Richard II

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Editor: Anne Marie Hacht
Date: 2007
Document Type: Critical essay; Work overview; Character overview; Plot summary
Pages: 36
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Richard II


Richard II, which was written and performed in 1595 and details Richard's overthrow by Henry Bolingbroke, immediately earned a reputation among Elizabethan audiences as a politically subversive play. On February 6, 1601, supporters of the Earl of Essex, who would the next day mount an unsuccessful rebellion against Queen Elizabeth, paid Shakespeare's company to put on a special performance of the play. The queen was in fact sometimes compared to Richard, owing to her lack of an heir and to what some subjects viewed as her inclination toward heavy taxation and indulgence of her favorites. Contemporary critics often viewed the play as a politically dangerous commentary on the monarchy, and not until the eighteenth century did the play began to generate literary, rather than political, interest.

The year in which Shakespeare wrote the play was deduced based on the publication in early 1595 of an epic poem written by Samuel Daniel entitled The First Four Books of the Civil Wars, which Shakespeare used as a primary source. Richard II is known to have been performed as early as December 1595 for Sir Edward Hoby. Other significant sources include Edward Hall's The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancastre and Yorke (1548) and Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1587). Shakespeare freely appropriated and strayed from his source material in various ways, including in the area of characterization; Page 690  |  Top of ArticleGaunt, for example, is depicted by Holinshed as greedy and ruthless, whereas Shakespeare portrays him as a wise and patriotic nobleman. Additionally, scholars suggest that Shakespeare's sympathetic attitude toward Richard may have derived from several French sources.

Historically, the events of Richard II take place during the years 1398 to 1400. The most frequently discussed aspects of the play include its depiction of the nature of kingship; whether Richard is deposed by Bolingbroke or deposes himself; and the characterizations of Richard and Bolingbroke. Regarding the nature of kingship, the play contrasts the topics of the legal and divine rights to rule and of the effectiveness of the ruler. Richard is believed to be the legal, rightful ruler of England, as ordained by God; yet he is also shown to be a weak and ineffective king. Bolingbroke, on the contrary, tends to act decisively and with moral justification and he is supported by the people. The issue of Richard's deposition provokes various questions: Does Bolingbroke truly force Richard to give up the crown, and has he been plotting to do so all along? Or does Richard timidly but willingly surrender the kingship to Bolingbroke? Regarding the characterizations of Richard and Bolingbroke, some find Richard's obvious weakness to be deserving of pity, while others find it despicable. Critical estimation of Bolingbroke is likewise divided, as he is viewed as a traitor and usurper by some, while others maintain that his actions are justified and save England from ruin.

While scholars cannot precisely determine to what extent Shakespeare had future productions in mind when writing Richard II, that play constitutes the first of four plays that are referred to as Shakespeare's Major Tetralogy, or the Henriad. The succeeding three plays—Henry IV, Part One, Henry IV, Part Two, and Henry V—deal with the reigns of Bolingbroke, who became Henry IV, and of his son. Certain themes that are emphasized in Richard II definitely point to the succeeding plays, especially the notion that all of England will suffer bloodshed as a result of the sinful deposition of King Richard.


Act 1, Scene 1

Richard II opens at Windsor Castle, where King Richard is holding audience with John of Gaunt, who is Richard's uncle; Henry Bolingbroke, who is Gaunt's son and who is referred to by the king (Bolingbroke's cousin) as the Duke of Hereford; and Thomas Mowbray, the Duke of Norfolk. Bolingbroke and Mowbray have come to settle a dispute, as Bolingbroke is accusing Mowbray of being a traitor. Mowbray, meanwhile, claims that Bolingbroke is simply dishonoring him. Bolingbroke is specifically accusing Mowbray of having embezzled royal funds rather than applying them to soldiers under his command and also of having plotted the murder of the Duke of Gloucester, who was Gaunt's brother. In making his accusation, Bolingbroke throws down his gage, meaning that he is challenging Mowbray to a knightly competition. The speeches made by Bolingbroke, who is referred to as the appellant, or the accuser, and by Mowbray, who is the defendant, are very elaborate, as the royal audience functioned much like a settlement court among nobles such as these dukes; throughout the discussion, Richard makes inquiries of each gentleman, responds to his statement, and then turns his attention to the other. Mowbray insists that he had used the funds appropriately and that he had not murdered Gloucester. (Members of Shakespeare's Elizabethan audience would have been aware of the common historical knowledge that Richard had in fact ordered Mowbray to dispose of Gloucester; Richard, of course, would have had no intention of revealing the truth behind the murder at that time.) At length, Mowbray throws down his gage, challenging Bolingbroke in turn. Richard and Gaunt try to persuade the men to revoke their respective challenges, but both men feel too disgraced to do so. Thus, they schedule a contest to be held in Coventry.

Act 1, Scene 2

Gaunt is meeting in his house with the Duchess of Gloucester, the widow of the deceased duke. He tells her that he can do nothing about the murder of her husband (who was also his brother) because the one responsible is the king, and questioning an act of the king's is like questioning an act of God. While constantly mourning the loss of her husband, the duchess also laments what she perceives as Gaunt's weakness for failing to act, especially in that Gaunt and Gloucester had both borne the veritably sacred blood of King Edward.

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Act 1, Scene 3

At Coventry, Bolingbroke and Mowbray are undergoing all the formalities that surround such a contest between two dukes. King Richard presides over the ceremonies, urging marshals to ask questions of the two gentlemen at the appropriate times; Bolingbroke and Mowbray are each given the chance to explain why they are there, with Bolingbroke asserting that he is fighting to prove through his valor that Mowbray is a traitor, while Mowbray is defending his honor. Bolingbroke kisses the hand of Richard, his cousin, and presents a solemn speech before embarking on what he terms a "weary pilgrimage;" Mowbray likewise offers a few words, asserting that in fighting he will be casting off "chains of bondage." The men take their lances, and the trumpets mark the beginning of the contest—but Richard calls it to a halt; he cannot bear to see the blood of these noblemen, one of whom is a kinsman, be spilt. To settle the dispute, he banishes Bolingbroke for a span of ten years, Mowbray for life.

Mowbray is especially heartbroken, as he feels too old to learn another language and imagines that he will live out his years in sorrowful silence. Before he leaves, Richard entreats both him and Bolingbroke to swear to neither seek out each other personally nor to plot against the nation of England or any of its citizens in any way. Bolingbroke urges Mowbray to confess his treasons before leaving, but Mowbray maintains his innocence.

In noticing the grief of Gaunt, Richard commutes Bolingbroke's sentence to six years—but Gaunt nevertheless believes that he will die while his son is away. Richard protests that Gaunt is not so old and that he has been fair in his judgment. Gaunt advises his son to look at his exile optimistically—to see it as a chance to travel and "purchase honor"—but Bolingbroke professes to be unable to look past the fact that he would rather be at home, where his life is. Nevertheless, he departs.

Act 1, Scene 4

At the royal court, Richard is asking the Duke of Aumerle, a cousin of both Richard and Bolingbroke, what transpired in the course of Bolingbroke's departure; Aumerle remarks that the two merely exchanged farewells and that he wishes Bolingbroke had been exiled permanently. Richard then notes that he and Sirs
Bronze gilt tomb effigy of King Richard II of England Bronze gilt tomb effigy of King Richard II of England (Hans Wild/Time and Life Pictures/Getty Images) Bushy, Bagot, and Green observed the sympathy Bolingbroke managed to extract from the common people in the course of his departure with his "courtesy" and "craft of smiles." Green then mentions the rebels causing trouble in Ireland, and Richard commits them to a military expedition there. Bushy then arrives to announce Gaunt's grave illness. Richard decides to visit his uncle.

Act 2, Scene 1

At Ely House, in London, Edmund, the Duke of York (Richard and Bolingbroke's uncle), urges the dying Gaunt not to seek an audience with the king as he dies, as he expects that Gaunt will only be frustrated by the fact that Richard will not truly listen to him. Gaunt, however, feels as though in death he will be listened to more seriously than ever he had been in life. Both men have much to say about the deterioration of England under Richard's reign. When Richard arrives, Gaunt speaks mournfully about his impending death—he especially regrets the absence of Bolingbroke—before chastising Richard for his having laid waste not only to the nation's land but also to their family; that is, Gaunt holds Richard accountable Page 692  |  Top of Articlefor Gloucester's death as well as for his own. Richard grows angry and refrains from lashing out at Gaunt only because the dying man is his uncle, but Gaunt continues his tirade, telling Richard that he should be utterly ashamed of himself.

Gaunt leaves, and the Earl of Northumberland almost immediately enters to inform the king that Gaunt has died. Richard then utters a pithy eulogy before laying claim to all of Gaunt's assets. York then loses his patience, expressing his frustration over Gloucester's death, Bolingbroke's banishment, Richard's prevention of Bolingbroke's marriage in exile to a cousin of the French king, and the wrongs done to Gaunt and to all of England. York tries to persuade Richard to leave the deceased Gaunt's estate alone—but Richard seizes the estate regardless, and York departs indignant. Still, Richard notes that while he is off fighting the rebels in Ireland, York will be named Lord Governor of England.

When the king departs, Northumberland and the Lords Willoughby and Ross voice their displeasure over all the king has done of late, especially his spending the nation's funds and overtaxing the people so unwisely. When Northumberland relates that Bolingbroke is in fact illegally returning to England with a number of other lords, well armed, the three men agree to support him by traveling to Ravenspurgh, where Bolingbroke will be arriving.

Act 2, Scene 2

At Windsor castle, Bushy is trying to buoy the spirits of the queen, who is saddened not only by the departure of her husband but also by some deep sense of unexplained foreboding that grows in her heart. Green then arrives to inform them that Bolingbroke has indeed arrived in Ravenspurgh—confirming the queen's suspicions that something was awry—and that among the lords supporting Bolingbroke are Northumberland and the Earl of Worcester, his brother, who resigned his post as the Lord Steward of the king's household. York arrives and despairs over his position, as the situation seems quite unfavorable for supporters of the king; also, his brother's widow, the Duchess of Gloucester, has died. York notes that while his sense of duty compels him to defend the kingdom, his heart lies more with Bolingbroke and his other wronged kinsmen.

When York and the queen depart, Bagot, Bushy, and Green discuss their own peril, as they were among the king's most prominent supporters. Green and Bushy will go to Bristow Castle to meet the Earl of Wiltshire, the nation's treasurer, while Bagot will travel to Ireland in search of the king.

Act 2, Scene 3

Bolingbroke and Northumberland are traveling through Gloucestershire when they happen upon Harry Percy, Northumberland's son, who relates Worcester's departure from the royal household and pledges his service to Bolingbroke. Percy also informs them that York, Berkeley, and Seymour and three hundred men are positioned at Berkeley. Ross and Willoughby then arrive, also pledging their service even in the absence of monetary recompense.

Berkeley then arrives, demanding to know why Bolingbroke is laying the framework for civil war—and York consequently likewise arrives to question Bolingbroke, who kneels in his uncle's presence. York castigates Bolingbroke for his traitorous deeds, including his mere return to English soil after he had sworn to remain in exile; Bolingbroke responds that he had been banished as the Duke of Hereford but was returning as the Duke of Lancaster, which title he gained upon the death of his father. Bolingbroke then asserts that he has only returned to claim the estate that is rightfully his. York extends his sympathy but notes that the nation cannot bear Bolingbroke's rebellious acts. Northumberland then notes that Bolingbroke has sworn to seek only his due as the Duke of Lancaster, in which cause he is fully supported by Northumberland and the others. York then allows Bolingbroke and the others to proceed to Bristow Castle to "weed and pluck away" Bushy, Bagot, and the king's other supporters.

Act 2, Scene 4

In Wales, a Welsh captain (who is possibly meant to be Owen Glendower) informs the Earl of Salisbury that his men, who would have supported Richard, can await his return no longer, as they believe that the king is in fact dead.

Act 3, Scene 1

At the castle at Bristol, Bolingbroke announces what Bushy and Green are being accused of—namely, responsibility for all of the wrongs Bolingbroke suffered, including his banishment and the seizure of his family's estate—before Northumberland leads them away to their execution. Bolingbroke than asks York, who evidently Page 693  |  Top of Articleis not only failing to resist Bolingbroke but also is assisting him, to have his greetings sent to the queen.

Act 3, Scene 2

Richard arrives on the coast of Wales with Aumerle and the Bishop of Carlisle by his side. He speaks lovingly of the English soil upon first touching ground, asking it to assist "her native king" by "doing annoyance" to the feet of the rebels. When Carlisle speaks of doing heaven's will and Aumerle of striking out, Richard describes how the rebels have been robbing by night, but the sun—himself—has now arrived and will restore day.

Salisbury then arrives and informs Richard that the day before, the twelve thousand Welshmen who would have supported him had defected to the side of Bolingbroke, as they had believed the king to be dead. Richard despairs, and Aumerle tries to persuade him to retain a kingly demeanor. Sir Stephen Scroop then arrives and mentions that he has bad news, and the king despairs further, when Scroop reveals that virtually the entire nation, including men young and old, had joined the rebellion. He further reveals that Bushy and Green have deserted him, prodding Richard to anger—until Scroop informs him that they have deserted him in having been executed. Richard then delivers a long lamentation on the greatness that he has lost.

