Shanzeh IshtiaqMs. Zarmina Raza5th January, 2017The Boy Who Cried King: Divine Right of KingsShakespeare’s play, Richard II, shows a powerful depiction of the Divine Rights of Kings and it remains a significant topic in highlighting the anointment of the King. The idea that the King is hand-picked by the will of God, hence has the “divine right” and to remove him would mean disobeying God, was held in high regard during the 16th century. According to Nicole Smith, “.
.king appointed by God is the somewhat parallel sense that the natural world itself revolves around the king and his relationships with others. There are several metaphors Shakespeare invokes that refer to the natural world, the most obvious of which is the analogy that suggests that Richard’s roots run deep and are a vital part of the “body” of England.” The fact that England is itself is being personified is quite important and reflects upon the importance of the King for the survival of England. In comparison, the symbolic reference of blood, is quite important in Richard since it is considered sacred, and similarly the placement of the appointed King by God is too. It is vital that we explore the idea of the exploitation of certain principles by a “divinely elected leader.” Not only did Richard violate social but also certain moral and royal principles, using his position of power and his apparent “divine right”. From unjust taxation, to the takeover of Bullingbrooke’s inheritance upon Gaunt’s death, followed by the wretched fate of the nation during his reign, Richard II had done it all.
That being said, it is important to question the “nature of divine rule”, perhaps how much power it holds, and its extension towards violent and cruel acts. The issue of a leader pulling off such stunts raises a lot of questions about the character of the supposed leader as well, we may argue that even divinely elected leaders should not be able to get away with everything. Shakespeare has not only explored this theme in Richard III but a comparison can be drawn in Shakespeare’s Henry V as well. As Smith explains, “Once Henry V claims his position, he completely abandons the life he led previously and subsequently is no longer a friend to those who are lower than him, which violates certain unspoken codes or friendship and loyalty.
Even though he does this, his actions can also be seen as the fulfilment of divine destiny and his actions, which may seem cruel, are just manifestations of God’s will.” This is quite relevant in Richard’s context as well, since he is seen boasting about his actions being symbolic of God’s will since he too, is “divinely elected.”We can state that the people of the 16th century, many of those that were around Richard, were convinced of the theory of the Divine Right to rule. This is especially true in the case of Bollingbrooke’s father himself, Gaunt. There have been many instances where Gaunt simply refused to go against Richard because of the fact that he believed Richard to be a minister of God himself, hence having ultimate status as a divinely elected king and power. One instance was when the Duchess of Gloucester practically begged Gaunt to take an action against Richard for the death of her husband, gaunt refused and instead claimed, “put we our quarrel to the will of heaven.” Even Gaunt seems to be aware of the involvement of Richard in the death of his own brother but refuses to inquire because of his belief in Richard as God’s chosen leader.
Even the Duchess of Gloucester understands and believes in the “divine right” so instead of refuting it and getting Richard the punishment he deserves, she brings forth the idea of Richard’s crime against nature aligned with the recollection of the “sacred blood”. “Edward’s seven sons, whereof thyself art one, / Were as seven vials of his sacred blood, / Or seven fair branches springing from one root” (I.ii.11-13). Nevertheless, Gaunt holds Richard in such high regard as a King that he goes on to state, “I may never lift/ an angry arm against His minister.” This proves that perhaps the fear of a divinely elected king allows Richard to get away with something as grave as murder and makes us question the sanctity of even a leader who supposedly has the Divine Right. According to Mabillard, “Protecting Richard’s position as God’s vicegerent is extremely important to Gaunt. For whatever crimes Richard has committed, it is the responsibility of God alone, not Richard’s subjects, to judge and punish him for his offenses.
Gaunt’s condemnation of disobedience to Richard because of Richard’s divine right to the crown exemplifies the Tudor political thought of the sixteenth century.” This theory was adopted in order to maintain a strong government and remain intact with the church, and perhaps we could say that it was clearly being manipulated in the case of Richard.This leads to another theory, that perhaps Bollingbrooke did not explicitly take much of an action against Richard until the death of Gaunt for this very firm belief of Gaunt, in order to not defy his father’s beliefs. Hence, we could go as far as to say that Bollingbrooke thinks of kingship or power to be something that emanates from beneath, that is from the voice and actions of the people and use of material resources. In comparison, Richard views power that comes from above, that is from the God whose deputy on land Richard was born be.
We have evidence for this through the fact that when war is about to take place, Richard believes that, “‘God for His Richard hath in heavenly pay / A glorious angel. Then if angels fight, / Weak men must fall, for heaven still guards the right.” This signifies that just because Richard seems to have the “divine right” to rule, and it was God himself who chose him, he will also protect him. Richard’s belief is so strong, that even the threat of an attack on the crown does not seem to startle him that much and he deals with it rather impractically with the idea of his “birth right”.Smith claims, “the idea that Richard’s blood is part of a “tree” that has been planted by God and is sustained by the sacred royal bloodline is apparent. This is connected with divine right because it is, like the belief in the concept, firmly entrenched in the moral and political “soil” of England.” It is hence, quite evident that the Duchess too, is trying to use this very idea in order to prove that the “tree is rotting” by Richard and his vicious ways and also proves that some of the people under Richard’s rule are really doubting the sanctity and the idea of a divine ruler. Richard’s actions, or lack thereof, have proved to be quite detrimental to England, and even though he may be a divinely elected leader he is the one perhaps who lead the country to its ruins until Bollingbrooke took over.
Mallibard further states that, “it was intended to promote the balanced combination of Tudor and Machiavellian political thought in order to illustrate that the best possible ruler has both the pre-ordained right to rule, and the innate qualities that enable him to rule with political sophistication, and, subsequently, the plays present an answer to England’s succession problem”Despite the fact that the play ended with Richard being deposed (and ultimately dead), and Bollingbrooke taking over, we can say that alongside, there were a lot of mixed feelings about the entire idea of divine rule. Richard himself states, “thoughts of things divine, are intermixed / With scruples and do set the word itself / Against the word.’ Richard’s thoughts interlude with the idea of Divine rule and heaven itself had been mixed with doubt, before reality hit him, he thought himself to have ultimate power but once deposed he was brought back to earth and realised he is yet another mortal even If anointed by God.
The idea Richard had associated with “divine ruler” included ultimate right to have power over all, which perhaps led him to really lose sight of the entire purpose of being God’s supposed minster. According to Laura Behrend, “once Richard has lost his throne, we need no longer evaluate him in terms of his effectiveness as a ruler; his human side, as opposed to his ‘body politic’, comes to the fore in the final two acts. Here, Richard uses the ‘I’ instead of the royal ‘We’ and, in his extraordinarily poetic moments of suffering, analyses his own situation with remarkable delicacy.” Towards the end, we can clearly see how Richard’s belief in this divine right was slowly fading as he became more and more self-aware and was not even hungry for power as per say. We can say that the defeat had not only dignified him but also signified that even a divinely elected king should not be given so much importance that they forget the role they have to play and manipulate the use of their status.