What Subject Can Give Sentence On His King?

Richard II, Act IV

Act IV is remarkably short, but adds in oddity what it lacks with brevity.

Backed into a corner, Richard chooses to flee rather than fight a battle he will clearly lose.  Although he is advised that there is more honor in noble defeat than cowardly retreat, he proves a non-starter in the knightly credo.

It’s fitting, after all, for he has engendered the anger of his subjects by being both haughty and self-serving. So it’s doubtful that he will fulfill any commitment to spiritual seeking in his self-imposed isolation.  And, indeed, he sends word to Bolingbroke that will surrender the crown of his own accord and allow the newly-minted Henry IV to send him off whither he will (only to have that turn out to be a short trip to the Tower – yikes.)

Yet Bolingbroke/Henry proves unlike many we have seen in his place.  Not only does he wish no harm unto the deposed king, but he even offers to surrender his claims should Richard merely restore the lands and property that had been rashly seized.  Coming from such a position of strength, it naturally causes quite the stir among Bolingbroke loyalists.  Why bend to his knee now when he has all the momentum to become the new king?

Henry, it seems, knows very well that his actions reinforce a dubious slippery slope that could very well come back to bite him later on.  For what’s to stop the next ambitious type from rising up, gathering followers, and taking rule away from him in turn?

This is where Richard’s sudden and complete abdication in favor of Henry becomes weird.  Because he doesn’t just hand over the crown as he proclaims, but rather he curses Henry and the legacy to follow in a way that can only leave the reader thinking, “Sore loser.”  And yet…the reader also gets the feeling that Shakespeare is setting something up.  And of course, he already knows the history. 

Stay through the credits because there’s a bonus scene (or two) to come.  Shakespeare is already laying the groundwork for the sequel.

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