Which image does Henry Bolingbroke present of himself in William Shakespeare’s Richard II?

Essay, 2014

7 Pages, Grade: 2,7


Henry Bolingbroke respectively King Henry IV is one of the main characters taking part inWilliam Shakespeare’s English History Plays. Even though there are probably more uniquecharacters (for example the famous comical character Sir John Falstaff or Henry’s eldestson Prince Hal), Henry Bolingbroke plays an eminently important role in the constructionof the Lancaster Tetralogy. He takes part in the first two plays of the Tetralogy, King Richard II and King Henry IV, which is named after him. For this purpose I do not want tofocus on the latter, in which he represents the ruling king of England and later dies as aworried old man. Rather than that I will concentrate on the characteristics and behaviour ofthe banished Henry in King Richard II, in fact on his personal attributes he shows to returnfrom exile and seize the throne from his cousin Richard as the young and ambitious Dukeof Lancaster. By and large I want to research which image Henry presents of himself inShakespeare’s King Richard II. Are there certain ethnical values recognisable in hisbehaviour that are really important to him? In which way is he dealing with his allies andhis enemies? Are there any characteristics noticeable that were clearly necessary for hissuccess against Richard? What are his actual intentions? To answer these questionssuccessfully and to get an impression of how Henry presents himself throughout the play,it is inevitable to examine how the other protagonists characterise Henry, but mostimportantly how he characterises himself. In much the same way certain events and actionshave to be interpreted and a connection with Henry’s character has to be established. Onlya connection and interpretation of all Henry’s characteristic attributes and actions can leadto a final image that he presents of himself in the play.

First of all Henry Bolingbroke presents himself with great leadership qualities. To thesebelong bravery, strength and his battle readiness. In the very first Scene of Act 1 ofShakespeare’s King Richard II pragmatic Henry immediately shows that he solvesproblems rather with his sword than with diplomacy. He accuses Thomas Mowbray oftreason and says: “With a foul traitor’s name stuff I thy throat, / And wish - so please mysovereign - ere I move, / What my tongue speaks my right drawn sword may prove” (I, 1,44-46).*

He shows self-confidence and there is no sign of fear. In the last moments before the fightstarts, he still retains his trust in his own abilities: “As confident as is the falcon’s flight /Against a bird, do I with Mowbray fight” (I, 3, 61-62) and “Not sick, although I have to dowith death, / But lusty, young, and cheerly drawing breath” (I, 3, 65-66). During this timeHenry is an energetic young man probably in the best stage of his life. The real Henry

Bolingbroke was about 32 years old, when he got banished from England in 1398(Wikipedia). It is strongly assumed that the fictional Henry is likely in the same age at thatstage of the play and so he is a grown adult who is still young, but with a certain amount ofexperience. Henry shows a strong will and likes to deal with the arousing problems. If hegets unjustly treated he wants to do something about it and that is why he cannot acceptthat Richard is taking his rights from him. He does not start the rebellion because he wantsto seize the throne or because King Richard banished him. He revolts because he feelsforced to, in order to get his rights back. In addition to his physical strength and hisendurance, he shows smartness and charisma. Bolingbroke waits with his troops in Francebefore setting foot in England until King Richard II and his soldiers leave the country for awar in Ireland. As a result he has it a lot easier to start the rebellion, because the king andhis followers are totally unprepared. Furthermore most of the English people adore him forsetting against the autocratic state leadership and therefore they join his side. Imtiaz Habibdescribes Henry as “the upright supporter of public law in a kingdom where the rule of lawhas lapsed” (75). Even Richard has to recognise how popular Henry is: “How he did seemto dive into their hearts / With humble and familiar courtesy” (Act 1, 4, 25-26). The secondline of the quotation reveals that there is another, yet undiscussed side of Henry, which isbasically his sensitive and gracious side.

Henry shows a hard shell, but definitely a soft core, too. In other words he shows many hints of a respectful character in the play, especially when it comes to his family. Strikingly is his affection for his father John of Gaunt. Before his fight against Mowbray he greets him with the words:

“Lo, as at English feasts, so I regret The daintiest last, to make the end more sweet.O thou, the earthly author of my blood,Whose youthful spirit in me regenerateDoth with a twofold vigour lift me up To reach at victory above my head” (Act 1, 3, 67-72)

Henry characterises his father as “the daintiest” to him which means he has a big amountof respect and love for his father and feels honoured to be his son. After King Richardspeaks out the sentence to banish Henry for six years, John of Gaunt and Henry areengaged in a dialogue. Since Henry is sad being forced to leave his “mother” (Act 1, 3,307) England (he shows his patriotic vein, too), John of Gaunt tries to comfort him: “Whatis six winters? They are quickly gone” (Act 1, 3, 260) or “Look what thy soul holds dear,imagine it / To lie that way thou goest, not whence thou com’st” (Act 1, 3, 286-287). Still Henry is inconsolable and desperately unhappy because his most important goods arelocated in England and not somewhere else. One of these goods is his father himself, andhe knows, that he is probably not going to see him again, since Gaunt is very old and ill.There are other examples to be seen during the play that illustrate how much Henry caresabout his family, for instance in Act 5, Scene 3. In this particular scene, Henry, who is thenew king, has to decide how to deal with his cousin Aumerle, who joined a group ofnoblemen which had planned to assassinate Henry. Aumerle and his mother, who isHenry’s aunt (the Duchess of York), desperately plead for forgiveness. On the other sideAumerle’s father, who is Henry’s uncle (the Duke of York, to whom he showed hisattachment in earlier scenes already), wants to have his own son sentenced to death. TheDuchess prostrates before Henry. He repeatedly tells her: “Rise up, good aunt” (89) and“Good aunt, stand up” (109, 127). It seems like he hates to see her down at his feet and hefeels sorry for her. Even as king he shows respect and does not see his people as subjects.His family still has a big influence on him, and that is why he pardons Aumerle, whereashe wants the rest of the traitors murdered. He judges unequally for the good of his family.Unfortunately his relationship to his other cousin King Richard II is more complex.

