Richard II

views updated May 23 2018

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; Gaunt, 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.

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 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 for 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 is 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 murder, 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 entry, 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.


  • 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 Richard'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 when 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 have 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, the 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 against 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 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 compelling 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.


  • 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 way 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 central 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 throne 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 little 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


  • 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.

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 ambiguity, 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 Tetralogy, 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 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 anointed 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 interesting 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 specific 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 orders 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 right 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 law', 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 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. But 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 which 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 the 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.

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.]

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


Altick, Richard, "Symphonic Imagery in Richard II," in The Tragedy of King Richard the Second, by William Shakespeare, New American Library, 1963, pp. 199-234.

Baker, Herschel, "Richard II," in The Riverside Shakespeare, edited by G. Blakemore Evans, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974, pp. 800-04.

Black, James, "The Interlude of the Beggar and the King in Richard II," in Pageantry in the Shakespearean Theater, edited by David M. Bergeron, University of Georgia Press, 1985, pp. 104-13.

Clare, Janet, "The Censorship of the Deposition Scene in Richard II," in Review of English Studies, Vol. 41, No. 161, February 1990, pp. 89-94.

Cohen, Derek, "The Containment of Monarchy: Richard II," in Shakespeare's Culture of Violence, St. Martin's Press, 1993, pp. 10-29.

French, A. L., "Who Deposed Richard the Second?," in Essays in Criticism, Vol. 17, No. 4, October 1967, pp. 411-33.

Friedman, Donald M., "John of Gaunt and the Rhetoric of Frustration," in English Literary History, Vol. 43, No. 3, Fall 1976, 279-99.

Frye, Northrop, "The Bolingbroke Plays (Richard II, Henry IV)," in Northrop Frye on Shakespeare, edited by Robert Sandler, Yale University Press, 1986, pp. 51-81.

Gurr, Andrew, "Introduction," in King Richard II, by William Shakespeare, Cambridge University Press, 1984, pp. 1-52.

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

Hunter, Edwin R., "Shakspere's Intentions Regarding King Richard II," in Shakspere and Common Sense, The Christopher Publishing House, 1954, pp. 31-48.

Jensen, Pamela K., "Beggars and Kings: Cowardice and Courage in Shakespeare's Richard II," in Interpretations, Vol. 18, No. 1, Fall 1990, pp. 111-43.

Kehler, Dorothea, "King of Tears: Mortality in Richard II," in Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature, Vol. 39, No. 1, 1985, pp. 7-18.

MacIsaac, Warren J., "The Three Cousins in Richard II," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 22, No. 2, Spring 1971, pp. 137-46.

Maus, Katharine Eisaman, "Richard II," in The Norton Shakespeare, edited by Stephen Greenblatt, W. W. Norton & Company, 1997, pp. 943-51.

McDonald, Russ, The Bedford Companion to Shakespeare, 2nd ed., Bedford/St. Martin's, 2001.

Moore, Jeanie Grant, "Queen of Sorrow, King of Grief: Reflections and Perspectives in Richard II," in In Another Country: Feminist Perspectives on Renaissance Drama, edited by Dorothea Kehler and Susan Baker, Scarecrow Press, 1991, pp. 19-35.

Muir, Kenneth, "Introduction," in The Tragedy of King Richard the Second, by William Shakespeare, New American Library, 1963, pp. xxiii-xxxvii.

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

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

Palmer, John, "Richard of Bordeaux," in Political Characters of Shakespeare, Macmillan and Company, 1945, pp. 118-79.

Pater, Walter, "Shakespeare's English Kings," in The Tragedy of King Richard the Second, by William Shakespeare, New American Library, 1963, pp. 191-98.

Potter, Lois, "The Antic Disposition of Richard II," in Shakespeare Survey, Vol. 27, 1974, pp. 33-41.

Pye, Christopher, "The Betrayal of the Gaze: Richard II," in The Regal Phantasm: Shakespeare and the Politics of Spectacle, Routledge, 1990, pp. 82-105.

Rackin, Phyllis, "The Role of the Audience in Shakespeare's Richard II," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 36, No. 3, Autumn 1985, pp. 262-81.

Reese, M. M., "Richard II," in The Cease of Majesty: A Study of Shakespeare's History Plays, Edward Arnold Publishers, 1961, pp. 225-60.

Shakespeare, William, The Tragedy of King Richard the Second, edited by Kenneth Muir, New American Library, 1963.

Suzman, Arthur, "Imagery and Symbolism in Richard II," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 7, No. 3, Summer 1956, pp. 357-70.

Thayer, C. G., "The Silent King: Providential Intervention, Fair Sequence and Succession," in Shakespearean Politics: Government and Misgovernment in the Great Histories, Ohio University Press, 1983, pp. 62-70.

Traversi, Derek, Excerpt from "Shakespeare from Richard II to Henry V," in The Tragedy of King Richard the Second, by William Shakespeare, New American Library, 1963, pp. 235-48.


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.

Richard II

views updated May 21 2018

Richard II

by William Shakespeare


A play set in England in the late fourteenth century; written and first performed c. 1595; published c. 1597.


Richard II, the king of England from 1377 to 1399, is overthrown and replaced by his cousin Bolingbroke, who becomes King Henry IV.

Events in History at the Time the Play Takes Place

The Play in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Play Was Written

For More Information

With the exceptions of King John and Henry VIII, Shakespeare’s English history plays dramatize the century-long story of the Wars of the Roses, the conflict between the two royal houses of Lancaster and York that dominated English politics during the fifteenth century. Shakespeare composed the plays in an order different from that in which the actual events occurred, so that The Tragedy of King Richard II (known simply as Richard II), though written near the middle of the sequence, relates the background from which the struggle arose. The Wars of the Roses were of particular interest in Shakespeare’s time, not least because they had been ended by Henry VII, the grandfather of the reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth. Like Shakespeare’s other history plays, Richard II addresses questions of increasingly urgent importance, since the childless Queen Elizabeth, now in her sixties, remained without a clear successor. These questions relate to the nature of monarchy and, above all, to what makes a monarch legitimate. Richard II balances Richard’s tyrannical behavior with his unquestionable title to the throne, and Bolingbroke’s effective leadership with his lawless usurpation.

Events in History at the Time the Play Takes Place

The legacy of Edward III

Richard II was only ten years old when he ascended to the throne in 1377, succeeding his grandfather, Edward III, who reigned from 1327 to 1377. Richard’s father, Edward the Black Prince, the oldest of Edward III’s seven sons, had died of illness the year before. The health of both Edwards was broken by years of rigorous campaigning in France, where, starting in the 1330s, Edward III had initiated the conflict that would become known as the Hundred Years’ War. The war was not going well for England when Richard succeeded to the throne. Early English successes in the 1340s and 1350s (such as the Black Prince’s victory at Poitiers in 1356) had given way to a French military revival starting in 1369, a resurgence that came as both Edward III and his son declined in health.

Under these difficult circumstances, influence in the government had increasingly fallen to the next oldest of Edward III’s surviving sons, John of Gaunt. Fearing that Gaunt might try to usurp the throne, after Edward III’s death the nobles demanded that Richard be confirmed as rightful heir. The unpopular Gaunt’s influence, however,


As part of Edward III’s legacy, Richard inherited mounting social and religious tensions within the kingdom, In June 1381, just a few years after ascending to the throne, Richard faced the only real outbreak of social unrest in medieval English history. For decades since the outbreak of the plague (the Black Death) in 1349, the reduced population had made labor scarce and had thus driven up wages, improving the lot of free peasants, artisans, and serfs. Noble landowners had quickly responded by enacting the Statute of Labourers in 1351, which attempted to impose a maximum wage on the free peasants and artisans. The serfs, peasants whose labor was not paid but exacted by the nobles under the feudal system, now found themselves forced to work under the same customary conditions in a market in which the real value of their labor had doubled or tripled. Unrest, which had mounted during Edward III’s final years, crested in 1380 when Richard’s council enacted a poll tax of a shilling a head (about ten days’ wages) in order to pay for the expensive and mismanaged war with France. This flat tax penalized the poor, who rose up against the landowning nobles and against the Catholic Church, which was also a major landowner and thus controlled any serfs who were tenants on its land.

