New York Rep. Peter King is planning to launch his chairmanship of the House Homeland Security Committee with a hearing into “Muslim radicalization” in the United States, the process by which Muslim Americans become radicalized to the point of supporting international Islamist terrorism or, worse still, committing or attempting to commit, terrorist acts here at home against our own country. It’s a very serious topic and a good subject for an important congressional hearing, but there is every reason to fear that this may be a counterproductive rather than useful exercise, possibly disastrously so. So far we don’t know much about the potential date, content or witness list of the hearing, although Steven Emerson is enraged at his apparent exclusion (more on this at the end of this essay), but King’s upcoming appearance on a new TV show hosted by probably the most extreme anti-Muslim fanatic in the United States, Brigitte Gabriel (who claims things like “Arabs have no souls”), about whom I have written on the Ibishblog in the past, is the worst possible indication about where this all might be going. The interview was taped on November 10 and will be broadcast on February 5.
The recent massacre in Tucson by Jared Lee Loughner might, one would have thought, have reminded King and others that there are many different kinds of Americans who can get radicalized to the point of violence by an almost endless plethora of ideologies, including left-wing radicalism like the weathermen of old, environmentalism, anti-abortion fanaticism, homophobia, white supremacy, Christian identity gobbledygook, black nationalism, KKK ideology and, of course, the latest addition to the paranoid and sometimes violent style of American politics, the tea partyers.
While this is not to say that there isn’t a growing problem with ad hoc radicalization, especially through the Internet, of young Western Muslims, including in the United States, and a real potential for violence as a consequence, it is to say that there are a lot of other dangers and pretending that this is the only source of potential mayhem and violence, or even the main one currently facing our country from an internal, domestic source, seems particularly misguided after Tucson. But King has been on the hobbyhorse about “disloyal” Muslim Americans for a long time, and now that he has his chairmanship, he has his bully pulpit too.
But King and many of the other most vocal alarmists about homegrown Islamist terrorists and the “Islamic threat,” expressed in a generalized way that promotes fear and hatred of the Muslim American community in general and indiscriminately, are carrying some serious baggage with which they will, ultimately, have to deal. In fact, a lot of them have a history of sympathy for and support of terrorist organizations they either identified with ethnically or ideologically, or whose targets they despised enough to welcome or at least defend their terrorism. In other words, there is a very long history of double standards on the question of terrorism, and most assuredly a lack of moral clarity, from not only Chairman King but many of his friends and supporters in this “Muslim radicalization” movement.
Let’s begin with King himself. In fact, he has a very long history as an ardent supporter of the IRA and its American front organization, Noraid. While his stance on the IRA toughened in 2005 and he became a convert to supporting the peace process and disbanding the organization, historically his support was pretty unequivocal. As the New York Sun noted:
He forged links with leaders of the IRA and Sinn Fein in Ireland, and in America he hooked up with Irish Northern Aid, known as Noraid, a New York based group that the American, British, and Irish governments often accused of funneling guns and money to the IRA. At a time when the IRA’s murder of Lord Mountbatten and its fierce bombing campaign in Britain and Ireland persuaded most American politicians to shun IRA-support groups, Mr. King displayed no such inhibitions. He spoke regularly at Noraid protests and became close to the group’s publicity director, the Bronx lawyer Martin Galvin, a figure reviled by the British. Mr. King’s support for the IRA was unequivocal. In 1982, for instance, he told a pro-IRA rally in Nassau County: “We must per can of the pledge ourselves to support those brave men and women who this very moment are carrying forth the struggle against British imperialism in the streets of Belfast and Derry.”
The Sun also pointed out that, “Much of the conventional weaponry and a great deal of the money necessary for IRA violence came from Irish-American sympathizers. Mr. King’s advocacy of the IRA’s cause encouraged that flow and earned him the deep-seated hostility of the British and Irish governments.”
There couldn’t, after all, have been anything philosophically in common between the IRA, an avowedly Marxist, globalist and internationalist terrorist movement, and the conservative Republican congressman from New York. It seems a pretty fair bet that the only thing drawing King to Noraid and other IRA front organizations which he was so enthusiastic about was pure ethnic tribalism. He’s an Irishman; he wanted Ireland united and entirely free of any form of British control; and if terrorism was part of the strategy, so be it. By any means necessary, as they say.
