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Lara Poe

Erin Murphy

When kings lose their rights: Richard II and Saturninus

What gives a monarch their authority? Is it divine right, or is it how they assert
their authority over others? How does a monarch lose their authority? These are all
questions William Shakespeare addresses in Richard II and Titus Andronicus, which both
tell of rulers who, realizing they had fallen out of the peoples favor, stepped down from
their thrones. Both these works show that when a king or emperor no longer has the
support of the nobles and people, they cannot force their authority and continue to rule
any longer. As Saturninus, Emperor of Rome in Titus Andronicus, and Richard, king in
Richard II, face losing their thrones, their different ways of asserting authority become
apparent: while Saturninus is focused on the role of emperor as serving justice and
leading the Roman people, Richard is more focused on the concept of divine right and the
position of the king.
These two kings paths to leadership are very different, but both faced challenges
in their authority from the very beginning; while Richard ascended to the throne at an
early age and is now locked in a power struggle with his uncles, Saturninus, emperor of
Rome, is chosen by nobles to set a head on headless Rome. (I. 1. 210) This power
struggle intensifies for both of the rulers later on in the plays. For Richard, this moment
comes when John of Gaunt, Henry Bolingbrokes father, perishes, and Richard decides to
take his inheritance for himself, disregarding the rules of inheritance. For Saturninus, the

turning point in his rule comes when he sentences Titus Andronicus children to death,
after they are seen around a pit where Saturninus brother Bassianus is found dead.
After Saturninus has sentenced Titus children and carried through the sentence,
Titus is furious and shoots letters, attached to arrows, into the sky, calling on the Roman
gods. Ultimately, these arrows wind up at Saturninus feet, and he sees the delivery of
these letters as a threat. Following this threat, he delivers a speech to the nobles, which
he starts off by assessing the situation and how ridiculous it is: Why, lords, what wrongs
are these! Was ever seen/ An emperor in rome thus overborne,/ Troubled, confronted
thus; and, for the extent/ Of egal justice, used in such contempt? (IV. 4. 1-4) Here he
takes a step back and asks how its possible that an emperor, the most authoritative figure
in Rome, second only to the gods, can be treated like this. How is it possible? How is it
just? With this speech, he attempts to appease the nobles. My lords, you know, as know
the mightful gods,/ However these disturbers of the peace/ Buzz in the peoples ears,
there be nought hath passed,/ But even with law, against the willful sons/ Of old Titus
Andronicus (IV. 4. 5-9 he entreats. He tries to convince the nobles that he rightfully
sentenced Titus sons. He is asserting he is in the right and is only following principles of
Saturninus knows that Titus is a favored figure, and that the nobles regard him in
their favor. By alienating Titus, he has lost his favor with the nobles, and its likely that
the nobles will turn against him. If this happens, it will probably lead to him losing his
throne, for if a king is no longer supported by the nobles, they are in grave danger. If
[Titus] sorrows have so overwhelmd his wits, shall we be thus afflicted in his wreaks,/
His fits, his frenzy, and his bitterness? (IV. 4. 10-11) he asks. He knows Titus is in a

state of distress after the death of his sons, and pleads that the other nobles dont turn
against him. Titus and other lords do not agree with Saturninus though, and he
acknowledges this fact with the lines But in the peoples ears, there nought hath passd,/
But even with law, against the willful sons of old Andronicus. (IV. 4. 8-9) He is trying to
reclaim his authority and favor of the nobles, even though it is unlikely. By extension, it
is unlikely he can remain on the throne much longer, and with this last passage, he is
acknowledging that his change recovery from this blow to authority is slim.
After admitting that his defeat is a likely event, Saturninus rages against how
Titus is influencing the nobles and public. And now he writes to the heaven for his
redress, (IV. 4. 13) laments Titus. Now everyone, including the gods, will know that
Saturninus has, in Titus eyes, unjustly sentenced Mutius and Quintus. Saturninus then
lists the gods Titus has addressed in these letters, and ends his raging with the lines
Sweet scrolls to fly about on the streets of Rome!/ Whats this but libeling against the
senate, and blazoning our injustice everywhere? (IV. 4. 16-17) With his arrows, Titus has
taken over Rome with his words. His words have taken Rome over by spreading via
peoples mouths: if many people repeat a story, it will perpetuate. By comparing Titus
actions to libel, Saturninus labels Titus as a criminal. These scrolls, Titus arrows, are
sowing discontent among the Romans and will end up bringing about Saturninus
downfall. Saturninus argues that these words of Titus are unjust and he, as emperor,
should not be humiliated in this manner. He emphasizes these remarks with the ironic
statement A goodly humour, is it not, my lords?/ As who would say, in Rome no justice
were. (IV. 4. 19-20)