Carlisle then urges the king to suppress his fear, as it will only make fighting more difficult, and Aumerle in turn encourages Richard to seek out York and his army. Richard indeed takes heart at this thought—but Scroop destroys his hopes in relating that even York had sided with Bolingbroke, such that all of Richard's "northern castles" and "southern gentlemen" were allied against him. Richard then determines to discharge all of his followers and seek refuge at Flint Castle.

Act 3, Scene 3

Near Flint Castle, Bolingbroke and Northumberland are discussing their thorough advantage over Richard—with York now chastising Northumberland for failing to refer to Richard as "King." Percy informs them that the castle is manned against their entrance, with King Richard and his remaining supporters inside. Bolingbroke bids Percy go to Richard and tell Richard that he will retain his "allegiance" to the rightful king and prevent any bloodshed from occurring as long as his banishment is revoked and his estate is returned to him.

Richard himself then appears atop the wall of the castle—provoking Bolingbroke to likewise refer to the king as the sun—and York commends Richard's majestic appearance. Speaking to Northumberland, Richard curses them all for having committed sinful treason against the nation and declares that thousands will die in the war that they have begun; after rejoining that they do not in fact wish for war to take place, Northumberland delivers Bolingbroke's message, assuring Richard that Bolingbroke has sworn his loyalty. Richard responds that the agreement is reasonable—then turns to ask Aumerle if he is not being too weak in accepting their demands. Aumerle responds that they would be wiser to wait until they have gained more support before taking a firmer stance. Richard then expresses how much he regrets having ever decided to banish Bolingbroke and bemoans that he may as well be deposed—that he is as good as dead and that Bolingbroke may as well be king.

Northumberland returns to bid the king meet Bolingbroke in the courtyard below—and in feeling obliged to descend, Richard wails further, "like a frantic man." In the courtyard, Bolingbroke kneels before the king and pledges his service, and Richard bids him stand and assures him that all that rightfully belongs to him will be returned. Richard goes so far as to suggest that Bolingbroke may be made his heir.

Act 3, Scene 4

The queen is sharing her enduring sorrow with her attendants, preventing the two women from even attempting to cheer her. Hoping to eavesdrop on common men, they hide when a gardener and his two servants arrive. After several offhand references to the political goings-on, the gardener eventually makes clear his disdain for Richard and his belief that the king will eventually be deposed. The queen emerges to chastise him and demand to know how he gained this understanding, and the gardener regretfully explains Bolingbroke's advantageous position. The queen then departs for London.

Act 4, Scene 1

Bolingbroke, who is presiding over a large assembly of lords at Westminster Hall, calls upon Bagot to reveal all that he knows about Gloucester's Page 694  |  Top of Articlemurder, which Bagot had helped plot. Bagot declares that Aumerle had himself offered to kill Gloucester (who was Aumerle's uncle) and also that he had expressed his fierce opposition to Bolingbroke. In response, Aumerle calls Bagot a liar and throws down his gage, challenging him to a contest whereby the victor will retain his honor. Bolingbroke tells Bagot not to accept the challenge, but Fitzwater then challenges Aumerle, likewise claiming that he heard Aumerle admit his responsibility for Gloucester's death. Percy and another lord then also challenge Aumerle, declaring him a liar. Surrey then challenges Fitzwater in support of Aumerle, and Fitzwater asserts that Surrey, too, is a liar. Fitzwater also mentions that the banished Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, said that Aumerle had indeed sent two men to dispose of Gloucester. Aumerle then challenges Mowbray—while upon the revelation that Mowbray may be able to resolve the arguments, Bolingbroke declares that Aumerle's trial will be postponed until Mowbray returns. However, the Bishop of Carlisle informs the assembly that Mowbray has died in Italy after fighting honorably as a Christian soldier.

York then arrives to declare that Richard is immediately passing the kingship to Henry, who will become Henry IV—but Carlisle insists that Bolingbroke has no right to seize the crown, in essence passing judgment on Richard, while the king is absent. Carlisle also declares that by failing to recognize Richard as king as long as he lives, they are bringing a curse upon the "future ages" of the nation. After Northumberland has Carlisle arrested for treason, Bolingbroke decides to have Richard brought forth. Upon arriving, Richard compares his fall to that of Christ and also likens the treason of all the lords to the treason of Judas. At York's insistence, Richard pronounces that he indeed passes the crown to Henry, though sorrowfully. Bolingbroke asks Richard if he does not give the crown willingly, and Richard equivocates—eventually he reiterates that Henry is being made king. Northumberland attempts to have Richard read aloud the list of offenses he committed during his reign, but Richard resists: he first laments that he is being shamed, then claims that he cannot read the list through his tears. He demands that a mirror be brought so that he can look upon his sinful face; at length he smashes the mirror, ever declaring his grief, then asks Bolingbroke to allow him to simply leave the assembly. Bolingbroke has him conveyed to the Tower of London, and the assembly disperses. The Abbot of Westminster, a supporter of Richard, then tells Carlisle and Aumerle that he will hatch a plot to bring about a "merry day."

Act 5, Scene 1

On a street in London, the queen comes across Richard as he is being transported to the Tower of London. Richard urges his wife to flee to a nunnery in France and forsake him, while she questions his integrity for not resisting his deposition. Yet Richard can only ask her to tell his sorrowful tale to whomever she may. Northumberland then arrives to redirect the king to Pomfret and to tell the queen that she is indeed being sent to France. After cursing Northumberland, who admits to bearing guilt, Richard shares a number of romantic sentiments with his parting wife. The queen asserts that she would rather be imprisoned with her husband—but they part.

Act 5, Scene 2

At the York home, the Duke of York is relating to his wife the occasion of Bolingbroke's and Richard's passing through the streets of London, where Bolingbroke was worshipped and Richard despised and ill treated. Aumerle then arrives, with his father telling his mother that his new, lesser title is Rutland; York has pledged his own honor on his son's loyalty to King Henry. As York asks about the future proceedings at Oxford, he notices a document in his son's breast pocket. Aumerle tries to prevent his father from seeing it, but York indeed reads it—and then declares his son a traitor and prepares to speed off to the king to reveal the plot that the document reveals. Understanding that her son's life is at stake, the duchess tries to persuade him not to go, but York's loyalty is to the king; thus, York sets off, and Aumerle and the duchess follow.

Act 5, Scene 3

At Windsor Castle, King Henry is asking Percy to tell him about his son; the prince has been rumored to be frequenting taverns and fraternizing with thieves. The king expresses his hope that his son might one day reform himself. Aumerle then rushes in, demands a secure, private audience with the king, and asks that he be pardoned before he utters a word. The king does so, whether his crime was intended only or already committed. York then arrives and demands entrance himself, informing Henry that Aumerle is a traitor; Henry arms himself and grants York Page 695  |  Top of Articleentry, and York then gives him the incriminating document. Aumerle then reminds Henry of his pardon and reiterates his regret and change of heart. After reading, Bolingbroke declares that however treacherous Aumerle's deeds, he would grant him a pardon for the sake of his honorable father, York. York then insists that his son be executed, so as not to be a stain on his honor, when the duchess arrives to plead on behalf of her son. The duchess and Aumerle kneel to beg for his pardon, and York kneels to beg that Henry show them no mercy. The duchess then speaks to Henry's heart, demanding to hear the word "pardon"—not once but twice—before standing. Bolingbroke then orders that the other conspirators be found and, other than his brother-in-law and the Abbot, be executed.

Act 5, Scene 4

In speaking to another man, Sir Pierce Exton determines to kill Richard on behalf of Henry, as Exton had heard the new king rhetorically ask whether he had no friends to eliminate the old king for him.

Act 5, Scene 5

Richard is lamenting the wasting away of his life with no companions but his thoughts, which he mournfully personifies, in Pomfret Castle. He then hears music, which, with its poorly kept time, only reminds him of how the remaining seconds of his life will be ticking miserably away. At length a Groom enters, declaring that he had tended to Richard's horse when Richard was king and that he had simply wanted to see his old master. He also notes how that horse, Barbary, had proudly borne Henry through the streets of London, and Richard deplores, then forgives, the horse for doing so. A Keeper arrives to first ask the Groom to leave and then deliver a meal to Richard, who asks the Keeper to taste it first, as usual. However, the Keeper admits that he has been instructed to refuse to do so by Exton. Exton and his servants then rush in: Richard disarms and stabs one and also kills another—before being slain himself. Richard dies, and Exton now regrets the murder but nonetheless leaves to bring the body to King Henry.

Act 5, Scene 6

The king is discussing rebel activity with York when Northumberland and Fitzwater arrive separately to report that certain members of the conspiracy have been beheaded. Percy reports that while the Abbot has died after all, Carlisle still lives, and Henry regards the bishop's honor highly and spares him. Exton then arrives with the coffin bearing Richard, and Henry admits that he had wished for the old king's death but refuses to thank, befriend, or reward Exton in any way for having committed the murder. He then announces that he intends to launch a Crusade to assuage his guilt for his role in Richard's death.


Sir John Bagot

Sir John Bagot is a counselor and favorite of King Richard. Instead of being executed like Bushy and Green, he is taken to parliament to accuse Aumerle in the conspiracy against Thomas Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester.

Sidebar: HideShow


  • The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) presented a version of King Richard the Second in 1978, directed by David Giles and starring Derek Jacobi, John Gielgud, Jon Finch, and Wendy Hiller.
  • Bard Productions presented Richard II in 1982, as directed by William Woodman, with the recording distributed by the Shakespeare Video Society.
  • John Farrell directed a film version of Richard II in 2001, released by Sub Rosa Studios, with a low budget and army fatigues for costumes, earning moderate reviews.

Bishop of Carlisle

Loyal to Richard, Carlisle firmly believes in the divine right of Richard to rule. Carlisle's speech at the parliamentary meeting in act 4 is among the most significant of the play, as he describes how the descendants of the lords supporting Page 696  |  Top of ArticleRichard's overthrow will suffer "tumultuous wars"; in the context of history—and of the succeeding plays in the tetralogy, which indeed treat the civil wars that followed—these words are sadly prescient. After this speech, Carlisle is arrested by Northumberland. He later conspires with the Abbot of Westminster and Aumerle to assassinate Bolingbroke. After the plot is discovered, Bolingbroke gives the bishop a relatively light sentence, citing his "high sparks of honor."

Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Herford

Bolingbroke, who eventually becomes King Henry IV, is Gaunt's son and King Richard's cousin. Richard banishes him and seizes Gaunt's estate, which rightfully belongs to Bolingbroke. Bolingbroke then returns from exile with an army, seeking to reclaim his dukedom. After Bolingbroke takes Richard into custody, the king claims that he is willing to give up his crown to Bolingbroke, and Henry later indeed becomes king. At the end of the play, Bolingbroke promises to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to atone for the murder of Richard, which Sir Pierce of Exton committed on Henry's behalf.

As with Richard, Bolingbroke is alternately viewed with sympathetic and unsympathetic eyes: he is usually seen either as a traitor and usurper or as morally justified in taking the crown from an ineffective king. Some note that just as Richard falls politically but experiences a spiritual rise, Bolingbroke rises politically but undergoes a spiritual decline. Indeed, Bolingbroke can be viewed as a manipulative opportunist, a true politician with a clear sense of his goals. As such, Bolingbroke is often accused of engineering Richard's downfall and forcing his abdication. On the other hand, all of Bolingbroke's actions can be interpreted as directed toward the good of the commonwealth, whereas Richard's were always directed toward his own self-interest. Bolingbroke is often seen as a man of action, as compared to Richard, who is prone to self-pitying reflection. Many acknowledge Bolingbroke to be a pragmatic, realistic man who is simply better equipped to rule than Richard. Thus, in the opinion of many commentators, Richard deposes himself and is not strong-armed into surrender by a ruthless Bolingbroke.

In his essay entitled "The Silent King: Providential Intervention, Fair Sequence and Succession," C. G. Thayer offers a very instructive analysis of Bolingbroke's relative silence throughout the play. Thayer notes that Bolingbroke is rare among Shakespearean protagonists in that "at critical points he does not tell us what he is thinking about or what he plans to do." Early in the play, Bolingbroke reveals nothing about his intentions either when he accuses Mowbray or when he parts ways with his father at the beginning of his banishment; he is similarly terse about his own motivations during the deposition scene, at the parliamentary meeting. Most glaring, perhaps, is the absence of any scene revealing what Bolingbroke plans to do upon illegally returning to England from France. Referring to the tetralogy as a whole, Thayer asserts, "A major part of the action of four plays arises from a decision, made in Brittany, by a principal character; and about the circumstances of that decision, as opposed to its outcome, we really know nothing—hence all the guesswork." Indeed, the absence of any insight into Bolingbroke's character makes a definite analysis of his character almost impossible. One result of this, Thayer notes, is that he comes across as an objective means to Richard's well-deserved end: "It is clear enough that Richard has misbehaved prodigiously and that hot vengeance is on the way, and that point, I think, is underscored by Bolingbroke's silence."

