The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 14.1297 Thursday, 26 June 2003
From: Keith Hopkins <
Date: Wednesday, 25 Jun 2003 19:45:41 +0100
Subject: Richard and Bolingbroke
Medieval Historians still cannot agree on what worth Bolingbrok's real
intentions when he decided without Richards authority to return to
England from exile. My own view is that Bolingbroke did indeed harbour
designs on the crown.
Bolingbroke was a shrewd and skillful political operator, something of
a crowd pleaser and he was fully aware that Richards arbitrary
mismanagement of the realm and disrespect for conditions and property
rights of the barons was creating a constitutional crises that
Bolingbroke with his ruthless eye for the main chance could exploit to
stunning advantage for himself.
The interesting point is, I think, that Richard for all his faults, may
well have been aware of just this point of the danger posed by
Bolingbroke, which is why he exiled him in the first place.
This is a theme I have developed in my soon to be finished book on all
Shakespeares Roman and English History Plays. Basically the idea is that
the quarrel between Mowbray and Bolongbroke was pretty much manufactured
by Bolingbroke when he accuses Mowbray of being in effect a traitor,
because he knows that this will inevitably lead to a trial by combat,
which it does, though it is aborted by Richard who does not wish to see
his principle supporter, Mowbray risked being killed by Bolingbroke, his
principle critic and opponent, even at that time.
It is a terrible no win situation for Richard which Bolingbroke
deliberately engineers in order to discomfort and undermine Richards
rule and one can only think with the ulterior motive that Boligbroke
wishes to unseat Richard and make himself King. If Bolingbroke were
to win the trial by combat, it would have dealt, I suggest in my book, a
devastating blow to Richard.
According to the theory of trial by combat, Bolingbroke overcoming
Mowbray would prove that Richards most loyal, powerful and richest
supporter was a traitor all along, and not only would this undermine
what the medievals called, the Kings Worship and confidence or credit
by people in his reign. It would also imperil the slender support of
his rule amongst the barons.
If Mowbray won, almost certainly a civil war would have been in the
offing. The gaunt Bolingbroke Lancastrian family was vastly wealthy and
can call out a following of many thousands of armed retainers and
tenants in addition to wide support among the barons.
True, there would have been no natural leader of the opposition party ot
Richard if Bolingbroke had died and young Hal his son was a mere slip
of a lad of around 10 years of age, and we all know that his youthful
foibles probably debarred him certainly at that early age from leading a
revolt against Richard, though I think it is pretty clear a leader
probably would have emerged from among the barons who certainly were not
completely a boorish and illiterate lot, as it is often supposed.
It was all an impossible situation for Richard and in my view he
responded with a degree of statesmanship that is never really been given
credit for, unfortunately, his friend and supporter had to be exiled for
life, which I agree is a poor reward for this noble and valiant knight,
whom Shakespeare plays a touching tribute to in the play, when he
reports his death on the crusade, but the simple fact is that Mowbray
had to go because there was no other way to even temporarily diffuse
the potent threat to his crown, that was posed by Bolingbroke. Yes,
by sending Mowbray away he further weakened the support for his rule,
but the fact is that even with Mowbray's support, he almost certainly
could not defeat the vast powerbase that Bolingbroke represented, and
his only hope, wrong though we can see this in retrospect, was to try to
reach an accomodation with Bolingbroke, hence the reduced period of his
exile. Ok, we can see at best , it was only a temporary solution and
Richard then goes and does something which is very Richard, by illegally
seizing Bolingbroke's estates, which is an act of the most stunning act
of misjudgement, because Richard naively thought that if he seized
these goods he would also be appropriate in being supportive. But the
aborted trial by combat avoided a terrible confrontation between Richard
and his enemies and much blood shed, and don't forget, Richard's
abdication can also be seen as Richards deliberately choosing to avoid
civil conflict and unnecessary deaths.
Bolingbroke does want the return of his land, but far more than that.
Anyway, even if it was only his land he wanted the shear vastness of his
estates and power made him a claimant for the throne, which Richard was
aware of, and probably why he seized the land in the first place, and
Bolingbroke was returning in direct defiance of the ban that he had been
laid under by Richard and his return therefore, is a flagrant assault on
the Kings authority, and both men know this, and it can only be the case
that one or other has to give way. Interestingly, Richard throws in the
towel, pretty much without a fight, and Bolingbroke's Grandson Henry the
V1, does the same, in act 1. scene 1, of Henry the V1 part 3, in the
face of Yorkist threats.
Richards bows to the inevitability of these overwhelming military and
political power, and throws in the towel.
All along I believe, both men have been aware of the deadly game that
has been played out right from the start when Bolingbroke first accused
Mowbray, and my view, Bolinbroke is always the man who would be King.
The return form exile to seek return of his lands is therefore just a
code for his supporters and Richard to understand what he really means.
I saw the Globe production, and thought that Mark Rylance as Richard 11
was simply brilliant, and the actor playing Bolingbroke was indeed very,
I agree Bolingbroke seems surprised when Richard abdicates, but then,
Bolingbroke was a man with many layers of self delusion and self
deception, and even such an able exponent of the art of realpolitik
would baulk at the idea of deposing the legitimate successor to the
Black Prince and a man born clearly in the purple so openly and against
so much legal form and precedent.
Bolingbroke's discomfort with deposing Richard is the canker that gnaws
away at him, and his remorse for what he has done is a theme of the
He just cannot be seen to be actively and openly working to overthrow
the lawful King. Bolingbroke is very much a man with a divided self,
and man of contradictions, which Shakespeare in his brilliant manner,
only elliptically suggests in the play, by the frequent silences by
Bolingbroke in the play when Richard does all the talking.
I doesn't seem to me to be muddling anything, rather it is subtly
suggesting in its nuances the complex realities of the political
symmetry between both characters.
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