This history makes it especially difficult to stomach his blanket condemnations against the Arab and Muslim American communities generally when he has such a specific record of supporting what was at the time, by any conceivable definition, a terrorist organization. I suppose one could argue that the IRA was at war with the United Kingdom and not the United States, so the element of disloyalty is mitigated. Well, the same logic could speciously be applied to supporters of Hamas and Hezbollah, who would also claim to war with only Israel but not the United States. This accusation of disloyalty because of support for terrorism would have to be then reserved those rare supporters of Al Qaeda and other so-called “Salafist-Jihadist” groups that have openly declared war on both the United States and the governments and societies of the entire Arab and Muslim world, and have actually and deliberately attacked American interests directly. However, numerous organizations around the world that have never directly or deliberately attacked American interests have been placed on the State Department terrorism list from its outset and remain there. It’s partly a matter of cooperation with foreign governments that feel threatened by those organizations and partly a recognition that certain acts constitute terrorism no matter who the culprit or victims might be.
And, it must be acknowledged that the IRA was never itself actually placed on the State Department “designated foreign terrorist organizations” list, which was first published in the late 1990s. That list was specifically pursuant to the 1996 “antiterrorism and effective death penalty act,” which made otherwise lawful “material support” for organizations to be designated as foreign terrorist groups by the State Department a serious felony. However, in earlier reports, the State Department described the IRA quite accurately as a “deadly terrorist group unconcerned about innocent bystanders,” and it was formally considered a terrorist organization by the United States in the same way that Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress and many other leftist and insurgent groups during the Cold War had been. In the end, there can be no doubt that it was largely political pressure from King and numerous other politically powerful Irish-Americans that kept the IRA, although not all of it’s more extreme splinter groups, off the formal, criminalized State Department foreign terrorist organization material support list once it was issued in the late 90s.
In other words, this all reeks of hypocrisy of the worst variety, and of the idea that terrorism by my friends is okay or at least understandable, but it makes your friends, or at your least compatriots or coreligionists, the biggest villains in the entire world, unspeakable demons outside the realm of normal humanity, nothing less than homo sacer.
Another example of this outrageous double-standard, in which my terrorists friends are just fine but other terrorists are uniquely evil, is the growing constituency in the United States, especially in Congress of all places, in favor of the bizarre and violent Iranian terrorist cult, the so-called Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK). It’s been on the formal US State Department designated list of foreign terrorist organizations from the outset, because of numerous terrorist acts inside Iran including car bombings, assassinations and other atrocities.
Prominent American MEK defenders or supporters include former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey, former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, and anti-terrorism advisor to President George W. Bush, Francis Townsend. Self-appointed terrorism experts such as Daniel Pipes are also big fans. In Congress, Sen. Sam Brownback, and Reps. Sheila Jackson-Lee, Bob Filner (probably the most enthusiastic leader of the effort), Dana Rohrabacher, Ted Poe, Judy Chu, Mike Coffman, Lacy Clay and Edolphus Towns, among others, have urged its removal from the terrorism list.
The MEK’s psychopathic ideological combination of Marxism, feminism and Islamism is primarily characterized by a bizarre personality cult centered around Maryam Rajavi, but the organization may well be led in practice by its former central public figure, her husband Massoud Rajavi. Strongly supported by the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, the MEK was largely based in Iraq and conducted numerous terrorist attacks in Iran aimed at the regime, and the society in general. Since the American invasion of Iraq, its main redoubt has been Camp Ashraf in Diyala province. The United States has been hard-pressed to decide what to do about the MEK in Camp Ashraf. Iran has repeatedly accused the United States of using the MEK, operating out of that base, to conduct attacks inside Iran, but has provided virtually no evidence to demonstrate any such thing. But there’s no doubt that the United States has used the MEK as a source of intelligence on Iranian realities and activities, and, while disarming it, has also provided it protection within the camp. Consistent speculation has held that the MEK is regarded as a bargaining chip by the United States, and possibly by the new Iraqi government, vis-à-vis Iran, which has traditionally regarded it as its most threatening armed domestic enemy.
