Richard II

Hamilton, William. The Landing of Richard II at Milford Haven. circa 1793-1800.

  • Play title: The Life and Death of King Richard the Second.
  • Author: William Shakespeare 
  • Published: 1597 (quarto edition)  
  • Page count: 61

Summary.

The play tells the story of England’s King Richard II who succeeded to the throne aged just ten years old and who was deposed in 1399. Histrionic, effeminate, extravagant, and Christ-like are just a few of the familiar descriptions of Shakespeare’s King Richard and the king’s depiction is certainly vivid and poetic. Much of Shakespeare’s historical information comes from Raphael Holinshed’s book named Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland. However, the Bard deviates somewhat from the historical facts. Shakespeare’s Richard is half historical, half invented, and wholly engaging.

The play opens on a dispute between Thomas Mowbray and Henry Bolingbroke (later King Henry IV). The source of the dispute is the murder of the Duke of Gloucester for which Bolingbroke holds Mowbray responsible (and by extension, Richard II). The king chooses to exile both men to France to avoid civil unrest. Then, to help fund a war in Ireland, Richard seizes the lands of Bolingbroke’s recently deceased father (John of Gaunt) and this leads to unrest and eventually Henry’s return, accompanied by an army, to claim his rightful inheritance. Bolingbroke seizes not just his father’s former lands but all of England when Richard quickly understands his weak position and abdicates.

Ways to access the text: reading/watching/listening

The text of Richard II is freely available online, for example, one may go to The Folger Shakespeare website to read the full text. Alternatively, Project Gutenberg or The Open Library also carry the text.

If you choose to watch a film version, then there is The Hollow Crown (2012) TV series with the first episode covering Richard II’s story. This version stars Ben Wishaw and is directed by Rupert Goold. It has a running time of 2hrs 22mins.

Audio versions of the play are available via YouTube, for instance, “Richard II by William Shakespeare – Starring John Gielgud – 1960” which has a running time of 2hrs 33mins.

Why read/watch/listen to Richard II?

The role of advisors

The downfall of King Richard II is often attributed to Bushy, Baggot, Greene, and the Earl of Wiltshire, who were the king’s advisors. As Northumberland says, “The King is not himself, but basely led, / By flatterers” (2.1.241-242). When Henry Bolingbroke later sentences Bushy and Greene to death, he justifies the sentence by saying “You have misled a Prince, a royal King” (3.1.8). However, Shakespeare does not supply any evidence of the king being misled, indeed, there is nothing in the text to substantiate the claims of Richard’s enemies. The king’s flawed decisions may be either solely his own work, or like Bolingbroke and others contend, they may be the fault of his advisors. It is historically true that Richard led an extravagant and expensive lifestyle and that the was implicated in the murder of his uncle, the Duke of Gloucester – ample reasons for many to hate him. However, the play presents us with an interpretative choice about who is really at fault and why exactly Richard fails as king and is forced to abdicate.

The queer king

Richard II is often read as a queer character. This will be unsurprising to many readers since, as Charles R. Forker notes, “Among twentieth-century actors, … the tradition of playing Richard as homosexual has steadily evolved” (16). In a similar vein but less flattering, Madhavi Menon writes of how “Laurence Olivier allegedly identified King Richard ‘as an out-and-out pussy queer, with mincing gestures to match’” (667). It is true that Shakespeare depicts Richard as theatrical and verbose, but how the character is played on stage often enhances the queer dimension. While Richard is queer in several respects from his effeminacy to his histrionics, he still evades an easy classification when it comes specifically to sexual orientation. The king’s sexuality remains a contentious subject for academics. To identify one of Shakespeare’s leading characters as queer, and to pinpoint the exact elements of queerness he exhibits is certainly thought provoking, and this adds to the pleasure of the play.

Post-reading discussion/interpretation.

King Richard II and cousin Aumerle.

Introduction.

Richard II is not the best known of Shakespeare’s plays but has nonetheless received considerable critical attention. There are myriad interpretative approaches to this work. For example, Madhavi Menon writes that “Richard II is usually read either as a metaphor for kingship, Christianity, poetry, and the like – or else through its metaphors of garden, mirror, and clock, among others” (653). Menon delves into the interlinked topics of rhetoric and sexuality as they apply to the play and his emphasis is on metonymy. Another popular approach to the play is to look at the historical aspect since Richard is not just a play character but an historical one too. Jeremy Lopez summarizes Shakespeare’s approach to the historical story, writing that, “The plot of Richard II in no way depends upon the, or any, historical record, though the playwright’s assessment of the importance of the historical record was certainly instrumental in the play’s conception” (222). Sylvia Federico also looks to history and how the story of Richard has solidified as somewhat one-sided over the centuries, writing,  “For those authors charged with explaining the Lancastrian usurpation of the throne in 1399, Richard II deserved to be deposed. He was said by these writers to be tyrannical, extravagant, mercurial, foppish, and alternatingly wilful or spineless – characteristics that have largely persisted in the historical and popular imagination ever since” (25). Since the play contains many fine and poetic speeches as well as interesting characterizations, there are a slew of fine essays on the work with sometimes complementary and sometimes contrasting interpretations.

Richard II is a tragedy (in all but name), and many academics focus on the king’s coterie of advisors when allocating blame for his fall. This is a well-established approach to the play. The king’s chief advisors are named Bushy, Bagot, Greene, and the Earl of Wiltshire. Paul Gaudet writes of how historical records, which were often biased as Federico has already noted above, would have shaped Shakespeare’s play. Gaudet explains that “Bolingbroke’s harsh and summary justice is certainly vindicated by the historical judgment that Shakespeare inherited. Shakespeare’s written sources consistently associate Richard’s downfall with the injustices and prodigality urged upon him by his lubricious favorites” (142). In a similar vein, Stanley R. Maveety writes that, “In Richard II flattery and bad advice are cited as a principal cause of Richard’s failure, and his favorites, Bushy, Bagot, and Green, who are responsible for that bad advice, are often characterized by serpent imagery” (185). These various essays on Richard II are well grounded and often scintillating, however, they rarely engage with the figure of Aumerle, Richard’s cousin and also a close advisor. It is arguable that Aumerle holds the most sway over the king and therefore he is more deserving of close analysis than the advisors previously mentioned. In this essay, I will establish an argument for Aumerle’s primacy as the king’s advisor, an argument that requires one to critique the more accepted, traditional stance that Bushy, Bagot, Greene and the Earl of Wiltshire lie behind the king’s downfall.

