Richard II Essay - Criticism

Criticism

Overview

A. L. French

[In the essay that follows, French analyzes the characters and structure of Richard II, maintaining that the play presents an inconsistent rendering of one of the key events in the play— the deposition of Richard. French states that in the first half of the play, there is little to indicate that the king will be deposed, but in the second half of the play, other characters clearly view Richard as having been deposed.]

A couple of years ago I saw a competent amateur performance of Richard II. As it happened I had not read the play for some time, and I naturally approached it with certain assumptions in mind—assumptions derived ultimately, no doubt, from scholars such as Tillyard. But as I watched, I first felt puzzled, then irritated, and finally astonished. The play was not making sense in the only way in which (I had thought) it could make sense; nor did it seem to be making sense in any other way. Afterwards, I re-read the piece, to see where I or the actors had been stupid; but to my further surprise I found that the puzzlement I had felt was quite justified. The blur was not in the performance and not in my mind, but in Shakespeare's play. The present article is an attempt to describe this blur.

The assumptions we take to Richard II are, I have said, derived from Tillyard and others. The most important one is that Richard was deposed by Henry Bolingbroke, who by his action involved England in a century of unrest and civil war which was only brought to an end at last by Henry VII. This is in fact the interpretation not only of Richard II but also of the eight main Histories that Tillyard proposed over twenty years ago; and it has dominated scholars' and critics' thinking ever since. It is still current. In 1963, for example, Kenneth Muir remarked that 'we are warned over and over again that Richard's deposition is a sin which will be punished by the horrors of civil war' (introduction to Signet Classics ed., p. xxix); while in 1964 Andrew Cairncross repeated that in Henry VI's time the 'original crime—the deposition and murder of Richard II by Henry IV— was still unexpiated' (introduction to Arden ed. of 3 Henry VI, p. 1). Now, there is no particular reason why this account of Histories should be wrong: if Tillyard found it in Edward Hall's Chronicle, Shakespeare could have found it there too; and since it is a nice neat account, he may well have made use of it. Indeed, in History plays apart from Richard II, Shakespeare more than once refers to Richard's deposition. In 2 Henry VI, for example, Richard Duke of York tries to convince Salisbury and Warwick of his title to the throne, and in the course of his argument refers to Richard II

Who, after Edward the Third's death, reigned as king
Till Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Lancaster,
The eldest son and heir of John of Gaunt,
Crowned by the name of Henry the Fourth,
Seized on the realm, deposed the rightful king,
Sent his poor queen to France, from whence she came,
And him to Pomfret, where as all you know,
Harmless Richard was murdered traitorously.
(2HVI, II. ii. 20-27)

Here it is assumed as a fact that Richard was deposed; though whether it is as important an assumption as E. M. W. Tillyard made out is another question entirely. The Henry VI plays were written before Richard II; but in 1 Henry IV, written after it, the charge that Richard was 'deposed' is repeated— by the very Northumberland who, in Richard II, helped to procure the crown for Bolingbroke. He talks of the time when

the unhappy King—
Whose wrongs in us God pardon!—did set forth
Upon his Irish expedition;
From whence he intercepted did return
To be deposed, and shortly murdered.
(1HIV, I. iii. 148-152)

And in Richard II itself, Richard makes the same accusation. When in the 'deposition scene' Northumberland tries to make him sign a confession of his 'grievous crimes', Richard retorts that if Northumberland's own crimes were 'upon record', he would

find one heinous article,
Containing the deposing of a king.
(IV. i. 233-234)

When Richard bids farewell to his queen, he asks her to 'tell the lamentable tale of me', the result of which will be that

some will mourn in ashes, some coal-black,
For the deposing of a rightful king.
(V. i. 49-50)

Nevertheless, the assumption that, in Richard II, the King is deposed by Henry Bolingbroke is, in my view, not wholly borne out by the text of the play. You may ask: if that is the case, how comes it that almost everyone takes away from the piece the impression that this is what in fact happens? The answer to this question will (I hope) emerge from my critical scrutiny of the text; and we shall be led right into the imaginative blur in the play—a blur that seems to me far more crucial than the oddities which commonly worry critics (e.g. Woodstock's murder, or Richard's blanks and benevolences). The business of the deposition is of course connected with the puzzle about Bolingbroke's motivation: so I shall discuss both issues, and shall proceed more or less chronologically.

