The Throne Ain’t No Popularity Contest (or “The Flip-Side of God”)

In Richard the Second (or at least at the beginning of it), the throne of England is God-given, a Divine Right. But barring natural disasters, how do we then break the line of succession? Does God drive the coup leaders to kill the current king?

and if that’s the case, what a wonderfully macabre view of God do we get in the Scottish play!

Let’s, just for the sake of argument, say that’s the case: the act of violent overthrow is akin to a natural, God-made disaster. Then what do we make of a non-violent deposition, or worse yet abdication?

Is this then a sin against God?

Gaunt tells Gloucester’s widow that he will not revolt against Richard because

God's is the quarrel; for God's substitute,
His deputy anointed in His sight,
Hath caused his death: the which if wrongfully,
Let heaven revenge; for I may never lift
An angry arm against His minister.

— I.ii.37-41

Is this sin against God the reason we’re plunged into the War of the Roses, in which England will see

Disorder, horror, fear and mutiny
Shall here inhabit, and this land be called
The field of Golgotha

— IV.i.142-144

It’s not a sunny prophesy, especially when you consider that Golgotha is Calvary, the site of Christ’s crucifixion, the site of the murder of the Son of God.

On the flip-side of God, what’s Richard’s replacement got going for him?

His popularity,

          his courtship to the common people;
How he did seem to dive into their hearts
With humble and familiar courtesy,
What reverence he did throw away on slaves,
Wooing poor craftsmen with the craft of smiles
And patient underbearing of his fortune,
As 'twere to banish their affects with him.
Off goes his bonnet to an oyster-wench

— I.iv.24-31

His love of the commons is derided by Richard, mocked. Are we supposed to feel the same way? Richard certainly is painted in an inconsistent light, poor at time, sympathetic at others, rarely positive outright. So maybe we are, maybe we aren’t.

It looks like York is as unsure as we are: he later describes Bolingbroke’s entrance into London. Instead of riding upright on his horse, staring straight ahead, the new king

      from the one side to the other turning,
Bareheaded, lower than his proud steed's neck,
Bespake them thus: 'I thank you, countrymen:'

— V.ii.19-21

Less mocking, and a little ambiguous as well, we’re left to ponder what this actually looked like. Bolingbroke is “bareheaded,” as if he was re-enacting Richard’s mocking of him and the oyster-wench (“off goes his bonnet”). Bolingbroke’s head is “lower” than the horse’s neck, and moving from one side of the horse to the other. What would make him do this? He’s shaking the hands of the commons, allowing them to touch him. Not kingly, but very popular. It’s as if Bolingbroke understands that–since God will not save him; after all, he had deposed “God’s substitute”–he must keep the commons happy, be one of them.

Of course, it doesn’t help Richard that he stands “condemned” (II.ii.132) by the

            wavering commons; for their love
Lies in their purses, and whoso empties them,
By so much fills their hearts with deadly hate.

– II.ii.129-131

And since Richard has just ordered that taxes be raised for the Irish wars, his popularity will crumble.

And it seems not even God can save him from that…

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