Before gauging the persuasive strength of any individual advisor to King Richard, it is first necessary to look to the text to discover how amenable the king was to advice in general, be it good or bad. The fact that Richard is politically astute and skeptical of sugared words is apparent from the opening lines of the play. When Bolingbroke and Mowbray are brought before the king to settle their dispute, both men express their good wishes to the monarch to which he replies – “We thank you both – yet one but flatters us” (1.1.25). Flattery is exposed immediately as a potential lie. Much later, Richard is at Flint Castle and in a defeatist mood having just heard that York has sided with Bolingbroke. Aumerle attempts to soothe Richard but, once again, the response shows the king’s alertness to untruths wrapped in flattery – “He does me double wrong / That wounds me with the flatteries of his tongue” (3.2.209-210). At this point in the play, the king has expressed the command that his followers be discharged from their duties and he intends, it seems, to abdicate. The resoluteness of the king is clear from his words, “Let no man speak again / To alter this, for counsel is but vain” (3.2.206-207). This character does not correspond with the easily-swayed dupe that his enemies frequently portray in the text. With this insight in mind, plus the lack of any proof of detrimental advice being provided to the king, one is forced to look more closely at why the king would react favourably to particular advice, or to a particular advisor.

As will be discussed, the king’s advisors prove to be excellent, political scapegoats but only because they lead to the king’s downfall at the hands of his enemies. When Northumberland speaks with his comrades, Willoughby and Ross, he makes the initial claim that, “The King is not himself, but basely led, / By flatterers” (2.1.241-242). Such words frighten Northumberland’s comrades since malign advisors are dangerous. When Bolingbroke finally sentences Bushy and Greene to death, he vindicates the sentence with the allegation – “You have misled a prince, a royal king (3.1.8). There is, however, no straightforward evidence of bad advice in the play. What is apparent is that the decisions Richard makes have detrimental consequences. York notes on two occasions that the king will reap what he has sown. Firstly, York comprehends the gross error of the king in seizing Bolingbroke’s rightful inheritance, saying, “You pluck a thousand dangers on your head; You lose a thousand well-disposed hearts” (2.1.205-206). When Bolingbroke does predictably return to England to claim his estate, York makes the following ominous remark about Richard, “Now comes the sick hour that his surfeit made; Now shall he try his friends that flattered him” (2.2.83-84). Richard’s chief mistake is clearly his seizure of John of Gaunt’s lands since this precipitates the circumstances of his own downfall. Did someone convince Richard to take this crucial decision? What is evident from Shakespeare’s text is that the king is a strong and cautions character not easily led into decisions he has not first amply considered. This leaves the question of Aumerle’s influence as one of many flatterers and advisors surrounding the monarch. If the king is not susceptible to sycophantic, self-interested minions then what is distinctive about Aumerle’s friendship and advice that sustains a reading of this character as eminently important? We shall endeavor to understand in this essay but to do so, one must first dissect the older argument about who is to blame for Richard’s downfall.

The advisors/flatterers.

There is a dichotomy between viewpoints on the king’s advisors – Bushy, Bagot, Greene, and the Earl of Wiltshire. They are considered either chiefly responsible for the king’s downfall, or they are absolved of all blame. These four characters, normally grouped together,  have received much attention in academic writings and a reader is amply supplied with interpretative angles. For instance, Madhavi Menon looks at the metaphor of weeds in the play, writing, “Both Bullingbrook and the gardener spell out their metaphorical intent and tell us, in no uncertain terms, the identity of the caterpillars and weeds. Bushy, Bagot, Green, and the Earl of Wiltshire” (665). Menon interprets the advisors as significantly influential, maybe even sexual partners of Richard’s, and thereby lays much blame on them. Derrick Higginbotham also focuses on the garden scene and writes, “Wiltshire, Bushy and Green are among those who consume the king, eating him insofar as he represents the kingdom as the whole. From this angle, these favourites of the king instigate the dissolution of the kingdom, just as much as Richard’s own desires do” (63). Sylvia Federico summarizes the role of the advisors as follows, “Rejecting the older, wiser men who were said to constitute the inner circle of Edward III, Richard II instead — according to the major chroniclers — surrounded himself with young and frivolous men. These advisers were considered dangerous to the king and to the realm, and were discussed with language that underscored the particularly sexual type of danger that they represented” (28). There are other academics who have given an opposing view of the advisors, for instance Paul Gaudet, who writes, “There is a conspicuous lack of any action or speech by the favorites that might depict their guilt and substantiate the charges leveled against them” (144). In fact, Gaudet believes that Shakespeare meant us to interpret the advisors as minor figures – “By dramatizing the favorites as passive attendants to the King, Shakespeare isolates Richard’s willfulness: he listens to no counsel, good or bad” (145). Charles R. Forker tackles a common interpretive approach to the advisors, writing “Although no tendency to sexual misconduct is ever staged in the play (Richard is portrayed throughout as passionately devoted and faithful to his consort), supporters of the homosexual interpretation have seized upon Bolingbroke’s charge, when he condemns them to death, that Bushy and Greene have been erotically involved with the king” (16-17). Forker goes on to explain that “In context, this allegation [sexual misconduct] must be taken as an act of political scapegoating on Bolingbroke’s part, a device introduced to turn audience sympathy away from the usurper” (17). These various interpretations highlight how much of a focal point the advisors hold in the play when seeking the root cause of Richard’s downfall. Unfortunately, critics rarely look further than the classic options of blaming either the king alone or his flattering advisors, so no third way of viewing the dynamic is presented. If Aumerle holds a stronger position of influence over Richard than the four men mentioned then recognizing a differentiating factor between the advisors, namely between Aumerle and the four, is salient.

The favourites versus Aumerle.

