revolutionary art

Comments on Richard II without exception identify the play’s usurper as Henry Bolingbroke, who deposed King Richard in 1399. This is historically correct: the Earl of March, Richard’s little nephew Edmund Mortimer, was at the time the first in line of succession. The boy being too young to answer the realm’s urgent need for a strong ruler, served Bolingbroke as the justification to seize the crown for himself. But I wouldn’t recommend to apply this knowledge when analysing the play; it doesn’t even mention young Edmund to begin with.

The next point of interest is that King Richard violates the law by confiscating all property his full cousin Bolingbroke was entitled to inherit from his father John of Gaunt. This is also recorded history, but Shakespeare Studies tend to forget that ‘usurpation’ is a legal term for illegally taking possession in general. A fact that enables the author to reverse the obvious as if he were a barrister: when the king is forced into restitution of what does not legaly belongs to him, the play has him to add voluntarily his crown to the returned valuables. Of course he has no option but to abdicate; abuse of power to squeeze money out of people fully justifies impeachment from any governmental office. Him to step down in favour of Bolingbroke, however, is an artistic liberty that presents Henry IV as the legitimate successor.

When Shakespeare wrote this play in 1595 this was a sound opinion, because the reigning monarch for her legitimacy in the end depended on Bolingbroke’s. In 1601, however, this special account of the violent 1399 transfer of power served as the upbeat for armed rebellion; in a performance by the very same theatre company that only thirty-two days before had accused Queen Elizabeth I of usurpation.

Leaving little doubt that the author of Twelfth-Night has been deeply involved in the preparations to make Essex the next Bolingbroke.

Klaas Alberts
© 21 March 1996


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