I’ve decided to follow up with the interesting idea posed at the end of class on Friday, namely, the following photo and the very contemporary question posed by this image and Richard II:
Depending on your particular political point of view, this image likely resulted in a number of feelings spanning the spectrum from an intense gag reflex, or a resounding “hell yes!”, to, “Isn’t that the guy who’s always on the cover of Mad Magazine?” No matter what your feelings, or how visceral they are, the danger that we all face is letting those feelings obscure the larger point that Richard II, and I think Professor Mulready, was trying to make.
When we first meet Richard he is King but, from what we can glean, not a particularly good leader and maybe even a bit of a child, both in the way that he comports himself and in the way that he handles his role as king. He often chooses the easiest path, avoids tough but necessary decisions, and plays the diplomat when he should instead make more politically expedient decisions. This results in a number of decisions exhibiting poor judgement or just plain selfishness on the part of Richard. His decisions, rather than being Solomonic in nature and inspiring those who surround him, instead tend to frustrate and confound them. They are also decisions that lead to his dethronement and, ultimately, death.
Henry arrives on the scene a mistreated son of the kingdom. Richard has treated him poorly and has attempted, using means only available to a sovereign, to steal Henry’s birthright. We come to despise Richard for it and begin to side with and root for Henry to become king. But as the play progresses, we begin to see that Henry, for all his apparent virtue, is not as virtuous as he appears. He too is avaricious and willing to use, shall I say abuse his power and position in order to gain what it is that he wants. By the end of the play, when the one we have been hoping would take the throne finally ascends to the position we wanted him to, it seems that we have gotten something and someone not all that different from what we had before. The end of the play doesn’t leave us satisfied, it leaves us wondering whether what we hoped for is really what we wanted or if it’s all that different from what we had in the first place.
The reality is that the act of ruling is far different from the act of campaigning and, once anyone enters office, whether they be kings or presidents, the political realities of being “in charge” often dictate the actions that they take. As Mark said in class, what rulers often find once they ascend the throne is that they have Damocles’ sword hanging over their head. They do not have the power to create the change that they promised, and they often find that the very things they railed against in pursuing the throne are the same things they need to leave in place to keep it.