Divine Right in Act 4

In class, the idea of whether Bolingbroke breaks with divine right or if he is nobly protecting his country has been much discussed.  I think this is an interesting problem that the play presents so the reader is conflicted as to what side of the argument they find themselves on.  The last two acts of Richard II include support for Richard’s divine right to the throne.  Bolingbroke and his men are all traitors towards God according to supportive lines in the text.  In Act 4, the Bishop of Carlisle, a religious figure whom the audience can assume as a man of God, opposes Bolingbroke becoming King.  He knows, or has a vision, of the fateful events that are to come: “My lord of Hereford here, whom you call king,/ Is a foul traitor to proud Hereford’s king;/ And, if you crown him, let me prophesy/ The blood of English shall manure the ground,/ And future ages groan for this foul act”(4.1.125-129).  Shakespeare obviously knew of the Wars of the Roses and could write Carlisle as a sort of prophetic figure.  The reader sees a person associated with God foretelling negative events that the Kingship of Bolingbroke will arise.  This all stems from the Duke not following with England’s method of divine right. Richard II may not have been the best King for England, but according to the bishop, King Henry will not be any better for the country. 
                Shakespeare cleverly gives Richard lines that connect to Christ and his traitor/disciple Judas.  This religious subject would have been known to the majority of Shakespeare’s audience and is something that further conveys the severity of Bolingbroke’s usurpation.  Shakespeare essentially implies that, by knocking Richard off the throne, it is akin to Judas giving Jesus to the Romans.  The religious theme of divine right, something that Jesus epitomizes as he was sent from God to do a mission, is further supported by instances in the acts.  “Yet I well remember/ The favours of these men.  Were they not mine?/ Did they not sometime cry ‘All hail!’ to me?/ So Judas did to Christ.  But He in twelve/ Found truth in all but one; I, in twelve thousand, none” reveals how Richard associates Bolingbroke and his company as primary traitors to his divine kingship, just as the betrayal of Christ was a divine moment (4.1.158-162).  Another biblical association made by Richard occurs later in the same act.  He associates his usurpers to that of Pilate, the judge of Christ, who stated that he was not responsible for Christ’s death, even though he enabled it to occur.  That is exactly how Richard views his foes acting:  “Though some of you, with Pilate, wash your hands,/ Showing an outward pity, yet you Pilates/ Have here deliver me to my sour cross,/ And water cannot wash away your sin” (4.1.229-232).  Richard believes that something as sacred as divine right cannot merely be taken away and the opposition have their sins forgiven.  The severity of disorder in the customary, religious based practice of Kings is not a thing to be trifled with, according to the religious Carlisle and kingly Richard II. 

One thought on “Divine Right in Act 4

  1. Cyrus Mulready

    We didn't talk much about it in class, but 4.1 is full of references to Christ and language that connects Richard's sacrifice to that of Christ. As you nicely point out, Jacey, this might help us to see the play as a reaffirmation of divine right, rather than a critique.


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