Led by Wat Tyler, a peasant, and John Ball, a rebellious priest, peasants and serfs throughout southeast England attacked the manor houses of the nobles, the offices of lawyers and judges (where documents attesting to the legal status of serfs were kept), and religious edifices. Moving to London, they attacked John of Gaunt’s palace, among others, and trapped Richard in the Tower of London. As the uprising spread throughout England, on his counselors’ advice the 14-year-old king met the rebels. Young Richard promised them pardons as well as freedom for the serfs—promises that neither he nor his counselors had any intention of keeping. At a subsequent meeting between Richard and Wat Tyler, the rebel leader was stabbed and killed by the Lord Mayor of London; most of the other leaders were rounded up and hanged. Unrest continued to fester in repeated minor outbreaks throughout the reign. Though the events in Richard II take place nearly two decades after the Peasants’ Revolt, Shakespeare alludes to Richard’s unpopularity, having him comment bitterly on Bolingbroke’s calculated “courtship to the common people / How he did seem to dive into their hearts / With humble and familiar courtesy” (Shakespeare, Richard II, 1.4.24-26).

continued after Richard’s accession, despite Gaunt’s being excluded from the ruling council set up to run the government during Richard’s minority. Richard’s other uncles were also excluded from the council, for similar reasons. Appointed by Parliament, the council represented the interests of the English nobles, which often conflicted with those of the monarch. Control of England now depended on control of its young king, and thus from the beginning of his reign Richard found himself caught between his ambitious uncles and Parliament’s wary nobles.

The Lords Appellant

As he grew older Richard sought greater independence in exercising power. He began to select his own advisors, and starting in 1383 Parliament objected repeatedly to what it regarded as the mismanagement of Richard’s government. Richard, in turn, struggled to build up his own following. By 1386 the opposition centered on one of Richard’s uncles, Thomas Woodstock, duke of Gloucester, a younger brother of John of Gaunt. (John himself, who had mediated between the king and his critics in the past, was away attempting to enforce a hereditary claim to territory in Spain.) Gloucester found allies in Gaunt’s son Henry Bolingbroke (also spelled Bullingbrook), earl of Derby; Thomas Mowbray, earl of Nottingham; and two other earls, Warwick and Arundel. Together, these five made up the Lords Appellant, or “accusing lords.” Thus, disgruntled members of the royal family allied with nobles against the king and his new advisors. After defeating the king’s favorite in a skirmish at Radcot Bridge, the Lords Appellant dominated Parliament (the so-called Merciless Parliament of 1388), carrying out a year-long purge of the king’s supporters.

Gloucester, Mowbray, and Bolingbroke

For two years Richard kept a low profile, but in May 1389 he declared himself of an age to rule with full independence. Gaunt returned from Spain later that year, and with his uncle’s presence as a buffer Richard enjoyed nearly eight years of relatively stable and peaceful rule. His first wife, Anne of Bohemia, died in 1394, and two years later the 29-year-old Richard cemented a peace with France by marrying Princess Isabella, the 7-year-old daughter of the French king.

During this time of unprecedented harmony, however, Richard was quietly building up a second alliance of favored advisors. These included Sir John Bushy, Sir Henry Green, Sir William Bagot: the “caterpillars” of Shakespeare’s play, an extended metaphorical reference to their parasitical existence in the “garden” that is England (Richard II, 3.4.43, 46). Richard had pardoned the five Lords Appellant, but, under circumstances that remain unknown, in 1397 he arrested three of them: his uncle Gloucester, and the earls of Warwick and Arundel. The three were convicted of treason; Warwick was sentenced to exile and Arundel to death. Gloucester, who was being held in a castle under Mowbray’s charge, mysteriously died while a prisoner. It is not known whether Richard ordered his death or whether Mowbray acted on his own—willingly or unwillingly—or whether Gloucester died of poor treatment or even simply of natural causes. In Richard II, Richard’s guilt is unstated but assumed.

Soon after Gloucester’s death, Mowbray seems to have warned Bolingbroke—the other surviving appellant—that the king might revoke their pardons. Bolingbroke then turned to his father, John of Gaunt, and on Gaunt’s advice accused Mowbray of treason in plotting against the king. Later, he added charges of murdering Gloucester and misappropriating funds meant for the war. (It is at this point that Shakespeare’s play opens.) Mowbray denied the charges and demanded trial-by-combat, as was his right under the feudal system. Richard ordered the trial to take place, but stopped it at the last minute, instead banishing the two disputants—for ten years in Bolingbroke’s case and for life in Mowbray’s. Before Bolingbroke’s departure, Richard reduced his exile to six years.

Bolingbroke’s Lancastrian inheritance

At the same time that the struggle between Mowbray and Bolingbroke was taking place, Richard undertook a series of harsh financial measures designed to increase his royal treasury and support his sumptuous court, the extravagance of which exceeded that of his predecessors. Most notably, he won from Parliament a lifetime grant of all customs duties on wool and leather (England’s largest trade items). Also, as recorded by Shakespeare’s major historical source, Raphael Holinshed, Richard forced wealthy subjects to sign “blank charters”—I.O.U.s essentially—for him to fill in at will. Elsewhere Holinshed describes Richard as “prodigall, ambitious, and much given to the pleasure of the body,” qualities that would lead to the king’s downfall (Holinshed in Bullough, p. 408). After Gaunt’s death in 1399, Richard overstepped himself by illegally seizing the vast estate Gaunt had possessed as duke of Lancaster. He then made the further tactical error of traveling to Ireland to put down a rebellion


Richard II necessarily concerned himself with Parliament during his reign. Coming into being from 1272-1377, the English Parliament had crystallized into two separate bodies by the time he ascended the throne. The two divisions were not yet called “houses” of Parliament but already the king had to obtain the consent of the “lords” to conduct war, and already the “commons” rather than the lords had become the branch that represented the community. Over the next 50 years, procedures would solidify, parliamentary rights would achieve recognition, and Parliament would become a forum in which to air and decide major issues affecting the realm. Usually assembling annually in Westminster Palace, Parliament was held for varying lengths of time over the years. In 1376 Parliament lasted for ten weeks while during Richard’s reign it sometimes ran even longer. Its two bodies would discuss the king’s affairs, grant the taxes needed to conduct them, and consider remedies for grievances that plagued the kingdom. The commons consisted of more than 250 elected representatives, not all of them residing in the areas they represented. The lords included about 100 members, nearly half of them ecclesiastics (bishops and archbishops) and the rest laymen (earls, dukes, and, thanks to Richard, marquises and barons). During his reign, Richard broadened the class of lords by his actions in relation to two of its subdivisions. The title of “baron” existed before then, but first landholding and later heredity determined who took the title. In 1387 Richard introduced a major change by ignoring these qualifications and promoting a steward of his household—John Beauchamp of Holt—to baron. Beauchamp was a fervent loyalist to Richard, whose reign by this time was fraught with the tension that manifests itself in Shakespeare’s play. Richard’s subjects therefore interpreted Beauchamp’s entitlement as a political act. If the new baron was elated, he would not remain so for long; his fortunes ultimately plummeted. In 1388, the year Parliament purged the kingdom of Richard’s supporters, its leaders would have Beauchamp beheaded. For the moment, though, Beauchamp could enjoy his new status, even if it enflamed others in the realm. So incendiary was this act of the king’s, says one historian, that it may be the reason for his unpopularity: “Richard’s ill repute probably attached to this method of preferment [entitling a baron], as it did to marquis,” a title Richard introduced in 1385, when he made Robert de Vere England’s first marquis.

(Brown in Davies, p. 115).

of Irish leaders against their English overlords, having quelled a similar revolt in 1394 and deeming it necessary now to consolidate the earlier victory. As one scholar puts it, this move was “reasonable policy, fatally timed,” for Boling-broke took advantage of Richard’s absence to return and claim his Lancastrian inheritance (Saccio, p. 28). Many of the nobles, fearful that the confiscation of one estate left their own vulnerable to similar treatment, rallied to support Bolingbroke. By the time Richard hesitantly returned from Ireland, Bolingbroke was in a strong position—but it is still uncertain whether (as he maintained) he wanted merely to claim the inheritance that was rightfully his or whether he already had it in mind to depose Richard and take his place.

Richard’s deposition and death

Lured by deceit into an ambush by Bolingbroke’s ally, Northumberland, Richard was captured and taken to the Tower of London in August 1399. (Shakespeare omits the ambush, making the king’s opponents more honorable and Richard more the agent of his own destruction.) On September 30 Parliament deposed Richard, and on October 13 Bolingbroke was crowned as Henry IV.

In January 1400 a few of the former king’s supporters attempted to murder Bolingbroke and restore Richard to the throne, but the plot was easily foiled and the conspirators captured. Sometime in February Richard died in his cell at Pomfret Castle. One account has him starving to death; another (which Shakespeare followed) has him assassinated in order to secure Bolingbroke’s place on the throne.

The Play in Focus

Plot summary

The play opens with King Richard and his uncle, John of Gaunt, in Richard’s throne room, preparing to hear the accusations of Gaunt’s son Bolingbroke against Thomas Mowbray, duke of Norfolk, and to hear Mowbray’s defense. The two appear and, amid elaborate and courtly speeches from both, Bolingbroke accuses Mowbray of treason, misappropriation of royal funds, and of complicity in the death of Thomas Woodstock, duke of Gloucester, Gaunt’s younger brother and thus also Richard’s uncle. Mowbray denies the charges, but with a studied ambiguity that leaves open the possibility that he in fact arranged the slaying on Richard’s orders.