Shakespeare portrays a conspicuous split between Bagot and Aumerle. This split emerges quite dramatically when Bagot is brought before Bolingbroke to answer the new king’s interrogations. Bagot is the equivalent of a modern day ‘star witness’ who will provide vital information to Bolingbroke who needs to solidify his regal position. The mystery to be solved is still Gloucester’s death and this is the same crime that opened the drama and which Richard is suspected of commanding. In the following quote, Bolingbroke uses the phrase ‘wrought it’ which in modern English means persuaded/collaborated with:

Bolingbroke: “Now, Bagot, freely speak thy mind

What thou dost know of noble Gloucester’s death 

Who wrought it with the king, and who performed

The bloody office of this timeless end”

Bagot: “Then set before my face the Lord Aumerle” (4.1.2-6)

In Bagot’s subsequent speech, he makes not one but two major charges against Aumerle. The first is the accusation that Aumerle is behind the death of Gloucester – “I heard you [Aumerle] say ‘Is not my arm of length, / That reacheth from the restful English Court /As far as Calais, to mine uncle’s head?’ ” (4.1.11-13). The second charge relates to the new king, Bagot says – “I heard you [Aumerle] say that you had rather refuse / The offer of an hundred thousand crowns / Than Bolingbroke’s return to England” (4.1.15-17). Fitzwater and others support Bagot’s claim relating to Gloucester’s death but Surrey defends Aumerle and therefore Aumerle suffers no immediate punishment since the disagreement will be settled later by man to man combat. Bolingbroke states that “Your differences shall all rest under gage / Till we assign you to your days of trial” (4.1.10-111). The significance of these accusations is that Aumerle is revealed to be behind the biggest decision of King Richard’s, namely the execution of Gloucester, a death that ultimately costs Richard his crown. It was Bolingbroke’s charge against Mowbray concerning the same murder that first implicated the king, led to Bolingbroke’s banishment, and finally to the clash between Bolingbroke and Richard. Additionally, one learns that Bolingbroke is anathema to Aumerle. From the split that emerges between the different camps of advisors, thought previously to be one unified group, one discovers the primary source of Richard’s advice and it is Aumerle.

In addition to Bagot heaping blame upon Aumerle, the confession also illuminates the fact that Bolingbroke’s earlier charges against Bushy, Greene, and the Earl of Wiltshire (all executed now) represents contradictory information. On that occasion, Bolingbroke’s charge against them was that they “did make him [King Richard] misinterpret me” (3.1.18) which he explains as the cause of his banishment and the loss of his rightful inheritance. Yet, Bagot has just revealed that Aumerle is Bolingbroke’s true enemy and therefore more deserving of responsibility for Bolingbroke’s fall from grace than the lesser nobles who were executed. Aumerle has the ear of the king and Bagot’s revelations unveil the power the king’s cousin wields.

The above reading which lays all blame at Aumerle’s feet is not the conventional approach to the play. Some critics, lacking evidence of Bushy, Bagot, Greene, and the Earl of Wiltshire’s influence, focus instead on Richard’s dramatic response to their deaths as tangential evidence of their power. The particular scene is in Act 3,Scene 2 when Richard returns from Ireland and Salisbury advises him that his return is one day too late and he has lost the support of twelve thousand men because of a rumour of his death. Richard enquires after his advisors and pessimistically considers – “I warrant they have made peace with Bolingbroke” (3.2.122). Scroop’s response leads Richard to misinterpret the situation, believing the men have indeed betrayed him, leading to the following, memorable outburst.

“O villains, vipers, damned without redemption!

Dogs easily won to fawn on any man;

Snakes in my heart blood warmed, that sting my heart;

Three Judases, each one thrice worse than Judas –

Would they make peace? Terrible hell make war

Upon their spotted souls for this offense! (3.2.124-129).

Scroop, realizing that the king has misinterpreted his response, adds the following:

“Sweet love, I see, changing his property,

Turns to the sourest and most deadly hate.

Again uncurse their souls. Their peace is made

With heads and not with hands. (3.2.130.133).

It is not unusual for readers to attach great significance to Scroop’s use of the term ‘sweet love’ to denote the king’s affection for the men. The basic analysis of Scroop’s words is that only great love can undergo the reverse alchemical change to pure hate. The king immediately proceeds to give his famous ‘hollow crown’ speech which is quite melancholy and forebodes his final defeat. Madhavi Menon reads the scene as follows , “As in Holinshed, the death of King Richard’s friends is the straw that breaks the camel’s back; Scroop aptly describes King Richard’s condition when he says: ‘Sweet love, I see, changing his property, / Turns to the sourest and most deadly hate.’ The extremities of King Richard’s emotions are reserved for Bushy, Bagot, Green, and the Earl of Wiltshire” (669). However, an alternative viewpoint is that Richard has little faith in the men to begin with, presuming all too quickly that they betrayed him, like fawning  dogs with a new owner. This corroborates the idea that Richard is always cautious of flattery and understands the fickle nature of advisors. If one looks to the actual content of the ‘hollow crown’ soliloquy then it does not concern the dead men but focuses instead on Richard’s own imminent death – “Our lands, our lives, and all are Bolingbroke’s, / And nothing can we call our own but death” (3.2.156-157). This is not the speech of a man lamenting the loss of his royal advisors but a king fearing the loss of his own throne and life. The responsibility of the advisors’ rests upon demonstrable bad advice and the king’s love, but these twin pillars crumble when one looks closely for evidence. Only Richard’s enemies heap blame on the advisors, and we have little beyond these accusations to support the claim.

