Study On Shakespeare Richard II Drama Essay
The opening scene of Richard II is illuminating on several counts. On the one hand, Richard II, as king, appears to be acting out in full, his role as supreme arbiter of the land, by presiding over an appeal for treason. This medieval trial requires the presence of the king as both ruler and immediate dispenser of justice.
On the other hand, as the scene unfolds, we gradually learn that what is being undermined is not simply the respective reputations of the rival nobles, Bolingbroke and Mowbray, but the very claims of the king himself to his Divine Right to rule. We learn that what they are fighting about is the murder of Thomas of Woodstock, Richard II's uncle. Bolingbroke appears to know that Richard had secretly ordered Woodstock's death. Obviously, it is impossible for Bolingbroke to accuse Richard directly of his own crime.
Nevertheless, his solution, amounts to a thinly-veiled accusation: he accuses Mowbray of murdering Woodstock while under his custody - knowing full well that Mowbray himself was carrying out Richard's instructions. Meanwhile, for the same reason, Mowbray cannot publicly name the guilty man and resorts to a perfectly traditional game of returning Bolingbroke's insults and accusations. The otherwise perfectly conventional solution proposed by the king, a joust, is as much deployed in defense of his royal power, as presented as an honorable solution for noblemen.
At the very moment when the king appears to be at his most powerful, we can already discern how precarious this hold on power really is and on what it rests: a conflation of political and divinely ordained authority.
The implication of the concept of the Divine Rights of Kings is that any challenge to royal power is unthinkable because it is not merely treason, as viewed in other cultures, but also tantamount to blasphemy. This becomes clear in scene 3 when Richard realizes that he may soon lose his crown. Richard refuses to acknowledge that royal power relies on human, rather than divine intervention:
Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm from an anointed king.
The breath of worldly men cannot depose
The deputy elected by the Lord. (3.2 50-53)