Bolingbroke has issued, and Mowbray accepted, a challenge to decide the truth of the accusations in a trial-by-combat—the “chivalrous design of knightly trial” dictated by feudal custom (Richard II, 1.1.81). Richard forbids the trial-by-combat, tries ineffectually to reconcile the two, then reverses himself and declares a date for the tournament. As the highly ceremonial event is about to occur, however, Richard again reverses himself and brings it to a halt. Instead he has decided to banish both Bolingbroke and Mowbray, the former for ten years and the latter for life. After Gaunt expresses his grief at his son’s exile, Richard commutes the sentence to six years. Gaunt and Bolingbroke bid each other farewell; Richard complains to his favorites that Bolingbroke curries favor with the common people, “As were our England in reversion his, / And he our subjects’ next degree of hope” (Richard II, 1.4.35-36). Richard also reveals his plans to “farm our royal realm” in order to finance a planned war in Ireland and—upon hearing that John of Gaunt is ill—to appropriate his uncle’s huge fortune (Richard II, 1.4.45).

Act 2 opens with the sick Gaunt and his younger brother the duke of York expressing grief over Richard’s refusal to accept their “wholesome counsel,” though Gaunt hopes that the advice of a dying man may make a greater impression on their headstrong young nephew (Richard II, 2.1.2). Gaunt then launches into one of the most famous speeches in Shakepeare’s plays, an apostrophe in which he expresses his love for England and his outrage that Richard should spoil and ruin it for his own profit:

This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars
This other Eden, demi-paradise …
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea …
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this
England …
Is now leased out, I die pronouncing it,
Like to a tenement or pelting farm.
               (Richard II, 2.1.40-60)


While the Wars of the Roses (1455-85) were not fought until half a century after Richard II’s deposition, the dynastic struggle of which they were the culmination in fact began with Bolingbroke’s rebellion. Because of the illegitimate way in which Bolingbroke had come to power, his Lancastrian descendants never enjoyed real security on the throne. In 1455 Bolingbroke’s grandson, Henry VI, was challenged by Richard, duke of York—who was also descended from Edward III. Both sides won victories, but in the end both also exhausted their supply of male heirs, many of whom died in combat. The sons of Richard, duke of York, became Edward IV and Richard III, the latter of whom was defeated in 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth by the Welsh-descended Henry Tudor. As King Henry VII, Henry Tudor married a York and could claim to have ended the Wars of the Roses by uniting the two houses, both of which were branches of the powerful Plantagenet family.

Richard enters, and Gaunt reproaches him in similar terms, calling him “Landlord of England … not king” and openly accusing him of spilling royal blood in the murder of Gloucester (Richard II, 2.1.113). Gaunt exits, and only a few lines later Northumberland, a noble, enters with news of Gaunt’s death. Richard immediately announces to York his intention of seizing Gaunt’s estate. York, now “the last of noble Edward’s sons,” laments both the spilling of Gloucester’s blood and the improper confiscation of Bolingbroke’s “charters and customary rights” (Richard II, 2.1.171, 196). They exit, but Northumberland remains with Ross and Willoughby, two other nobles, and they discuss Gaunt’s death. Northumberland reveals that he has news of Bolingbroke’s impending arrival and proposes that they join him in order to “shake off our slavish yoke” and “redeem from pawn our blemished crown” (Richard II, 2.1.291). Ross and Willoughby agree, and the three conspirators exit.

Two of Richard’s favorites, Bushy and Bagot, comfort Queen Isabella, who feels sorrow at Richard’s absence in Ireland and expresses a sense of foreboding. Green, another royal favorite, enters and announces that Bolingbroke has landed at Ravenspur in northern England, where Northumberland and other nobles have flocked to his cause. York enters and worries that he is too old and weak to defend the king’s interests. Indecisive, he is split between his two kinsmen, between his duty to Richard and his conscience, which tells him that the king has deeply wronged Bolingbroke. Duty prevails, barely, and York goes off to prepare a defense at Berkley Castle until Richard can return. As Bolingbroke, Northumberland, and the other rebels approach the castle, York comes out to meet them and challenges Bolingbroke’s action as treason against the king. Bolingbroke defends himself by invoking his customary rights of inheritance. York caves in, inviting Bolingbroke into the castle.

Act 3 opens with the entrance of Bolingbroke, York, Northumberland, and other nobles, with Bushy and Green in tow as prisoners awaiting execution; the queen is at York’s manor house, and Bolingbroke asks him to treat her well. The scene shifts to Richard, who has arrived from Ireland, and two of his few remaining supporters: his cousin Aumerle, son and heir to York, and the Bishop of Carlisle. In this long scene, the play’s structural center, Richard alternates between joyful confidence and utter despair. Three times he plucks up his courage, and three times news of Bolingbroke’s progress sends him crashing down again. The center of his confidence is the medieval conviction that, as he puts it, “The breath of worldly men cannot depose / The deputy elected by the Lord” (Richard II, 3.2.56-57). Yet this belief in the divine right of kings crumbles before his own inability to act, to take command, to be a king in deed as well as in name. He gives up when his supporters are still ready to fight, sitting down while they remain standing:

For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings,
How some have been deposed, some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed,
Some poisoned by their wives, some sleeping killed,
All murdered. For within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court.…
               (Richard II, 3.2.155-62)

The scene ends as Richard tells Aumerle to send his followers away.

In the next scene Bolingbroke, York, and Northumberland arrive at Flint Castle, where (as Northumberland says, significantly omitting the royal title of king) “Richard … hath hid his head” Richard II, 3.3.6). Bolingbroke professes his continued allegiance to the king—with the condition that Richard end Bolingbroke’s exile and restore his inheritance. Otherwise, he threatens, blood will rain “from the wounds of slaughtered Englishmen” (Richard II, 3.3.44). With a flourish of trumpets, Richard enters with Carlisle and Aumerle, immediately upbraiding Northumberland for not bowing in the royal presence. But he agrees to Bolingbroke’s terms. In fact, in submitting he goes further than asked and ironically, it seems, suggests his own deposition: “What must the king do now? Must he submit? / The king shall do it. Must he be deposed? / The king shall be contented. Must he lose / The name of king? A God’s name let it go” (Richard II, 3.3.143-46). A few lines later he asks, “What says King Bolingbroke? Will his majesty / Give Richard leave to live till Richard die?” (Richard II, 3.3.173-74). Bolingbroke, however, kneels before Richard, before leaving to escort him to London. In a brief scene, the queen overhears a gardener telling a servant of Bolingbroke’s capture of the king. The gardener compares England to a garden that has been badly kept, overgrown with weeds and crawling with caterpillars (the king’s flattering favorites), but the weeds have now been “plucked up root and all by Bolingbroke” (Richard II, 3.4.52).

Act 4 consists of a single long scene, set in Parliament, in which Richard’s erstwhile supporters (Aumerle and Bagot, primarily) blame each other for Gloucester’s death; Bolingbroke hears of Mowbray’s death; York, in Richard’s name, invites Bolingbroke to take the throne; Richard appears, is formally deposed, and is sent to the Tower. In vain, Aumerle and the Abbott of Westminster hatch an abortive plot to restore him. The scene climaxes with the deposition, in which Richard physically hands the crown to Bolingbroke. Afterward, Richard gazes on his own reflection, asking “Was this the face / Which like the sun did make beholders wink?” before shattering a mirror (Richard II, 4.1.282-83).

Act 5 begins with Richard and the queen meeting as he is being taken to the Tower. Northumberland enters with the news that Bolingbroke has changed his mind: Richard is to go not to the Tower but to Pomfret Castle, deep in Lancastrian lands in the north. The queen will return to France. Richard and the queen bid each other farewell tenderly. York discovers his son Aumerle’s part in the plot to restore Richard and goes to warn Bolingbroke; Aumerle arrives before him and begs Bolingbroke’s forgiveness. Against York’s advice, but in deference to the duchess of York’s pleas for her son’s life, Bolingbroke agrees. Exton, a noble, is told by a servant that Bolingbroke has wished Richard dead. Exton declares, “I am the king’s friend, and will rid his foe” (Richard II, 5.4.11).

Alone in his cell at Pomfret Castle, Richard reflects on his solitude, considering the thoughts with which he might “people this little world” in which he now finds himself (Richard II, 5.5.9). He seems to recognize some degree of complicity in his own passiveness: “I wasted time and now doth time waste me” (Richard II, 5.5.49). He is visited by a groom who wants no more than “to look upon [his] sometime royal master’s face” but who tells him that his horse Barbary was ridden by Bolingbroke on coronation day without a sign of discomfort at having a new master (Richard II, 5.5.75). As the keeper arrives with Richard’s food, Richard warns the groom to leave. When the keeper says that Exton has ordered him not to taste the food (for poison), Richard beats him, as Exton and four murderers rush in. Roused to action, Richard kills two of the murderers before Exton strikes him down. With his last words, Richard curses Exton and commends his own soul to heaven. In a brief final scene, Bolingbroke banishes Exton, yet admits that he wished Richard dead and acknowledges his own guilt.

