Part of William Shakespeare’s second tetralogy of historical plays (with Henry IV, Part I, pr. c. 1597-1598; Henry IV, Part II, pr. 1598; and Henry V, pr. c. 1598-1599), Richard II is also his second experiment in the de casibus genre of tragedy, dealing with the fall of an incompetent but not unsympathetic king. It is also part of the lyrical group of plays written between 1593 and 1596 in which Shakespeare’s gradual transformation from poet to playwright can be traced. The sources of Richard II include the 1587 second edition of Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1577); the chronicles of Jean Froissart and Edward Hall; George Ferrers and William Baldwin’s A Mirror for Magistrates (1555); Samuel Daniel’s verse epic on the War of the Roses, The Civil Wars (1595-1609); and a play by an unknown author titled Thomas of Woodstock.
The themes of the play are associated, in one way or another, with the question of sovereignty. Bolingbroke’s challenge to Richard focuses on the divine right of kings and its historical basis and social implications. Connected with this is the matter of a subject’s duty of passive obedience, especially as seen in the characters of Gaunt and York. Richard’s arbitrariness in the opening scenes suggests the dangers of irresponsible despotism; throughout the play, Shakespeare follows Richard’s thoughts and strange behavior and contrasts them with the caginess and certainty of Bolingbroke, whose thoughts are shown only translated into action; Richard thus becomes a study of the complex qualities of the ideal ruler. In this respect, the play reflects the Renaissance fascination with optimal behavior in various social roles, as seen, for example, in Niccolò Machiavelli’s Il principe (1532; The Prince, 1640), Roger Ascham’s The Schoolmaster (1570), and Sir Thomas Elyot’s The Boke Named the Governour (1531). Shakespeare’s psychological realism does not reach a falsely definitive conclusion, however; rather, the playwright creates a tragic aura of uncertainty around Richard, which makes him a most attractive character. In many ways, the play depicts not so much a contest for power as a struggle within Richard himself to adjust to his situation.
This is the first of Shakespeare’s plays with a central figure who is an introspective, imaginative, and eloquent man. It is, therefore, not surprising that the work includes some of the author’s finest lyrical passages. Richard II is in fact the only play Shakespeare wrote entirely in verse, a verse supported by a regal formality of design and manner and a profuse and delicate metaphorical base. Intricately interwoven throughout the play are image patterns centered on the eagle, the lion, the rose, the sun (which begins with Richard but moves to Bolingbroke), the state as theater, the earth as a neglected or well-tended garden, and the rise and fall of fortune’s buckets. The complicated imagery illustrates the subconscious workings of Shakespeare’s imagination that will enrich the great tragedies to follow. As Henry Morley said, the play is “full of passages that have floated out of their place in the drama to live in the minds of the people.” These passages include Gaunt’s great apostrophe to England in act 2, scene 1; York’s description of “our two cousins coming into London”; Richard’s prison soliloquy in act 5, scene 4; and his monologues on divine right and on the irony of kingship.
So poetic is Richard that critics speculate Shakespeare may have written the part for himself. Richard, the lover of music, spectacle, domestic courtesy, and dignified luxury, would be the ideal host to the courtier described by Baldassare Castiglione in Il libro del cortegiano (1528; The Book of the Courtier, 1561). His whimsical personality is balanced to great dramatic effect by his self-awareness. He seems fascinated with the contradictory flow of his own emotions, and this very fascination is a large part of his tragic flaw. Similarly, Richard’s sensitivity is combined with a flair for self-dramatization that reveals only too clearly his ineptitude as a strong ruler. He plays to the wrong audience, seeking the approval of his court rather than that of the common people; he seems to shun the “vulgar crowd” in preference to the refined taste of a court that can appreciate his delicate character. The last three acts, in which Richard’s charm as a man are emphasized, are obviously more central to the play’s aesthetic than the first two, which reveal his weakness as a king. His sentimental vanity in the abdication scene is so effective that it was censored during Queen Elizabeth I’s lifetime. The alternation of courage and despair in Richard’s mind determines the rhythm of the play; as the English poet and literary critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge observed, “The play throughout is a history of the human mind.”
When Richard speaks of “the unstooping firmness of my upright soul,” we understand that he is compensating verbally for his inability to act. He insists on the sacramental nature of kingship, depending for his support on the formal, legal rituals associated with the throne; he is all ceremony and pathetically fatal pomp. Yet, from the outset, Richard contradicts even the logic of sovereign ceremony when he arbitrarily changes his decision and banishes the two opponents in the joust. Bolingbroke is quick to note the king’s weakness and steps into the power vacuum it creates, for Bolingbroke is the consummate actor who can be all things to all men by seeming so. He is impressed by the kingly power Richard wields: “Four lagging winters and four wanton springs/ End in a word: such is the breath of kings.” He likes what he sees and, in deciding to imitate it, surpasses Richard. Even when Bolingbroke is ceremonious, as when he bows his knee to Richard before the abdication, he is acting. The difference is that he knows the most effective audience. Richard laments that he has seen Bolingbroke’s courtship of the common people: “How he did seem to dive into their hearts.” He recognizes the actor in Bolingbroke and fears its power.
It is not coincidental that York compares the commoners to the fickle theater audience. As in so many of Shakespeare’s plays, the theater itself becomes a central image; Richard’s monologues are a stark contrast to Bolingbroke’s speeches not only because they reveal internal states but also because they are narcissistically oriented. They reach inward, toward secrecy and communicative impotence; Bolingbroke speaks actively, reaching outward toward the audience he wishes to influence. His role can be compared usefully to that of Antony in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (pr. c. 1599-1600, pb. 1623), Richard’s to that of Brutus. The tension between the two styles of speaking, moreover, no doubt reflects the transformation in Shakespeare himself that will make the plays to follow more strikingly dramatic than sheerly poetic. The Bolingbroke of Henry IV, Parts I and II, is born in Richard II, his realistic, calculating, efficient, politically astute performance directly antithetical to Richard’s impractical, mercurial, meditative, and inept behavior. Bolingbroke is an opportunist, favored by fortune. A man of action and of few words, Bolingbroke presents a clear alternative to Richard when the two men appear together. If Richard is the actor as prima donna, Bolingbroke is the actor as director.