It would be almost impossible to overstate the sinister characteristics of the MEK’s ideology, which reminds me more of the Cambodian Khmer Rouge than anything else I can think of. Rajavi claims mystical powers and connections to prophets and messiahs; has instructed her followers to divorce all of their spouses and maintains an extremely bizarre attitude towards gender, personal and sexual relations; conducts cult-like, quasi-Maoist, “self confession” sessions in which members are encouraged to confess their supposed flaws and sins; and the group is said to practice torture and various abuses against its members in order to maintain organizational discipline. Many reports would suggest that’s the least of it, and that while we may not be dealing here with the world’s weirdest organization — that title probably belongs to the “Lord’s Resistance Army,” a Christian fundamentalist gang of absolute lunatics in Uganda — it’s almost certainly somewhere in the very top tier. (In 1977, the virtuoso Spanish surrealist film director Luis Buñuel probably thought he was making a great joke by naming a terrorist organization in his final masterpiece, That Obscure Object of Desire, “The Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus,” but by 2011 it distressingly doesn’t sound quite as ridiculous anymore as it must have then.)
However, since the MEK’s terrorist actions and political agitation are aimed at overthrowing the properly despised government in Tehran — although their own rule would undoubtedly be almost unimaginably worse — certain American public figures, commentators and members of Congress have begun to champion their cause. That they are plainly completely insane and also terrorist by any definition of the term is beside the point. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, or at least not my enemy. If they want to use terrorism and other despicable tactics to destabilize the government in Tehran, so be it. Let’s take them off the terrorism list, if not hold fundraising events and provide material support once, or indeed even before (as it can be argued a number of these people already have), they are removed from it.
And then there’s the little matter of the anti-Castro Cuban terrorists who have been the subject of so much public support from prominent Americans over many years. Two names come to mind in particular: Orlando Bosch and Luis Posada Carriles. Bosch is the leader of the so-called Coordination of United Revolutionary Organizations, which the FBI has described as “an anti-Castro terrorist umbrella organization.” It is not disputed that in 2008 Bosch told Dade County criminal attorney Stewart Adelstein that he was responsible for bombing Cubana Flight 455, a civilian Douglas DC-8 traveling from Barbados and Jamaica containing 48 passengers and 25 crew, resulting in 73 fatalities and no survivals. Bosch, Carriles and two others were tried in Venezuela, where the attack was apparently planned, with two men sentenced to 20-year terms, Bosch released on a technicality, and Carriles fleeing the county for Miami while awaiting sentencing. Bosch defended his brutal terrorism with the infamous claim that, “All of Castro’s planes are warplanes.” Sound familiar? To Middle Eastern ears, it certainly should.
Once back in Miami in 1987, Bosch was held for six months on a parole violation and then released, where he has been living unmolested ever since. The campaign to pardon Bosch was led by the new incoming House Committee on Foreign Affairs Chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and her ally and then political campaign manager, and future governor of Florida and presidential brother, Jeb Bush. Ros-Lehtinen reportedly helped organize an “Orlando Bosch Day,” of all things, in his support. She has also defended one Velentin Hernández, a Cuban exile convicted of murdering Luciano Nieves who was advocating negotiations with the Castro regime. Her attitude towards violence against objectionable political leaders was characterized by her statement to the BBC that, “I welcome the opportunity of having anyone assassinate Fidel Castro and any leader who is oppressing the people.” She claimed that the filmmakers had doctored her statements, but releases of the original unedited recordings demonstrated her calling at least twice for the assassination of Castro, and confirmed the veracity of the original quote.