Our difficulties begin towards the end of II. i. After Richard has departed for Ireland, Northumberland, Ross and Willoughby are left by themselves, and begin a diatribe against Richard's rule (he has just confiscated Gaunt's estates). England is going to the dogs, and they wonder what they can do to save her. Total wreck is unavoidable, says Ross. Not so, says Northumberland, arrestingly if obscurely—

Not so, even through the hollow eyes of death
I spy life peering; but I dare not say
How near the tidings of our comfort is.
(II. i. 270-272)

Ross and Willoughby understandably ask what he means, and he replies that he has just heard that Bolingbroke and many others have set sail from Brittany and mean to land in the north. He goes on:

If then we shall shake off our slavish yoke,
Imp out our drooping country's broken wing,
Redeem from broking pawn the blemished crown,
Wipe off the dust that hides our sceptre's gilt,
And make high majesty look like itself,
Away with me in post to Ravenspurgh.
(291-296)

Asked to comment on the kind of metaphors we find here, we would probably say, disparagingly, that they are simple, conventional, emblematic— typical, in short, of the young Shakespeare and the early 1590s. True enough, as long as we add that, in the given context, the metaphors are very obscure indeed. The phrase 'shake off our slavish yoke' suggests getting rid of the king, but it is not clear whether 'imp out' means 'engraft new feathers' (i.e. strengthen England by removing the people who are misleading Richard), or 'engraft new feathers' (i.e. substitute someone else for Richard). The same sort of difficulty arises over 'redeem' and 'wipe off'—nor are we sure in the latter case whether the gilt/guilt pun is a hit at Richard's (? assumed) complicity in Woodstock's murder. The penultimate line could mean either that they must make Richard 'look' more kingly, or else that they must put another, more kingly, monarch in his place. Northumberland, in fact, is talking in riddles so far as the audience is concerned, though his fellow lords seem to be quite satisfied with his meaning. We do not know whether he means to seat Bolingbroke on the throne, or whether he only wants to use him to force Richard to reform— and, as a matter of historical fact (which Shakespeare could have found in Holinshed) Richard had been restrained in this way before, by the so-called 'appellants' between 1387 and 1389.

The difficulties continue in the next scene, which brings the news of Bolingbroke's arrival and the desertion of the people to him. At line 40 Greene comes in and tells the Queen, Bushy and Bagot what has happened; he refers to Bolingbroke as an 'enemy', says he comes 'with uplifted arms', and reveals that many powerful lords have 'fled to him'. When York enters (at 72) he says that Bolingbroke and his followers have come to make Richard lose at home', repeats that many nobles have deserted, and adds that 'the commons [are] cold' and may revolt. At line 104 he is wondering how he can get 'money for these wars', and a moment later asks the favourites to go and muster men. Thus the impression we have at this point is that Bolingbroke has come back to get, by force of arms if need be, something— but what? The favourites, too, towards the end of the scene (122 ad fin), are full of foreboding, and clearly expect a conflict; but at no juncture do we gather what they think Bolingbroke is after.