Aumerle

Aumerle, the king’s cousin, generally receives little attention and yet is a figure of great power and influence. The play’s character Aumerle also echoes the real-life historical figure. In Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, we learn who were the influential advisors to the king – “cheefe of his councell, were estéemed of the commons to be the woorst creatures that might be, as the dukes of Aumarle, Norfolke and Excester, the earle of Wiltshire, sir Iohn Bushie, sir William Bagot, and sir Thomas Gréene” (844). Whereas these seven characters may not have been deemed wholesome in the eyes of their peers, it is salient to know which of them wielded the greatest power. Holinshed informs us that “The king had little trust in any of the nobilitie, except in his brother the earle of Huntington, and the earle of Rutland sonne to the duke of Yorke, and in the earle of Salisburie: in these onelie he reposed a confidence, and not in any other, except in certeine knights and gentlemen of his priuie chamber” (839). The Rutland spoken of here is the Aumerle of Shakespeare’s play who is referred to as Rutland at the end of the play due to his changed circumstances. The historical record which Shakespeare relied upon for the foundation of his play and the resulting fictional characterization of Aumerle, both indicate a power figure in the royal household. Having established Aumerle’s influence, one must still ask how his role differs significantly, if at all, from the other royal advisors? One important difference is that Aumerle’s continuous loyalty to the king costs him dearly, indicating that he is not simply one who proffers empty, flattering words. We learn of the change in Aumerle’s circumstances when the Duchess of York addresses her son by his old title and York corrects her as follows – “Aumerle that was; / But that is lost for being Richard’s friend, / And, madam, you must call him Rutland now” (5.2.41-43). Not only does Aumerle pay a considerable price for his loyalty to Richard II, namely a title and lands, but he professes to not care. This is revealed when his mother questions him on who the new group of favourites are, now that Bolingbroke is in power –

Duchess: “Welcome, my son. Who are

the violets now

That strew the green lap of the new-come spring?

Aumerle: Madam, I know not, nor I greatly care not.

God knows I had as lief be none as one” (5.2.46-49).

Aumerle’s rejection of the role of favourite displays the depth of character he possesses. There is additional evidence to support this reading since Aumerle is the man who urges the plan to unseat Bolingbroke who is Richard’s illegitimate successor. One first witnesses this when Aumerle, upon hearing of Bolingbroke’s plans for a coronation, addresses the Abbot of Westminster, saying – “You holy clergymen, is there no plot / To rid the realm of this pernicious blot?” (4.1.317-318). The plot that emerges comes almost to fruition but Aumerle’s father, York, intercepts his son’s machinations and denounces his offspring as follows – “Treason, foul treason! Villain! traitor! slave!” (5.2.72). York informs his wife, and later Bolingbroke, that Aumerle and the other plotters, “set down their hands [signed a treasonous plan] / To kill the King at Oxford” (5.2.98-99). York’s plea for the new king to be cautious encapsulates the risks of political life – “Forget to pity him, lest thy pity prove / A serpent that will sting thee to the heart” (5.3.57-58). This plea is not remiss if one looks back to Aumerle’s covertly ruthless advice to King Richard to dispatch with his enemy, saying, “Bolingbroke, through our security, / Grows strong and great in substance and in power” (2.1). The king’s cousin, Aumerle, is a key power-broker. Even though he rejects the role of favourite, he offers the most germane advice in the play, namely for the king to rid himself of the threat of Bolingbroke. When this advice is not followed and Bolingbroke comes to power, it is Aumerle who again comes to the king’s aid with a plan to murder Bolingbroke.

It is difficult for an audience to appreciate the full scope of the role that Aumerle plays since his influence is obscured by two key decisions by Bolingbroke. Firstly, he does not suffer an immediate punishment for his alleged role in Gloucester’s death and secondly, despite his treachery, he is fully pardoned by Henry IV (Bolingbroke). It is therefore too easy to read Aumerle as a cunning survivor aka a shallow flatterer when one should recognise instead a loyal subject of Richard’s. We have pinpointed Aumerle’s influence on the major decisions of Richard’s late reign, along with an argument to de-prioritize the traditional flatters (Bushy &co), but one is left with the question – why does this single figure hold such influence? To answer this, one must look to the only other significant relationship in Richard’s life, with his wife, and compare it with his relationship with Aumerle.

The fictional queen.

Shakespeare’s Queen Isabella, Richard’s wife, is not a figure whom historians would immediately recognize. She is partly a fabrication. As Robyn Bolam writes, “The historical Richard married his second queen when she was seven years old … Yet, like Samuel Daniel, Shakespeare gave her the voice of an adult woman” (154). Richard II had two wives but neither bore him an heir to the throne. He first married Anne of Bohemia and they were married for twelve years before she died of suspected plague, after which the king married Isabella of Valois. His second queen was not only a child when they married but was still a child at the time of Richard’s death a few years later. By transforming Isabella into an adult in the play, Shakespeare creates a consort who could advise her husband, support him, and importantly, join him in the marriage bed. The absence of such a character in real life meant that Richard would have relied on those closest to him, often men, for support, advice, and comfort. With this information in mind, one may look to two quite remarkably similar scenes in the play where Richard’s interacts with his cousin Aumerle, a true historical figure, and later with his wife, a fabricated figure. What is in question here is the precise nature of the relationship the King has with each character. The fictional queen occupies a phantom space since no such figure existed, and thereby she detracts our attention from the king’s reliance on his closest advisors in real life. One may reject this reading as an imposition of historical fact into a largely fictional play but the characterizations of Aumerle and Isabella also shed light on how Shakespeare intended us to read these figures.

The first scene for analysis is from Act 3, Scene 3, when Richard and Aumerle converse at Flint Castle, North Wales. The second scene is from Act 5, Scene 1, when Richard is a prisoner being brought to the Tower of London and he meets his queen en route. The key points of both conversations touch on subjects like future expectations, advice, death, and love.

Good advice is a key theme of the play and may be assessed in Richard’s interactions with those closest to him. For example, Richard is ashamed of having capitulated so quickly to Bolingbroke’s demands at Flint Castle and asks Aumerle if it would be better to – “send defiance to the traitor, and so die?” (3.3.129-130) to which his friend replies, “No, good my Lord. Let’s fight with gentle words till time lend friends, and friends their helpful swords” (3.3.131-132). There is a marked difference between Aumerle’s strategic advice and the queen’s advice in the later scene when a similarly despondent Richard is scolded when she says, “The lion dying, thrusteth forth his paw / And wounds the earth , if nothing else, with rage” (5.1.29-30). The contrast is that Aumerle is comforting and non-judgmental, while remaining politically savvy in his advice, whereas the queen is primarily concerned with Richard’s unmasculine response to defeat. As Higginbotham writes, “From the start, the play delineates a manhood proper to noblemen and that manhood includes violence as revenge” (65). Isabella spurs Richard to action that would meet one’s stereotypical expectations of a courageous king but Aumerle responds sensitively to the earlier, analogous situation and manages still to offer hope of future victory. Knowing Richard’s nature, both the queen and Aumerle would have come to expect dramatic, solipsistic speeches yet only one of them knows how to respond appropriately. Richard tells Aumerle, “I talk but idly [foolishly], and you mock at me” (3.3.171). In other words, Aumerle does not take the king’s words as meaning defeat but simply as a typical soliloquy from a verbose monarch. The king’s situation has deteriorated significantly between the two scenes and Isabella’s expectation is that her husband should die with honour at this late point rather than accept defeat by Bolingbroke. In contrast, Aumerle is shown to attempt to save Richard right to the end with a new treacherous plan to kill Bolingbroke. In this light, the queen becomes a conventional mouthpiece, voicing standard expectations of warrior-like masculinity, while Aumerle is shown to be a more astute, resourceful, and altogether a more loyal figure.

