The Tragedy of King Richard the Second

KRII tells the story of the decline and deposition of that king by Henry, son of John of Gault, who assumes the throne as KHIV in a bloodless coup.

While not entirely historically accurate, Shakespeare’s portrayal of KRII raises interesting questions about identity and attachment. We so often allow, as he does, others’ perceptions and our societal roles to define us. We, as he does, masquerade as different people depending and dependent on our circumstances – “Thus play I in one person many people. And none contented,” (V,vi,31-2) – and often lose ourselves in the process, forgetting what defines us at the core. The looking for, attaching to, and blaming external forces proves frustrating and fruitless.

Buddha discovered this in his search for enlightenment. Being neither prince nor pauper satisfied his need for meaning. He discovered his own truth sitting quietly with himself in contemplation under the Bodhi tree. Jimmy Buffet came to the same conclusion in that existential masterpiece Margaritaville. He blames his ills first on “a woman,” and then on “nobody,” and reluctantly admits it “could be my fault,” and finally owns that “I know it’s my own damn fault.” Only by looking inside can we make sense of the world around us. KRII never quite gets to the Bodhi tree; or to Margaritaville for that matter.

He begins by averring that God has deteremined his identity; he, as many during that period, believed kingship was divinely doled out:

“Not all the water in the rude sea
Can wash the balm off from an anointed King;
The breath of worldly men cannot depose
The deputy elected by the Lord,”
(III,ii,54-7)

But as soon as Salisbury advises him that 12,000 Welsh troops have defected to Henry, he “forgets” himself. He immediately lets this external event challenge his identity:

Aumerele: “Comfort, my liege, remember who you are.”
KRII: “I had forgot myself, am I not a King?”
(III,iii,82-3)

As Henry’s strengths grows and challenges his sovereignty and authority, KRII quickly realizes the futility of attaching to the impermanent role that he “struts and frets” (Macbeth,V,v25) for so many hours on the stage. He sees that in this one moment, everything will change and he will be – as he has always truly been – as we all are ultimately – only that which lies deep within. He hints at his revelation:

“-for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a King
Keep Death his court; and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning 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 our life
Were brass impregnable; and humor’d thus,
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his chaste wall, and farewell King!
Cover your heads, and mock not flesh and blood
With solemn reverence, throw away respect,
Tradition, form, and ceremonious duty,
For you have but mistook me all this while.
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus,
How can you say to me I am a King?”
IIII,iii,160-77)

This epiphany simultaneously dashes his illusions of divine privilege, illuminates our universal commonality, and thus depletes his will to resist. It also uses the verb “monarchize,” which alone merited inclusion! He sees that neither God nor his followers can define him. Only he can, and what he ultimately sees is just himself, just Richard, stripped bare like Lear.

It is no wonder then, that he offers no resistance in restoring Henry’s property and handing him the crown. He is King no more.

Later in his process of unattaching he, much like the Buddha, first fancies his new life as that of an ascetic:

“I’ll give my jewels for a set of beads,
My gorgeous palace for a hermitage,
My gay apparel for an almsman’s gown,
My figur’d goblets for a dish of wood,
My sceptre for a palmer’s walking-staff.”
(III,iii,1477-51)

But, like the Buddha, nor does this role suit him very well. As he hands his crown and the country to Henry he notes, “I must nothing be.” (IV,i,201) Like the Wicked Witch of the West in the Wizard of Oz, he literally sees himself dissolving before his own eyes: “Standing before the sun of Bollingbrook/To melt myself away in water-drops,” or as she put it, “I’m melting…” Note the pun on sun/son as well. Bolingbrook is Henry, now IV, son of John of Gaunt. Richard is here reduced here to the most basic earthly element.

Finally, as a prisoner in Pomfret Castle where he will die on Valentine’s Day, 1400, he exists as a mere thought within himself:

“My brain I’ll prove the female to my soul,
My soul the father, and these two beget
A generation of still-breeding thoughts;”
(V,v,6-8)

The main difference between Buddha’s journey is that he made it voluntarily. He questioned meaning and identity, and made his life’s purpose the search for it. KRII had the search foisted upon him. He ends resigned more than enlightened.

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