The opening of the next scene looks as though it might be going to give us an answer, but our expectations are raised only to be disappointed. We see Bolingbroke come in with Northumberland, and we probably expect—reasonably enough—that their words will reveal something of their plans and intentions. Not a bit of it: they pass the first few moments of the scene in mutual compliment, Northumberland spending seventeen lines congratulating Bolingbroke on the excellence of his conversation. We never learn what this 'fair discourse' was about. Vital information is withheld in a way that seems capricious; and as a result when Bolingbroke and Northumberland confront Richard in the third Act, we remain ignorant whether they have concerted their plans, or even whether they have any plans. It is curious that, if Shakespeare was the Tudor propagandist he is alleged to be, he should have missed this very easy opportunity of showing his Tudor audience how wicked Bolingbroke was. It is odder still that, as a competent dramatist, he should have missed his chance to suggest at least something about the working of Bolingbroke's mind.

At line 70 Bolingbroke says for the first time why he has come back: when Berkeley addresses him as 'My Lord of Hereford', he retorts that his name is Lancaster,

And I am come to seek that name in England.

This is his story, and he sticks to it with dogged pertinacity right up to the point in Act IV where, after York has told him that Richard has adopted him heir 'with willing soul', he exclaims 'In God's name, I'll ascend the regal throne' (IV. i. 113). At no point before this does Bolingbroke give the least hint that he is aiming at the crown. We may conjecture that this was what was 'really' in his mind all along, but that is a kind of guesswork irrelevant to the highly conventional art of which Shakespeare was a master; such speculations would probably never have crossed an Elizabethan's mind. But the fact that in Richard II, forewarned though we are, some such questions do persistently occur to us, suggests that Shakespeare may be misusing his conventions rather than using them.

To return to II. iii. York comes in at line 80, and implies that Bolingbroke is a traitor ('I am no traitor's uncle'). It turns out (89 f.) that 'traitor' indicates only that Bolingbroke has come back from banishment without permission and, moreover, in arms. A little later York repeats the charge:

Thou art a banished man, and here art come,
Before the expiration of thy time,
In braving arms against thy sovereign.
(II. iii. 109-111)

When we see this in the theatre it is especially noticeable that York, who at this point does not know why Bolingbroke has returned, obviously assumes it is only to reclaim his rights. Not till York has finished his speech does Bolingbroke tell him that

As I was banished, I was banished Hereford;
But as I come, I come for Lancaster.
(112-113)

And Bolingbroke goes on to give a passionately reasoned account of his wrongs which has the ring of profound conviction, in the sense that we feel the man's whole being is engaged, that he is not dissembling or being politic. If Shakespeare had meant us here to suspect that Bolingbroke was being disingenuous he could easily have suggested it. He does not. Bolingbroke is unique among Shakespeare's ambitious men (if he is an ambitious man) in that he is never given an opportunity to open his mind to us; long before Shakespeare wrote this play he let the go-getting Lords in Henry VI disclose their ambitions— Suffolk and York, for instance. But so strong is Bolingbroke's feeling in the speech we have discussed (and in his later words at III. i. 16-27) that we arguably have what is in effect a self-revelation. York takes his nephew's words at face value; so do we. Northumberland now chimes in:

The noble Duke hath sworn his coming is
But for his own; and for the right of that
We all have strongly sworn to give him aid.
And let him ne'er see joy that breaks that oath!
(147-150)

What is interesting here is that 'but' in the second line, the implication being that someone might suspect, or does suspect, that Bolingbroke is concerned with much more than 'his own'; perhaps Northumberland is voicing what he conceives to be York's unspoken fear, only, of course, in order to allay it. Yet this is such a small point that it goes unnoticed in the theatre; and even in the study it is far too small for us to be able to argue that Northumberland had already thought of getting rid of Richard. Bolingbroke finally asks his uncle to accompany him to Bristow castle, which is held by the favourites (the 'caterpillars of the commonwealth'), and York replies:

It may be I will go with you; but yet I'll pause
For I am loath to break our country's laws.
(167-168)

What does York mean by breaking the 'country's laws'? Does he refer to the illegal execution of the favourites (whom Bolingbroke has 'sworn to weed and pluck away'), or does he mean the mere act of keeping company with a traitor? This is again a trifling matter, but again we cannot be sure. At least we note that York seemingly does not object to Bolingbroke's high-handed action over the favourites, any more than he does in the scene where they are about to be executed (III. i); so it seems dubious for Peter Ure to call the execution an 'act of quasi-regal authority' (Arden ed., p. Ixvii). If it was meant to be seen as anything so decisive, York would surely have been allowed to make a fuss.