Richard’s melancholic thoughts on a tragic end shed light on his separate relationships with the queen and Aumerle. When the king contemplates his uncertain future in Aumerle’s presence, he imagines that he will become a poor clergyman whose life will finally be recorded in “a little, little grave, an obscure grave” (3.3.154) or, more sombre, that he will take his own life as suggested by “Or I’ll be buried in the king’s highway” (3.3.155). Suicides were traditionally buried at crossroads. In the second scene, when Richard and his queen must separate, he imagines a religious life for her in the future, “Hie thee to France / And cloister thee in some religious house” (5.1.22-23). Yet, the foreseen inevitability of his separation from the tearful Isabella contrasts with how Richard responds to Aumerle’s tears. The king’s words about his own downfall provide a projection of both men’s joint doom.

“Aumerle, thou weep’st, my tender-hearted cousin.

We’ll make foul weather with despised tears;

Our sighs and they shall lodge the summer corn

And make a dearth in this revolting land.

Or shall we play the wantons with our woes

And make some pretty match with shedding tears,

As thus, to drop them still upon one place

Till they have fretted us a pair of graves

Within the earth; and therein laid, there lies

Two kinsmen digged their graves with weeping eyes?

Would not this ill do well? (3.3.160-170).

It is clear that Aumerle’s emotional response to the king’s plight is met with a reciprocal, loving response. Unlike Richard’s response to Isabella – “We make woe wanton with this fond delay. Once more, adieu; the rest let sorrow say” (5.2.101-102), Richard does not envision being separated from Aumerle but, instead, of “play[ing] the wantons with our woes” and of being encased in the earth side by side in death. Derrick Higginbotham comments on this scene, writing that, “Within this image of Richard sharing woes with Aumerle, the king portrays them as unruly and unchaste since they “play the wantons” together, with “wanton” redolent of sexual disorder. Combined with the suggestiveness of Bolingbroke’s accusations against Richard’s favourites, this moment in the text enables a reading of the signs of male friendship as possibly sodomitical, as queer” (68-69). One may reject this reading by referring to Richard’s affecting parting from his queen when he says, “One kiss shall stop our mouths, and dumbly part; / Thus give I mine, and thus take I thy heart” (5.2.95-96). Nevertheless, Isabella remains an anachronistic construction since the historical figure was a mere child at the time of Richard’s downfall. More importantly, Richard envisages sharing his doom with Aumerle but his queen plays no such role. Thus, one learns to appreciate the bond between Aumerle and Richard and the dark, homoerotic tones to Richard’s speech as outlined by Higginbotham.

Emotion is a marker of love, and worthy of attention in the play. All those closest to Richard shed tears at his downfall. For instance, the queen on seeing Richard being led through the streets as a prisoner, says the following words to herself.

“That you in pity may dissolve to dew

And wash him fresh again with true-love tears.

Ah, thou, the model where old Troy did stand,

Thou map of honour, thou King Richard’s tomb,

And not King Richard.” (5.1.9-13).

Richard’s response to the tears of others reveals much. One key example is when Richard says to his uncle, York, “nay – dry your eyes. Tears show their love but want their remedies” (3.3.201-202) meaning that they do no good. York sheds his tears just before Richard admits defeat and tells Bolingbroke, “What you will have, I’ll give, and willing, too” (3.3.205). Much like the words of Isabella, it is the downfall of a king that chiefly prompts such a show of emotion by York. It is only with Aumerle that Richard shares his tears, so to speak, because he is glad to indulge his sorrow in the company of his friend. There is a subtle but noticeable difference between these scenes but the tears of those like York and the queen are tainted by royal expectations. One comes slowly to appreciate that the bond between Richard II and Aumerle is the reason that the latter holds such enormous sway over the former in regard to advice.

Conclusion.

Is Richard’s relationship with Aumerle therefore more than just King and cousin? The nature of the relationship remains shrouded since the text gives hints but no evidence of a homosexual bond. Joseph Pequigney summarizes the generally cautious attitude to using the term homosexuality when referring to figures from early modern times – “The concept is inapplicable because considered anachronistic, not only for its origin in nineteenth-century medical and social science, but also for always denoting historically distorted sexual orientation or identity” (124). However, he quickly dismantles this argument by showing that many of the terms we use, even heterosexual, date from a much later period than the early modern one (126). It is not my wish to open Pandora’s box by trying to label Aumerle as gay but rather to tentatively fly the kite on this topic merely to underline the depth of feeling between the men that allowed total trust. It is probably more appropriate to label their relationship as same-sex love which may be platonic, or indeed romantic. Since an adult Queen Isabella is a distortion of the historical story then one is freer to speculate on the king’s romantic partners, as many critics have done. The goal of this essay is to determine who is Richard’s most influential advisor and why, and the essay has provided sufficient grounds to move away from the traditional reliance on Bushy and Co. as the scapegoats for Richard’s fall and to focus instead on Aumerle. The main contrast is that Aumerle is not a liability to the king.