Sir John Bushy

Sir John Bushy is an advisor and favorite of King Richard. When Bolingbroke returns to England, Bushy and Green fear that Richard will be usurped, and the two men flee in fear of their lives. They are captured and executed by Bolingbroke.

Duchess of Gloucester

The duchess is the widow of the murdered Thomas Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester. She pleads with her brother-in-law, Gaunt, to avenge her husband's death, but Gaunt refuses. In the course of her mourning, the duchess highlights the notion that the blood of kings is holy, such that the "vial full of Edward's sacred blood" represented by Gloucester should likewise be revered. Sometime after Gaunt's death, York is told that the duchess has died.

Duchess of York

The duchess is the wife of the Duke of York and Aumerle's mother. She tries to protect Aumerle Page 697  |  Top of Articlewhen his plot against Bolingbroke is discovered; she kneels before King Henry to plead for the pardon of her son.

Duke of Aumerle

York's son and cousin to both Richard and Bolingbroke, Aumerle is loyal to King Richard and is accused in act 4 of conspiring to kill the Duke of Gloucester. After Richard is deposed, Aumerle plots with the Abbot of Westminster and the Bishop of Carlisle to assassinate Bolingbroke. The plot is discovered by York. Aumerle is pardoned by King Henry but is demoted from Duke of Aumerle to Earl of Rutland.

Duke of Surrey

When Aumerle is accused by Fitzwater of murdering the Duke of Gloucester, Surrey defends Aumerle.

Earl of Salisbury

The Earl of Salisbury is a supporter of King Richard II. Before Richard's return from Ireland, Salisbury unsuccessfully implores the Welsh Captain not to desert his king. Northumberland later announces that Salisbury has been executed for rebelling against the new king, Bolingbroke.

Edmund, Duke of York

Edmund is Richard and Bolingbroke's uncle, the brother of Gaunt, and the father of Aumerle. Like Gaunt, York is loyal to king and country, but he is outraged by Richard's confiscation of Gaunt's estate. When Bolingbroke returns from exile, York, who has been appointed regent while Richard is in Ireland, tells Bolingbroke that he would have him arrested for his treason if his own forces were not outnumbered by Bolingbroke's. York then transfers his loyalty to Bolingbroke, who is poised to become the new king. After Richard's deposition, when York learns of the plot against King Henry, he rushes to warn Bolingbroke—and ends up begging for the punishment of his son and wife alike. York is generally viewed as weak and ineffectual in whatever capacity he serves. Interestingly, C. G. Thayer describes how York serves an additional dramatic purpose as "a kind of reflector for audience responses to both Richard and Bolingbroke."

Earl of Berkeley

While Richard is in Ireland and York is acting as regent, York sends Berkeley to ask Bolingbroke why he has illegally returned to England.

Sir Pierce of Exton

Exton assassinates Richard in his prison cell. He believes that he is following Bolingbroke's wishes, as he overheard King Henry asking, "Have I no friend that will rid me of this living fear?" Nevertheless, he is overwhelmed with guilt after the murder, and Henry condemns him for the act.

Lord Fitzwater

Lord Fitzwater is a nobleman in parliament who supports Bagot's claim that Aumerle is responsible for the Duke of Gloucester's death. Bolingbroke, after becoming King Henry IV, rewards Fitzwater for helping to gather and execute Bolingbroke's enemies.


Queen Isabel overhears the Gardener and his assistant discussing how England has fared under Richard's rule. Employing the sorts of botanical terms they are familiar with, they symbolically describe England as a garden surrounded by a sea wall, tangled with weeds, and infested with caterpillars. The Gardener then reports to the queen's dismay that the fact that Richard will inevitably lose his kingship is common knowledge.

John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster

Gaunt is York's brother and Richard's uncle. Gaunt refuses to avenge the death of his brother, Thomas Woodstock, the Duke of Gloucester, because the assassination had been ordered by King Richard, and Gaunt holds God alone more sacred than the king. When Gaunt is dying, his loyalty to his country surfaces, provoking him to request an audience with Richard and then castigate the king for his misrule of the nation. Especially by virtue of his speech to York before the king arrives, in which he refers to "this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England," Gaunt is often held up as the play's representative of the purest patriotism.

Sir Henry Green

An advisor and favorite of King Richard, Green counsels Richard to go to Ireland to suppress an uprising there. Later, Green observes that it would Page 698  |  Top of Articlehave been better if Richard had not left, since Bolingbroke has returned to England. Green and Bushy are executed by Bolingbroke.


A former employee of Richard, the Groom visits Richard in prison and describes how Bolingbroke, after his coronation, rode Richard's favorite horse.

Queen Isabel

Queen Isabel is King Richard's wife. She extensively mourns his downfall, with her attending Ladies proving unable to console her. Upon meeting Richard in the street on his way to imprisonment, she chastises him for surrendering and argues that he should retain his dignity and remain a king in spirit even if he is no longer in fact the king. In real life, the queen was only eleven when the play's events took place; thus, in portraying her as a mature woman, Shakespeare gives greater depth to Richard's most significant personal relationship, perhaps allowing audiences to better sympathize with him. Some commentators have suggested that Shakespeare was intentionally transferring the extraordinary affection Richard was known to have had for his first wife, Anne, who died suddenly in 1394, onto Isabel to aid the story.


The keeper of the prison in Pomfret castle where Richard is being held, he brings Richard his last meal, which has been poisoned by Exton. Richard refuses to eat it.


The Ladies attend to the queen. They attempt to cheer her up when Richard is in the midst of his downfall, but the queen does not allow them to sing.

Lord Marshal

He is the administrator of the trial by combat that Richard has ordered between Bolingbroke and Mowbray. When Richard calls off the trial, the Marshal states his wish to accompany Bolingbroke and see him off as he leaves England.

Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk

Bolingbroke accuses Mowbray of embezzlement and of murdering Thomas Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester. Richard orders a trial by combat between Bolingbroke and Mowbray, but calls it off and banishes both of them instead. Carlisle later reports that Mowbray has died in exile after fighting nobly on behalf of Christian causes.

Harry Percy

Percy, the son of the Earl of Northumberland, is known as Hotspur. Like his father, he supports Bolingbroke. He has a larger role in Henry IV, Part One, the following play in the tetralogy, in which he becomes the enemy of King Henry IV and the antithesis of Henry's son, Hal (who is mentioned at the beginning of act 5, scene 3).

Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland

Father of Harry Percy (Hotspur) and supporter of Bolingbroke. He, Ross, and Willoughby all criticize Richard after he seizes Gaunt's estate before rushing off to assist Bolingbroke in his return from exile. Northumberland's claim in act 2, scene 3 that Bolingbroke has sworn to be seeking only "his own"—that is, the Lancaster estate—is significant, as Henry's later breaking of that oath, known as the Doncaster oath, is cited by the Percys in their rebellion in Henry IV, Part One. Northumberland disrespects King Richard in several instances, referring to him only as Richard and refusing to kneel before him. In act 4, scene 1, Northumberland is the one who insists that Richard read aloud the charges against him.

King Richard II

Richard is the title character and the ruler of England. He banishes Mowbray and Bolingbroke and confiscates Gaunt's estate after the duke dies, using the capital to help finance his military expedition to Ireland. When Richard returns from Ireland, Bolingbroke has already gained the support of most of the nation's lords and of the populace. Lacking any advantages over Henry, Richard eventually relinquishes his crown to him. The deposed King Richard is then imprisoned and later killed.

Critical assessments of Richard vary widely, ranging from condemnation of the king for betraying his royal office to sympathy for a man who is a weak but rightful ruler. In general, the facts testify against Richard. While the matter of Gloucester's death is only indirectly discussed, Gaunt declares in act 1, scene 2 that "God's substitute … hath caused his death," such that the audience can understand that Richard was ultimately responsible. Meanwhile, Page 699  |  Top of Articlethe king's banishment of Bolingbroke was legal but hardly just, as Bolingbroke had committed no offense other than to make an accusation dishonoring Mowbray. Richard's seizure of Gaunt's estate was illegal in a very significant way, as he thus undermined the nation's highly regarded laws of inheritance. Further, offhand reference is made throughout the play to Richard's burdensome taxation and his excessive spending. Overall, being more concerned with the appearance and ceremonies of kingship than with his responsibilities, Richard creates chaos in his kingdom as a result of both negligence and abuse of power.

Shakespeare's portrayal of Richard, of course, is far more complex than a simple iteration of the facts surrounding his misrule. Some commentators maintain that while Richard is weak, he is not evil. Rather, in his weakness he is influenced by the evil counsel of his advisors, Bushy, Bagot, and Green. Although he is not an effective ruler, he is nevertheless the rightful ruler, as sanctioned by both the law and God. Some critics assert that after Richard loses the kingship, his actions—such as his smashing of the mirror in the course of his deposition—demonstrate that he finally realizes the gulf that exists between the title king and the authority that the title represents. At the close of the play—and the end of his life—he is at last moved to act in a decisive manner rather than simply talk about what has happened to him: when his assassins arrive, he manages to kill two of them before he himself is slain. Some have compared Richard to King Lear, arguing that in his final moments he comprehends the extent of his own responsibility for the events that have occurred.

Beyond the straightforward analysis of Richard's actions, commentators have developed psychological portraits of his character in attempts to determine the extent of his consciousness of his actions. Lewis J. Owen pointedly refers to him as "a king who believes that his right to be a king relieves him of the responsibility of acting like one." That is, Richard genuinely believes that whatever he does in his capacity as king is proper simply because he is king, and a king, whose position is ordained by God, can essentially do no wrong. Owen contends that Richard's grand naivete is precisely what allows the audience to sympathize with him; indeed, Elizabethans still subscribed to the supposed truth that kings and queens had authority that was nearly divine. Owen concludes, "Without the strange admixture of truth and delusion, his naivete would become ridiculous, and his weakness and inadequacy would become criminal." Thus, as long as the audience believes that Richard possesses such a limited understanding of his role, they will pity him.

Lois Potter, to the contrary, contends that "irony and a suggestion of duplicity are present in Richard throughout the play." Potter highlights Richard's successful thwarting of Bolingbroke's intentions in the deposition scene. That is, Bolingbroke first wants Richard to abdicate the throne voluntarily, so that none might question the legitimacy of the reign of Henry IV; he also wants Richard to read the list of his offenses, so that even if the succession is construed as a deposition, people will be obliged to admit that Richard was "worthily deposed." In fact, Richard does neither of these things. Regarding his abdication, Richard repeatedly admits, then denies that he is abdicating voluntarily. Earlier, at Flint Castle, he told Bolingbroke, "What you will have, I'll give, and willing too, / For do we must what force will have us do." At the parliamentary meeting, when asked to physically hand over the crown, the very symbol of his reign, Richard asks his cousin not to take it but to "seize" it. When Bolingbroke asks, "Are you contented to resign the crown?" seeming to leave no room for equivocation, Richard responds, "Ay, no; no, ay: for I must nothing be." Thus, the nature of the deposition is left utterly unclear. Regarding the reading of his offenses, Richard manages to first claim that he cannot read through his tears, then declares that he will instead read his sins in his face; still, as Potter states, "But the mirror shows him no sins; it reveals the face of a king." Thus, through his conniving manipulation of words and of the lords' sympathy for his pitiful state, Richard manages to cede no ground to Bolingbroke—who in Henry IV, Part One is indeed repeatedly referred to as a usurper.

Lord Ross

A supporter of Bolingbroke, he joins Northumberland and Willoughby in supporting Bolingbroke's return from exile.

Sir Stephen Scroop

A supporter and ally of Richard, Scroop informs King Richard that the people have turned Page 700  |  Top of Articleagainst him, that Richard's advisors Bushy and Green have been killed, and that York has joined Bolingbroke.

Welsh Captain

The leader of Richard's troops in Wales (who may be assumed to be Owen Glendower, who is referred to by name in act 3, scene 1 and who plays a significant role in Henry IV, Part One), the Captain tells Salisbury that since no word about Richard has been received, except rumors that he has died, he and his troops will not stay and fight for Richard.

Abbot of Westminster

In act 4, Northumberland tells Westminster to take custody of the Bishop of Carlisle, who has just spoken out against Bolingbroke. At the end of this scene, the Abbot, the bishop, and Aumerle conspire to assassinate Bolingbroke. Harry Percy later reports that the Abbot has died.

Lord Willoughby

A supporter of Bolingbroke, he conspires with Northumberland and Ross to enable Bolingbroke's return to England.


Kingship, Christ, and Divine Right

Shakespeare's examination of kingship in Richard II focuses mainly on the conflict between the legal and divine right to rule on the one hand and the effectiveness of the ruler on the other. In Richard II, King Richard is without doubt legally the rightful king, and he is commonly recognized by other characters in the play as having the divine right to rule. Nevertheless, he does not show himself to be an effective ruler. This opposition between Richard's right to rule and his failure to do so effectively may lead spectators and readers to favor Richard or Bolingbroke for different reasons—and perhaps to come to favor the other over the course of the play.

