PTS 11/067: Know When to Hold ‘Em

Know when to fold em …

BH CSF14 RII 86564
Cambridge Shakespeare Festival, 2014.  Image:  ME

PTS read-through:  Richard II, Act III (part 2)

(in which Richard shows what a crap poker player he would have made)

An important lesson for students:  it is OK to disagree with a critical view – in fact OK to disagree with ME and my ideas.  As long as you can argue your opposition to a stance or point of view.  I’m about to take issue with  Germaine Greer

Where does the blame lie for Richard’s deposition? How much of this is down to the usurper?  How important are Aumerle, York and Northumberland in the equation?  Ultimately, could Shakespeare’s Richard have averted it?  Does he contribute to it?  Or cause it?

This is Greer’s take on the situation:

‘the play arrives at the crux, the meeting of the king by right with the king by acclaim. Bolingbroke is still loyal; Shakespeare takes pains to depict him as an unwilling usurper because the political conundrum is the point; though readers for centuries after might tease themselves about whether Bolingbroke is hypocritical in his challenge (III.iii.31-67), that question is the result of reading and pondering, not of response to the dramatic situation.’ [a]

If you’ve been following, you’ll know that I’ve been finding evidence for Bolingbroke’s disloyalty since Act I, scene i.  Can’t quite agree with Germaine Greer here – on a number of levels – not least because I wonder if she has read Machiavelli (more on that later),  who currently seems to be infecting most of my thoughts about power in the context of the History Cycle (and why not?) …

Bolingbroke’s ‘loyalty’:  just because Shakepeare ‘takes pains’ (if he does) to make Bolingbroke  appear loyal, really doesn’t make that loyalty so, in the face of the evidence to date.  By now, I think there’s little doubt that he’s nothing but a chancer, a ‘vile politician’ and a ‘king of smiles’, as Hotspur names him in the next instalment of the cycle. [b]  Let’s look at his message to Richard:

Henry Bolingbroke
On both his knees doth kiss King Richard’s hand
And sends allegiance and true faith of heart
To his most royal person, hither come
Even at his feet to lay my arms and power,
Provided that my banishment repeal’d
And lands restored again be freely granted

The message is shortly rounded off with the type of nasty threat Henry V gave the hapless inhabitants of Harfleur. Moreover, I can’t be the only one to find the sinister double-connotation of the homophonic ‘rain’, surely?

Methinks King Richard and myself should meet
With no less terror than the elements
Of fire and water, […]
The rage be his, whilst on the earth I rain

Nor can I be alone in casting a jaundiced eye over the silent display of his borrowed puissance.

Richard’s ‘response to the dramatic situation’:  “if only, if only”, as the woodpecker sings in Louis Sachar‘s ‘Holes’.  With a contrary head on, I think Richard still has cards to play, but his response to Bolingbroke could be plotted as a sine wave .

Now he is defiant:

We are amazed; and thus long have we stood
To watch the fearful bending of thy knee,
Because we thought ourself thy lawful king:
And if we be, how dare thy joints forget
To pay their awful duty to our presence?
If we be not, show us the hand of God
That hath dismissed us from our stewardship;
For well we know, no hand of blood and bone
Can gripe the sacred handle of our sceptre,
Unless he do profane, steal, or usurp.

And now he calls Bolingbroke’s bluff:

[my] noble cousin is right welcome hither;
And all the number of his fair demands
Shall be accomplish’d without contradiction

Now, he capitulates, before he even speaks to his rival:

What must the king do now? must he submit?
The king shall do it: must he be deposed?
The king shall be contented: must he lose
The name of king? o’ God’s name, let it go

In this, he reminds me oddly of the replicants in Philip K Dick‘s ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ – yes, the Bladerunner one.  Faced with destruction, they might not necessarily exhibit thanatos, the death drive, but there is a marked apathy which is nothing like eros. And so, Richard.

It’s easy to castigate a fictional character, right? Or to criticise the choices someone makes when the situation is entirely hypothetical to you?  Yes, of course it is.  But what would I have done, instead?  I might have followed the advice of Aumerle:

let’s fight with gentle words
Till time lend friends and friends their helpful swords.

and, incidentally, Machiavelli would – if you don’t mind me speaking for him – had advised similar.  Not for nothing does Aumerle survive to the end of the play!

