This week’s quotation is from: Charles R. Forker, ‘Introduction’, in William Shakespeare, Richard II (Arden Third Edition), (Thomson Learning: London, 2002)
A recent Reddit thread discussed the extent to which the History plays critiqued the monarchy. To be honest, I didn’t want to get involved, because it looked like a straight request for homework help, and yet, it was hard to resist such a fascinating subject …
By any broadly accepted reckoning, Elizabeth was well into her 50s and therefore past childbearing age by the time Shakespeare started writing plays.
That fact must have dawned on the movers and shakers of the era, to the extent that Elizabeth issued a Treasons Act in 1571, strengthened a decade later, which prohibited the discussion of succession issues, and specifically the naming of any potential successor.
In this climate, and with modern theatre in the first, daring flush of its youth, I think the History Plays became a safe space for a subtle ‘conversation’ about the monarchy. Shakespeare, as he always does, made few overt declarations, preferrring to present a set of circumstances and let people make their own minds up. It’s one of the reasons why his plays are infinitely malleable, and why we still play them today.
Overall, the History Plays present a compelling exploration of the kind of king the country needed, and wanted, once Elizabeth had gone.
Naturally, there had to be nods to Elizabeth and the Tudors as being an exemplary royal dynasty. Hence, I see parallels between Henry V and Elizabeth, and it seems obvious to everyone that Richard III contains elements of propaganda, favouring Henry VII and following the party line adopted by Thomas More (who I always think ought to have known better), and others in demonising Richard III.
Richard II wasn’t written in historical order, so it’s the fifth play in the cycle, as followers of the Ponytail Shakespeare read-through will know. Nevertheless, some key scholars have suggested that the ‘message’ of the plays is that the deposition of Richard leads to the Old Testament-style blighting of the land, until it is redeemed by Elizabeth’s grandfather, Henry VII. The idea is that the country is rescued by the Tudors.
I’m not convinced. I offer these quotations from Forker as part of my unease about this.
audiences are called upon to respond not only to the fall of a particular king but also to the disquieting possibility that the institution of hereditary monarchy may itself be unviable. The subject would have been especially magnetic in the waning years of the last Tudor, who was sometimes thought to be dangerously influenced by ambitious favourites, and the identity of whose as yet unspecified successor was stimulating intense partisan speculation.
Struggles for the crown were not new […] What is unique and fresh in Richard II is the stress on the divinity that was thought to hedge kings, the abandonment of historical diffuseness and the probing not merely of divine right as a concept but of the unstable personality of a king who puts his whole trust in its theoretical protections.
What I DO see, is that conversation beginning. An incredible analysis of the kind of leadership the country wanted. And needed. I also think that whilst there is plenty of conciliatory, flattering material in Macbeth for Elizabeth’s successor, the most important part of an emboldened Shakespeare is the ‘king becoming graces‘ speech in Act IV scene iii:
As justice, verity, temperance, stableness,
Bounty, perseverance, mercy, lowliness,
Devotion, patience, courage, fortitude,
James I was confident of his intellectual and debating abilities. He was also over-reliant on his divine right to the throne – much like Richard II. This passage reads like a challenge, a shopping list made for the new Stuart dynasty by the nation. The repeated failure to meet these demands must, inevitably, have led Charles I to the block on 30 January 1649 …
Macbeth quotation taken from www.opensourceshakespeare.org