Readers may be drawn to Bolingbroke's power and kingly air, especially once they understand that he has been unjustly banished and disinherited. At the same time, they may feel pity or sympathy for Richard, who is demonstrably weak but seems not to be evil and who receives bad counsel from corrupt advisors. Additionally, Richard is the rightful king, even though he seems to have deluded himself into thinking that having the noble appearance and rights of a king pre-empt his responsibility to his people. The reader might imagine that Shakespeare had himself favored one man—and the associated notions regarding kingship—over the other, but some critics have suggested that Shakespeare did not favor either view and that he presented both Bolingbroke and Richard in an ambiguous manner so as to explore both sides of the issue. This neutrality may have resulted from real-life political considerations: Queen Elizabeth was in certain ways associated with both men and with both notions of kingship, such that denouncing either could have been unwise.

Beyond Shakespeare's explicit portrayal of the men, the relationships between the perspectives they embody and the way those relationships are presented in the play merit discussion. For example, many critics have debated the question of whether divine right literally overrode the sovereign's legal obligations. That is, in the context of Richard II, is Richard above the law, since he and many other characters believe that he has been ordained by God to be king? As Lewis J. Owen notes, this issue was still of great relevance in Shakespeare's era: "From medieval times, through the reign of Elizabeth, and well into the seventeenth century, there persisted the notion that kings were ordained by God, and that their subjects owed them the absolute obedience due to what amounted to a series of Christs on earth."

The comparison between Richard and Christ is highlighted by Shakespeare, who has most of the allusions to Christ come from the mouth of Richard himself. The king makes multiple references to Judas, the apostle who betrayed Christ: Richard first imagines that Bagot, Bushy, and Green have betrayed him, like "three Judases, each one thrice worse than Judas," although Scroop shortly informs him that they were themselves executed. Then, making reference to all the lords present in the deposition scene, he declares, "The favors of these men: were they not mine? / Did they not sometime cry 'All hail!' to me? / So Judas did to Christ: but he in twelve / Found truth in all but one; I, in twelve thousand, none." Soon after this direct comparison between himself and Christ, he accordingly compares all those who judge him with Pilate, the Roman official who Page 701  |  Top of Article
The arrival of Bolingbroke and Richard II in London, Act V, scene ii The arrival of Bolingbroke and Richard II in London, Act V, scene ii (© Shakespeare Collection, Special Collections Library, University of Michigan) considered Christ innocent but nevertheless yielded to the mob of people calling for Christ's death, and who ordered his crucifixion. Pilate famously washed his hands after sentencing Christ in an effort to symbolically relieve himself of responsibility for Jesus's death; however, from most perspectives Pilate is considered a weak man for simply bowing to the malicious will of the people. Thus, as Richard remarks, "Though some of you, with Pilate, wash your hands … water cannot wash away your sin," indicating that he holds them all responsible for his sacreligious overthrow.

While Shakespeare sketches deep associations between Richard and Christ, he does not allow these associations to negate the need for a king to be accountable to the law. Interestingly, Gaunt and York—who are Richard's surviving uncles and would thus likely assign his bloodline more importance than would any other characters—acknowledge and respect Richard's divine right to rule but also recognize that Richard has failed to act like a king. Indeed, the play cites several instances where Richard has not just changed or contorted but has broken the law: he is implicated in the murder of Gloucester, and he ignores inheritance laws by confiscating Gaunt's money, land, and title rather than allowing the transfer of the estate to Gaunt's son, Bolingbroke. In her essay entitled "The State of Law in Richard II," Donna B. Hamilton notes that Richard's disrespect for the law is the ultimate cause of his downfall: "If he thinks that abuse of law, which amounts to abuse of the relationship between king and people, will make him more powerful, he is deceived. To abuse the law is, in effect, to unavail himself of his authority." Indeed, as Hamilton argues by citing reputed sources from the Elizabethan era, the commonwealth seems to have collectively believed that its king was sanctioned not by God alone but by God and the law together. However, the people had no procedure for Page 702  |  Top of Articlecompelling a king to abide by the law. While Richard is not legally punished, the results of his disobeyance of the law are that he loses the support of his people and that he implicitly gives his subjects license to break the law themselves. Bolingbroke does just that when he returns illegally from exile and eventually seizes the crown.

The next question regarding the nature of kingship, then, is what happens when a man such as Bolingbroke ascends the throne with the support of the people but without legal or divine sanction. In Richard II—especially in the context of the tetralogy—all indications are that this king and his entire nation will be punished by God. Bishop Carlisle, in his lengthy speech before parliament, and Richard himself, in several instances, make pointed reference to the bloodshed and destruction that will befall England as a result of Henry's usurping the throne. And as everyone in Shakespeare's era knew, a series of rebellions and civil wars indeed followed upon Richard's deposition. Owen notes that the historical relevance of the argument about kingship largely explains why the characterizations of Richard and Bolingbroke are so complex: because for both Shakespeare and his Elizabethan audience,

the primary concern was not for any single human being, but for the whole realm of England. Both Richard and Bolingbroke were in a measure innocent, and in a measure guilty. Richard was a legitimate king, but his rule was ruining England. If England was to live, he must be destroyed; but, paradoxically, this necessary destruction of God's divine instrument must then be punished.

Only by reading the ensuing plays of the tetralogy, then, can the modern reader conclude the multifaceted discussion over the nature of kingship provoked by Richard II.

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  • A major factor influencing the relationship between the king and the common people in medieval England was Christianity. Because the common folk were overwhelmingly Christian and believed in the divine right of kings—in which the king was granted his powers by God—a corrupt ruler such as Richard could retain his rule. Write an essay about the role of religion in politics in the United States in the twenty-first century; compare this with the role of religion in politics in medieval England.
  • Many critics have pointed out the absence of a soliloquy by Bolingbroke at any point in Richard II. Write a soliloquy for Bolingbroke, in verse, to be delivered as he stands on the coast of Brittany, France, before departing with his army in return from exile. Assign to Bolingbroke whatever intentions or motivations you wish; the soliloquy should be written with no one else in his immediate presence, such that he need not restrain his speech for political reasons.
  • Research both the political career of the United States president Richard Nixon and the reign of King Richard II, focusing on the series of events that led to their losing their offices. In an essay, compare and contrast the fates of the two men.
  • King Richard makes several biblical allusions, drawing parallels between himself and Jesus Christ. Consider which political or historical figure you think most resembled, or best represented, the teachings of Christ. Write a report about this person, explaining your rationale, and present the report to your class.
  • Read another play by Shakespeare featuring a tragic hero. Write an essay in which you compare this tragic hero to Richard II, citing passages from the two plays to illustrate both similarities and differences.

Political Facades

Shakespeare gives much attention to various types of political facades in Richard II, including role-playing and ceremony. In general, Richard seems to be merely playing the role of king—and that halfheartedly, demonstrating more concern for the nobility of his appearance than for the reality and responsibilities of kingship. Some critics have argued that the play suggests that kingship itself is a sham, and that a great gulf may always exist between the appearance of royal authority and the reality of political power. Others contend that the play reveals the Page 703  |  Top of Articleway the kings direct the role-playing of others, with both Richard and Henry controlling or setting the scenes in which they appear; that is, in almost every scene in which these two men appear as king, the actions of all the other characters revolve around their comments, questions, and desires. Further, as each confronts the other throughout the play, the extent to which one directs the other changes in conjunction with the change of their political stature. Also worth examining is the effect of the somewhat comic, farcical scenes—in which Aumerle's plot against King Henry is discovered and announced to Bolingbroke by Aumerle's father, York—on the rest of the play's treatment of role-playing and ceremony. From one perspective, these scenes could be interpreted as presenting extreme versions of the roles that subjects play in the presence of their king. From another perspective, the comic interlude may provoke the audience to rethink and revalue the more serious—and dignified—ceremonial displays relating to kingship that color the rest of the play.

Certain characters in the play, above all Richard and Bolingbroke, take advantage of ceremonies and theatricality to mask their true opinions and intentions. In the opening scenes, Richard's dry, objective tone—which certainly would have been appropriate for a situation in which he was acting as mediator or judge—utterly conceals whatever sentiments he might have had at the time. Once his fortunes have been reversed, Richard makes use of theatrical antics and language as a diversionary tactic in order to avoid going through with "unkinging" himself and to continue to deny the reality of what is happening. Inversely, Bolingbroke takes advantage of ceremonial situations early in the play to voice his opinions and, to a certain extent, to paint a favorable political portrait of himself. When he becomes king, however, he adopts a ceremonious, stoic attitude that largely obscures his thoughts and convictions.


"Symphonic Imagery"

The scholar Richard D. Altick presents a meticulous analysis of the play's highly complex forms and presentations of images in his essay "Symphonic Imagery in Richard II." As Altick points out, certain themes are directly associated with certain words and their different meanings, and Shakespeare is careful to present those words in key scenes. This strategic repetition, Altick asserts, "perceptibly deepens and enriches those meanings and at the same time charges the atmosphere with emotional significance … This repeated crisscrossing of familiar images makes of the whole text one vast arabesque of language"—literally, like a symphony of words. In writing his essay, Altick made reference to John Bartlett's Complete Concordance to Shakespeare, which provides a statistical index of the frequency of certain words and phrases in Shakespeare's plays and poems.

Among the most important of such thematic words in Richard II are earth, soil, and land, all of which are used to connote the relationship between the people of England and the geographical nation of England. John of Gaunt, who can be viewed as the face of patriotism in the play, uses these words multiple times in his speech to York when he is near death. Richard likewise often refers to the earth, particularly in possessive terms: as king, the land belongs to him as much as he belongs to the land. A related symbolic element is the untended garden, with the elaboration of that image being the most prominent feature of the scene in which the queen eavesdrops on the Gardener. Another word that appears in profound contexts throughout the play is blood, which connotes both the blood that is spilled in war and the blood that ties families together. The theme of blood also serves to associate Richard, as king, with the sun: Richard's face often reddens (as did the historical Richard's), and Bolingbroke refers to him once as "the blushing discontented sun," among similar references. In turn, teardrops, which are also a facial feature of sorts, appear prominently in scenes where Richard and others cry or speak of crying—including the deposition scene, when Richard compares himself to a bucket of tears. Other important thematic words include tongue, as associated with verbalization and language; venom, which ties to snakes and sickness; blot, connoting an irremovable stain; and wash, which relates to the cleansing of guilt and, as Altick notes, specifically to the cleansing of "the sacred ointment of royalty—the ultimate expiation of kingly sin." The juxtapositions of sweet and sour and of rise and fall are also especially important.

Shakespeare's strategy of iterating and reiterating the various words that evoke the play's Page 704  |  Top of Articlecentral and defining images is not unique to Richard II, of course. Indeed, Altick cites King Lear, Macbeth, and Othello as being masterpieces with respect to such interwoven imagery. Richard II, then, which was written eight to ten years before the three aforementioned plays, represents something of a milestone along Shakespeare's path to those masterpieces. Altick contends that Richard II "suggests the existence of a vital relationship between two leading characteristics of Shakespeare's poetic style: the uncontrolled indulgence of verbal wit in the earlier plays and the use of great image-themes in the plays of his maturity." Thus, in terms of imagery, at least, Richard II is one of Shakespeare's seminal plays.

Prototype of the Tragic Hero

Just as Richard II serves as a milestone on Shakespeare's path to the mastery of thematic imagery, the character of Richard is a significant stage in Shakespeare's development of the tragic hero. The most famous Shakespearean character of this type is perhaps Hamlet, with whom Richard has drawn many comparisons. Derek Traversi masterfully explicates the persona of Richard in view of his relationship to such similar Shakespearean characters:

Pathetic and yet too self-conscious to be entirely tragic, sincere and yet engaged in acting his own sincerity, possessed of true feeling and elaborately artificial in expressing it, Richard is the distant predecessor of more than one hero of the mature tragedies, who suffer in acute self-consciousness and whose tragedy expresses itself in terms that clearly point to the presence of the weakness that has been, in part, its cause.

From this perspective of Richard, one of the most telling passages is his prison soliloquy, in which he provides a fairly piercing interpretation of his own person, particularly of his weaknesses. Russ McDonald observes, "The epiphany he experiences in the prison cell just before his assassination adds a heroic dimension to a character who may until this point have seemed a fool." On the other hand, Traversi notes Richard's relatively inadequate level of attention to his personal experience in that passage; still, the critic remarks, "Imperfect as it is, the meditation does foreshadow later developments in the presentation of the tragic hero." Lewis J. Owen notes that Richard is also somewhat inferior to later tragic heroes owing to his "extended overindulgence in self-pity." Thus, while Richard cannot be viewed as positively as some of Shakespeare's other tragic heroes, he possesses many of the same qualities and habits, and his character may be aptly termed an "ancestor" of men like Hamlet and King Lear.

Anticipation of the Tetralogy

The extent to which Shakespeare intended to write a tetralogy when he began Richard II is impossible to determine. As such, the extent to which he planted thematic seeds in the first play so as to allow them to blossom in the succeeding three is also a mystery. Shakespeare's publishing history seems to suggest that he indeed intended to complete a tetralogy from the onset: between 1590 and 1593 he had written the four plays constituting his Minor Tetralogy—the three parts of Henry VI and Richard III—and the events of the Major Tetralogy end precisely where the Minor Tetralogy begins. On the other hand, when Richard II was first published, it was entitled, in full, The Tragedy of Richard II; that is, it was not referred to or packaged as a history play.