The idea of England as a nation

Two centuries separated Shakespeare from the events of Richard II, and during those years England was transformed from a medieval feudal society into a modern nation-state. As the critic E. M. W. Tillyard has noted, Shakespeare uses stylized motifs throughout the play in order to lend it a “medieval feel” that would seem authentic to his audience: death as a monarch holding court, in Richard’s speech quoted above, for example, or the highly ritualized ceremonial challenges traded by Mowbray and Bolingbroke in Act 1. Knights, chivalric ritual, references to the Crusades, stately ceremonial speeches (especially in Act 1)—in Tillyard’s words, the effect of such elements is “just like a medieval illumination” (Tillyard in Newlin, p. 36). Richard himself, Tillyard observes, is “the last king of the old medieval order,” the last of those in the direct line of undisputed succession descended from William the Conqueror (Tillyard in Newlin p. 32). In his struggles with those who would limit his power, the historical Richard relied more than his predecessors on the medieval concept that kings rule by divine right; Shakespeare repeatedly has his Richard invoke the same principle. Bolingbroke, the usurper, represents the new order, a world in which a king in some sense would have to earn his title rather than rely solely and exclusively on the divine sanction of his birth. As a character, he anticipates the later plays in the history cycle, moving away from what Tillyard calls “the essential medievalism of Richard II” (Tillyard in Newlin, p. 37).


Richard II was reportedly a poet himself, though not an accomplished one, and he is known to have patronized the great poets of his age, most notably Geoffrey Chaucer (who also died in 1400). On a visit to England in 1395, the French chronicler Jean Froissart presented Richard with a book of poems in French, which Richard spoke fluently. An inscription on Richard’s tomb even compares him to the Greek poet Homer, leading some to speculate that the king must indeed have been a poet. Shakespeare may have had these facts in mind when creating his own character for the medieval king, a character that critics praised as the most poetic of his tragic figures before Hamlet (1600-1601).

The medieval world conspicuously lacked the idea of national identity; to modern historians it is precisely in his use of this idea in the play that Shakespeare imposes an Elizabethan outlook on its medieval picture. In the feudal world there was no national identity as such. Feudal allegiances were based on service to a liege lord, not on any notion of duty to one’s king or country. The idea of “country” in this sense did not exist, for England in Richard II’s day was a loose web of feudal obligations, only some of which were to the king. As duke of Lancaster, for example, John of Gaunt held an absolute authority in his duchy that superseded even the king’s. Gaunt’s famous apostrophe to England is Elizabethan, not medieval, in its conception of England as a tight little “fortress,” a “happy breed of men,” a “little world” protected by the “moat defensive” of the Channel and the North Atlantic (Richard II, 2.1.45, 48). Such ideas had arisen only after the dramatic failure of the Spanish Armada in 1588, which had occurred a mere seven years before the play was written (and was intended by the Spanish king to secure Elizabeth’s deposition). An Englishman of the fourteenth century was not primarily an Englishman—he was above all a Yorkshireman, or a Cornishman, or a Kentishman.

Even the Hundred Years’ War, in which historians have often seen national feeling beginning to take shape, was waged for feudal reasons (such as the English kings’ inherited claims to French land), not for anything we would recognize as national interest. Down to Edward III’s time, in fact, English kings spoke French, which was part of their Norman heritage. Gaunt’s view of England in the play arises from historical circumstances particular to Elizabeth’s day, in which Protestant England saw itself as a new Israel, surrounded by and heroically resisting powerful Catholic enemies. Yet Shakespeare’s importation of Elizabethan national sentiment into the feudal world of his history plays has been highly influential in shaping our view of the past. As historian E. R. Lander has suggested, it was in this Elizabethan context that “Shakespeare invented the long popular tradition of a nation in arms behind the king” (Lander, p. 54).

Sources and literary context

As for all of his history plays, Shakespeare’s most important source for Richard II was Raphael Holinshed’s popular Chronicles of England, Scotlande and Irelande (published in 1577, with a second edition in 1587). Other sources included the medieval French chronicler Jean Froissart (available in an English translation by Lord Berners in 1523-25); the early Tudor historian Edward Hall, author of an influential work entitled The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancastre and York (1542; enlarged 1548, 1550); and Samuel Daniel’s The First Fowre Bookes of the Civile Warres (an epic poem on the Wars of the Roses published starting in 1595). Though Shakespeare generally follows Holinshed’s account closely, he also departs from it to serve his dramatic purposes. He invents or adapts some events and characters, compresses sequences that took place over days into single scenes, and heightens some events while omitting others. The most obvious departure from Holinshed is the part of the queen. In Holinshed, Richard’s actual queen, Isabella of France, was about ten years old at the time of his deposition, but Shakespeare follows Daniel in portraying her as a mature Women. The royal couple’s scenes together, and the love the queen expresses for her king, help Shakespeare develop Richard’s character from the arbitrary tyrant of the first half of the play into the more sympathetic and morally aware figure of the second half. Of events that Shakespeare compresses, the most obvious example is Act 2 Scene 1, in which Gaunt gives his famous apostrophe to England, exits, and is revealed to have died only a few lines later; Richard seizes his estate; and Bolingbroke is said to be already on his way to contest the seizure.

The popularity of Richard II and works such as Daniel’s show that the conflict between the Lancasters and Yorks could be shaped into story that would grip Elizabethan (and later) audiences. Revealingly, the white (York) or red (Lancaster) rose was only one of several heraldic symbols associated with each house, and the association was not a standard literary device until Henry VII invented the Tudor double rose (white and red) to symbolize his uniting of the two houses. Shakespeare popularized the association, which soon became a fixture of English literature, but the name “Wars of the Roses” did not come into general use until the nineteenth century.

Events in History at the Time the Play Was Written

Elizabeth and Richard II

Parallels between Elizabeth I and Richard II occurred to the queen’s contemporaries strikingly early in her long reign, which lasted from 1558 until her death in 1603. Like Richard, the queen was known for surrounding herself with trusted favorites. In 1578, she apparently rebuked one of these advisors, Sir Francis Knollys, who had given her advice that (for an unknown reason) she did not like. In a letter of January 9, Knollys responded that he refused to “play the partes of King Richard the Second’s men” by offering only flattery (Newlin, p. 14). Ten years later, another courtier, Henry, Lord Hunsworth, wrote in similar circumstances that he “was never one of Richard II’s men” (Newlin, p. 14). Then in July 1597, almost two years after the earliest productions of Richard II, one of Elizabeth’s courtiers, Sir Walter Raleigh, wrote to another, Sir Robert Cecil, about a third courtier, the earl of Essex:

I acquaynted … [Essex] with your letter to mee & your kynd acceptance of your enterteynemente, hee was also wonderful merry att ye consait of Richard the 2. I hope it shall never alter, & whereof I shalbe most gladd of as the trew way to all our good, quiett & advancement, and most of all for her sake whose affaires shall therby fynd better progression. (Raleigh in Newlin, p. 14)

The gist of this enigmatic reference seems to be a humorous comparison (or “consait,” conceit) between Richard and Elizabeth—and that, like Richard’s, Elizabeth’s courtiers knew how to flatter in order to secure their own “good, quiett & advancement.” The “enterteynemente” may have been a private performance of Shakespeare’s play.

Censorship and rebellion

Such parallels were no doubt behind the censorship, in all printed versions of the play produced during Elizabeth’s lifetime, of the long deposition scene (Act 4). Unlike Richard’s, Elizabeth’s title to the throne was quite shaky. Her most famous rival, Mary Queen of Scots, had been executed in 1587; like Bolingbroke, Mary was a cousin of the monarch and was close (next, in Mary’s case) in line of succession. While it seems that in performances the deposition scene was retained, the deposing of a monarch was considered too volatile a subject for portrayal in the printed version.

The parallels between the two monarchs were vividly illustrated by events in February 1601, when the earl of Essex (who had fallen from favor) rebelled in an attempt to depose the queen and seize the throne himself. Significantly, his best claim to legitimacy was his descent from the same duke of Gloucester that Richard II was supposed to have had murdered. On the evening before the rebellion, the earl and his supporters commissioned a special performance of Richard II at the Globe theater, probably in the hope that Londoners would support Elizabeth’s deposition as they did that of the play’s Richard. The rebellion was quickly crushed, and the performance was used as evidence at Essex’s trial. Shakespeare and his colleagues did not suffer as a result; on the contrary, on the day before Essex’s execution, they performed in front of the queen. However, later that year Elizabeth was heard to remark, “I am Richard II, know ye not that?” (Newlin, p. 15).


