A Looming Fall of Shakespearean Proportions

The increasingly frequent prediction that the Gillard government is headed for a defeat of Shakespearean proportions behoves us to revisit Shakespeare’s plays, to see just what to expect. A re-examination of Richard II and Henry IV, Part 1 in particular provides an illuminating, occasionally amusing and sometimes uncannily close parallel to events that have unfolded in the halls of Australian government over the last few years. One suspects that Shakespeare is on the money still.

The names may have changed, but the process of disintegration that comes upon a government that has founded itself on betrayal, established no legitimacy, with little idea of any higher purpose, and weak and self-serving leadership, remains remarkably similar. The astonishing and consistent poor judgment; plundering taxes to fund extravagant schemes; a legitimate leader deposed for having lost his way and finally viciously character-assassinated for—well, still being there, really; a guilt-ridden successor who never gains the legitimacy or trust necessary to govern effectively; the national crusades that must be abandoned to fight tooth and nail to keep hold of the leadership; the disgruntled and dismayed straight-talker who denounces the leadership at the instigation of the rebels and is hung out to dry. All the ingredients, in short, for a magnificently Shakespearean denouement come September.

The plays represent a profound meditation on the Tudor notion of kingship with an intriguing hint of the nascence of the theories of social contract articulated a hundred years later, a shrewd assessment of Machiavellianism and its effect on the human conscience, the universality of the moral imperative for king or pauper, the destructiveness of unresolved guilt, to name but a few avenues of exploration.

That the temptation for those in power to abuse their authority is ever-present is also in the plays as a given. And so is the perennial difficulty of getting rid of ruthless rulers once they have a grip on power.

But it is principally the unstoppable juggernaut of consequences from less than kingly acts that builds up with shocking inevitability to crush the wrongdoers, that arrests one with such a shock of recognition. Both Richard II and Henry IV appear somehow cursed from the very start, despite their manifest abilities. One is forced to ask: Why can they do nothing right?

Particularly compelling is the study of the effects of guilt on the leader’s conscience and subsequent decision-making faculties. Having to bear personally the burden of moral failure and its consequences is a prominent motif in both Richard II and Henry IV, Part 1. Like any other human being, ultimately a king must take responsibility for all his acts, and a crime remains a crime, no matter how “necessary” it may appear to be. Trust or betrayal, loyalty or ambition, greed or justice are the tensions that are doubly dangerous in a ruler, for short-sighted self-serving actions by monarchs have more far-reaching consequences than those of the average citizen, for they detrimentally affect the whole nation.

The shadow of the Duke of Gloucester’s death hangs like a pall over the opening of Richard II, and this murder, not committed by but certainly convenient for Richard II, can be seen as the root of the cycles of betrayal and death that follow. Richard II, a legitimate king by divine right, is yet failing in his moral responsibility to nurture England and her people as he plunders them both indiscriminately. In his death-bed oration, John of Gaunt rebukes Richard: the “teeming womb of royal kings … renowned … for Christian service and true chivalry … is now leas’d out … Like to a tenement or pelting farm”. Now that is immediately recognisable—the people’s taxes as a bottomless pit of spending money for a profligate government.

This England (personified in her kings)



                        is now bound in with shame,

With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds;

That England, that was wont to conquer others,

Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.


The legislative record of our current government could be condemned in the same way, with so much unnecessary, poorly formed, oppressive and frequently pernicious legislation attempted—to what higher purpose?

John of Gaunt reminds Richard, prophet-like, of the mystical oneness of king and land which Richard is desecrating—and also crucially that he is losing the support of the people:


Thy death-bed is no lesser than thy land,

Wherein thou liest in reputation sick,

And thou, too careless patient as thou art,

Commit’st thy anointed body to the cure

Of those physicians that first wounded thee …

A thousand flatterers sit within they crown,

Whose compass is no bigger than thy head,

And yet, incaged in so small a verge,

The waste is no whit lesser than thy land.


Richard shames not only himself but also England. By his consistently short-term, self-interested and venal decisions he is trashing not only his reputation but that of his country.

Richard’s anger at these words betrays him into threatening Gaunt, for indeed they strike too close to home. Gaunt brushes aside the threat but uses the opportunity to remind Richard that Gloucester, Gaunt’s brother, has already met his end at Richard’s behest—another of Richard’s sins. At hearing of Gaunt’s death, the stung and unrepentant Richard callously turns straight back to his planned Irish expedition—and to “the plate, coin, revenues, and moveables, / Whereof our uncle Gaunt did stand possess’d.” Venal to the last, and pretty much broke, he must seize money wherever he can purloin it.

Richard’s continual bad judgment, especially in his advisers, the crippling taxes he levies on the populace to fill the royal coffers emptied by his youthful extravagance, and the final crowning injury of illegally confiscating Bolingbroke’s inheritance, all condemn him. The earlier actions are possibly immoral, but not, strictly speaking, illegal; the last is both immoral and illegal. The barons will inevitably desert Richard, for if he does it to one, he may do it to all. York tries to warn him of the consequences of this rash act, but to no avail. Richard seals his own fate by his determination to have this wealth. He has succeeded in alienating everyone: if York speaks for the nobles, the gardener speaks for the common man. King or gardener, one must fulfil conscientiously the duties of one’s station in life or risk forfeiting that station. It all sounds so familiar.