Regardless of Shakespeare's precise intentions, numerous passages seem to explicitly foreshadow later events in the tetralogy, and certain characters seem to make appearances specifically so that the audience will have met them prior to the succeeding play, Henry IV, Part One. The prophecy delivered by the Bishop of Carlisle in the course of the deposition scene, in which he predicts that "tumultuous wars" and "disorder, horror, fear, and mutiny" will befall the nation of England, directly anticipates the rebellion and strife that color the two parts of Henry IV. Meanwhile, Prince Hal, whose development receives perhaps the most consistent overall focus in the following three plays, is pointedly mentioned in Richard II even though his activities essentially bear no relation to the plot. Harry Percy, who will become known as Hotspur and is a major character in Henry IV, Part One, plays a role in Richard II that effectively establishes the background story for that next play. Thematically, Donna B. Hamilton points out that the notion that the kingship is subject to the law appears prominently in Richard II and throughout the three succeeding plays. Derek Traversi, in turn, notes that with respect to Kings Richard II and Henry IV, the tetralogy's first two plays both feature "the counterplay of intrigue between powers haunted by past guilt in the form of a trustless present." Henry's guilt comes from his usurpation of the Page 705  |  Top of Articlethrone and murder of Richard, and throughout his kingship he fears and suspects—and suffers—rebellion. Given the presence of these and other thematic consistencies and connections between the four plays of the Major Tetralogy, the student of Shakespeare can learn much by reading Richard II in conjunction with its three sequels.


The Portrayal of King Richard

Elizabethan audiences would have had a fairly fresh understanding of the key events at the end of Richard's reign, such that Shakespeare did not need to explicitly refer to certain aspects of situations. Thus, in examining the historical reality and noting what Shakespeare chose to highlight for his audiences, as well as what he chose to leave unmentioned, the reader can better understand the way Shakespeare meant for his audiences to perceive Richard. With respect to Gloucester's death, during the actual historical period, as well as when Richard II was first presented on stage, the fact that Richard had ordered Gloucester's murder was essentially common knowledge; thus, Elizabethan audiences would have understood that in the opening scene, Bolingbroke's accusation of Mowbray is recognized by everyone present as an indirect accusation of the king himself. In that Shakespeare does not mention this, the spectator may develop the impression that Richard is more honestly diplomatic than he actually is.

Similarly, the circumstances of the aborted contest between Mowbray and Bolingbroke were far more nuanced than Shakespeare's reader can understand. Bolingbroke had actually accused Mowbray not merely of being "a false traitor, and injurious villain," but specifically of having dishonored the king: Mowbray had told Bolingbroke that Richard would eventually punish them both as revenge for earlier actions that were offensive to the king; Mowbray had also related to Bolingbroke that supporters of Richard were plotting to murder them both. Under these circumstances, the result of the well-publicized contest between Bolingbroke and Mowbray would have been highly meaningful, since, as John Julius Norwich relates in Shakespeare's Kings, "the outcome of all such contests was generally believed to be divinely ordained." As such, if Mowbray were to defeat Bolingbroke, the implication would be that Mowbray was correct about the king's desire to seek revenge against them; on the other hand, if Bolingbroke were to win, he would become far too popular for Richard to bear. Thus, in actuality, Richard likely cancelled the contest strictly for the sake of his own reputation, rather than to prevent bloodshed. Nevertheless, Norwich notes, "For all those present, the sense of anticlimax must have been almost unbearable; the king's popularity, such as it was, had sustained another devastating blow." Regarding these two early scenes, Lois Potter confirms that they reveal nothing negative about the king's character: "His carefully balanced speeches to Mowbray and Bolingbroke do not, unless slanted by the production, help the audience to decide which of the challengers is right (indeed, we never know)." Thus, the historical analysis seems to indicate that Richard was acting more out of self-interest than Shakespeare indicates to his spectators and readers—and the reader might therefore deduce that Shakespeare did wish to portray Richard somewhat positively.

The Succession of Queen Elizabeth

In general, critics have noted that Shakespeare likely wrote about the fall of Richard II with full consciousness of the applicability of the associated lessons to the Elizabethan era. In particular, Shakespeare's presentation of issues regarding kingship in the play likely reflected his thoughts on the rule of the monarch who was then serving the nation: Queen Elizabeth. Indeed, Bolingbroke and Richard both represent aspects of kingship that can be related to Elizabeth. Bolingbroke acts like a proper ruler and has the popular support of the people—as was the case with Elizabeth—and Bolingbroke is also tied to Elizabeth in that the royal lineage that he established eventually led to her. Meanwhile, Richard held the legitimate right to rule and was often compared to Elizabeth in the later years of her reign, as she, like Richard, had no heirs and had yet named no successor. Thus, as C. G. Thayer notes, "If people are comparing Elizabeth with Richard, one had better not specify that Richard's fall was providential."

In fact, the manner in which Elizabeth's reign would end was of great concern to the nation. Speaking of the people of Elizabethan England, Lewis J. Owen relates, "The question of succession haunted them, for it was this very question which had led to the bloodshed of the civil wars between York and Lancaster just a Page 706  |  Top of Articlelittle more than a century before." Owing to this uncertainty and, moreover, to the connections between Bolingbroke and Elizabeth as well as between Richard and Elizabeth, Shakespeare may have felt compelled to render both Bolingbroke and Richard in a sympathetic

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  • 1400s: The hereditary position of the monarch of England is one of near divinity—and the fact that King Richard proves unfit to rule the nation becomes the source of great disagreement. Some believe that since God bestowed upon him the position of king, no human being can question his method of ruling. Others recognize that the nation is suffering under his rule and that someone else must take his place if the nation is to survive. The fact that Richard has produced no heirs—Queen Isabel, his second wife, was still a preteen at the time of his deposition—heightens the concern and confusion regarding who will next rule the nation.
    1600s: The status of the monarch has been somewhat reduced, as Parliament has gained in power and people recognize that the ruler of the nation must be fully capable. Still, the monarch's position remains hereditary, and Elizabeth's lack of children results in similar concern and confusion regarding the identity of her successor. In particular, the common people hope that bloodshed can be avoided.
    Today: While the hereditary monarchy still exists, political power in England, as well as in America, is gained according to the rules of democracy: that is, the people elect the rulers, and power struggles are governed by laws. These laws are not seen as infallible, however: in 2000, the United States Supreme Court determined that George W. Bush would be president of the United States, even though more of the nation's people voted for Al Gore. Meanwhile, presidential campaigns are extraordinarily costly, time-consuming affairs, such that the question of the succession of rulers is still the subject of lengthy debate.
  • 1400s: Richard makes decisions that greatly affect the lives of others, such as banishing Mowbray and Bolingbroke, without being held accountable for the lack of justice in his decisions—until the return of Bolingbroke.
    1600s: Elizabeth is renowned for having managed relationships with other political figures with great skill and finesse; her perceived fairness largely accounts for the stability of her reign.
    Today: While leaders such as British prime minister Tony Blair and U.S. president George W. Bush are sometimes held accountable for their decisions by other politicians or by the people of their nations, portrayals of their decisions by public relations specialists and by the media often greatly affect public opinion.
  • 1400s: The hereditary position of the monarch of England is one of near divinity, and some believe that since God bestowed upon Richard the position of king, no human being can question his method of ruling.
    1600s: The English monarch is still recognized as the head of the Church of England, but the status of the monarch has been somewhat reduced, as Parliament has gained in power and people recognize that the ruler of the nation must be fully capable.
    Today: Politics have been separated from the succession of the royal family, such that questions regarding how a king or queen might be replaced have become irrelevant.
Page 707  |  Top of Article

manner. Thus, much of the play's dramatic tension may be said to stem from Shakespeare's wise consideration of the political realities of his own era.

The Medieval World

Commentators have widely noted that Richard II provides substantial insight into the cultural structure of the medieval world. In particular, much of the action of the play is presented in ceremonial situations, such as with the dispute between Bolingbroke and Mowbray and with the extended deposition scene. In fact, in almost any scene featuring a king—either Richard or Henry—the other characters present are generally deferential to the point of ceremoniousness even if the situation is entirely informal. In accord with this overarching formality, Shakespeare wrote the entire play in verse and often further stressed formality by incorporating rhyme. One result of the prominence of ceremony and the absence of prose is that interpreting characters' sentiments becomes a more complicated task for the modern reader. (The spectator, of course, is greatly assisted in this task by the actors.) Indeed, the critic Lois Potter notes, "Much of our difficulty with the play is a difficulty of knowing what moral connotations to attach to its highly rhetorical language." For example, Richard, in guiding the opening scenes, says little more than his official duties require of him and as such his personal opinion of the proceedings is utterly unclear. Bolingbroke reveals little about his emotions throughout the play.

In the context of the tetralogy, this medieval world should be understood by the reader to be in decline; while Richard II does not make this point obvious, the succeeding play, Henry IV, Part One, is widely recognized as illustrating the decline of chivalric medievalism, through the death of Hotspur (Harry Percy), and the rise of Renaissance self-fashioning, through the triumph of Bolingbroke's son, Prince Hal, who proves to be the tetralogy's main protagonist. In Richard II, then, the reported attitude of Prince Hal toward the chivalric festivities to be held in Oxford offers a succinct and important commentary on the decline of the medieval world. As Traversi notes, Hal's wry declaration that he would find the "commonest" glove with which to challenge all others serves as "a sardonic comment on the decorative but empty tournament world which the events of this play have so effectively shattered."

Thus, in that the medieval world is disappearing, the play presents various manifestations of the novel Renaissance world in the process of establishing itself. With respect to politics, characters are beginning to more readily employ guile and intentionally represent themselves in specific ways. Richard and York both make reference to the manner in which Bolingbroke ingratiates himself with the English population; in Henry IV, Part One, Bolingbroke will pointedly describe his political calculations with regard to his rare public appearances, contrasting himself with Richard and his ill-advised interaction with the commonest people. Traversi refers to the era introduced through Richard II as "a harsh world of political realities, in which conscience and human feeling have small place." Fear, he notes, becomes a driving factor in characters' political decisions and actions. Overall, the reader may be left debating whether the dry, seemingly phony ceremony of the medieval world is not preferable to the individualized self-interest of the coming Renaissance world.


As one of Shakespeare's earlier plays—perhaps his eleventh—Richard II has received a fair degree of unfavorable criticism. Derek Traversi had less than kind words with respect to some of the dramatic construction, calling the murder of Richard "no more than a pedestrian piece of melodramatic writing." A. C. Swinburne, as cited by Kenneth Muir, was particularly harsh in his analysis of Shakespeare's characterizations: "The poet was not yet dramatist enough to feel for each of his characters an equal or proportionate regard…. The subordinate figures became to him but heavy and vexatious encumbrances, to be shifted on and off the stage with as much haste and as little of labor as might be possible to an impatient and uncertain hand." Where Swinburne saw York, Mowbray, and Aumerle as particularly ill-defined, however, Muir perceives them as amply developed.

Elsewhere, A. L. French condescendingly describes the passages and events associated with the deposition of King Richard as an "imaginative blur," eventually coming to the sketchily justified conclusion that "when he wrote Richard II Shakespeare was not quite sure what he was trying to do." In general, however, French seems to be allergic to any moral Page 708  |  Top of Articleambiguity, complaining that the play "suffers from what we might call double vision, giving us one truth in one place, and another in another, with apparently equal weight and conviction…. The overall impression produced by an attentive reading or witnessing of the piece is one of bafflement and irritation at the way our sympathies are tampered with." Of course, especially in light of the issue of Queen Elizabeth's succession, a dramatic presentation of Bolingbroke's usurpation of the throne would necessarily have been ambiguous in certain respects.

Indeed, in discussing the relevance of Shakespeare's circumstances, Lewis J. Owen, in his lecture on Richard II, provides a sensible counterpoint to French's confusion and frustration: "This dependence for final meaning upon an understanding of particular circumstances is especially true of dramatic art, which by its very nature—its dependence upon special actors and a special audience—becomes more entangled with the conventions of its own times—its manners, its language, its popular beliefs—than does any other literary form." In fact, Owen goes so far as to concede that "Shakespeare's histories cannot rank with his tragedies, whose backgrounds and issues are eternal." Thus, the modern reader should perhaps have different expectations with regard to gleaning personal understanding from histories like Richard II.

Many critics have praised the play's finer points. The extremely nuanced characterization of Richard has provoked endless scholarly debate, especially as to whether or not he should be regarded sympathetically. In general, while he is often condemned from a historical point of view, critics give him high praise from a literary point of view. Walter Pater notes that Shakespeare's English kings in general are "a very eloquent company, and Richard is the most sweet-tongued of them all." Muir, in turn, comments on how essential Richard's characterization is to the play as a whole: "In Richard II the tragedy is firmly based on character and, as in King Lear, the character of the hero acquires greater depth as his fortunes decline." Potter echoes these sentiments in discussing the presentation of Richard II on the stage: "If Richard's part is not a good one, the play is simply not worth seeing; and 'good,' in theatrical terms, means not necessarily virtuous but interesting." Potter goes on to contend that Richard's character is indeed more interesting than virtuous.