I pass now to the first of the three crucial scenes which bring together my two themes—Bolingbroke's motives and the nature of Richard's fall. The scenes are III. ii, III. iii and IV. i.

Returning from Ireland, where he has heard from Bagot of Bolingbroke's expedition, Richard talks about 'rebels', 'treacherous feet', 'usurping steps' and 'foul rebellion', referring to Bolingbroke as the 'sovereign's foe'. In his second long speech (III. ii. 36 f.) he says that when the sun is hidden

Then thieves and robbers range abroad unseen
In murthers and in outrage boldly here,

but when the sun comes out,

Then murthers, treasons, and detested sins . . .
Stand bare and naked, trembling at themselves.

He goes on to identify Bolingbroke as 'this thief, this traitor'. It is not clear at first how far we are meant to identify the emblematic robbers and murderers with Bolingbroke; but the last phrase clinches the matter. Richard is suggesting-—the first time anyone definitely does so—that Bolingbroke is after the crown. This interpretation of his admittedly oblique words is confirmed by his explicit use, a few lines later, of the verb 'depose':

The breath of worldly men cannot depose
The deputy elected by the Lord.
(56-57)

The idea has now entered his head, and we note that it has done so before he hears the disastrous tidings brought by Salisbury and Scroope—that is, he does not yet know that his own forces are weak. When he learns that the Welshmen have dispersed, he asks 'is my kingdom lost?' and, a moment later, 'strives Bolingbroke to be as great as we?' In the long speech provoked by the news of the favourites' death, he says:

Let's choose executors and talk of wills.
And yet not so—for what can we bequeath
Save our deposed bodies to the ground?
(148-150)

This use of 'deposed' (which, standing alone, could arguably mean just 'laid aside': O.E.D., s.v. 'depose', 2a) links up with the 'sad stories of the death of kings', because some kings 'have been deposed' (156-7). By the end of the scene Richard has convinced himself that he is about to be supplanted by Bolingbroke. He goes so far as to discharge his remaining followers, and with these words:

let them hence away,
From Richard's night, to Bolingbroke's fair day.
(217-218)

Thus, so far as the audience are concerned, it is Richard himself who first expresses the idea that his crown is at stake.

In the next scene Bolingbroke and Richard finally meet, though at first through Northumberland. At the start York rebukes Northumberland for not saying 'King Richard', and a bout of punning follows:

North. Your grace mistakes; only to be brief,
Left I his title out.
York. The time hath been,
Would you have been so brief with him, he would
Have been so brief with you to shorten you,
For taking so the head, your whole head's length.
Bol. Mistake not, uncle, further than you should.
York. Take not, good cousin, further than you should,
Lest you mistake: the heavens are o'er our heads.
Bol. I know it, uncle; and oppose not myself
Against their will.
(III. iii. 10-19)

The suggestion is that York suspects Bolingbroke wants to take wrongly something beyond what he has declared; possibly the crown. But it is no more than a suspicion on York's part, and in any case Richard knows nothing of this suspicion either now or later. Moreover if 'take not' is intended as advice to Bolingbroke, it is advice which he unswervingly follows. The whole exchange, dominated as it is by York's hideously unamusing puns, has an uncertain tone and a debatable effect. Likewise, it is hard for the actor who plays Bolingbroke to know what tone to take in his long speech (31 f.): should the fivefold repetition of 'King Richard' be sarcastic or not? It is a problem for the reader too, since the tone of the speech could well reveal what is 'in' Bolingbroke's mind over and above what he chooses to say. And yet so far as one can see no irony is intended: the manner is ceremonially flat, recalling the sort of verse we find in Act I. Only once does any strong feeling show through. Bolingbroke has asked Northumberland to tell Richard that he returns from exile with no object beyond recovering his rights, but if they are not granted—

