In my ongoing series of blogs about Shakespeare’s sources I am today looking at Richard II. Like many of Shakespeare’s history plays the facts that Shakespeare dramatizes can be found in Holinshed’s chronicles and also the Chronicles of Froissart whose lengthy accounts, published around 1400 are still considered useful historical sources today.
Unlike with some of his history plays Shakespeare sticks pretty much to the historical events in the order given in his two main sources making less intervention than he sometimes does. However this does not mean he has not altered and shaped his historical sources . One of his major changes is in the character of Gaunt. In Holinshed Gaunt is a powerful and greedy man, yet in Richard II he is wise and level headed. This may be partly because queen Elizabeth traced her ancestry back to Gaunt and Shakespeare, like anyone wise, wanted to flatter her. Froissart’s Gaunt is closer to Shakespeare’s in his words and in his belief that whatever his faults Richard as King had the divine right to rule and it was God’s place to judge not ours.
Here is what Froissart writes about Gaunt’s feelings about England and the situation it finds itself in.
The Frenchman are right subtle; for one mischief that falls among us, they would it were ten, for otherwise they can not recover their damages, nor come to their ententes, but by our own means and discord between ourselves. And we see daily that all realms divided are destroyed; . . . in likewise among ourselves, without God provide for us, we shall destroy ourselves; the appearance thereof shows greatly. (John Froissart, Chronicles, vi, 335-6 – spelling modernized)
And here is Shakespeare’s version of the same sentient spoken by Gaunt
“That England, that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.
Ah, would the scandal vanish with my life,
How happy then were my ensuing death!” (act 2, scene 1)
It seems that from the historical accounts Shakespeare shaped his play to do two major things. Firstly to highlight the idea of the Kings divine right to rule, an ideology which suggested that no matter how poor a monarch he or she should not be deposed/usurped by a mortal hand. They were put there by God and only God had the right to challenge that rule. However at the same time Shakespeare also highlights and embellishes some of the mistakes that Richard II makes. In Shakespeare’s play he becomes more oblivious to his faults and voices more clearly unpopular, personal, and selfish desires. It is as if whilst Shakespeare dramatizes the divine right of Kings he also shows how flawed those kings may be. Whether this amounts to a critique of the doctrine which allowed kings to rule by right of God, or not is hard to ascertain – but Shakespeare certainly invites us to ask some difficult questions.