Richard Altick regards Richard II with foremost consideration for the quality of Shakespeare's use of thematic imagery. In comparing Richard II with later plays that make superior use of such imagery, he remarks that Richard II has "the method: the tricks of repetition, of cumulative emotional effect, of interweaving and reciprocal coloration. What is yet to come is the full mastery of the artistic possibilities of such a technique." Elaborating on this point of critique, he notes, "The ultimate condensation, the compression of a universe of meaning into a single bold metaphor, remains to be achieved." Still, while Altick describes the play's dramatic qualities as lacking refinement, he extends the highest praise to its poetic qualities: "Thanks to its tightly interwoven imagery Richard II has a poetic unity that is unsurpassed in any of the great tragedies." Kenneth Muir provides a more moderate assessment of the play, perhaps better representing the sum of critical reactions to the play; he simply declares, "It is closer to mature Shakespearean tragedy than any of the previous plays had been."


Maurice Charney

In the following essay, Charney briefly discusses the content of the plays in the Henriad (or Lancastrian) tetralogy. The Henriad tetralogy is a series of four plays: Richard II; Henry IV, Part One; Henry IV, Part Two; and Henry V. Charney then explores the primary themes and characters in Richard II and comments on the relevancy of key scenes to events occurring in Shakespeare's England.

Richard II is the first play of the Major Tetralogy, followed by the two parts of Henry IV and Henry V. Shakespeare learned a great deal from writing the four plays of the Minor Tetralogy (the three parts of Henry VI and Richard III), which were probably completed in 1592 or 1593. King John, which was probably written just before Richard II, has many stylistic affinities with it, both plays make important use of the divine right of kings. We can date Richard II fairly confidently to 1595, and the other three plays of the Major Tetralogy follow in the next three or four years.

It is curious that the events of the Major Tetralogy exactly precede those of the Minor Page 709  |  Top of ArticleTetralogy, which begins with the death of Henry V in 1422 and covers the Wars of the Roses to its conclusion at Bosworth Field in 1485. It looks as if Shakespeare wanted first to establish the origins of the Tudor line and the way that Henry, Duke of Richmond (later Henry VII), providentially ends the Wars of the Roses and unites the houses of York and Lancaster. The Major Tetralogy is much more concentrated historically, beginning with the quarrel of Bolingbroke and Mowbray in 1398 and ending with the triumph of Henry V over France and his marriage to Katherine, daughter of the French king and queen, in 1420. The Major Tetralogy is more self-consciously a four-part unit than the Minor Tetralogy, with many more interconnections, echoes, and anticipations.

The events in Richard II are compressed into only two years, from 1398 to 1400, which helps give the play a feeling of tragedy, by concentrating so strongly on Richard's fall and creating the sense of a quick-moving and almost fateful action. Richard's hubris, insolence, presumption, and perhaps just foolishness make his fall inevitable, but once it is clear that he can no longer remain king, the play unleashes a tremendous flood of feeling for Richard in adversity. This is Shakespeare's first history play to invoke so powerfully the analogy between the fallen king and Christ in extremis. This sense of sorrow for Richard evokes tragic feelings of sympathy and compassion. We forget whatever Richard has done to bring his fate upon himself and think only of his torment and his sufferings.

More than any other Shakespeare history play, Richard II goes to great lengths to invoke the doctrine of the divine right of kings, which was popular in the Tudor program of homilies to be read aloud in churches. The heinous sin of Richard's deposition and murder and the ascent of Bolingbroke to the throne as Henry IV are not
Ben Miles as Henry Bolingbroke and Kevin Spacey as Richard II at the Old Vic Theatre, London, 2005 Ben Miles as Henry Bolingbroke and Kevin Spacey as Richard II at the Old Vic Theatre, London, 2005 (© Donald Cooper/Photostage. Reproduced by permission) really resolved until the Wars of the Roses end in the victory of the Earl of Richmond in 1485, who comes to the throne as Henry VII, the first Tudor….

It is necessary to insist so strongly on the divine right of kings in Richard II in order to appreciate the magnitude of Henry IV's transgression. The Bishop of Carlisle's prophetic speech right before Richard's deposition looks forward to the bloody events of both tetralogies and is a forecast of English history in the fifteenth century:

     And if you crown him [Bolingbroke], let me prophesy—
     The blood of English shall manure the ground,
     And future ages groan for this foul act …

Bolingbroke as "subject" cannot "give sentence on his king" (121), since the king is the Page 710  |  Top of Articleanointed of God. As God's scourge, Bolingbroke is sure to bring an evil doom on himself and on England, which will "be called / The field of Golgotha and dead men's skulls" (143-44).

The argument of divine right is all that Richard can offer to defend himself, and the conflict is lost before it ever begins. When Richard returns from lreland to safeguard his kingdom against Bolingbroke, who has landed at Ravenspurgh, he speaks largely in "divine right" rhetoric, which his followers see as a counsel of despair:

     Not all the water in the rough rude sea
     Can wash the balm off from an anointed king,
     The breath of wordly men cannot depose
     The deputy elected by the Lord.

Richard's sense of the forces of Nature being marshaled against the enemy of God seems ludicrous to his troops. He protests: "Mock not my senseless conjuration, lords" (23), but the King's approach to impending danger is entirely wrong.

Richard's invocation to "my gentle earth" (3.2.12) is unmilitary in the extreme: "But let thy spiders, that suck up thy venom, / And heavy-gaited toads lie in their way" (14-15). To this Richard continues to add supposedly baleful images: "Yield stinging nettles to mine enemies" (18). It is this "conjuration" of senseless things that his lords are mocking, and Carlisle tells him gently: "The means that heavens yield must be embraced / And not neglected" (29-30). The army of Bolingbroke is unlikely to be defeated by venomous spiders, heavy-gaited toads, and stinging nettles.

According to the Renaissance doctrine of the King's two bodies, the king as a public figure has a sacred body identified with the body politic, but as a private man his body is fragile and vulnerable. Richard argues on both sides of the divine right paradox. When he considers himself as a person, he is subject to all the weaknesses of mortal man, and he is far from having the invulnerable image of a king:

     I live with bread like you, feel want,
     Taste grief, need friends—subjected thus,
     How can you say to me, I am a king?

In the pun on subjected—"made a subject" and "subjected to," or "liable"—lies the heart of the paradox. Richard is moving to an acute awareness of his loss of identity, by giving up the kingship he surrenders the essence of his being and he declines to anonymity and nothingness. The issue of identity becomes of crucial importance in Shakespeare's later tragedies, such as Othello, when Othello declares that his "occupation's gone" (3.3.354) or Antony and Cleopatra, when Antony "cannot hold this visible shape" (4. 14. 14).

The important theme of Richard's identity reaches its climax in the deposition scene, when he understands that by giving up his kingship he is giving up everything, including his sense of self:

     I have no name, no title,
     No, not that name was given me at the font
     But 'tis usurped.
     (4. 1. 254-56)

He seeks total annihilation in his wish-fulfillment imagery:

     O, that I were a mockery king of snow,
     Standing before the sun of Bolingbroke,
     To melt myself away in water drops!

This scene anticipates Hamlet in many places, especially Hamlet's first soliloquy:

     O that this too too solid [as in Folio] flesh would melt,
     Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew …
     (Hamlet 1. 2. 129-30)

Some lines later, after Richard sends for a mirror and throws it down in disgust, he exclaims:

     My grief lies all within,
     And these external manners of laments
     Are merely shadows to the unseen grief
     That swells with silence in the tortured soul.
     (4. 1. 294-97)

These lines clearly anticipate Hamlet's sense of isolation in the Danish court in the same context I quoted before: "But I have that within which passes show; / These but the trappings and the suits of woe" (Hamlet 1. 2. 85-86). Both Richard and Hamlet feel a painful contrast between outward seeming and inward reality. They are both courting the annihilation of self.

Richard's contemplating his face in the mirror is like Hamlet's contemplating mortality in the skull of Yorick, the king's jester. It is Page 711  |  Top of Articleinteresting that Richard parodies Doctor Faustus's famous invocation of Helen of Troy in Marlowe's play (1592):

    Was this face the face
    That every day under his household roof
    Did keep ten thousand men? Was this the face
    That, like the sun, did make beholders wink?

He rejects the image of his face by shattering the looking glass, thus seeking the anonymity he has been flirting with from the beginning of his griefs.

At the end of the play before he is murdered at Pomfret Castle, Richard has a long soliloquy meditating on themes of time, life and death, and his own identity. He takes up again the "nothing" theme that echoes throughout the play, as it does in King Lear, and that here signifies the king's awareness of his own impending death. He imagines himself as an actor, coping with a difficult reality by moving quickly between different identities: "Thus play I in one person many people, / And none contented" (5.5.31-32). Shifting between king and beggar, Richard is finally "unkinged by Bolingbroke, / And straight am nothing" (37-38). From here it is only a quick move to the final step of the reasoning: that no man "With nothing shall be pleased, till he be eased / With being nothing" (40-41). Despite the urgency of death, Richard cannot resist the pleasing cadence of the internal rhyme ("pleased-eased"), he also manages to kill two of his executioners.

The critical question whether Richard is a poet manqué [unsuccessful, unfulfilled] or an actor manqué is a deceptive one because Richard is poetical and histrionic [dramatic] in playing his part as a king, especially a deposed king. Hamlet seems actually to be a friend of the traveling players, which Richard is not. Nor has Richard written at least a dozen or sixteen lines to be inserted into the Mousetrap play, nor does he declaim with bravado the Dido and Aeneas play as Hamlet does. But Richard poetizes actively throughout his play and indulges in elaborately ingenious poetic figures called "conceits."

Something grotesque in these excessively worked out images mingles with Richard's grief to create a sense of hysteria, as in the following:

    Or shall we play the wantons with our woes,
    And make some pretty match with shedding tears,
     As thus, to drop them still upon one place,
    Till they have fretted us a pair of graves
    Within the earth, and, therein laid, "there lies
    Two kinsmen digged their graves with weeping eyes",
    Would not this ill do well?

The image is extremely literal in its visual requirements, which are uncomfortably specific. That is why, once again, the imagery misfires and the onlookers think it ridiculous: "Well, well, I see / I talk but idly, and you laugh at me" (169-70). In Elizabethan parlance, idly means both lazily and foolishly. Richard is mocking his own poetical style in the manner of Touchstone in As You Like It, who lays it down as gospel that "the truest poetry is the most feigning" (3.3.18-19).

Henry Bolingbroke, the son of John of Gaunt, becomes the model for Shakespeare's political figures: the unheroic, practical man who manages to survive, while more committed and more ideological persons all are doomed to an early death. Bolingbroke is neither poetical nor histironic, but Richard envies him his ability to win political favor easily and spontaneously. Even before his return to England, Richard fears "his courtship to the common people" (1.4.24). Bolingbroke is essentially a political creature with no natural eloquence like Richard, but with an uncanny sense of the right gesture:

    Off goes his bonnet to an oyster-wench;
    A brace of draymen bid God speed him well,
    And had the tribute of his supple knee …

Unlike Tamburlaine or Richard III, Bolingbroke has no grandiose visions of kingship, and he proceeds step by step without revealing, even to himself, his ultimate objective. We have to believe that when he returns to England from exile he comes only to claim his rightful inheritance from his dead father, Gaunt, and not to depose Richard and be king himself. Yet events move with incredible swiftness and inevitability, and when Bolingbroke condemns Bushy and Green, two of "The caterpillars of the commonwealth" (2.3.166), in act 3, scene 1, he is already acting like the king, who doesn't need any Page 712  |  Top of Articlespecific legal warrant. Bolingbroke prepares us remarkably for Claudius in Hamlet and perhaps also for Macbeth.

In the final scene of the play Bolingbroke resembles Macbeth remarkably in the equivocation he practices with himself. To Exton, who murders Richard II at Pomfret, Bolingbroke speaks only the ambiguous words of guilt:

    They love not poison that do poison need,
    Nor do I thee; though I did wish him dead,
    I hate the murderer, love him murderèd.

This is essentially the Henry IV of the next two plays in the tetralogy: crafty, ineloquent, guilty, and well meaning. If Henry weren't so troubled in spirit, we would think him a gross hypocrite for making pronouncements like the following: "Lords, I protest, my soul is full of woe, / That blood should sprinkle me to make me grow" (45-46).

But Henry does nothing to prevent blood from sprinkling him and he does nothing to conceal his open complicity. He vows here what he vows time and again in the two later plays: to "make a voyage to the Holy Land, / To wash this blood off from my guilty hand" (5.6.49-50), but we are sure that he has not the slightest intention to make this voyage of contrition and expiation. This is not part of his style. He mourns over the "untimely bier" (52) of Richard II, even though it was he himself who had him murdered. Unlike Richard III Bolingbroke is not sardonic, but his sincerity is suspect as a public pronouncement, not a personal commitment.

