Re-writing past virtues as Machiavellian virtu


The England of Gaunt's heroic past was a "seat of Mars" (2.1.41), a " teeming womb of royal kings/ Feared by their breed and famous by their birth/ Renowned for their deeds as far from home.."(51-53). Most importantly it was "That England that was wont to conquer others" (65). The recycling of the ideal past insists on war, on the positive valorisation of the use of violence and blood spilling. The ideal ruler projected by the play is not fashioned after the humanistic model of the prince of love.[12] Nor is the idea of government understood to include guiding and shepherding the people, two important features that the secular state took over from the ecclesiastical regimen.[13] Paradoxically this vision of the ideal past owes more to Machiavelli's views on the centrality of war.

The world Machiavelli wrote for, the early sixteenth century, experienced the painful passage from a relatively stable order to one of disruptive violence. Reality was no longer perceived as a harmonious ordered whole but as a battlefield. It is against this background that the humanistic virtus was rewritten and eventually displaced by virtu . (Senellart, 220) The latter had no moral freight and meant skill in using force and waging wars. "The willingness to exercise force became the absolutely central feature of a good princely government", Vis, meaning force and violence, was one of the conditions of a prince's success. (Skinner, 431)

What Richard II might have learned from Machiavelli is that a prince "must never raise his thoughts from war", "war is the only profession that befits one who commands" and that the successful princes are those " who are able to gather together a suitable army and fight a good battle against whoever should attack them".[14] Actually Richard displayed the vices and committed the sins that Machiavelli particularly warned against: he appeared "effeminate", that is changeable, cowardly and irresolute, and was guilty of being rapacious of other people's property. (Machiavelli, 136)

There was however another tradition of humanistic thought which opposed virtus to vis. Erasmus was convinced that "a good prince should never go to war at all...unless he cannot possibly avoid it. If we were of this mind there would hardly be any wars." [15] Not until Machiavelli's pragmatics of power which separated political action from ethics could vis and virtus go together. Having stated that the nostalgic version of feudal England valorised the use of violence positively, we have to specify that both Gaunt's and York's accounts of the past insist that violence be exclusively directed outwards, against the other. It should be aimed at external enemies, be they the Infidel (the Turks) or the French. Any act of violence that was directed inwards, against the self, was specifically demonised. York insists that

...when he [Richard's father] frowned it was against the French

And not against his friends......

His hands were guilty of no kindred blood

But bloody with the enemies of his kin" (2.1. 178-184)

To read these lines in terms of Renee Girard's theory, the violence directed outwards, since it has a purging effect, is fully endorsed, while the violence directed inwards is rejected on account of its potential to produce "the sacrificial crisis", i.e. the state of total chaos and anarchy where all members of society are involved in reciprocal violence.[16] Having had his own brother killed, Richard II committed the latter type of violence and initiated the revenge plot of the play.[17] To Gaunt this means a perversion of tradition: "England that was wont to conquer others/ Hath made a conquest of itself".(2.1.65)

Bullingbrook forfeits Gaunt's position on the need to direct violence exclusively against an external enemy, when he plunges headlong into the role of the avenger and aches for "rough chastisement" (1.1.105). Bullinbrook resorts to violence against his king and kin, being prompted not solely by his duty as avenger, but also by his desire for power. He is one of Machiavelli's "new princes" who uses force in order to seize power (lo stato).[18] Bullingbrook's behaviour, waving his hat to the oyster wench, kneeling to a brace of draymen (1.4.32-33), proves that he has adopted the new "poetics of power", (Senellart 221) which implies the careful orchestration of the prince's visibility in order to gain popular support. Furthermore his adherence to tradition and law is governed by "necessity", i.e. by political exigency.[19] Bullingbrook legitimises his return to England by invoking the principle of inheritance and succession to a title, the corner stone of the feudal hierarchy. When he claims the crown of England, he completely ignores the fact that Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March, was the lawful heir to the thane and thus blatantly flouts the above principle.

The opposition between Richard, a tyrant because animated by the exclusive pursuit of his selfish interests, and Bullingbrook, the king who will defend law, order and the interests of the people, is thus gradually deconstructed. Bullingbrook is shown to be developing into Richard's more successful because more aggressive double. Both commit Cain's crime in order to keep their power, both make use of theatricality to enforce and legitimise their position, both breach the law of succession: Richard seizes Bullingbrook's lands and title while the latter takes Richard's crown. The deconstruction of the opposition between the two characters came out forcefully in John Barton's performance at Stradford in 1973. Barton had the actors performing Richard and Bullingbrook interchange their roles. Richard Pasco and Ian Richardson swapped roles on alternate nights. Andrew Gurr considers that this device brought out the balanced character of the play. (Gurr, 39)

The collapse of differences between king and rebel, however, poses a serious threat to the social order: not only does it breed further rebellions and reciprocal violence as the new king lacks legitimacy, but it undermines the authority and strength of all political institutions. The farcical intermezzo round Aumerle's treason in act V marks the beginnings of a series of rebellions which will plague Henry IV and also reveals the new king's weak claim to authority. Bullingbrook does not (cannot) live up to the expectations Northumberland voiced on behalf of all those who flock to support him.[20]

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