As for Posada Carriles, AKA “Bambi,” a former CIA operative, he has been convicted in absentia of the Flight 455 bombing, a series of bomb attacks mainly in 1997 on fashionable Cuban nightclubs and hotels, and various other crimes including the attempted assassination of Castro in Panama in 2000. There is virtually no doubt that Carriles is an unrepentant and habitual terrorist, and has plausibly claimed that Jorge Mas Canosa, head of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), was well aware of his activities but that the two agreed never to discuss them. To say that Carriles has never been properly investigated, charged or held to account by the US authorities, which it is bound by international treaties (particularly the 1971 Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Civil Aviation) to do, would be an understatement. He has been briefly held on immigration charges, but was released in 2007, and a judge has ruled that he may not be extradited to Venezuela, where he is wanted for some of these crimes, on the grounds that he may be tortured there. Special rendition for some, special protection for others. The US has sought to deport him, but unsurprisingly no country will accept such an individual. Suffice it to say that some terrorists go to Guantánamo Bay, and some don’t.
Carriless still faces charges of immigration fraud and of lying to US authorities about his criminal activities, but this is in the context of his potential deportation process, not a full-blown criminal investigation into his apparently extensive terrorist career. And while CANF denies all knowledge of and involvement in his crimes, in 1997 the organization issued a statement that has been characterized as “supporting un-conditionally all terrorist attacks against Cuba,” and its chairman at the time, Francisco Hernandez, stated that “We do not think of these as terrorist actions”. Of course not. Meanwhile, Carriless openly boasts of his participation in the 1997 bombing campaign and merely faces immigration charges and is not, as far as I can tell, incarcerated in any form at the moment.
The point is not that Peter King, the MEK defenders, or Rep. Ross Lehtinen are fans of terrorism, should be held in any kind of contempt or subject to federal investigation or any other aspersions against their characters. These facts should not be held against them as human beings or as political leaders. But there is an important point to be made, which is that it is extremely difficult for any human being to hold to a single standard that opposes terrorism in all its forms: the use by, at the very, least non-state — and many would argue also state — actors of attacks on civilian targets in order to achieve political goals. It’s very easy to get worked up about people who use these despicable tactics against one’s own country or one’s own friends, relatives, co-religionists or compatriots. It’s also very easy to rationalize the unfortunate necessity, or perhaps understandable if deplorable excesses, of such actions by those whose causes, or sometimes merely identities, one sympathizes or affiliates with. There is much more to be said about the King hearings as more becomes known about them. Right now, it doesn’t look good because Rep. King has long held a jaundiced view of the Muslim American community generally as essentially disloyal or at least insufficiently loyal. He’s wrong about that, as I’ll demonstrate in a future posting very soon.
There’s also the question of who is going to be testifying, and not. Self-appointed terrorism expert and chronic errorist Steven Emerson (who blamed the first World Trade Center bombing on Serbs when it fact it was Islamists, and then blamed the Timothy McVeigh bombing of the Federal building in Oklahoma City on Islamists when they had nothing to do with it) apparently is not. He and his supporters have tried to imply that he somehow anticipated or predicted the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but a review of his work up to that point shows nothing of the kind: he did warn that there was a growing movement in support of Muslim extremism in the United States, but nothing I can find (admittedly I haven’t been able to bring myself to an exhaustive reading of all of his ramblings) in his pre-9/11 work suggests any understanding of the kind of international Al Qaeda scheme dreamed up in Afghanistan, plotted in Hamburg, organized in various parts of the United States and funded from various as yet to be fully determined sources. In other words, he was as unprepared for such an assault as everybody else even though he was raising a ruckus about a rather different sort of Muslim extremist. There are one or two people who could plausibly claim to have anticipated the 9/11 attacks, particularly Rick Rescorla, but not Emerson.
Emerson’s bizarre and angry letter to King, which is worth reading merely as an indication of his emotional condition and questionable self-opinion, protesting the fact that he was not going to be included in the list of witnesses can only be regarded as a good thing. That doesn’t mean that King is necessarily going to be presenting a fair hearing representing multiple and contending different points of view; allowing those who would severely criticize the American Muslim community in general and unfair terms to be pitted against Muslim Americans who can contradict these claims with eloquence and veracity, or disgruntled former law enforcement officials or Bush administration appointees and other opponents of the Obama administration to use the opportunity to score political points, but also with a fair hearing given to currently serving law enforcement and counterterrorism officials or Obama administration policymakers. That’s what a fair hearing would look like: panels of credible individuals from different positions and perspectives making their cases respectively. King may, in fact, produce such a hearing, and Emerson’s exclusion is certainly a good sign, but forgive us for not holding our breaths.