Reading Aumerle as the one who provides Richard with various key stratagems totally changes the meaning of the play. Aumerle survives and thrives, even under the new rule of Bolingbroke,  and therefore he can be read as a classic, Machiavellian figure. In the traditional interpretations, the advisors are fickle, flawed figures who are responsible for the King’s demise and who pay for their greed and bad advice with their own lives. In contrast, to read Aumerle as the power figure is to see the king on the cusp of victory – had he only listened to Aumerle’s advice to eradicate the threat of Bolingbroke. It is the brand of expedience that Aumerle promotes that would have altered everything for the king. Menon similarly ponders if “King Richard’s shortcoming is that he did not have Bullingbrook killed, an act of mercy that has now come back to haunt the king” (664) but he dismisses this idea given the list of executions that Richard had already commanded. However, it is the correct line of thought. Richard need no longer be seen as a dupe of bad advice but as one who did not overreach enough, did not push his power to its very limit. This reading also bolsters one’s view of the king’s intuition in regard to advice since he was within reach of victory. Aumerle is the perfect shadow figure behind the crown who watches as lesser advisors are executed, while he continues to silently scheme to save Richard. His longevity in the cut-throat political sphere of the times exhibits a man of substance, a lynchpin in Shakespeare’s tale.

Works Cited.

Bolam, Robyn. “Richard II: Shakespeare and the Languages of the Stage.” The Cambridge  Companion  to  Shakespeare’s  History  Plays,  edited  by  Michael  Hattaway, Cambridge University Press, 2002, pp.141-157.

Federico, Sylvia. “Queer Times: Richard II in the Poems and Chronicles of Late Fourteenth-Century England.” Medium Ævum, Vol. 79, No. 1, 2010, pp. 25-46.

Forker, Charles R. “Unstable Identity in Shakespeare’s Richard II.” Renascence, Vol. 54, No. 1, 2001, pp. 3-22.

Gaudet, Paul. “The ‘Parasitical’ Counselors in Shakespeare’s Richard II: A Problem in Dramatic Interpretation.” Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 2, 1982, pp. 142-154.

Higginbotham, Derrick. “The Construction of a King: Waste, Effeminacy, and Queerness in Shakespeare’s Richard II.” Shakespeare in Southern Africa, Vol. 26, 2014, pp. 59-73.

Holinshed, Raphael. Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland – Vol. II of VI; Part 12 of 12; Richard II. Project Gutenberg, 2016.

Lopez, Jeremy. “Eating Richard II.” Shakespeare Studies, Vol. 36, 2008, pp. 207-228.

Maveety, Stanley R. “A Second Fall of Cursed Man: The Bold Metaphor in ‘Richard II.’” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 72, No. 2, 1973, pp. 175-193.

Menon, Madhavi. “Richard II and the Taint of Metonymy.” ELH, Vol. 70, No. 3, 2003, pp. 653-675.

Pequigney, Joseph. “The (In)significance: ‘What the age might call sodomy’ and Homosexuality in Certain Studies of Shakespeare’s Plays.” Intertexts, Vol. 8, No. 2, 2004, pp. 117-134.

Shakespeare, William. “The Life and Death of King Richard the Second.” The Norton Shakespeare. 3rd ed. Eds. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katherine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan. W.W Norton, 2016. Pp.896-956.

Oedipus Rex

Oedipus and the Sphinx.

  • Play title: Oedipus Rex or Oedipus the King.  
  • Author: Sophocles 
  • Written/first performed: around 430 BC.  
  • Page count: 95 

Summary. 

Oedipus Rex tells the ancient tale of King Oedipus of Thebes. At the beginning of the play, the city is ravaged by a strange plague and a group of citizens ask the help of their King who previously saved the city from the horrors of the Sphinx. Oedipus, hoping to end his people’s misery, seeks the advice of the oracle in Delphi who reveals that the unsolved murder of the former king, Laius, is the true cause of the plague. The murderer must be cast out and then the city will be returned to health. By tirelessly seeking out the original murderer, Oedipus unknowingly reveals that he is actually at the heart of his city’s troubles. The intricately detailed plot of the play reveals how Oedipus’ childhood in Corinth with his parents, King Polybus and Queen Merope, is connected to his new life in Thebes with Queen Jocasta, widow of the former king, Laius. The primary themes of the play are personal identity, prophecy, and fate.  

Ways to access the text: reading. 

The text of the play is freely available online but please note that there are many different translations from the original ancient Greek. For example, on Project Gutenberg, one can find a translation in rhyming verse by Gilbert Murray under the title, “Oedipus King of Thebes.” Gutenberg also has a translation in blank verse by F. Storr under the title, “Oedipus the King.”  

I chose an online PDF file of “Oedipus the King” translated by Robert Fagles, available by searching “yale.imodules.com Oedipus Rex.” This is a scanned copy of a printed text and is easy to read from the screen. None of the sources listed above have footnotes and they are not essential for reading.  

Why read Oedipus Rex? 

The Oedipus complex

By using the myth of Oedipus as an example, Dr. Sigmund Freud revealed a dark truth within all of us. In 1899, Sigmund Freud’s book The Interpretation of Dreams was published, and the world was introduced to the Oedipus complex. The section of the book where Freud refers to Oedipus is entitled “Dreams of the Death of Beloved Persons.” Firstly, Freud explains that such a dream when accompanied by distressing feelings actually reveals our hidden wish for the person’s death! However, the wish is not necessarily a present wish and may date from the past. When such dreams concern our parents, we are most likely to dream of the death of a parent of the same sex, for example, a son dreams of his father’s death. The explanation provided by Freud links directly to the fact that a child’s sexuality begins to develop relatively early. In general, children are spoiled or indulged by the parent of the opposite sex (mommy’s little soldier) and thus the parent of the same sex becomes what Freud calls an “obnoxious rival” (316) for such affections, as well as being the disciplinarian more often than not. As children do not understand death, they easily wish it on those who deprive them of their desires. In this example, the boy would wish his father’s death. Whether one accepts this theory or scoffs at it, Freud asserts that it is a normal phase of childhood development.  

Freud explains the continuing potency of the myth of Oedipus by the link to infantile psychology, basically it is something that affects us all. He also compares Oedipus’ tortuous road to the truth as analogous to the process of psychoanalysis (Freud 321). In short, Oedipus enacts as an adult a wish that most of us secretly harbour as children and therein lies the true terror of this play. This summary is relevant to the reader, despite any opinions about Freud’s theories, primarily because it enhances one’s understanding of the play. Freud’s theory will surely echo in the reader’s mind when Queen Jocasta says to Oedipus, “many a man before you, in his dreams, has shared his mother’s bed.”

