Coping with Futility
The nobles in both Marlowe’s Edward the Second and in Shakespeare’s Richard II present their kings with a rather intriguing question: how does one respond when he must succumb to the will of another? When faced by Henry, Shakespeare’s King Richard can do nothing but yield to Bolingbroke’s demand for his lands and ultimately for the throne. At the same time, the conspirators in Marlowe’s play leave Edward completely unable to control his own destiny, thrusting him into a sewer and arranging his death. Thus, not surprisingly, when both kings are at the mercy of another, both respond to their situations in a similar way.
Edward, when asked by Maltravers why he resists the fate which has been set out for him, says simply, “The wren may strive against the lion’s strength, / But all in vain; so vainly do I strive / To seek for mercy at a tyrant’s hand” (xxii.34-6). Here, Edward expresses that he understands his attempts to resist are entirely futile. Similarly, King Richard, aware that any effort to deny Henry what he asks would certainly fail, concedes to Bolingbroke’s demands:
What you will have, I’ll give, and willing too,
For do we must what force will have us do. (III.iii.204-5)
Both kings show in these short passages that they know their futures are inescapable. They have been thrown down, their hands forced by those who have come to overthrow them. And they find themselves powerless to resist.
Both kings ultimately are thus forced into the same position. To explain this situation, then, Edward relies on the metaphor of the lion and the wren, comparing the strength of his captors to that of the king of beasts. Surprisingly, Richard also refers to his captor as a lion in much the same way:
A king of beasts, indeed; if aught but beasts,
I had been still a happy king of men. (V.i.35-6)
Such a parallel only supports the idea that both kings are powerless to reclaim their thrones. Once perhaps kings of beasts, they have been reduced now to powerless birds.
Still, although the kings’ situation and their understanding of their ability to change it may compare, their tone when describing their position throughout the texts is not identical. While both realize that any attempt at resistance will be fruitless, Edward in his quotation admits that he still tries: “So vainly do I strive…” (xxii.35). For, no matter how futile it may be for a wren to resist an attacking lion, the wren nonetheless resists. Richard, however, seems to take a different view, perhaps one of grudging acceptance. While Edward feels helpless but fights, Richard feels betrayed and yet does little. And if Edward’s words are interpreted a bit differently, taking “vainly” (xxii.35) to mean “arrogantly” or “conceitedly,” perhaps then Edward’s line might subtly suggests that he believes that there is at least some shred of hope, even if none at all exists.
Thus, the title characters in both Richard II and Edward the Second fall into a similar position, having both been overthrown by the nobles. This position then forces each to react to the situation at hand, leaving them to decide what, if anything, can be done. And while both seem to decide that there exists no possibility of resistance, the two do differ in their approach to living out their final days. Perhaps then the issue is not necessarily one’s ability to realize futility, but instead one’s ability to cope with it.