But one thing that the buildup to the King hearings demonstrates is that the challenge for all of us — Arab and Muslim Americans; Irish-Americans; Cuban-Americans; Iranian Americans; and those who hate, possibly with the best of reasons, regimes such as the ones in Havana and Tehran — is to maintain a simple, single standard when it comes to terrorism: attacks deliberately targeting civilians for political purposes are unacceptable. It’s not a defensible position that my friends and relatives get to do this because of their special circumstances whereas yours don’t. There is no moral clarity in distinguishing between the legal, moral and political status of what are obviously terrorist organizations or acts on the grounds of agreement with their political goals, or alleged lack of alternatives.
Inconsistency, and indeed hypocrisy, from those who have been most angrily pointing the finger at entire communities rather than specifically those Arab and Muslim Americans who have been sympathetic and occasionally even materially supportive of Islamist terrorists (and who should be criticized and, when warranted, prosecuted for that) is simply not acceptable. A good long look in the mirror of those who had, or still have, no problem with the IRA, the MEK, and the likes of Orlando Bosch and Luis Carriless is essential if there is to be any hope of clarity on the question of terrorism as a legal, moral and ethical matter. If it’s simply a tactic that we are happy or at least willing to see employed by our friends or against our enemies, then let us be honest and say so openly. But if we are really and actually sincerely against terrorism — and I am against it in all its forms by whoever carries it out and for whatever cause — then let us be clear, consistent and honest about that, for goodness sake. Otherwise questions regarding radicalization, terrorism, political violence, extremism, etc. will merely be exercises in political grandstanding, point-scoring and demagoguery. They will make matters worse rather than better, and make our country less rather than more secure.
The other day I wrote on the Ibishblog that Richard II is my favorite of the early Shakespeare plays, and that I thought it was the one about which he was most careful and into which he put most work. I feel the need to explain this in a little bit more detail in a posting that no longer pays any attention to the Shakespeare Theater Company’s misguided adaptation that has now closed. First of all, I see more care, and indeed carefulness, in Richard II than in not only the early comedies, but also the four history plays that preceded it: Henry VI, Parts One, Two and Three, and Richard III. It seems that this first tetralogy proved so popular that Shakespeare went back and did another quartet of histories that are a prequel to the first, beginning with Richard II and culminating in Henry V, which of course sets up the earlier produced Henry VI-Richard III cycle. Most of these eight histories rely on Rafael Holinshed’s Chronicles as their main source, although some clearly also tapped into some accounts. However, Richard II is unique in that it seems to be derived from at least eight separate historical accounts, including Chronicles, a really extraordinary number, and also in literary terms plainly from Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II (and in at least one famous line Doctor Faustus as well), and possibly even the anonymous play Thomas of Woodstock.
The reason Shakespeare evidently researched, and indeed wrote, Richard II with such care and attention to detail is, of course, that he was playing with fire, and he knew it. Richard II is, after all, about the deposing and murder of a monarch, very heavy stuff for a Renaissance audience. It was even more delicate because of some superficial similarities between Richard and Elizabeth, particularly that they were both childless and frequently criticized for the alleged misbehavior of favorites and sycophants. Later on in her reign, Elizabeth reportedly bitterly complained about the number of public performances of Richard II and reportedly declared, “I am Richard, know ye not that?” The most troubling of these public performances was, of course, the one commissioned by supporters of the Earl of Essex the evening before his ill-fated rebellion. Shakespeare’s company was interrogated in the investigation into the plot, and they told the authorities that they had complained that the play was “so old and so long out of use that they should have a small company at it” but that since they were promised 40 shillings above their usual take, they did it for the money. Possibly. At any rate, Essex’s followers obviously felt a production of the play would be an important gesture setting up their planned deposition of Elizabeth, so the play’s ideas were not only dangerous in theory, they were dangerous in practice as well.
