of his valor in battle, and there’s still more fighting to do before the rebels are entirely vanquished. Prince Hal will proceed to Wales, there to face Glendower and the Earl of March.

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake

King Richard the Second

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Histories

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Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of King Richard the Second. (Norton Histories, 2nd ed. 457-527).

Of Interest: English Monarchy Timeline | RSC Resources | ISE Resources | S-O Sources | Holinshed “Richard II” | Historical Figures | 100 Years’ War Timeline

Notes on King Richard II

Act 1, Scenes 1-2 (467-73, Richard judges quarrel between Mowbray, Bolingbroke; Duchess of Gloucester urges Gaunt to intervene for Bolingbroke, but he stays neutral)

The play begins with King Richard acting as arbiter of a feudal quarrel between Mowbray and Henry Bolingbroke, both of whom bandy words of high honor and charges of treason.  Richard himself was treated rather badly as a young man by the kingdom’s great lords, and we can see from the outset that there is no love lost between him and them.  In the second scene, the Duchess of Gloucester urges John of Gaunt to intervene on the side of Bolingbroke against Mowbray, but his own deep sense of complicity in the Duke of Gloucester’s death forces him to stay on the sidelines, to the great disgust of the Duchess.

Act 1, Scenes 3-4 (473-81, Richard banishes Bolingbroke for six years; Bolingbroke’s popularity; Richard’s concern over Ireland and callousness about Gaunt’s final illness)

Richard decides to banish Bolingbroke first for ten years and then, supposedly out of pity for John of Gaunt, for six years, while Mowbray is banished perpetually.  Right away, Richard is given cause for anxiety about Bolingbroke, who obviously knows how to ingratiate himself with the common people as he makes his exit from the country.  But Richard has little time to worry about that because he must turn his attention to the troubles in Ireland.  At the end of the fourth scene, we see our first evidence of Richard’s greediness and trenchant wit—when he hears that John of Gaunt is about to die, he jokes, “Pray God we may make haste and come too late!”  (481, 1.4.63).

Act 2, Scenes 1-2 (481-91, Gaunt scolds Richard’s management of the kingdom; York and Northumberland are disgusted with Richard; Bolingbroke is thought to be on the way back to England)

John of Gaunt scolds King Richard for the disordered state of his kingdom; he laments the great falling off of English prowess against the French since the time of Edward III: “That England that was wont to conquer others / Hath made a shameful conquest of itself” (483, 2.1.65-66).  Richard becomes increasingly impatient and sardonic, and cannot hide his disrespect for this dying pillar of the kingdom.  The old man calls him easy prey to flatterers and no more than a landlord rather than a king.  Fundamentally, Richard does not respect the feudal net of loyalties and obligations or the sacred quality of the crown—he is a feckless opportunist.  The Duke of York is also appalled at Richard’s rapacious behavior right after John of Gaunt passes away, and he tries to explain to him that when Richard abrogates the time-honored law of primogeniture, he undercuts the legitimacy of his own rule: “Is not his heir a well-deserving son? (485, 2.1.195; see 195-200).  But Richard’s glib rhymes overrule such mature advice.  The king even leaves York, whom he seems to consider docile enough to trust, in charge of managing the kingdom while he himself goes off to fight the rebellion in Ireland.  But York is clearly not to be dismissed like that, as we can see from his assessment of the situation in the second scene: “Both are my kinsmen. /  … / Well, somewhat we must do” (490, 2.2.111-16).  In the first scene, Northumberland offers us a litany of Richard’s offenses against the Commons and nobility, saying that he is “basely led / By flatterers …” (486, 2.1.242-43).  The upshot is that the  king has lost everyone’s loyalty and respect.  Rumor already has it that Henry Bolingbroke is on his way back to England in defiance of his banishment.