In the same conversation, the queen referred to Richard II as having been performed 40 times “in open streets and houses” (Newlin, p. 16). While no records survive, if this refers to the original production, it was an exceptionally long run for an Elizabethan play. Regardless, it is known from contemporary references that Richard II was one of Shakespeare’s most successful plays in original production, as it has remained ever since. It was printed in three quartos in 1597 and 1598; in the latter year the author Francis Meres, surveying the state of literature in England, called it “foremost among the tragedies of the day” (Meres in Shewring, p. 24). (The term “quarto” designates not only the size of a volume—the standard paper is folded twice instead of once [folio]—but also, in Shakespeare’s case, designates the plays [18] published in his lifetime.) Six passages (including three excerpts from Gaunt’s apostrophe) were anthologized in the popular collection England’s Parnassus (1600). The deposition scene was not printed until the Fourth Quarto of 1608, five years after Elizabeth’s death.

—Colin Wells

For More Information

Bullough, Geoffrey, ed. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare. Vol. 3. New York: Columbia University Press, 1960.

Davies, R. G., and J. H. Denton, eds. The English Parliament in the Middle Ages. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1981.

Lander, J. R. Conflict and Stability in Fifteenth Century England. London: Hutchinson, 1977.

Lockyer, Roger. Tudor & Stuart Britain 1471-1714. Harlow, England: Longman, 1964.

McKisack, May. The Fourteenth Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959.

Moseley, C. W. R. D. Shakespeare’s History Plays: Richard II to Henry IV, The Making of a King. London: Penguin, 1988.

Muir, Kenneth. The Sources of Shakespeare’s Plays. London: Methuen, 1977.

Newlin, Jeanne T., ed. Richard II: Critical Essays. New York: Garland, 1984.

Saccio, Peter. Shakespeare’s English Kings. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Saul, Nigel. Richard II. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997.

Shakespeare, William. King Richard II. Ed. Andrew Gurr. New Cambridge Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Shewring, Margaret. King Richard II Shakespeare in Performance Series. New York: Manchester University Press, 1996.

Richard II

views updated May 23 2018

Richard II

Excerpt from Richard II

   By William Shakespeare

   Published in The Riverside Shakespeare, 1974

Disputes regarding the succession, or the order in which descendants of the royal family should legally inherit the throne, were nothing new in the time of Elizabeth I (1533–1603). From 1455 to 1487 England had been embroiled in a civil war known as the War of the Roses. In this conflict the Lancaster family (represented by the red rose) and the York family (symbolized by the white rose) each had a competing claim to the throne. Elizabeth's grandfather, Henry VII (1457–1547), put an end to the conflict when he seized the throne from Richard III (1452–1485). When Henry defeated Richard in battle in 1485, he established the Tudor dynasty, which went on to rule England for more than a century. But during this period disputes about the succession did not disappear; indeed, they became particularly urgent because so many Tudor monarchs died without an heir. Despite marrying six times, Henry VIII (1491–1547) fathered only one legitimate son, Edward VI (1537–1553). Like his half-sisters, Mary I (1516–1558) and Elizabeth, Edward died childless. Though Mary succeeded him, she had had to fight against a Protestant faction that had attempted to place Edward's cousin, Lady Jane Grey (1537–1554), on the throne.

"That England, that was wont to conquer others, / Hath made a shameful conquest of itself."

The English welcomed Elizabeth I's succession in 1558, but her claim to the throne was not without significant controversy. Many Roman Catholics regarded her birth as illegitimate because her father, Henry VIII, had broken away from the Roman Catholic Church after the pope refused to grant him a divorce from his first wife. Henry named himself the head of the church in England, declared his first marriage invalid, and married Elizabeth's mother, Anne Boleyn (c. 1507–1536). Since neither Henry's divorce nor his marriage to Boleyn were sanctioned by the Catholic Church, under Catholic law Elizabeth was considered illegitimate, and, therefore, not eligible to inherit the throne. In the Catholic view Elizabeth's cousin, Mary Stuart (Queen of Scots; 1542–1587), a great-granddaughter of Henry VII and a Catholic, had a stronger claim to the English crown. Throughout her reign Elizabeth faced the threat of being deposed (overthrown) or even assassinated by rebels who supported the cause of Mary Stuart.

Deposing a ruler was an act with grave implications. According to tradition the monarch ruled by the divine right of kings. This meant that his or her authority was absolute and came from God, not from any legislative body or from the will of the people. At the same time, however, England had a long tradition of conflict between the monarch and the people. In 1100 Henry I (1068–1135) had announced the Charter of Liberties, which established that the monarch was bound to obey laws protecting his subjects from abuses of the king's power. This concept that the monarch's powers were subject to law was expanded in 1215 in the Magna Carta. For more than three centuries before the founding of the Tudor dynasty, therefore, English monarchs had been forced to deal with the legitimate demands of Parliament, England's legislative body.

By the time William Shakespeare (1564–1616) wrote Richard II around 1595, Elizabeth I had been in power for almost forty years. Her rule had brought relative political stability to a kingdom that, at the time of her ascension to the throne, had been marked by factional disputes and deep religious discord. However, the questions about her legitimacy, combined with the lack of an heir, were a source great concern for the nation.

In Richard II Shakespeare expresses the tensions felt by sixteenth-century England about the problem of succession. As the reign of Richard II and the War of the Roses some fifty years later had shown, disputes about the succession created conflicts that damaged the country. Wars drained the economy and worsened disagreements between political factions. These social ills, according to Elizabethan philosophy, occurred because the king either lacked legitimacy or placed his desire for personal gain above the welfare of his realm. Shakespeare illustrated this way of thinking in John of Gaunt's speech in Act II, Scene 1 of the play, when Gaunt tells York that England, once an almost perfect kingdom noted for its justice and prosperity, is now disgraced because of the king's corruption and misrule.

The historical Richard II (1367–1400) had inherited the throne legitimately from his grandfather, Edward III (1312–1377), at the age of ten. His uncles, including John of Gaunt (Duke of Lancaster; 1340–1399), helped him rule during his first years as king, but during the 1380s Richard began to take more charge of affairs. In doing so, he alienated a group of influential nobles, including another uncle, Thomas of Woodstock (Duke of Gloucester; 1355–1397). These nobles, who called themselves the Lords Appellant, objected to Richard's chosen advisors, who flattered the king and gave him bad advice. In 1387 the Lords Appellant persuaded Parliament to demand that the king remove his favorite advisors from his Privy Council, or the board of advisors that carried out the administrative function of the government in matters of economy, defense, foreign policy, and law and order, and its members served as the king's chief advisors. Richard refused, raising a small army to defend his right to rule as he saw fit. The Lords Appellant easily defeated this force and imprisoned Richard in the Tower of London, a fortress on the Thames River in London that was used as a royal residence, treasury, and, most famously, as a prison for the upper class. They executed several of his advisors and exiled others, thus humiliating the king. For several years afterward Richard ruled without angering the nobles further, but he resented their restrictions on his power. In 1397 he had three of the most influential lords arrested; Woodstock, in the custody of Thomas Mowbray (Duke of Norfolk), was killed. In Shakespeare's version of events, Henry Bolingbroke (Duke of Hereford, later Henry IV; 1387–1422), son of Gaunt and a cousin of the king, suggests that Mowbray killed Gloucester on Richard's orders.

Richard, who had no children, became concerned about a peaceful succession. His heir was his cousin, Edmund Mortimer, but Richard worried about Bolingbroke assuming too much power and possibly threatening the succession. In 1399 Richard banished Bolingbroke from England for ten years. When John of Gaunt died soon afterward, leaving behind huge wealth, Richard confiscated the estate so that Bolingbroke, Gaunt's son, could not directly inherit it. Furious, Bolingbroke raised an army in exile and invaded England while Richard was in Ireland overseeing an expensive and unpopular military campaign. By the time the king returned, he found that his people had joined Bolingbroke and were urging the rebel to seize the crown. With strong popular support, Bolingbroke captured Richard, took him to London, and forced him to abdicate (relinquish power). In addition Parliament passed formal articles of deposition, assuring that Richard could not change his mind and later try to reclaim the throne. He was killed soon afterward in Pomfret Castle.

Shakespeare based his play on Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland by Raphael Holinshed. Though the play generally adheres to the historical record, Shakespeare totally invented the scene in which Richard abdicates (Act IV, Scene 1). This scene gives Richard the opportunity to express his dignity, even while he is being stripped of his authority as king. The scene also makes a moving and poetic statement about the damaging consequences of deposing a monarch.