His avalanche of couplets in his final scene reminds us that Richard II was written right around the time of Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night's Dream, both of which it resembles in its lyric extravagance and its use of set pieces of eloquence. The dying Gaunt's vision of England is presented as an antithesis to the corruption and decay of England under Richard's misrule. Gaunt, expiring, speaks like a "prophet new inspired" (2.1.31) of "This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England" (50). It is an extraordinary patriotic effusion, but England is "now leased out … / Like to a tenement or pelting farm" (59-60). Farm is a derogatory word used three times in this play to indicate Richard's outrageous financial exactions. To "farm" the realm is to sell for cash the right to collect royal taxes, such as on crown lands and on customs. This is combined with "blank charters" (1.4.48), in which favorites of the king could write in whatever sum they pleased as an exaction on the nobles, and "benevolences" (2.1.250), or forced loans, to create Richard's "rash fierce blaze of riot" (33). Like a tragic protagonist, Richard is preparing his own fall.

The Garden Scene (3, 4) has often been discussed as an internal, choral commentary on the play, but its literal, allegorical quality allies it with early Shakespeare. Later, Shakespeare will embody his meanings much more intrinsically in the dramatic action rather than in symbolic set pieces. The Gardener lectures his servants pedantically about the analogy between the garden commonwealth and the body politic. With the Queen and her Ladies as audience, the Gardener expatiates on the political implications of gardening:

     O, what pity is it
     That he had not so trimmed and dressed his land
     As we this garden!

This scene is easy to teach but it doesn't represent Shakespeare at his best.

At the end of the scene, however, the Gardener speaks a touching soliloquy in couplets:

     Here did she fall a tear; here in this place
     I'll set a bank of rue, sour herb of grace;
     Rue even for ruth here shortly shall be seen,
     In the remembrance of a weeping queen.

We are reminded inevitably, as by so much else in this play, of Hamlet, particularly the mad Ophelia's distribution of flowers: "There's rue for you, here's some for me. We may call it herb of grace o' Sundays. O, you must wear your rue with a difference" (Hamlet 4.5.181-83).

One incident that hangs over Richard II and is mentioned repeatedly in the play is the murder of Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester and Richard's uncle, in 1397. These events are treated in the anonymous play Woodstock (sometimes called the first part of Richard II since it deals with the period 1382 to 1397, before Shakespeare's play opens), which was probably written before Shakespeare's play. Richard II begins in 1398 with the quarrel between Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray, the Duke of Norfolk, who was clearly implicated in Gloucester's death at Calais, probably under Page 713  |  Top of Articleorders from Richard. The scene between Bolingbroke and Mowbray is confusing, since the men trade accusations that seem equally powerful. Bolingbroke claims that Mowbray sluiced out Gloucester's

    innocent soul through streams of blood;
    Which blood, like sacrificing Abel's, cries
    Even from the tongueless caverns of the earth
    To me for justice and rough chastisement …

We never learn for sure about Mowbray's role in this murder, but we are never allowed to forget Richard's complicity.

In the next scene, the Duchess of Gloucester asks Gaunt to take revenge for his brother's murder, but Gaunt refuses. This is the first we hear of the doctrine of the divine right of kings, which is so important in the play. Gaunt says directly that the King,

    God's substitute,
    His deputy anointed in His sight,
    Hath caused his [Gloucester's] death …

He adds that "God's is the quarrel" (37), for Gaunt as a subject "may never lift / An angry arm against His minister" (40-41). This makes the issue of Gloucester's murder explicit in the play. Before his death Gaunt accuses Richard directly of murdering his uncle:

    That blood already like the pelican
    Hast thou tapped out and drunkenly caroused:
    My brother Gloucester, plain well-meaning soul …

This is almost at the end of Gaunt's long and prophetic death speech, in which he seems to curse Richard: "Live in thy shame" (135).

The issue of Gloucester's death comes up again in act 4, scene 1, when Bagot specifically accuses Aumerle, the son of the Duke of York (Gaunt's brother), of having killed Gloucester on orders from Richard. Bagot is joined in his accusations by Fitzwater, Percy, and others, but what is important is that this is the beginning of the deposition scene and the accusations of murder provide a context for the judgment of Richard by Bolingbroke. Richard is not such an innocent as he makes himself out to be. In his grief he makes no effort at all to defend himself, but merely expatiates on his tragic and alienated condition. The fallen king appears powerfully as a suffering individual, lyric, meditative, and philosophical in adversity.

Richard II is one of the most politically explosive of Shakespeare's plays. The Deposition Scene (most of act 4, scene 1), in which Richard abdicates the throne, was never printed during Queen Elizabeth's lifetime and first appeared in the Fourth Quarto of 1608. This is potentially seditious material for which one could be summoned before the Star Chamber. We know that the Essex conspirators got Shakespeare's company to put on a special performance of Richard II on the eve of their totally disastrous rebellion on February 8, 1601. Presumably, they thought that the Deposition Scene would be good propaganda for the overthrow of Elizabeth, who thought of herself as Richard II: "I am Richard II. Know ye not that?" (E. K. Chambers, William Shakespeare, vol. 2, p. 326). Bolingbroke is clearly labeled as a dangerous usurper in this play and in both parts of Henry IV, constantly anxious about his cloudy title to the throne. His son, Prince Hal, who becomes Henry V, continues these perturbations, and the issue is settled definitively only at the end of Richard III, when the Earl of Richmond defeats Richard at Bosworth Field and becomes Henry VII. As part of the royal myth, the Tudors take the stain off the English throne.

Source: Maurice Charney, "Richard II," in All of Shakespeare, 1993, pp. 160-69.

Barbara J. Baines

In the essay that follows, Baines analyzes what she identifies as Shakespeare's sympathetic portrayal of Bolingbroke, stressing that the dominant theme of the play is not Bolingbroke's ambition, but Richard's incompetence. Baines traces Bolingbroke's actions throughout the play, demonstrating the moral justification for his decisions and activities.

Few, if any, characters in the Shakespeare canon evoke such diverse and strong emotional response as the key figures of the second tetralogy: Richard II, Bolingbroke, and Hal. They are of course fascinating psychological portraits, but their special appeal derives from the political and moral issues which they dramatize. Together they present Shakespeare's courageous exploration of the controversial subject, kingship: the Page 714  |  Top of Articleright to reign, the use and abuse of power, and the reciprocal responsibility of sovereign and subject. In these three kings whose fortunes and identities are inextricably linked, the playwright dramatizes the formidable conflict between political necessity and Christian morality. This conflict, which gives the plays their singular vitality, is part of what Michael Manheim has defined as the 'weak-king dilemma' and what Moody Prior, relying on Friedrich Meinecke, has called the dilemma of raison d'état. That Bolingbroke's behavior often demonstrates Machiavelli's precepts of political necessity has been irrefutably demonstrated in the past and again recently. But the significance of this behavior in the minds of Bolingbroke and his creator has never been satisfactorily resolved. The complexity of the political-moral issues of the tetralogy is, therefore, most evident in this ambiguous, keystone figure who, like his heir, demonstrates the cardinal virtues requisite of a king. Bolingbroke's triumph, through the glory of his heir, is made possible by a pragmatic acceptance of the tenuous balance between the claims of political necessity and Christian ethics. I hope to demonstrate that Shakespeare's attitude toward Bolingbroke is much more sympathetic than critics have been willing to acknowledge and that this sympathy underscores the playwright's very realistic attitude toward kingship.

We know of course that the Tudor establishment, like Richard, expounded the theory of the divine right of kings and the incontestability or virtual infallibility of the king body politic. The Tudor concept of kingship and the subject's obedience is so pervasive and eloquently expressed that, as G. R. Elton notes, 'theories of kingship which stressed the rights of subjects and the dominance of law have tended to be overlooked in the dazzling light of God-granted authority'. But the fact remains that these conflicting theories did exist, and it is not likely that Shakespeare would have overlooked them. The struggle between Richard and Bolingbroke for the crown shows clearly that he did not. Richard II presents both the Lancastrian sympathetic interpretation of Bolingbroke's motives and actions and the Yorkist view of Bolingbroke as hypocrite and despicable traitor. Robert Ornstein has recently pointed out that Holinshed, Shakespeare's primary source, presents essentially a Yorkist view, one that stresses the principle of legitimacy too strongly to have been much comfort to the Tudor monarchs and thus had to be qualified or balanced by the playwright with the Lancastrian view. For many readers the fascination and pathos evoked by Richard in the last two acts tend to overshadow the Lancastrian argument. I would like to argue here that the justification of Richard's deposition, if we consider the entire tetralogy and give adequate attention to the first three acts of Richard II, is more important to an accurate assessment of the political statement of the plays than the tragic suffering of Richard. In light of the complexity of conflicting ideas about kingship, the singular nature of Bolingbroke—the morally accountable Machiavellian prince—takes on new significance.

How Bolingbroke acquires the crown is of course a crucial issue in any assessment of the character. Richard II loses the crown because he denies the principle and laws upon which his right to the crown rests. York, who, along with Gaunt, supports the theory of the divine right of kings, points out that Richard denies his own legal right when he denies Bolingbroke's rightful inheritance. The destruction of the hereditary order in the duchy of Lancaster prefigures the destruction of the hereditary order in larger England. It is Richard, not Bolingbroke, who causes this destruction. Richard has disturbed the old order of possession by insisting that possession of the crown means possession of Gaunt's estate. Ironically enough, he discovers that he must live by the new order of possession which he has himself created and sanctioned. The crown and the Lancastrian estate do in fact go hand-in-hand—not because Bolingbroke is a usurper but because Richard has inadvertently disinherited himself through a series of crimes. Disregard for royal blood, for the offspring of King Edward, has already become a practice before the action of the play begins, in the cruel murder of Thomas Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester. The strongest condemnation of Richard, 'Landlord of England art thou now, not king, / Thy state of law is bondslave to the Page 715  |  Top of Articlelaw', calls to mind the worst of his sins as they are depicted in the anonymous Woodstock. Accordingly, Richard's fate and the justice of that fate are clearly prophesied by the dying Gaunt:

    O, had thy grandsire, with a prophet's eye,
    Seen how his son's son should destroy his sons,
    From forth thy reach he would have laid thy shame,
    Deposing thee before thou wert possessed,
    Which art possessed now to depose thyself.

What Gaunt is describing here is not usurpation but self-deposition. Moreover, he considers the act already accomplished ('Landlord of England art thou now, not king') before Bolingbroke's return from exile. Richard's crimes, not Bolingbroke's, dictate Gaunt's final address to Richard not as king but as 'my brother Edward's son' (II.i.124).

Bolingbroke receives the crown as a result of his morally sanctioned demand for his inheritance. The first crucial question, then, in an evaluation of Bolingbroke's policy and ethics is whether or not he has a right to return to England to claim and defend his inheritance. Even as a loyal supporter of the establishment, York reveals that he is torn between two loyalties: one to the state, the other to his conscience:

    … Both are my kinsmen.
    Th'one is my sovereign, whom both my oath
    And duty bids defend; t'other again
    Is my kinsman, whom the king hath wronged,
    Whom conscience and kindred bids to right.

What is significant here is that duty and oath of office (aspects of political necessity) speak for Richard, whereas conscience speaks for Bolingbroke. To York's blustering accusations (II.iii.87-111) Bolingbroke appeals to the obligation of kinship, but what is more important, he asserts his right by law:

    I am denied to sue my livery here,
    And yet my letters patents give me leave.
    My father's goods are all distrained and sold;
    And these, and all, are all amiss employed.
    What would you have me do? I am a subject,
    And I challenge law. Attorneys are denied me,
    And therefore personally I lay claim
    To my inheritance of free descent.

But the rigidly idealistic York insists that the end, however justifiable, will not in this case justify the means. He will not exonerate Bolingbroke's attempt 'to find out right with wrong'. At the same time, York can offer no viable alternative to Bolingbroke's action; to the pragmatic question, 'What would you have me do?' he has no answer. This failure best explains York's impotence and the metaphoric appropriateness of his intention to remain 'neuter' (1. 159). The impotence of York (who is, after all, the King's Regent) underscores the necessity of the course taken by Bolingbroke.

Although Bolingbroke's action is morally justified, his motives and intentions remain a mystery; he never confides in the audience or in another character. There is ample evidence that Bolingbroke, from the beginning, anticipates the necessity of restricting drastically or else abolishing altogether Richard's authority. The idea of merely reforming or limiting Richard's power would hardly seem feasible to the realistic Bolingbroke. He knows that Richard is an absolutist and that any form of resistance or criticism would not be tolerated. The fact that Richard is responsible for the death of Gloucester is from the beginning no secret in the Lancaster household. Bolingbroke knows, therefore, that his challenge to Richard's faithful servant Mowbray is, in fact, a challenge to Richard himself. Richard evidently recognizes the thinly disguised challenge when he accuses Bolingbroke of 'skyaspiring and ambitious thoughts' (I.iii.130). The only easy way out is the unjust banishment of both men. The sudden, dramatic, and unjust decision to banish both lords is, in Bolingbroke's consciousness, sufficient example of Richard's intolerable abuse of absolute power. Compromise and reconciliation, therefore, could hardly seem a likelihood in Bolingbroke's mind when he returns from France.

