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Honor in Richard II

December 9, 2016

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's blog.

Last week was the first of four scheduled discussions of Harrison Middleton University's film course on The Hollow Crown series. Ben Whishaw portrays Richard II in Shakespeare's play by the same name. In it, Bolingbroke (Henry IV) steals the throne from Richard II. Shakespeare grants beautifully sad speeches of longing to Richard as he falls from grace. Whishaw delivers these lines with excellence. As the play progresses, the viewer comes to understand Richard's fragility and gentle nature. The movie reinforces his character while brilliantly adhering to the text. It also delivers a host of excellent actors, rich landscapes, costumes and settings.

More than all of these excellent traits, however, the viewer sees the development of Richard's complex character. The struggle for honor begins from the very first scene when Richard's path undeniably intertwines with Bolingbroke's (the future Henry IV). As soon as Richard banishes Bolingbroke, their honors are joined. It seems clear that from this point forward neither can be totally honorable, but also that they must gain honor only at the other's expense. Cleary, Richard does not understand the meaning of honor at the beginning of the play. When Bolingbroke accuses Mowbray of treason, Richard does not fully grasp the severity of the situation. Further, when Bolinbroke and Mowbray agree to settle the dispute via joust, King Richard intervenes at the last possible moment. In other words, in their moment of glory (or death), Richard has stolen their ability to attain honor. It is unclear from the play and the movie, why exactly he stops the fight. When he speaks to them in his private tent, Richard decides that banishment is the best course of action. Richard's behavior thus far is highly irregular for a king. It is not until the third act, after Bolingbroke returns with an army, that Richard begins to understand the frailty of his position.

It is true that Richard was unconventional, and by all accounts, not a very good king. He was a bit amoral, proven by the fact that he wished for Gaunt's death (his own uncle), in order to take his money and land without a fight. Furthermore, he drained all of England's funds without replenishing the source of money. At the very least, people were dismayed at his leadership, but until Bolingbroke returned with an army, Richard was the unquestioned, divinely appointed king. One could say that Richard's lack of honor was his undoing.

Ironically, then, Bolingbroke's intense desire to maintain his reputation and honor, causes destruction of another kind. It is nearly the inverse of Richard's lack of care regarding reputation. For one, reputation has been maintained via integrity and struggle. For the other, divine rights have always granted him position, title, money and prestige. Richard did not struggle and therefore, does not understand the cost of its loss. And yet, with his fall, Richard fully grasps what he could not previously understand. In that fall, then, Richard attains a kind of honor only possible through a struggle of this kind.

In beginning to comprehend his loss, Richard claims that the grasp for honor reaches through a hollow crown and cycles endlessly. Richard says,

“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; / Some poison'd by their wives; some sleeping kill'd;/ 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/ Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,/ Allowing him a breath, a little scene,/ To monarchize, be fear'd, and kill with looks,/ Infusing him with self and vain conceit,/ As if this flesh which walls about our life/ Were brass impregnable, and humour'd thus/ Comes at the last and with a little pin/ Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!”

A little too late, Richard realizes power's fragility and his own mortality. Richard mistakenly assumed that honor was his without the need to grasp at it. Death sits atop this crown, no matter who wears it. As he fully comprehends the weakness of his situation, he understands the shame that he is to bear and in bearing it, gains a bit of honor.

In a later scene, Richard is forced to publicly crown Bolingbroke. Here, the viewer sees Bolingbroke's hand grasp the metallic crown in the same way that it grasps a sword or lance. He fights and in fighting gains reputation and prestige. This honor is different from Richard's, yet bound up in the same name, in the same hollow circle, adorned and empty, death lurking. King Henry IV comes to find that he cannot trust others and that fighting now defines him. In handing the crown to Bolingbroke, Richard says,

“Here, cousin, seize the crown;/ Here cousin;/ On this side my hand, and on that side yours/ Now is this golden crown like a deep well/ That owes two buckets, filling one another,/ The emptier ever dancing in the air,/ The other down, unseen, and full of water:/ That bucket down and full of tears am I,/ Drinking my griefs, whilst you mount up on high.”

This image of a bucket balancing in the air can be filled by anyone, as Richard now knows. Bolingbroke believes that honorable leadership will grant him peace and stability. He does not envision the damage that he has caused by unnaturally usurping the throne and, moreover, by causing such a rift within his own bloodline. And yet, if Bolingbroke had not tried to reclaim his lands and possessions, he would be bound by dishonor and poverty. All this because Richard did not see the repercussions of an argument of treason, and because he could not stomach the fight between two kinsmen.

These two characters, these two opposites, beautifully demonstrate honor's fluid nature. To be human is to err. Shakespeare uncovers an important truth in the comparison of Bolingbroke and Richard: that our fortunes are bound inexorably with one another's. Bolingbroke's path is set in motion by an unthinking Richard. And Richard gains honor only in his fall at the hands of Bolingbroke.

You will not regret dedicating some study to these plays. If you have the time, please join us for our next discussion of Henry IV, Part 1, on January 12, 2017. Email rfisher@hmu.edu for more information.

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