Things to remember while reading Richard II:

  • Questions about the proper rule of monarchs were extremely important in Elizabethan England. Though monarchs ruled by divine right, they had to balance their power with that of the lords.
  • If a king seized power illegitimately or ignored the needs of his people, he disrupted the social order. This circumstance led to violence and other social ills.
  • Richard II was a weak king who was forced to submit to the demands of powerful lords. Eventually they captured him, forced him to renounce his throne, and assassinated him.
  • Shakespeare presented Richard's usurper, Henry Bolingbroke, as a sympathetic character with good reasons for deposing the king. For this reason the play Richard II was considered politically rebellious.
  • Shakespeare was also sympathetic to Richard. He showed the king to be a sensitive but flawed human being whose idea of kingship conflicted with that of the nobles.
  • Shakespeare's historical plays were not always accurate according to modern standards. He based his research on books that emphasized English history as a glorious march of progress from civil war in the 1400s to the just and good rule of the Tudor monarchs in the 1500s.
  • During her reign Elizabeth I faced many rebellions against her rule. She felt that her circumstances were similar to Richard II's.

Richard II

[Act II, Scene 1]

Enter John of Gaunt, sick, with the Duke of York, etc.

    … Gaunt. Methinks I am a prophet new inspir'd,
    And thus expiring do fortell of him:
    His rash fierce blaze of riot cannot last,
    For violent fires soon burn out themselves;
    Small show'rs last long, but sudden storms are short;
    He tires betimes [before time] that spurs too fast betimes;
    With eager feeding food doth choke the feeder;
    Light vanity, insatiate [impossible to satisfy] cormorant [greedy person],
    Consuming means, soon preys upon itself.
    This royal throne of kings, this sceptred [ruled by authority] isle,
    This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
    This other Eden, demi-paradise,
    This fortress built by Nature for herself
    Against infection and the hand of war,
    This happy breed of men, this little world,
    This precious stone set in the silver sea,
    Which serves it in the office of a wall,
    Or as [a] moat defensive to a house,
    Against the envy of less happier lands;
    This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
    This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
    Fear'd by their breed, and famous by their birth,
    Renowned for their deeds as far from home,
    For Christian service and true chivalry [ideal knighthood],
    As is the sepulchre [sacred tomb] in stubborn Jewry
    Of the world's ransom, blessed Mary's Son;
    This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
    Dear for her reputation through the world,
    Is now leas'd out—I die pronouncing it—
    Like to a tenement or pelting farm.
    England, bound in with the triumphant sea,
    Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
    Of wat'ry Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
    With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds;
    That England, that was wont to conquer others,
    Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.
    Ah, would the scandal vanish with my life,
    How happy then were my ensuing death!

Enter King and Queen, etc. [Aumerle, Bushy, Green, Bagot, Ross, and Willoughby].

    York. The King is come. Deal mildly with his youth,
    For young hot colts being rag'd do rage the more. How fares our noble uncle Lancaster?
    K. Rich. What comfort, man? How is't with aged Gaunt?
    Gaunt. O how that name befits my composition!
    Old Gaunt indeed, and gaunt [emaciated; haggard] in being old.
    Within me grief hath kept a tedious fast;
    And who abstains from meat that is not gaunt?
    For sleeping England long time have I watch'd,
    Watching breeds leanness, leanness is all gaunt.
    The pleasure that some father feed upon
    Is my strict fast—I mean, my children's looks;
    And therein fasting, hast thou made me gaunt.
    Gaunt am I for the grave, gaunt as a grave,
    Whose hollow womb inherits nought but bones.
    K. Rich. Can sick men play so nicely with their names?
    Gaunt. No, misery makes sport to mock itself:
    Since thou dost seek to kill my name in me,
    I mock my name, great King, to flatter thee.
    K. Rich. Should dying men flatter with those that live?
    Gaunt. No, no, men living flatter those that die.
    K. Rich. Thou, now a-dying, sayest thou flatterest me.
    Gaunt. O no, thou diest, though I the sicker be.
    K. Rich. I am in health, I breathe, and see thee ill.
    Gaunt. Now He that made me knows I see thee ill,
    Ill in myself to see, and in thee, seeing ill.
    Thy death-bed is no lesser than thy land,
    Wherein thou liest in reputation sick,
    And thou, too careless patient as thou art,
    Commit'st thy anointed body to the cure
    Of those physicians that first wounded thee.
    A thousand flatterers sit within thy crown,
    Whose compass [boundary] is no bigger than thy head,
    And yet, [incaged] in so small a verge [border],
    The waste is no whit lesser than thy land.
    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 possess'd,
    Which art possess'd now to depose thyself.
    Why, cousin, wert thou regent of the world,
    It were a shame to let this land by lease;
    But for thy world enjoying but this land,
    Is it not more than shame to shame it so?
    Landlord of England art thou now, not king,
    Thy state of law is bond-slave to the law,
    And thou—
K. Rich. A lunatic lean-witted fool,
    Presuming on an ague's privilege,
    Darest with thy frozen admonition [warning]
  Make pale our cheek, chasing the royal blood
    With fury from his native residence.
    Now by my seat's right royal majesty,
    Wert thou not brother to great Edward's son,
    This tongue that runs so roundly in thy head
    Should run thy head from thy unreverent shoulders.
    Gaunt. O, spare me not, my [brother] Edward's son,
    For that I was his father Edward's son,
    That blood already, like the pelican,
    Hast thou tapp'd out and drunkenly carous'd.
    My brother Gloucester, plain well-meaning soul,
    Whom fair befall in heaven 'mongst happy souls,
    May be a president and witness good
    That thou respect'st not spilling Edward's blood.
    Join with the present sickness that I have,
    And thy unkindness be like crooked age,
    To crop at once a too long withered flower.
    Live in thy shame, but die not shame with thee!
    These words hereafter thy tormentors be!
    Convey me to my bed, then to my grave;
    Love they to live that love and honor have.

Exit [borne off by his Attendants].

    K. Rich. And let them die that age and sullens have.
    For both hast thou, and both become the grave.
    York. I do beseech your Majesty, impute [attribute] his words
    To wayward sickliness and age in him.
    He loves you, on my life, and holds your dear
    As Harry Duke of Hereford, were he here.
    K. Rich. Right, you say true: as Hereford's love so his,
    As theirs, so mine, and all be as it is.

[Enter. Northumberland.]

    North. My liege, old Gaunt commends him to your Majesty.
    K. Rich. What says he?
    North. Nay, nothing, all is said.
    His tongue is now a stringless instrument,
    Words, life, and all, old Lancaster hath spent.
    York. Be York the next that must be bankrupt so!
    Though death be poor, it ends a mortal woe.
    K. Rich. The ripest fruit first falls, and so doth he;
    His time is spent, our pilgrimage must be.
    So much for that. Now for our Irish wars:
    We must supplant those rough rug-headed kerns,
    Which live like venom where no venom else
    But only they have privilege to live.
    And, for these great affairs do ask some charge,
    Towards our assistance we do seize to us
    The plate, coin, revenues, and moveables
    Whereof our uncle Gaunt did stand possess'd.
    York. How long shall I be patient? ah, how long
    Shall tender duty make me suffer wrong?
    Not Gloucester's death, nor Hereford's banishment,
    Not Gaunt's rebukes, nor England's private wrongs,
    Nor the prevention of poor Bullingbrook
    About his marriage, nor my own disgrace,
    Have ever made me sour my patient cheek,
    Or bend one wrinkle on my sovereign's face.
    I am the last of noble Edward's sons,
    Of whom thy father, Prince of Wales, was first.
    In war was never lion rag'd more fierce,
    In peace was never gentle lamb more mild,
    Than was that young and princely gentleman.
    His face thou hast, for even so look'd he,
    Accomplish'd with [the] number of thy hours;
    But when he frowned it was against the French,
    And not against his friends. His noble hand
    Did win what he did spend, and spent not that
    Which his triumphant father's hand had won.
    His hands were guilty of no kindred blood,
    But bloody with the enemies of his kin.
    O Richard! York is too far gone with grief,
    Or else he never would compare between.
    K. Rich. Why, uncle, what's the matter?
    York. O my liege,
    Pardon me, if you please; if not, I, pleas'd
    Not to be pardoned, am content withal.
    Seek you to seize and gripe into your hands
    The royalties and rights of banish'd Hereford?
    Is not Gaunt dead? And doth not Hereford live?
    Was not Gaunt just? And is not Harry true?
    Did not the one deserve to have an heir?
    Is not his heir a well-deserving son?
    Take Hereford's rights away, and take from Time
    His charters and his customary rights;
    Let not to-morrow then ensue to-day;
    Be not thyself; for how art thou a king
    But by fair sequence and succession?
    Now afore God—God forbid I say true!—
    If you do wrongfully seize Hereford's rights,
    Call in the letters-patents that he hath
    By his attorneys-general to sue
    His livery [official delivery of property to a new owner], and deny his off'red homage,
    You pluck a thousand dangers on your head,
    You lose a thousand well-disposed hearts,
    And prick my tender patience to those thoughts
    Which honor and allegiance cannot think….

