THE CONSEQUENCES OF DEPOSITION IN "RICHARD II" AND "KING LEAR"
Both King Richard II and King Lear deal with the dethroning of a king and the consequences that follow that action. There are some similarities between these two plays, but there are differences as well. This essay will explain why.
In King Richard II (written in 1595), the actual deposition occurs only in the fourth act of the play. It is done very officially in Act 4 scene I in the Westminster Hall, and resembles largely transition of power if anything else. Even Richard II seems to eventually recognize it as a transition on a certain level, and tells that to Bolingbroke:
Give me the crown. Here, cousin, seize the crown.
On this side my hand, and on that side thine.
Now is this golden crown like a deep well
That owes two buckets, filling one another;
The emptier ever dancing in the air,
The other down, unseen, and full of water.
That bucket down and full of tears am I,
Drinking my griefs, whilst you mount up on high.
Yet in all of this civility, there was at least one discordant note, that of the bishop of Carlisle (4.I 114-149), where he promises nothing but doom and horror upon the British nation if Richard is dethroned and Bolingbroke is crowned in his place. To prove his prophesy, he and the others begin to plot Bolingbroke's downfall and restoration of Richard II at the end of Act 4 as well. In part, it is a self-fulfilling prophesy, in part - a foreshadowing of the events in King Henry IV, Part One. Thus, to Shakespeare in 1595, a dethroning of a king (identified as the representative of God by John of Gaunt earlier in the play) was a definite disaster, resulting in civil war and the eventual deterioration of English national character.
A later tragedy, King Lear, written in 1603--1606, also talks about the dethroning of a king (once again, the titular character). When compared to King Richard II this tragedy has a number of key differences, with one of them being that Lear is not dethroned by external reasons, but resigns from his position by himself:
[...]Only we still retain
The name, and all the additions to a king;
Revenue, execution of the rest,
Beloved sons, be yours; which to confirm,
This coronet part betwixt you.
Whereas Richard II held onto his crown for as long as possible, remaining if not defiant, then obstinate to Bolingbroke's pressures for as long as he could, never forgetting, perhaps, that he is "God's substitute, his deputy anointed in his sight," (1.II. 37-38), and that he, supposedly, has the power of angels behind him, as he tells his followers in Act II, his cause is righteous, and he cannot lose. The actual fact that he does lose creates the beginning of his unravelling as a king.
Conversely, Lear seems to never truly believe or remember that his cause is righteous in the second part of his play, nor does he has any concerns that as God's deputy he should behave accordingly. Instead, he behaves with that monstrous ingratitude, of which he accuses Cordelia and Kent, behaves in a manner that is most unworthy of a king, and seeks flattery and appeasement over truth and honesty. Undoubtedly, Richard II has his own flatterers and sycophants - Bagot, Bushy, Green, etc - but unlike Lear, his deposition comes not directly because of their flattery, but primarily because of his own actions or inactions. Lear's downfall began by him losing his independence as a man as well as a king, but there is no such indication in King Richard II.
This is an important difference, indicating how Shakespeare's attitude towards the relationship between power - primarily royal power - and an individual's identity and obligations (royal obligations, no doubt) changed in those 8-11 years that separate King Richard II from King Lear. The tragic characteristic of king Lear is that he is aware that he is losing his sanity, his identity, and his self, but he is unable to do anything about it as soon as Act I scene I is over. By scene IV of the same Act, Lear is already regretting this action:
... O Lear, Lear, Lear!
Beat at this gate, that let thy folly in, [Striking his head.]
And thy dear judgement out!
Lear is already regretting his turning upon Cordelia and coming to the mercies of Goneril and Regan, even though at this moment there is no direct indication that he is in trouble. Nevertheless, even now Lear is beginning to realize that he has made a grave mistake - but he has no idea (or means) as to how to fix it, and that is why he is in despair. In his world, his power came from his royal title, if he is not a king; without it, Lear has no solutions to his problems, but plenty of despair. In King Lear, Shakespeare indicated that king's identity is directly connected to his crown, kingship and kingdom, and once that connection is lost, the old identity is lost as well.
What about King Richard II, then? Just as Lear, Richard II will come to regret this decision, but, unlike Lear, there is no indication that his faulty judgement was caused by madness or lack of reasoning. Rather, Richard II appears to be in perfect control both of himself and his surroundings. Never in the play does Richard II appear to be insane as Lear eventually becomes, and it is actually reasonable to assume that by the end of the play his mental horizons actually broadened, as demonstrated by his famous soliloquy in Act 5, scene V:
My brain I'll prove the female to my soul,
My soul the father, and these two beget
A generation of still-breeding thoughts;
(5. V. 7-9)
These lines - and others - are said by a sane person, but despite his sanity the tone of Richard II at this moment is very reminiscent of Lear when he and Cordelia are imprisoned by the forces of Goneril and Regan. Both men have broadened their realization of the world by losing their king-ship, but on one hand, if Lear can plead insanity as his excuse when he exiled Cordelia and Kent, Richard II cannot do that when he exiled Mowbray. On the other, this indicated that in 1595, when Shakespeare was writing King Richard II, the bard was already following the line of thought that would mature in King Lear, that king's identity is derived from his semi-divine status as a king, and without that semi-divine status, a man could not be a king.
