Richard II - Character Profiles - Henry Bolingbroke



As we look forward to David Tennant's performance as Richard II in the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of the play, we will be taking a look at the play and its characters in a series of articles.
We continue with a look at Richard's rival for the crown...

In one sense Henry Bolingbroke is actually the hero of the play. He successfully overthrows Richard and becomes King Henry IV, yet he is an elusive hero, one about whom it is hard to form an opinion on as we the audience get to know very little about him. He speaks well and imposingly in scenes 1 and 3 of Act I, but also very formally. His desire to avenge Gloucester's death may be disinterested, but it may equally well be a calculated and self interested political move. Neither he nor anyone else discloses his motives. He is a character without a personal or inner life. When Richard banishes him, Henry simply replies "your will be done" There is no reaction of emotion, of shock or surprise or dismay, which contrasts starkly against Mowbray's reaction. This is a characteristic of Henry throughout the play, he says very little, and never anything about his own innermost thoughts and feelings. Richard, it seems, suspects Henry of ambitions for the throne right from the start, but Henry, when he returns from banishment, insists he has only come to gain his rights as the Duke Of Lancaster. York realises the justness of Henry's claim, but he also soon begins to suspect that Henry is after Richard's crown. Henry also tells Richard at Flint Castle that he just wants his ducal rights, but Richard is convinced that Henry is lying and forsees his own deposition. Despite all of these suspicions that are flying around we never hear Henry's real intentions from himself. His only reference to the crown is the single and abrupt line in which he actually takes it "In God's name I'll ascend the regal throne." Whether this was what Henry always planned or whether his desire to be King grew gradually we are not told. Similarly, Henry says nothing of how he justifies his claim to the throne, what he supposes his title is, nor what, as King, he intends to do. Henry's plans are surrounded by silence. With this reticence goes an extraordinary ease of accomplishment. Henry seems to have to make no effort at all to organise an invasion, win support or capture Richard.  At the end of Act III Scene 1 he expects to fight the Welsh, but we know from Act II Scene 4 that they have disbanded. Even Henry himself is surprised to find Richard at Flint so easily. Shakespeare has deliberately arranged it so that he stumbles upon the King, whereupon Richard simply 'comes down'.
This has two effects. First the character of Henry in itself is not at all engaging: his inner life is insufficiently developed to sustain close scutiny or, in the theatre, to arouse strong feelings. We simply do not know enough about him. Towards the end of the play, there are signs of anxiety, but these come after the taking of the crown. In the body of the play it is Richard, not Henry who commands our attention.
Secondly Henry seems not to be directing events at all. Because Shakespeare tells us so little about his plans and intentions it seems that he has none, and consequently he appears to be someone for whom everything goes right by remarkably good fortune. He simply lands in England and the crown falls in to his lap.

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