e Law of the Land

Christopher Brown

Shakespeare Dr. John Alvis 11 May 2009

Brown 1 Shakespeare’s Henriad, beginning with Richard II and ending with Henry V, considers primarily the reinstitution of order following the usurpation of the throne from the incumbent King Richard II. Henry V is the overwhelming focus of the tetralogy, appearing front and center even in his father’s plays. Yet, the narrative arc of the tetralogy peaks with Bullingbrook’s deposition and murder of King Richard in Richard II, and everything that follows is the (sometimes rocky) denouement while Henry IV and Henry V reinstate peace and civil order in England. What leads to Richard’s dethronement is the subject of Richard II. In that play, King Richard conflates divine right with absolute monarchy, asserting himself as highest law. Specifically, he sets himself above the laws of property—the natural, ageless laws of ownership and inheritance. He oversteps the bounds of his office as king, which Wolfgang Iser calls “the clash between office and person” (69). Richard’s narcissistic, politically moribund “quest for the self ” fails because Richard does not remain in his proper place (Iser 69). ere is tension between Richard’s “constantly invoked” divine right and his social place in the “feudal system,” but the tension is potentially manageable (Iser 73). Richard does not abide within his boundaries of kingship, however, like Mowbray, he insists on “gaining substance by disrupting the existing order”—which self-destructs because “such disruption does not provide orientation for self-assertion” (Iser 74). Gaunt warns Richard, “y state of law is bond-slave to the law” (Shakespeare1 2.1.110-113). When Richard infringes upon laws higher than himself, he relinquishes the protection and right that accompanies kingship, effectively vacating the throne to another, more prudent, law-abiding king. King Richard overreaches both his position and his capabilities. He asserts himself as absolute monarch, but lacks the power to support his will. As James E. Berg demonstrates, Richard’s “land-grab” is a desperate attempt to control more than his rightful or possible domain (225). Richard admits his court’s “dearth” of resources: “our coffers … are grown somewhat light, /
1

From this point forward, all citations with act, scene, and line numbers will imply Shakespeare.

Brown 2 We are enforc’d to farm our royal realm”; frantic to raise money, Richard must first appropriate more land in order to lease it, which will fund the war in Ireland (Berg 226, 1.4.43-5). Berg remarks, “Of all the problems faced by Tudor and Stuart [and presumably Plantagenet] regimes, economic disorder was arguably most dangerous” (225). Because of the “quasi-feudal political order” of even Richard’s time, the king must retain greater “real” wealth and resources in order to maintain his rule (Berg 225, 228). Richard II, however, is “informed by impossible dreams of immediate royal control over land,” and Richard finds, finally, that “he cannot literally have a kingdom in his hands” (Berg 229, 237). As the tetralogy progresses, it becomes clear that “the King does not possess the land of his kingdom,” due to “civil law, as well as common law” (Berg 231). “Given the structure of property ownership in Tudor society … possession of England as a whole was a dream barely to be comprehended” except through symbols and the proper political channels (Berg 245). Richard II is merely one man; “absolute power in England rested in parliaments, not the monarch” (Berg 233). By divesting parliament of its power, Richard emasculates England’s government and himself. Yet, as ruling king of England, Richard holds claim to divine right, which Glenn Burgess presents as initially “valuable for its defence of the rights of monarchy against the political claims of the Papacy,” supporting the sovereignty of the monarch (837). But Burgess rejects the idea that the king’s “power is incapable of legal limitation,” repeating that “belief in the King’s divine right implied no particular belief as to the extent of a King’s rights in England or elsewhere … there are but very few traces in English writings before 1642 of any theory of royal absolutism by divine right” (839). Divine right does not render the king superior to the law, contrarily, it was widely accepted that “kings should rule through the common law” and “within legal bounds by the nature of the English constitution” (Burgess 860, 844). Instead, divine right functions primarily as an incentive to “moral duty,” to assert that “the authority of kings was derived from God directly, [not] from their people,” intending to prevent popular dissent from being acted

Brown 3 upon (Burgess 841). e problem of transgressing boundaries was a different matter: “e tyrant was distinguished king primarily in moral rather than constitutional terms” (Burgess 843). Despite his transgressions, Richard retains his constitutional divine right. But as a morally negligent ruler, he gives up his entitlement to the royal throne. Even in Shakespeare’s England of Richard II, divine right does not equal absolute monarchy, nor is divine right always observed. Carlisle’s comforting speech to Richard about the providence of divine right wrongfully assumes “that what should not be, cannot be” (Iser 75). In Richard’s case, divine right “is now nothing but a myth” (Iser 76). To reinstate justice, Bullingbrook ignores divine right; he “dethrones [Richard] … because in keeping with the feudal order, he seeks to recover a right the King has unjustly denied him” (Iser 79). “Richard’s grab at Bolingbroke’s landed inheritance immediately after the death of Henry’s father, John of Gaunt, is Richard’s tragic error,” writes Berg, “Richard’s assertion of full dominium over land … proves a tragic impossibility” (237). J. H. Baker writes of the feudal system of England, “e tenant was seised of the land, and the lord was seised of the tenant's services, but neither of them ‘owned’ the land in any absolute sense” (qtd. in Scott 283). e land is the law, the land is sovereign, and Richard has transgressed that sovereignty which rests higher than his own. Yet, Bullingbrook’s return appears premature, and thus not quite legitimate. Richard first proclaims his ownership over Bullingbrook’s “plate, his goods, his money, and his lands” in the same scene “at Harry Duke of Herford … With eight tall ships, three thousand men of war” is said to be returning to Ely House “with all due expedience” (2.1.210, 2.1.279-87). Bullingbrook obviously intended to rebel against the king even before he learns of the king’s theft; the theft provides only a retrospective rationale. Bullingbrook, instead, supra-legally and illegitimately deposes the king. Other characters recognize the King’s corruption, but do not dare to oppose him for fear of worse evil, as Gaunt says, “God’s is the quarrel, for God’s substitute [the king], / His deputy anointed in His sight … I

