Looking for the Wednesday Wandering? Page back one to learn what a professional writer’s life and origami have in common. Then come back and join me and Alan as we continue our tour of the Henries!
JANE: Now we get to the King Henry whom Shakespeare made very familiar, even to American audiences: Henry IV. He had two plays named for him and an argument can (and has been) made that the play The Tragedy of King Richard the Second (Richard II for convenience) is as much about Henry IV as it is about Richard II.
So, what do you think was the appeal?
ALAN: Probably the drama associated with his accession to the throne. He took the throne by force from his cousin (who ruled as Richard II). Henry was the first of the Lancastrian kings. The House of Lancaster was an offshoot of the Plantagenets, and Henry certainly had a claim to the throne by blood, but not by right of primogeniture.
JANE: So were Henry and Richard close as cousins? After all, being cousins doesn’t automatically mean they were friends, especially in those days before the internet made it possible to have friends on the other side of the world.
ALAN: Henry and Richard had a stormy relationship. They grew up together and played with each other as children, but as adults they were increasingly opposed. Henry, then called Henry Bolingbroke…
JANE: Wait! Where do you get this spelling? My Riverside Shakespeare uses “Bullingbrook.”
ALAN: All my references use “Bolingbroke”! I have a Complete Shakespeare (not a distinguished edition), Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare and a 1966 Britannica (Volume 11 – Halicar to Impala). Henry was actually born at Bolingbroke Castle in Lincolnshire. The castle is long gone, but the modern day village of New Bolingbroke (yes, that is the official spelling) is alive and well.
JANE: How very odd… Hang on while I rummage a bit. Ah, hah!
The notes in my text (The Riverside Shakespeare) offer a few insights: “The form Bolingbroke, common in modern editions, never occurs in the early texts; it was first employed by Pope in the early eighteenth century. Its adoption by succeeding editors has led to a good deal of uncertainty about the pronunciation.”
So we’re both right and should continue in our chosen course! Happiness!
ALAN: Now, where was I? Oh yes…
Henry Bolingbroke was part of an unsuccessful rebellion against King Richard in 1387. Surprisingly, Richard took no action against Henry at that time, though later he did execute many of the other ringleaders. Perhaps he came to regret his clemency…
JANE: I’m seeing some interesting parallels to Shakespeare’s own time, but I’ll wait a moment, so as not to interrupt the flow. Please, go on.
ALAN: Righto. Henry spent the next few years abroad. He participated in the siege of Vilnius, the capital of Latvia, and he went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He took a vow to lead a crusade to free Jerusalem from the infidels, but he never followed through on that vow.
JANE: So many did take that vow and didn’t succeed. I don’t think we can hold that against either Henry Bullingbrook or Henry IV, as he became later, although that vow does have some interesting ramifications later on.
ALAN: In 1399, after the death of Henry’s father, John of Gaunt, Richard confiscated the Lancastrian estates. This gave Henry the perfect excuse to raise another army in rebellion against Richard. Henry quickly defeated the king’s forces and imprisoned Richard. Richard abdicated and Henry declared himself king. Richard died in prison in mysterious circumstances, almost certainly at Henry’s instigation.
After his death, Richard’s body was put on public display to prove to everyone that he was truly dead. However, the conspiracy theorists of the day ignored that inconvenient evidence, and for many years afterwards rumours continued to circulate that he was still alive and actively attempting to take back his throne.
Rather like Elvis, really…
JANE: Long live rock and roll!
Before we move into the actual reign of Henry IV, there are a bunch of interesting points I’d love to touch on. We’ve talked a lot about why Shakespeare skipped certain of the king Henries, even when, like Henry II, their lives seemed set up to provide the best sort of drama. However, even more than most modern writers, Shakespeare had to take care not to offend the reigning power structure. After all, not only were they his patrons, they could have him executed for fomenting rebellion or for treason.
So, while the life of Henry II was dangerous ground, the life of Henry IV was fertile and interesting. Like Richard II, Elizabeth I faced the problem of a charismatic rival with a claim to the throne in Mary Queen of Scots.
ALAN: My English teacher at school made this point to us very strongly. Shakespeare lived in turbulent times. Plays could be (and were) censored and sometimes banned, and playwrights lived under the threat of imprisonment or worse. Anything that flattered the reigning monarch had to be a good thing and Shakespeare’s plays are full of such references.
JANE: Good teacher! Literature enjoyed in context is a great way to immerse yourself in the vagaries of history.
Although many plays and movies have shown Elizabeth and Mary meeting, actually, they never did. Did Elizabeth regret finally ordering the execution of her cousin? We’ll never know, but I think in Shakespeare’s portrayal of Henry IV’s usurpation of the throne of a sympathetic (if somewhat weak) monarch and that monarch’s eventual execution, Shakespeare was supporting Elizabeth and her choices – that basically sometimes monarchs need to remove rivals lest they cause trouble in the future.
And, as you noted, even dead, even with his body on public display, Richard II continued to haunt the reign of Henry IV.
ALAN: The parallels are clear and they would not have been lost on the audiences of the day.
JANE: It’s also interesting to note that friends of the Earl of Essex arranged for a revival of Richard II on the eve of his rebellion. Many feel this was intended as propaganda, meant to make the residents of London rise up in support of the Earl. If so, it failed. Yet Elizabeth did not overlook this. A few months following the failed rebellion, she remarked that she herself was Richard.
ALAN: She was a smart lady!
JANE: Shakespeare’s Richard II is rare among Shakespeare’s historical plays in that a strong argument can be make for it also being a tragedy in the classic sense where a “fatal flaw” undermines the main character and leads to his eventual destruction. This cannot be said for many of Shakespeare’s historical plays, which are “just” ripping good dramas with a historical foundation. For academics, who like to divide things into neat compartments, The Tragedy of King Richard the Second raises arguments.
ALAN: Richard was his own worst enemy. After supressing the rebellion of 1387, he ruled peacefully and well for some eight years or so. Then, for no readily apparent reason, he started to take his revenge on the rebels, executing some and exiling others. This created much resentment. His confiscation of the Lancastrian estates was the final straw that gave Henry the excuse he needed to take the throne. Some historians have suggested that Richard was insane, but it seems more likely that he suffered from a personality disorder verging on paranoia.
JANE: Absolutely! Shakespeare certainly shows this unevenness. In modern terms, the Shakespeare’s Richard’s fatal flaw is self-delusion. Repeatedly, throughout the play, he speaks of the title, the trappings, and the symbols, as if these are all it takes to make a king. He cannot believe that the crown will not protect its wearer and, even when he abdicates, still claims for himself some remnants of the title.
Shakespeare makes clear that Richard II was not a bad man – something he could not have done if he’d chosen to show him as an insane paranoid. The scenes with his wife are particularly touching. However, Richard was a bad king, unwilling to accept the responsibilities that went with his titles. No wonder the people of London did not rise up to support the Earl of Essex against Elizabeth I. Whatever her flaws, she was a monarch who took her duties very seriously. No one could compare her to Richard II. Indeed, the effort might have hurt the rebellion, because anyone seeing the play would assess Elizabeth in her best light.
ALAN: And it helped that Elizabeth was a very, very popular and well-loved monarch.
JANE: When we started, you mentioned that the drama associated with Henry IV’s accession to the throne was probably the reason why Shakespeare devoted three plays to him. That’s true to a point, but Richard II is about that accession. The next two plays, Henry IV, Parts One and Two, deal with the difficulties of holding onto a throne when you have usurped it. I’d love to take a closer look at the historical realities underlying Shakespeare’s Henry plays next time. Are you game?