Act 2, Scenes 3-4 (491-95, York is confused, and Harry Percy joins Bolingbroke; York denounces Bolingbroke as a traitor, but his “neuter” position effectively favors him)

The Duke of York is now thoroughly confused; everything is in disarray, and he does not know what to do.  There is no money thanks to Richard’s spendthrift ways, and York is too far past his prime to marshal sufficient energy to deal with this disaster.  Meanwhile, Harry Percy is joining up with Bolingbroke’s party—a dangerous development for the  king.  Bolingbroke answers Richard’s envoy Berkeley that he has come to claim his proper title as Lancaster.  The Duke of York upbraids his nephew Bolingbroke as a rebel and traitor.  These are harsh words, and Bolingbroke’s fair reply does not seem to convince York, but the latter declares himself “neuter” regarding the whole affair.  In essence, he has thrown in his lot with the man he just called a traitor.  Although Thomas Hobbes and his theory of royal absolutism in Leviathan don’t come along until the English Civil War era, the Duke of York’s reaction to Bolingbroke’s attempt against King Richard illustrates Hobbes’s paradox: rebellion is utterly inadmissible, but if it succeeds, the rebel becomes the new absolute power.  York understands that things have gone beyond the point of no return and that King Richard has lost the loyalty of his subjects from low to high; Bolingbroke is already the de facto ruler.

Act 3, Scene 1 (495-96, Bolingbroke blames Bushy and Green of corrupting Richard; Richard agrees that others are to blame for his predicament)

In this scene, Bolingbroke accuses Bushy and Green of corrupting the king, and we will see in the next scene that Richard himself feels he has been led astray.

Act 3, Scene 2 (496-501, as Bolingbroke’s forces close in, Richard’s moods swing wildly back and forth, from exuberance to despair and self-pity: it’s time to “tell sad stories of the death of kings”)

Richard opens this scene by weeping for joy and touching the earth.  Those who surround him, however, appear to function somewhat like King Lear’s Fool in that they make it difficult for us to take his passionate words seriously.  He must tell them, “Mock not my senseless conjuration, lords” (497, 3.2.23) either because they already are mocking him or because he anticipates that they will.  But there is still something genuinely moving in the claim, “Not all the water in the rough rude sea / Can wash the balm from an anointed king” (497, 3.2.50-51).

From lines 174-77, King Richard says something similar to what King Lear will say—his ministers have told him he was something more than human, and now he finds out to his grief that he is not.  This is a traditional theme—fear or self-interest will lead counselors to delude the powerful about their true circumstances and nature.  In this sense, power is an obstacle, not an advantage.  Richard’s mood shifts are nothing short of astonishing throughout this scene—I suppose this is partly because Shakespeare must telescope historical events to suit the rhythm of the play, but it also gives a sense of Richard as almost manic-depressive: in a few heartbeats, he goes from high spirits to abject despair, from majestic to pathetic. His instinct when the despair strikes him is to wax poetical: “For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground, / And tell sad stories of the death of kings …” (499, 3.2.151-52).  His theatrical nature makes him rehearse again and again both the heights of power and the inevitability of a great fall, as if he always has seen himself as an actor in a tragedy.  Like any educated medieval man, Richard seeks the consolation of philosophy by patterning his own life after moral exempla.  But it seems that his temperament is too mercurial to permit him to draw the necessary sustenance for long.

I don’t know if it would be fair to say that King Richard is incapable of seeing things directly, incapable of raw perception in so far as anyone is capable of such a thing.  Perhaps we are to understand that he sees things too clearly sometimes, so much so that he is driven immediately to begin telling some fine story that distances him from the painfulness of his perceptions.  That is, after all, one of the uses of art.  Even a sad story can serve the same purpose as a triumphant one in this regard, justifying life aesthetically when it cannot be justified otherwise.

Act 3, Scene 3 (501-05, Bolingbroke puts his cards on the table: he wants the crown and Richard must surrender it; Richard’s claims are ineffectual now and he appears a diminished, defeated man)

King Richard’s poetic self-pity forces Henry Bolingbroke to show his hand: it would be obvious even to a child that Henry cannot do what he claims he would be willing to do; namely, simply claim his title among the nobility and not lay hands on the crown.  He has insulted the king by annulling his own banishment, and he has an overwhelming military advantage.  There really is no other course but to take the crown for himself.  This is not to say that sometimes Shakespeare’s kings cannot forgive an insult or an offense, but I think the situation is too brutal and explicit here to allow of moderation. 

