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What makes a good king according to Shakespeare?

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Camy Paris

on 18 March 2014

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Transcript of What makes a good king according to Shakespeare?

Human qualities
Even though he embodies God, a good king must also display human qualities in order to interact with its subjects, remembering he is still a mortal. He must not be blinded by human attributes like greed, nor show proof of arrogance. Such characteristics have contributed to Richard downfall who could be described as self-centered in some cases. To some extent, we could say that a subject having faith in its ruler needs to find him accessible, giving the urge to be devoted to him.
Capacity to control the nobles
It is suggested internal stability depends upon this quality a king should possess. Although Richard clearly masters this skill better than Bollingbrook, perfectness in this domain hasn't been achieved in the play (Richard was overthrown by Henry, is himself threatened at the end of the play). Even though physical power is important, the difference here is seen more on the rhetorical domain.
Incarnation of a godlike figure
As expected by tradition, the king of England is believed to be God's incarnation on Earth. People strongly believe in divine right and the king shall consequently convey a corresponding image. It's an element which partly explains Richard's difficulty to give up his title.
Popularity among the commons
This is one of the main reproaches made to Richard, who lost popularity with over taxation for example. This characteristic is symbolized by Bollingbrook's rise. Extracts proving this point may be easily found in the gardeners' scene with the Queen where they openly criticize Richard.
Fusion with its land and people
Shakespeare shows this characteristic through Gaunt's speeches for example; each time this idea is expressed, the character appears sincere and touches the audience. This leads to the famous question Richard is forced to acknowledge when taken away from his crown: who is he? When losing the rule, Richard has also lost his own identity.
What makes a good king according to Shakespeare?
A good king must remain just and impartial in order to deliver justice. It must seek advice from all his subjects; family, nobles, commoners. Richard clearly gave too much importance to his flatterers, the ``caterpillars``, and hasn't been able to settle down family conflicts, in addition to ignoring commoners.
To their service
Shakespeare introduces the idea according to which a good king shall serve its country and people rather than ruling it, therefore interact with its subjects and always put the country forward instead of his own good. It seems to be something bold to say by Shakespeare at his time, especially considering English civil war took place 30-40 years after the play was written.
``Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm from an anointed King``
Reference to the anointment of a king (divine right to rule)

Two different ways of seeing it :
1- a king divinely designed will always remain the true king, no matter what happens

2- Ironically, Richard is dethroned, showing that the balm and thus the divine right to rule can be washed away, a bold thing to say at the time but still coherent with the approach of the civil war at the time Shakespeare was writing. Others would says Richard lost his divine right to rule and Bollingbrook gain it as part of God's design.
This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.
Here is an emotive and apparently sincere speech in which Gaunt expresses his love for his ``realm``. The idea is reinforced by the list of positive synonyms, even comparing his land to heaven. However, Richard is unmoved by this demonstration of patriotism, showing in a sens how little he cares for his subject's approval.
Her [England`s] knots disordered and her wholesome herbs
Swarming with caterpillars?
The allusion here to caterpillars, obviously a harmful imagery in the gardening theme, is made to criticize Richard's flatterers, Bushy, Bagot and Green.
You may my Glories and my State depose,
But not my Griefes; still I am King of those.

The notion of a king's responsibilities is here introduced, and by having regrets, Richard's character looks more human. Being a good king is therefore not neglecting your responsibilities, otherwise regrets touching your own self, as Richard cannot pass them on the Bollingbrook once the rule obtained, will emerge and follow you the rest of your life.
For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
All murder'd: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
To monarchize, be fear'd and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!
For you have but mistook me all this while:
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus,
How can you say to me, I am a king?

Richard seems to say death makes kings think they are important (``self and vain conceit``), then laughs at their apparent stupidity and then ``bursts their bubble`` with a pin (something small, but sharp
and dangerous). He realizes that he has been selfish.

The last 4 lines are interesting; as Richard strongly believe in being of a higher standard than the commons, he here evokes the idea he is common, lives like every other humans.

Richard: Give me his gage. Lions make leopards tame.
As the lion is the symbol of monarchy, and thus the king, the idea of superiority and control on nobles is clearly evoked here. Richard here has the impression of controlling Mowbray and Bollingbrook, nevertheless this control only appears as an illusion..
Ross [a noble] : The commons hath he pilled with grievous taxes
And quite lost their hearts
The use of ``pilled`` to describe Richard's actions is very strong, suggesting their king has been stealing goods from his commoners, the poorest among his subjects. Richard has lost their support, and thus contributes to his own downfall. Henry, on the other hand, is very popular among the people, making the point that a king must be liked by its commoners.
Mowbray (in reaction to his banishment, to Richard) :
"My name be blotted from the book of life
And I from heaven banished as from hence.
But what thou art, God, thou and I do know,
And all too soon, I fear, the king shall rue. "
In this quote, Mowbray directly puts the king's rightfulness and wisdom into question, clearly stating Richard is making a mistake with this condemnation. Even though Richard is generally in power of the nobles, this example is one contributing to the climax of the play, were its supremacy is put into question. As the situation is also quite early in the play, this issue appears definitively as a key one, one that will stay into the audience's mind, foreshadowing in a way the upcoming events and tensions.
Richard (about Henry):
"As were our England in reversion his,
And he our subjects' next degree in hope."
Here Richard voices a fear that appears to be justified: Henry's popularity among the commons is strong and present, to the point where they hope they'll become his subjects, and not Richard. The fact that Richard is the one expressing this idea makes the argument even stronger; he wouldn't in any case venture expressing these thoughts if he wasn't a hundred percent sure of their inclination.
Comparing Richard to Henry on "human" criterias....
The way Shakespeare has build up Richard's character makes it hard for the subjects, voiced throughout the audience's impression of the persona, to express devotion to their king. Richard's on one hand detaches himself from the population, as a king is asked to, but to such a degree he seems unreachable. Promiscuity and strong bonds king-subjects do not exist.

