The Flaws of the Monarchy

If there’s one thing that a modern reader might take away from Richard II, it’s that there are many inherent flaws in the old English monarchy. We quickly learn that Richard’s time in power prior to the events of the play has been riddled with violence and corruption. It’s also immediately clear that he is a terrible king whose decisions were often illogical and/or not in the best interest of the country. In spite of that, he remained in power for as long as he did as a result of the level of reverence that the people placed in the title. The only way to get rid of him was rebellion, which ensured the loss of many lives. The rebellion achieved its desired end-result, with Bolingbroke taking the crown, but the same inherent problems that plagued Richard’s rule exist with him as well. People are either charged if they dare to question the king’s decision, as is the case when the Bishop of Carlisle expresses disagreement with Bolingbroke’s ascension to the throne – “Well have you argued, sir, and for your pains/Of capital treason we arrest you here.” (4.1 140-141) – or they sit by and remain loyal to the king in spite of their true feelings about him, as is the case with the Duke of York. In his case, in spite of his distaste for Bolingbroke’s displacement of Richard, he feels such a strong sense of loyalty to his new king that he’s eagerly willing to betray his son and wife in order to serve him: “Were he twenty times my son/I would appeach him.” (5.2 101-102). Ultimately, Richard’s death concludes a process in which, like Richard before him, Bolingbroke takes control of the throne by spilling the blood of numerous people. He’s aware and at least somewhat remorseful of this fact – “Lords, I protest my soul is full of woe/That blood should sprinkle me to make me grow.” (5.6 45-46) – but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s happened, and the fact that it will continue to happen. We know, of course, that Bolingbroke will face rebellions of his own in the future; between that knowledge and what we see in the play, the only conclusion we can possibly come to is that the monarchy system as seen here is not the best way to run a country. Shakespeare asks us to question these and other aspects about the system throughout the play, making it one of his most morally ambiguous works.

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