In fact it is very complicated to get to the bottom of how Henry feels about Richard. On theone hand he presents himself as a subject of the king. He shows him respect and neverforgets to call Richard by his title. He calls him “My gracious sovereign, my loving liege!”(Act 1, 1, 20) or “My gracious lord” (Act 3, 3, 196), and he asks his allies to “show fairduty to his majesty” (Act 3, 3, 198). In other words Henry is totally aware of who the kingis and he contents himself with it, because he “believes in the divinity of kings” (McLeish,32) On the other hand he presents himself as a rebel against him. But what is the actualreason for his revolt? What are his intentions? As it was mentioned earlier Henry justwants to claim his heir which Richard stole from him. He is seeking justice, not power.Come what may come, he will not abandon his dangerous but consistent methods, until hehas achieved what he wants. His revolt has nothing to do with dethroning Richard, even ifRichard doesn’t believe that. There is actually no passage in the play in which Henryexplicit demands the crown. Moreover there is no passage in the play in which Henryexplicit blames Richard for all he has done, although he is clearly dissatisfied with him. Onthe contrary he is blaming Richard’s accomplices Bushy and Greene: “You have misled aprince, a royal king, / A happy gentleman in blood and lineaments, / By you unhappied anddisfigured clean;” (Act 3, 1, 8-10) He does not only take away guilt from Richard in blaming Greene and Bushy, he also gives a clear message of what he thinks about Richard: There is no fault in a divinely appointed king, but if there is, it is brought in by others. Again Henry shows he is not going to let go if someone steals his rights, even if it is his family or the king. Justice is important to him and he is very consistent in achieving it. Nevertheless Henry changes his consistent ways of acting the more success he has and the more likely a usurpation of the throne seems possible.

With seizing the throne Henry Bolingbroke breaks law and so is not able to uphold hispreviously shown character to its full extend. The fact that he takes the crown disagreeswith the purpose for what he was fighting for. It is the first time that he loses hisconsistence. When he meets Richard at Flint Castle he declares he comes “for mine own”(3, 3, 196), but when Richard asks “Set on towards London, cousin, is it so?”(208) hecannot resist the lure of being a King and agrees “Yea, my good lord” (209). With seizingthe throne he takes a lot of problems with him, which is noticeable in his acting. First of allhe jails his cousin Richard. He pardoned his other cousin Aumerle, but in terms of Richardhis sympathy for his family lacks. Even if Henry sees rather a dangerous enemy in himthan a cousin, he judges unequally, which is a sign for his uneasiness. In fact he shows hisuneasiness even more when Exton brings in Richard’s corpse. After Exton heard Henrymoaning “Have I no friend will rid me of this living fear?” (5, 4, 2), he wants to do him afavour and murders Richard. It remains a mystery if Henry meant these words literally or ifhe just wished him death without calling for a murderer. But the fact that he is thinkingabout it, shows that he changed his moralities. The second problem is that he knows that heis not a king by right because he overturned Richard illegally and has no blood claim to thethrone. Kenneth McLeish remarks in his “Longman Guide to Shakespeare’s Characters”that Henry’s “moral certainty collapses” (33). As a result he loses his former characteristicattributes like confidence, strength and determination. Suddenly he presents himself asindecisive king, who has a lot of sorrows and does not know how to lead his country. Atthe end of the play he presents a rather sad image of himself when he plans a “voyage tothe Holy Land, / To wash this blood off from my guilty hand” (5, 4, 49-50)

In fact it is complicated to achieve a final image of Henry, since he presents himself in twodifferent ways due to the changing situation. His strong and rebellious ways end in his owndesperation as a king. It is obvious that his craving for power ruined his former character.As it is so often in life increasing power changes a person. The image he presents in theearlier stages of the play, where he is an energetic and strong rebel, contrasts with his time as a king, where he does not know how to act and how to ease the sorrow. He certainly was happier as a rebel, because it was not him who broke the law. Therefore he could do what he liked the most: fighting and showing his strength with nothing to lose. He presents himself as an honest character who rather likes attacking than defending. Being a king means defending a country, something Henry was not used to before and is not capable of. It means he has something to take care of and also something to lose. All of the sudden he is not only the hero of the people, but also the target, for example of future rebellions, especially after seizing the throne illegally.

Works Cited

Primary Sources

Shakespeare, William. King Richard II/ K ö nig Richard II. 1976. Stuttgart: Philipp Reclamjun. GmbH & Co. Print.

Secondary Sources

Habib, Imtiaz. Shakespeare ’ s Plurastic Concepts of Character: A Study in DramaticAnamorphism. 1993. Cranbury, NJ: Susquehanna University Press. Print

McLeish, Kenneth. Longman Guide to Shakespeare ’ s characters: A Who ’ s Who ofShakespeare. 1985. Harlow, Essex: Longman Publishing Group. Print

Wikipedia. Henry IV. o.J. URL: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_IV_of_England. Web. 11 Jun. 2014.


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Which image does Henry Bolingbroke present of himself in William Shakespeare’s Richard II?
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Shakespeare, History Plays, Richard II, Essay, Henry Bolingbroke
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Manuel Hoffmann (Author), 2014, Which image does Henry Bolingbroke present of himself in William Shakespeare’s Richard II?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/421634


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