The domino effect.  

The events that are of main concern to King Oedipus are predominantly in the past and therefore irreversible. Oedipus is like an investigator who slowly uncovers details about his own origins and these discoveries shed quite a different light on the circumstances in which he currently lives. When one considers how each individual event seems to determine the subsequent event then the final pattern revealed is best described as the result of a domino effect. However, this makes the plot of Sophocles’ play seem simple which it certainly is not. What is of interest to the reader is the explanation that one applies to the apparent domino effect – is it fate or chance? When past events are lined up neatly and therefore have the appearance of a pattern, does this mean that a pattern truly exists? And what of Oedipus’ personal character, surely the kind of man he is determines what he does, he is surely not just a puppet of the Greek gods. As Henry James once said, “what is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?” (Abrams 224). What appears to be a domino effect of horrible choices and actions is the glue that holds a reader’s attention and makes the play an absorbing read.  

Post-reading discussion/interpretation. 

Does Oedipus deserve such punishment?  

What crimes does Oedipus knowingly commit that warrant his total destruction at the play’s end? He openly admits that “the blackest things a man can do, I have done them all.” He is referring to being his “father’s murderer” and his “mother’s husband.” Yet, he committed these outrages against his parents without any knowledge that they were in fact his parents. Additionally, while murder is obviously a crime regardless of biological relationship, the killing of King Laius is not uncomplicated because it begins as a roadside scuffle that tragically escalates.   

To understand the situation clearly, it is best to begin by scrutinizing the four separate prophecies listed in the play as they outline the taboo acts, indeed, criminal acts that Oedipus carries out. Firstly, Creon is sent to the oracle to discover the cause of the Theban plague and Apollo’s response is that old King Laius’ killer has not yet been brought to justice. Secondly, Tiresias the seer, is asked to assist and he astonishes Oedipus by saying, “you are the murderer you hunt.” Thirdly, Queen Jocasta reveals to Oedipus what the oracle once prophesied for King Laius, that “doom would strike him down at the hands of a son.” And finally, there is the prediction the oracle made to the youthful Oedipus causing him to flee his home in Corinth, “you are fated to couple with your mother [and] kill your father.” However, if one considers these events from Oedipus’ perspective then the following points are all true: King Laius had been killed long before Oedipus ever came to Thebes, Tiresias’ visions seem like nothing more than utter treachery to Oedipus, Jocasta’s example of the prophecy about Laius is told as evidence that such prophecies are actually unreliable, and finally, Oedipus fled his homeland precisely because he wished to spare his parents, King Polybus and Queen Merope. Of course, this is the saga from Oedipus’ perspective and not the audience’s who know the truth of who is who. But it is important to underline that all Oedipus’ actions were carried out in ignorance of the true facts.   

So, how do we legitimately allocate blame if we are to use criteria separate from Oedipus’ own retrospective feelings of shame? There are certainly actions that Oedipus takes in the course of his life which may explain how he has displeased the gods and earned his punishments. The Greek gods were notoriously capricious, fickle, and unjust, but condemning a man to realize his faults only in the aftermath rests uneasily with any reader. Thus, one must search a little deeper. The most apparent transgression of Oedipus’ is his hubris which forms a direct challenge to the authority of the gods. When the distressed Theban citizens seek salvation from the plague, Oedipus says, “you pray to the gods? Let me grant your prayers.” This statement creates a binary split between Oedipus’ power and the separate power of the gods and implies they are equal. Kings Laius and Creon, the men whose reigns precede and follow Oedipus’, are men who pay respect to the oracle and heed the advice of the gods, working in tandem with, not opposition to them. In stark contrast, Oedipus seeks to openly discredit the oracle’s messages which are guidance directly from Apollo. Then there is the separate issue of Oedipus’ rage. When he met King Laius and the entourage on the road, one man tried to shoulder Oedipus aside with the result that Oedipus “killed them all – every mother’s son!” This volcanic temper is exposed on two further occasions, when he condemns Creon to death thinking he is a traitor (without evidence) and when he bursts into Queen Jocasta’s bed chamber wielding a sword, presumably intent on murdering her after finding out the truth of their biological tie. Regicide obviously offends the gods as the plague is the result of Laius’ unsolved murder, and Oedipus continues to show utter disregard for the royal family because Creon is a former (and future) king and Jocasta is a queen. Yet, it is never openly stated in the play precisely why the gods punish Oedipus, but Tiresias does say of Oedipus’ fate that “Apollo … will take some pains to work this out.” In the end, Oedipus says that Apollo, “ordained my agonies.”  

Many commentators write that Oedipus’ downfall is sealed by the murder of King Laius at the crossroads, a location symbolic of making a conscious choice, and therefore his actions have justifiable consequences. This interpretation corresponds with the plague sent by the gods and offers one of the most logical standpoints. There is also a frequently made argument that by sending Creon to the oracle, Oedipus begins to unravel his own past, leading to his eventual downfall. At the story’s core, it is knowledge of what he has done based on his blood ties to Laius and Jocasta that destroys his life, a life that would otherwise be deemed noble. When the final revelation comes, Oedipus says “oh god, all come true, all burst to light.” For all that, there is still another tantalizing explanation as to why Oedipus must suffer and it is an explanation that covers several generations of the family and not just Oedipus, and that explanation is a curse.   