Call that bastard Bolingbroke’s bluff, Richard … having said so many fine words, what can he do but retreat, comply, and wait until you find the means to destroy him?  Honestly, I think this might have worked.  Anthony Grafton neatly summarises the Machiavellian aspect of such a technique:

[Machiavelli] argued that the prince must sometimes act the powerful, decisive lion, sometimes the wily, elusive fox. By doing so he underlined his conviction that the prince could not be constrained by the demands of normal morality if he hoped to do his job properly. Machiavelli, in short, confronted his reader from the start with his realization that straightforward efforts to master and apply the tenets of traditional morality would not produce an effective ruler. Politics must have its own rules.

Had Richard sent Bolingbroke off to his newly-restored family estates, superficially satisfied, I don’t believe his mates amongst the Dukes would have countenanced any further rebellion – York certainly wouldn’t have.  Kenny Rogers says you ought to ‘know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em’.  Richard folds, but I would have held.

Northumberland and York

It would beseem the Lord Northumberland
To say ‘King Richard:’ alack the heavy day

York was pragmatic in declaring neutrality, and to his credit, he seems to respect not just the institution, but the person? Or does he? He reminds me a little of Edward II‘s brother, Edmund – caught between a rock and a hard place.  Northumberland will get his due reward, in true Machiavellian fashion, in the HIV plays …

Back to Germaine Greer.  There’s an awful lot of reading and pondering here, right?  Erm, it’s what we do, right?  And what any right-thinking politician would do, too.  Nothing to sniff at, at all, thanks very much …

– – –

There’s too much to say about this Act, and I don’t want to end up writing a part III.  Nevertheless, I don’t want to ignore Richard’s Queen, or the gardeners.  This is what Greer has to say:

… the Duke of York’s gardener’s, who in lofty blank verse [III.iv] describe Richard’s basic error, which is not to have exploited the riches of England for his own ends, for that lies within royal privilege, but to have allowed a serious rival to grow up to threaten his throne. Shakespeare could have found his parallel of the state with a garden in any of dozens of sources, but the central idea here is pure Machiavelli: the sovereign’s first duty to the crown is to make sure he keeps it.  (pp.82-83)

In this she is correct, and it seems she HAS read Machiavelli.  Maybe she’s used it as a smörgåsbord (my favourite A Level word), as – undoubtedly – I have in writing this post, as Shakespeare did with his historical sources.

I would feel uncomfortable if I ignored Isabella of Valois, Richard’s Queen.  Footnote as she has become, given my self-imposed word-count restrictions, I would like to quote Paul Rogers:

The grey little figure of Richard II’s Queen doesn’t emerge as a person at all until she is brought together with the Gardeners. [d]

BH CSF14 RII 86610
Cambridge Shakespeare Festival, 2014.  Image:  ME

Avoiding the definition of a woman in relation to her husband is difficult, but not impossible.  Like so many of Shakespeare’s women, she comes across as loving,  loyal and likeable.  There’s something very spirited about her defence of her husband, and the spanking she gives the gardeners. Of course, we could turn this on its head and suggest its a cowardly act to spank people so beneath you, socially, yet this is belied by the relationship she seems to have with her serving-woman.  Pawn in the power games of men as she is, she deserves our sympathy and maybe even some investigation into her story …


[a] Germaine Greer, Shakespeare (Past Masters), (Oxford University Press:  Oxford, 1986)

[b] all Shakespeare quotations taken from

[c] Anthony Grafton, ‘Introduction’, in Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince (trans. George Bull), (Penguin Books:  London, 2000)

[d] Paul Rogers, ‘Richard II’ in Introductions to Shakespeare (ed. Charles Ede), (The Folio Society:  London, 1977)

Author: Boar's Head, Eastcheap

Hyperactive English Teacher and Tutor; Shakespeare-obsessed 'Villainous abominable misleader of youth'; 'old white-bearded Satan'; Friend of the Orangutan

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