Wednesday, April 30, 2008
The national history of England was dramatized by William Shakespeare in two tetralogies which encapsulated English history from 1398 to 1485 and the second of which includes Richard II. All of Shakespeare’s history plays may be considered historiography, meaning the playwright presented history interpretively based on his critical assessments of primary and secondary texts. By depicting historical occurrences using the abovementioned methodology, could Shakespeare have rewritten his country’s history as he deemed suitable to the context in which he lived? Most probably yes, given that history is written in the narrow perspective of the victors. In Shakespeare’s case, he wrote the plays supposing that Elizabethan England will learn from its past, a motivated action that has repercussions until now by virtue of the persisting belief in what patrons view in the plays. The contradictions between real-life events and their dramatized versions in Richard II or any Shakespearean history for that matter prove how Shakespeare in particular and historians in general can modify, highlight, or manipulate historical events that will serve best their agenda.
In the play, Shakespeare puts Richard II and Bolingbroke side by side in order to show how the characteristics of the weak king would pale compared to those of the strong one. Richard II taxes the people too much, squanders his funds, and greedily sequesters John Guant’s property. Richard II’s exhibition of selfishness is that which angers Bolingbroke enough for him to usurp the king’s throne. While the Medieval and Elizabethan eras were drenched in providentialism or the belief that monarchs are divinely chosen to reign and no usurper should dethrone them, Shakespeare exaggerates Richard II’s ineptitude so Bolingbroke may be legitimized in his usurpation of the throne.
However, the focus on just one out of the 22 years of reign of Richard II begs for an interrogation since that one wasteful year may not be satisfying to determine Richard’s monarchal incompetence. Shakespeare has decidedly omitted the king’s achievements in the other 21 years such as ending the Hundred Years’ War. The historiographic alteration was meant to juxtapose the king’s overemphasized negativities and Bolingbroke’s honorable qualities. Bolingbroke is portrayed as a humble, fair and just king so that he would serve as a model for future kings. For instance, Richard II’s fictitious death scene is meant to show that Bolingbroke did not hate Richard II or intended to wrest the throne away from him, so he reprimands Exton for having murdered the former king. In here, Bolingbroke is presented as being compassionate and conscious of his morals. As such, he is depicted as having usurped by chance, a chance that God permits so in the course of history, a divinely anointed king would emerge.
Shakespeare’s changes and compression of events are his way of helping shape a national identity for Elizabethan England. However, in his rewriting history, he wielded the power to influence the future, as is evident in the way contemporary people see English events as truthful using Shakespearean historiographical perspective.