Bolingbroke, politically aware and able, is a capable manager of the kingdom after his usurpation of the throne as Henry IV, yet fails on the first criterion of Tudor legitimacy—he is neither the legitimate anointed king nor his heir. He may be a better ruler but not a true king by divine right. If Richard must bear the moral responsibility of his failure to be a good king though a legitimate one, Bolingbroke must do so for being instrumental in the death of a true king, albeit a bad one. The thread of legitimacy that gives authority runs through all like an unbroken thread that fatally trips up those who ignore it. Uncanny, isn’t it?


Richard, when he is deposed, seems almost to glory in the humiliation of it, as if the very humiliation atones in some degree for his guilt. Indeed he appears to acknowledge and accept his moral burden when he calls for the looking glass:



                                    I’ll read enough

When I do see the very book indeed

Where all my sins are writ, and that’s myself.


Who can forget those excruciatingly drawn-out scenes of public humiliation on June 24, 2010?

It is almost as if his deposition frees him, for there will be no more crimes of state committed by him, and he may regain his peace of conscience. But his days are numbered, for there can be nothing but the constant fear of treason when there are two living kings in a kingdom.

Bolingbroke as Henry IV is just beginning the double life. From his adroit avoidance of stating his aim of usurpation, but just letting it happen, as it were, to his indirect role in the murder of Richard, he manifests a political deviousness far superior to Richard’s. But those who have helped him to become king are destined to suffer at his hands. At the end of Richard II, he does not directly request the murder of Richard, and when it is accomplished by Exton, Henry disowns both the act and the man who committed it, attempting to place the guilt on Exton’s shoulders: “The guilt of conscience take thou for thy labour”. Time-honoured, this gambit—get the troops to do your dirty work for you. That’s a matter for them. Nothing to do with me.

But Henry’s pledged crusade to the Holy Land, “To wash the blood off from my guilty hand”, and his banishment of Exton both indicate that Henry knows the truth, that he is truly morally responsible for Richard’s untimely death. While he may remove the external reminder of it from his sight, he cannot remove the guilt from his conscience unless he performs some significant act of expiation. There must be big, expensive signature reforms to cement a place in history—and to justify usurpation.


Like Richard II, Henry IV, Part 1 opens with the shadow of guilt. Henry IV’s optimistic vision of a peaceful and united Britain under his rule following him on crusade to the Holy Land is rudely shattered by the reality of insurrection in the ranks, and this early scene sets the tone for the remainder of the play. Henry must fight tooth and nail for the kingdom, and his expiatory crusade must be postponed to deal with the more immediate civil problems which will continually beset him. He is suspicious of everyone (not without cause) and his uneasy conscience sees even his son as “hot vengeance and the rod of heaven / To punish my mistreadings.”

Henry’s unscrupulous political machinations are listed extensively by Hotspur, that straightforward and unsubtle warrior, stung by humiliations visited upon him and his family by this same Bolingbroke whom he has assisted to power. Hotspur denounces the king to Blunt, who has come to seek reconciliation with the rebels on the king’s behalf:



                        … well we know the King

Knows at what time to promise, when to pay.

My father and my uncle and myself

Did give him that same royalty he wears; …

And when he [Hotspur’s father] heard him


            swear and vow to God

He came but to be Duke of Lancaster,

To sue his livery and beg his peace,

With tears of innocency and terms of zeal …


Basically, Hotspur accuses Henry of being a treacherous fake, ruthlessly climbing to his position on the backs of others whom he subsequently does not hesitate to betray, and saying anything to get what he wants:


He presently, as greatness knows itself,

Steps me a little higher than his vow

Made to my father …

[He] Cries out upon abuses, seems to weep

Over his country’s wrongs; and, by this face,

This seeming brow of justice, did he win

The hearts of all that he did angle for …


There is more in the same vein as Hotspur gets it all off his chest. One cannot help but feel sympathy for his frustration. I am sure more than one erstwhile occupant of the Treasury benches at this moment would have great fellow-feeling with Hotspur.

Henry disdainfully dismisses these protestations as the mere facile excuses of unregenerate traitors. Things have been done by the King “because it was the right thing to do” (and that is not a quote from Shakespeare). No other explanation needed, apparently.

Prince Hal’s offer of single combat to resolve the conflict without too much bloodshed is rejected by his father, as “considerations infinite / Do make against it”; but he does not elaborate on these considerations, and one cannot help thinking that it is perhaps because Henry knows that he is guilty of all the things of which he stands accused, and the king’s champion in trial-by-combat would be the one to lose if justice is truly done. He instead offers clemency to the rebels if they yield. The Great Negotiator strikes again.

Worcester somewhat wryly assesses that the rebels cannot stop now, for the king “will suspect us still and find a time / To punish this offence in other faults”, as Henry has shown himself all too capable of doing already—the Shakespearean equivalent of resigning to spend more time with the family.

And the likely successor? He just has to wait it out. As Vernon remarks about the young prince Hal:


If he outlive the envy of this day,

England did never owe so sweet a hope,

So much misconstrued in his wantonness.


A sentiment remarkably similar to that expressed rather more bluntly by the “so much misconstrued” and but recently elevated leader of the Opposition in 2009—“If we win the election I’ll be regarded as a genius. If we don’t win I’ll probably be political roadkill at some point in time.”

Catherine Parish works in archives and records management in Perth. She wrote about C.S. Lewis and Bilbo Baggins in the December 2010 issue.


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