Friday, May 21, 2010

Robin Hood, Richard II, and divine appointment

Oscar Isaac as Prince John in Robin Hood (2010)
I was expecting my favorite part of the new Ridley Scott/Russell Crowe Robin Hood to be an opening battle, showing me a new way to imagine medieval warfare, much in the same way Gladiator gave me new thoughts about what a Roman battle may have been like. Instead, what I found most interesting came at the end (spoiler alert), when King John reneges on his promise to sign a bill of equality, citing his divine appointment and claiming that no man should be able to impose limits on his God-given power. This causes an uproar among the attending citizenry, who as far as we know are as God-fearing as any under 12th-century Christendom.

While I am no proper student of theology or English history, I find the relationship between God and king fascinating, particularly when it is at odds with the desires of the king or the people. It is at such moments when this relationship is thrown into doubt, and what is revealed can at best be described as a letting go of tradition for the common good, and at worst as religious or political hypocrisy. Shakespeare examined this problem in Richard II, in which Richard, a seemingly incapable ruler, is deposed by Bolingbroke, the future Henry IV. The Bishop of Carlisle objects:

And shall the figure of God's majesty,
His captain, steward, deputy elect,
Anointed, crowned, planted many years,
Be judg'd by subject and inferior breath,
And he himself not be present?

Among other things, Richard II makes us consider if the notion of divine appointment should be upheld even in times of incompetent leadership. Is Bolingbroke a necessary adjustment to the royal lineage, or is he nothing more than a blasphemous usurper? The answer hinges on one's view of divine appointment, and of how closely Church can be associated with State. As history and fiction have often shown, this can be a very difficult relationship to maintain.


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