However, it is also obvious that Richard has brought this disaster upon himself.  He claims to rule with the approval of “God omnipotent” (503, 3.3.84), but he has cut the ground from under the legitimacy of his rule by failing to respect the feudal rights of his subjects.  He has not respected the principle of hereditary rank and succession, so his continued arrogation of power provokes not awe but mirth in Henry and his followers. 

Richard sees everything in all or nothing terms—he is either  king or less than the meanest of his subjects.  The end of this scene makes everything brutally clear: Richard understands that he must go to London, and finally Bolingbroke comes right out and says so.  With Bolingbroke, action is the priority.

Act 3, Scene 4 (505-07, a gardener explains Richard’s failures in horticultural terms, and maintains his view even when confronted with opposition by the queen)

The gardener helps us compare the workings of the aristocracy with the processes of nature.  The growth of plants is compared to the pride of men, and the accusation is that Richard has failed to keep his garden, England, in good order by pruning those branches of the nobility that grow beyond what is healthful.  This is an ancient metaphor that I recall encountering in the pages of Herodotus—the Persian king Cyrus, if I recall correctly, explains his theory of governance by pointing to a waving field of grain or flowers and gesturing with his arm to show that the ruler must lop off the heads of those who grow too high.  But there is another side to this gardening metaphor of organic process—when the queen curses the gardener for giving her bad news about Richard, he says that his skill is not “subject to thy curse” (507, 3.4.104).  Natural process is regular and predictable, but human affairs are far more difficult to predict.

Act 4, Scene 1 (508-15, Bolingbroke accepts the crown, striving to appear legitimate, goes to Parliament and with poetical flourishes, Richard there resigns his crown, asking leave to go: to the Tower of London)

Bolingbroke declares that he will recall Norfolk from banishment and restore to him his lands, even though he was an enemy.  The new king will respect feudal rights in hopes of keeping order in his realm.  It turns out that the man died at Venice, but the point has been made.  Then Bolingbroke declares that he will ascend the throne with God’s permission, and the Bishop of Carlisle is arrested for treason when he protests.  This scene takes place in parliament, and Bolingbroke is determined that his taking of the throne will be perceived as legitimate.  That is a difficult thing to accomplish when Richard, ever the actor, is called in to play his part and abdicate.  Richard proceeds both to insist upon his grief as a private man and to underscore the heavy and solemn nature of the act that is now taking place, even though Bolingbroke seems to treat the matter as a show trial.  The scope of Richard’s performance is limited in that he is hardly playing to a sympathetic audience, but when he calls for a looking-glass so that he may contemplate himself and his “brittle glory” (514, 4.1.277), the attention effectively shifts to him, if only for a few moments.  How can a king un-king himself?  And what is the man who remains when this act has been performed?  Bolingbroke has little time for such high drama and philosophical / political speculation combined into one; he promises to grant Richard one wish, and when that which is “give me leave to go” (514, 4.1.303), the sharp returning question is “Whither?”  The only place Richard can go, of course, is to the Tower of London where he will remain as prisoner.

Act 5, Scene 1 (515-17, the queen is dismayed at Richard’s passivity; Richard warns Northumberland about the fickleness of destiny and friends)

The queen makes known her dismay at how abject Richard has become, asking “Hath Bolingbroke / Deposed thine intellect?”  (515, 5.1.27-28)  But by this time, Richard is most concerned that his sad story become a royal winter’s tale.  He also offers a parting shot to Northumberland, telling him that the new king’s associates will become greedy and destroy him.  They will follow the example set by their new leader: “The time shall not be many hours of age / More than it is to foul sin, gathering head, / Shall break into corruption” (516, 5.1.57-59).