And, indeed, Richard II is hardly the only political Shakespeare play (most of them have at least some element of politics), but it is the one that seems to involve ideas closest to what we now call political theory. It was written after a century of political speculation in England in which the concept of the divine right of kings had been slowly chipped away at by new ideas that began to incorporate more of a sense of the responsibilities of monarchs as well as their prerogatives, and had begun to suggest that political rights were contingent on concomitant responsibilities. Since at least the Magna Carta, the English monarchy had been first among equals in a super stratum of aristocrats that ruled the country. But, the idea that there was an element of meritocracy or minimal competency and responsibilities that might trump divine right and coronation, was slow to enter into theoretical conceptualizations of government. And, of course, generalized conceptions of political responsibility as an essential component of political legitimacy go far beyond simply respecting the recognized, specific and limited rights of peers and commons. Leaving people alone within clearly defined and limited spheres is one thing, but expectations of good governance are something entirely different. By the time Shakespeare composed Richard II in about 1595, such notions had been gaining ground for a number of decades. Early understandings of constitutionalism and limited monarchy were becoming more widespread, articulated in formulations such as Henry de Bracton’s influential dictum that the king serves “under God and under the law because the law maketh a king,” and Sir John Fortesque’s formulation that, “the king exists for the sake of the kingdom, and not the kingdom for the sake of the king.”
In Richard II, Shakespeare dramatizes the tension between what are essentially medieval notions of divine right and political legitimacy versus emerging Renaissance conceptualizations of political responsibilities and merit in the persons of Richard and Bolingbroke. He lays out the case clearly for both perspectives, but scrupulously doesn’t take sides, so that it has been entirely possible for commentators over the centuries to read either perspective into the play. Indeed, Shakespeare makes it more difficult to adopt one position or the other absolutely by focusing the first half of the play, before the deposition scene, largely on abuses and mismanagement by Richard (Bolingbroke’s case), and the second half, following the deposition, rebuilding sympathy for Richard, his position and his predicament, and calling attention to the sacrilege of his deposition (Richard’s case). And this budding sense of constitutionalism is reflected in the Bolingbroke co-conspirators’ concern that Richard confess to a bill of particulars against his rule so that “the commons will be satisfied,” suggesting that there are red lines which a monarch may not cross without inviting deposition, and also that Parliament must be satisfied for the resignation and transfer of power to a new king to be sustainable, in spite of the plausible claim of succession forwarded by Bolingbroke.
Bolingbroke’s Machiavellian effectiveness and skills are contrasted with Richard’s grand regal theatricality. Richard is, at heart, a drama queen. He revels as much in his abjection when he is deposed and imprisoned as he ever did in his Royal Majesty on the throne. One of the most remarkable, and for many commentators troubling, aspects of Richard II is the seemingly bizarre conduct of the title character when confronted with the Lancastrian rebellion. He swings wildly back and forth between despair and defeatism, a new experience by which he seems to be truly enthralled, and vainglorious assertions of his divine right and protection by God. His despair speeches are justly famous, most notably “for God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground, and tell sad stories of the death of kings,” etc. The crux of Richard’s rule is precisely this theatricality, this incessant role-playing. Bolingbroke knows it, which is one of the reasons he is able to move against him so effectively.
Richard doesn’t rule exactly as much as, literally, act like a king. Even after his dramatic and crushing defeat, when he has come to effectively surrender, his uncle York remarks of him, “Yet looks he like a king: behold, his eye, as bright as is the eagle’s, lightens forth controlling majesty.” Apparently, he always did. When Richard, wallowing in abjection during the deposition scene, becomes hysterical when Northumberland attempts to force him to read out loud the bill of particulars of his misrule to “satisfy the commons,” Richard demands a mirror which he then histrionically smashes, declaring “A brittle glory shineth in this face: As brittle as the glory is the face; For there it is, crack’d in a hundred shivers. Mark, silent king, the moral of this sport, How soon my sorrow hath destroy’d my face.” Bolingbroke, however, has his number, icily countering, “The shadow of your sorrow hath destroyed, The shadow of your face.” Precisely so. Richard’s rule has been a shadow of a rule, whereas Bolingbroke’s Machiavellian insurgency, quite possibly planned from the beginning and the challenge against Mowbray that may have been designed as an opening salvo leading precisely to this seizure of power, is all too real.
