Most Degenerate King!

Richard II, Act II

The most notable aspect of the play so far is how un-absolute the English king’s rule has become.  Richard – or any other royal for that matter – no longer wields power by fiat alone.  If he abuses the people through excess taxation, or the barons through favoritism or botched military strategy, he runs the risk of alienating his dominion and having to scramble for cover.

We learn pretty quickly that Richard II is such a king.  He has the idea in his head that his title has been ordained by God – but it doesn’t take long for him to be disabused of this notion.  As the play unfolds, it’s interesting to track the subtextual arguments underpinning a monarch’s right to rule…and whether his subjects have justice on their side by overthrowing him should they feel betrayed.

The word TREASON gets tossed around a lot.  Do something the king doesn’t like and you might lose your head.  On the other hand, if you rally enough support to your cause, you just might run the king out on the rails (An anachronism?).  Note the constant push and pull here.  But the bottom line remains: to be top-dog is to have a tenuous hold (at best) on the levers of power.

The Magna Carta, of course, forever altered expectations between the governed and the governor.  The rise of parliament, too, created a new class of legally-empowered gentry who at least now make passing reference to justice.  An established tradition – historical precedent – stretches back to William the Conqueror, encompassing such great individuals as Alfred the Great and Richard Lionheart, setting a standard about how a great leader ought to behave.

A perpetual power struggle also exists among monarchs on the international stage.  For England, this means not only corralling its own acquired territories but also to fend off such pesky rivals as France. 

The Scots, Welsh and Irish too are constantly causing headaches, perpetually in rebellion against English overreach of authority.

Added to these woes, the king must deal with rising expectations among the people, what With the slow, steady emergence of an eventually post-feudalism economy. Willy-nilly taxation is no longer tolerated, especially when the money is squandered on nepotism and bad foreign policy.

Richard, remarkably, managed to combine most of the above.  He now decides to break the camel’s back by seizing banished Bolingbroke’s assets in order to finance an ill-advised campaign in Ireland.  He is warned that this might be a step too far – but goes straight ahead and does it anyway; for him that’s one of the many advantage to being king.  But it boomerangs when Bolingbroke violates his banishment to launch a coups whilst the king is away.

So yeah, there’s a lot going on.  But for me, it all boils down to the reality that the sovereign can’t rest on his laurels. Dynastic legacy is not enough.

Richard has taken executive privilege too far.


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