From Divine Right to Sacrilege

One of the biggest questions I had when reading King Richard the II was about the belief of divine right. Through the first part of the play it seems to be portrayed as merely an archaic belief but in later acts it borders on sacrilege. When King Richard believes he has been abandoned by Bagot, Bushey, and Green he calls them dogs, vipers, and above all Judas. He is quick to jump from descriptions of animals to possibly the most famous betrayer in history; raising the importance of his own betrayal. Richard angrily proclaims, “Three Judases, each one thrice worse than Judas!” (3.2.134). Richard is actually comparing himself to Jesus. I understand that the fact that one is king means that he has been ordained to be so by god, but this seems a bit excessive. Not only is he is saying that he is England’s earthly link to god, but he alludes that he is an actual god. One could even assume that he thinks that he is better than god since they are three times worse than Judas. Yes, to King Richard Bagot, Bushey, and Green’s act of making peace with Bolingbroke is not equivalent but worse than killing the Christian God. Is this an extreme extension of divine right or is King Richard just power hungry with an overpowering ego?

I am inclined to place the blame more so on Richard then on the practice of divine right simply because the other characters of the play seem to be more rational towards the belief. Although they follow the belief they do not actually believe that their king is a god. In the fits of grief over the death of his brother the Duke of York declares to the king, “Take Hereford’s rights away, and take from Time. His charter and his customary rights; Let not to-morrow then ensue to –day; Be not thyself; for how art thou a king but by fair sequence and succession? Now, afore God- God forbid I say true!” (2.1.206). Here York shows the rational view of some traditions such as keeping titles and property in the line of lineage but is honest when pointing out that the king is only in power due to his place in birth order. York is really the rational voice throughout the play and always seems to provide clarity for the audience. With this in mind Richard seems to be insane or at least power hungry when he lifts himself up to the title of god and his betrayers to Judas.

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4 thoughts on “From Divine Right to Sacrilege

  1. Elaine L.

    I think King Richard II comparing himself to God is not about being power hungry or stretching out the divine rights. It’s about desperation. After coming back from Ireland he quickly learns that his close “friends” (I don’t know if friend is the right term: perhaps subject is better) are dead and that the Duke of York has sided with Bolingbroke, leaving him with very little. The idea of being chosen by God to be king is the only thread that is holding him up at this moment. I think Richard saying that he has been betrayed as Jesus had been is a bit extreme, but Richard is known for his verbose, dramatic speeches. Words are all he has.

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  2. Rachel Ritacco

    When you think about it, the idea of divine right is an absurd and power-hoarding concept. How can one truly know that he has been ordained by God to rule over his country? What gives him this right to say so? It then becomes an unfair privilege when those who are simply born into this lineage are given the power to reign, when in reality they have done nothing to fight for the position. There are no campaigns, elections, or necessary qualifications to obtain this rule beyond a simple blood link. Therefore, while it does not excuse his behavior, one could see why Richard is bound to feel a bit entitled and power-hungry. Give a mouse a cookie, and he is going to want a glass of milk. Give a man a crown, and he is just going to want more gold.

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  3. Unique_Loner69

    I like Elaine's point of how Richard being chosen by God is his only thread left. It adds to his desperation of the moment and I see Richard as being a sad, almost pathetic human being. The Divine Rights is an odd way to pick a king and it adds to the power that goes to Richard's head. In some ways though, I find him to be a sympathetic character, because this is how he was raised. He was raised to believe that he was chosen by God, so the fact that this all gets to his head, makes sense to me. Perhaps if he was raised a different way, he would have become a different kind of king.

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  4. Cyrus Mulready

    I'm struck, too, by Elaine's point about desperation in this great discussion. Richard's invocation of Divine Right does seem to be a kind of power play in a moment where his power is eroding. It's actually a good thing to pay attention to in this tetralogy–when do characters invoke God?

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