The Qualities of Kingship in Hamlet and King Richard II hamlet and



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The Qualities of Kingship in Hamlet and King Richard II
Hamlet and Richard II contain many parallels and oppositions. Both are set in unstable worlds, with the action centring on the deposition and destruction of a King, and moving towards an overthrow of power. Many of the characters’ roles are the same in each play – old King, new King, campaigner against the King – but our heroes’ intentions are altogether divided; one is compelled to ‘kill a king’, the other desperate to preserve one.
In this respect, Claudius and Richard have a common goal, and as they are both on the throne initially, they invite comparison. Claudius is undoubtedly the better ruler. This immediately undermines the importance of legitimacy; despite seizing power through fratricide, Claudius is far more efficient than Richard, legitimate heir to the throne. This fratricide, however repugnant, offers some example of Claudius’s skill; he murders his brother, marries the widow, and seizes the crown, while the people applaud him as their new King. This suggests either his immense stealth in committing the crime, or his power of intimidation, or both.
Claudius’s speeches are kingly in the sense that they are authoritative and somewhat lacking in humanity. He does not show emotion, and adamantly speaks out against excessive grief in his first scene:

‘It shows a will most incorrect to heaven,

A heart unfortified, a mind impatient,

An understanding simple and unschooled.’1

His words are never challenged; he silently commands agreement. Occasionally, he allows himself to express his true feelings without restraint, but this occurs only after the revelation of the play within the play. Claudius had perhaps considered himself safe from exposure, having committed the murder so efficiently, as it is unlikely he would expect his dead brother’s ghost to be Hamlet’s informer. As a result of this sudden and unlikely collapse of his carefully established security, his language deviates briefly from that of the regal importance he exemplifies:

‘Oh wretched state! Oh bosom black as death!

Oh limed soul that struggling to be free

Art more engaged! Help, angels!’2

This visceral outbreak of desperation is quickly contained within calmer language, however, by Claudius’s next words of ‘make assay’. Even his most distressed state is laced with practicality; his reason does not allow his emotion to perform. It is perhaps this quality that makes him so effective as King, for there is a sense in both Hamlet and Richard II that lack of humanity makes for a more efficient ruler.
Whatever Richard’s faults may be, lack of emotion is certainly not one of them. It is an amalgamation of small flaws that makes him a bad King, flaws that seem trivial when not magnified by the requirements of kingship. His biggest mistake is his fascination and love of status; his first scene is an entirely unnecessary display of his power as King, interrupting Mowbray and Bolingbroke’s confrontation with self-important assertions and unhelpful suggestions such as ‘Wrath-kindled gentlemen, be ruled by me’ and ‘Rage must be withstood’. Although comic and endearing, his love of pomp and circumstance is not only pointless, it is highly detrimental to his position as King. Gaunt is highly critical of Richard’s love of excess, and prophesies his downfall at his own hands:

‘His rash fierce blaze of riot cannot last,

For violent fires soon burn out themselves;

Small showers last long but sudden storms are short;

He tires betimes that spurs too fast betimes;

With eager feeding food doth choke the feeder.’3

However, Richard’s belief in his own invulnerability is so unwavering, and Gaunt’s condemnation of him so fierce, that Richard merely denounces his uncle as a ‘lunatic lean-witted fool’. Continuing in his wave of recklessness, Richard seizes all of Gaunt’s land to fund his war in Ireland. This decision is universally disparaged by the King’s advisors, and the Duke of York pleads in desperation for the rights of Gaunt and Bolingbroke:

‘Is Gaunt not dead? And doth not Hereford live?

Was Gaunt not just? And is not Harry true?

Did not the one deserve to have an heir?

Is not his heir a well-deserving son?’4

These six questions indicate York’s incredulity that Richard could even suggest such a blatant abuse of power. Richard, however, discards his critics with ‘Think what you will’, and leaves the scene oblivious to the disaster he has effectively set in motion. Although as yet unaware of his imminent deposition, he unwittingly foretells of it in his final line:

‘Be merry, for our time of stay is short.’

By the time he returns from Ireland, Richard’s ‘stay’ as King will essentially be over, and Bolingbroke will be in power.


Many comparisons can be drawn between Bolingbroke and Hamlet. They are both potential Kings (Bolingbroke by design, Hamlet perhaps only by coincidence) and they are both chiefly concerned with the destruction of their existing rulers, both of whom they are highly dissimilar to. However, it is Bolingbroke who usurps the throne, and Bolingbroke who makes the better leader.
Bolingbroke is practical in his ideas and blunt in his speech. Where Richard persuades with vivid imagery, Bolingbroke convinces with reason. He speaks his mind without ceremony, and the ‘wrongs’ Richard has done him earn him an automatic degree of respect:

‘My father’s good are all distrained and sold,

And these, and all, are all amiss employed.