What happened next …

In the abdication scene of Richard II (Act IV, Scene 1), Shakespeare again expresses the grave consequences of siezing the legitimate monarch's power. The Bishop of Carlisle, for example, warns Bolingbroke that if he seizes the crown, "The blood of English shall manure the ground / And future ages groan for this foul act." Richard, too, condemns Bolingbroke and his supporters, comparing the usurper to Judas (the apostle who betrayed Christ) and stating that "water cannot wash away your sin."

Shakespeare followed Richard II with Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2, and Henry V, in which he further developed his theme of kingship, showing that both legitimate authority and wise rule were necessary attributes in a monarch. In Henry IV, Part 1 Bolingbroke (Henry IV) has become king after usurping the throne from Richard II. Almost Richard's opposite, Henry understands the need to manipulate people in order to gain their approval and thus enhance his power. He has the qualities that should enable him to be an effective king. Yet his reign is marked by serious civil unrest—a consequence, he believes, of the fact that he seized the throne illegitimately. Though he has the necessary political talents to rule, he lacks the divine right of kings. His son Prince Hal, however, will be able to inherit the throne legitimately, as Henry states in Henry IV, Part 2: "God knows, my son, / By what by-paths and indirect crook'd ways / I met this crown; and I myself know well / How troublesome it sat upon my head. / To thee it shall descend with better quiet, / … For all the soil of the achievement goes / With me into the earth…." In other words, the stain attached to Henry's wrongdoing will end with his death, and Prince Hal, as Henry's son and heir, can then ascend to the throne with the legitimacy of divine right. Indeed, Hal—who becomes Henry V—is shown to be the ideal ruler, possessing both the divine right of kings and the political skills to put England's welfare above his personal wishes. Thus he returns his kingdom to safety and prosperity.

Many scholars consider the four plays that concern Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V to be Shakespeare's commentary on the importance of Elizabeth naming an appropriate successor. Because she had no children, the queen had to designate an heir who had a legitimate claim by ancestry to the English throne; otherwise, this new ruler would lack the divine right of kings. The heir should also possess the necessary skills to govern effectively; without these, the new king would jeopardize England's best interests. As her heir, Elizabeth chose James I (1566–1625), son of Mary Stuart and king of Scotland since 1567. The great-great grandson of Henry VII, James was Elizabeth's closest blood relative and therefore had the most legitimate claim to the throne. In addition, he had proved himself a capable ruler of Scotland.

Though James's legitimacy as king of England was unquestioned, his political skills proved disappointing. He had managed affairs relatively well in Scotland, but he was unable to adjust to the English parliament's demands that he share power, making him an unpopular and ineffective ruler.

Did you know …

  • Queen Elizabeth found the play's theme of the deposition of kings relevant in her own life. The supporters of Robert Devereux (Earl of Essex; 1566–1601), arranged to have Richard II performed at the Globe the night before Devereux entered London in rebellion against the queen in 1599. At Devereux's trial for treason the performance was cited as part of the evidence against him.
  • The deposition scene in the play was considered so rebellious that it was not allowed to be printed in any published versions during Elizabeth's lifetime.

Consider the following …

  • The managers of the Globe were called in for questioning by Elizabeth's government after they agreed to stage Richard II on the eve of Devereux's failed rebellion. They were eventually released. Do you think they should have borne any responsibility for the uprising? Should writers or artists be held accountable for the ways in which others might interpret their creations?
  • List the attributes that you think are necessary in a government leader today and explain the importance of each. Is it realistic to expect that one person could possess all of these qualities? Can a government function effectively if its leader lacks any of these attributes?

For More Information


Brigden, Susan. New Worlds: The Rule of the Tudors, 1485–1603. New York: Penguin Books, 2000.

Evans, G. Blakemore, ed. The Riverside Shakespeare. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1974.

Starkey, David. Elizabeth: The Struggle for the Throne. New York: Perennial, 2001.


"Histories." Hudson Shakespeare Company.—%20Histories/histories.htm (accessed on July 24, 2006).

Mabillard, Amanda. "Representations of Kingship and Power in Shakespeare's Second Tetralogy." Shakespeare Online. (accessed on July 24, 2006).

"Richard II." Hudson Shakespeare Company. (accessed on July 24, 2006).

Richard II

views updated May 23 2018

Richard II (1367–1400), king of England (1377–99). Richard's failures have attracted more interest than the successes of greater rulers. His reign was characterized by aristocratic opposition and political ineptitude.

Richard became king in 1377 aged 9. There was no formal regency, but the government during his early years was dominated by his uncle John of Gaunt. The French war was going badly, and royal finances were in an unsatisfactory state. The imposition of the third poll tax was a major cause of the outbreak of the Peasants' Revolt in 1381; this was the occasion of Richard's first independent political action, when he faced the rebels at Smithfield, witnessed the slaying of Wat Tyler, and saved the situation by his own intervention. The king's subsequent moves to play a greater political role led to escalating crises. In 1386 the chancellor, Michael de la Pole, was impeached; Richard infuriated Parliament by declaring that he would not dismiss even a kitchen boy at its request. He provocatively appointed his favourite, Robert de Vere, earl of Oxford, to be duke of Ireland.

There has been much debate whether Richard had high, possibly novel, concepts of the nature of monarchy. In the summer of 1387 he asked the justices questions about the constitutional position and the right of Parliament to act as it had done in 1386, which suggests that he was very conscious of the problems he faced. The issues were settled less by legal argument than by force, for the defeat of de Vere at Radcot Bridge in the autumn of 1387 left Richard defenceless. He may even have been deposed for a brief period after Christmas 1387, until his opponents fell out over the question of who should replace him. The so-called Merciless Parliament of 1388 conducted a purge of government, using the weapons of appeal and impeachment against royal ministers and favourites, including de la Pole and de Vere. Richard was clearly deeply angered by what took place, and his desire for revenge provides one explanation for some of the later events of the reign.

The return of John of Gaunt from Spain in 1389 brought a renewed sense of purpose and direction to government, although relations between John and the king were not always easy. The work of the Merciless Parliament was undone, as far as was possible, in 1389, and Richard wisely did not revert to the excesses which had led to crisis in 1387. He was prepared to allow some control of affairs by the council; the regime was relatively financially stable, and significant efforts were made to deal with problems of lawlessness. There was barely any overt opposition to Richard between 1388 and 1397, although from 1393 discontent began to develop once again, partly as a result of hostility to the king's policy of negotiating a peace with France, and also because of resistance to his plans for re-establishing strong English rule in Ireland. In 1397 the refusal of the earls of Gloucester and Arundel to attend a council made their displeasure at royal policy all too evident, and the final crisis of the reign began.

In September 1397 Richard moved against those he regarded as his enemies in a carefully managed Parliament, at which the threatening presence of his Cheshire archers ensured that all would go his way. Archbishop Arundel was impeached and exiled. Royalist magnates brought appeals against the earls of Gloucester, Arundel, and Warwick. Arundel was executed, Warwick exiled, and Gloucester almost certainly murdered. Forfeited lands were granted out to Richard's supporters, and five new dukes created. The Arundel lands in north Wales were combined with the earldom of Chester, and a powerful new principality and royal power base was created. Charters were extracted at Shrewsbury early in 1398 from representatives of the southern counties, giving the king virtually unlimited powers. The grant of the principal customs revenues for life in 1398 gave Richard's regime new financial strength. The 1397 Parliament had dealt with the senior appellants of 1388; in 1398 a dispute between Henry Bolingbroke, duke of Hereford (John of Gaunt's son, later Henry IV), and the duke of Norfolk led to the exiling of the two men, after Richard prohibited a judicial duel between them at Coventry. In March 1399 Bolingbroke's Lancastrian inheritance was confiscated. In May the king embarked on a new expedition to Ireland. This was disastrous for, in June, Bolingbroke, duke of Lancaster after his father's death, invaded England. In the king's absence, there was little resistance. On his return from Ireland, Richard was taken in north Wales, and on 30 September, a broken man, agreed to abdicate, and was deposed in Parliament. Since 1397 his regime had been narrowly based, with men such as the knights Bushy, Bagot, and Green playing a dominant part. Government was conducted by means of threats and fear, with a high-handed use of legal form. Richard certainly thought the law should be on his side. Suggestions that he had an elevated and clearly articulated theory of royal government are not convincing; arguments which see Richard as reacting to the humiliations he had suffered during the years up to 1388 are more plausible. Richard did not long survive his deposition and died at Pontefract, probably early in 1400.

Michael Prestwich


Saul, N. , Richard II (New Haven, 1997);
Tuck, J. A. , Richard II and the English Nobility (1973).