If one accepts a curse as the explanation, then the most salient question is who is cursed? Surely, King Laius is cursed as he is to be murdered at the hands of his own son and Oedipus is then simply the implement rather than the true victim. The first of the four prophecies, in ‘real time’ If one accepts a curse as the explanation, then the most salient question is who is cursed? Surely, King Laius is cursed as he is to be murdered at the hands of his own son and Oedipus is then simply the implement rather than the true victim. The first of the four prophecies, in ‘real time’ rather than the order of revelation in the plot, is when the oracle told King Laius that his own son would murder him. The most probable explanation for the curse on Laius comes from Greek mythology but is absent from the text of Oedipus Rex. The myth is that King Laius kidnapped and raped a young man named Chrysippus, son of the King of Pisa (Gantz 488-492). Then Chrysippus, out of shame for what had happened him, committed suicide. As such, Laius may have brought a curse from the gods on his own house. Oedipus is the 2nd generation cursed; he is destined to commit the notorious murder of his own father. Oedipus also unwittingly curses himself when promising to catch Laius’ killer, saying, “my curse on the murderer … let that man drag out his life in agony.” Tiresias identifies Oedipus as a harbinger of evil, saying, “you are the curse, the corruption of the land!” It is interesting that when Oedipus begins to suspect that he is the killer of Laius, he says, “I think I’ve just called down a dreadful curse upon myself.” This statement reveals that the curse has different effects for the various people involved, for example, Laius’s cursed destiny was to be murdered, but for Oedipus, the curse is to have taboo information revealed which leads to his self-annihilation. One could also argue that the gods keep the curse alive by linking the city’s new plague to Laius’ murder because this reopens the investigation of an old crime. The 3rd and final generation who are burdened with this curse are Oedipus’ two daughters, Antigone and Ismene. Oedipus predicts that the girls are doomed to remain unmarried and childless as no one will dare “shoulder the curse” that weighs upon their family. By focusing on the curse, one becomes more sympathetic to Oedipus, seeing him as a victim of something far greater than he is, a cruel punishment from the gods that takes three generations to run its full course.       

In conclusion, it seems impossible to say that Oedipus deserves the punishment he experiences. This is of course part of Sophocles’ plan so that the audience will have a strong emotional response to the events depicted. Luckily, the play can support many re-readings and variously nuanced interpretations.      

Captain of the ship.  

Sophocles introduces the image of a ship in the opening scene of the play. This occurs when one of the priests pleading for Oedipus’ guidance, describes the condition of their city as follows, “our ship pitches wildly, cannot lift her head / from the depths, the red waves of death … / Thebes is dying.” While it is certainly a striking metaphor, the city compared to a ship in a storm, it also seems a mismatch because Thebes is an inland city, not a seaport and therefore these are not seafaring people. Yes, the “red waves of death” are apt for describing a deadly plague but what if we further interrogate the metaphor. Is Oedipus as captain of a ship a good or fitting comparison? The short answer is no for two distinct reasons. Firstly, Oedipus is noteworthy foremost for his intellect as displayed in his defeat of the Sphinx by solving the riddle. His leadership is not linked to sea conquests which would be a learned skill rather than an intellectual gift. Secondly, when Oedipus debates with Tiresias, the blind seer, it is Oedipus himself who is said to be truly blind, “blind to the corruption of [his] life” and a leader described as blind is evidently not a suitable ship’s captain. Nonetheless, the description of Oedipus captaining his ship to a safe harbour recurs in the play many times, and for good reason. The image is rich in connotations – from strangers in strange lands to homecomings and safety. It reminds one that Oedipus was far away and has returned home, but the snag is that he does not know it. In ancient Greece, a cursed person was considered to carry a form of contagion. The safe harbour of home has become polluted precisely because the ship’s captain does not know he is home. The city is ill due to the pollution brought on by the arrival of the cursed individual, Oedipus. When Oedipus urges his citizens to expose the former king’s killer, he also uses a nautical metaphor, “drive the corruption from the land, don’t harbor it any longer.” Therefore, the use of the ship metaphor turns out to be appropriate as it links the plague to the returning traveller. 

Indeed, there are many facets to the metaphor used by Sophocles, showing that a comparison that initially appears a mismatch is ultimately very appropriate to describe Oedipus’s dilemma. One key aspect of the story which the metaphor encapsulates is the ambiguous identity of Oedipus who is both stranger and native son. It is this dichotomy that leads to the eventual re-interpretation of Oedipus’ sexual relations with Queen Jocasta. When Tiresias is denouncing Oedipus, he says Oedipus’ marriage was indeed, “the lusty voyage home to the fatal harbor!” This reminds one of Dr. Freud because the welcoming arms of a loving mother for her child are transformed into something quite perverse – the sexually charged embrace between a mother and her adult son. Whether the ship returns to a fatal or safe harbour relies on our understanding of Oedipus’s double identity, son or stranger, yet he is neither one thing nor the other but has an unnatural, in-between identity. The Chorus make the point about sexual impropriety even more explicitly, singing, “the same wide harbor served you, son and father both, son and father came to rest in the same bridal chamber.” When Queen Jocasta herself realizes the true identity of Oedipus, she also uses a nautical reference in her coded warning, “you’re doomed – may you never fathom who you are!” Just as in Freud’s process of psychoanalysis, one must plumb the depths to fathom who they truly are, their true identity. Oedipus’s voyage of discovery is widely accepted to be a discovery of his own identity.  

Yet, the metaphor is still not fully exhausted by the previously noted references to contagion and Oedipus’ double identity of native/stranger.  When Oedipus has been ruined by the fate ordained on him by the gods and by his own resulting self-disfigurement, Sophocles uses the image of the ship once again to give expression to the psychological state of the play’s tragic hero. Blind now, Oedipus feels like his ship is sinking, “dark, horror of darkness / my darkness, drowning, swirling around me / crashing wave on wave – unspeakable, irresistible / headwind, fatal harbor.” This also connects to his fear of re-meeting his biological mother and father in the Underworld, “how could I look my father in the eyes / when I go down to death.” The image of a sinking ship captures the psychological hell that Oedipus is currently experiencing and also the final destination of hell where he dreads meeting the two figures he fears above all others, his biological parents.    

Sophocles’ opening image of the ship is eloquently sustained right through the work. The playwright has managed to wring from a single metaphor a host of meanings that help to explain, elaborately and poetically, the plight of King Oedipus’ city, his dual identity as stranger and native son, his incestuous relationship with his mother, and his final psychological state. The image of a lone hero captaining his ship home has rarely held such a rich cargo of meanings. 

Works Cited.

Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. Earl McPeek, 1999.

Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. Translated by James Strachey, Basic Books, 2010.

Gantz, Timothy. Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

Sophocles. The Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus. Translated by Robert Fagles, Penguin Classics, 1984.