On the other hand, Henry is much more 'human' and 'common' than Richard, and has once been a subject himself, even though a privileged one. He fights back the king's abuses, and courageously tries to deliver his fellow subjects from a bad ruler. His proximity with the commoners, and his lack of experience in terms of controlling an assembly brings him to a lower level, nearer to his subjects. His lack of rhetorical use is also an example that gives him a more human face.

Even though the audience has a glimpse of Richard's deep feelings, often through bursts of sentimental expressions, Richard seems to constantly calculate its gains and loses, portraying a much colder persona, accentuated through the image of high stature and inaccessibility, whereas Henry seems more sincere, and with his lack of experience, mistakes and successes, more human.
Richard has been a bad king and completely incompetent at managing England's treasury and, as York says, has not event spent the money he himself gained but simply consumed the one gained by his predecessors ("Did will what he did spend and spent not that / Which his triumphant father's hand had won"). Richard is left without money, even after having overtaxed the commoners, and unable to fund his war in Ireland. This raises an important question: If the monarch is a bad king who mismanages funds, abuses of taxation and murders his political enemies and family, do the people have the right to get rid of him? Richard's divine right wouldn't permit this, yet if his renouncement to the throne would come to be God's will, then it would be perfectly right.
"The ripest fruit first falls, and so doth he;
His time is spent, our pilgrimage must be.
"The ripest fruit first falls" is foreshadowing Richard's demise, as well as the garden scene in which subjects openly criticize their ruler. However, it it's the ripest that first fall, does Shakespeare suggest Richard wasn't that bad after all?
"Needs must I like it well: I weep for joy
To stand upon my kingdom once again.
Dear earth, I do salute thee with my hand,
Though rebels wound thee with their horses' hoofs:
As a long-parted mother with her child
Plays fondly with her tears and smiles in meeting,
So, weeping, smiling, greet I thee, my earth,
And do thee favours with my royal hands.
Feed not thy sovereign's foe, my gentle earth,
Nor with thy sweets comfort his ravenous sense;
But let thy spiders, that suck up thy venom,
And heavy-gaited toads lie in their way,
Doing annoyance to the treacherous feet
Which with usurping steps do trample thee:
Yield stinging nettles to mine enemies;
And when they from thy bosom pluck a flower,
Guard it, I pray thee, with a lurking adder
Whose double tongue may with a mortal touch
Throw death upon thy sovereign's enemies.
Mock not my senseless conjuration, lords:
This earth shall have a feeling and these stones
Prove armed soldiers, ere her native king
Shall falter under foul rebellion's arms."
Here Richard shows for the first time his love for his kingdom after returning from Ireland, except the rebels he speaks of are the Irish as he hasn't yet heard of Bollingbrook's rebellion. He wishes that, if they were to invade, nature itself would defent England. The link between the land, nature and the King is present in other Shakespearean plays such as MacBeth, where a storm comes after the murder of the king. Richard compares himself to a mother with the kingdom as it's baby. This image is recurrent during the play, underlining how important he is to the Kingdom. This is a turning point in the play as we realize that Richard might actually have potential to be a good King just as Bollingbrook starts to seem tyrannic with the execution of the flatterers.
Henry seems to have a sense of justice at first by justifying his rebellion by saying that if he cannot have his land, than neither can Richard have his. However, he later on executes the flatterers without being king yet, and without even any proper trial. After all, even though they may have been a nuisance, it is a good king's job not to listen. Meanwhile, this execution for treason, while himself being a traitor officially, is quite ironic.
Richard's list of sins
On the good side ...
Knows how to hold a court of nobles
Family matters
Rejection of all three uncles' advices
Murder of his uncle
Exile of his cousin
No heir
Financial management
Seizing Bullingbrook's property
Bad financial management (bankrupt)
Social matters
Listening to the flatterers
War in Ireland
Henry's list of sins
The good side...
Listens to uncle
Good with commoners
Starts a rebellion which leads to deaths
Imprisonment of cousin
Separation of the King and Queen
Irresponsible heir
Difficulty to control the nobles, leading to more deaths
Execution of flatterers under Richard's name, without Richard's consent
Comparing the two...
Both are good with words but Richard is definitively better with his rhetorical power. In the end, Shakespeare gives the impression Bullingbrook has caused more death and chaos than Richard.
Furthermore, Richard is compared to a mother of the Land (see quote in 'fusion with the land' section) and thus when England loses Richard as a king, and later on killed, it is as if the kingdom becomes an orphan, hence the destruction and chaos that seems to result. However, this opposes the fact that Bullingbrook is close to the commoners, unlike Richard. This reflection is the key to decided who really was a good king, according to Shakespeare, as Richard is compared to a mother while Henry is more at the service of the kingdom. Nevertheless, in its role of representation, it's Henry who seems to really represent the subjects, and his rebellion echoes the civil war that blew thirty to forty years after the play.
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