This tension between political effectiveness on the one hand versus legitimacy on the other hand, as well as the artifice and theatricality of monarchy is played out very clearly in the language throughout Richard II. It is the only of Shakespeare’s plays that is almost entirely in very precise pentameter and much of it, especially in the court scenes, involving not blank verse but rhyming couplets. Normally Shakespeare is very judicious in his application of couplets, reserving them for moments of special emphasis or the conclusion of a thought, an interaction or a narrative development. In Richard II, Shakespeare uses a wild proliferation of rhyming couplets as well as a strict adherence to pentameter in order to achieve the effect of formality and faux grandeur in Richard’s court. Foregrounding the artifice of language, much less naturalistic than Shakespeare’s already stilted and extremely idiosyncratic phrasings and constructs, helps dramatize the histrionic artifice behind Richard’s entire hold on power. It’s all a show.
Bolingbroke’s grasp of that allows him to use the actual mechanics of power — appealing to public opinion and flattering the common folk, playing on the anxieties of his fellow nobles, making the specific case of mismanagement against Richard and his cronies thereby raising the question of political responsibilities balancing political legitimacy and divine rights, marshaling and deploying quickly military allies at a moment of the enemy’s exposure (Richard’s trip to Ireland), constructing a plausible claim of succession so as not to disrupt the established order of monarchy, etc. — to unseat Richard with relatively little effort. It’s also impossibly rapid. Richard II is one of many Shakespeare plays in which there are multiple time registers in simultaneous and impossible operation, and in which the audience is manipulated into assuming that significant amount of time has passed when in fact according to the literal chronology of events, or at least one of them, a ludicrously short amount of time has actually gone by. In this case it would appear that mere days pass by between Bolingbroke’s banishment and his deposition of Richard.
We note, of course, that while the formality of the rhymed couplets in the early scenes underscores a presumed common understanding of authority and legitimacy in Richard’s court (soon to be tested by the rebellion), the specific content of many of the couplets, especially those of Bolingbroke and Mowbray, are discordant or combative in their content. So, behind the careful formal harmony of the language lurks significant disharmony of meaning, in the same way that in the first scene both Bolingbroke and Mowbray can be read as threatening Richard in different ways behind formal professions of obeisance. It’s noteworthy that John of Gaunt’s condemnation of Richard’s rule, which sets the stage and makes the case for the rebellion, is entirely in blank verse without any rhyming at all, suggesting that formality which calls for strict deference and obedience is no longer directing his words. Once the action has moved away from Richard’s court into the contest for power driven by the Bolingbroke rebellion, the insistence on rhyming couplets, but not on pentameter, abates in the text. There are still some, of course, particularly from Richard himself, or in the normal Shakespearean manner to complete a thought or foreground some aspect of the narrative for dramatic emphasis. But couplets do not go with either the discord of civil conflict or Bolingbroke’s Machiavellian and goal-oriented political style. Even Richard increasingly abandons rhyming as the conflict careens towards its rapid and decisive resolution.
However, once Bolingbroke assumes the throne, just like the argument over who killed Gloucester, the rhyming couplets suddenly stage a dramatic return, although their structure is significantly different this time. In effect, what the language is telling us is that Bolingbroke understands the need for theatricality and artifice in a royal court, the formality that incessant rhymed couplets within the pentameter convey. But, he doesn’t quite know how to use them the way Richard did, and his couplets appear self-defeating. By the end of the play, he appears entirely trapped in them. It’s the first instance in which we have a sense of the limitations of his political skills. Bolingbroke is, in effect, unconvincingly mimicking Richard, a natural and accomplished actor on the stage of the court. He, as Richard says, “knows well how to get,” but at the earliest stages of his new reign, because of the language, we begin to wonder if he knows well how to use. In fact, it falls to his son, the future Henry V, to really take the power that has been usurped and put it to maximum effect before all those gains are then squandered during the disastrous reign of his own son, Henry VI.
