The case against Richard
In the first half of Richard II, Richard has demonstrated quite clearly that he is not a good king. In abrogating the property rights of the banished Bolingbroke, he has left his own claim to the Crown open to challenge.
There have been some good bad King Richards
Both beautiful, effete, delicate and doomed.
No sooner has he seized Bolingbroke’s lands, that Richard’s troubles begin. With typical dramatic economy Shakespeare has Northumberland outlining the case against Richard as soon as he has left the stage.
Ross: No good at all that I can do for him;
Unless you call it good to pity him,
Bereft and gelded of his patrimony.
Northumberland: Now, afore God, ’tis shame such wrongs are borne
In him, a royal prince, and many moe
Of noble blood in this declining land.
The king is not himself, but basely led
By flatterers; and what they will inform,
Merely in hate, ‘gainst any of us all,
That will the king severely prosecute
‘Gainst us, our lives, our children, and our heirs.
And daily new exactions are devised
The Earl of Wiltshire hath the realm in farm
The king’s grown bankrupt, like a broken man
The nature of the usurper
No one is safe from Richard’s depredations and Bolingbroke will provide a lightning rod. Richard’s problems are compounded by the fact that Bolingbroke possesses all the qualities that Richard lacks.
Once Bolingbroke returns to England, there is an inexorable shift of power away from Richard and we witness a personal tragedy of a man who would be king but who has none of the qualities that would make him king.
In Act II Sc iii we see Bolingbroke, who is a marked contrast to the overweening king of the opening scenes of the play. It is no wonder that the nobles are flocking to him. Young Percy comes to meet his father who is travel telling with Bolingbroke.
Northumberland: Have you forgot the Duke of Hereford, boy?
Percy: No, my good lord, for that is not forgot
Which ne’er I did remember: to my knowledge,
I never in my life did look on him.
Northumberland: Then learn to know him now; this is the duke.
Percy: My gracious lord, I tender you my service,
Such as it is, being tender, raw and young:
Which elder days shall ripen and confirm
To more approved service and desert.
Bolingbroke: I thank thee, gentle Percy; and be sure
I count myself in nothing else so happy
As in a soul remembering my good friends;
And, as my fortune ripens with thy love,
It shall be still thy true love’s recompense:
My heart this covenant makes, my hand thus seals it.
The insurgency and York’s dilemma
Hard on Percy’s heels comes the Regent, the Duke of York, Bolingbroke’s uncle. He is in a difficult position. It is his duty, as Regent to defend Richard’s crown against Bolingbroke who is essentially a rebel having been banished. But he is not happy with what Richard has done in seizing Gaunt’s land and dispossessing Bolingbroke.
And has told Richard so
Take Hereford’s rights away, and take from Time
His charters and his customary rights;
Let not to-morrow then ensue to-day;
Be not thyself; for how art thou a king
But by fair sequence and succession?
Now, afore God–God forbid I say true!–
If you do wrongfully seize Hereford’s rights,
Call in the letters patent that he hath
By his attorneys-general to sue
His livery, and deny his offer’d homage,
You pluck a thousand dangers on your head,
You lose a thousand well-disposed hearts
And prick my tender patience, to those thoughts
Which honour and allegiance cannot think.
but when Bolingbrook kneels before him York says with dark humour
Grace me no grace, nor uncle me no uncle:
I am no traitor’s uncle; and that word ‘grace.’
In an ungracious mouth is but profane.
Why have those banish’d and forbidden legs
Dared once to touch a dust of England’s ground?
But then more ‘why?’ why have they dared to march
So many miles upon her peaceful bosom,
Frighting her pale-faced villages with war
And ostentation of despised arms?
Comest thou because the anointed king is hence?
Why, foolish boy, the king is left behind,
And in my loyal bosom lies his power.
Bolingbroke puts his case succinctly
As I was banish’d, I was banish’d Hereford;
But as I come, I come for Lancaster.
If that my cousin king be King of England,
It must be granted I am Duke of Lancaster.
And therefore, personally I lay my claim
To my inheritance of free descent.
York has neither military power nor the will to resist
Things past redress are now with me past care.
When the Welsh desert Richard, he has no military power with which to resist Bolingbroke. If there is one thing that Richard II makes clear, it is that military might makes a king. There are other qualities and Bolingbroke possesses almost all of them but first and foremost is military power.