Brown 4 may never lift / An angry arm against His minister” (1.2.37-41). It may be argued that Carlisle is right when he warns against civil war, “If you raise this house against this house, / It will the woefullest division prove,” but the precarious state into which Richard has sunk England requires a new regime to be established, in order to revitalize the country (4.1.145-6). Of both nobles and commoners, Richard has “lost their hearts,” and under Richard’s degenerate rule, “England … Hath made a shameful conquest of itself ” (2.1.246-8, 2.1.65-6). e balance between civil war and immoral rule has finally been upset, and the need for new rule now finally outweighs the cost of civil war. Bullingbrook takes Gaunt’s advice, “ere is no virtue like necessity,” and asserts himself sacrilegiously, but needfully, as Richard’s judge and successor (1.3.278). rough “challenging law,” Bullingbrook “finds out right with wrong” (2.3.134-45). King Richard oversteps the boundaries of his office, which provokes Bullingbrook to overstep his—“To crop at once a too long withered flower” (2.1.134). Bullingbrook must intervene and violently remove Richard, like the gardeners who “wound the bark, the skin of our fruit-trees, / Lest being over-proud … it confound itself ” (3.4.58-60). On behalf of the land of England, Richard must “like an executioner / Cut off the head of too fast growing sprays” and “root away / e noisome weeds which without profit suck / e soil’s fertility from wholesome flowers” (3.4.33-9). e garden of England has become unruly and requires pruning; with respect for the land and property laws, Bullingbrook becomes a provisional gardener, beginning the task of recovering England’s “law and form and due proportion” in Richard II by deposing the corrupt King Richard (3.4.56).

Brown 5 Works Cited Berg, James E. “‘is Dear, Dear Land’: ‘Dearth’ and the Fantasy of the Land-Grab in Richard II and Henry IV.” English Literary Renaissance 29.3 (November 2008): 225-245. ILLiad. Blakley Library. University of Dallas, Irving, TX. 8 May 2009. Burgess, Glenn. “e Divine Right of Kings Reconsidered.” e English Historical Review 107.425 (October 1992): 837-861. JSTOR. Blakley Library. University of Dallas, Irving, Texas. 4 May 2009. Iser, Wolfgang. Staging Politics: e Lasting Impact of Shakespeare’s Histories. Trans. David Henry Wilson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993. Scott, William O. “Landholding, Leasing, and Inheritance in ‘Richard II.’” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 42.2 (Spring 2002): 275-292. JSTOR. Blakley Library. University of Dallas, Irving, Texas. 4 May 2009. Shakespeare, William. e Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997.

Brown 6 Outline: • Intro: • R2 overreaches. Asserts himself too much (Iser). Unable to hold everything in his too-small hands. • Divine right doesn’t equal absolute monarchy. • Order that overarches R2: the land. • R2’s transgression against land. • English land/feudalistic/property-ownership laws as the Republic of England. • Sovreignty of land. Which way does Shakespeare lean? Is he trying to justify feudalism? I say no. • Private prop: • Inheritance: primogneiture, entail. • Necessitates other types of inheritance? • Realness of property. • Maps and contracts mean very little. ose are presumptions. • Henry’s right to reclaim his land. • R2’s tragic flaw. • Henry’s soul-sacrifice. Compare to York’s emasculated passivity. To get to right through wrong. • He returned before he heard of the theft of his property. at’s not the only reason. Supralegal. • R2 had a legitimate reason to be dethroned -- his transgression against land contract -- but H5 deposed him for different, incorrect, or illegitimate reasons.

Henry’s revolt, like Gaunt’s bad judgment, “ings sweet to taste prove in digestion sour” (1.3.236)

Taxation grown too great: “If that comes short, / Our substitutes at home shall have blank charters … [to] subscribe [the rich] for large sums of gold” (1.4.48-50). Gaunt: R2’s consumption is self-consuming. England is “is royal throne of kings … is fortress built by Nature for herself … is nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings … Is now leas’d out … Like to a tenement” (2.1.40-60) “England … Hath made a shameful conquest of itself ” (2.1.65-6) “It were a shame to let this land by lease … more than shame … Landlord of England art thou now, not king” (2.1.110-113).

Seek you to seize and gripe into your hands e royalties and rights of banish’d Herford? …

Brown 7 Take Herford’s rights away, and take from Time His charters and his customary rights … how art thou a king But by fair sequence and succession? … If you do wrongfully seize Herford’s rights, … and deny his off’red homage, You pluck a thousand dangers on your head, You lose a thousand well-disposed hearts (2.1.190-206) “e commons hath he pill’d with grievous taxes / And quite lost their hearts; the nobles hath he fin’d / For ancient quarrels, and quite lost their hearts.” (2.1.246-8) "Dear earth, I do salute thee with my hand … Feed not thy sovereign's foe, my gentle earth" (3.2.6-12) "like an executioner / Cut off the heads of [too] fast growing sprays … All must be even in our government" (3.4.33-36). And soon the gardener likens the land of England to their garden, saying he wished the "wasteful King" had tended the land as well as they tend their garden (3.4.55) Iser notes 3.2.27-32 and 3.2.54-62 on the implications of divine right

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