The king's name


Upon his return from Ireland Richard II is confident that he can defeat the growing power of rebellious Bullingbrook[1]. He acts upon the assumption that:

"Not all the water in the rough rude sea

Can wash the balm off from an anointed king.

The breath of worldly men cannot depose

The deputy elected by the Lord.

For every man that Bullingbrook hath pressed

To lift shrewd steel against our golden crown

God for his Richard hath in heavenly pay

A glorious angel." (3.2. 54-60)[2]

It is Richard's tragedy that the traditional rituals that legitimated the king's position fail to sustain the magic identity they describe. The balm that consecrates the king as God's deputy on earth and which signifies the direct relationship between the king and God can no longer protect Richard.[3] Nor do the angels hasten to bring succour. Bishop Carlisle's reassuring prediction: "Fear not, my lord. The power that made you king/ Hath power to keep you king in spite of all" (3.2. 27-28) fails to come true.

An Elizabethan audience, on hearing the above lines could easily have identified the pieties of the Tudor myth preached in the Homilie against Disobedience and Wilful Rebellion, in all churches every Sunday:

"...Kings and Princes, as well as evil as the good, doe raigne by Gods ordinance, and that subjects are bounden to obey them: ...that God defendth them against their enemies, and destroyeth their enemies horribly..."[4]

The Elizabethans would probably have been intrigued to watch these questioned in Shakespeare's play, which stages a crisis of the beliefs underlying the Tudor myth.

"Is not the king's name twenty thousand names?" Richard wonders. The answer will be negative. The play dramatises the loss of aura round kingship, the implosion of what used to be the master signifier. Richard has to discover that the name of the king is but another name, its symbolism, unless backed up by political power, does not confer a privileged status. The mystical continuity between kingship and the person who happens to hold this office, a continuity that was theorised as the king's two bodies, fails to enjoy general consent.[5] The name of the king and the person who is king are separate. Richard experiences this gap as a crisis of signification, where signifiers have been loosened from their signifieds, where symbols of authority and power, ceremony and ritual have been hollowed out. In this world of differance the king is but a simple mortal:[6]

Cover your heads, and mock not flesh and blood

With solemn reverence. Throw away respect,

Tradition, form and ceremonious duty,

For you have but mistook me all this while.

I live with bread like you, feel want,

Taste grief, need friends. Subjected thus,

How can you say to me I am a king? (3.2.170-177)

The definition of kingship, has been subjected to change. The king himself understands this too late: "I have wasted time and now time wastes me..." (5.5.48)

Which are the new rules that ensure the authority of a king? What new values have emerged? The paper will investigate the contradictory views, both innovating and conservative, that inform the idea of governance in the play. It will particularly highlight the centrality that the use of violence has acquired in rethinking governance. It will trace how the traditional definition of "virtus" as defined by humanists has come to incorporate what was considered to be its opposite , namely "vis", force, violence.

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Last update: August 2002
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