Usurpation in Richard II, As You Like It, Midsummer Night's Dream, and Romeo and Juliet

Usurpation in Richard II, As You Like It, Midsummer Night's Dream, and Romeo and Juliet

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Usurpation in Richard II, As You Like It, Midsummer Night's Dream, and Romeo and Juliet


In both As You Like It and Richard II, the concept of usurpation is illustrated in a political sense by a character substituting himself as ruler. However, Shakespeare employs usurpation in other contexts with characters of all different social positions. These two plays, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Romeo and Juliet feature several kinds of usurpation, which are significant to characterization and plot development.

The first instance of usurpation in A Midsummer Night's Dream is Demetrius saying "Yield/Thy crazed title to my certain right" (I.i.91-2). Essentially he is telling Lysander to give up his pursuit of Hermia, although Demetrius is not in a position to command Lysander. This sets the two characters against each other, and adds to the play's central conflict of whom Hermia will marry. Another kind of usurpation is shown by Egeus choosing Hermia's husband: he denies her the right to choose her husband based on love. Furthermore, Egeus endangers Hermia’s life, as Theseus declares she must marry Demetrius or die. This combination starts the plot action, causing Lysander and Hermia to flee Athens.

Lysander, Hermia, Demetrius, and Helena occupying the forest exemplifies a third type, which places them in dream-like circumstances. Here, Lysander and Demetrius are forced out of character under the influence of Oberon's pansy juice. Both men fall in love with Helena, but only Lysander is given the antidote to Oberon's pansy juice: Demetrius remains in love with Helena and ultimately marries her. Thus going into the forest drastically affects Demetrius' character, as he no longer seeks to marry Hermia.

A fourth kind of usurpation involves using or agreeing upon things. Oberon employing Puck, a puccha, is an example of this. Although Oberon intends only to trick Titania, Puck's mischief dictates both the personality and the actions of several characters, most notably Titania, who falls temporarily in love with Bottom, and Demetrius, who falls and remains in love with Helena.

The kind of usurpation most present in Romeo and Juliet is the encroachment or impeding of another's rights. The first example is Capulet promising Juliet to Paris. As in A Midsummer Night's Dream, the father’s wishes contrast with the daughter’s, causing the daughter character to attempt to flee her family in hopes of escaping her arranged marriage and living with her lover. Although breaking tradition and even law by defying their fathers, these characters define themselves by choosing their husbands: they are not simply property to be sold off (with respect to the tradition of dowry).

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For Juliet, this choice contributes to her demise; Hermia likely does not face this consequence because she is a character in a comedy. Another example of this type is Mercutio being killed by Tybalt. This greatly affects the plot, as it determines Romeo’s fate: as consistent with his character, Romeo must avenge Mercutio, and by doing so, he is banished from Verona. Romeo’s banishment is a two-fold example of this usurpation, as it does not simply deny him the right to live in Verona, but it also forces Juliet to choose her love or her life.

A second kind of usurpation involves occupying or seizing a place or property, both of which Romeo commits. First, he, Benvolio, Mercutio, and company go into Capulet’s house while Capulet is having a party despite the on-going feud. As an unwelcome guest, Romeo dances with Juliet and kisses her for the first time: these actions not only catalyze their love affair, but foreshadow their fate, as they each belong to feuding houses. Romeo marrying Juliet is second example, as Capulet had already promised Juliet to Paris. This has a drastic affect on the plot: because they marry in secret, Juliet must elude her parents and her obligation to marry Paris by staging her death. As a result, Romeo kills himself, which consequently drives Juliet to kill herself. Their marriage also shows a key trait of both characters: their love is not affected by society or family, as they love each other for who they really are.

As You Like It features several examples of the kind of usurpation involving the limiting of a character's rights. Oliver, controlling all of his father's estate, deprives Orlando of an education, which dictates Orlando's place in society. This conflict between the brothers establishes their character, and impacts on the action of the play. First, Oliver arranges for Charles to kill Orlando in a wrestling match. When Orlando defeats Charles, Oliver resolves to kill Orlando when he returns home, causing Orlando to seek refuge in the forest of Arden. From this the audience can ascertain that Oliver is selfish and irrational, and that Orlando is noble and basic. A second example of this kind of usurpation occurs later in the play: Jaques stops Touchstone from marrying Audrey and suggests they be married properly. Touchstone prefers Sir Oliver Martext marry them: "I am not in the mind but I were better to be married of him than of another, for he is not like to marry me well; and not being well married, it will be a good excuse for me hereafter to leave my wife" (III.iii.90-94). This incident shows that Touchstone does not love Audrey and that Jaques involves himself in others’ business despite his lacking the right and/or reason to do so. As a result of Jaques intervening, Touchstone and Audrey are formally married at the end of the play with the other three couples.

