Locke and Shakespeare
It is important to note that Locke’s “Second Treatise on Government” is fully rooted on something ideological and taking parts of it can be considered inappropriate, specially, because the circumstances Locke laid on his work varies form that of Richard II. Knowing this, Richard II can only be analyzed with reference to some concepts found on Locke’s philosophy rather than an actual application or portrayal of such.
Following the flow of Locke’s work, I will start with his concept of the “state of war.” Locke indicated that a state of war is in contrast with the natural tendency of men to preserve life. On the other hand, there are certain factors that may threaten a person and may lead him to war or destruction, but never license him to do so. He supposes that proper implementation of the law and punishment can prevent war.
During the onset of the play, it is clear that Richard II has made an erroneous error in not being able to settle and rule a fair judgement on the dispute between Bolingbroke and Mowbray. When there is a clear indication that law has been broken and that punishment has no basis or bearing and thus, altered, questions will arise and later bring forth war.
More of this can be discussed when I go into the detail of political and civil society and the dissolution of the government later in this paper. My point here is that Richard II’s mercy of reducing Bolingbroke’s sentence to 6 years, no matter how justified, is an act outside of the law that he, himself, should inculcate and practice. Not to add that the trial by combat that was set for Bolingbroke and Mowbray did not take place upon the king’s discretion.
I understand that at the time this play was written, the King is someone ordained by Heaven to rule and so, has the right to grant mercy, create laws, wage war, etc… I believe, on the other hand, perhaps, in one way, or another, similar to Locke, that power is a gift that should never be abused and should always be used for the benefit of the “natural man.” A state of nature has existed and can never be repelled from. In a lawful stage, at this time, that seems very unlikely, and so it does, in Richard II, and so, the next turn of events.
The next is Locke’s concept on property. He pre-supposes that man’s right on land came from the fact that he needs it to survive and he will work to own and maintain it for himself. Knowing that there was a lot of land for everyone, he assumes that each can be afforded an equal share and that people are not supposed to take more than needed. He discussed that the value attributed to land, i.e. gold, silver or diamonds is nothing compared to the main purpose – survival.
The application of this concept is obvious in consideration of the fact that during the time the play was written; colonization and acquisition of land, in the name of the King was like a trend. My point in mentioning this though is that improper allocation of funds, seizure of property as well as the war to Ireland are all part of the picture that led Richard II to his tragic ending.
While the priorities of the king is largely different from that of the common man, the main truth in surrendering one’s fate to the king is for reasons of survival. Locke has discussed that a man’s title for property is his own labor. The king however, thinks otherwise. I think that a king believes that everything under his “kingdom” is considered his possession.
In the ideal sense, this is true because knowing that the king holds the title to everything means the king has to protect, nurture and make sure that his “kingdom” is living the good life. In Richard II’s case, it seems different. Well, maybe, for that entire period, expanding the land and winning over governance is the main aim of the king. The bottom line is that while the king is busy making sure he owns and rules a larger “kingdom,” the people are busy criticizing what the king should do.
Moving on, Locke’s discussion on the political and civil society and the dissolution of government is the main theme of Richard II as well as of this assignment. Locke primarily said that a government exists when people decides to resign their individual rights to the government. He however, explicitly points out that there is no place for absolute monarchy in a civil society. This is because having the rights of all depend on one or few people means that judgement is overseen.
Knowing that the ruler is also the maker and implementer of laws mean that the ruler is not subjected to any judge – the ruler cannot judge himself, perhaps only by conscience, but seemingly, the ruler becomes above of everything he has set. And so, such may lead to anarchy, rebellion and the disintegration of the government.
The type of government alone is already a subject of discussion for if Locke doesn’t believe in monarchy, then the governance of Richard II is already considered a true government. Perhaps that was the reason why anarchy, as Locke has discussed, took place later on.
Earlier in this paper, I’ve mentioned that the king’s priorities are different from the common man. It is important to note that even Locke agrees that the common man will not understand this. The common man’s concern is simply his/her survival – it doesn’t matter how, where, when, as long as they have the right to land and live well, then all should be well.
I think this is where Richard II failed as a king. He understands the need for war (land), the ways (funds) and even the need for strong governance (resolving conflict and “politics”) but he did not see things in a bigger picture, he did not use Locke’s simple interpretation of things. He didn’t listen to the needs of the people and focused only on his needs as king.
The way the play has progressed revealed how all of Locke’s descriptions and/or principles come into perfect merge with the eventual ending. As I have discussed with his principles on the state of war and of property, it is clear that Richard II has brought his fate upon himself when he acted upon his assumptions. If he hasn’t ordered the death of the Duke of Gloucester, Henry wouldn’t have had the opportunity to accuse Mowbray with treason (diversion of funds and the Duke’s death).
If he has chosen to let the law decide on the fate of both, he wouldn’t have faced the dilemma of banishment. Perhaps it was guilt, for Henry’s accusation was true, perhaps, it was because he failed to foresee the course of evens and thought that banishing Henry will be a good-of-a-solution to keep his popularity with the commoners from increasing, or perhaps, it was simply because he was just a weak king.
Locke also discussed that the dissolution of the government as a result of rebellion does not necessarily mean that the government will cease to exist. It means that change is needed and a new governance is required. Perhaps, this is why Richard II chose to step down without the need for violence and allowed Henry to rule. Come to think of it, if he didn’t step down, he wouldn’t have had enough power and manpower to protect him anyway, for even his own army was easily swayed with rumor that he was dead.
It is on that change of governance that Locke finished his discussion. The play however progressed further into the tragedy it is known for – the murder of Richard II. I think this part can be associated to Locke’s early discussion on man’s state of nature. It is quite funny that in spite of the fact that a political and civil society (at least if we are to forego the fact that it’s a monarchy) already exists in Richard II, man’s state of nature – where he believes that he has power over someone weak and/or has the right to subject someone who has offended him – will always be part of it.
And so, Sir Pierce killed Richard II, thinking it is what Henry desires, which is actually true, but in any case, has caused his banishment. This simply proves that man – no matter what state he or she is, will always be man, just as Locke attempted to base when he discussed his theory.
If you’ll come to think of it, this last scenario is not so much different with the onset of the play where Mowbray was accused of murder and was banished. The irony of such similarity may simply mean that unless the government is changed, the process will repeat.