It is highly probable, then, that the silent Bolingbroke at this early point—that is, before Richard confiscates the Lancaster estate—already intends a final confrontation with Richard. The time sequence of Act II, scene i, is deliberately ambiguous. It is impossible to tell whether Bolingbroke has had time to receive the news of the confiscation of his inheritance before he sets sail from Brittany with the eight tall ships. The Page 716  |  Top of Article
John Bowe as Mowbray, Alan Howard as Richard II, and David Suchet as Bolingbroke in Act I, scene iii, at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 1980 John Bowe as Mowbray, Alan Howard as Richard II, and David Suchet as Bolingbroke in Act I, scene iii, at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 1980 (© Donald Cooper/Photostage. Reproduced by permission) confiscation of the Lancaster estate may not be the primary cause for Bolingbroke's return, but certainly it is a primary factor in Richard's self-deposition. Bolingbroke's defense of his refusal to accept banishment (II.iii.113-36) is fundamentally an accusation of Richard rather than an explanation of his own motives.

Part of the ambiguity of Bolingbroke's motives and intentions derives from the role of resistance which he has chosen. From the beginning he prepares for what he knows will be Richard's ultimate mistake; the eight tall ships are waiting. Whether or not they actually sailed before Bolingbroke received news that Richard had confiscated the Lancastrian estate is ultimately of little importance. Bolingbroke has already been denied justice at the moment of his banishment, and he knows that Richard will continue, in some form or other, the pattern of injustice. When he returns to claim his rights, he is claiming more than his title and property. He is claiming the right which, according to one theory of kingship, every Englishman has—the right to be governed by a responsible king.

Bolingbroke does not reveal his plans because he still is not certain how far his confrontation will have to go or should go; a great deal depends upon how Richard behaves. There is no reason to believe that Bolingbroke is being hypocritical when he assures York that he does not intend to oppose himself against the will of heaven (III.iii.18-19). He does not define at this point what he thinks the will of heaven is because he does not know; Richard's behavior will, to a great extent, clarify the question. In the crucial confrontation scene (III.iii), Bolingbroke quickly kneels before Richard and declares, 'My gracious lord, I come but for mine own'. But Richard recognizes (as we should by now) that what Bolingbroke's 'own' is has not been defined by Bolingbroke; certainly among other things it includes the right to just government. Richard answers, 'Your own is yours, and I am yours, and all'. The reality of the situation is ultimately shaped by the mind of Richard, not by the action of Bolingbroke. Richard's followers have tried to direct his mind away from the madness of despair toward constructive action against Bolingbroke. Page 717  |  Top of ArticleBut the prophecy of old John of Gaunt, who described Richard as one 'which art possessed now to depose thyself', proves to be an accurate statement of the will of heaven.

Another crucial matter to be dealt with in any evaluation of Bolingbroke is his execution of those 'caterpillars of the commonwealth', Bushy and Greene. This action has been interpreted as Machiavellian political necessity to assure the capitulation of Richard (Ribner, pp. 181-2). One certainly cannot help recalling this execution scene when much later Bolingbroke on his deathbed alludes to the 'by-paths and indirect crooked ways' to the throne (2 Henry IV, IV.v.184). But if we look closely at the situation in Richard II we see that the playwright has created ample grounds to justify Bolingbroke's behavior. By their own admission Bushy and Greene have emptied the purses of the commons (II.ii.129-32) and earned their hatred. The straightforward nature of Bolingbroke's statement of intention 'to weed and pluck away' the King's parasites and the assumption that he will have the Regent's authority supporting him (II.iii.162-6) imply a strong moral justification for his judgment and execution of the King's men. York certainly voices no objection to the idea that these men deserve to be executed. His reluctance apparently again concerns Bolingbroke's methods: 'It may be I will go with you; but yet I'll pause, / For I am loath to break our country's laws' (II.iii.168-9). York freely chooses to go with Bolingbroke because he realizes that although Bolingbroke's methods may be questionable, the end result, the good of the commonwealth, is not.

More important than York's response to Bolingbroke's ministration of justice is that of his gardener in the emblematic garden scene (III.iv). The gardener's man asks:

     Why should we, in the compass of a pale,
     Keep law and form and due proportion,
     Showing, as in a model, our firm estate,
     When our sea-walled garden, the whole land,
     Is full of weeds, her fairest flowers choked up,
     Her fruit trees all unpruned, her hedges ruined,
     Her knots disordered, and her wholesome herbs
     Swarming with caterpillars?

This question does more than simply define the emblematic correspondences; it suggests that order on a secondary or personal level (within 'the compass of a pale') has little meaning when there is no order on the primary or national level (within 'the sea-walled garden'). The question implies that there is very little motivation to achieve moral order on the personal level when none exists on a national level. The gardener is able to satisfy this complaint and affirm the necessity for private order because Bolingbroke has acted to restore national order. It may well be that on his deathbed Bolingbroke still has the blood of Bushy and Greene on his hands, but their execution is clearly a part of the establishment of order and justice in the kingdom, without which the sea-walled garden would go to ruin.

Bolingbroke's ministration of justice continues with an effort to identify those involved in the murder of Gloucester (IV.i). This scene, which parallels the opening scene of the play in which Richard presides over the challenge brought by Bolingbroke against Mowbray, dramatizes Bolingbroke's sincere desire for the truth but even more clearly reveals that Bolingbroke already wields the power of arbitrator and judge, the power of de facto king. Bolingbroke's willingness to hear and weigh all evidence and his willingness to repeal Mowbray's banishment sharply contrast with the whimsical, capricious behavior of Richard in the earlier comparable situation. The disruptive intrusion by York to announce that Richard has abdicated and declared Bolingbroke his heir suggests clearly that the right to power goes hand-in-hand with the ability to use it properly. This point is made again through Bolingbroke by the gratitude and respect shown York, the mercy shown Aumerle (V.iii.59-66), and the tolerance shown Carlisle (

Thus the dominant theme of Richard II is the incompetence of Richard, not the ambition of Bolingbroke. We sympathize with Richard, the man, in Acts IV and V, but earlier in the play we see Richard, the King, in the cold light of his incompetence and crimes. The comparison which Richard draws between himself and 'glistering Phaeton' (III.iii.178-79) is intended as a criticism of 'unruly jades'—those who challenge the king's authority. The comparison, however, turns ironically on Richard, since in the myth it is Phaeton's presumption and incompetence Page 718  |  Top of Articlewhich threaten the cosmic order. Richard discovers that he is but a mortal—that he is neither sun-god nor Christ. In the mirror episode (IV.i) the myths which Richard has created fade in the harsh light of truth. He sees in the mirror not the image of the king body politic but the image of a simple man. The image in the mirror is a much more accurate reflection of Richard's sins than any confession which Northumberland could draw up. The recognition of his mortal face forces an acknowledgment that Richard has unfortunately never made during his reign. The history he reads in the glass is one of folly: 'Was this the face that faced so many follies / And was at last outfaced by Bolingbroke?' (IV.i.285-86). In this moment of truth Richard does not use the word 'usurped' or 'deposed' but instead uses the word, 'outfaced', which is an accurate description of Bolingbroke's behavior and an important indicator of the author's attitudes toward both characters.

Richard's incompetence is stressed also by Shakespeare's deviation from his main source. In Holinshed's account of Richard's fall, Northumberland captures Richard by tricking him into an ambush. Richard is then firmly persuaded by advisors to agree to a peaceful abdication. In Shakespeare's play Richard rejects the course of resistance offered by Aumerle and Carlisle and retires to Flint Castle, where he quickly and without advice acknowledges Bolingbroke as king. Shakespeare's Richard clearly has an alternative to abdication. The alternative would require that he acknowledge the injustice of some of his decisions. But Richard, obsessed with the idea of his divine right and virtual infallibility, cannot bend to such a compromise. Since Richard will not change, his abdication is essential to the well-being of the nation. Its strategic location between Richard's surrender at Flint Castle and Bolingbroke's acceptance of the crown at Westminster makes the emblematic garden scene again crucial. The gardener may be sympathetic with the fallen king, but his main point and the point of the scene is that the garden must be tended. Bolingbroke understands this fundamental principle of kingship; Richard does not—at least not in time to save his crown.

Bolingbroke's competence as it contrasts with Richard's incompetence does not go unnoticed by the conservative York. As he observes the unfolding of events, York moves from suspicion and censure, to ambivalence, finally to complete acceptance of Bolingbroke as rightful sovereign. He can with good conscience shift his allegiance from Richard to Bolingbroke because Richard 'with willing soul' has adopted Bolingbroke as his heir (IV.i.108). York is willing to accept Bolingbroke as king for still another and perhaps more important reason. He realizes that fortune favors Bolingbroke; he has the support of the lords and the parliament and has found no positive resistance in Richard. Circumstances therefore indicate to York that Bolingbroke truly has not opposed the will of heaven. Since in Act V, scene ii, York is alone in his own home with his wife, he has no reason for saying something which he does not truly believe. He describes the joyous reception of Bolingbroke and the public contempt for Richard. Moved to compassion by Richard's suffering, he nevertheless concludes

     That, had not God for some strong purpose steeled
     The hearts of men, they must perforce have melted,
     And barbarism itself have pitied him.
     But heaven hath a hand in these events,
     To whose high will we bound our calm contents.
     To Bolingbroke are we sworn subjects now,
     Whose state and honour I for aye allow.

York's loyalty to Bolingbroke—a loyalty which York considers divinely sanctioned—is put to the supreme test by Aumerle's involvement in the conspiracy to murder Bolingbroke.

York's providential view of Richard's fall and Bolingbroke's rise is reinforced years later by Bolingbroke's interpretation of the events and his motives for accepting the crown:

     Though then, God knows, I had no such intent
     But that necessity so bowed the state
     That I and greatness were compell'd to kiss …
     (2 Henry IV, III.i.72-74)

Compelling necessity was his motive, not ambition. When Henry IV contemplates Northumberland's treachery, he remembers that Richard accurately predicted the situation. Warwick explains that Richard foresaw Northumberland's treachery, not because he had any supernatural perception or influence, but because he comprehended an easily discernible pattern in Northumberland's nature. The disorder which Bolingbroke faces as king is a result of a constant principle in human nature. Necessity cries out in Page 719  |  Top of Articlethe case of Northumberland's treachery, as it did in the case of Richard's incompetence, and Bolingbroke prepares himself once more to meet that political necessity (2 Henry IV, III.i.92-94). The point of Northumberland's rebellion is not that rebellion begets rebellion, but that a king proves his competence and thus his right to rule by his capacity to deal with rebellion.

But with all of his competence, Bolingbroke is still a human being, subject to weakness and sin, even in his role as king. In a moment of weakness he voices his wish for Richard's death. Exton, who makes the wish a reality, reminds Bolingbroke, 'From your own mouth, my lord, did I this deed' (Richard II, Bolingbroke does not deny this assertion, nor does he try to justify Richard's murder on the grounds of political necessity. As a morally responsible individual, Bolingbroke acknowledges his guilt and promises expiation: 'I'll make a voyage to the Holy Land, / To wash this blood off from my guilty hand' ( Unlike Machiavelli's model prince, Bolingbroke acknowledges the importance of reconciling political necessity with Christian morality. That he hopes to achieve expiation and at the same time 'busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels' does not imply religious hypocrisy, but a pragmatism consistent with the nature of this character. What is important is his refusal to dismiss the moral issue altogether and his awareness that all of his actions will be judged by the failure or success of his reign and by his capacity to perpetuate his reign through his heir….

Source: Barbara J. Baines, "Kingship of the Silent King: A Study of Shakespeare's Bolingbroke," in English Studies, Vol. 61, No. 1, February, 1980, pp. 24-31.

Wolfgang Clemen

Clemen offers an analysis of the imagery in Richard II, contending that in this play Shakespeare turns slightly away from the rigid formalism of Richard III and other previous plays. At the same time, notes Clemen, Shakespeare achieves a "unity of tone and feeling" that is lacking in earlier plays.

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Source: Wolfgang Clemen, "Richard II," in The Development of Shakespeare's Imagery, Methuan and Co., 1977, pp. 53-62.


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Hamilton, Donna B., "The State of Law in Richard II," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 34, No. 1, Spring 1983, pp. 5-17.

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Norwich, John Julius, Shakespeare's Kings, Scribner, 1999.

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Owen, Lewis J., "Richard II," in Lectures on Four of Shakespeare's History Plays, Carnegie Institute of Technology, 1953, pp. 3-18.

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Beavan, Bryan, King Richard II, Rubicon, 1996.

Beavan presents an objective and enlightening study of the life of the historical Richard II.

Saul, Nigel, ed., The Oxford Illustrated History of Medieval England, Oxford University Press, 1997.

This comprehensive and accessible treatment of the thousand or so years that constituted medieval times in England addresses the life of Richard II in the context of the evolution of all of English society.

Strachey, Lytton, Elizabeth and Essex: A Tragic History, Harvest Books, 2002.

The Earl of Essex, once a favorite of Queen Elizabeth and rumored to be a potential mate, eventually attempted to overthrow her, with his conspirators sponsoring a performance of Richard II beforehand as rebellious propaganda. Strachey presents an insightful and compelling portrait of the relationship between Elizabeth and Essex, and where it led.

Tomlinson, Richard, Divine Right: The Inglorious Survival of British Royalty, Little Brown Company, 1995.

This work brings the discussion regarding the divine right of kings into the modern era, offering a scathing indictment of the manner in which members of the British monarchy have ever held onto their privileged positions.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2896100034