By Michael Flachmann
Shakespeare's Richard II (1596) reflects English history in much the same way a modern carnival mirror distorts and redefines the object it represents. The goal of such revision is not to reproduce actual reality, but to create an imaginative theatrical narrative that teaches us more than mere history ever could. As a result, an increased awareness of the manner in which a playwright has altered his historical sources can often point the way toward a deeper understanding of the themes and symbolic correspondences generated by the newly conceived dramatic story.
Shakespeare departed from his principal source, Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles (1587), by expanding and redefining the characters of John of Gaunt, the duchess of York, and the earl of Northumberland; by creating a largely fictitious role for Queen Isabel (who was a child of eleven at the time of Richard's deposition); by adding the famous garden scene; and, most important of all, by inventing out of whole cloth much of the sympathetic, poetic nature of King Richard. Some of these refinements may have been suggested to the playwright by Samuel Daniel's The First Four Books of the Civil Wars (1595), but most of them undoubtedly resulted from Shakespeare's instinctive desire to construct an improved historical reality that entertained and edified its Renaissance audience through intriguing character development, expanded roles for women, and clearly drawn antagonists whose bold and memorable personalities elevated much of the action to symbolic prominence.
The major themes and images that rise from this freshly constructed narrative offer fascinating insights into the most important social and political concerns of late sixteenth-century England. Chief among these is the stark contrast between Richard the king and Bolingbroke the usurper. In the language of William Butler Yeats, Bolingbroke is the vessel of clay, while Richard is the vessel of porcelain. Bolingbroke is durable, utilitarian, unattractive, necessary; he is the pragmatic, de facto ruler, the right man at the right moment in England's inevitable struggle for political stability. Richard, less efficient yet more compelling, seems exquisite, fragile, gorgeous, and impractical; the last of the medieval kings, he must of necessity yield to his rival, the rough and unpolished Henry Bolingbroke, who as the first Renaissance king will consolidate political power by sharing it with his subjects.
Through Shakespeare's brilliant poetry, Richard also becomes an archetype of Christ, divinely anointed, whose loss of the kingship symbolizes a fall from "this other Eden, demi-paradise." Bolingbroke's victory, through necessary historically, is morally repugnant because he has usurped God's heavenly appointed representative on earth. Not surprisingly, Richard advocates "the divine right of kings," a widely accepted concept of political sovereignty intended to shield him from rebellion: "Not all the water in the rough rude sea," he argues, "can wash the balm off from an anointed king." Bolingbroke has also disrupted Richard's role as a "scourge of God" meant to punish England for its past sins and social excesses. According to this doctrine, a country was required by moral law to suffer in "passive obedience" the indignities of an inept ruler. If god wished to punish a people, he might send them such a king as Richard to test their true submission to His almighty will.
The paradox is instructive: Richard is a divinely appointed yet incompetent ruler whose very presence on the throne serves as a "mirror for magistrates"--an exemplum provided by God to tutor future monarchs in proper administrative conduct. Through Shakespeare, we study history to avoid the errors of the past. When Bolingbroke seizes all the political power, however, Richard usurps the theatrical power of the play. As audience, we condemn Richard as a king, yet learn to revere him as a complex and fascinating human being whose fall from grace elevates him to tragic stature. Though Bolingbroke will nourish the garden of the kingdom, Richard nourishes our very souls with his clear-eyed self-perception and soaring verse.
This is, of course, the ultimate irony of Shakespeare's play. We stare into its dramatic mirror, expecting visions of Renaissance politics and history, yet what we see most vividly is our own reflection through the character of Richard: flawed, ambitious, sensitive, betrayed, and--above all else--triumphantly alive. As a result, the play is nothing less than an examination of human destiny presented through a shimmering glass that simultaneously contains reality and falsehood, fact and fiction. And all this is so cleverly blended by our master playwright that, in the final analysis, the truth of history seems much less enduring and meaningful than the truth of art.