Act 5, Scenes 2-3 (517-23, Bolingbroke rides to his coronation, with Richard in tow; York pledges faith to Bolingbroke, now Henry IV; the new king forgives Aumerle’s conspiracy, hearing York’s severe rebukes and the Duchess’ pleas to spare the young man; Henry IV is worried about his son Prince Hal’s antics)

As Bolingbroke rides in procession to be crowned, Richard’s sad role is to serve as the cleanup act.  He shows almost Christlike patience in this new role.  The Duke of York has decided that it is time to show loyalty to Bolingbroke because he is the new king—this sudden shift in attitude illustrates the paradox of absolutism that Thomas Hobbes will later explore.  In Leviathan, Hobbes insists that rebellion is always illegitimate since monarchy is absolute, but he also says that once a rebellion has succeeded, the new ruler’s power is just as absolute as that of the deposed ruler.

The Duke of York’s son Aumerle has engaged in a conspiracy against Henry Bolingbroke.  To simplify his plot, Shakespeare makes Aumerle happen to be wearing a seal that contains details about the conspiracy.  This is almost as silly as the “letter plot” of King Lear, but it works well enough.  The scene that ensues  (Scene 3 ) is semi-comic, with the old Duke showing an attitude similar to that of the severe ancient Roman nobleman who executed his own son rather than mitigate a just punishment for crimes against the state, and his wife standing up for the principle of a mother’s tender feelings towards her child.  Bolingbroke sides with the mother, although he declares for the execution of “the rest of that consorted crew” (523, 5.3.136).  Apparently, now that the feckless Richard has been deposed, we will have a kinder, gentler Windsor Castle. 

At the very beginning of Scene 3, even before the Duke of York and Aumerle enter the picture, Bolingbroke is also quite anxious about his own son, Prince Hal—wherever can the young rascal be?  I believe we are to understand that Bolingbroke’s anxiety stems from the genuine possibility that Prince Hal will turn out to be as reckless and irresponsible as Richard II.

Act 5, Scenes 4-6 (523-27,  Henry IV is overheard wishing to be rid of Richard; Richard meditates on ambition, misfortune and death; he is murdered but dies courageously; Henry IV makes plans to overcome rebellion, distributes honors, and wants to undergo a pilgrimage to assuage his guilt over Richard’s death)

Bolingbroke, like Henry II against Thomas à Beckett a few centuries back in 1170, gives voice to his desire to be rid of the royal person (Richard Plantagenet, the deposed king) who is troubling him, and is overheard by Sir Piers Exton and another wicked knight willing to do the deed.  The similarity of the two men’s conduct indicates rough sailing ahead for the conscience of Bolingbroke.  Henry II, we may recall, felt so guilty about what he had wished on Beckett that he ended up donning sackcloth and having himself scourged through the streets of London.

Richard, meanwhile, sits in his cell in the Tower philosophizing about death, misfortune, and ambition.  As always, Richard regards himself as an actor: “Nor I, nor any man that but man is,  / With nothing shall be pleased till he be eased / With being nothing” (524, 5.5.39-41).  He has been above all a waster of time, and recognizes too late that time is bound to waste its waster in return.  He failed to shepherd his power wisely, so it has dwindled to nothing.  It is clear that he is unable to arrive at the patience he seeks.  At the end, he becomes frustrated with the Keeper who refuses to sample his food and begins beating him.  Moments later, his murderers make their entrance, and Richard dies courageously, even killing one of his assassins.  One of the remaining killers, Exton, reminds us of the theological dimensions of what has just happened when he realizes he has purchased nothing but damnation by doing the new king’s bidding.

Bolingbroke, now King Henry IV, still has much work to do in putting down a rebellion against him, and he distributes honors and compassion to establish a precedent of generosity and gratitude over against Richard’s venal administration.  The Bishop of Carlisle is pardoned, and Exton is awarded only guilt.  Henry IV himself is stricken with blood-guilt.  He wants to make a voyage to Jerusalem to expiate this feeling, but as it turns out, he has far too much on his plate to indulge himself in the luxury of self-reproach.  If there is to be renewal, it will come only with the maturing of his son Prince Hal, who, as we know, is still a tavern- goer and an actor trying on many parts.  As we shall see in I Henry IV, the Prince’s acting is redeemed because it differs profoundly in its purpose from the dramatic inclinations that consumed Richard II and made him unfit to govern.

