Page images
PDF
EPUB

who, while pretending to conduct Gloster to the Tower, spirited him away down the river, and across to Calais, and there lodged him in the castle. Richard's fury, so long repressed, now broke loose. The Duke, in his absence, was impeached of treason for what he had done ten years before. Bolingbroke concurred in this impeachment. When Norfolk was ordered to bring his prisoner before the House, he replied that he could not do so, as the Duke had suddenly died. Gloster was now out of the way, and, as it was generally thought, by means the most foul ; and his former partisans, notwithstanding they had been pardoned and taken into seeming favour, were made to taste the full measure of Richard's vengeance.

In these doings the King's real character was fairly disclosed. The smiles and affability in which he had so long cloaked his revenge, his perfidious favours towards the destined victims, and his contempt of law and justice as soon as he felt secure in his power, appalled not only Gloster's former adherents, but all who had ever incurred the royal displeasure. Bolingbroke, as we have seen, had of late sided with Richard in the impeachment of his uncle. But he had been himself more or less implicated as a partisan of Gloster in those very doings which were now drawing the King's vengeance on so many others : though now seeming to stand firm in Richard's good-will, and though lately advanced by him from Earl of Derby to Duke of Hereford, he might well distrust a hand that had approved itself so false and treacherous in its favours.

Here, most likely, we have the true secret of Bolingbroke's sudden and otherwise inexplicable rupture with the Duke of Norfolk. The two had lately ridden together in a friendly manner, and during the ride had opened their minds to each

other with apparent freedom and sincerity touching the King's doings and purposes. But the imputed murder of his uncle Gloster might well put Bolingbroke upon apprehending that Norfolk's seeming confidence was all feigned for the purpose of drawing him into some act or speech that might be turned to his destruction. It is true, Norfolk himself, also, along with Bolingbroke and others, had borne a part in those same treasonable proceedings for which Gloster was impeached; but he now stood high, apparently, in the King's favour; and in his possession of the whole secret touching Gloster's death he had a strong pledge of the King's fidelity to him. Richard was bound to Norfolk as his instrument, Norfolk was bound to Richard as his principal, in that dark transaction ; neither could betray the other without exposing himself. But this was a very perilous combination. Bolingbroke’s astute, penetrating, determined spirit saw how to be master of the situation. He could not attack the principal directly, but he could attack him through the instrument. Thus Gloster's death became Bolingbroke's opportunity.

The Political Situation. The play fitly opens with Bolingbroke's accusation and challenge of Norfolk; the forecited points of history not forming any part of the action, nor being stated directly, but only implied, sometimes not very clearly, in various notes of dramatic retrospection. Richard tries his utmost to reconcile the parties; for he knows full well that himself is the real mark aimed at in the appellant's charges and defiance ; but he is forced alike by his position and his conscience to dissemble that knowledge, and to take Bolingbroke at his word.

On the other side, Bolingbroke's behaviour throughout is also a piece of profound and well-acted dissimulation : he understands the King's predicament perfectly; knows that he dare not avow his thoughts, lest he stand self-convicted in the matter charged. So he has both Richard and Norfolk penned up in a dilemma from which they can nowise escape but by letting out the whole truth, and thus giving him a clear victory. His keen sagacity pierces the heart of their situation ; nor does his energy lag behind his insight: naturally bold and resolute, his boldness and resolution now spring at the game in conscious strength : he is ambitious of power, he resents his uncle's death, he loves his country; and his ambition, his resentment, his patriotism, all combine to string him up for decisive action : he has got a firm twist on the wrong-doers, and is fully determined either to twist them off their legs or to perish in the attempt. And observe what a note of terror he strikes into Richard when, referring to the spilling of Gloster's blood, he declares,

Which blood, like sacrificing Abel's, cries,
Even from the tongueless caverns of the earth,
To me for justice and rough chastisement;
And, by the glorious worth of my descent,
This arm shall do it, or this life be spent.

The little words to me, falling in here with such quiet emphasis, are a stern warning to the guilty parties, that the speaker has assumed the office of avenger, and will not falter in the work. How well the sense of them is taken, appears in the King's exclamation, “How high a pitch his resolution soars !"

It is to be understood withal, that Norfolk has now come to be the King's main supporter in his career of misrule. Bolingbroke forecasts that, Norfolk once hewn out of the way, Richard will then have to cast in his lot with those who have neither wasted the land with rapacity nor washed their hands in unrighteous blood. Then too he reckons upon having himself a voice potential in the royal counsels ; and he already has it in mind that the race of cormorant upstarts and parasites and suckers who have so long preyed upon the State shall make a speedy end.

Such, I think, is clearly the dramatic purpose and significance of the opening scene, which has been diversely interpreted by several critics, who, it seems to me, have not fully entered into its bearing, prospective and retrospective, on the action of the play. Coleridge, for instance, thinks the Poet's aim in so beginning the piece was to bring out the characters of Richard and Bolingbroke ; while Courtenay holds him to have made the opening thus, not from any dramatic purpose, but merely because he found the matter so ordered in the chronicle. Gervinus, again, thinks that Shakespeare “began with this scene, because it was just the beginning of all the sufferings which fell upon the King, and afterwards upon his dethroners.” The views of both Coleridge and Gervinus are doubtless right, as far as they go : but I think the chief object of the scene is to unfold, in its various bearings, direct and remote, the dramatic relation of the two leading persons. Accordingly, out of this relation as there set forth the whole action of the play is made to proceed.

Secret Purposes of the King. The King's course in arresting the quarrel just as it is coming to the upshot, and in sending both parties into exile, is very cunning, though perhaps in a rather small way. He thus gets rid of the whole question for the present, and saves himself from falling into the hands of either side : Bolingbroke's scheme is baffled, and his purpose indefinitely postponed : withal the act wears a look of fairness and impartiality, so that public discontent cannot well find where to stick upon it. As matters stand, even Norfolk's help is likely to prove a hindrance to the King; he has a firm hold upon him through the secret that lies between them : on the other hand, Richard has found in Bolingbroke an antagonist whom he dares not cope with, and can nowise conciliate but by arming him with a still greater obstructive power. So, by thus playing them off against each other, he seems to have shaken himself clear at once from a troublesome friend and a dangerous foe : at all events, as he views the thing, he can well afford to purchase a riddance from so formidable an assailant by the loss of his abiest defender. For Richard's main difficulty, in the play as in history, is, that he feels unable to stand without props, and yet is too weak or too wayward to lean upon any but such as are weaker than himself : none are for him but those who pander to his wilfulness; creatures at once greedy and prodigal, and who have no strength to help him but what they suck out of him.

Richard is evidently not a little elated at the stratagem of banishment : he flatters himself with having devised a master-stroke of policy which is to make him stronger than ever. Both the clog of Norfolk's friendship and the dread of Bolingbroke's enmity are now, as he thinks, effectually removed. After such a triumph, he presumes that none will dare to call the oppressions and abuses of his government to account. Thus he arrogates to himself entire impunity in whatever he may please to do, and so is emboldened to fresh excesses of misrule. Though he has cut down the term of Bolingbroke's exile to six years, it is with a secret purpose that the exile shall never return ; and he trusts that the same king-craft which has extricated him from so sharp a dilemma will carry

« PreviousContinue »