Rampant Masculine Aggression in Shakespeare’s Richard II

‘Not all the water in the rough rude sea/
Can wash the balm from an anointed king./
The breath of worldly men cannot depose/
The deputy elected by the Lord./
…if angels fight,/
Weak men must fall; for heaven still guards the right.’
-Richard II, Richard II (Act 3, Scene 2, l. 49-58)

In Richard II, masculine aggression arises from disinheritance. It is only after Henry Bolingbroke’s banishment, as well as the subsequent unlawful stripping of his rightful lands, that a violent assertion of masculine authority is demonstrated. In due course, Bolingbroke’s masculine aggression essentially annihilates both the natural succession of kingship and patrimonial order. However, it is the aggressive stance assumed by Richard II himself that clearly precipitates Bolingbroke’s actions. At least superficially, Bolingbroke is shown to have a rightful cause for his rebellion against Richard. He declares ‘I am a subject, and I challenge law’; ‘personally I lay claim/ to my inheritance of free descent.’1 In the use of ‘free descent’ Bolingbroke clearly invokes the legitimate laws of inheritance, as passed through generations by primogeniture, to highlight Richard’s illegal blocking of what should legally be given freely. Richard’s illegal and unconstitutional robbing of Bolingbroke’s inheritance thus places Bolingbroke in a morally higher position. As a result, Richard comes to be viewed as a man driven by masculine aggression; refuses to be subordinate to any but his own wishes and desires, as opposed to a rational ruler. As Maus explains, ‘widespread resentment’ ‘in upper aristocracy’ arose from Richard’s questionable and rash attempts to raise money for petty wars. To do so, Richard retained the power ‘to tax to private individuals who can confiscate […] as they please, provided the king gets a share of the spoils.’2 This essentially led to ‘widespread resentment’ ‘in upper aristocracy’.3 In this way, Richard’s revoking of Bolingbroke’s lands is ‘an encroachment’ that ‘seems to them [the aristocracy] worse than homicide, because it directly threatens the social structure upon which their status depends.’4 Richard’s morally incomprehensible act of disinheriting Bolingbroke essentially highlights his complete refusal to remain subordinate to order and succession. He becomes little more than the ‘landlord of England’ (II.i.l.113), a king driven to further conflict by a violent desire to indulge in vain displays of supposed masculine domination. The fracture lines, caused by Richard’s dominant desire for power at any cost, are thus laid for Bolingbroke’s complete destruction of succession and order.

Richard’s rupturing, and subsequent exploitation, of patrimonial social structures to indulge his own aggressive governance results in Bolingbroke’s own violent assertion of masculine brutality and authority. However, it soon becomes apparent that Henry’s supposedly legitimate claims arising from his disinheritance mask his unprecedented and illegitimate designs on the throne. His aggressive masculinity refuses to be subordinate to the natural order of kingship; rather, as Coppelia Khan argues, Bolingbroke ‘righteously invokes the principle of succession.’5 In his subsequent rebellion against Richard, Bolingbroke finds himself defying the autocratic and God-given right of kingship. He admonishes Richard’s claim that ‘not all the water in the rough rude sea/ can clean wash the balm of an anointed King’ (III.ii.l.49-56). In the latter quote, the alliterative ‘rough rude sea’ evidently becomes symbolic of Bolingbroke himself; a rash and bold force, Bolingbroke’s illegitimate claims and rebellious treachery are shown to be entirely destructive towards order and succession. In this, Bolingbroke defies the teachings presented in the 1571 Homilies of Disobedience and Willful Rebellion, which declared rebellion to be ‘the whole puddle and sink of all sins against God and man, against his Prince, his country, his countrymen, his parents […] against all men universally’.6 Clearly, Bolingbroke’s usurping of Richard is therefore treated as the ‘sink of all sins’. His refusal to be subordinate to ordained codes of order and succession lead to the deposing and horrific murder of Richard II. Consequently, Bolingbroke’s rampant assertion of masculinity has a devastating after effect on the prosperity of his future rule. His unnatural claim to the throne is only achieved through ‘blood’ that is ‘sprinkled to make me grow’ (V.vi.l.45-46). Bolingbroke’s violent claiming of the throne, coupled with his refusal to remain subordinate to the ordained order and succession of kingship, foreshadows his continued and troubled reign as King of England.


Featured Painting: John Gilbert, Richard II Resigning the Crown to Bolingbroke, 1875-76, Oil on Canvas, 161.5 x 123cm, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool.

1. William Shakespeare, Richard II, II.iii.l.132-135, in The Norton Shakespeare, ed. by Stephen Greenblatt (New York & London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008). All further references to Richard II are to this edition.

2. Katharine Eisaman Maus, ‘Richard II’ in The Norton Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Greenblatt (New York & London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008), pp.973-982, p.976.

3. Katharine Eisaman Maus, ‘Richard II’ in The Norton Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Greenblatt, p.976.

4. Katherine Eisaman Maus, ‘Richard II’ in The Norton Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Greenblatt, p.976.

5. Coppelia Khan, Man’s Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare (Berkely: University of California Press, 1981), p.78.

6. ‘An Homily Against Disobedience and Willful Rebellion’, as Quoted in E.M.W. Tillyard, Shakespeare’s History Plays (London: Penguin, 1991), p.173.

Written by Steph Reeves
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.

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