There are three examples of unauthorized or unjustified assertions or assumptions. In one of his speeches, Jaques says he will cleanse the world. Upon hearing this, Duke Senior indicates his character judgment of Jaques in his response: "And all the' embossed sores, and headed evils,/That thou with license free foot hast caught,/Wouldst thou disgorge into the general world" (II.vii.67-9). Therefore Jaques' speech provides the grounds for his hypocrisy, as he has no place speculating on how to correct the problems of the world, since he is a corrupt man. The second example is Orlando demanding Duke Senior give him food, entering with his sword drawn. "Pardon me, I pray you./I thought that all things had been savage here,/And therefore put I on the countenance/Of stern command'ment" (II.vii.106-9). Similarly, Touchstone tells Corin he is damned for having never seen good manners. Both Orlando and Touchstone in their assumptions illustrate the characters' attitude towards those outside the court as uncivilized or flawed. A third kind of usurpation present in the play is exemplified by Rosalind using her male identity. As Ganymed, she tests Orlando's love for her by offering to cure him of his love. Orlando, thinking he is speaking to Ganymed, professes his love for Rosalind; his sincerity is revealed. This example provides the following insight to Rosalind's character: although she has already fallen in love with him, Rosalind needs to be convinced Orlando loves her before marrying him. Of all the characters in these four plays, Rosalind appears to be the only one with this rational need for evidence or articulation of a character's love for her, making her a complex and unique character. Also, Orlando convincing Rosalind of his love serves as the climax of the play: since she is convinced, every conflict will be resolved.

Richard II features five types of usurpation other than the replacement of a ruler. The first kind is illustrated in Thomas Mowbray's charge of Henry Bullingbrook being treasonous, as it is unsubstantiated. Thus Mowbray is a weak character, as his charge appears reactionary to Bullingbrook's disclosure that Mowbray misused funds and murdered the Duke of Gloucester. These claims compel King Richard to banish them both, initiating the plot action of the play.

Richard displays two kinds of usurpation: first, he reduces Mowbray and Bullingbrook to travelers, absolving them of their rights as Dukes in England. Next, Richard takes John of Gaunt's land and wealth to finance a war with Scotland; clearly he does not hesitate to abuse his power as king. In doing this, he takes Henry's name from him: Henry is no longer the Duke of Herford or Lancaster. Without his titles or inheritance, Henry is left powerless and virtually insignificant in society; however, Henry is hardly a powerless character.

Henry returns to England, disregarding his term of banishment determined by Richard. It appears as though Henry does not regard the King's authority, and is challenging Richard's power. Displaying a second type of usurpation, Henry utilizes the northern lords of England, particularly Northumberland, in his rebellion. This united effort forces Richard to realize the futility of fighting Henry. Richard may have the crown, but Henry displays psychological power over Richard: the play climaxes when Henry makes Richard come down to the “base court,” essentially rendering him powerless.

Henry does not consider Richard the King and thusly make his replacement discreet: Richard's failure is public, not just political, which adds to his humiliation. When Richard sees his wife on his way to the tower, she asks him "What, is my Richard both in shape and mind/Transform'd and weak'ned? Hath Bullingbrook depos'd/Thine intellect? Hath he been in thy heart?" (V.i.26-8) Despite the Queen's request, Richard is denied the right to accompany her to France in banishment; he says to Northumberland "Doubly divorc'd! Bad men, you violate/A twofold marriage -- 'twixt my crown and me,/And then betwixt me and my married wife" (V.i.71-4). The character of Richard has fallen so completely that he is given no liberties.

The cultural and psychological instances of usurpation in these four plays appear more frequently than usurpation in the political sense. The most recurring kind of usurpation is a character imposing on another character’s rights, which usually creates a conflict in the play; this also contributed to characterization, as did unauthorized assertions and unjustified assumptions. The common social trend of usurpation is that the perpetrators are more often high characters, such as Richard, Henry, Oliver, and Capulet, than lower characters (although Jaques exemplifies several kinds of usurpation). Regarding the act of usurping, it appears that the greater the stakes, the more eager characters are: Romeo does not hesitate to marry Juliet, just as Henry shows no qualms about deceiving Richard. Furthermore, dynamic characters do not seem bound by their usurpation: Egeus does not force Hermia to marry Demetrius; Oliver reforms himself; Henry and Richard swap roles as the perpetrator and the victim of usurpation. Because it is confined neither to tragedy nor comedy, usurpation appears to be a serious concern of Shakespeare’s, at least as reflected by these four plays.
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