At the end, Saturninus falls to Titus sword, and Lucius becomes the new emperor.
Similarly, Richard is faced with angry nobles led by Northumberland (and later
Bolingbroke) who want Richard off the throne. Before giving up his title, Richard
presents a final speech to the nobles and their troops surrounding the castle he is staying
at. In this final speech by Richard as King Richard, he still does everything in his power
to try to assert his authority over Bolingbroke and Northumberland. He uses the royal
pronoun we to signify his status, and his language is highly poetic and refined.
However, it is clear he feels his power is threatened, and he wishes to assert himself and
show himself as king to see if he can still prevent having to step down from the throne.
We are amazed, he says, amazed to see Bolingbroke and Northumberland
threatening his power. Long have we stood/To watch the fearful bending of thy knee/
Because we thought ourself the lawful king, (III. 3. 72-75) he continues. He can clearly
see that the nobles dont respect his power, and fearfully bend their knees. They kneel to
him, but only out of reluctance. He is threatened by their reluctance, as it shows that
these subjects want his power, which he attained by divine right. Indeed, he is the lawful
king by blood and by divine right, and he uses these arguments to assert his right to rule.
Whether or not Richard is rightful king, Bolingbroke is not. If we be not
rightful king, challenges Richard, show us the hand of God/ That hath dismissed us from
our stewardship. (III. 3. 77-78) Here he asks Bolingbroke to show if God has anointed
Bolingbroke and blessed him to be king. Richard is using the principle of divine right to
assert his authority and right to rule, saying that if Bolingbroke is not now the rightful
king (which Richard implies he is not, using the conditional If we be not and especially
the pronoun we), then there is absolutely no reason why Richard should step down and

Bolingbroke should ascend the throne. He solidifies his point with the next three lines:
For well we know, no hand of blood and bone/ Can grip the sacred handle of our
sceptre/ Unless he do profane, steal or usurp. (III. 3. 79-81) Profanity, stealing and
usurping are all crimes, and someone who is base enough to commit these crimes cannot
have divine right to rule. However, there is no other way to ascend to the throne than
these undesirable ways, unless one is born to the throne. Therefore, Richard is saying
there is no way for Bolingbroke to be a rightful king, and if he tries to usurp Richard, he
will be a criminal and not worthy of divine right. For these reasons, Richard says he will
not be a rightful, good king.
After accusing Bolingbroke of these awful things, Richard begins a series of
threats to anyone who challenges the throne. Even though Bolingbroke has managed to
gather all the nobles onto his side, Richard asserts that [his] master, God omnipotent, Is
mustering in his clouds on our behalf, (III. 3. 85-86) and then goes on to name many
awful ways God will strike down Richards enemies, and paints a picture of an
apocalyptic and bloody war that will occur if his throne is usurped.
While it is doubtful whether these threats will carry out literally, and whether
Richard is capable of carrying out these threats, they are meant to scare anyone who dares
to usurp the throne. With these words he is cursing Bolingbrokes reign as well: divine
right will win out in the end, and the usurpers reign will be plagued with terrors. This is,
at least, what Richard claims. With these threats, Richard is hoping nobody will dare
challenge his throne for fear of Gods wrath, and he is trying desperately to hold onto his
throne. Richard is also trying to regain the support of nobles by pleading divine right.
However, this ultimately proves to be futile.

As these plays point out, the support of nobles is critical to the success of a king.
If the nobles no longer support the king, they can easily force him to step down from the
throne. In both Titus Andronicus and Richard II, both Saturninus and Richard attempt to
save themselves and their thrones. Ultimately, neither was successful, and both
Saturninus and Richard end up killed- Richard by Bolingbrokes (King Henrys) men,
and Saturninus by the next emperor, Lucius, in a bloody scene where Romans can be seen
stabbing each other right and left. However, these speeches emphasize how, when faced
with loss of power, these two rulers attempt to hold onto their authority, and what
authority means to them as rulers.

Why, lords, what wrongs are these! was ever seen

An emperor in Rome thus overborne,
Troubled, confronted thus; and, for the extent
Of egal justice, used in such contempt?
My lords, you know, as know the mightful gods,
However these disturbers of our peace
Buz in the people's ears, there nought hath pass'd,
But even with law, against the willful sons
Of old Andronicus. And what an if
His sorrows have so overwhelm'd his wits,
Shall we be thus afflicted in his wreaks,
His fits, his frenzy, and his bitterness?
And now he writes to heaven for his redress:
See, here's to Jove, and this to Mercury;
This to Apollo; this to the god of war;
Sweet scrolls to fly about the streets of Rome!
What's this but libelling against the senate,
And blazoning our injustice every where?
A goodly humour, is it not, my lords?
As who would say, in Rome no justice were.
But if I live, his feigned ecstasies
Shall be no shelter to these outrages:
But he and his shall know that justice lives
In Saturninus' health, whom, if she sleep,
He'll so awake as she in fury shall
Cut off the proud'st conspirator that lives.
We are amazed; and thus long have we stood
To watch the fearful bending of thy knee,
Because we thought ourself thy lawful king:
And if we be, how dare thy joints forget
To pay their awful duty to our presence?
If we be not, show us the hand of God
That hath dismissed us from our stewardship;
For well we know, no hand of blood and bone
Can gripe the sacred handle of our sceptre,
Unless he do profane, steal, or usurp.
And though you think that all, as you have done,
Have torn their souls by turning them from us,
And we are barren and bereft of friends;
Yet know, my master, God omnipotent,
Is mustering in his clouds on our behalf
Armies of pestilence; and they shall strike
Your children yet unborn and unbegot,
That lift your vassal hands against my head

And threat the glory of my precious crown.

Tell Bolingbroke--for yond methinks he stands-That every stride he makes upon my land
Is dangerous treason: he is come to open
The purple testament of bleeding war;
But ere the crown he looks for live in peace,
Ten thousand bloody crowns of mothers' sons
Shall ill become the flower of England's face,
Change the complexion of her maid-pale peace
To scarlet indignation and bedew
Her pastures' grass with faithful English blood.