What would you have me do?’5

In response to this, even the Duke of York is forced to admit that he can appreciate ‘the issue of these arms’, and Bolingbroke wins another ally. He is already a favourite with the general population, for with Richard refusing to acknowledge that anyone may have power other than himself, Bolingbroke galvanises the people into a ‘revolt’ against him. He is able to do this so easily due to a combination of his own understanding of the importance of public opinion, and Richard’s utter inability to recognise any power other than his own.
Hamlet and Bolingbroke are opposites in the sense that one is a man of thought and the other a man of action. Much of Hamlet centres around the eponymous character’s inability to commit to his act of revenge:

‘I do not know

Why yet I live to say ‘This thing’s to do’,

Sith I have cause, and will, and strength, and means

To do’t.’6

This aspect of his character, where his mind is so ‘sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought’ it denies him senseless action, is not necessarily a quality akin to kingship. Hamlet can act cruelly, but he is neither ruthless nor detached; he is always emotionally involved, whether he is being motivated by love, fear, confusion, anger, or frustration. His unpredictability would render him a liability as a King. When not wallowing in melancholy, he takes great delight in assuming his ‘antic disposition’, which, although witty and entertaining, would not earn him any respect. A good King cannot be too openly playful if he wishes to command his people with any authority.


The most obvious character comparison to make is, of course, between Hamlet and Richard. Ironically, our title characters are the least fit for kingship of those mentioned. Their responsibility is to engage the audience’s sympathy, so that we may empathise with their failings and engage with their sufferings. In this way, it follows that the most sympathetic characters benefit from being the most incompetent, provided that their goodness always outweighs their ineptitude.
The first two acts of Richard II expose the astonishing lengths of the King’s ineffectiveness, but in Act III his character deepens. He displays a huge range of emotion when forced to confront the facts of Bolingbroke’s flattening invasion, and conveys his despair beautifully:

‘But now the blood of twenty thousand men

Did triumph in my face, and they are fled;

And till so much blood thither come again,

Have I not reason to look pale and dead?’7

The play is coloured by the beauty of Richard’s language; although unnecessary, his words are melodious, and the audience admires him for his talent. Although he fails in his requirements as King, he fulfils his duty as our hero by engaging the audience’s sympathy despite his mistakes. There is also a sense that these mistakes can be understood. Richard is not alone in the belief of his divine appointment as ‘deputy elected by the Lord’; this idea runs through the entire play, and is one of the chief arguments against the treatment of Richard;

‘shall the figure of God’s majesty,

His captain, steward, deputy elect,

Anointed, crowned, planted many years,

Be judged by subject and inferior breath,

And he himself not present?’8

Richard can be forgiven to some extent for his arrogance and excessive commands, for although his advisors do contradict him, his court is shrouded in the belief of his divine appointment and power. It is only Gaunt who speaks explicitly of the limitations of Richard’s power:

‘Shorten my days thou canst with sullen sorrow,

And pluck nights from me, but not lend me a morrow.

Thou canst help Time to furrow me with age,

But stop no wrinkle in his pilgrimage;

Thy word is current with him for my death,

But dead, thy kingdom cannot buy my breath.’9


Hamlet impresses the audience with the combination of his sharp wit and raw emotion. His character is baffling, far more so than Richard, and the audience therefore feels a great desire to understand him. Hamlet’s soliloquies are central to his engagement of audience sympathy, for it is through them we gain a glimpse into the character that confuses and excites us, and as a result, they are vivid expressions of his emotion:

‘O that this too too sullied flesh would melt,

Thaw and resolve itself into a dew,

Or that the Everlasting had not fixed

His canon ’gainst self-slaughter. O God, God,

How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable



Seem to me all the uses of this world!’10
It seems that, in Richard II and Hamlet, our heroes are the greatest, and their flaws the most sympathetic, when they do not possess the qualities of kingship that succeed in their world. In these two plays, ruthlessness and practicality are paramount to a successful ruler, yet would often dehumanise the title character. By the end of Hamlet, it is Fortinbras who finally ascends the throne, the cardboard cut-out of an action man. Hamlet himself requests that he rule with his ‘dying voice’; he can recognise some qualities of kingship in Fortinbras he doesn’t display himself. His lack is the audience’s gain, however, for although we love to watch the fall of a King, we become far more involved with the fall of a man.


1 Hamlet, I.ii.95-97

2 Hamlet, III.iii.67-69

3 King Richard II, II.i.33-37

4 King Richard II, II.i.191-194

5 King Richard II, II.iii.131-133

6 Hamlet, IV.iv.43-46

7 King Richard II, III.ii.76-79

8 King Richard II, IV,i,126-130

9 King Richard II, I.iii.227-232

10 Hamlet, I.ii.129-134

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