A few final thoughts: Richard is at times a villain, especially in his reckless early reign.  But he is also a reflective and poetical villain, so we should consider the extent to which the moral sententiae (pronouncements) he repeats with gathering pathos redeem him as a man with tragic insight into the nature of kingship, or whether they simply amount to self-pity.  The question of tragedy in relation to Christianity is a vexed one since, of course, there’s no question of positing a universe that doesn’t play fair or make sense.  Richard’s fate was avoidable in that it wasn’t due to some indomitable but dangerous quality (like Oedipus’ intrepidity and strong intellect) but rather to his rapacious disregard for feudal loyalties and common decency.  Well, I don’t believe Shakespeare follows any unitary model of tragedy—it seems to me that he constitutes his tragic intensities and ideals circumstantially, from one given set of materials to the next.  In this way, he is able to bring out whatever makes for excellent drama in his material; a notion of tragedy as broad as “a fall from good fortune to bad” probably serves him as a point of departure.

One possibility to consider: aside from political philosophy, perhaps the play could be read as an argument between a vision centered on ceremony and the aesthetic dimension of experience (a Catholic vision, if you don’t mind the anachronism) and a mindset that tends strongly towards clarity and the practical consideration of how to get and hold power.  That would be Bolingbroke’s approach, and we might call it the result of a proto-Protestant sensibility.  Tragedy of any sort must usually work out an uneasy truce with some competing set of rights, as when Antigone, in the Sophocles play by that name, battles Creon over the granting of proper burial rites for her slain brother: both have a kind of right on their side.  In the current play, it may be that we are to dismiss neither Richard’s aesthetic and ceremonial sensibilities nor, more obviously, Henry Bolingbroke’s businesslike understanding of power’s imperatives.  Bolingbroke is hardly liberated by his assumption of power from the sort of questions that nag the deposed Richard; indeed, he will return to just such questions from the moment he learns that his death-wish towards Richard has been overheard and carried out.  The blood on Bolingbroke’s hands turns out to be as durable as the “anointed balm” that Richard had claimed could never be washed from a king’s sacred body, not even by all the water in “the rough rude sea.”  Richard is deeply flawed and his end isn’t exactly heroic (it’s more private than heroic, really), but all the same we may find that we can’t dismiss him altogether.  The Richard who suffers and dies at the play’s end isn’t easily reduced to the sum of the acts that brought him to his sorrow.  The play is partly about a gruff transfer of power, but I think we are also asked to reflect upon the value of Richard’s poetical way of seeing and being.

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake

The Third Part of Henry the Sixth

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Histories

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Shakespeare. The Third Part of Henry the Sixth. Folio. (The Norton Shakespeare: Histories, 3rd ed. 230-96).

Of Interest: English Monarchy Timeline | RSC Resources | ISE Resources | S-O Sources | Holinshed’s Henry VI | Historical Figures | 100 Years’ War Timeline | Wars of the Roses

Notes coming soon ….

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan, eds. The Norton Shakespeare: Histories + Digital Edition. Third edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93859-3.

Copyright © 2024 Alfred J. Drake

The Second Part of Henry the Sixth

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Histories

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Shakespeare. The Second Part of Henry the Sixth, with the Death of the Good Duke Humphrey. Folio. (The Norton Shakespeare: Histories, 3rd ed. 147-218).

Of Interest: English Monarchy Timeline | RSC Resources | ISE Resources | S-O Sources | Holinshed’s Henry VI | Historical Figures | 100 Years’ War TimelineWars of the Roses 

Notes coming soon ….

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan, eds. The Norton Shakespeare: Histories + Digital Edition. Third edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93859-3.

Copyright © 2024 Alfred J. Drake

The First Part of Henry the Sixth

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Histories

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Shakespeare. The First Part of Henry the Sixth. (The Norton Shakespeare: Histories, 3rd ed. 309-72).

Of Interest: English Monarchy Timeline | RSC Resources | ISE Resources | S-O Sources | Holinshed’s Henry VI | Historical Figures | 100 Years’ War Timeline | Wars of the Roses 

Notes coming soon ….

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan, eds. The Norton Shakespeare: Histories + Digital Edition. Third edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93859-3.

Copyright © 2024 Alfred J. Drake