Nevertheless, the idea that a man cannot be a king without having some sort of a semi-divine status was just one of several that Shakespeare introduced in King Richard II andmatured in King Lear; that a king must behave in accordance with that status is another. Put otherwise, if you abuse it, you lose it. Lear's abuse of his royal power is obvious: he outright prefers to listen to flattery; he is completely unreasonable, unless he is flattered, and appears to behave insane even before he becomes mad for real.
And so does Richard II, albeit to a lesser degree. The opening act of King Richard II illustrates this state of affairs. Bolingbroke's complaints in light of this reduction of his exile from 10 years to 6 appear to be completely ungrateful, but so is Richard's sentence to Mowbray, who got exiled for the murder of earl of Gloucester, which was ordered by Richard II himself, according to historians. Furthermore, just as it is easy to dislike Bolingbroke, especially in the later acts of King Richard II, it is also hard to argue that at least initially, in Acts II-III, Bolingbroke was justified in his rebellion against Richard II: the king had taken over his estates and other inheritance without any realistic explanation for this action. Considering that that happened in the scenes following Richard II's reducing Bolingbroke's sentence in light of family relations, this expropriation of Bolingbroke's estates makes Richard II a hypocrite, a sinner, an abuser of his kingly status.
In addition, as John of Gaunt told the Duchess of Gloucester, Richard II is more than just a man, he is also Heaven's deputy, a Christian king, God's anointed - his actions cannot be unjust, for he is the king. Therefore, when he begins to be unjust, though, John of Gaunt turns on Richard II and declares him not to be the king of England. From that moment on (Act II, scene I), Richard II's downfall begins, brought on his own actions. A king - in particular a Christian king as Shakespeare makes Richard II to be - cannot be unjust, or else divine retribution will bring him low.
By contrast, King Lear is a pagan king; at least there are no overt Christianity references in King Lear, but plenty of pagan ones. The world of King Lear is either pagan or Old Testament, where divine mercy is largely absent and the remainder is embodied in Cordelia's character. Consequently, there is no sense that his downfall and deposition might be result of divine wrath; rather, Lear's fall appears to be his own fault. Nevertheless, in light of similarities between this play and King Richard II, it is not unreasonable to assume that Lear began to abuse his kingly powers, and in response, divine retribution, hubris or karma brought him low by the end of Act II. In 1595, Shakespeare believed that power - especially royal power - must not be abused, or else it will be lost, either by divine retribution or not; in 1608-1611 this belief of his became a reality.
It is also worth noting that king's crown and role is not only a package deal, they also restrict character's identity behaviour, at least in both King Richard II and King Lear. Once these restrictions are off, and the king is deposed for one reason or another, then his personality begins to develop as a character. For example, once Richard II is dethroned and sent to the Tower, he becomes a philosopher, just as Lear had become when he finally ended up in Cordelia's camp:
And these same thoughts people this little world,
In humours like the people of this world,
For no thought is contented.
(5. V. 9-11)
These thoughts are thoughts of a philosopher, not a king who is busy with affairs of his kingdom and royal duties, and has no time to spare thinking about how thoughts are like people. Lear's tragedy is that he did not think about the affairs of his kingdom at all, but rather divided it between his eldest daughters (earlier he planned to include Cordelia in that share, but that changed once Cordelia refused to flatter him), but he was not a philosopher either - he just did not think much when he was a king, and began to think about his actions only when he stopped being one, just as Richard II did:
Robes and furr'd gowns hide it all. Plate sin with gold,
And the strong lance of justice hurtless break;
Arm it in rags, a pigmy's straw does pierce it.
(4. VI. 163-165)
There are differences between King Richard II and King Lear, but in both cases, both of the monarchs become wiser after they are dethroned, even though Lear appeared to be a flawed ruler from the very first scene of the play, and Richard II did not. Losing their crowns caused them to become different people, namely `just' Lear and `just' Richard, who are different from their kingly namesakes. Going back, it is safe to say that Shakespeare as a steadfast monarchist believed that the king was God's representative on the Earth and thus had a semi-divine status of his own and thus had no character of his own as a person; dethroning of a king, whether by force (Richard II) or by his own will (Lear) resulted in civil war and disaster; a king was deposited if he abused his power.
Shakespeare, William. Ed. Kenneth Muir. King Lear. London and New York: Methuen, 1972.
---. Ed. Kenneth Muir. King Richard II. New York and Toronto: The New American Library, 1963.