If not, I'll use the advantage of my power
And lay the summer's dust with showers of blood
Rained from the wounds of slaughtered Englishmen—
The which, how far off from the mind of Bolingbroke
It is such crimson tempest should bedrench
The fresh green lap of fair King Richard's land,
My stooping duty tenderly shall show.
(42-48)

Bolingbroke feels a positive delight in making the threat, but checks himself immediately; moreover when Northumberland later repeats to Richard the substance of what Bolingbroke has said (103 f.) he leaves out the threat. Bolingbroke goes on:

Be he [Richard] the fire, I'll be the yielding water;
The rage be his, whilst on the earth I rain
My waters— on the earth, and not on him.
(58-60)

At first it sounds as though he intends to play a passive role; but there seems to be a pun on rain / reign (noted by Muir but not by Ure or Dover Wilson) which makes us think again. Shakespeare has built in two contradictory pointers as to Bolingbroke's intentions, and leaves us wondering whether he can be said to have a coherent state of mind at all. We are again pulled up short a little further on:

See, see, King Richard doth himself appear,
As doth the blushing discontented sun
From out the fiery portal of the East,
When he perceives the envious clouds are bent
To dim his glory and to stain the track
Of his bright passage to the Occident.
(62-67)

We have met this problem before: what is the relation between metaphor and fact? Bolingbroke is comparing Richard to the sun and himself to the clouds; but what does 'dim' mean in terms of political actuality? It could be translated either as 'make less' or as 'extinguish altogether'— a slight distinction, but one that makes all the difference between correction and deposition ('stain' seems to imply the former alone). Is the uncertainty Bolingbroke's or Shakespeare's? Since there is no evidence elsewhere that Bolingbroke has any intention of removing the king, we must conclude, tentatively, that it is Shakespeare's. The uncertainty is pervasive throughout this scene, even in minor details: for example, York's reply to Bolingbroke's lines quoted above begins 'Yet looks he like a king. . . . ' It would be fruitless to try and decide whether 'yet' refers purely to time or whether it means 'nevertheless'; in other words, whether or not York is now half-admitting that in some minds there is the idea that Richard may not be king for much longer.

At any rate, Richard now shows just how kingly he can be; in the long speech to Northumberland, Bolingbroke's emissary, he is genuinely regal for the first and only time in the play. Despite the firmness and dignity of his words, however, his mind is full of thoughts of deposition; he says

show us the hand of God
That hath dismissed us from our stewardship;
For well we know no hand of blood and bone
Can gripe the sacred handle of our sceptre,
Unless he do profane, steal, or usurp.
(77-81)

He accuses the rebels of lifting 'vassal hands against my head' and threatening the 'glory of my precious crown', and ends with a vivid evocation of the horrors of the civil war which will take place in the future as a result of Bolingbroke's present actions. Northumberland, in his reply, goes to great pains to quash Richard's notion that Bolingbroke is after the throne, or that there will be civil war, now or later. He reports Bolingbroke as swearing by all he holds sacred that

His coming hither hath no further scope
Than for his lineal royalties, and to beg
Infranchisement immediate on his knees,
Which on thy royal party granted once,
His glittering arms he will commend to rust,
His barbed steeds to stables, and his heart
To faithful service of your Majesty.
This, swears he as he is a prince, is just;
And, as I am a gentleman, I credit him.
(112-120)

As with much of the play's verse, the tone of this is hard to disengage: the verse is so flat, and frankly so undistinguished, that an actor could extract from it almost any tone of voice he liked. He could make Northumberland sound sincere, or sarcastic, or cautious— for instance he could say 'lineal royalties' neutrally, or else emphasise the 'lineal', thus conceding Richard's fears only to pooh-pooh them. It is not merely that Shakespeare is asking us to work hard and pay close attention; he is also (it seems) asking us to make up his mind for him.