Richard’s addiction to artifice and playacting extends itself into his greatest abjection scene, the rather complicated speech he gives in his jail cell in Pomfret, alone, impoverished, friendless and in mortal peril. And in this in amazing self-indulgent exercise in relishing abjection, Richard now owns, rather brilliantly, blank verse as Bolingbroke and his court struggle to resume the formality of couplets that characterized Richard’s court. Behind that gigantic and impressive façade of theatricality lies a hollow shell of a man. In the deposition scene, when Bolingbroke asks him, ?Are you contented to resign the crown?? Richard replies, ?Ay, no; no, ay.? This, of course, when spoken, is a homonym for as ?I know no I.? He is not only a man divided against himself, as he says ?if I turn mine eyes upon myself, I find myself a traitor with the rest; For I have given here my soul’s consent, To undeck the pompous body of a king,? he also doesn?t know who he is: “I have no name, no title, No, not that name was given me at the font? And know not now what name to call myself!” This is not so much a loss of identity as the uncovering of a great absence within Richard that was always there, as he calls himself a ?king of snow? who is melting away ?in water drops? as he weeps for his lost throne. It was not only the crown that was hollow, but also the man who wore it. Alone in his prison cell before his murder, Richard imagines a multiplicity of people born of his own imagination, ?Thus play I in one person many people, And none contented: sometimes am I king; Then treasons make me wish myself a beggar, And so I am: then crushing penury, Persuades me I was better when a king; Then am I king’d again: and by and by, Think that I am unking’d by Bolingbroke, And straight am nothing.? All in his own imagination, both monarch and prisoner are roles to be played, acts of will on his own solipsistic, even narcissistic not to say monomaniacal, part. At his core, beyond these roles, is nothing.
In all of this I see the enormous care Shakespeare took in constructing Richard II, sticking entirely to pentameter and carefully using the frequency and nature of couplets or blank verse to reflect different political situations, attitudes and skill sets. As I already noted, Shakespeare refuses to take sides in this clash between a crisis of governance versus a crisis of legitimation. Richard correctly predicts that Northumberland will not long stick with Bolingbroke after he is crowned Henry IV, and so it proves. Indeed, Northumberland’s party led by Hotspur subsequently invokes the overthrow and murder of Richard as Exhibit A against Henry in their failed attempt to depose him. As first John of Gaunt and then the Bishop of Carlisle, among others, predict, Richard’s unacceptable mismanagement and then illegitimate deposition by Bolingbroke will kick off a long series of wars, and Shakespeare seems to see in these twin crises of governance and legitimation a kind of original sin which the English state needed to work through via the bloodshed of the ensuing civil conflict between the houses of York and Lancaster.
The one lesson Shakespeare seems to have taken to heart from his reading of this period of English history is the advice he attributes by Henry IV to his son, the future Henry V, that foreign wars are the key to English tranquility, happiness and political effectiveness. On his deathbed he confesses, ?God knows, my son, By what by-paths and indirect crook’d ways, I met this crown,” and, that, ?I had many living to upbraid, My gain of it by their assistances; Which daily grew to quarrel and to bloodshed, Wounding supposed peace. All these bold fears, Thou seest with peril I have answered; For all my reign hath been but as a scene, Acting that argument.? ?Therefore, my Harry,? he advises, ?Be it thy course to busy giddy minds, With foreign quarrels, that action, hence borne out, May waste the memory of the former days.? This harkens back to his uncle York’s declaration of Richard’s grandfather, Edward, that “when he frown’d, it was against the French, And not against his friends; his noble hand, Did will what he did spend and spent not that, Which his triumphant father’s hand had won; His hands were guilty of no kindred blood, But bloody with the enemies of his kin.” In other words, the English are now embroiled in civil conflicts based on conflicting narratives and if ?giddy minds? are allowed to dwell on those narratives, civil conflict will erupt again immediately (as it does after the conquest of France and the death of Henry V). Even Henry IV?s effort to smooth things over by pardoning opponents like Aumerle and Carlisle does not resolve anything. The answer is foreign wars, especially against France. They provide an alternative focus for aggression, a change of subject from internal conflicts and a ready path to legitimation through patriotism and appeals to national glory. If Shakespeare?s depiction of Henry V?s triumphant rule is anything to go by, it seems he thought this excellent political advice and sound judgment indeed.