Richard II

views updated Jun 08 2018

Richard II

Richard II (1367-1400) was king of England from 1377 to 1399. His reign, which ended in his abdication, saw the rise of strong baronial forces aiming to control the monarchy.

Richard II, known as Richard of Bordeaux from his birthplace, was born on Jan. 6, 1367, the younger son of Edward, Prince of Wales (the Black Prince), and Joan, daughter of Edmund, Earl of Kent. After his father's death, Richard became the heir apparent, was created Prince of Wales in the later part of 1376, and on June 22, 1377, succeeded Edward III, his grandfather, as king of England. While he was underage, the control of the government had been left to a regency that came increasingly under the influence of the Duke of Lancaster (John of Gaunt), one of his uncles. In 1381, during the revolt led by Wat Tyler, Richard showed his leadership potential by going out to meet the rebels and pacifying them after Tyler was killed.

After his marriage on Jan. 20, 1382, to Anne, the sister of King Wenceslaus and daughter of the emperor Charles IV, Richard attempted to end the regency's control of his minority and to take the leadership in national affairs, but Parliament was not eager to give up its powers. The following year, without consulting Parliament, Richard appointed Michael de la Pole as chancellor; and in 1384, hoping to check the opposition of his uncle Lancaster, he made his other uncles dukes of York and Gloucester.

As the barons under Gloucester's leadership hoped to rule Richard, he started to create a "new" nobility, raising Pole to Earl of Suffolk and Robert de Vare to Duke of Ireland, which resulted in Gloucester's forcing the King to accept a commission of 11 nobles with powers for reform in 1386. Using the law courts, Richard was able to have the commission declared unlawful in August 1387, but the barons were determined to retain the upper hand, and in the "Merciless" Parliament, which met that winter, those who supported the King were attacked, and some were executed.

Although he was able to regain ministers of his own choosing in the spring of 1389, Richard hoped to win over the barons by a policy of conciliation, but this failed partly because of his own weakness and partly because of the death of his first wife in June 1394 and his second marriage to Isabella, daughter of Charles VI of France, in November 1396. This marriage to the traditional enemy caused a loss of popular goodwill, and Gloucester called for the resumption of the French war. Fearing that a second attempt might be made by the barons to limit his royal powers, Richard was able to get the leaders of the opposition, Gloucester, Arundel, and Warwick, in his power by July 1397, and in the Parliament that met in the autumn of the following year these men were condemned to death. This Parliament, after moving from Westminster to Shrewsbury in 1398, undid the acts of the Merciless Parliament. Now Richard was in full control and started to act in an arbitrary manner, alienating both barons and lesser subjects.

In February 1399, on the death of the Duke of Lancaster, Richard refused the inheritance to Lancaster's son, the exiled Henry of Bolingbroke; 2 months later Richard went to Ireland to avenge the death of the Earl of March, who had been killed on royal service. As soon as Henry of Bolingbroke heard of the King's absence, he landed in Yorkshire and raised a force to try to replace the King. Richard returned but, failing in an effort to raise an army, went into hiding in the north and after several months surrendered to Henry on Aug. 19, 1399, in North Wales. Henry, already acting as Henry IV, forced Richard's abdication on September 29 and imprisoned him. Richard died on Feb. 14, 1400, while at Pontefract.

Further Reading

Of the many biographical studies of Richard II, the most important is Anthony Steel, Richard II (1941). See also Harold F. Hutchison, The Hollow Crown: A Life of Richard II (1961). Gervase Mathew, The Court of Richard II (1969), is a scholarly and interesting study of the court life, the social milieu, and the arts of the time; and Richard H. Jones, The Royal Policy of Richard II: Absolutism in the Later Middle Ages (1968), plays down Richard's personality and emphasizes the political imperatives of the time. For general historical background see Sir James H. Ramsay, Genesis of Lancaster, 1307-1399 (2 vols., 1913); May McKisack, The Fourteenth Century, 1307-1399 (1959); and the excellent work of Arthur Bryant, The Atlantic Saga, vol. 2: The Age of Chivalry (1964).

Additional Sources

Bevan, Bryan, King Richard II, London: Rubicon Press, 1990.

Matthews, John, Warriors of Christendom: Charlemagne, El Cid, Barbarossa, Richard Lionheart, Poole, Dorset: Firebird Books; New York, NY: Distributed in the U.S. by Sterling Pub. Co., 1988.

Senior, Michael, The life and times of Richard II, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1981. □

Richard II

views updated May 18 2018

Richard II



Fashion and Politics.

Richard II, king of England, was born not in England, but in Bordeaux, France, on 6 January 1367. He was the son of the legendary knight Edward the Black Prince, who died without ever becoming king. Thus, Richard succeeded his grandfather, Edward III, whose court was already known for its lavish spending on clothes and jewelry. Both Richard's father and his grandfather loved tournaments, and there is evidence from records of the Royal Wardrobe that they always ordered expensive new clothes for these occasions. Indeed, Edward III did not hesitate to spend large amounts of money on gifts and especially on dresses for the queen. In one case it is recorded that he paid more than £200 for jeweled buttons for his wife, an amount that would have equaled a craftsman's salary for more than ten years. It is not surprising, then, that Richard inherited this taste for fine clothing and that he was eager to keep up with the French fashions then emerging in the celebrated courts of England's chief military rival. From fairly early in his reign, however, Richard was criticized for royal extravagance in a way that his predecessors were not, perhaps in part because he had instituted a series of truces with France that cut off the potential for enrichment that had come from earlier wartime victories. Richard was also in nearly constant conflict with his uncle John of Gaunt and with Gaunt's son Henry Bolingbroke, whom Richard sentenced to a ten-year exile for treason in 1397. When Gaunt died in 1399, Richard made Bolingbroke's exile permanent and confiscated the family fortune—an unpopular decision that was associated publicly with his overspending and his taste for what were seen as decadent foreign styles. Opposition to his authority grew among disgruntled lords; finally charges were made against him in Parliament and he was deposed as monarch, with Bolingbroke taking the throne as Henry IV. Imprisoned far from London, in Pontefract, Yorkshire, Richard died, or was murdered, in 1399.

Fashion as Symbol.

In many ways, Richard's interest in clothing demonstrates how important fashion had become as a symbol of sophistication. One of his main goals as king was to promote regal ideals and create an image of majesty, a role for which he was well suited physically and intellectually. Handsome and well built, standing six feet in height, he enjoyed such noble pastimes as hunting, observing tournaments, and reading courtly literature. Richard married Anne of Bohemia in 1382, a match that gained him prestige, since she was the daughter of the late emperor Charles IV, but which also contributed to the importation of foreign styles, including the pointed shoes that the French blamed on the Italians and the English blamed on the Flemish. John Stow's Tudor Annales mentions that, since 1382, the points of shoes worn by English courtiers and gallants were of such length that they had to be tied to the knees with silver gilt chains or silk laces. Although Richard was in some ways just continuing a tradition of finery that was already established in the English court, an excess of this kind is a clear example of the sudden acceleration of change that marked the Age of Fashion. Thus, Richard could be said to have done for English costume what his near contemporary, Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy (1342–1404), did for fashion in France.


Gervase Matthew, The Court of Richard II (London: Murray, 1968).

Nigel Saul, Richard II (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997).

V. J. Scattergood and J. W. Sherborne, English Court Culture in the Later Middle Ages (London: Duckworth, 1983).

John Stow, Annales (London: G. Bishop and T. Adams, 1605).

Richard II

views updated May 11 2018

Richard II (1367–1400) King of England (1377–99), son of Edward the Black Prince. Richard succeeded his grandfather, Edward III, and soon faced the Peasants' Revolt (1381). Conflict with the barons marked his reign. Richard's uncle, John of Gaunt, led a council of regency until 1381. On the orders of the ‘Lords Appellant’, the ‘Merciless Parliament’ (1388) executed many of Richard's supporters. Richard reasserted control and reigned ably until he began to assume authoritarian powers. In 1397–98, he exacted his revenge on the Lords Appellant by having the Duke of Gloucester murdered and the Duke of Hereford (son of John of Gaunt) banished. In 1399, Richard confiscated Gaunt's estates. Hereford led a successful revolt and was crowned Henry IV. Richard was imprisoned and died in mysterious circumstances.

Richard II

views updated May 29 2018

Richard II


English king who in 1388 established the first sanitary laws in his country. Son of Edward the Black Prince and grandson of Edward III, whom he succeeded as king in 1377, Richard initially ruled through regents. During his reign, Wat Tyler's Rebellion (1381) was brutally suppressed in spite of efforts by the youthful king to end the trouble peaceably. In a 1399 struggle with Henry of Bolingbroke, the future Henry IV, he was deposed and placed in prison, where he died a year later. Richard's wife, Queen Anne (1366-1394), invented the sidesaddle.

About this article

Richard II

All Sources -
Updated Aug 18 2018 About content Print Topic