Richard, at all events, takes Northumberland's words at their face value, and his reply has an unmistakable note of relief:

Northumberland, say thus the king returns:
His noble cousin is right welcome hither,
And all the number of his fair demands
Shall be accomplished without contradiction;
With, all the gracious utterance that thou hast
Speak to his gentle hearing kind commends.
(121-126)

It sounds as though his fears, which have been building up since the beginning of III. ii, have been allayed. And though he at once turns to Aumerle, hating himself for his self-abasement, it seems that what he has in mind is the repeal of Bolingbroke's banishment rather than anything more radical:

O God! O God! that e'er this tongue of mine,
That laid the sentence of dread banishment
On you proud man, should take it off again
With words of sooth!
(133-136)

Yet he still has forebodings, though he expresses them obliquely:

O that I were as great
As is my grief, or lesser than my name!
Or that I could forget what I have been!
Or not remember what I must be now!
(136-139)

The last 'what': is he 'now' going to be a king whose royal prerogatives have been circumscribed, or is he going to cease being a king at all? Again we have the feeling that the words spoken correspond only approximately to what is 'in the character's mind', and that we do not quite know how to take them. Perhaps the safest explanation here is...

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Kingship

Richard II presents several aspects of kingship, including the notions of the legal right to rule as king, the divine right to rule, and the effectiveness of one's rule as king. The "divine right" of kings refers to the notion that the right to rule is ordained by God, not by the popular consent of the people. Lewis J. Owen observes that the characters of Richard and Bolingbroke each represent an important aspect of kingship in relation to Queen Elizabeth. Richard stands for the divine right to rule and Bolingbroke represents effective, "kingly" leadership. Owen argues that Shakespeare takes care in the play to treat both Richard's and Bolingbroke's claim to the throne sympathetically. Our sympathy for...

(The entire section is 11814 words.)

Language, Imagery and Symbolism

The language of Richard II and the images and symbols it contains can help illuminate the significance of the play's themes. Arthur Suzman and Andrew Gurr both examine the ways in which the imagery highlights important themes and supports the action of the play. Suzman argues that the play is primarily concerned with the fall of Richard and the rise of Bolingbroke. A parallel theme, Suzman states, is the spiritual rise of Richard, which follows his political fall, and the spiritual fall of Bolingbroke, precipitated by his political rise. The imagery of the play reflects this theme of rise and fall. The action of the play as well, Suzman notes, is closely linked with this imagery. In almost every scene, the imagery of...

(The entire section is 6451 words.)

Richard

King Richard has met mixed reviews from audiences and critics. His character has generated pity and sympathy as well as disdain and condemnation. In an essay reprinted in the Overview section, A L. French observes that Shakespeare seems to treat Richard in two different ways in the play. In the first half of the play, there is little indication that Richard will be deposed by Bolingbroke, French argues, but in the second half of the play, other characters seem to be of the opinion that Richard has in fact been deposed. Yet Richard deposes himself, French stresses. French states that it is as if Shakespeare presents two different truths in the play (that Richard will not be and has not been forcefully deposed by Bolingbroke, and...

(The entire section is 11211 words.)

Bollingbroke

Although Bolingbroke accepts a crown that legally belongs to Richard, Bolingbroke is often seen in a heroic light, as the man who rescues the kingship and the commonwealth from Richard's weak and ineffective hands. Critics such as Lewis J. Owen (whose essay appears in the Kingship section) and Arthur Suzman (whose essay appears in the Language, Imagery, and Symbolism section) argue that despite Bolingbroke's political rise, he experiences a personal or spiritual decline. Owen explains that Bolingbroke loses dignity when he takes the crown which is rightfully Richard's.

Barbara J. Baines argues that while some critics have attacked Bolingbroke, Shakespeare presents him in a favorable, sympathetic manner. The play...

(The entire section is 7198 words.)